Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Robert Hooke. These are some famous names in the science and technological fields that we are familiar with. Their names, which have transcended time, together with their brilliance, innovations and inventions, have propelled mankind to greater heights in terms of human progress.
Can you name a Muslim scientist in any field? Perhaps, one from the dawn of the 20th century? If it is too challenging, how about one figure in the last five years?
If you are finding it hard to do just that, you are not alone. Under the umbrella of the global ummah, we have many fiercely accomplished individuals who excelled and continue to contribute in significant measure in their chosen scientific fields. It is not about Muslims bucking conventions. Being a Muslim does not preclude the pursuit of technological and scientific progress for the betterment of mankind. Being a Muslim is more than just aspiring to be a qari or a religious teacher in madrasahs as a sign of educational achievement and being of service to the next generation and the world as a whole.
Unlock Our Hearts and Minds
إِنَّ فِى خَلْقِ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٰتِ وَٱلْأَرْضِ وَٱخْتِلَـٰفِ ٱلَّيْلِ وَٱلنَّهَارِ لَـَٔايَـٰتٍ لِّأُو۟لِى ٱلْأَلْبَـٰبِ
“Lo! In the creation of the heavens and the earth and (in) the difference of night and day are tokens (of His Sovereignty) for men of understanding”
[Surah Ali ‘Imran 3:190]
The above-mentioned Quranic verse is often quoted by naysayers as a vividly weak and sobering illustration of Islam when it comes to knowledge accumulation in the sciences. However, in essence, we are urged to study and reflect upon the wonders and complexities of nature. Instead, we have to be proactive in our pursuit of knowledge.
Figures such as Ibn Khaldun (1332 – 1406), Jabir Ibn Haiyan (721 – 815), Thabit ibn Qurra (836 – 901) and Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi (780 – 850) and their long-lasting contributions in various fields would prove such naysayers wrong.
Al-Battani (858 – 929), for instance, was an Arab mathematician and astronomer. He left the world such a great legacy with his groundbreaking work that created seismic shifts beyond the Islamic sphere of knowledge. For instance, his prominent written work, a collection of astronomical tables, was translated into Latin in about 1116 and into Spanish in the 13th century. He improved existing values for the length of the year and of the seasons based on his refinements on Ptolemy’s astronomical calculations by replacing geometrical methods with trigonometry.
(Re)Learning Through (Forgotten) History
From the toothbrush, the first university to the basis of our modern conception and understanding of the bicycle to musical scales, all can be traced back to under the rubric of Muslim inventions.
These ideations and innovations have stood the test of time by providing a strong foundation for further improvements and experienced various contemporary iterations. Therefore, moulding the world of today.
Before the Wright brothers, there was Leonardo da Vinci. And preceding da Vinci, was a Muslim inventor, Abbas ibn Firnas in the 9th century. He designed a winged apparatus which flew for a few moments. His designs provided inspiration for da Vinci a few hundred years later. An interesting (and bone chilling) fact: Firnas partially broke his back during his flying attempt! Ouch!
New Lasting Legacy
The tradition of constant innovation and discovery is alive and flourishing through the works of contemporary Muslim scientific figures and innovators. We are fortunate to be vaccinated against Covid-19. The fight against coronavirus disease is made possible with advances charted in the scientific and medicinal fields. Dr Uğur Şahin, born in Turkey and grew up in Germany, is an immunologist and CEO of BioNTech. It is the company, founded in 2008, which developed one of the major vaccines against Covid-19. BioNTech redirected the use of mRNA-based drugs and developed the BNT162b2 vaccine that reported a 95 per cent efficacy rate. It became the first mRNA drug approved for human use though initially it was identified for use as individualised cancer immunotherapies.
Meanwhile, in Indonesia, Tri Mumpuni, an independent researcher and social activist spent more than a decade improving 65 rural communities through her influential work. She introduces electrification initiatives based on developments with micro-hydroelectric power plants; in addition to energy gardens. She also pioneered a community private partnership model that aims at building small power plants equally owned by the community and private sector which lay the foundations for equity and collective empowerment through shared vision and effort.
Travelling to space is no mean feat. Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor is an orthopedic surgeon who was sent to the International Space Station in 2007, thus becoming the first Malaysian in space. His participation as an astronaut then afforded him opportunities to conduct a range of scientific experiments, such as crystallisation of microbes in space. Moreover, it spurred the Malaysian National Fatwa Council to issue specific rulings pertaining to praying and fasting while in space. Currently, he is based in National University of Malaysia (UKM) with focus on global issues encompassing climate change and humanitarian aid.
As mankind advances, we collectively continue to build on the foundations that was laid by past generations. Without a doubt, Muslims from every corner of the globe continue to explore and innovate in their respective fields which contribute to paving the way for technological peaks to be conquered.