By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam
6 April 2012
Not many Muslims have heard of Fazlur Rahman Khan, a Dhaka-born architect and engineer who revolutionised the construction of high-rises in the second half of the 20th century. Khan devised what is known as the “tubular design” of construction, which has since been used to build some of the tallest and most famous skyscrapers worldwide, including the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the ill-fated World Trade Center in New York.
When Sheikh Mohammad Atta and Co. ploughed their planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11, they thought they were bringing down the symbols of American arrogance. Little did they realise that they were also destroying a towering example of what a Muslim with some education could achieve.
Thankfully, it was far from being the only example of its kind. While Fazlur Rahman’s work can itself be seen in metropolises around the world, he is hardly the only Muslim who has succeeded in supposedly “Western” endeavours of science and technology, mathematics and economics.
Kerim Kerimov, a Soviet-Russian, was among the leading scientists of the Soviet space programme, contributing to the launch of the first manmade satellite, Sputnik I, in 1957 and the first spaceflight carrying a human, Yuri Gagarin, in 1961. On the other side of the “space race” was Farouk el Baz, an Egyptian-American who helped the US space agency NASA plan manned and unmanned expeditions to the moon.
Mohammad Yunus, Fazlur Rahman’s fellow Bangladeshi, made history by pioneering the concept of microcredit that has helped millions of people worldwide earn their own livelihood. Mahbubul Haq, a Pakistani microeconomist, pioneered the human development theory and founded the human development report, giving a “human face” to economics.
The list goes on. But only on paper, not in the consciousness of common Muslims around the world. Few Muslims take pride in or are even aware of the success that fellow Muslims have achieved in such fields. Why?
For a number of reasons, “scientific endeavour” has been eschewed from Muslim self-identity and ensconced as an inherently “Western” characteristic. It’s not Muslim any more to dabble in natural or even social sciences; that sort of stuff has simply been reserved for the “West”. The Muslim conception of education has been limited to “Islamic knowledge”, spanning the Quran, Hadith and other religious literature. Many Muslims simply don’t care about any other knowledge, some even consider it heretical to learn anything outside the Islamic canon.
As a result, the constructive work of Muslims such as Fazlur Rahman doesn’t register on the radar of Muslim accomplishment (even as the destruction wrought by Sheikh Mohammad Atta & Co. are trumpeted on and on). But that’s the least of the dangers.
Shunning science as a “Western” pursuit means that any attitude of scientific inquiry is disdained as unIslamic; any attempt to build a society based on scientific thought is tarnished as sacrilegious. If you speak in favour of democracy or women’s rights or even basic human rights, you are simply told that these ideas are “Western” and therefore “not for us”. If you try to reason, you are declared a deviant, perhaps even an infidel, for reason itself is now “anti-Islamic”.
This is a self-replicating consciousness that has created a vicious circle constricting Muslims all over, prohibiting them from engaging with the modern world on its own terms. To give just one example, Muslim parents prefer sending children to madrasas rather than to secular schools imparting scientific knowledge, even as madrasa managers resist attempts to modernise the Islamic seminaries. Many of these parents themselves benefited from secular education at a time when such attitudes were not prevalent: yet today they insist on nothing but “Islamic” education for their children.
The irony of it all, of course, is that Islam itself prohibits such attitudes and makes a compelling argument for all-round education and the pursuit of all kinds of knowledge. The Quranic verse bidding Muslims to go even to China (a euphemism for the farthest corner of the world) to seek knowledge is well-known—and was well-adhered to at one time.
It led Muslims to come up with concepts such as algorithm and algebra, translate ancient Indian treatises on mathematics, biology and astronomy, and effectively lay the foundations of European Enlightenment and the Western turn to science as a way of life.
Muslims have played as significant a role in the creation of the modern world as anyone else. But that heritage is lost to us today. And its loss is part of the reason why, in the name of Islam, Muslims are adopting the pre-Islamic Jahiliya culture en masse, complete with its paganism of slavery to ersatz symbols of religiosity and mindless violence.
To reclaim Islam, Muslims need to reclaim its scientific attitude, its spirit of intellectual adventure, from which it derives its rational creed and its humanist ethos. Muslims like Fazlur Rahman, who make the world a better place for everyone, ought to be our heroes—not those who want to destroy it.
Saif Shahin is a research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. He writes regularly for New Age Islam.