THE CLOSING OF THE INTERNATIONAL ISLAMIC FORUM FOR SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND HUMAN RESOURCES DEVELOPMENT, Jakarta, Indonesia, 8 December 1996
Much has been said over the past two days about the state of science and technology in the Muslim world. I commend the organizers for bringing together this group of scientists and intellectuals to discuss a subject that is of crucial importance to the Islamic community. Forums such as these will enable us to focus on our problems and present us with the opportunity to develop common approaches and work out practical solutions. It would be a pity if they should degenerate into just another platform for launching attacks against the real or imagined enemies of Islam and Muslims.
Muslims must not stand idly by while science and technology from the West shape the future, for doing so is a betrayal not only of Islam's glorious past but also of our children's future. Muslims must stop pointing fingers at others. The stark reality is that we have been virtually paralyzed ,by our own intellectual inertia in the realm of science and technology. Our claims of success are quite unfounded because our achievements, if any, have been limited and mediocre. And we must have the humility, courage and intellectual honesty to admit it.
Islamic civilization pioneered the holistic approach to science and technology but has contributed little in the march of science since the days when it gave the world algebra, algorithms and discoveries that set in motion the Copernican Revolution. Since then, it is the West which has built upon our success while we remain content to be mere followers, resigned to the fact of Western domination in this field.
The reasons for this deteriorating state of affairs are manifold. The colonial legacy bears a large share of the blame. A combination of economic exploitation, political strangulation and social humiliation of Muslim states under colonial rule led to the impoverishment of Muslim societies, decline in the patronage of the arts and sciences, and mental enslavement of Muslims. Independence promised much but delivered little. By and large, the malaise afflicting the ummah is of their own doing. Instead of focusing on efforts to revitalize the community, Muslim leaders are embroiled in internal bickering sectarian conflicts, parochialism and recriminations arising from chauvinistic claims to superiority. Corrupt regimes, effete administrations and morally bankrupt elites are symptomatic of this malaise.
Invariably in the realm of science and technology this disease exacts a particularly heavy toll for its saps the society of its intellectual vigour and vitality. Thus, the Muslim community must break its self-imposed exile from the world of science. In this regard, it is not enough just to make general statements acknowledging this reality. Good intentions alone will not enable us to compete with the rest of the world let alone take the lead.
We must go beyond mere theorizing, put an end to futile polemics and start articulating a vision of the ummah as one which will harness the virtues of science and technology. Invariably, this vision will be backed by a concrete and pragmatic programme of strategies.
The task ahead requires courage and a change in our approach to science and technology. We cannot fool ourselves with delusions of grandeur built on dreams and fantasies. Most of the technological achievements we are so proud of are nothing but edifices built on outdated technology copied from the west. As Malik Bennabi observed some three decades ago, a country cannot develop if it is dependent on imported technology. Worse such a country will become a mere pawn of the corporate czars and transnational giants in their Machiavellian maneuvers.
The current situation in our society parallels that of China 500 years ago. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that when the first Europeans came to China, they found that all the arts had reached a certain degree of improvement, and they were surprised that having come so far, they had not gone further. Later on they found traces of profound knowledge that had been forgotten. The nation was a hive of industry; the greater part of its scientific method was still in use, but science itself was dead The Chinese, following in their fathers' steps, had forgotten the reasons which guided them. They still used the formula without asking why. They had the tool without having the skill to adapt or replace it. The Chinese were practising a form of taqlid, uncomprehending imitation. In our day, we too are mere imitators. We have learned our science and technology from the West. We don't need to be apologetic about it. After all, the West itself had learnt their formulas from the East, and the Prophet has said :
The real problem arises from the importation of the values of the West together with their science and technology. Western values such as unbridled individualism, moral permissiveness and a homocentric view of the world are values we can do without.
The cultivation of indigenous technology requires that we create an environment conducive to the reflowering of the sciences, an environment in which minds are free to dream and facilities are provided to turn dreams into reality. It is anachronistic that in an age where brain has replaced brawn, there are among us those who remain steadfast in refusing to allow women education and barring them from research. It is dumbfounding that in an age when the limits of autocracy are everywhere being challenged, we continue to tolerate authoritarian regimes which do not provide people with fundamental liberties and civil rights and yet expect the culture of science to flourish. It is foolhardy that we allow our best brains to emigrate to the West instead of trying to nurture them in our own societies owing to our failure to give them due recognition.
To progress, we must make science come alive in our community. Instead of degrading it, we must embrace a culture of learning that will provide us with the wherewithal to innovate rather than imitate, to invent rather than copy. The science we must seek to embrace must not be the totalitarian version which has no place for faith, but a humanistic version which encompasses our reinvigorated traditions and adheres to our religious precepts. Not for us the science that has no scruples in building the atomic bomb; instead let us adapt the science that cured the world of polio, which provides food for our hungry and shelter for our homeless, which elevates rather than denigrates the dignity of man.
In order for science and technology to advance we must allocate enough material resources towards it, and invest in our human resources. Expenditure on education and research must be expanded. The goal is to create a scientific culture, where not only in schools but throughout the community there is awareness about the importance of science and technology. Research institutions should be set up and there should be greater collaboration among existing Muslim institutions in all Muslim countries .
The cultural environment must be suitable. Sure, one can cite examples of great strides made in science and technology even under totalitarian regimes but these are exceptions to the rule. By and large, a political environment dominated by dictatorial tendencies stifles intellectual growth in general and progress in science and technology in particular.
There is the need for governments to prioritize expenditure for education, training and research. But priorities must not be founded on extravagance or ostentation. Therefore, investments in areas which contribute directly towards uplifting the overall standard of living of the people must take precedence over those merely for pride and prestige. There is no justification in allowing governments to splurge precious sums of money only to indulge in delusions of grandeur. At the same time, in our endeavour to reenergize and to focus on the scientific culture, we must not lose sight of the humanistic and moral dimension of man. Although some degree of specialization is necessary, we must not allow, in the words of Ortega y Gasset, the barbarism of specialization to dehumanize the human personality. Our education system must not lead to the training of specialists in narrow fields such that they have no knowledge or understanding of matters outside their disciplines.
Nevertheless, science must not be all about utility and technology. Some of the greatest developments in science started from mere curiosity, born out of inquiring minds in an environment where intellectual pursuits were encouraged and facilitated. Our societies must be imbued with the pleasure of knowledge the ladhdhzat al-ma rifah. This is the underlying principle of the Islamic approach to knowledge which is to look at the universe and its various phenomena as the ayatullah - the signs of God. This will inspire a love for nature and bring about harmony between man and his environment. Such an approach demands a holistic view of science and technology as well as the development of human resources. The ummah must be provided with the opportunity to actualize their full potential in the learning of the sciences. This will require large investments in constructing the facilities and providing the amenities for them as they pursue the quest for knowledge which will enrich them as individuals even as it enriches the societies in which they live, study and work.
Such investment in human resources demands that governments formulate long-term strategies rather than be concerned solely with short-term returns. It requires complementarity rather than competition among Muslim countries as they help each other in funding and setting up research and training institutions that require large sums to operate. This is particularly relevant in the Information Age, where progress is often exponential. Failure to master the tools of information technology will mean continual serfdom to the innovation and advances of the successful economies of the West. In this regard, chauvinistic and inward-looking policies must be replaced by a spirit of cooperation and trust. Reviving the glory of Islamic civi]ization demands sacrifice from all if the ummah are once agam to occupy centre stage in global affairs instead of being consigned to the periphery.
More than a hundred years ago, Jamaluddin al- Afghani wrote:
Let us not delude ourselves, however, into thinking that the advancement of a scientific culture can be achieved without ensuring a stable political environment, a robust economy and a vision of leadership characterized by strategic thinking and action-oriented policies. Particularly in our desire to infuse Islamic values in the community, we must not be blinked in our outlook, consumed by jingoistic tendencies, and overlook the fact that Islam enjoins tolerance for the adherents of other religions who live among us. Furthermore, a strategic alliance should be forged between Muslim and non-Muslim nations, between the East and the West in the pursuit of knowledge, for indeed this is the essence of the divine light that issues forth from the olive tree that is neither of the East nor of the West.