For those of us raised and living in the Western European way of life, Islam has been framed as a religion of backward desert-dwellers riding camels, whose primary goals in life include ensuring the whole world becomes backward desert-dwellers riding camels. To these caricatures, the quest for knowledge and expansion of one's worldview is haram, and never throughout time had these 1,600,000,000 two-dimensional, anti-learning, angry people ever given any importance to the thoughts, advancement, and civilization afforded by science.
This is bovine poo of the highest order. And it stinks.
For hundreds of years, Islam brought cutting-edge advancements in virtually every area of life and understanding the natural world. Astronomy. Biodiversity. Biology. Botany. Chemistry. Geology. Geomorphology. Meteorology. Navigation. Optics. Physiology. Robotics. Timekeeping. Zoology. (And that's just science. SCIENCE!)
One of these days I'll write about why the quest for knowledge and expansion has been hijacked by religious fanatics and cast as some kind of evil deed. Religion in general is regularly accused of being one of the greatest impediments to progress and rational society. (Ibn al-Haitham is one of the developers of the scientific method, more than 200 years before Europeans learned about it by reading his books. Betcha they didn't teach you that in atheist Sunday school.) But my father was a scientist, as were and are many members of my extended family. I'm an engineer by training (and a trainer by engineering). Trust me, there are Muslim scientists, doctors, engineers, educators of all sorts – and for many of them, their faith gives them the push to discover the workings of the universe.
Luckily – and with a huge amount of work – there now exists the Museum of Science and Technology in Islam, aka MOSTI, sponsored by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). MOSTI showcases the realms of study and knowledge in Islamic science using the idea of a Dar-ul-ilm or "House of Wisdom" for each major area, which parallels the basis of KAUST itself.
(Unluckily, while the museum is still in the starting stage, it's only open to KAUST's community and invited guests. But you can bet if I ever make it to Saudi Arabia, I'll be finagling my way into this one. I'm a science museum junkie. Ain't no rule stoppin' me, bub.)
MOSTI's dar-ul-ilms (yeah, that's not the plural, I know) are divided into nine clusters:
- The Introductory cluster: Why did Science Flourish in Islam?, which includes a 3-D fly through of the museum (see below)
- Seven technical clusters: Learning Institutions, Astronomy and Navigation, Technology, Chemistry, Art and Architecture, Mathematics, and Life and Environmental Sciences.
- The Exit cluster: The Revival of Islamic Science
The clusters include interactive displays, and some pretty mind-blowing working scale models of clocks and ingenious devices that'll make your jaw drop. Stunningest stunner? A scale model of Al-Jazari's Elephant Water Clock in the Technology cluster. (Deborah and I actually saw this in the Ontario Science Centre's Sultans of Science exhibit a couple of years ago. You might just have the word "ingenious" redefined after you see this man's inventions in real life.)
There's a massive interactive timeline stretched across a table using multi-touch technology that looks pretty amazing. It shows an overview of Islamic science and technology from 650 to 1650, and some more recent things too.
The displays make a point of acknowledging the famous female Muslim scientists too – this isn't all about the boys. The "Meeting the Polymaths" display in the Learning Institutions cluster highlights some of the most studied and knowledgeable scientists and natural philosophers in Islamic history.
One last thought (even though there is so much more in the museum itself): No tour of Muslim contributions to the advancement of humanity would be complete until you examine astronomy, navigation, chemistry, and mathematics. The museum picks up on various outstanding examples of how Muslim scientists examined, catalogued, measured, and represented the world in various ways from drawings on paper to the most ingenious mechanisms around. Muslim robots? Yeah, hundreds of years ago. Check 'em out!
If you find yourself in Saudi Arabia, please take the time to get yourself on the guest list and explore the museum. There are also various Muslim science exhibits that travel through the world. See those, too. Explore, listen, read, and think critically – what is it that changed? The Golden Age of Islam was hundreds of years ago because that was a time during which scientific inquiry was seen as a powerful, motivating force within the ummah. We shouldn't fear knowledge – we should embrace it. It will help us understand the secrets and blessings that God has left for us in the universe, and strengthen our own belief.
Enjoy this 3-D fly-through of MOSTI (click here to play in a separate window)
A narrated tour of the major subject areas of the museum (click here to play in a separate window):