Muslim contributions to science are many


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I RECEIVED a very disturbing email a few weeks ago.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 03/05/2009 (4902 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

I RECEIVED a very disturbing email a few weeks ago.

It was one of those emails that people keep for­warding to one another, like those bogus computer virus warnings that arrive unsolicited in your inbox.

In this case, it wasn’t about a virus, but it did contain one — not a real computer virus, but one that sows mistrust and enmity between people.

This particular email was sent to a group of people, including me, by a Christian in another province. It questioned whether Muslims had contribued any­thing positive to the world by comparing the number of Jew­ish and Muslim winners of the Nobel Prize.

The email — various ver­sions of which can be found on the web — noted that while the "global Islamic population" is about 1.2 billion people, only sev­en Muslims have won the Nobel Prize. The "global Jewish population" of 13 million, on the other hand, has produced 129 winners. (Other versions say nine Muslims have won, and that there have been either 165 or 184 Jewish winners.) After listing the winners from the two religious communities, the email included a catalogue of "Muslim" atrocities such as suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism and violence. It concluded by saying that "Muslims must ask what can they [sic] do for humankind before they demand that human­kind respects them!!"

In the first place, what possible good can be ac­complished by comparing these particular groups in this way? In the second place, for Christians, Jesus taught that his followers should love everyone, including enemies, no matter whether they had done anything to earn that love. In my books, showing that kind of love would include not sending emails like this.

In the third place, Muslims have, in fact, done quite a bit for humankind — our western scientific tradition owes them a great deal of gratitude.

From the seventh to the eleventh centuries, Mus­lims were the world leaders in the sciences. During that time, the Arabic language was synonymous with learning. It was a golden age of intellectual endeav­our and achievement that had a lasting impact on western scientific thought, methods and techniques.

Back then, Muslim scholars made key advances in subjects such as medicine, physics, optics and mathematics. Muslim mathematicians promoted the concepts of the decimal system and zero — two ideas that limited what Greek mathematics could accom­plish. Muslims were also responsible for introducing the Arabic numerical system to the world, along with algebra, which comes from the Arabic word al-jabr, as well as trigonometry.

They also made strides in astronomy. Since one of the five pillars of Islam is facing Mecca to pray five times a day, Muslim scientists needed to study the stars to help the faithful determine the required directions for praying.

Additionally, Muslim scholars translated key Greek scientific texts into Arabic, thus ensuring that they would be preserved for future generations.

Even the English language reflects the contribu­tion of the Muslim world. Hundreds of words we use today have Arabic origins, including algorithm, alco­hol, checkmate, elixir, lemon, loofah, spinach, tariff and — importantly for those whose daily routine includes a stop at Tim Hortons — coffee.

"Nothing in Europe could hold a candle to what was going on in the Islamic world until about 1600,” Jamil Ragep, a professor of the history of science at the University of Oklahoma, told the New York Times.

"Its scale and consequences are enormous, not just for Islam but for Europe and the world," added Abdelhamid Sabra, who taught the history of Arabic science at Harvard.

With all of those achievements, it’s too bad there wasn’t a Nobel-like prize a thousand years ago — Muslim scientists would have cleaned up.

It’s true that Muslims are not well-known for their work in science today. Osman Bakar, who is part of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, notes that Muslims account for less than one per cent of the world’s scientists. He attributes this lack of representation to poverty, and to the fundamentalism and anti-western attitudes found in some Muslim countries.

Highlighting Muslim contributions to science in no way diminishes the work of Jewish scientists, or that of any other group; we should be grateful to all who find ways to make our lives, and the world, a better place.

What should you do if this email shows up in your inbox? I can think of two things: First, be thankful for the contributions that Muslims, and others, have made to the world of science. Second, decline to for­ward it to anyone else and hit the delete button.

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John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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