Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Islam & Technological Progress

On one occasion while speaking to some young people about technology and about the information revolution that we are presently experiencing, a member of my audience surprised me with a question. He said: “Are these physical, technical, industrial, and other worldly sciences really necessary in Islam? Does the study of such things draw us closer to Allah?”

The way he asked the question told me that he had already had his mind made up about the answer. He was already convinced that these were worldly sciences that take a person away from Allah and from success in the Hereafter.

This attitude is one of the most glaring reasons why the Muslim world suffers from technological backwardness. The idea that knowledge should be restricted to a number of specialized religious disciplines and should focus on a specific set of highly particular issues, is an idea that runs contrary to the very spirit of Islam. The first word revealed to the Prophet (peace be upon him) was “Read!” This is a mighty command. It tells a people who are up to their chins in a spiritual and worldly quagmire to pull themselves up to a level where they will be fit to be Allah’s vicegerents on Earth and take up the task of developing their world. This is a daunting task that requires knowledge, strength, industry, love and faith to carry out.

This command to read addresses our minds. It stresses to us the importance of knowledge. How wondrous it is that the first word of the Qur’ân to be revealed was the command to “Read!” How equally startling it is that the Muslims are the people farthest removed from reading. All the studies and surveys that have been conducted on global literacy show that the Muslims have the highest degree of illiteracy in the world. As for those who can read, the general scope and depth of their reading is the poorest.

This culture of undervaluing the sciences and regarding them as contrary to the Islamic spirit is the reason why Muslims civilization is lagging so far behind the rest of the world today in science, technology and manufacturing.

Allah says: “Do you not see that Allah sends down water from the cloud, then We bring forth therewith fruits of various colors; and in the mountains are streaks, white and red, of various hues and (others) intensely black? And of men and beasts and cattle, in like manner, diverse hues? Of His servants, only those who possess knowledge fear Allah; surely Allah is Mighty, Forgiving.” [Sûrah Fâtir: 27-28]

These verses refers to subjects like the patterns of rain, the fruit with their various colors, the types of mountains, the various species of animals, and the variations that exist among human beings. These verses tell us in the clearest possible language that people can have, by virtue of such knowledge, a means to attain greater faith in Allah and an enhanced awareness of His greatness and might. From where, then, do people come with the idea that knowledge of the physical world has no possibility of bringing one closer to Allah? If we look carefully at these verses, we can see that they refer to the topics of almost every science of the past and present – from astronomy and geology to zoology, botany and anthropology. Sciences like these are the “raw materials” from which technological advances are made.

When we consider the importance that the Qur’ân gives these sciences, it is bewildering to find that contemporary Muslim societies are the farthest removed of all the world’s civilizations from the atmosphere of technological competitiveness. Though we possess a rich heritage that affords us every reason and every means to develop our civilization, we are regrettably the least prepared of all the world’s peoples for boarding the train of progress that is moving forward at an ever-increasing pace and that waits for no one.

Islam has a highly favorable attitude to knowledge and to all forms of scientific enquiry. The Qur’ân is very clear in its encouragement for learning. At the same time, it encourages our reading and our contemplation to be supported by Allah’s remembrance, so that we will be able to steer clear of moral and material deviance, which can result from human weakness and a tendency to pursue vested interests and vain personal desires.

The question that we must ask with urgency is this: Why are today’s Muslims so far removed from scientific and technological pursuits? Why are they not receiving the encouragement that is found in the Qur’ân and Sunnah for creativity, productivity, and the development of society?

We should be reading the Qur’ân and Sunnah in all aspects of our lives, in all of our endeavors, whether as agriculturalist, manufacturers, doctors, or scientists.

No doubt, we suffer from serious shortcomings by distancing ourselves from our religion’s guidance concerning the value of knowledge. Allah created humanity and provided for us everything on Earth. Allah says: “He it is who created for you all that is in the Earth.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 29]

Likewise, Allah has made us to live upon this Earth. He says: “Allah: you have no other god but Him. It is He who produced you from the Earth and settled you therein.” [Sûrah Hûd: 61]

Allah gave humanity suzerainty over the Earth by virtue of the knowledge and reason that He blessed us with. We engage in agriculture and craftsmanship with what the Earth yields forth to us. We are likewise given the responsibility of taking care of the Earth. We are encouraged to look into the phenomena of Creation to discern the laws and patterns that Allah has placed therein, including the patterns and causes that govern the rise and fall of civilizations. Allah has made all of this a means to enrich our lives both spiritually and materially.

Allah sent us the Qur’ân to be a criterion for us to apply in our worldly as well as our spiritual lives. Its teachings are for our worldly prosperity as well as for our well-being in the Hereafter. This is why there are verses in the Qur’ân about thought, contemplation and investigation, just like there are those pertaining to Islamic Law and religious doctrine. Indeed, Allah points out that he “…sent down iron, wherein is mighty power and (many) uses for mankind” [Sûrah al-Hadîd: 25] In this verse, Allah points out how greatly humanity benefits from iron, because we manufacture from it so many tools and devices. In fact, iron is essential for our most modern machines and technologies.

The pursuit of any proper and beneficial knowledge can bring us nearer to Allah and earn for us His blessings, as long as it facilitates for humanity the habitation and management of the Earth, and the establishment of the faith therein. As the jurist al-Mâwardî put it: “…anything that helps us realizes our duties and develop civilized life on Earth.” This includes Islamic knowledge as well as the various knowledge pursuits in the fields of medicine, craftsmanship, commerce, technology, and culture. All of these types of knowledge benefit humanity and help us in fulfilling our duties as vicegerents of Allah on Earth.

Realizing for ourselves how Islam encourages the pursuit of knowledge and the advancement of our technical capabilities is just the beginning. We must then go further and instill in our societies an Islamic awareness of the importance of technological progress and the need to support technological development and creativity. This needs to be encouraged on the social plane through the praise and public recognition of those who are inventive. It also needs to be supported financially through the awarding of bursaries, scholarships, fellowships, and prizes. Likewise, it must be furthered practically by providing the material prerequisites and infrastructure for technological advancement. All of this requires coordination and management on an institutional level, so that the technological contributions of the Muslim world can be developed effectively and the creative energies of the Muslims harnessed to the maximum extent.

We should establish centers for research and hold conferences and seminars to define and further our research aims and development strategies. We need to get directly involved in combating the scientific, technological, and intellectual backwardness that continues to threaten the Muslim world.

It is equally vital that we develop the necessary laws and procedures to protect the intellectual property rights of inventors and thinkers. We need to make it easy for inventors to secure patents for their inventions. We need to make every effort to assist our creative people.

The task of developing an environment conducive to technological development has cultural, academic, as well as political dimensions. Greater freedom is needed as well as greater political transparency. We need to change our societies from consumer societies importing goods from everywhere else into producer societies that sell and export the fruits of their own industry to others.

We ask Allah to bless us with an increase in knowledge and awareness, both cultural and scientific, and bring us to a genuine Islamic understanding of how to integrate our Islamic values and technological progress in a harmonious and productive manner.

by Sheikh Salman al-Oadah

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