Once, Leaders of Civilization

The Past and the Future

By Sabaa Ali

The Muslim world today is characterized by crisis upon crisis. It is weak, divided and reduced to being pawns of the game of today’s super-states. Its economies are weak. Poverty is rife, and as a result, basic health care in a majority of areas is either unavailable or unattainable to the general population. Many in the Ummah are illiterate and uneducated.

On September 26, 2001, in Minneapolis, chairman and chief executive officer of “Hewlett-Packard” company Carly Fiorina gave a speech describing in detail a civilization that was part of a ‘super-state’ and a beacon of knowledge and progress for the rest of the world. The following is an excerpt from Fiorina’s speech entitled “Technology, business and our way of life: what is next?”

“There was once a civilization that was the greatest in the world.
It was able to create a continental super-state that stretched from ocean to ocean and from northern climes to tropics and deserts. Within its dominion, lived hundreds of millions of people of different creeds and ethnic origins.
One of its languages became the universal language of much of the world, the bridge between the peoples of a hundred lands. Its armies were made up of people of many nationalities, and its military protection allowed a degree of peace and prosperity that had never been known. The reach of this civilization’s commerce extended from Latin America to China and everywhere in between.
And this civilization was driven more than anything – by invention. Its architects designed buildings that defied gravity. Its mathematicians created the algebra and algorithms that would enable the building of computers and the creation of encryption. Its doctors examined the human body and found new cures for disease. Its astronomers looked into the heavens, named the stars and paved the way for space travel and exploration.
Its writers created thousands of stories – stories of courage, romance and magic. Its poets wrote of love, when others before them were too steeped in fear to think of such things.
When other nations were afraid of ideas, this civilization thrived on them and kept them alive. When censors threatened to wipe out knowledge from past civilizations, this civilization kept the knowledge alive and passed it on to others.
While modern Western civilization shares many of these traits, the civilization I’m talking about was the Islamic world from the year 800 to 1600, which included the Ottoman Empire and the courts of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, and such enlightened rulers as Suleiman the Magnificent.
Although we are often unaware of our indebtedness to this other civilization, its gifts are very much a part of our heritage. The technology industry would not exist without the contributions of Arab mathematicians. Such Sufi poet-philosophers as Rumi challenged our notions of self and truth. Such leaders as Suleiman contributed to our notions of tolerance and civic leadership.
And, perhaps, we can learn a lesson from his example: it was leadership based on meritocracy, not inheritance. It was leadership that harnessed the full capabilities of a very diverse population, which included Christian, Islamic and Jewish traditions.
This kind of enlightened leadership – leadership that nurtured culture, sustainability, diversity and courage – led to 800 years of invention and prosperity.
In dark and serious times like this, we must affirm our commitment to building societies and institutions that aspire to this kind of greatness. More than ever, we must focus on the importance of leadership – bold acts of leadership and decidedly personal acts of leadership.”

In our schools today, our children are taught about Galileo, Newton and John Louis Stevenson. There is hardly a mention of the outstanding personalities of Muslim scientists. It is rare for our children to learn that the Muslims brought paper from China, and it is the Muslims, who developed this art form into a major industry. The impact of Muslim manufacture of paper paved the way for the printing revolution. Contrary to the popular belief, it was Ibn Al-Naphis (Ala Al-Din Abu Al-A’la Ali Ibn Abi Hazm Al-Quraishi) of Damascus, an Arab Muslim physician of the thirteenth century, who explained the basic principles of the modern theory of pulmonary circulation nearly three hundred and fifty years before Sir William Harvey of Kent, England, who is wrongly credited with this discovery. Christopher Columbus relied on Muslim charts and possibly even navigators. Magellan’s success in the Indian Ocean owes nearly all to Ibn Majid’s guidance and nautical legacy.

The question that subsequently comes to mind is: how did Muslims fall to the level they are at today? It is quite apparent that there is no lack of intelligence or talent within the Ummah. On the contrary, Muslims are leaders in many fields outside their countries, especially in western countries. On close inspection, it can be ascertained that Muslims lost their high position in the world the day they relegated Islam to their personal affairs.

The above described Glorious Era of Islam occurred at a time, when Islam was implemented at all levels of society.

For society to progress it is vital that the system supports and encourages talent and hard work, unlike what occurs today under nation-state rulers in the Muslim world. A truly Islamic System is a meritocracy, where Islam plays a leading role. It did not matter whether you were an Arab or a Persian, a former black slave or a woman – all were equal under the law and all had equal opportunity to reach their potential based on their abilities. Children were given the correct education from the start and were inculcated with a love for understanding the world, as given to us by Allah (swt). They would develop environmentally friendly technologies that would be funded and supported by the state. Teachers, who played such an important role in the raising of the young generation, were high-paid professionals. Scientists, writers, inventors were given encouragement and financial rewards.

In the current scenario, Islam has taken a back seat. In the era, when Muslims were a part of a super-state and their discoveries were ground-breaking, the state implemented Islam at all levels, including domestic policies, international relations, economics, politics, the social systems and education. Muslim scientists were driven to their discoveries by their desire to understand the system that Allah (swt) laid out for us. It is said that the Muslim mathematician Al-Jabr founded Algebra, because he wanted to explore and understand the inheritance laws described in the Quran.

We have allowed our rich and unmatched heritage to be buried under the sands of time. Superficial as we have become, we cherish only the visible – the domes and the minarets, the crumbling forts and mausoleums. We as individuals and as a nation, but more importantly as the Muslim Ummah, fail to draw strength and seek guidance from the unique intellectual reservoir our ancestors had left us. It is time for us to turn a new leaf in our life, regain self-respect and confidence, shed defeatist and apologetic attitudes and assert by deeds and not just by words. Moreover, we must understand the causes for the decline of the Ummah and vouch to work towards its uplifting.

It is only when Islam will be the sole judge in all affairs (from our government to our homes) and the motivation for achievement that Muslims will be able to rise once again, and, Insha’Allah, become the vanguard of the new scientific, economic and cultural rebirth for the entire world, as it once did in history.