Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Navel Gazing

This past Monday was a particularly Good Morocco Day for me. Good Morocco Days are things of joy and can be made manifest in a myriad of ways. For me, on this Monday past, I was able to successfully ignore the Not Nice Men who spewed come-ons at me, I didn't have to wait for a taxi at Super Marjane (nor battle a 200-pound matron for one), I wasn't nearly squashed by any vehicles, and, to top it off, the weather was sunny and breezy - I even caught myself smiling and thinking - wow! this isn't so bad. Then yesterday, everything returned to normal as a car brushed my skirt while I was attempting to cross a street. As a colleague said to me (insert tone of incredulity in her voice): "you expected 2 good days in a row?" Silly, silly me.

This is my convoluted way of introducing the fact that this blog might be interpreted as culturally insensitive & chockful of gross generalisations, but really, I'm just giving voice to my Crappy Morocco Day (or Days - 2 days running now). And my Crappy Morocco Day voice hates navel gazing - unless the view is quite astounding, and a world apart from something flabby and hairy.

So ... currently, in Casablanca, an exhibition is being held entitled “When the Sciences Spoke Arabic”. And that got me thinking (or at least my Crappy Morocco Day voice) because the show highlights the technological advances made by Arabs during their "Golden Age", from the 8-15th centuries.

So setting our time machine to the Medæival world, we find Arabs leading other nations/city states in their pursuit of knowledge by leaps & bounds - much of which these intellectual pioneers discovered independently or translated & synthesized from the cultures of others (e.g.. the Greeks, Persians, Indian, & Chinese). Ultimately, they transmitted this arcana (for example Aristotle's philosophy, Ptolemy's geography, Hippocrates' medicine) to Spain and eventually, to the entire Western world. While Western Europe was still firmly ensconced in the muck and mire of ignorance and poor sanitation, Islamic universities were popping up like mushrooms about the umma, or Muslim world.

This bit of reflection has made me rather sad. How would I feel if my culture had been on a scientific hiatus for some 600 years, that it had reached its zenith before the birth of Shakespeare - before the birth of the cotton gin (and probably - and more importantly - the gin & tonic)? I'd rather feel like a has-been.

And what's been going on since Islam's Golden Age? What yardsticks can we use to measure a nation's progress? Well, in 2001, Iran registered only one patent, whereas in the U.S., over 100,000 were granted. Notably, over 16,000 patents were registered in Iran before the Shah got out of Dodge. More than a coincidence? Over the last five years, Indonesia has issued 30. This is rather perplexing given that, in regards to meeting the criteria for a patent, the bar is set much lower outside the Western world (where phrases like 'substantive examination' are bandied about). For example, in Morocco, one reads:

The Patent Office examines applications with regard to form only and not with regard to novelty or merit. The particulars of the application are published in the Official Gazette. No opposition procedure is provided, patents issued are valid for twenty years.

Hmmmm. And the Nobel Prize? - of the 776 prizes which have been awarded since 1901, 7 have gone to Muslims, although less than half were for the sciences (& one went to a dead terrorist). Interestingly, of the world's 12 million or so Jews, 169 have been awarded Nobel Prizes. Must be the Zionist Conspiracy. With Muslims outnumbering Jews worldwide at an estimated 117:1, the Muslim brainiacs are lagging behind. In case you've forgotten who the Select Seven are, we have:

Abdul Salam (Physics 1979) was Director of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy. Although he was a devout Muslim, he had to leave Pakistan because he was unable to do theoretical physics research there.

Ferid Murad (Medicine 1998), American born & raised, he was brought up in a Catholic community although his father was Muslim. As an adult, he became an Episcopalian.

Ahmed Zewail (Chemistry 1999) has been at Caltech for 30 years, although is Egyptian.

Naguib Mahfouz (Literature 1988) was stabbed in the back (rendering him partially paralyzed) by Egyptian fundamentalists in 1997 because he supported the Peace Process between Palestinians and Israelis.

Md. Anwar Sadat (Peace 1978), was assassinated by militant nationalist religious extremists.

Yasser Arafat (Peace 1994) - no comment.

For the most part, these individuals have (or had) distanced themselves from mainstream Islam or what's now referred to as Islamicism. This makes me wonder whether there is a connection between modern Islam and the development (or lack thereof) of innovative technology (apart from defence technology, that is). Does technological and scientific advancement constitute a perceived threat to some Islamic nations or groups therein? I offer this little snippet from the Al-Haramain Foundation (the Islamic charity):

One of the hallmarks of Islam is its complete harmony with science. A Muslim considers conflict between scientific facts and religion to be impossible ... It is impossible for one to contradict the other ... There has never been a scientific fact or a valid scientific theory that contradicted the teachings of Islam ... In the early days of Islam, when people adhered to its beliefs and practices, there was a flowering of science, culture, trade and technology. The teachings of Islam brought about this scientific awareness, which eventually ignited and propelled the European Renaissance. It was only after (c in r's italics) people began deviating from the original Islamic principles and religious beliefs that the advancements and scientific achievements of the Muslim world began to cease and fall into obscurity.

... as long as they have someone to blame.

So, is the problem Islam itself, or is it the teaching methods embraced in this corner of the world (which just happens to be Islamic) - methods which insist upon learning by rote? Memorization discourages independent thought, and downright frowns upon the development of an inquisitive mind. Ask no questions. Or are Islam and academic regurgitation tied at the hip? Am I hair-splitting or is it a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. Or more accurately, am I drowning in a sea of mixed metaphors?

The more astute reader will have grasped that I'm really just babbling on rather incoherently today (or rather my Crappy Morocco Day voice is), tossing out questions and providing no answers. But it appears to me that the Islamic world is resting on its technological laurels (notwithstanding the fact that Viagra was invented in Morocco and the first sex-change operation was performed here - thanks for those tidbits Mr. N!). And I'm not suggesting that the exhibition in Casa is a bad thing per se - maybe it will inspire some latent Omar Khayyam to actually do something creative & innovative. In the meantime, it smacks of institutionalised navel gazing which, as we all know, has the very real capacity to promote & entrench a perspective that is both stagnant and backward-looking. The Medæival Islamic educational system (for lack of a better phrase) of 6 centuries ago promoted the spirit of scientific inquiry, whereas today - well, you do the math.

Wow ... all this because one too many men sucked their teeth at me today.

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