Muslim Heritage and Education

This is the text of a presentation made to The Education and Culture Committee of the EU Parliament in Brussels on the 5th November 2008.

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Salim Al-Hassani* and Ian Fenn**

1. Introduction

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Figure 1: Poster of the Arab week in the European Parliament in Brussels in which the lecture was presented (Source).

The following article was in origin a presentation made to The Education and Culture Committee of the EU Parliament in Brussels on November 5, 2008, in the frame of the "Arab week" (3-6 November 2008) organised in the European Parliament in Brussels as an activity of the European Year for Intercultural Dialogue (EYID). The presentation is in two parts. The first is an introduction to the 1000 years of amnesia, the so called "Dark Ages", and its impact on education and culture. The second is a review of the progress made in the ground breaking education project, entitled Cultural Understanding in Science (CUSP) jointly carried by the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC), Qualification and Curriculum Agency (QCA) and the Association of Science Education (ASE). Finally a list of concluding remarks and strategic recommendations are given.

2. The Impact of the 1000 years Amnesia on Education and Culture

By using 3D animations of some past key science and technology inventions, we demonstrate how during the so called "Dark Ages" and the "Medieval" period, both in some parts of Europe and other parts of the world, a knowledge revolution took place which was the result of a self propelling and organically growing culture that combined scientific, economic and religious incentives. Some vibrant knowledge-based societies emerged which lasted for hundreds of years despite political and religious turbulence.

These incentives became the engine driving individuals, male and female, from different races and faiths, to invent, innovate and achieve scientific and economic progress.

Figure 2a-b: Poster of the Arab week displayed at the entrance hall of, and inside, the European Parliament in Brussels (Source).

Examples of such achievements, which still influence our modern homes, schools, hospitals, towns, markets and other aspects of our lives, were researched in the UK and some findings are given in two web portals and, in a book 1001 Inventions and in a touring exhibition of the same name.

Our postulate is the following: There is a period of a 1000 years missing from the Western educational systems. Almost in every subject taught in schools, there exists a jump from the Greeks to the Renaissance (see Figures 3-4).

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Timeline of progress in civilisation showing the contribution of classical Muslim civilisation together with other world civilisations.

This amnesia affects the minds of present and future generations and distorts their attitudes and perceptions of the role of other cultures, particularly the Muslim, in building the present civilisation.

  • The rise of knowledge society, though instigated by a particular understanding of Islam, incorporated women working alongside men and also non-Muslims, all seem to aim for the improvement of the quality of life.
  • Hunger for knowledge and its spread gave birth to universities from mosques (the first of which in history was built by Fatima Al-Fihri), to the mass production of paper, inks and to the invention of the fountain pen.
  • Urge for cleanliness lead to invention of soap, automatic watering devices and water distribution systems.
  • Feeding the fast growing population triggered a global agricultural revolution from China to Spain and the emergence of automatic irrigation machines.
  • Requirement to transfer information and money world wide lead to banking, letter of credit, cheque and using birds and coded communications.
  • The need for cures led to establishing modern hospitals, new medicines and surgical techniques. (Had Abu 'l-Qassim al-Zahrawi enforced Intellectual Property Rights and royalties on the Catgut, which surgeons have been using for a 1000 years to stitch internal incisions, he and his descendents would have been so rich to own the whole earth by now).
  • The need to calculate inheritance and wealth transfer led to algebra.
  • Requirement to know time, directions, navigation and to fix religious festivals and planting seasons led to innovations of astronomical devices, compasses and automatic clocks.
  • Defence led to iron and steel industry and to the first flying machines and rocketry.
  • Enjoyment of high quality of life led to innovations in aesthetics, art, cuisines and vast varieties of dress and domestic ware.
  • Funding a vibrant knowledge society invented a variety of charity structures and management systems which was the facilitator of rapidly growing organic movement of knowledge culture.

The Foundation for Science, Technology and civilisation was established in 1999 to research and produce peer reviewed and academically authenticated educational resources to correct this amnesia. Numerous projects were initiated in collaboration with government and public bodies. The most significant of which is the web-portal (now attracting hundreds of thousands daily page views and the 1001 Inventions project (including touring exhibition, book, teacher's pack and City 1250 as part of a Curriculum Enrichment programme). Below is the background and justifications relating to this project:

Figure 4: An original manuscript of al-Jazari's treatise of mechanics and engineering displayed among other Arabic manuscripts in the Arab week in Brussels (Source).

  • The new socio-political climate makes this project even more important as it breaks cultural barriers through appreciation of Muslim contributions towards the development of modern science and technology.
  • It also provides an opportunity to promote the concept of scientific and technological innovation as a positive and constructive channel of personal expression of beliefs, as an alternative to religious isolationism and extremism.
  • The latter is conveyed through featuring past Muslim inventors and pioneers of science and technology as alternative positive role models for young male and female "religious" Muslims. Such scholars spent their lifetime developing their mostly non-Muslim societies through research and innovation as an expression of their religiosity.
  • Early Muslim scholars happily cooperated with their Jewish, Christian, Sabian and other colleagues to improve the quality of life in society. Some of the Muslim scholars even excelled under Christian rule, like al-Idrisi, who became the chief consultant to the Norman King Roger II in Sicily.
  • During the early centuries of Muslim civilisation, women worked along side men and had played active role in building a knowledge based society.
  • The 1000 years amnesia of contributions of other cultures to our present civilisation, creates a false sense of Euro-centric pride.
  • There is a need to enrich schools curricula to make it more balanced and more accurate by adding the cultural origins of sciences taught.

Figure 5: Professor Salim Al-Hassani, Chairman of FSTC, lecturing in the conference "Muslim Heritage in our World: Social Cohesion" organised by FSTC at Hoare Memorial Hall, Church House, Westminster (15 October 2008) (© FSTC 2008).

Figure 6: Mr Ian Fenn, Head of Burnage Media Art College in Manchester and Director of FSTC's Curriculum Enrichment Program in the conference, during the last session of the conference "Muslim Heritage in our World: Social Cohesion" organised by FSTC at Hoare Memorial Hall, Church House, Westminster (15 October 2008). (© FSTC 2008).

2. The UK 1001 inventions project: Curriculum Enrichment

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Figure 7: Front cover of 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World. Chief Editor Salim al-Hassani; co-editors: Elisabeth Woodcock and Rabah Saoud. Forward by Sir Roland Jackson. Manchester: FSTC, 2006 (Source).

There is now a clear opportunity and educational imperative to ensure that we address the thousand years of missing history. This is not a Muslim agenda, as what we are trying to address is the common thread of humanity which all communities share. Our curriculum in the UK has for far too long been at best Eurocentric. We are now in a globally interdependent world and we need to educate our young people into this new reality. Our aim must be to show children that the scientific, technological advances of the West have a history, a history that is rooted in the East. Once this history is understood, students will begin to appreciate that there is no place for cultural triumphalism but that the inventions of modern science until and including some of Newton's achievement, for example, are dependent on the discoveries of the Muslim period, who in turn depended on the Hindus, Persians, Chinese , Greeks and so on. Newton, himself, said ‘If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.' Although he referred to his immediate predecessors in physics and astronomy, his metaphorical sentence comprehends actually all his predecessors, including Ibn al-Haytham (known to the Latins as Alhazen), who was the only scientist before Newton to pretend to have enforced a revolution in optics, as historians of science don't hesitate to claim today.

The benefits of setting Western achievements in their correct context are several. Students who are of Muslim heritage will gain self esteem and provided the history is properly contextualised, will begin to see themselves as an important part of the history of the West rather than to one side of it. For students who are of non Muslim heritage, they will gain an appreciation of how we all depend on each other. Let us not forget that the period when the greatest advances were made, was a period when people worked together irrespective of their religion, culture or nationality. They were drawn together in a spirit of inquiry and worked happily together whether they were Christians, Muslims, Sabians or Jews.

3. Cultural understanding in Science Project (CUSP)

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Figure 8: One of the posters created in the frame of the project Cultural Understanding in Science (CUSP) jointly carried by the FSTC, the QCA and the ASE (Source).

FSTC has been engaged in a ground breaking project with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Association of Science Educators. The project, named Cultural Understanding in Science Project (CUSP), had two significant drivers.

The first was clearly outlined in the book 1001 inventions whose objectives were to raise awareness of the thousand years (circa 600-1600) of Muslim heritage; generate understanding and appreciation of Muslim contributions towards the development of contemporary science and technology worldwide; inspire young people from both Muslim and non Muslim backgrounds to find career role models in science and engineering; promote the concept of scientific and technological innovations as a positive and constructive channel of personal expression of beliefs, as an alternative to religious isolationism and extremism and to act as bridge themes in the history of science, industry and arts with contemporary developments.

The second key driver was the QCA's revision to the science curriculum in 2007 which highlighted issues of cultural understanding as one key concept.

The starting point was a shared analysis of cultural and historical aspects of the science curriculum. Often, teaching about the historical development of science and technology, and its impact on culture, can tend to assume a predominant role for Western European scientists and can be relatively silent on the significance of scientific contributions from the Muslim and Arab worlds. As well as being historically inaccurate, this tendency can indirectly have a negative impact on community cohesion. The project addressed this issue by setting out to provide, and test, some examples of scientific learning based on inventions from the Muslim and Arab worlds. Key documentation and training were provided by FSTC and ASE who had already produced teaching materials based on the book and exhibition 1001 Inventions. The project was managed by the School Development Support Agency. Ten secondary schools and two local authorities were proactive project participants over a seven month period in 2007/8. The project aimed to enrich the new 11-14 science curriculum with specific examples of Muslim-heritage scientific work. This aim was set in the context of a wider aspiration, shared by all partners, to provide a science curriculum that would inspire, challenge, include and support all learners through the production of innovative exemplar materials relevant to science and to community cohesion.

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Figure 9: The time wheel illustrating the seven zones of 1001 Inventions Initiative: home, school, market, hospital, town, world and universe (Source).

The activities included puzzling plants, perfume, pharmaceuticals, the bird man and City 1250 and usually addressed the key concepts, from the new National Curriculum, 1.2a: applications and 1.3 implications of science and cultural understanding. The key processes usually engaged in were 2.2a: critical understanding of evidence and 2.3a: communication. In all the activities, part of the intended learning was an appreciation of when, how and where certain discoveries were made, followed by a discussion about pupils' own assumptions and expectations.

Project participants attended two conferences where they were introduced to the concepts and materials. After the first, some returned to their institutions and provided training to their departments so that staff involved was cognisant. For staff a key to their learning was to understand and place the materials into some sort of context for themselves and for the pupils.

Pupils engaged with the learning through teacher-led introductions which set out the context (for example, world science) and introduced relevant key concepts (for example, cultural understanding). Often, the activities would begin by posing a specific question to pupils, such as "Who made the first Soap?", and the possible answers would lead into a discussion about assumptions. Posters, card sequencing activities and worksheets from the 1001 Inventions resource were then used in order to develop pupils' knowledge, understanding and skills. Paired activities and practicals formed a part of every activity. All the activities concluded with critical discussion about what had been learnt. The discussion consolidated the sense of excitement around challenging some specific assumptions about the time, place and cultural context of the scientific discovery. All the activities succeeded in making science enjoyable, relevant and culturally challenging; they increased pupils' awareness of the Muslim heritage contribution to science.

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Figure 10: The seven zones posters from the Teachers' pack of 1001 Inventions Initiative. Source: The Teachers' Pack brochure, p. 79.

A number of schools reported that staff -both teachers and assistants- had found the background to the project and the activities used very interesting in terms of their own learning. As one project school reported: ‘Staff found the amended activities very inspiring, challenging and motivating. The activities were not like traditional science lessons, so pupils enjoyed the lessons more.'

Other schools concluded, ‘The support staff felt the activities were good and thought provoking;' and ‘The activities were useful and did lend a sense of surprise to the proceedings.'

Like the staff, most pupils had a very limited or non-existent knowledge of the Muslim contribution to science. The Muslim pupils themselves gained enormously from their participation. As one teacher in a Muslim school wrote, ‘All pupils developed a sense of pride in the culture they came from (Islamic) and the opportunity for personalised learning maximised each child's progress'. Another was even more glowing in the pupil praise in their impact on pupils section:

‘Pupils thoroughly enjoyed the activity as they used the data logging and light sensors in the investigation. They were also surprised by the fact that idea of capsules existed about 1000 years ago. They found the contribution of Muslim scientists very interesting and they knew very little about Muslim scientists and their scientific developments. Pupils were pleasantly surprised that these modern day inventions actually existed around 1000 years ago and that different scientists of different nationalities were involved in developing scientific ideas.'

4. Outcomes from CUSP

The outcomes of the project have pointed the way forward for the work of FSTC and its partners and we are now to develop further resources in other subject areas. We have learnt that:

  • The ‘1001 inventions‘ book and teachers' pack provide ideal materials to support schools in their introduction of the new Key Stage Science programmes of study. They significantly enhance understanding and awareness of the key concept of cultural understanding and resonate well with young British Muslim pupils. Their optimum usage is probably as part of a wider understanding within a cross curricular framework. Perhaps most importantly these resources have great potential to help promote community cohesion if contextually set preferably with examples drawn form other cultures and faiths.
  • It is clear that the thousand years of missing history refers to the period that is commonly referred to as the Muslim Civilisation. In many ways we are stuck with this nomenclature but there are benefits to this approach as the population that needs to be brought into the community cohesion agenda as much as any other is Muslim.
  • We need to build on the start that we have made but further contextualise this heritage with what went before and what is happening now.

5. Concluding Remarks and Recommendations

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Figure 11: Activity sheet from The Teachers' Pack brochure, p. 11.

1. We all at times lose perspective of what is important to us as a society; how we are all interdependent and how diverse peoples and cultures around the world all share with us the same golden thread of civilisation.

2. One such major perspective missing from our European societies today is a clear understanding of the thread of shared history, civilisation and common values, between world faiths and cultures.

3. Specifically, for various historical reasons, the record of the Muslim-led contributions to science, technology and civilisation have been expunged from the civilisation narrative and rarely appears accurately in reference or textbooks.

4. A practical reason why this lack of perspective and awareness has existed is the absence of accessible user-friendly content and resources on the Muslim contribution, both in our educational institutions and in the mainstream society.

5. Based on the information available, people in the UK and overseas, until recently, could legitimately ask: What Muslim contributions?

Very few people, for example, are aware that:

  • The first university was established by Fatima Al-Fihri, a Muslim Female, in Fez Morocco, year 841.
  • The first Health and Safety Executive Officer was Al-Shiffa, a Muslim lady who reported directly to the Caliph Omar.
  • The spectacles we wear to improve our sight is a Muslim invention, the fountain pen, the soap, the camera, algebra, the surgical catgut, the six cylinder reciprocating pump, the child benefit, are but a few Muslim inventions that affect our daily life.

6. This situation is happily now changing and a much of the credit for a renewed popularisation of Muslim Heritage in the mainstream of society, goes to the British organisation: The Foundation of Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC).

7. Based in Manchester, FSTC has built an organisation that has researched, edited and presented a huge amount of relevant historical content, in a popular format, making it available through the internet and publications globally.

8. The 1001 Inventions Exhibition that was launched in the House of Commons week 13-17 October 2008, exhibiting exclusively for Parliamentarians, has already proved itself a popular attraction in cities across the UK. Additional versions of the exhibits will soon be touring exhibitions in Europe, the US and Middle East.

9. The EU Governments should welcome this excellent British unique educational project that fills an important gap in our knowledge and understanding of Muslim civilisation and which also demonstrates the inter-connectivity of all our different faiths and cultures.

10. In combination with other FSTC projects like the 1001 Inventions book, teachers' resource and the pilot schools project, jointly with the QCA, in adapting Cultural Dimensions into the England's National Curriculum, we can see positive ways for the EU to develop a cohesive and comfortable society where we acknowledge the strengths of all the traditions that make up the modern EU.

11. The EU and UK now has a large Muslim population and it is important that we have more projects like 1001 Inventions, to open the doors to increased connectivity and to widen the perspectives of all communities in our society.

12. Research from many sources has led to the conclusion that a major reason for alienation of many young Muslim Europeans is lack of clear identity and a major reason for this is a lack of positive Muslim role models. In this context, the 1001 Inventions Exhibition, together with FSTC researched content on Muslim Heritage, offers access to some positive role models, pioneers, who over many centuries contributed positively to human progress.

13. It is important for us to note and recognise that the majority of people behind the progress in science, technology and civilisation were faith-inspired Muslims who chose to express their religiousness through their important work to improve the quality of life in the societies they lived in.

14. We need to acknowledge positive aspects of the heritage of Muslim Europeans such as these and encourage more young people to become contributors to society in many more constructive ways.

15. The 1001 Invention Exhibition is a chance for EU Parliamentarians to familiarise themselves with the inter-connectivity of world heritages that highlights examples of Muslims working in co-operation with other faiths, in harmony, to progress the human condition.

* Chairman, Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation, UK.

** Ian Fenn, Head, Burnage Media Art College, Manchester, UK; Director of FSTC's Curriculum Enrichment Program.

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