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Technology

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Technology

    Between 900 and 1300 , science and technology thrived in the Islamic world. Arab and other Muslim scholars made major advances in fields such as mathematics, engineering, and optics, and various states carried out large-scale irrigation and water supply projects. After 1300 , however, a number of factors combined to stifle scientific progress, shifting the balance of technological power to Europe. In recent years, Islamic countries have made efforts to expand scientific research and instruction. However, many obstacles continue to block the spread of Western-style science in the Muslim world.

    The Decline of Muslim Science.

    A major blow to Muslim science occurred when the Mongols, a tribal people from Central Asia, invaded the Middle East in the 1200s and 1300s. The invasions destroyed Muslim cities in present-day Iran and Iraq, posing a severe setback to learning. Around the same time, religious and intellectual conservatism within Muslim society restrained scholarship in the sciences. Over the next few centuries, science and scholarship advanced in Europe. At the same time, they stagnated in the Ottoman Empire. A lack of knowledge of European languages blocked the flow of new ideas between Europe and the Arab world. When the French general Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798 , bringing with him a group of scholars seeking knowledge about the region, it became clear just how far behind Muslims had fallen in the areas of science and technology.

    The Expansion of Technology.

    In the late 1800s, Western technologies—such as railroads, steamships, and telephones—spread rapidly throughout the Middle East. In 1868 Egypt became home to the Suez Canal, the greatest engineering feat of the time. However, much of this new technology came from European companies. Governments in the region were content to purchase foreign technology rather than develop their own. They made little effort to help their people learn how to design new machines, adapt existing ones, or even maintain the ones they imported.

    The first Western-style technical college in the Middle East, the Syrian Protestant College, opened in Beirut in 1868 . Similar schools soon appeared in other major cities in the Islamic world. Although some wealthy Muslim families sent their children to these schools, they catered mostly to Europeans living in the region and to members of minority groups. The new universities did, however, make progress in one major area: they led the way in translating major scientific works into Arabic. Scientific societies also sprang up in several Middle Eastern cities to support newly formed communities of scientists.

    Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, the Islamic world showed little resistance to the spread of Western science and technology. Middle Eastern schools were quick to accept and teach new discoveries, especially in the field of medicine. During the early 1900s, new universities with a focus on medicine and engineering were founded in Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and Sudan. However, most nations of the Middle East did not make mastery of science and technology a major goal at this time. The one exception was Turkey, where president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk launched an ambitious program to expand industry and engineering education.

    In the mid-1900s, many new independent nations emerged in the Muslim world. The governments of these nations were expected to do far more than previous governing powers had done. World War II ( 1939 – 1945 ) had brought to light the importance of advances in such areas as communications, transportation, and public health. Islamic nations have had mixed results in their efforts to bring these advances to their people.

    Barriers to Science.

    There are several barriers to scientific progress in the Islamic world. These obstacles do not stem from Islam itself, as most Muslim scientists see no conflict between their faith and modern science. Cultural practices, however, have limited progress, mainly by discouraging women from studying science and engineering. Concerns about Western influence pose another threat to technology. Governments in many Muslim nations have persecuted scientists because of their attempts to travel abroad or to maintain contacts with foreigners. Language can also be a barrier because much scientific literature has never been published in Arabic. Adapting computers to the Arabic language also poses a difficulty.

    One major problem is the lack of support for research. Most universities focus on teaching rather than research, and many of them lack necessary funds and equipment. Many students who study science and engineering at these schools eventually leave their countries to pursue more advanced studies in other parts of the world. Some of them remain abroad, and others seek jobs in the oil-rich nations of the Middle East, leaving other Muslim nations—such as Egypt, Sudan, and Pakistan—with a shortage of qualified scientists.

    Government offices in some countries conduct research in the areas of agriculture, health, and public works, but these facilities tend to have limited budgets. They also lack ties to universities or private companies that could aid them. State-owned firms in nations such as Algeria and Syria have a poor record of conducting research and spreading the discoveries they do make. Most such firms are poorly managed and the people in charge are rarely held responsible for their actions.

    The record of private companies is not much better. Most local firms still prefer to import technology rather than do their own research or cooperate with other scientists in universities and governments. Multinational corporations operating in the region usually conduct research in Europe or North America. Oil companies in the Middle East are responsible for some research, but most of it has been on a small scale.

    Opportunities for Progress.

    Most nations in the Muslim world agree on the most important areas for research. These include solar energy, farming techniques suited to desert lands, desalination (removing salt from seawater), and creating chemicals from oil. A few countries have made efforts to cooperate on research in these areas, but such efforts have been slow to spread. Instead, most work in the field of technology continues to take place within individual nations. Pakistan, for example, has invested government resources into various forms of research, including a nuclear energy program. Indonesia has developed an aerospace industry, and Turkey has made advances in agriculture, textiles, and the study of water resources.

    One major area in which progress has occurred throughout the Islamic world is communications technology. Cell phones have grown in popularity, expanding telephone access to rural areas. Cell phones have an advantage over traditional phones because they require much less effort and expense to install. Use of the Internet is also growing rapidly in major cities and population centers. Internet cafes give Muslims access to news and viewpoints other than those provided by local media, which are often controlled by the government. However, in some nations the government itself is the sole Internet provider, with the power to censor information it does not wish its citizens to see. Satellite television stations such as Al-Jazeera also provide Muslims in the Middle East with alternative sources of information. See also Jazeera, al-; Radio and Television; Science.

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