Islam, Science and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Islam, Science and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Two decades into the 21st century, and throughout most of the world the influence of technology is on the rise. AI, Cryptocurrency and the Metaverse seem to be the future of our interactions, our commerce, our employment and our entertainment… the list is not exhaustive. Of course, through these, we hope to be able to salvage if not remedy our climate and environment, our integrity in governance, trade and justice, and opportunities for the economic well-being for all in our societies.

What is clear at the moment is that the developments in science leave little room for religious doctrine. The certainty of the material world gives us hard data that can inform root causes, symptoms and solutions, which itself can be critiqued and disproved as we research and understand more. This is a far cry from the blind belief – without evidence – in metaphysical constructs that everyday religion purports. The evidence points to aliens, after all, and if there really was a God, how could He allow all this strife and discrimination in society?

What is not well-known is that not only is the foundation of many of today’s scientific developments and technologies were established by Muslim scholars centuries ago, but its development was driven to support religious compliance. In fact, the Quran instructs us, “Only a party from each group should march forth, leaving the rest to gain religious knowledge then enlighten their people when they return…” (Quran 9:122). In compliance with the Quran injunctions, a group stayed in the lands through which they travelled, and established schools through which to learn local language and culture. This led to several important contributions to science. On one part, there emerged dedicated researchers. On another, as Muslims travelled to other civilizations throughout the world, their learnings were all translated into Arabic, copies of which were sent back to centers of learning in Madinah, Baghdad or Egypt. This resulted in a compilation of world knowledge at the time – which fed further progress.

As Islam expanded beyond the borders of the Arabian peninsula in every direction – east towards Asia, north into Europe, west and south into Africa, they faced a problem. A Muslim is required to pray 5 times per day, facing the Kaaba in Makkah, regardless of where in the world he/she is. As the Muslims moved into foreign territory, they needed to geo-locate the Kaaba so that they can fulfill their prayer obligations. Hence the need to develop on existing and available knowledge of astronomy. That had embedded its own problem. We can’t track what we cannot see. Enter ibn Haytham with his developments – first in the scientific method, then in optics, and further in astronomy, to propel increased and ongoing accuracy in ensuring proper worship is established.

In similar ways, many of the discoveries bore its own problems, and required its own supporting body of knowledge. A frequently studied example is that of Muhammad Al-Khawarizmi (of the Darul Hikma in Baghdad in 820 AD), the man who developed not only the concept of algorithms, but relatedly in his work is credited with the invention of Algebra (hisab al-jabr wal muqtabala or calculations of completion and reduction). Or Jabir Ibn Hayyan Al-Azdi in his pioneering works in chemistry and modern pharmacy. Or Ibn Khaldun in the formalization of Sociology and History… the Islamic Golden Era was characterized by revolutionary scientific developments that positively impacted human quality of life.

That era yielded to the emergence of the industrialized west, and in that transition was lost a unifying religious ethic that steered the direction of development. Quality of life for the population was reduced over time to quality of life for the owners of capital, the manipulation of natural resources for profit, and the rise of the materialist, then secular paradigms. Today, we see development for its own sake, and the absence of a central guiding ethic. In fact, very unlike Islamic paradigm, it seems as if religion is seen as the preceding stage to a progressive scientific society. Beliefs in myths and legends, superstitions are all explained by physiological labels that we don’t understand well but are aggressively researching. To not accept this is to be holding back progress. But religion and science are not zero-sum, and both can co-exist and even synergize to unlock human progress far beyond what we might think possible.

Which brings us to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an age where different new technologies are “fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human.” We don’t exactly know the extent of change in our everyday lives that technology will usher. We know much of the transformation would be gradual (although occurring in faster cycles) across different areas, amplifying the need for continuous learning of developments that matter to us, and result in lifestyles that are driven by commitment to causes, alongside loyalty to our favorite brands.

Ultimately, the post-modern society that unfolds bears the potential to bring quality of life more closely aligned with Islamic values and belief systems. A knowledge-driven society powered by critical-thinking, self-regulating actors, focused on the naturally occurring renewable or bio-friendly resources even as we strive as a society to balance what is more equitable with equity and rewards – echoes hauntingly of the Islamic Golden Era and the civilization of that time. A focus on justice as the happy medium between equity and equality would find significant calibration already defined in an Islamic way of life.

But there is a difference. Past iterations had a unifying, central ethic that was ultimately the responsibility of the Caliph – himself accountable for his every action to an All-Knowing, and thankfully All-Merciful God on a Day of Judgement. Today’s fragmentation of ethical perspectives, however, and the perpetuation of relativist morality can steer developments into very different directions – maybe beyond just this planet.

The future is poised to look very different from the present, and maybe unrecognizable from the past. Whatever the resulting lifestyles and ethical codes that emerge to regulate our action and our interaction, as Muslims we are reminded in the Quran of a reward for “Those who believe, and do good, and establish regular prayer, and regular charity…” (Quran 2:277). And this conduct would transcend any industrial revolution.

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