Sultans of Science: Showcasing Exhibits from Islam’s Golden Age

June 3, 2010 by  


By K.S. Ramkumar| Arab News; Ramkumar@arabnews.com

Sultans of Science is a traveling exhibition that is currently in Canada, which exemplifies Islam’s great contribution to modern science. The exhibition, which opened on May 19 and continues until Sept. 7, currently takes place at the TELUS World of Science center in Edmonton.

This is the second time “Sultans of Science” is being showcased in Canada. Earlier, the exhibition was held at the Ontario Science Centre where it drew record crowds. The exhibition will be at the Edmonton venue for three months and will travel to another North American venue.

“The exhibition is focused on science and technology and is non-political and non-religious,” says Ludo Verheyen, the CEO of MTE Studios. MTE Studios is a specialized consultancy firm based in Dubai that focuses on “themed architecture and interactive learning experiences.” It recently signed a contract with TELUS World of Science to showcase the global traveling exhibition at Edmonton in Canada.

“We want to create an awareness of our indebtedness to a civilization, which was once the greatest in the world, and which is undoubtedly part of our heritage,” says Verheyen. “History textbooks refer to events when Europe slumbered in a period which is commonly known as the Dark Ages, but few people are aware of the tremendous contributions Muslim scholars made in science and technology during the Golden Age of the Islamic World (700 to 1,700 C.E.) toward today’s technology and society.”

The civilization of Islam’s Golden Age thrived on seeking knowledge that led to inventions, discoveries and prosperity. Its mathematicians created the algebra and algorithms that would enable the development of computers. Its doctors examined the body, undertook operations with medical instruments, which are very similar to today’s ones, and found new cures for diseases. Its astronomers observed the heavens, developed astronomical tools to calculate their position on earth and paved the way for satellites and travel in space. Its engineers, like Al Jazari — who is regarded as the father of modern mechanical engineering — developed ingenious devices such as the first robot.

“We trust, however, that the exhibition may trigger constructive debate on the importance of building bridges between civilizations, keeping knowledge alive and ensuring that it is passed on to others rather than be censored and threatened to be wiped out,” says Verheyen.

Numerous historians and research houses conducted the study for the exhibition and an independent panel reviewed the content. “As with any exhibition of this kind, it takes time to collate all the relevant research information. What is apparent, however, is that many of the manuscripts were hidden away or destroyed,” says Verheyen.

While we may all believe that Leonardo Da Vinci invented the flying machine, there was a person in the ninth century in Muslim Spain who not only made a glider, but also flew it successfully. The explorers section of the exhibition also tells the story of Ibn Battuta — the Marco Polo of the Islamic world — who traveled for 28 years from his hometown Tangiers in Morocco, to as far as China. His diary tells us about the daily life, trading and interesting stories from the beginning of the 15th century.

In the explorers cluster, the story of the great Muslim Chinese Admiral, Zeng He, with the massive fleet of treasure ships that he discovered the world with six centuries ago is told. The Chinese expected nothing from other nations other than respect, sharing of knowledge and the exchange of gifts. When the Chinese emperor died and a new dynasty came to the fore, China turned into an introverted society. China has now made the choice to share its talents and ideas with the world and obtain insights and knowledge from the world again.

The exhibit cluster on fine technology incorporates interactive exhibits on trick devices. Stories such as that of Aladdin and his magic lamp were brought to life when ninth-century inventors such as the Banu Musa brothers tricked each other with science demonstrations. What appeared to be impossible was easily explained by the ingenious science and technology behind the trick. This way of informal learning complies with the principles applied in today’s science centers.
There are also little stories of the origins of products in our daily life such as soap, perfume and coffee, which were discovered by a Muslim herdsman who observed that his cattle became hyperactive after eating the beans of a certain plant.

According to Verheyen, MTE studios was assigned to design a large themed mall named the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai about four years ago by Nakheel, one of the world’s largest and most innovative real estate developers in Dubai. The research of the 14th century architecture of Muslim Spain, North Africa, Egypt, India, Persia and China, revealed a most interesting image of an old manuscript depicting a life-size Indian elephant with an Arabic castle on top and various sculpted figurines and animals such as Chinese serpents.

“We visualized this to become a unique sculptural element for one of the courts within the mall, and Nakheel commissioned us to reconstruct this sculpture. To our delight we discovered that this beautiful sculpture was, in fact, a clock an ingenious device named, as per the manuscript, the Elephant Water Clock and designed by 14th century Muslim engineer, Al Jazari,” says Verheyen.

Studying the mechanics of Al Jazari’s inventions prompted MTE Studios to research more about the inventions, innovations and discoveries of that era in the Muslim world. This eventually led to the birth of the iconic exhibition “1,000 Years of Knowledge Rediscovered,” which is still on permanent display at the mall.

“The idea was fully supported by Nakheel when they saw the potential of the project,” says Verheyen. He added that at the launch of the exhibition in April 2006, dignitaries, historians and CEOs from major science centers around the world proposed the idea of taking the exhibition and the knowledge global, encouraging MTE studios to develop the global traveling exhibition: “Islamic Science Rediscovered.”

MTE Studios has also played a major role in the design, manufacture and installation of numerous interactive exhibits at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey. Recently, the multidisciplinary team delivered a turnkey museum on Islamic Science for King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.

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