The diary of a Saudi man, currently living in the United Kingdom, where the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment.

In Memory of the lives of 15 Makkah Schoolgirls, lost when their school burnt down on Monday, 11th March, 2002. The Religious Police would not allow them to leave the building, nor allow the Firemen to enter.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Progress, or the lack of it 

Reading the comments from Sue and TheOldJew and others about Moorish Spain, and what has or has not happened since then, I was reminded of a trip I made to Spain some years ago.

We Saudis are always reminded of the Arab and Islamic past in Spain, because of the shopping malls and districts in our cities called Andalucia, Granada, Alhambra (Al Hamra), and so on. So I always wanted to go there, and one day, the opportunity arose. I really enjoyed Spain because it had a summer climate similar to home, but the whole place was much more relaxed. I didn't like the coastal regions much, but the interior had a wealth of history that the Spaniards had actually conserved rather than bulldozed.

The place that most impressed me was Cordoba. In the 10th Century, this city was the intellectual capital of Europe. And in and around the Mesquite, the reason is obvious.

The Mesquite is the original Mosque, huge and impressive. Built inside it, in later centuries, is the equally impressive Cathedral. To one side of it, is what used to be the Jewish Quarter.

In the 10th Century in Cordoba, Muslim, Jew and Christian rubbed along together, not only tolerating each other, but teaching each other and learning from each other. There were no petty squabbles about pigs or Muezzin calls or Menorah or statues of Mary or people wearing skullcaps or crosses. These guys were in the business of pure and applied learning, big-time. It was the place to be, in Europe. And I don't believe it's a coincidence that the three cultures and traditions were there, side by side. Where they rubbed against each other, just like the oyster, great pearls of learning arose.

Sadly it didn't last. The Moors got pushed back across the Mediterranean in the late 1400's. The Jews made themselves scarce around the time of the Inquisition. Others may be able to correct my historical knowledge here, or fill in the gaps. But you get the general picture.

However, in the six following centuries, the Jews and the Christians seem to have done OK for themselves. They had a Reformation, and an Enlightenment, and an Industrial Revolution. They produced giants of learning, arts, exploration, science, and industry. They made Europe, North America, and many other places thru the world, truly modern and amazing places.

Meanwhile, what of the poor Arabs, what have they achieved? Well, as many people are quick to point out, not a lot. And sadly, that is true. Less, even, than those guys on the Indian sub-continent, whom we seem to look down on. So what went wrong?

Well, you can take, for example, a bright Saudi lad, send him abroad to college, and you can bring back an engineer or doctor or computer man, every bit as good as his western counterpart. Sadly, not nearly enough of them, and sadly, we don't do the same for our young women. However, the point is, as a nation, we're not stupid, and we're not inherently lazy. And there's no lack of opportunity. We've got world-class buildings, infrastructure, chemical technology, water desalination, etc. etc. So we've had the opportunity to be a part of these developments. Except that we weren't. The Westerners had all the fun, took our money, said "Thanks very much", and disappeared, along with their expertise. At the same time, the average Saudi male would ideally like to work in a bank, or the Civil Service. So there's a huge attitude problem. We've been content to buy ready-made technology rather than the learning that produces it. Meanwhile, we've been content to muddle along as a 16th Century feudal theocracy, but to buy in all the technology that makes life comfortable. We've been, and still are, on a self-satisfied and cosy road to nowhere.

As an example, look at this article.

Use Modern Science for Sighting the Crescent

Today is the 1st of Ramadan, our Holy month. Ramadan Mubarak to all. How do we measure the start of the month? By looking for the first slight sliver of the crescent of the moon, as it appears. And since the earliest times, we've used the Mark 1 eyeball to look for it, with all the problems that entails.

Sheikh Abdul Muhsen Al-Obaikan, adviser at the Ministry of Justice, a member of the Shoura Council and a well-known religious scholar, has questioned the method being used by the Kingdom’s Supreme Judiciary Council to determine the sighting of the Ramadan crescent by using the naked eye.
In an interview with Arab News, Al-Obaikan said using the naked eye to determine the beginning and end of the holy month....was primitive.

I'm sure we'd all agree there.

He questioned the logic of still relying on two witnesses to go out in the desert and see the moon, taking upon themselves the responsibility of the fasting of millions of Muslims.

Absolutely. So what's your proposal for improvement?

He said he had no idea why the Kingdom’s Supreme Judiciary Council continued to use the primitive method of determining the beginning and end of Ramadan by the naked eye, despite the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars saying that it was OK to use telescopes for the purpose.

Telescopes? Guys, telescopes have been around since Galileo built one in 1610! That's 300 years ago! You're three centuries behind the game!

So this is our scholar's idea of "Modern Science"! In an age of atomic clocks and satellites and radio-astronomy observations, we could mathematically determine when the new moon will appear, down to the last micron and the last microsecond.

However our scholar doesn't think that we are at all backward in our use of science. In fact he's very pleased with himself. He even takes a swipe at Western Christianity.

“Modern science is always aligned with Islam,” Al-Obaikan said. “Unlike Christianity where the church in the Middle Ages refuted scientific discoveries and rejected them, we as Muslims are asked to embrace science,” he said, adding that, “Islam and science are not two separate things. In fact they work side by side.”

That's one of those statements that just takes your breath away. You've got to admire this guy, he says it with complete conviction and a straight face. He probably even believes it. He refers to what happened way back in the time of Galileo, the same Galileo who first made the telescope, the same telescope that he's now proposing to start using 300 years later, and then says that this demonstrates how Islam and "Modern Science" work side by side. This guy is one class act. I'm not going to play him at Poker.

For those who wonder why we haven't moved on since those happy days in Cordoba, maybe I've just provided a clue.

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