The Concept of the Laboratory in the Muslim World

“At first glance the man who peers for long, long hours through a telescope at the stars, who gets stiff and cold and often discouraged trying to get a few better observations than actual circumstances at the moment permit, such a man will seem a `peculiar’ sort of fellow. In general, the kinds of observation that a physicist makes, measuring little marks or the spot of light on a scale controller by an electric meter, or, nowadays, the pages and pages of numbers typed out for him by a machine, all these seem abstruse and forbidding to the casual eye.

To tell the truth, there are times when this or any kind of work seems dull, exhausting, even fruitless. When, after days of trying, you still can’t find the leak in the vacuum system, or when, after you patiently have fitted an elaborate piece of apparatus together, an oscilloscope suddenly picks up a lot of meaningless ‘noise’ from some unknown source, or when you have been working all days and all night on a series of measurements that must from some reason be completed at once, then of course the work is unattractive. The question to be answered does not concern the nature of such discouragement, but rather why any sane man would choose to be spending his time in the pursuit of experimental physics, even when everything is going just right, his apparatus performing as planned, and he can do his work seated in a comfortable chair. [1]

This passage from an accomplished experimental physicist provides some insight into the life of an experimenter. The process of experimental inquiry forms the pinnacle of scientific inquiry. The act of designing an experiment is a creative unfolding of human inspiration; the quantification of noise and uncertainties is a symbol of scientific humility and an objective realization of one’s limitations; the concerted teaming up of multiple observers in a coordinated fashion is an example of teamwork and cooperation while the patient arduous process of measurement hones tolerance. Nowhere is the focused search for the objective reality of our material surroundings and the innate desire to control and contrive, more pronounced than in the benches of a laboratory, or the hallways of a particle accelerator. If one were to aspire for a culture of science in the Islamic world, a coherent strategy for the development of an infrastructure, technology, and human and material resources for experiments is a pre-requisite. In this essay, I attempt to highlight some ingredients required for the nurturing of such a culture providing some interesting examples from the history of scientific inquiries in the Muslim world undertaken in the experimental realm.

International cooperation

One of the foremost and most distinguished Muslim chemist, Jabir Ibn Hayyan, who maintained a laboratory near Kufa’s Damascus Gate, wrote,

“Scientists delight not in the abundance of material, they rejoice only in the excellence of their experimental methods. [2]

We have come a long way since Ibn Hayyan’s times operating, in all likelihood, a domestic laboratory. A new world order has been created marked by the melting away of geographic borders. There is an ever increasing emphasis on international collaboration and diverse nationalities intermix in large technology-driven consortiums. In the 21st century, scientific breakthroughs are indeed inspired by sophisticated theories but enabled by high precision instruments, laboratories have become dedicated architectural edifices, and far too complicated and expensive for single individuals or departments to operate. For example, in the field of physics, we’ve seen the blossoming of fascinating ideas in quantum materials, quantum computers, the search for planets that harbour promise for sustaining life, realizing the quest for the “God’s particle”, and the detection of gravitational waves. Similarly, in the discipline of life sciences and human health, genetic editing has enabled the creation of healthy human embryos and provided novel and far-reaching first steps towards the design of synthetic robustness against disease, artificial organs, and efficient targeted mechanisms of medicine. We must realize that these all of these breakthroughs are enabled by an unprecedented pattern of scientific inquiry that assumes that the playing field for scientific inquiry is democratic, egalitarian and truly global.

Another levelling process is seen in the emergence of a global workforce of techrepreneurs who are also democratizing the scientific discovery and innovation process inside a global medium, and thus creating a scientific citizenry that cuts across all ethnic, geographic and religious boundaries. In this respect, for the first time we are witnessing a complete unfurling of the notion that “science is a common heritage of mankind” in terms of not only what is being investigated, but also how it is being conducted. The scientific inquiry process has become truly international.

For example, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) jointly located in the small mountainous state of Switzerland and France has now become a ‘united nations’ for science with a thriving representation from around the world. Thirty-five nations of the world have joined hands in mimicking the stellar fusion process on earth, at the ITER thus promising to provide a never-ending, carbon-free source of clean energy to future generations. The Ligo Scientific Collaboration comprises about a hundred institutions from 18 countries and is on the expedition of detecting and harnessing gravitational waves for a new paradigm of observational astronomy, elucidating fundamental principles of general relativity. Similarly, the IceCube is the world’s largest neutrino observatory where 12 countries collaborate in an underground laboratory at the South Pole searching for elusive neutrinos. These multi-national initiatives are anchored not in the technologically superior west, but within emerging economies as well. For example, the world’s largest array of radio telescopes (the Square Kilometre Array) under construction in South Africa shatters the pessimistic myth of a continent that is backward and impoverished. These international science missions are nourished by never ending circulatory movements of transitory scientists. These projects are championed by some national governments, fuelled sometimes by national egos, hailed as sources of inspiration and prestige, and are of course motivated by the scientific community itself.

Clearly if similar scientific missions are to be implanted into the Muslim world, a new political and diplomatic fabric is required. Even today a large section of the Muslim world is fraught with political instability, chaos and war, and seems to be locked in a never ending spiral of violence and unrest. These are indeed regrettable circumstances but conditions for insulated scientific collaboration and communication can be still be fostered by concerted political and diplomatic movements spearheaded in by scientific academies. At the crossroads between national governments and the scientific academe, these inter-governmental networks should be entrusted with a singular task of providing this safe passage for scientific cooperation. Open door travel policies encouraging scientific and cultural exchange are undoubtedly a pre-requisite for establishing an environment conducive for cooperation.

In the face of impervious boundaries and diplomatic barricades, there are also some resounding counter examples in the Muslim world. A flagship initiative, albeit in its nascent stage, that can be branded an exception to the rule is the Synchrotron-light for Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) which is a start-of-the-art experimental facility for conducting frontier research with ultra-bright X-rays. This endeavour is an important litmus case for enhancing scientific partnership both within the Muslim comity as well as between the east and the west.

The international pattern of scientific endeavour in the present times has redefined the meaning of ‘brain drain’ and ‘brain circulation’ [3], and through the fusing of cultural barriers has re-enacted a new narrative for future historians of science as well as present-day statesmen and science policy makers. Would the Muslim nation-states, after the failed political ambitions of restoring glory in a neo-colonial world order, once again like to partake in this newly emerging global science mission, then there is the dire need to create diplomatic openness and the pooling of physical, material and human resources. Only with an open-door policy of welcoming talent from across borders can the Muslim nations expect to ride upon the next wave of scientific inquiry.

When viewed through the lens of history, there are indeed interesting examples of scientific cooperation between scientists within the very precincts of the Muslim comity, in Islam’s scientific heyday. For example, we know of coordinated observations of astronomical phenomena between groups of scientists working in different locations. Abu Rehan Al-Beruni (973–1048) and Abul-Wafa Buzjani’s coordinated observations of the lunar eclipse on 24 May, 997 in Baghdad and Kath presents a fascinating account of partnering for science [4].

In fact Al-Beruni’s biography is one of the numerous shining examples of a flourishing scientific career in the backdrop of incessant internecine wars for suzerainty and political chaos. Born in Kath on the banks of River Oxus under the Afrighid Dynasty, he emigrated to Rayy in 995 which was under the control of the Buyids. From Rayy, Al-Biruni, struck in abject poverty, moved to Bukhara and came under the patronage of the Samanid king Mansur ibn Nuh. Upon Mansur’s death in 999, the traveller-scientist found refuge in Jurjon and later with the Mamunid Dynasty in Gurganj in 1008. Finally he was taken prisoner by the Ghaznavids. As prisoner, he wrote the famous Tahdid al-Amakin (On the Determination of Coordinates of Cities) which describes his synchronous lunar observations with Buzjani. His subsequent sojourns in India and the voluminous studies that resulted in the form of Kitab al-Hind (The Book of India) are also well known.

Spiritual impetus

Such vicissitudes were the norm for scientists who, as investigators of the objective truth, were attracted by the regal patronage of the sciences often leading to the fomenting of large collaborative groups, or think-tanks of scientific endeavour. But this pattern was also deeply rooted in the Muslim consciousness that hailed a universality of purpose, transcending geography, and reminiscent of the universality of Tawhid, the Oneness itself. The Prophetic traditions of وَجُعِلَتْ لي الْأَرْضُ مَسْجِدًا وَطَهُورًا (‘and the earth has been made for me into a mosque and a clean place [to worship]’) and اطلِبُواالعِلم ولو بِاالصین (‘seek knowledge even as far as China’) incited a global quest of learning, both of the religious as well as worldly sciences, be it mathematics, engineering, medicine or the natural sciences. Often the acquisition and mastery of these sciences were inspired by scriptural injunctions to ponder into the handiwork of heavens, the purely legalistic and juristic requirements of finding the direction to qibla, prayer times and the need for administering justice and public benefit in the frantically expanding Islamic society in terms of provision of public services, transportation, healing the sick, predicting meteorological events, surveying of land, military objectives, collection of taxes, agriculture and provision of water. The quest also forayed into pure sciences with no evident utility whatsoever. What emerged was a truly cosmopolitan, thriving, liberal, pluralistic and cross-cultural pattern of conducting science of the highest order, unrivalled in its times.

The modern laboratory

Present day science probes deeper and more fundamental questions to the extent that a philosopher would stumble upon these questions as one of an “existential” nature. For example, almost 95% of the known universe is composed of dark matter or dark energy that cannot be investigated in the same manner as we delve into the known, luminous matter, the stuff galaxies, planets, mountains humans and insects are made of. Clearly these mysterious forms of matter and energy can only be “seen” through novel telescopes. Analogously, in the field of life science, the human brain is a complicated agglomerate of cells, a mélange of thousands of signalling routes that are energized in a seemingly inchoate algorithm and presents itself as one of the final unknown frontiers in human biology. Deciphering patterns of order within this vital citadel of human consciousness, seat of emotions and locus of neurological disorders also requires advances in engineering, robotics, microscopy and non-invasive measurements. The rule of thumb is that as more exotic and extreme questions are being asked, the more sophisticated and expensive the instruments of scientific discovery become.

Indigenization of equipment and tools

As we come face to face with these exotic inquiries, touching upon our fundamental stance as organisms situated in a vast universe, the most natural question to ask is who would build these instruments for inquiry! Sometimes these instruments are not stand-alone transitory gadgets but are magnificent structures which are housed inside giant architectural behemoths. The concept of the ‘laboratory’ ranges from small test beds often housed within science departments inside universities to giant majestic complexes comprising many interconnected buildings.

No doubt the laboratory is the test bed for science and differentiates science from blind dogma, disguised pseudo-science or the mental luxury of drawing room philosophers. It also connects the scientific edifice to the market place, commerce channels, trade routes, public service and to international relations. But a laboratory is not a warehouse of fancy gadgets imported from a western or Chinese manufacturer. Laboratories are not mere dungeons where secretive experimental verifications of known theories take place, they are open, accessible and democratic ecosystems for learning and innovation. They cannot be bought, but are cultivated. More than being producers, they are products of human endeavour.

Hence, there is the need for thriving support infrastructures where instruments could be built, adapted, maintained and repaired. One of the major bottlenecks in the Muslims world’s scientific enterprise is a lopsided reliance on importing capsuled, packaged instruments, no matter how expensive they are. With bureaucratic impasse, convoluted trade policies, embargos and sanctions, the mobility, installation and upkeep of instruments has remained a major challenge even if the financial resources were available. Therefore inside the Islamic world, the support of thriving laboratories equipped with craftsmen, technicians — the unsung heroes of the modern scientific environment, and the machines to carve the tools of scientific discovery is a crucial undertaking. There are three reasons we need to keep the role of instruments, equipment and the laboratory centre-stage in our discussions.

First, the instruments are not only a means to an end but reflect the vital symbiosis between ideas and tools that interpenetrates the scientific endeavour [5]. Thomas Kuhn’s idea that the birth of scientific revolutions is necessitated by paradigm shifts in scientific philosophy may only be partially correct [6]. The tools of scientific discovery — microscopes, telescopes, magnets, lasers, instrument building machines, and as Freeman Dyson indicates, the “sun, genome” and the “internet” [7] — are also harbingers of a democratic scientific progress. Being adept in science means being adept in scientific theorization as well as mastery in creating the technological and physical tools or instruments which enable the scientific process. The transfer of ideas and the creation of knowledge has been intimately linked with the transfer of technology and the contriving of instruments. No doubt, the National Academy of Engineering lists “engineering the tools of scientific discovery” as one of the grand challenges of 21st century civilization [8]. Hence a scientific revival stands on the foundations of strong instrument-building capabilities, nurtured inside an active laboratory environment.

Second, most Muslim countries have emerged from a colonial experience and are still inheritors of a compartmentalized segregation of polytechnic versus the elite educational system, the hand versus the mind, the mason versus the architect! Consequently the practical knowledge of dexterous creation has been relegated to lesser prestige vis-à-vis lofty theoretical sciences. We now understand that neither of them can work in isolation and it is essential that recognizing the overarching role of the laboratory in the development of the scientific culture, the balance is restored, immediately and effectively. The development of a strong technical cadre is essential for creating instruments that could be used as effective tools for teaching, or equipment for conducting frontier research. Recognition, glorification of roles, career mobility, monetary incentives and world-class trainings can instil verve into this profession.

Third, we must not also forget the possible destruction of laboratory infrastructure and the annihilation of the scientific community by wars and sanctions heaped upon the Muslim world, from within or from the outside. These possibilities are not mere figments of imagination but have actually devastated the scientific enterprise in the Muslim world. Sanctions and war, for example, decimated Iraqi science, which was supposed to be the proud inheritor of Baghdad’s Bait-ul-Hikmah and was considered to be amongst the most advanced in the Islamic world [9]. Science in Afghanistan and Syria is ravished by strife. In these circumstances, a reliance on important equipment remains an elusive dream. An international pool of resources comprising blue-prints of fabricating common scientific equipment with local resources, free mobility and training of technicians, establishment of workshops cognate with universities, awards for instrument developers, and open sharing of equipment between institutions can help address these challenges.

Tradition of instrument building

Luckily, the science and art of building instruments is not new to the Islamic civilization. There is no need for nihilist self-pity. It is well known that instrument making has enjoyed an exuberant tradition within the Islamic culture. Analog computing devices, astrolabes and armillary spheres, weather measuring stations, irrigator mechanisms, agricultural implements, mechanical robots and control systems, and chemical technology flourished unbounded within the Islamic empire. For a quick appreciation, of the creativity burgeoning in the Islamic lands, one needs to merely glance through the exquisite mechanical inventions described in Al-Jazari’s The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices or the Banu Musa brothers’ Kitab al-Hiyal (literally the ‘Book of Tricks’).

Guilds (called asnaf) for craftsmen, instrument-builders and artisans perfused the Islamic urban centres. The urban hubs in Cairo, Damascus and Lahore were organized around the profession of trades (aswaq or katrey) and organized hierarchies were established to license, certify, standardize and control the quality of instruments and artefacts produced. Most of these guilds operated as hereditary and familial institutions and were inspired by a golden tradition that exalted the status of the industrialized craftsman ان اللہ یحبُ المومن المحترِف (verily, Allah loves the skilled practitioner of the crafts, a tradition ascribed to the Holy Prophet peace be upon him). Many of these guilds intermingled with spiritual groups (Ibn Battuta’s akhi hospices in the fourteenth century Anatolia or the zawias in Safawid Iran) and sanctified their respective professions by tracing lineage to Ali Ibn Talib or Salman al-Farsi.

These private craftsmen operating as culturally indigenized guilds produced some of the most sophisticated scientific instruments of their times. I like to mention scientific instruments because their public utility and appreciation was limited, yet they were specialized gadgets operable and comprehensible by a thin veneer of elite scientists.

In this regard, astrolabes made in Lahore, where I live, stand out as the most advanced. According to R.T. Gunther [10], 54% of the world’s extant astrolabes were fabricated in Lahore. Four generations of expert metallurgists, trigonometers and astronomers, starting in Emperor Humayun’s reign (d 1556), and led by Muhammad Ibn Isa Asturlabi Humayuni, produced around a hundred astronomical instruments with metalworking techniques that would only reach Europe after two and a half centuries.

As Muslim societies emerged from their colonial experiences, these fine traditions of craftsmanship were gradually dying out. These workshops formed the private family laboratories that in addition to everyday business, were catering to the society’s technological and scientific needs. The metamorphosis of these family businesses to state-sponsored or waqf-enabled institutions did not take place as colonialism and the Industrial Revolution mustered its political and economic onslaught in Muslim societies, starting from the sixteenth centuries. Interestingly these guilds, far from state sponsorship, were often seen fomenting anti-authoritative sentiments [11].

The observatory

If we consider the ‘laboratory’ as a dedicated, institutionalized space for purely scientific pursuits, the space that most closely lives up to the definition in the Islamic world was the ‘observatory’. It brought together astronomers, mathematicians, geometers, physicians, engineers, craftsmen and technologists of the most ascendant calibre of their times. Three notable observatories were those set up in Maragha by Nasir ud-Din Tusi (1240), by Ulugh Beg in Samarqand (1421) and by Taqi-ud-Din in Istanbul (1577). A history of these laboratories is not only a lesson in scientific culture but also in social history.

A splendid first-hand and personalized account of the Samarqand observatory is provided by one of the most accomplished resident mathematicians, Jamshed al-Kashi in his two letters written to his father, demonstrably another connoisseur of mathematical sciences [12]. Mentioning his exalted privilege earned through solving hitherto unsolvable problems, in a beautiful blend of conceit and humility, al-Kashi provides the statistic of 10,000 students, 500 of them studying math, 63 scientists, the availability of 24 mustakhrij (calculators) and recounts the iterative process of building more precise and accurate sundials and gnomons. There was a constant influx of teachers and students to and from the Samarqand School, competition among the teachers was intense, Faculty recruitment was rigorous and scientific discussions permeated the precincts. There was no dichotomy between theoretical and the practical, the scientists were equally versed in both. The son of a Yusuf Hallaj after navigating through the learning centres in Egypt, Syria and Anatolia flaunted unusual-looking scientific gadgets he had brought to the observatory but were analyzed and explained by al-Kashi with an air of trivialization. Curriculums were not regimented and largely determined by the mentors and guides. Problems were cast in descriptive languages, they were openly discussed with students and often posed as challenges. I am also fascinated reading how in the fifteenth century scientific tools were being used as assistive pedagogy implements: “Some students did not understand. [So] an astrolabe was brought, and I made [my point] clear to them.”

Laboratories and teaching of science

The inner conduct on the scientific underpinnings revealed by al-Kashi paints a superb picture of the scientific life in a premier institution where physical and intellectual capital combined, into a holistic laboratory, and shaped the pursuit of scientific knowledge. In the modern times, such a vibrant laboratory can infuse a culture of scientific inquiry but there can also important ramifications for the way science is taught and communicated to learners and the society at large. Labs can be used as potent vehicle for enhancing the quality and depth of learning and for the building of exhibits for the communication of science to the public. No doubt western scholarship recognizes that a large number of laboratories developed in conjunction with science museums.

Science teaching worldwide, but in the developing and Islamic world in particular, remains a dull, insipid and boring exercise. The malaise of ossified scientific instruction in the Muslim world is marked by the almost non-existence of meaningful practical work. Laboratories comprise dated equipment. Most of this was imported in the University’s heyday or when the labs were first established. There is generally no support mechanism for maintenance, technicians are either poorly trained or have precipitated into a comfortable lull and if funds are provided, the emphasis is on buying rather than building, acquiring rather than creating. This aversion to manufacturing the tools for science or laboratory instruction leads to a never ending spiral of complacency, dullness and scientific conservatism. Consequently, laboratory practice transforms to the dormant viewing of a black box instrument operable by only a few, while students observe from a distance. There is no inference and interpretation of data. Ultimately, this boring laboratory necessitates that the teaching of lab courses is altogether consigned to uninterested teachers or their assistants who lack any training or motivation. Philosophically, practical work in the ‘(e)laboratory’ is confined to the literal meaning of the workspace: to ‘elaborate’ known scientific principles, leaving little room for exploration and open-ended inquiry without any precise goal in mind.

Almost all studies lamenting the backwardness of the scientific enterprise in the Muslims worlds use established numeric metrics, but this approach of gauging scientific progress in late blooming societies has a number of pitfalls. The disproportionate emphasis on impact-factor, research publications, clamoring for university rankings has also resulted in demotivation for improving the classroom experience and especially laboratory teaching. These activities go unrewarded and unregistered.

However, there are also growing signs of reawakening and bold experimentation. With the advent of integrated science and engineering programs, liberal dissemination of online courseware including massive online open courses, incorporation of design oriented project based learning and amalgamation of innovation and entrepreneurship, new challenges and opportunities appear on the learning landscape. The Muslim academia can immediately take a jump-start in innovative teaching strategies and in this respect, laboratories can play important roles as nurseries for creativity, scientific inquiry and invention.

In the end, I like to state the obvious. Growing an experimental culture of science in adverse circumstances requires extraordinary inventiveness and creativity. Blind importation of work-habits, attitudes and reliance on systems that are taken for granted in the scientifically developed waste cannot always work. The celebrated chemist C.V. Raman in India set up the Raman Research Institute aimed at developing an indigenous home base for world class research. The biographer mentions Raman’s out-of-the-box approach for establishing his initial experiments [13]:

“For the first year at the Raman Research Institute there was no electricity, but that did not deter Raman from carrying out several beautiful optical experiments with sunlight, a few lenses and a pair of polaroids. He considered a beam of sunlight as the best source, and in Bangalore there was no shortage of blue sky and bright sun. A manually-operated heliostat, kept in operation by voice communication, produced astonishing results.”

Al-Beruni writes about another scientist Abu-Sahl Al-Kuhi who flourished in the tenth century [14]:

“Sharaf-al-Dawla ordered Abu-Sahl Al-Kuhi to make a new observation. So he constructed in Baghdad a house whose lowest part is a segment of a sphere, of diameter twenty-five cubits. And whose centre is the ceiling of the house at an aperture which admits the rays of the sunto trace the diurnal parallels.”

[1] “Mathematical Aspects of Physics: An Introduction”, Francis Bitter, Anchor Books, New York 1963.

[2] “Makers of Chemistry”, Eric John Holmyard, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1931.

[3] “Global mobility: science on the move”, R.V. noorden, Nature 490, 326 (2012).

[4] “The Determination of the Coordinates of Cities: Tahdid al-Amakin”, Al-Beruni, translated by Jamil Ali, Centennial Publications, Beirut 1967.

[5] “Is science mostly driven by ideas or by tools”, Freeman J. Dyson, Science 338, 6113 (2012).

[6] “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, Thomas S. Kuhn, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2012.

[7] The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolutions, Freeman J. Dyson, Oxford University Press, Oxford (1999).

[8] Retrieved: 9 October 2017.

[9] “Rebuilding Iraqi science”, S. Jaffe, The Scientist, July 14, 2003.

[10] “Astrolabes of the World”, R.T. Gunther, Holland Press, London (1976).

[11] “The Islamic guilds”, Bernard Lewis, The Economic History Review 8, 20 (1937).

[12] A newly found letter of Al-Kashi on scientific life in Samarkand, M. Bagheri, Historia Mathematica 24, 241–256 (1997).

[13] “Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman: A Memoir”, A. Jayaraman, Affiliated East-West Press, New Delhi (1989).

[14] Reference 4 above.



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Muhammad Sabieh Anwar

General Secretary Khwarizmi Science Society, Creater Physlab, Lahore Science Mela, Qosain Scientific, Professor of Physics, Dean Science and Engineering, LUMS