Brilliance in the Dark Ages

Built on the sands of time and in a region of unceasing conflict, Amman, the capital of Jordan, was a timely host for the 8th World Science Forum 2017 themed “Science For Peace” in early November. The country also lies at the heart of a region where numerous civilisations had to innovate for survival. Innovative adaption and cultural exchanges went hand in hand over many millennia.


I was invited to be a speaker in the first plenary session of the forum on promoting inclusion through science education, outreach and engagement. It was a meaningful  dialogue with fellow panellists, including Mr Omar Al Razzaz, Minister of Education Jordan. I explained Malaysia’s newly introduced higher order thinking skills (HOTS) in our national syllabus, and our collaboration with La Main a la pate of France and the UK National STEM Learning Centre in promoting Inquiry Based Science Education (IBSE) in our country.

At the panel session.

Yet some of the most enlightening lessons about innovation I gained from this official trip happened outside the forum.  About three hours away from the forum was the rose-red city of Petra. It is a historical and archaeological city, well known for its water conduit system.

With the Malaysian delegation in Petra.

Petra’s sophisticated water technologies were developed by the ingenious ancient Nabataeans. Initially nomads, they are claimed to have begun settling in rose city around 300 BC. In ancient times, civilisations tend to form around water resources such as rivers and seas, because they had to take water supply into consideration.


The arid desert climate in Petra posed a challenge to the inhabitants in obtaining water supply and carrying out agricultural activities. But they proved to be survivors when they instead rose to the challenge and engineered remarkable water channelling technologies such as dams, cisterns, terraces and aqueducts. They also devised methods to harvest rainwater, flood water and from the underground.


They knew how to collect, store, channel and even camouflage the water supply system to keep it safe. This demonstrates their in-depth understanding of water sources and the concept of hydraulics. The pressing need to survive had caused them to be innovative and eventually became technologists ahead of their time!


Back in Amman, I took the opportunity to visit the newly launched “1001 Inventions: Discovering Our Past, Inspiring Our Future” Exhibition in the Jordan Museum. It is one of the highlights of the Jordan Year of Science 2017 celebration. This immensely popular exhibition that had been hosted by several capital cities around the world including Kuala Lumpur showcases the creativity and innovation brilliance in Muslim civilisation from the 7th century to the European Renaissance, a period known as the Middle Ages or Dark Ages.


The arguably “Dark” Ages was archived as a period of plagues, conflicts and lack of culture after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. But Baghdad as the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate was also a hub for trade and scholars. Muslims at that time were highly influenced by the values the Quran and Hadith placed on the pursuit of knowledge.


At the exhibition, I found several inventions particularly worth noting. An Arab scientist named Ibn al-Haytham studied optics, that is, the behaviour and characteristics of light, which eventually laid foundation for the invention of modern-day cameras. It all stemmed from his curiousity about how our sense of sight works. Equally importantly, in his Book of Optics he detailed his scientific experiments so others could replicate each of his experiments to see the results for themselves.


Other notable inventive figures in the Muslim world are Ibn Firnas of Spain, who was the first man to perform a controlled flight; mechanical engineer Al-Jazari whose work was recognised for describing the mechanisms of fifty devices.


Due to the flourishing of science, culture and economy during this period, it is also dubbed as the Islamic Golden Age. The preservation of existing knowledge in various fields and the Muslims’ new insights were passed on to Europe and to us today.


As part of the visit, I was granted a courtesy call with His Royal Highness (HRH) Prince Hassan in his capacity as Chairman of Higher Science and Technology Council of Jordan. I commended the ethos of peace of harmony in race and religion in Jordan amongst areas of conflict. HRH and I agreed for our countries to focus on investing in each another’s technological industries. I also iterated Malaysia’s interesting in hosting this premier global science forum.


Before departing for home, I had a lively dialogue with about 120 Malaysian students. Jordan is home to 1,800 of them. It was a fitting end to the Malaysian delegation’s memorable visit to Jordan. Some of the questions posed by them were regarding the Goods and Tax Services (GST), status of science and technology in our homeland and the possibility of a Malaysian Nobel Laureate.


With some of the students at the dialogue.

I shared how we should achieve brilliance during “dark” ages, of which “dark” can be perceived as trying moments, such as ancient Petra where water was scarce but it was overcome by innovative Nabataeans.


Quoting Ibn al-Haytham who attributed his success to critical thinking,

“The duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and attack it from every side.”


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