Civilisation And The Divine Tools Of Man
Chronicling about Prophet Adam’s historic and momentous descent from Heaven in the beginning part of his massively voluminous work Ta’rikh al-Rusul wa-‘l-Muluk (The History of Prophets and Kings), the celebrated Muslim world historian and Qur’anic exegete, Imam al-Tabari (d. 923 CE), narrated that “anvils, tongs, mallets, and hammers came down together with Adam.”
This story suggests the primordiality of technology. Just as human being had divine origin, so too the tools that are and have always been present alongside human history. More importantly, it underlines the role of Prophet Adam not only as the father of mankind but also the builder of civilisation.
The word ‘technology’ traces its origin from Greek technologia. According to the Greek-English Lexicon (1819 and 1901), it is a study (logia) of tekhne, the term referring to the handiwork of Man known as art, skill, or craft.
The nature of tekhne was a widely discussed topic in the Greek philosophical tradition. Greek philosophers described tekhne as divine craftsman-like fire that acts as a governing principle, which is simultaneously active and creative. Zeno (490–430 BCE) posited the idea of tekhne as a ‘system of comprehension’.
Socrates divided tekhne into two types: the first that exerts only minimal portion of mental power but focuses primarily on physical labour and the other that exerts more on reason required for the ingenuity in solving problems, for example, in the mathematical sciences of arithmetic, logistic, and astronomy.
In Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, he mentions that apart from contemplation and thoughtful reflection which are the loftiest and noblest ways of attaining felicity in life, happiness could also be attained through a life that toils in craft.
The commensurable concept of ‘making of things’ and the related ‘industrial art’ in the Islamic scientific tradition is sina‘ah, as can be found in authoritative Arabic lexicons such as Mufradat fi Gharib al-Qur’an by al-Raghib al-Isfahani and Lisan al-‘Arab by Ibn Manzur.
Ibn Khaldun, the famous 15th century Muslim historian and philosopher who studied the ebb and flow of North African and Andalusian civilisations, observed in his magnum opus Muqaddimah that sina‘ah as the art of making things or more commonly known as industry is resultant from man’s intellectual ability to comprehend, organise, and master the sciences.
Like most metaphysicians of Islam, Ibn Khaldun viewed nature as the Creation (kawn) of God, created as a means of provision for Man, who is also part of it, to complete his appointed time in this world.
In order for Man to fulfil his mission as a vicegerent (khalifah) charged with the administration of this earth, God created within him faculties or powers (quwwat)—his first tools to deal with the external world—with which he ensures survival and livelihood.
The Khaldunian conceptual scheme places craft or technology as an important aspect of a civilisation whose loss indicates its beginning signs of decline. The advancement of technology is also the advancement of urbanisation, thus a reliable indicator of a civilisation’s health.
Therefore, sin‘ah in the epistemological sense is the human being’s application of these understandings in the act of administering the world, while being conscious that human work (‘amal) in itself is part of God’s manifesting His Creative Acts who says in the Qur’an, “While God created you and that which you do (wa-’Llahu khalaqakum wa ma ta‘malun)” (Q 37:96).
A closer look at the treatises on ingenious mechanical devices written by Muslim engineers such as Banu Musa (9th century) and al-Jazari (13th century) would reveal the interspersing of the Islamic expression in sha’ Allah (if God wills).
It is an acknowledgment that in spite of evidence-based science and mathematical suppositions, miracles and unexpected things can still happen outside of Man’s control and strike him with all the wonders; while things will act in conformance to the nature (tabi‘ah) that the Creator imprinted in them, He may yet suspend this nature and its laws out of His Will (iradah).
Thus, the endeavours of Muslim thinkers and engineers in the past give us not only an ideal but a glimpse of historical reality where practical utility of engineering and the aesthetics were still in an integral unity.
Based on artistic elements found in the artefacts and drawings in the manuscripts, mechanical invention and aesthetic expressions were inseparable aspects of sin‘ah – art is the product of a culture that celebrates labour instead of being limited to just sparing it.
Islam’s historical reality tells us that, apart from exhorting work and praising labour as virtue, technology was not a form of escapism from work or means to promote indolence; it was the means by which people gain expertise through self-betterment. Through it they found purpose and meaning in life. Therefore, technology as an expression is and should be a creative celebration of meaningful life.