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Monday, December 12, 2011

Discourse 335. My 5th Anniversary Gift to the Sultan

Discourse 335
By Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde

My 50th Anniversary Gift to the Sultan

Last week, I saw a number of advertorials in our national dailies congratulating you on the 5th Anniversary of your turbanning as the Sultan of Sokoto. On my part, what I have as your anniversary gift is materially small, but big to the function of your office.

The gift is an iTunes application called Emerald Observatory, Version 1.3.1_r628, produced by Emerald Sequoia LLC (2010) available at Apple Store for just $2. There are newer versions by now I believe. When I acquired it a month ago, I realized that it could tell so many things about the moon and the solar system in general. All the planets and their orbits are represented on its page and one can clearly see when each of them is above the horizon. Because of the unending controversy over moon sighting in Nigeria, I developed interest in the picture of the moon, which is allocated a special window on the top left corner of the page.

Observatory gives an accurate picture of the moon any time of the day as it appears on the horizon throughout the month. When in hiding, the moon is only represented by its shadow. With this application, I was able to monitor the months of Dhul Qidah and Dhul Hijjah every day, seeing the shape of the moon changing everyday, as it grew older.

What is important for me then was to find out how fairly the picture on the page of Observatory compares with the actual moon on the sky. This would enable me decide the degree of trust I would put in the computer application. Each time I open the page, therefore, I could not help but make that comparison.

I was astonished to find that the two were always the same, both in shape and orientation. This accuracy was derived from the wide range of data used in scripting the program. In the words of its inventor, “the astronomical algorithms and data tables used in Emerald Observatory are derived from ‘Lunar Tables and Programs from 4000 B.C. to A.D. 8,000 by Michelle Chapront-Touze & Jean Chapront, and ‘Planetary Programs and Tables from -4000 to +2800’ by Pierre Bretagnon & Jean-Louis Simon.”

My regular reader would now easily predict the direction of my thoughts. It did not take time to convince myself that these kinds of software would be very useful tools in mitigating our problems regarding moon sighting in Nigeria. When mastered, they could become to us what the compass is to the sailor, telling us, even in the comfort of our sitting rooms, when it is possible to see the new crescent.

What is good about such programs is that they are egalitarian. They could be accessed and used by all and sundry since they have saved us the demand for knowledge of algorithms. They make us by-pass the astronomer just as the calculator saves the market woman the pain of using the Reckoner.

The next thing was to think of the problems that could be encountered in using application by among Muslims generally. As is common with all new devices, it is expected that some people would receive it with suspicion. In fact some will out rightly dismiss it as the watch and radio are still dismissed by some groups as European products.

The majority of those who have western education will warmly receive it. In it they will see the replica of many devices they have been using, having known the logic behind its invention. They have been using calculators and even computers with several softwares. This majority will have no problem with any suggestion to use such application to monitor the moon. Surprisingly, it thrilled many who have not been to modern schools when I showed them. The secret here is the picture of the moon on the page that looks exactly as the one they see in the sky above.

Thus, I do not think the software will hit a hard wall. Of course there will always be those who would, in spite of their exposure to modern devices, still resist the use of any computer application in moon sighting, in any way. However, this resistance is customary in history, and is responsible for the lag experienced by the Muslim world in science and technology. Each time a technology is invented in the West, we sadly waste precious times - sometimes centuries - debating the legality of employing it.

Mamluk Egypt and Syria rejected the gunpowder when it was already in use in Europe. Its acceptance and that of other tools of European warfare among the Turks was quicker only because of the threat on the western frontier. That too was only possible after a prolonged debate among jurists on whether the weapons of the ‘infidels’ could be used against them.

Also, the Muslim world would have adopted printing before Gutenberg reinvented it in the 15th Century after it was discovered much earlier by the Chinese. After Sultan Bayezid II issued a decree banning the use of printing Arabic and Turkish texts in the caliphate in 1485. Sultan Selim decreed a death penalty on any Muslim involved in printing. Surprisingly, Jews were permitted to use it in the production of non-Islamic literature. It took 245 years before a mufti issued a fatwa permitting it.

When the imperial permit was given in 1729, it still excluded religious books. Yet, the volumes of the initial books had to carry a copy of "the fatwa from the chief mufti declaring printing to be licit, and certificates of approval from the two chief judges of the empire and other dignitaries," wrote the author of The Middle East, Professor Bernard Lewis. For the next sixteen years until when the government printer Ibrahim Mutafarrika died in 1745, only seventeen books have been published in secular subjects by the imperial press. Two hundred years earlier, not less than a thousand works have been published by the over 200 printing shops in Germany alone. The same fate was suffered by the study of medicine, science and astronomy for most part of those centuries.

But to the advantage of Emerald Observatory and its like, digital technology is now commonplace. Such software will soon be downloadable on non-Apple handsets and even in villages people would start using them directly. Once they are convinced of their fidelity, the masses will not hesitate to consult them on moon related issues. And what perfect consultants they would make!

Those resisting them would have little option, as usual, other than to adopt them too. All over the Muslim world, science and digital technology are increasingly gaining ground in the moon sighting process and many aspects of religion. A month ago, a debate was sparked in Saudi Arabia after an Imam used powerpoit during his Friday congregation sermon.

Time is required, I understand, to make people receptive to new technology. But history has shown, once it sets its foot on a land, technology does not retreat, neither can it be expelled. It gains new converts daily and the number of its disciples continues to increase until those who oppose it become an inconsequential minority. This will be the fate of Emerald Observation and other similar applications on moon sighting. Once with experimentation people find out that it always truly represents the moon in the sky, shi ke nan, their hostility will start to fade and soon would they admit it into the rooms of their hearts as a friend to their religion, not an enemy.

If I were presenting this to your grandfather, Muhammadu Bello, he would have received it with all enthusiasm. Clapperton has attested to Bello’s bent for justice just as he also mentioned his readiness to learn from diverse sources. In My Life, a descendant of Bello, the late Sardauna, told us that when Clapperton was leaving for England at the end of his first visit, Bello requested him to kindly purchase for him Elements of Euclid, arguably the most published book in history after the Bible. Bello lamented that he lost his copy of the famous book during a fire mishap. Clapperton brought it back as a gift from His Majesty, King George IV. If Bello were alive today, he would be happy to see that many of the contents of Euclid’s Elements are today included in the curriculum of all secondary schools in his caliphate. We miss you Bello! If you were alive, no one would have said boko is haram without attracting severe sanctions.

In conclusion, I have a prayer to make. I hope the piety of someone will not make you reject this precious gift. My fears are rooted in the history of a similar object. I remember the sad fate of Dar al-Rasad al-Jadid (House of the New Observatory) and other similar projects in the dying centuries of the Muslim Caliphate. The observatory was built upon the approval of the Sultan in Istanbul in 1575 by the renowned Muslim polymath and royal astronomer, Takiyyuddin al-Rashid. In Civilization: West and the Rest, we learned that it was “a sophisticated facility, on par with the Dyne Tyco Brahe’s more famous observatory, Uraniborg.”

After a comet passed over Istanbul on 11 September 1577, and Takiyyuddin answered that it foretold an Ottoman victory (may be in a bid to save his facility), the Grand Mufti Sheikhul Islam Kadizade “persuaded Sultan that Takiyyuddin prying into the secrets of the heavens was as blasphemous as the planetary tables of the Samarkand astronomer Ulugh Beg, who had supposedly been beheaded for similar temerity. In January 1580, barely five years after its completion, the Sultan ordered the demolition of Takiyyuddin’s observatory.” It took nearly three hundred years for Istanbul to build another observatory in 1868.

Emerald Observatory is even more lucid than Takiyyuddin’s observatory. I only pray that it does not suffer the same fate in hands of Your Eminence.

9 December 2011