Innovation and invention in modern Muslim world
Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower
The Islamic Development Bank, held their 24th Annual Symposium in beautiful Dushanbe, Tajikistan, invited me to chair a session on ‘Innovating for Economic Development in IDB Member Countries’.
At first glance, the words ‘invention’ and ‘innovation’ are not typically associated with the Muslim world.
The word ‘imitation’ (or reverse engineering) often is linked to the third world, Muslim majority countries. Yes, there is some element of innovation involved in reverse engineering, from pharmaceuticals to electronics, but it’s not something to be proud about to entice, say, foreign direct investment. The bigger question is, how much longer should the Muslim world continue to flatter via imitation, i.e., a ‘Xerox’ society.
Innovation and invention have been traditionally linked to Islam/Arab/Muslims since the birth of the religion, but something happened along the way. We have become a society of buyers over builders, consumers over savers, exporters of capital and importers returns, hence, an unsustainable situation.
The first revelation to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was about reading:
Translation: In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful.
Read: In the name of your Lord Who created.
Created man from a clot of blood
Read: And your Lord is the Most generous
Who taught [man the use of] the pen
and taught man that which he did not know
Reading implies searching and seeking information to the far corners of the world, from Arabia to China and beyond, that yields knowledge, which eventually becomes wisdom. A wisdom that gets applied for betterment of man (individually), society (collectively) and the stewardship for future generations.
Thus, our predecessors have contributed to sciences, humanities, culture, arts, mathematics (algebra, logarithm, system of numbers), etc., and acknowledged by the likes of Prof Carole Hillenbrand’s book, ‘What the East taught the West.’
Furthermore, there is a ‘mobile’ museum, 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilisation, .. ‘…1001 Inventions uncovers a thousand years of scientific and cultural achievements from Muslim Civilisation from the 7th century onwards, and how those contributions helped create the foundations of our modern world.’ It has been showcased in the GCC: Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dhahran.
There are number of theories, from conspiracy to self destruction, on what happened along the way for the Muslim world, as a whole, to become a ‘knowledge deficient society.’ We only have to look at the small number of patents filed form the Muslim world to the US Patent/Trademark Office, countries aspiring to become knowledge based economies in their 2020/2030 vision planning, countries establishing entities, like Malaysia’s Talent Corporation, to bring back the emigrated human capital, and so on.
There is neither an exact formula for innovation nor a firm timetable with milestones. Instead, innovation is about establishing a fluid enabling infrastructure, with accountable benchmarks, customised to the local situation. Some of the elements of enabling include:
- Initially government leads but removes itself from being a market participant to avoid crowding out affect, hence, a sunset privatisation of innovation
- Availability and accessibility of risk capital PLUS mentoring, Muslim majority countries are about collateral based finance, including Islamic banking. Therefore, funds alone will not result in success, but MUST include mentoring to include, say, opening doors to suppliers/customers, legal documentation, etc.
- Culture and cluster that is focused addressing national/regional needs, hence, one size fits all becomes a ‘white elephant’ project.
- Education both university oriented (reverse linkage) and harnesses power of street smarts via inclusion to offer market demand, not just based, solutions.
The IDB has the credibility and financial muscle to possibly fast track innovation in selected Muslim countries like the UAE, Malaysia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc., however, it must take a stakeholder approach.
It must understand that the constraints of a country and work within those challenges to offer a market based solution as innovation is not only about economic development, but, as important, economic diversification.
The benchmarks must be reasonable and measurable with two important milestones: employment generation and raising the gross national income (GNI).
Thus, as a first step, IDB should create an Innovation Council (IC) for several selected member country as pilot programmes. The members of the IC may include financiers, regulators, businessmen, academics, etc., to give 360 degree review of the landscape and a pathway forward towards leading instead of following.
The writer is co-founder and MD of Azka Capital, private equity advisory firm focused on halal industry initiatives, and he is an advisor to Thomson Reuters on Islamic finance and Halal industry. Views expressed by the author are his own and do not reflect the newspaper’s policy
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