and the Islamic world-The quest for rapprochement
Internal causes led to the decline of Islam's scientific greatness
long before the era of mercantile imperialism. To contribute once
again, Muslims must be introspective and ask what went wrong.
Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy
Physics Today, August 2007, page 49
This article grew out of the Max von Laue Lecture that I delivered
earlier this year to celebrate that eminent physicist and man of
strong social conscience. When Adolf Hitler was on the ascendancy,
Laue was one of the very few German physicists of stature who dared to
defend Albert Einstein and the theory of relativity. It therefore
seems appropriate that a matter concerning science and civilization
should be my concern here.
The question I want to pose-perhaps as much to myself as to anyone else
-is this: With well over a billion Muslims and extensive material
resources, why is the Islamic world disengaged from science and the
process of creating new knowledge? To be definite, I am here using the
57 countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as a
proxy for the Islamic world.
It was not always this way. Islam's magnificent Golden Age in the 9th-
13th centuries brought about major advances in mathematics, science,
and medicine. The Arabic language held sway in an age that created
algebra, elucidated principles of optics, established the body's
circulation of blood, named stars, and created universities. But with
the end of that period, science in the Islamic world essentially
collapsed. No major invention or discovery has emerged from the Muslim
world for well over seven centuries now. That arrested scientific
development is one important element-although by no means the only one-
that contributes to the present marginalization of Muslims and a
growing sense of injustice and victimhood.
Such negative feelings must be checked before the gulf widens further.
A bloody clash of civilizations, should it actually transpire, will
surely rank along with the two other most dangerous challenges to life
on our planet-climate change and nuclear proliferation.
Islam's encounter with science has had happy and unhappy periods.
There was no science in Arab culture in the initial period of Islam,
around 610 AD. But as Islam established itself politically and
militarily, its territory expanded. In the mid-eighth century, Muslim
conquerors came upon the ancient treasures of Greek learning.
Translations from Greek into Arabic were ordered by liberal and
enlightened caliphs, who filled their courts in Baghdad with visiting
scholars from near and far. Politics was dominated by the rationalist
Mutazilites, who sought to combine faith and reason in opposition to
their rivals, the dogmatic Asharites. A generally tolerant and
pluralistic Islamic culture allowed Muslims, Christians, and Jews to
create new works of art and science together. But over time, the
theological tensions between liberal and fundamentalist
interpretations of Islam-such as on the issue of free will versus
predestination-became intense and turned bloody. A resurgent religious
orthodoxy eventually inflicted a crushing defeat on the Mutazilites.
Thereafter, the open-minded pursuits of philosophy, mathematics, and
science were increasingly relegated to the margins of Islam.1
A long period of darkness followed, punctuated by occasional brilliant
spots. In the 16th century, the Turkish Ottomans established an
extensive empire with the help of military technology. But there was
little enthusiasm for science and new knowledge (see figure 1). In the
19th century, the European Enlightenment inspired a wave of modernist
Islamic reformers: Mohammed Abduh of Egypt, his follower Rashid Rida
from Syria, and their counterparts on the Indian subcontinent, such as
Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Jamaluddin Afghani, exhorted their fellow
Muslims to accept ideas of the Enlightenment and the scientific
revolution. Their theological position can be roughly paraphrased as,
"The Qur'an tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."
That echoed Galileo earlier in Europe.
The 20th century witnessed the end of European colonial rule and the
emergence of several new independent Muslim states, all initially
under secular national leaderships. A spurt toward modernization and
the acquisition of technology followed. Many expected that a Muslim
scientific renaissance would ensue. Clearly, it did not.
What ails science in the Muslim world?
Muslim leaders today, realizing that military power and economic
growth flow from technology, frequently call for speedy scientific
development and a knowledge-based society. Often that call is
rhetorical, but in some Muslim countries-Qatar, the United Arab
Emirates (UAE), Pakistan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Nigeria
among others-official patronage and funding for science and education
have grown sharply in recent years. Enlightened individual rulers,
including Sultan ibn Muhammad Al-Qasimi of Sharjah, Hamad bin Khalifa
Al Thani of Qatar, and others have put aside some of their vast
personal wealth for such causes (see figure 2 and the news story on
page 33). No Muslim leader has publicly called for separating science
Is boosting resource allocations enough to energize science, or are
more fundamental changes required? Scholars of the 19th century, such
as the pioneering sociologist Max Weber, claimed that Islam lacks an
"idea system" critical for sustaining a scientific culture based on
innovation, new experiences, quantification, and empirical
verification. Fatalism and an orientation toward the past, they said,
makes progress difficult and even undesirable.
In the current epoch of growing antagonism between the Islamic and the
Western worlds, most Muslims reject such charges with angry
indignation. They feel those accusations add yet another excuse for
the West to justify its ongoing cultural and military assaults on
Muslim populations. Muslims bristle at any hint that Islam and science
may be at odds, or that some underlying conflict between Islam and
science may account for the slowness of progress. The Qur'an, being
the unaltered word of God, cannot be at fault: Muslims believe that if
there is a problem, it must come from their inability to properly
interpret and implement the Qur'an's divine instructions.
In defending the compatibility of science and Islam, Muslims argue
that Islam had sustained a vibrant intellectual culture throughout the
European Dark Ages and thus, by extension, is also capable of a modern
scientific culture. The Pakistani physics Nobel Prize winner, Abdus
Salam, would stress to audiences that one-eighth of the Qur'an is a
call for Muslims to seek Allah's signs in the universe and hence that
science is a spiritual as well as a temporal duty for Muslims. Perhaps
the most widely used argument one hears is that the Prophet Muhammad
had exhorted his followers to "seek knowledge even if it is in China,"
which implies that a Muslim is duty-bound to search for secular
Such arguments have been and will continue to be much debated, but
they will not be pursued further here. Instead, let us seek to
understand the state of science in the contemporary Islamic world.
First, to the degree that available data allows, I will quantitatively
assess the current state of science in Muslim countries. Then I will
look at prevalent Muslim attitudes toward science, technology, and
modernity, with an eye toward identifying specific cultural and social
practices that work against progress. Finally, we can turn to the
fundamental question: What will it take to bring science back into the
Measuring Muslim scientific progress
The metrics of scientific progress are neither precise nor unique.
Science permeates our lives in myriad ways, means different things to
different people, and has changed its content and scope drastically
over the course of history. In addition, the paucity of reliable and
current data makes the task of assessing scientific progress in Muslim
countries still harder.
I will use the following reasonable set of four metrics:
The quantity of scientific output, weighted by some reasonable measure
of relevance and importance;
The role played by science and technology in the national economies,
funding for S&T, and the size of the national scientific enterprises;
The extent and quality of higher education; and
The degree to which science is present or absent in popular culture.
A useful, if imperfect, indicator of scientific output is the number
of published scientific research papers, together with the citations
to them. Table 1 shows the output of the seven most scientifically
productive Muslim countries for physics papers, over the period from 1
January 1997 to 28 February 2007, together with the total number of
publications in all scientific fields. A comparison with Brazil,
India, China, and the US reveals significantly smaller numbers. A
study by academics at the International Islamic University Malaysia2
showed that OIC countries have 8.5 scientists, engineers, and
technicians per 1000 population, compared with a world average of
40.7, and 139.3 for countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-
operation and Development. (For more on the OECD, see http://www.oecd.org.)
Forty-six Muslim countries contributed 1.17% of the world's science
literature, whereas 1.66% came from India alone and 1.48% from Spain.
Twenty Arab countries contributed 0.55%, compared with 0.89% by Israel
alone. The US NSF records that of the 28 lowest producers of
scientific articles in 2003, half belong to the OIC.3
The situation may be even grimmer than the publication numbers or
perhaps even the citation counts suggest. Assessing the scientific
worth of publications-never an easy task-is complicated further by the
rapid appearance of new international scientific journals that publish
low-quality work. Many have poor editorial policies and refereeing
procedures. Scientists in many developing countries, who are under
pressure to publish, or who are attracted by strong government
incentives, choose to follow the path of least resistance paved for
them by the increasingly commercialized policies of journals.
Prospective authors know that editors need to produce a journal of a
certain thickness every month. In addition to considerable anecdotal
evidence for these practices, there have been a few systematic
studies. For example,4 chemistry publications by Iranian scientists
tripled in five years, from 1040 in 1998 to 3277 in 2003. Many
scientific papers that were claimed as original by their Iranian
chemist authors, and that had been published in internationally peer-
reviewed journals, had actually been published twice and sometimes
thrice with identical or nearly identical contents by the same
authors. Others were plagiarized papers that could have been easily
detected by any reasonably careful referee.
The situation regarding patents is also discouraging: The OIC
countries produce negligibly few. According to official statistics,
Pakistan has produced only eight patents in the past 43 years.
Islamic countries show a great diversity of cultures and levels of
modernization and a correspondingly large spread in scientific
productivity. Among the larger countries-in both population and
political importance-Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan are the most
scientifically developed. Among the smaller countries, such as the
central Asian republics, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan rank considerably
above Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Malaysia-a rather
atypical Muslim country with a 40% non-Muslim minority-is much smaller
than neighboring Indonesia but is nevertheless more productive.
Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and other states that have many
foreign scientists are scientifically far ahead of other Arab states.
National scientific enterprises
Conventional wisdom suggests that bigger science budgets indicate, or
will induce, greater scientific activity. On average, the 57 OIC
states spend an estimated 0.3% of their gross national product on
research and development, which is far below the global average of
2.4%. But the trend toward higher spending is unambiguous. Rulers in
the UAE and Qatar are building several new universities with manpower
imported from the West for both construction and staffing. In June
2006, Nigeria's president Olusegun Obasanjo announced he will plow $5
billion of oil money into R&D. Iran increased its R&D spending
dramatically, from a pittance in 1988 at the end of the Iraq-Iran war,
to a current level of 0.4% of its gross domestic product. Saudi Arabia
announced that it spent 26% of its development budget on science and
education in 2006, and sent 5000 students to US universities on full
scholarships. Pakistan set a world record by increasing funding for
higher education and science by an immense 800% over the past five
But bigger budgets by themselves are not a panacea. The capacity to
put those funds to good use is crucial. One determining factor is the
number of available scientists, engineers, and technicians. Those
numbers are low for OIC countries, averaging around 400-500 per
million people, while developed countries typically lie in the range
of 3500-5000 per million. Even more important are the quality and
level of professionalism, which are less easily quantifiable. But
increasing funding without adequately addressing such crucial concerns
can lead to a null correlation between scientific funding and
The role played by science in creating high technology is an important
science indicator. Comparing table 1 with table 2 shows there is
little correlation between academic research papers and the role of
S&T in the national economies of the seven listed countries. The
anomalous position of Malaysia in table 2 has its explanation in the
large direct investment made by multinational companies and in having
trading partners that are overwhelmingly non-OIC countries.
Although not apparent in table 2, there are scientific areas in which
research has paid off in the Islamic world. Agricultural research-
which is relatively simple science-provides one case in point.
Pakistan has good results, for example, with new varieties of cotton,
wheat, rice, and tea. Defense technology is another area in which many
developing countries have invested, as they aim to both lessen their
dependence on international arms suppliers and promote domestic
capabilities. Pakistan manufactures nuclear weapons and intermediate-
range missiles. There is now also a burgeoning, increasingly export-
oriented Pakistani arms industry (figure 3) that turns out a large
range of weapons from grenades to tanks, night-vision devices to laser-
guided weapons, and small submarines to training aircraft. Export
earnings exceed $150 million yearly. Although much of the production
is a triumph of reverse engineering rather than original research and
development, there is clearly sufficient understanding of the
requisite scientific principles and a capacity to exercise technical
and managerial judgment as well. Iran has followed Pakistan's
According to a recent survey, among the 57 member states of the OIC,
there are approximately 1800 universities.5 Of those, only 312 publish
journal articles. A ranking of the 50 most published among them yields
these numbers: 26 are in Turkey, 9 in Iran, 3 each in Malaysia and
Egypt, 2 in Pakistan, and 1 in each of Uganda, the UAE, Saudi Arabia,
Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, and Azerbaijan. For the top 20 universities,
the average yearly production of journal articles was about 1500, a
small but reasonable number. However, the average citation per article
is less than 1.0 (the survey report does not state whether self-
citations were excluded). There are fewer data available for comparing
against universities worldwide. Two Malaysian undergraduate
institutions were in the top-200 list of the Times Higher Education
Supplement in 2006 (available at http://www.thes.co.uk). No OIC
university made the top-500 "Academic Ranking of World Universities"
compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University (see http://ed.sjtu.edu.cn/en).
This state of affairs led the director general of the OIC to issue an
appeal for at least 20 OIC universities to be sufficiently elevated in
quality to make the top-500 list. No action plan was specified, nor
was the term "quality" defined.
An institution's quality is fundamental, but how is it to be defined?
Providing more infrastructure and facilities is important but not key.
Most universities in Islamic countries have a starkly inferior quality
of teaching and learning, a tenuous connection to job skills, and
research that is low in both quality and quantity. Poor teaching owes
more to inappropriate attitudes than to material resources. Generally,
obedience and rote learning are stressed, and the authority of the
teacher is rarely challenged. Debate, analysis, and class discussions
Academic and cultural freedoms on campuses are highly restricted in
most Muslim countries. At Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, where
I teach, the constraints are similar to those existing in most other
Pakistani public-sector institutions. This university serves the
typical middle-class Pakistani student and, according to the survey
referred to earlier,5 ranks number two among OIC universities. Here,
as in other Pakistani public universities, films, drama, and music are
frowned on, and sometimes even physical attacks by student vigilantes
who believe that such pursuits violate Islamic norms take place. The
campus has three mosques with a fourth one planned, but no bookstore.
No Pakistani university, including QAU, allowed Abdus Salam to set
foot on its campus, although he had received the Nobel Prize in 1979
for his role in formulating the standard model of particle physics.
The Ahmedi sect to which he belonged, and which had earlier been
considered to be Muslim, was officially declared heretical in 1974 by
the Pakistani government.
As intolerance and militancy sweep across the Muslim world, personal
and academic freedoms diminish with the rising pressure to conform. In
Pakistani universities, the veil is now ubiquitous, and the last few
unveiled women students are under intense pressure to cover up. The
head of the government-funded mosque-cum-seminary (figure 4) in the
heart of Islamabad, the nation's capital, issued the following
chilling warning to my university's female students and faculty on his
FM radio channel on 12 April 2007:
The government should abolish co-education. Quaid-i-Azam University
has become a brothel. Its female professors and students roam in
objectionable dresses. . . . Sportswomen are spreading nudity. I warn
the sportswomen of Islamabad to stop participating in sports. . . .
Our female students have not issued the threat of throwing acid on the
uncovered faces of women. However, such a threat could be used for
creating the fear of Islam among sinful women. There is no harm in it.
There are far more horrible punishments in the hereafter for such
The imposition of the veil makes a difference. My colleagues and I
share a common observation that over time most students-particularly
veiled females-have largely lapsed into becoming silent note-takers,
are increasingly timid, and are less inclined to ask questions or take
part in discussions. This lack of self-expression and confidence leads
to most Pakistani university students, including those in their mid-
or late-twenties, referring to themselves as boys and girls rather
than as men and women.
Science and religion still at odds
Science is under pressure globally, and from every religion. As
science becomes an increasingly dominant part of human culture, its
achievements inspire both awe and fear. Creationism and intelligent
design, curbs on genetic research, pseudoscience, parapsychology,
belief in UFOs, and so on are some of its manifestations in the West.
Religious conservatives in the US have rallied against the teaching of
Darwinian evolution. Extreme Hindu groups such as the Vishnu Hindu
Parishad, which has called for ethnic cleansing of Christians and
Muslims, have promoted various "temple miracles," including one in
which an elephant-like God miraculously came alive and started
drinking milk. Some extremist Jewish groups also derive additional
political strength from antiscience movements. For example, certain
American cattle tycoons have for years been working with Israeli
counterparts to try to breed a pure red heifer in Israel, which, by
their interpretation of chapter 19 of the Book of Numbers, will signal
the coming of the building of the Third Temple,7 an event that would
ignite the Middle East.
In the Islamic world, opposition to science in the public arena takes
additional forms. Antiscience materials have an immense presence on
the internet, with thousands of elaborately designed Islamic websites,
some with view counters running into the hundreds of thousands. A
typical and frequently visited one has the following banner: "Recently
discovered astounding scientific facts, accurately described in the
Muslim Holy Book and by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) 14 centuries ago."
Here one will find that everything from quantum mechanics to black
holes and genes was anticipated 1400 years ago.
Science, in the view of fundamentalists, is principally seen as
valuable for establishing yet more proofs of God, proving the truth of
Islam and the Qur'an, and showing that modern science would have been
impossible but for Muslim discoveries. Antiquity alone seems to
matter. One gets the impression that history's clock broke down
somewhere during the 14th century and that plans for repair are, at
best, vague. In that all-too-prevalent view, science is not about
critical thought and awareness, creative uncertainties, or ceaseless
explorations. Missing are websites or discussion groups dealing with
the philosophical implications from the Islamic point of view of the
theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, superstrings,
stem cells, and other contemporary science issues.
Similarly, in the mass media of Muslim countries, discussions on
"Islam and science" are common and welcomed only to the extent that
belief in the status quo is reaffirmed rather than challenged. When
the 2005 earthquake struck Pakistan, killing more than 90 000 people,
no major scientist in the country publicly challenged the belief,
freely propagated through the mass media, that the quake was God's
punishment for sinful behavior. Mullahs ridiculed the notion that
science could provide an explanation; they incited their followers
into smashing television sets, which had provoked Allah's anger and
hence the earthquake. As several class discussions showed, an
overwhelming majority of my university's science students accepted
various divine-wrath explanations.
Why the slow development?
Although the relatively slow pace of scientific development in Muslim
countries cannot be disputed, many explanations can and some common
ones are plain wrong.
For example, it is a myth that women in Muslim countries are largely
excluded from higher education. In fact, the numbers are similar to
those in many Western countries: The percentage of women in the
university student body is 35% in Egypt, 67% in Kuwait, 27% in Saudi
Arabia, and 41% in Pakistan, for just a few examples. In the physical
sciences and engineering, the proportion of women enrolled is roughly
similar to that in the US. However, restrictions on the freedom of
women leave them with far fewer choices, both in their personal lives
and for professional advancement after graduation, relative to their
The near-absence of democracy in Muslim countries is also not an
especially important reason for slow scientific development. It is
certainly true that authoritarian regimes generally deny freedom of
inquiry or dissent, cripple professional societies, intimidate
universities, and limit contacts with the outside world. But no Muslim
government today, even if dictatorial or imperfectly democratic,
remotely approximates the terror of Hitler or Joseph Stalin-regimes in
which science survived and could even advance.
Another myth is that the Muslim world rejects new technology. It does
not. In earlier times, the orthodoxy had resisted new inventions such
as the printing press, loudspeaker, and penicillin, but such rejection
has all but vanished. The ubiquitous cell phone, that ultimate space-
age device, epitomizes the surprisingly quick absorption of black-box
technology into Islamic culture. For example, while driving in
Islamabad, it would occasion no surprise if you were to receive an
urgent SMS (short message service) requesting immediate prayers for
helping Pakistan's cricket team win a match. Popular new Islamic cell-
phone models now provide the exact GPS-based direction for Muslims to
face while praying, certified translations of the Qur'an, and step-by-
step instructions for performing the pilgrimages of Haj and Umrah.
Digital Qur'ans are already popular, and prayer rugs with microchips
(for counting bend-downs during prayers) have made their debut.
Some relatively more plausible reasons for the slow scientific
development of Muslim countries have been offered. First, even though
a handful of rich oil-producing Muslim countries have extravagant
incomes, most are fairly poor and in the same boat as other developing
countries. Indeed, the OIC average for per capita income is
significantly less than the global average. Second, the inadequacy of
traditional Islamic languages-Arabic, Persian, Urdu-is an important
contributory reason. About 80% of the world's scientific literature
appears first in English, and few traditional languages in the
developing world have adequately adapted to new linguistic demands.
With the exceptions of Iran and Turkey, translation rates are small.
According to a 2002 United Nations report written by Arab
intellectuals and released in Cairo, Egypt, "The entire Arab world
translates about 330 books annually, one-fifth the number that Greece
translates." The report adds that in the 1000 years since the reign of
the caliph Maa'moun, the Arabs have translated as many books as Spain
translates in just one year.8
It's the thought that counts
But the still deeper reasons are attitudinal, not material. At the
base lies the yet unresolved tension between traditional and modern
modes of thought and social behavior.
That assertion needs explanation. No grand dispute, such as between
Galileo and Pope Urban VIII, is holding back the clock. Bread-and-
butter science and technology requires learning complicated but
mundane rules and procedures that place no strain on any reasonable
individual's belief system. A bridge engineer, robotics expert, or
microbiologist can certainly be a perfectly successful professional
without pondering profound mysteries of the universe. Truly
fundamental and ideology-laden issues confront only that tiny minority
of scientists who grapple with cosmology, indeterminacy in quantum
mechanical and chaotic systems, neuroscience, human evolution, and
other such deep topics. Therefore, one could conclude that developing
science is only a matter of setting up enough schools, universities,
libraries, and laboratories, and purchasing the latest scientific
tools and equipment.
But the above reasoning is superficial and misleading. Science is
fundamentally an idea-system that has grown around a sort of skeleton
wire frame-the scientific method. The deliberately cultivated
scientific habit of mind is mandatory for successful work in all
science and related fields where critical judgment is essential.
Scientific progress constantly demands that facts and hypotheses be
checked and rechecked, and is unmindful of authority. But there lies
the problem: The scientific method is alien to traditional, unreformed
religious thought. Only the exceptional individual is able to exercise
such a mindset in a society in which absolute authority comes from
above, questions are asked only with difficulty, the penalties for
disbelief are severe, the intellect is denigrated, and a certainty
exists that all answers are already known and must only be
Science finds every soil barren in which miracles are taken literally
and seriously and revelation is considered to provide authentic
knowledge of the physical world. If the scientific method is trashed,
no amount of resources or loud declarations of intent to develop
science can compensate. In those circumstances, scientific research
becomes, at best, a kind of cataloging or "butterfly-collecting"
activity. It cannot be a creative process of genuine inquiry in which
bold hypotheses are made and checked.
Religious fundamentalism is always bad news for science. But what
explains its meteoric rise in Islam over the past half century? In the
mid-1950s all Muslim leaders were secular, and secularism in Islam was
growing. What changed? Here the West must accept its share of
responsibility for reversing the trend. Iran under Mohammed Mossadeq,
Indonesia under Ahmed Sukarno, and Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser are
examples of secular but nationalist governments that wanted to protect
their national wealth. Western imperial greed, however, subverted and
overthrew them. At the same time, conservative oil-rich Arab states-
such as Saudi Arabia-that exported extreme versions of Islam were US
clients. The fundamentalist Hamas organization was helped by Israel in
its fight against the secular Palestine Liberation Organization as
part of a deliberate Israeli strategy in the 1980s. Perhaps most
important, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the
US Central Intelligence Agency armed the fiercest and most
ideologically charged Islamic fighters and brought them from distant
Muslim countries into Afghanistan, thus helping to create an extensive
globalized jihad network. Today, as secularism continues to retreat,
Islamic fundamentalism fills the vacuum.
How science can return to the Islamic world
In the 1980s an imagined "Islamic science" was posed as an alternative
to "Western science." The notion was widely propagated and received
support from governments in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and
elsewhere. Muslim ideologues in the US, such as Ismail Faruqi and Syed
Hossein Nasr, announced that a new science was about to be built on
lofty moral principles such as tawheed (unity of God), ibadah
(worship), khilafah (trusteeship), and rejection of zulm (tyranny),
and that revelation rather than reason would be the ultimate guide to
valid knowledge. Others took as literal statements of scientific fact
verses from the Qur'an that related to descriptions of the physical
world. Those attempts led to many elaborate and expensive Islamic
science conferences around the world. Some scholars calculated the
temperature of Hell, others the chemical composition of heavenly
djinnis. None produced a new machine or instrument, conducted an
experiment, or even formulated a single testable hypothesis.
A more pragmatic approach, which seeks promotion of regular science
rather than Islamic science, is pursued by institutional bodies such
as COMSTECH (Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation),
which was established by the OIC's Islamic Summit in 1981. It joined
the IAS (Islamic Academy of Sciences) and ISESCO (Islamic Educational,
Scientific, and Cultural Organization) in serving the "ummah" (the
global Muslim community). But a visit to the websites of those
organizations reveals that over two decades, the combined sum of their
activities amounts to sporadically held conferences on disparate
subjects, a handful of research and travel grants, and small sums for
repair of equipment and spare parts.
One almost despairs. Will science never return to the Islamic world?
Shall the world always be split between those who have science and
those who do not, with all the attendant consequences?
Bleak as the present looks, that outcome does not have to prevail.
History has no final word, and Muslims do have a chance. One need only
remember how the Anglo-American elite perceived the Jews as they
entered the US at the opening of the 20th century. Academics such as
Henry Herbert Goddard, the well-known eugenicist, described Jews in
1913 as "a hopelessly backward people, largely incapable of adjusting
to the new demands of advanced capitalist societies." His research
found that 83% of Jews were "morons"-a term he popularized to describe
the feeble-minded-and he went on to suggest that they should be used
for tasks requiring an "immense amount of drudgery." That ludicrous
bigotry warrants no further discussion, beyond noting that the
powerful have always created false images of the weak.
Progress will require behavioral changes. If Muslim societies are to
develop technology instead of just using it, the ruthlessly
competitive global marketplace will insist on not only high skill
levels but also intense social work habits. The latter are not easily
reconcilable with religious demands made on a fully observant Muslim's
time, energy, and mental concentration: The faithful must participate
in five daily congregational prayers, endure a month of fasting that
taxes the body, recite daily from the Qur'an, and more. Although such
duties orient believers admirably well toward success in the life
hereafter, they make worldly success less likely. A more balanced
approach will be needed.
Science can prosper among Muslims once again, but only with a
willingness to accept certain basic philosophical and attitudinal
changes-a Weltanschauung that shrugs off the dead hand of tradition,
rejects fatalism and absolute belief in authority, accepts the
legitimacy of temporal laws, values intellectual rigor and scientific
honesty, and respects cultural and personal freedoms. The struggle to
usher in science will have to go side-by-side with a much wider
campaign to elbow out rigid orthodoxy and bring in modern thought,
arts, philosophy, democracy, and pluralism.
Respected voices among believing Muslims see no incompatibility
between the above requirements and true Islam as they understand it.
For example, Abdolkarim Soroush, described as Islam's Martin Luther,
was handpicked by Ayatollah Khomeini to lead the reform of Iran's
universities in the early 1980s. His efforts led to the introduction
of modern analytical philosophers such as Karl Popper and Bertrand
Russell into the curricula of Iranian universities. Another
influential modern reformer is Abdelwahab Meddeb, a Tunisian who grew
up in France. Meddeb argues that as early as the middle of the eighth
century, Islam had produced the premises of the Enlightenment, and
that between 750 and 1050, Muslim authors made use of an astounding
freedom of thought in their approach to religious belief. In their
analyses, says Meddeb, they bowed to the primacy of reason, honoring
one of the basic principles of the Enlightenment.
In the quest for modernity and science, internal struggles continue
within the Islamic world. Progressive Muslim forces have recently been
weakened, but not extinguished, as a consequence of the confrontation
between Muslims and the West. On an ever-shrinking globe, there can be
no winners in that conflict: It is time to calm the waters. We must
learn to drop the pursuit of narrow nationalist and religious agendas,
both in the West and among Muslims. In the long run, political
boundaries should and can be treated as artificial and temporary, as
shown by the successful creation of the European Union. Just as
important, the practice of religion must be a matter of choice for the
individual, not enforced by the state. This leaves secular humanism,
based on common sense and the principles of logic and reason, as our
only reasonable choice for governance and progress. Being scientists,
we understand this easily. The task is to persuade those who do not.
Pervez Hoodbhoy is chair and professor in the department of physics at
Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan, where he has taught
for 34 years.
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Nations Development Programme, Arab Fund for Economic and Social
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