online: 1 November 2006; | doi:10.1038/444022a
Islam and Science: An Islamist
Islamist political parties are taking
over from secular ones across the Muslim world. What does this mean for science
at home and scientific cooperation with the West? Ehsan Masood investigates.
Peshawar University on the Grand Trunk Road linking Pakistan, India and
Bangladesh, there is much talk of growth. Its national centre for excellence in
geology is to get 11 new labs, a library and a new museum. The provincial
government, moreover, has handed the university the job of running a botanical
garden and a 40.5-hectare national park.
is the capital city of Pakistan's northwest frontier province, the border region
with Afghanistan where the Taliban first emerged among the Afghan refugee
population in the 1990s. None of the university's activities is unusual for a
leading institute in a developing country. But what might seem surprising to
outsiders is that, after many years of neglect, the university's expansion comes
at a time when local people have elected an alliance of political parties which,
like the Taliban, want to base most laws on the Koran. Unusually for Pakistan,
the current provincial government has forbidden male doctors from attending to
female patients and has banned music on public transport.
university is run by Haroon Rashid, a professor of chemistry who was appointed
vice-chancellor in January 2006. In common with the majority of Pakistanis,
Rashid is a Muslim, something that he is proud to make known. Could a university
vice-chancellor in Peshawar be of any other faith? In today's Peshawar, a
non-Muslim vice-chancellor would be next to impossible.
along with the Islamic Republic of Iran and Sudan, has been run by governments
that put Islam at the centre of politics for many years. As more Muslim
countries give their citizens the right to vote, Islamist political groupings
have taken power, or form the main opposition, in national or regional
assemblies in Iraq, Kuwait, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Bahrain, Egypt,
Afghanistan, Jordan, Morocco, Malaysia and Turkey. Islamist is a term used to
denote those committed to the application of Islamic principles and Islamic law
Muslim scientists expect from the new Islamist parties that are seeking power
across the Muslim world? Will there be more support for science and for research
infrastructure, as in Peshawar, but an environment where basic freedoms continue
to be denied? The mostly secular, although undemocratic, regimes that have
hitherto ruled for decades across the Muslim world have rarely paid more than
lip-service to investment in science and technology. Consequently, today's
Muslim states barely register on indices of research spending, patents and
publications, and only Turkey has universities in the global top 500.
this is candidly documented in the four volumes so far of the
Arab Human Development Report
from the United Nations Development Programme, written entirely by
Arabic-speaking social and natural scientists (see
page 33), which lays bare how
knowledge-based activities such as science, innovation, book publishing, art and
literature in Arabic-speaking countries are among the weakest in the world. The
report does not consider non-Arab member states of the 57-strong Organization of
the Islamic Conference (OIC), such as Indonesia, Pakistan and Turkey. But, as
the data on
page 26 show, the picture in the broader
Muslim world is not much better.
situation for Muslim science has been bad, and one assumption, based on current
trends, is that things can only get worse. One fear is further restrictions on
freedom of expression. Political leaders in the Muslim world, even in countries
run on strict secular lines, are famously intolerant of dissent, as last year's
attempted prosecution in Turkey of Orhan Pamuk, this year's winner of the Nobel
prize for literature, demonstrates. Pamuk was accused of insulting Turkishness.
Even today, few universities enjoy much autonomy, and appointments to research
posts are opaque and prone to corruption. If secular governments did little for
science, can Islamist ones be any worse?
search for answers, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is a good place to start. The
grandparent of Islamists, the brotherhood is a political party founded in Egypt
in 1928. Its original aims included taking power, opposing Western influence in
Egyptian politics, and governing using the Koran as the basis for lawmaking.
party's presence and influence has expanded across the Muslim world — from the
Middle East to Africa and Asia. In the absence of basic infrastructure in many
countries, the brotherhood and its sister organizations run schools and
hospitals, and its members include many scientists. But officially it does not
exist — it is banned everywhere, and membership can be punishable by long spells
in prison. To avoid censure its members stand as independents at election time,
or as members of alternative parties. In Egypt, 88 brotherhood members of
parliament together form the largest grouping after that of the government.
Kamal El Helbawi, who now lives in
London, is a one-time senior official in the Muslim Brotherhood, and its former
spokesman in Europe. In common with, arguably, most Muslims, Helbawi sees
science and Islam as being in harmony, and he says that any government led by
the Muslim Brotherhood will reverse decades of underinvestment in R&D. Is this a
rose-tinted view or a genuine commitment? The answer may depend on the resonance
of science and technology with the wider debates occurring in Muslim society. It
may also depend on whether Islamist parties lean towards the Shia or Sunni
schools of thinking (see
'A long tradition', page 24).
For Helbawi, science has three
functions in society. First, it is a set of tools to help humankind enjoy a
higher quality of life through new technologies or by solving problems that
afflict the poor. Second, science and technology can be used to deter
aggression, a justification, Helbawi believes, for developing a nuclear
deterrent. And third, Helbawi believes that science has a role in strengthening
religious belief. In his view, the Koran, in addition to being the word of God,
was designed by God to convince doubters of the truth of Islam and of creation.
"I urge all scientists to read the Koran, from which they will learn much about
so many scientific topics," he says.
Islamists, Helbawi peppers his explanations with quotes from the Koran. He does
so to underline that these are not his opinions — they have divine endorsement.
For example, in explaining support for a nuclear deterrent he quotes chapter 8,
verse 60. "Hence make ready against them whatever force and war mounts you are
able to muster, so that you might deter thereby the enemies of God."
to Helbawi, it seems that although science investment may go up, the space to
disagree with the official line will go down. Yet within the brotherhood itself,
there is much debate on literalism, reason and rationality, suggesting that
totalitarianism is not the only option. Among the rationalists, for example, is
Tariq Ramadan, a philosopher of religion at the University of Oxford and the
maternal grandson of Hassan Al Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood's founder. Ramadan
says that the Koran should not be quoted outside of its religious and historical
context. He also worries that Helbawi's literalism amounts to an invitation not
to think, and to assume, for example, that if all science is contained in the
Koran, there is no place in society for new knowledge.
societies, a literal interpretation of the Koran would present as many barriers
to science and to freedom of thought as did the secular governments of the past.
But the picture becomes more nuanced the closer one looks at Islamist
governments once they are in power. Using Sudan, Pakistan and Iran as examples
of countries where Islam is prominent in politics and which may foreshadow what
may follow elsewhere, certain trends are clear.
case of Iran and Pakistan, there has been a substantial expansion in higher
education and more spending on research, measures to improve scientific quality,
and some opening up of labs to scientists from overseas. Iran's university
population has swelled from 100,000 in 1979 to 2 million today. Pakistan's
university population has increased from 276,000 in 2001 to 423,000 in 2004.
Sudan's public-sector universities, too, increased from 5 in 1989 to 26 in 1996.
In each country, there are equal numbers of women and men entering many
faculties. Indeed, in Iran some 70% of science and engineering students are
women. This university expansion is, however, creating its own tensions as the
economies are not large enough to absorb so many new graduates, particularly
each country has directed funds towards military R&D, money that could, for
example, have been spent on R&D towards alleviating poverty. Why the neglect of
the poor? For many Islamists, achieving independence from Western nations,
defence and national security are higher priorities than the Islamic duty to
care for society's poorest. Iran, like Pakistan, insists on maintaining a
capability to enrich uranium to weapons grade. Egypt and Turkey also both
recently announced plans to develop nuclear power. Abdul Qadeer Khan, former
director of Pakistan's nuclear programme, was a keen proponent of spreading
nuclear technology to other Muslim nations. He is now under house arrest in
Islamabad for selling uranium-enrichment technology to Iran, Libya and North
trend suggests that Islamist governments are likely to restrict academic
freedoms as much (if not more) than the secular regimes they want to replace.
Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran and Pakistan are very restrictive environments for
certain kinds of researchers, especially social scientists, to work in. Research
into the role of government in public life, for example, requires governments to
open up to the research community — something that these countries do not do.
Because of this, the field of science and technology policy in all four
countries is weak or non-existent. Although academic freedom continues to be
limited in Muslim countries, the field of Islamic theology is rife with debate
and disagreement on many science-related topics. Moreover, thanks to cable
television (in particular the Al Jazeera channel based in Qatar) and the
Internet, this debate is beginning to be seen in public as never before. One
keenly contested area for theologians is that of the ethics of new technologies.
Another is evolution. Islamic opinion on bioethics varies widely, and different
countries regulate in different ways. But on this issue, as others, public
debate is not as free as it is in more open societies. Although theologians and
scholars of religion debate among themselves, it needs a brave lay person or
scientist (who is also conversant with theology) to challenge them in public.
the differences in opinion lie? Saudi Arabia (an Islamic monarchy) and Iran, for
example, have very different ideas on medical ethics. Saudi Arabia bans
third-party in vitro
fertilization on the grounds that sex and procreation is limited to husbands and
wives. But third-party sperm donors are allowed in Iran because the alternative
(a couple splitting up if they cannot have children) is considered worse for
society. Similarly, Pakistan is practically alone in the Muslim world in banning
organ donations from cadavers. This is because the country's Islamic authorities
view the human body as being on loan from God, and when a person dies, the body
needs to be returned to its creator close to its original state. But this view
is not shared by other Muslim states.
Freedom to think
literally they interpret the Koran will clearly influence how the new Islamist
governments regulate science and technology. One of the Muslim Brotherhood's
leading thinkers, the Egyptian scholar Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who now lives in
Qatar, is controversial in the West, but has mass support in the Arabic-speaking
world, as well as among Muslims in Europe and North America. His book
Priorities of the Islamic Movement in
the Coming Phase
(Awakening Publications, Birmingham, Alabama, 2002) is in effect a manifesto for
the next wave of Islamist governments.
level, Qaradawi is a literalist in that he regards every word of the Koran as
the word of God, which he sees as applicable for all times to come. But he also
understands that an environment that supports critical thinking was one hallmark
of Islam's golden age of scientific development (see
'Islamic era science'). Significantly,
he has recently moved closer to philosopher Ramadan in his belief that Islamist
governments should encourage self-criticism, that they should learn from
failure, and that they have a duty to protect freedoms, including academic
freedom and the freedom of any citizen to disagree with the state. "We want
scientific thinking and the scientific spirit to guide our life in every way,"
he says. "It is against the scientific way of thinking to oversimplify
complicated issues, or to view difficult problems with an alarming
superficiality. Belief to us Muslims is not against reason or intellect."
is concerned that Islamist opposition movements are too literalist and are not
doing enough to encourage independent thinking using reason, known in Arabic as
"My worst fear for the Islamic movement is that it opposes free thinking for its
followers and closes the door to
he says. "If my fear turns into reality, then capable minds that can renew and
innovate will escape from our ranks, leaving behind those conservatives who can
only imitate and who would like everything to stay as it is, regardless of how
ancient it is." Ijtihad
is sometimes called Islam's forgotten pillar. To others, it poses a threat to
Islam by weakening its teachings. Islamists have a reputation for looking
inwards and shutting out the outside world, but they can look west when they
need to, says Abdelwahab El Affendi of the University of Westminster's Centre
for the Study of Democracy, in London, and chronicler of the rise of Islam in
Sudanese politics. "Islamists that come to power on the back of
'we-don't-need-the-West' rhetoric end up becoming more pragmatic," he says.
Islamic thinkers are reaching out to the West in surprising ways. The prominent
Turkish writer and columnist Mustafa Aykol has creationist views and publishes
translations of US proponents of intelligent design. He has been building
alliances with US faith-based groups such as the Discovery Institute in Seattle,
Washington state. In an article for the US
last year he wrote: "Intelligent Design can be a bridge between these two
civilizations. Muslims are discovering that they share a common cause with
believers in the West."
late nineteenth century, Darwin's
On the Origin of Species
had a favourable reception in Muslim countries. But that is history, as books,
pamphlets and films on creationism are now more popular in Muslim countries, and
pro-evolution scientists are afraid to speak out. Adults in Turkey, for example,
are even less accepting of evolution than are those in the United States.
Matzke of the National Center for Science Education, a not-for-profit
organization based in Oakland, California, has debated intelligent design with
Aykol in a Muslim online forum — a first for all concerned — but he thinks that
Aykol's enthusiasm for the United States is unlikely to be reciprocated.
American conservatives, he says, are not about to reconsider their views on
Islam any time soon. "I find it peculiar that Muslims are adopting a doctrine
from US groups that regularly bash Islam in a fairly vicious way," he says.
Peshawar University, meanwhile, vice-chancellor Rashid is looking to increase
direct links with foreign universities, having concluded an agreement to carry
out teaching and research jointly with the University of Leicester, UK; the city
of Leicester has a large British Asian population. Excellence in teaching,
research and creative endeavour are the highest priority, Rashid says. But for
him, Peshawar University's ultimate aim has to be a higher one. This is: "to
love and serve the entire creation of the creator".
Ehsan Masood writes about
science in developing countries.
Islam and Science special is available