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Science and the Islamic World


Aug 07, 2007


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? It was not always this way.

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.


First encounters

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 mideighth

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.


Ottoman Empire astronomers working in 1577 at an observatory in Istanbul. This painting accompanied an epic poem that honored Sultan Murad III, who ruled from 1574 to 1595. The observatory was demolished in 1580 after astronomers sighted a comet and predicted a military victory that failed to materialize. The poem was published a year later. (For more on ancient Islamic astronomy, see the American Institute of Physics online cosmology exhibit)

But there was little enthusiasm for science and new knowledge. 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. No Muslim leader has publicly called for

separating science from religion.

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 oneeighth

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 knowledge.

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 Islamic



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.


Scientific output


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 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 years.


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 performance.

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



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 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 example.


Higher education

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. No OIC university

made the top-500 "Academic Ranking of World Universities" compiled by

Shanghai Jiao Tong University. 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 are



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 women. 6


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



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 male counterparts.

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



Some relatively more plausible reasons for the slow scientific development of

Muslim countries have been offered. First, even though a handful of rich oilproducing

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


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 discovered.

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



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.


This  article first appeared in Physics Today



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