Islam - Once at forefront of
By: Michael Woods
Pittsburgh Post Gazette* -
TOLEDO, Spain -- Islamic medicine and science led the
world for centuries while Europe stagnated in the Dark Ages.
In Islamic Spain, Islam's Golden Age was at first
imitated, then exceeded, as scholars poured in from the Muslim east. One example
is the ninth-century scholar 'Abbas ibn Firnas who experimented with flight 699
years before Leonardo da Vinci and constructed a planetarium in which the
planets revolved. This reconstruction by Michael Grimsdale, based on
descriptions dating to that era, suggests the elaborate gearing that Ibn Firnas
had to have developed. Source: Saudi Aramco World
From 800 AD to 1500, Arabic was the language of
science, as English is today. Muslims occupied Spain, and Europeans flocked to
Toledo and other Spanish cities, or traveled great distances to Baghdad or
Damascus, to translate Islamic science and medical books into Latin.
Islamic medicine in the year 1000 was a marvel of sophistication, featuring
competency tests for doctors, drug purity regulations, hospitals staffed by
nurses and interns, advanced surgeries, and other practices beyond the dreams of
So why is much of today's Islamic world a "scientific desert," to use the stark
language of a 2002 article in the journal Nature? Why do many predominantly
Muslim countries, home to 1.3 billion people and 75 percent of the world's oil
wealth, neglect science and technology? And how might they recapture their
amazing scientific heritage?
These questions have resounded at international, Arab and Islamic scientific
conferences and have made headlines in science journals. Here's how the Nature
article summed up the situation in the Middle East, for instance:
"The region is, for the most part, a scientific desert. In some states, oil
wealth has allowed the construction of fabulous cities, magnificent mosques and
sumptuous shopping malls. But little scientific infrastructure has emerged.
Collectively, the Arab nations spend only 0.15 per cent of their gross domestic
product on research and development, well below the world average of 1.4 per
Muslims account for 20 percent of the world's population, but less than one
percent of its scientists. Scientists in Islamic countries now make barely 0.1
percent of the world's original research discoveries each year.
Authorities on Islamic science cite various reasons for this state of affairs,
but the Koran is not among them.
"The Koran actually forms one of the cornerstones of science in Islam in a way
unlike any other scripture of any other religion," said Glen M. Cooper, a
professor of the history of science and Islam at Brigham Young University.
"The Koran enjoins the believer and the unbeliever alike to examine nature for
signs of the creator's handiwork, evidence of his existence, and his goodness,"
Cooper said. "Reason is revered as one of the most important of God's gifts to
men. The examination of nature led historically into a scientific perspective
Farkhonda Hassan, a professor at the University of Cairo who has written about
barriers to science careers for Islamic women, agreed.
"The teachings of the Holy Prophet of Islam emphasize the acquiring of knowledge
as bounden duties of each Muslim from the cradle to the grave, and that the
quest for knowledge and science is obligatory upon every Muslim man and woman,"
she said. "One eighth -- that is, 750 verses -- of the Koran exhort believers to
study, to reflect, and to make the best use of reason in their search for the
Search they once did.
The rise of Islamic science
After Muhammad's death in 632, Muslim armies swept out of the Arabian Peninsula
and expanded the borders of Islam east and west.
They absorbed not just land, but also scientific knowledge from India and Greek
learning planted centuries earlier by the armies of Alexander the Great. Muslims
translated into Arabic the treasures of Hippocrates, Aristotle, Archimedes and
other great physicians, philosophers and scientists.
By 711, the Muslims had reached Spain, and they ended up dominating the region
until Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella drove out the last of them in
The impact of Islam's discoveries during this period went far beyond individual
innovations like algebra or the establishment of models for modern hospitals and
universities. The spread of Islamic knowledge to Europe sparked, or at least
helped to spark, the Renaissance and scientific revolution of the 17th century.
"It is highly probable that, but for the Arabs, modern European civilization
would never have arisen at all," Sir Thomas Arnold and Alfred Guillaume wrote in
their 1997 classic, "The Legacy of Islam."
Robert Briffault wrote in the "Making of Humanity" in 1938 that "Spain, not
Italy, was the cradle of the rebirth of Europe. After steadily sinking lower and
lower into barbarism, it had reached the darkest depths of ignorance and
degradation when cities of the Saracenic world, Baghdad, Cairo, Cordoba, and
Toledo, were growing centers of civilization and intellectual activity. It was
there that the new life arose which was to grow into a new phase of human
Yet most Americans are completely unaware of Islam's rich scientific heritage,
said George Saliba, a professor of Arabic and Islamic science at Columbia
University, and more than a dozen other experts interviewed for this article.
"That is unfortunate," Cooper said. "Much of our modern science and philosophy
owes a large debt to Islamic civilization during the Middle Ages for preserving
the classical heritage in all intellectual fields, and for improving upon it in
many of these fields. If the average American understood this, there would be
fewer smug citizens looking down on 'backward Muslims' with hate and fear."
Two reasons Americans are relatively clueless on the subject are the
Arabic-English language barrier and a long tradition of U.S. historians focusing
on European scientific traditions, said Jeffrey Oaks of the University of
"Anything not taught in high school is going to escape public consciousness,"
added Thomas F. Glick, an expert on Islamic history at Boston University.
Some historians from mainly Islamic countries see it differently.
"We believe that, for dishonorable purposes, there is in the West an intention
to ignore the important scientific role played by Muslim scholars during the
medieval age," said Abdul Nasser Kaadan, a professor with the Institute for the
History of Arabic Science at the University of Aleppo in Syria. "This is to
support the allegation that Muslim and Arabic mentality never in the past and
not in the future can lead any scientific research."
Explaining the decline
So what happened to the once glorious scientific legacy of Islam and Arabia?
Experts cite many things.
Universities were an Islamic invention later adopted in Europe, but Muslim
universities did not shelter and preserve scientific knowledge during wars and
other upheavals. Christian warriors carved up the Islamic empire and cut off
contact between great scientific centers. Here in Spain, the Catholic reconquest
of Ferdinand and Isabella deprived Islamic science of the great libraries and
schools in Cordoba, Seville and Toledo.
Conflicts also cut off science's lifeblood -- cash for research and education.
And the Ottomans, who took over much of the Islamic world in the early 1500s,
used their resources to make war, not science.
In the 1700s, a puritanical form of Islam took root in Saudi Arabia, with a
doctrine that rejected knowledge acquired after the first 300 years of Islam's
Several scholars said one problem is the lack of awareness among Arabs and
Muslims about their own scientific heritage.
"Muslims generally are unaware that their civilization had a high point of
superiority in nearly every aspect," Cooper said. "Their current challenge is to
face the fact that the Islamic edge has been completely lost.
"It would be a hard thing, I think, to be part of a religion and culture with
such a glorious history as that of Islam, when that glory is all in the distant
past, and an essentially godless civilization -- from their perspective --
enjoys the lead in power and science."
Eventually, in the United States and Europe, science began paying some of its
own bills. Inventions like the telephone, radio, plastics and antibiotics led
industry to pour billions into scientific research. In much of the Arab world,
science remained dependent on handouts from sultans, kings or caliphs.
"Science and scientific research can flourish only when a country is affluent
and has a sound and balanced economy," said Ahmad Y. al-Hassan, also a faculty
member of the Arabic science institute at the University of Aleppo. "But when
agriculture is the dominant sector, then a country will remain poor, and when
petroleum is the only source of income, then this economy in the long run also
Others also cited Arab oil wealth, and how rulers spend and invest their
"They probably would have been better off without their mineral resources," said
J. J. Witkam of Leiden University in The Netherlands. "It is a corrupting
element in any society. But when societies are so unbalanced as most Islamic
countries are, then it gets cancerous proportions."
The United Nations Development Program called oil wealth "a mixed blessing" in a
2003 report that called on Arab countries to reclaim their scientific heritage.
It focused on the 22 members of the League of Arab States and their 280 million
UNDP pointed out that Arab rulers invest much of their oil money in the United
States and other foreign countries, rather than using it to develop their own
nations, and import technical know-how instead of educating ample numbers of
their own citizens to be scientists and engineers. The report also cited "the
pursuit of personal gain, the preference for the private over the public good,
social and moral corruption, the absence of honesty and accountability and many
Experts also link the stagnation of Islamic science to a movement that took root
more than a century ago that contends all knowledge can be found in the Koran.
Meanwhile, the industrialized world has been moving toward a "knowledge society"
fueled by information and liberal education.
Signs of rebirth?
The United Nations Development Program, in a
report published last year, described in often painful detail some of
the factors that have contributed to the decline of science and the rise
of extremism in Arab societies. Among them are:
Increases in average income have been lower
in the Arab world than anywhere else for 20 years, except for the
poorest African countries. "If such trends continue...it will take the
average Arab citizen 140 years to double his or her income, whole other
regions are set to achieve that level in a matter of less than 10
years," the report noted. One in 5 Arabs lives on less than $2 a day.
Arab unemployment is the highest in the developing world.
Surveys show more than half of young Arabs want to leave their countries
and live in the United States or other industrialized countries where
opportunities are better.
The Arab brain drain is the world's worst, with about 25 percent of new
graduates in science, medicine and engineering emigrating each year.
About 1 in 4 Arab adults can neither read nor write. This is a
particular problem among Arab women, 50 per cent of whom are illiterate.
Many children do not attend school.
The quality of education has declined, with many schools teaching mainly
interpretations of the Koran, rather than other knowledge or skills.
Less than 0.6 per cent of Arabs use the Internet and barely 1.2 percent
have access to a personal computer. There are 18 computers per 1,000
Arabs, compared to the global average of 78.3.
During the entire 20th century, fewer than 10,000 books were translated
into Arabic -- equivalent to the number translated into Spanish in a
single year. Religious books account for 17 per cent of new publications
in Arab countries, compared to a world average of 5 per cent.
Censorship stifles ideas, information and innovation. Numerous censors
review book manuscripts, each with the power to edit text or demand
The UNDP report also described what's needed to
re-energize scientific inquiry in Arab and Islamic societies.
It included relatively straightforward suggestions like spending more on
scientific research and ordinary education rather than religious schools. Other
recommendations would involve reinventing new systems of government in some
countries. One called for "guaranteeing the key freedoms of opinion, speech, and
assembly through good governance bounded by law." Some involved correcting
tenacious problems like poverty and unemployment.
"Our civilization once supported a knowledge society that was the envy of the
world," said Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, a U.N. assistant secretary general who helped
prepare the report. "They will do so again if we clear away the defective
social, economic and political structures we have piled upon them. We can free
our minds to reason without fear; free our people's souls to breathe."
Columbia University's Saliba echoed the need to focus on education.
"What's needed to increase research in Islamic countries?," he asked. "The same
thing that is needed in any other country: priority on education, funding,
training of teachers, building better relations between school and home,
educating the parents, allocating higher budgets for education than for defense
-- a situation that is not too different from what we face in this country, as
Arab scientists and governments are making some progress.
In 2000, a group of leading scientists formed the Arab Science and Technology
Foundation in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. The emirates are among a handful of
Arab countries -- which include Egypt, Pakistan, and Jordan -- that are
investing more in science education and research.
Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al-Qassimi, the ruler of Sharjah, donated $1 million
from his own pocket to start the science foundation and provided its $5-million
headquarters building. The foundation hopes to raise $100 million so it can
provide research grants and encourage Arab scientists in other countries to
The emir of Qatar is backing the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and
Community Development, which is building a vast "Education City" featuring
branch campuses of Carnegie Mellon and Cornell universities.
"The pendulum can swing back," wrote
Ibrahim B. Syed
of the University of Louisville (and President of the ISLAMIC RESEARCH
FOUNDATION INTERNATIONAL, INC.) in an article about Islamic medicine:
"One thousand years ago the Muslims were the great torchbearers of international
scientific research. Every student and professional from each country outside
the Islamic Empire aspired, yearned, and dreamed to go to Islamic universities
to learn, to work, to live and to lead a comfortable life in an affluent and
most advanced and civilized society.
"Islamic countries have the opportunity and resources to make Islamic science
and medicine number one in their world once again."
Pittsburgh Post Gazette