Science and the Islamic World
Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy
August 2007, page 49
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.
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
Ottoman Empire astronomers
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 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
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 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.
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
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.)
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
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
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 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 example.
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 are infrequent.
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-***-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 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 male
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
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
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
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
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2. 2. M. A. Anwar, A. B. Abu Bakar, Scientometrics 40, 23 (1997).
3. 3. For additional statistics, see the special issue "Islam and Science,"
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4. 4. M. Yalpani, A. Heydari, Chem. Biodivers. 2, 730 (2005).
5. 5. Statistical, Economic and Social Research and Training Centre for Islamic
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available at [LINK].
6. 6. The News, Islamabad, 24 April 2007, available at [LINK].
7. 7. For more information on the red heifer venture, see [LINK].
8. 8. N. Fergany et al., Arab Human Development Report 2002, United Nations
Development Programme, Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, New York