Science in Muslim Countries
Sunday, December 02, 2007
I have been an admirer of Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy’s writings on bringing
about a scientific renaissance among modern-day Muslims. His 1991 book, Islam
and Science – Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality, was an
eye-opener for me. The Quran is a book of moral guidance and not a book of
science, he wrote. In one clear sentence, he exposed the inadequacy of Muslims
who would do away with the scientific method and install revelation (as they
understood it) as the source of scientific progress and discovery. His
subsequent writings on the topic only deepened my admiration.
Which was why, in an otherwise incisive
article in Physics Today, I was
disappointed by a solution he proposed for Muslim renaissance in science. Dr.
Hoodbhoy recommends behavioral changes among Muslims to excel in a ruthlessly
global marketplace dominated by science and technology. Such changes would allow
Muslims to develop intense “social work habits” that “are not easily
reconcilable with religious demands made on a fully observant Muslim’s time,
energy, and mental concentrations. The faithful must participate in five daily
congregational prayers, endure a month of fasting that taxes the body, recite
daily from the Quran, 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.”
Dr. Hoodbhoy is suggesting that daily prayers, recitation of the Quran and
month-long Ramadan fasting are hindrances to a Muslim’s attaining scientific
excellence, since they disrupt sustained concentration of the mind. Although he
does not spell out the details of “a more balanced approach,” the implication is
clear: Do away with these religious demands, or, at the very least, reduce their
frequency. How about praying only once at the end of the day, recite the Quran
once a week perhaps, and forego fasting altogether?
I am surprised by the obvious errors Dr. Hoodbhoy has made in his argument.
While it is commendable for Muslims to offer the five daily prayers in
congregations, it is not a must. The prayers (with the exception of the Friday
noon prayer) can be offered in private, taking no more than a few minutes and
very little space. In fact, that is how most observant Muslims meet the
requirements of their faith during workdays in their professional lives. If, for
some reason, they cannot offer the daily prayers in time, they can make them up
His use of the word “endure” for the month of fasting is also perplexing. Most
Muslims do not “endure” fasting but look forward to it as a time of physical
cleansing and heightened spirituality.
The major flaw in Dr. Hoodbhoy’s suggestion is that religious practices prevent
observant Muslims from focusing and maintaining the continuity of their
thoughts, particularly in science. In fact, the opposite is true. Properly
practiced (a challenge for many Muslims for whom religious observances have
become rituals without meaning), prayers and fasting instill discipline, a
prerequisite for concentration. His mentor, Nobel physicist Abdus Salam, is an
obvious example. Salam was one of the great theoretical physicists of the
twentieth century but he was also a devout Muslim, punctilious about the demands
of his faith. In numerous essays and articles, Salam explained how his faith
inspired his science and vice-versa. While most Muslim scientists of our times
can hardly match Salam’s achievement, the science of many of them is also
informed by the awe and wonder inspired by their faith.
So why are Muslim nations so far behind in science compared to the West? Why
does the observation of Turkish-American physicist Taner Edis1 that “if all
Muslim scientists working in basic science vanished from the face of the earth,
the rest of the scientific community would barely notice” ring so true? Why is
creationist literature unleashed by a Turkish clergy named Harun Yahya sweeping
the Muslim world?
One reason is the lack of separation of mosque and state, and consequently,
separation of mosque and science, in many Muslim countries. Science thrives on
unfettered inquiry. If the clergy can impose religious limits on free inquiry
and threaten dire consequences if the limits are transgressed, science can never
Another related reason is the lack of quality education. Take the case of Dr.
Hoodbhoy’s own country, Pakistan. As William Dalrymple noted recently in The
Guardian on the occasion of Pakistan’s 60th independence anniversary2, only 1.8%
of Pakistan's GDP is spent on government schools. 15% of these government
schools are without a proper building; 52% without a boundary wall; 71% without
electricity. Many of the barely functioning schools cram children of all grades
into a single room, often sitting on the floor because of lack of desks. While
65% of India’s population is literate and rising, the figure for Pakistan is 49%
and falling. Out of a population of 162 million, 83 million adults of 15 years
and above are illiterate. It is worse for women: 65% of all female adults are
illiterate. The absence of quality government schooling has compelled poorest
Pakistanis to place their vulnerable children in the madrasa system. Madrasas
offer free education but can turn their young wards into ideologues under the
tutelage of fiery preachers, as the recent red mosque showdown in Islamabad
When one adds to this grim status quo the general lack of accountability and
respect for law by the leaders of many Muslim countries, it is easy to see why
engaging in genuine scientific research can become hazardous to one’s health.
Yet there is hope. Even conservative Muslims, like liberal Muslims, are becoming
aware of the central role of science in defining the destiny of modern nations.
Slowly but surely, they are beginning to see that science does not undermine
religion but enriches it. The critical mass for change will occur sooner or
later. One hopes, of course, that it will occur sooner rather than later.
1. Steve Paulson, The Religious State of Islamic Science: An interview with
Turkish-American physicist Taner Edis, Online Salon magazine, August 13,
2. William Dalrymple, The ‘poor’ neighbor, The Guardian (UK), August 14, 2007
by HZR @