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Science and faith in the Muslim world

David Dickson
27 October 2003

Coming to terms with modern science and technology is a major cultural challenge for all Muslim societies. A new report from the United Nations Development Programme has underlined the extent of the challenge — and the steps required to meet it.

Mahathir Mohamad, who is coming to the end of a 22-year term as prime minister of Malaysia, sparked widespread criticism in the West two weeks ago with an aggressive speech to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in which he claimed, among other things, that Jews ruled the world "by proxy". Continuing in the same vein, he later attacked the World Trade Organisation for seeking to impose a new era of "neo-colonialism" on the developing world, and accused both the United States and Israel of engaging in "state terrorism".

Mahathir’s remarks on these topics were widely condemned. Unfortunately, the outrage that they provoked has overshadowed the main thrust of his arguments, namely that the Muslim world cannot prosper — or even compete with the West — through political or military dominance. Rather, it can only achieve such goals through the use of knowledge (or, as he put it, brain rather than brawn). In particular, it needs to find ways of embracing modern science and technology, while at the same time seeking to ensure that the way in which it does this reinforces, rather than undermines, the religious and cultural values that underpin Islam.

Coincidentally, a similar message was made last week in the latest edition of the Arab Human Development Report, published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Entitled Building a Knowledge Society, the report stresses the importance of building a commitment to modern science within Islamic culture. At the same time, it points to numerous barriers that currently stand in the way of achieving this, from the relatively low level of investment by many Arab states — their average spending on research and development is about 0.2 per cent of gross national product, compared to 2.3 per cent in countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development — to the difficulties in expressing scientific concepts in a language that has changed little over many centuries (see Science communication needs updated Arabic).

Unlike Mahathir, however, the UNDP report also stresses the importance of creating an open social and cultural environment in which science can flourish. A healthy science base needs more than political support and strong funding; it also requires a political commitment that is sufficient to ensure that scientific ideas can be freely exchanged, both within a cultural, and between that culture and others.

As the authors of the report — based in universities and research institutes across the Arab world — emphasise, political instability in many Arab states has subjected scientific institutions to political pressures and power conflicts. "In managing these institutions, political loyalties take precedence over efficiency and knowledge," the authors say. "Power shackles active minds, extinguishes the flame of learning and kills the drive for innovation."

Lessons from the past

Mahathir himself, like many other commentators, pointed out that this has not always been the case in the Muslim world. Indeed for many centuries, the flame of learning shone more brightly within Muslim society than almost anywhere else. Inspired by passages in the Koran that state clearly the need to encourage learning about the natural world, Muslim scientists and intellectual were responsible for a steady stream of ground-breaking ideas, from mathematics to biology.

Then things went wrong. A commitment to religious dogma replaced a desire for the open-minded pursuit of knowledge, just at a time when Western Europe was rediscovering its own intellectual roots in the civilisations of Greece and Rome, laying the intellectual groundwork for what was to become the Industrial Revolution. The more that Western technology prospered, the more determined many Islamic philosophers became in being able to offer an alternative way of life, one that challenged the fruits of modern science.

Mahathir may have taken a critique of this position too far when he complained that one consequence was to deprive Muslim states of the military technology they now require to face up to aggression from Western powers (and to ask, by implication, for a substantial increase in military research and development as a component of essential modernisation). Although it is certainly true that advanced weaponry has been a byproduct of modern science, it is misleading to argue that the linkage is necessarily a desirable one.

Nevertheless his underlying message is an important one — namely that, in its philosophical roots, Islam has much more in common with modern science than the policies and declarations of many Muslim states (particularly those dominated by religious fundamentalists) appear to imply. The message is important for the West, which needs a far better appreciation of the contemporary relevance of Muslim thinking than is generally acknowledged. And it is important within Muslim states themselves, where a commitment to critical inquiry, the central component of basic research, is a crucial weapon in the fight against fundamentalism.

 Mutual understanding

Of course, increasing the receptiveness of such states to modern science does not necessarily mean endorsing everything that comes with it in the West. In the past decades, the Western world has increasingly experienced problems that are created by divorcing scientific enterprise from any moral or ethical commitment, whether in the form of challenges to human dignity (as witnessed in the current debate over human cloning), or in downplaying the likely impacts of science-based technologies on natural ecological cycles (the most recent focus of the debate over genetically modified crops).

In such areas, it would be naïve to make excessive claims of what Islam has to teach the West. Indeed it sometimes seems that, in their own pursuit of modernisation, parts of the Muslim world can at times appear even blinder to the need for moderation in their espousal of modern technologies than the societies that its religious leaders criticise so vigorously. Nevertheless it remains true that, in many cases — and certainly at key historical periods — Muslim culture has managed to maintain a dual commitment to scientific and ethical values, including an appreciation of the natural world, in a way that the West would do well to emulate.

At the same time, it is important that Muslim societies remain open to those ideas that are responsible for much of the vigour both of the societies and the science of the West. The authors of the UNDP report list some of these: "openness, interaction, assimilation, absorption, revision, criticism and examination". Of course, the lack of commitment to such ideals is not only to be found in Muslim societies, as indicated by recent comments made by US Lieutenant General William Boykin, who claimed that US forces in Iraq were engaged in a "spiritual battle" against Satan (comments that Mahathir himself was quick to use to back up his own case). The real challenge is how to incorporate these values into Islamic culture in a robust way; once that is achieved, and the need for adequate investment in research is recognised in political circles, science is likely to flourish with little extra support.

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