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Published online: 1 November 2006; | doi:10.1038/444019a

Islam and Science: Ambition & neglect

Science in the Muslim world

The full Islam and Science special is available from


The war in Iraq, the price of oil, the deadlock over Iran's nuclear ambitions, the terrorism of al-Qaeda and the tensions surrounding immigrant communities in Europe ensure that Islam is rarely far from the headlines. But you would have to be an avid student of Muslim affairs to come across any discussion of science and technology not linked to the development of nuclear weapons.

In this week's issue, Nature offers an unprecedented look at the prospects for science and technology in the Muslim world (see 'Islam and Science: The Islamic world'). We have never before collected together such a range of voices and analysis in one issue.

In ignoring Muslim science, the West follows the lead of the Muslim world itself. Low investment and a low profile combine to keep the scientific community small, marginalized and unproductive. This is not simply a matter of underdevelopment; the oil-rich Gulf states invest pitifully in R&D (see 'Islam and Science: Oil rich, science poor'). In our Commentary section, on Islam and Science: Steps towards reform and Islam and science: Where are the new patrons of science?, Nader Fergany, the lead author of the Arab Human Development Reports, and Herwig Schopper, president of the council for the Middle East laboratory SESAME, offer their own critical analyses of what needs to change to allow science to take off in Muslim countries.

The poor scientific track record of Islamic countries might suggest that there is something about Islam inherently inimical to research. Muslims bristle at this idea, pointing to the major achievements of Muslim scholars under the Islamic caliphate (see timeline, ISLAMIC ERA SCIENCE). But what of the present? Our News Feature on Islam and Science: An Islamist revolution looks at the attitudes to science in the various Islamist organizations growing in power in key states ranging from the Occupied Palestinian Territory to Malaysia. The secular regimes and one-party states that have ruled many Muslim countries are being replaced, or directly challenged, by voices calling for a more directly political Islam.

The conditions in which knowledge flowered a millennium ago are hardly those that today's Islamists say they favour. Back then, support for scientific enquiry was matched by an openness to other cultures and sources of knowledge. But when Islamists come to power the picture is more nuanced than it may first appear. Restrictions on freedom of speech and a high level of investment in military technology are distressing to outsiders, but greater attention to higher education is a trend that could offer hope. Mostafa Moin, an Iranian reformer and scientist, lays out his hopes and fears for the future on Islam and Science: Q&A The reformer.

Greater attention to the challenges of the present is sorely needed. Too few Muslim governments collect data on the status of science and innovation (as our analysis on Islam and Science: The data gap shows), and so the problems facing scientists are not even on their agenda. Muslim nations wanting to invest in science as a broad cultural activity need to extract the right lessons from their glorious past and their politically charged present.


Article brought to you by: Nature



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