Science in the Islamic World

A noted Pakistani scientist delivers a troubling assessment.

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Almost every standard world history textbook notes and celebrates Islam's golden age of science. Between the ninth and 13th centuries, Muslim scholars not only translated into Arabic the great works of Greek medicine, mathematics, and science but also pushed forward the frontiers of discovery in all of those areas. Then, toward the end of the 13th century, something mysterious happened: The scientific spirit seemed to die almost completely, henceforth enjoying only a marginal standing in the Muslim world.

Is that beginning to change? After all, most of the 57 countries belonging to the Organization of the Islamic Conference benefit daily from the fruits of science and technology, and most leaders of predominantly Muslim nations at least pay lip service to the importance of scientific education.

According to the distinguished Pakistani scientist Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy, chair of the physics department at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, the news from the Islamic world is not very encouraging. And if his disturbing report in the August issue of Physics Today is accurate, it seems that not only science but the critical reasoning that undergirds it is in a precarious state.

Hoodbhoy marshals an array of data to demonstrate that the commitment to real scientific study and research in Muslim nations still lags far behind international averages. For example, OIC nations can boast only 8.5 scientists per 1,000 population, while the world average is 40.7. Of the lowest national producers of scientific articles in 2003, half are members of the OIC. The 57 OIC countries spend about 0.3 percent of their GNP on research and development, in contrast to the global average of 2.4 percent. Some Muslim nations, it must be said, have recently significantly boosted such spending, but throwing more money at the problem is no good unless it is used by well-educated professionals who are capable of quality work.

And so far, at least, evidence of such quality is lacking. Of the some 1,800 universities in OIC nations, only 312 publish journal articles, and no OIC university was included in the top 500 of the "Academic Ranking of World Universities" that was produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Beyond the data relating to commitment and quality in matters scientific, Hoodbhoy's more unsettling observations bear on the culture and attitudes that prevail in much of the Islamic world, even in those citadels of study and research that are receiving increased funding. To say that intellectual freedom is restricted is, as Hoodbhoy tells it, an understatement. His own university, which is ranked second among OIC academic institutions, has three mosques on its campus but not one bookstore. Like all other Pakistani universities, Hoodbhoy's barred a Nobel-winning Pakistani physicist from coming on its campus because he belonged to a Muslim sect that the government had deemed heretical.

And that's not all. Films, theater, and music are viewed as impious pursuits by religious zealots, some of whom physically attack students who participate or show an interest in those forms of cultural expression. Female students who do not wear veils hear threats that acid may be thrown at their faces if they don't reform. The atmosphere of intimidation has become so menacing, in Hoodbhoy's view, that students in general have become more timid and passive in the classroom.

Throughout the Muslim world, Hoodbhoy says, there is a widespread suspicion that science is heresy—or at least those parts of science that cannot be used, or twisted, to support literalist interpretations of Islamic sacred scriptures. Breakthroughs in science were hailed, on one typical and popular Islamic website, as having been "accurately described in the Muslim Holy Book and by the Prophet Muhammad [PBUH] 14 centuries ago." Needless to say, this suspicion has received both direct and indirect support from other varieties of religious fundamentalism, including the Christian and Hindu ones. (I personally attended an intelligent-design conference in Turkey where two of the featured speakers were Americans, one from an evangelical college and the other from the Discovery Institute. Both might have been a little surprised by how vigorously some of the Muslim speakers not only embraced their views but carried them to new extremes. At one point, one of Turkey's most popular public philosophers took pains to explain why the theological deficiencies of Christianity left it defenseless against the skepticism that came with the rising tides of modern science.)

The real problem in most of the Islamic world, Hoodbhoy says, is an "unresolved tension between traditional and modern modes of thought and social behavior." The benefits of science can be borrowed and used by a civilization without members of that civilization ever comprehending or accepting the mentality—the "idea-system," Hoodbhoy calls it—that enables the scientific enterprise to continue and expand. The core of that idea-system is the scientific method, which requires that facts and hypotheses be checked and rechecked heedless of any established authority. But to the many Muslims who embrace an unreformed or unenlightened literalism, a misapplied submission to authority prevents such a real commitment to the scientific method.

Hoodbhoy sums up the problem eloquently:

"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."

There is, of course, a complicated story about why the Islamic world once countenanced the spirit of bold inquiry and then effectively prohibited it. That is largely a story of theological and political developments, of caliphates and empires falling and rising, of narrow views triumphing over broad ones. Hoodbhoy sets forth the dismal consequences of this larger story with a bracing clarity. But it will be up to other Muslim thinkers to recover the intellectual and theological boldness of an earlier Islam.