Islam vs. Science
Are Muslim beliefs compatible with critical inquiry? A new study is sparking debate
Almost every standard world history textbook celebrates Islam's golden age of science. Between the ninth and 13th centuries, Muslim scholars not only translated the great works of Greek medicine, mathematics, and science but also pushed the frontiers of discovery in all of those areas. They improved and named algebra, refined techniques of surgery, advanced the study of optics, and charted the heavens. Then, toward the end of the 13th century, something mysterious happened: The scientific spirit seemed to die almost completely.
Today, most predominantly Muslim countries benefit daily from the fruits of science and technology, and most of the leaders of these nations at least pay lip service to the importance of scientific education. Arab analysts, in recent U.N.-backed reports on the deplorable state of human development in 22 Arab countries, have consistently called for more robust support for "knowledge acquisition" as a crucial step toward catching up with other regions of the world.
Lagging behind. Yet 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 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, the 57 nations of the Organization of the Islamic Conference 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 OIC countries spend about 0.3 percent of their gross national product on research and development, in contrast to the global average of 2.4 percent.
Some Muslim nations have recently boosted such spending, but throwing money at the problem is no good unless it is used by well-educated professionals who are capable of quality work. And so far, evidence of such quality is lacking. Of the approximately 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, 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 that are receiving more funding. To say that intellectual freedom is restricted is, as Hoodbhoy tells it, an understatement. His own university, ranked second among OIC academic institutions, has three mosques on its campus but not one bookstore. Like all other Pakistani universities, it barred a Nobel-winning Pakistani physicist from 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. 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.