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.
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.
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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.
Throughout the Muslim world, 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 scriptures. Needless to say, this suspicion has received support from other varieties of religious fundamentalism, including the Christian and Hindu ones.
Some modern scholars make a more serious intellectual argument for the compatibility of science and traditional Islamic thought. And those thinkers believe that ignorance of an Islamically based understanding of science is what really impedes its pursuit in the contemporary Muslim world.
One of the more articulate proponents of that position is the Iranian-born philosopher of science Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University and the author of, among other books, Science and Civilization in Islam. Educated at MIT and Harvard, Nasr has long argued that Islamic science must be understood “not as a chapter in the history of western science, but as an independent way of looking at the work of nature.” Nasr insists that traditional Muslim scientists never went the way of Descartes and Newton in reducing the physical world to its material and mechanistic aspects. Nor did Muslims accept that humans can know this world with certainty only through its quantifiable properties. Instead, traditional Muslim scientists held that a full understanding of nature also required seeing its parts as signs of divine purpose. Furthermore, Nasr holds, this approach to science did not die at the end of the 13th century but inspired work in fields such as medicine through the 16th and 17th centuries.
But change did come during the colonial period. Not only did Europeans impose their approach to science on Muslim elites, but many Muslim reformers themselves advocated the adoption of modern science as the best means of catching up with the West. Yet in their zeal, Nasr says, these reformers carelessly tossed aside the rich perspectives of traditional Islamic thought for more streamlined–and often more literalist–approaches to sacred teaching. “This effort didn’t go very far,” Nasr says, “because instead of being integrated into Islamic culture, the science was merely tacked on.”
Nasr’s call for an Islamic approach to modern science has no shortage of critics who see it as spurious (and as politically correct) as appeals for Indian science, Chinese science, or even feminist science. But even scholars who acknowledge that culture may have some effect on how people conceive the practice of science say that, finally, certain standards of scientific practice must be upheld, whether the work is being done in Bombay or Beirut.
And the real problem in most of the Islamic world, Hoodbhoy insists, is an “unresolved tension between traditional and modern modes of thought and social behavior.” Muslims who embrace uncritical literalism cannot embrace the scientific method, which requires that facts and hypotheses be tested heedless of any established authority. Hoodbhoy sums up the problem eloquently:
“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.”
This story appears in the September 10, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.