By Dr. Yarub Al-Douri
The fear of science, though however common, is an unjustified one, especially when science is solely blamed for the world problems. Nevertheless, there are undeniable tensions between science and religion in some parts of the Islamic world that must be addressed. Anti-scientific attitudes are easy to find in Islamic countries and are now flourishing with thousands of elaborately designed Islamic resources which purport that the Quran Kareem predicts the big bang, black holes, and quantum mechanics. The problem is that many Muslims see modern science as a secular, even atheist, western construct and have forgotten the many wonderful contributions made by Muslim scholars over a thousand years ago. They are unable to separate science from religion and therefore, do not see modern science as indifferent or neutral with respect to the Islamic teachings. Many Muslims today completely reject the notion that science and religion are compatible. In fact, given the current climate of tension and polarization between the Islamic world and the West, it is not surprising that many Muslims feel indignant when accused of not being culturally or intellectually equipped to raise their game when it comes to scientific achievements. To remind both Muslims and non-Muslims of the time when Islam and science were not at odds in a very different world is crucial for science to flourish once again in that part of the world.
Currently, there are over billion Muslims in the world. They include some of the world’s wealthiest nations, some of the poorest, and some that are growing steadily in comparison to the West. The leaders of many of these countries understand that economic growth, military power, and national security intrinsically rely on technological advances. Even though we often hear the rhetoric of the need to have concerted efforts in scientific research, it was found that for the last two decades, the Islamic world spent less than 0.5% of their GDP on research and development compared with 2.5% of GDP spending on scientific research in the developed world. Islamic countries have fewer than 10 scientists, engineers and technicians per 1000 of the population compared to the world average of 40 and 140 for the developed world.
In reminding the Muslim world today of the likes of al-Kindi, al-Khwarizmi, ibn Sina and ibn al-Haytham and their rich scientific and scholarly heritage, and how current understanding of the natural world has been due in no small part to the contributions of Arabic science, that sense of pride can be instilled which could propel the importance of scientific enquiry back to where it belongs. A renowned Pakistani physicist, Pervez Hoodbhoy, highlighted the current problem. He argued at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, that the constraints he encountered are typical of those in many Pakistani public-sector institutions. Quaid-i-Azam University has several mosques on its campus but no bookshop. This is one of the leading research universities in the Islamic world. Contrast this with al-Mamun’s obsession with books and the many wonderful libraries in the medieval Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba.
It would be a gross mistake to single out religious conservatism alone for the lack of scientific progress in the Islamic world. Far more telling are the antiquated administrative and bureaucratic systems that many Islamic countries inherited from their colonial occupiers and that have still not been replaced due to a chronic lack of political will to reform, tackle corruption, and overhaul failing educational systems and institutions.
Scientific researchers require more than just the latest, shiniest equipment and political rhetoric. Simply spending vast amounts of money will not be enough to reignite and rebuild the scientific culture in the Islamic world. Additionally, a clear separation of science from theology must be ensured. A scientific renaissance will not happen overnight and requires not only the political will but also understanding of meaning of both academic freedom and scientific method. But if the Islamic world managed to be the torch-bearers of science in the past, it can surely do so again.
Image (a): Credit © Islam.ru
Image (b): Credit © Museum of the History of Science
) M. A. Anwar, A. B. Abu Bakar, Current state of science and technology in the Muslim world, Scientometric 40 (1997) 23-44
) Perves Amirali Hoodbhoy, Science and Islamic world – the quest for Islamic countries, Physics Today 49 (2007) 49-55
) J. Al-Khalili, Pathfinders – the golden age of Arabic science, Penguin Books, London, (2010).