Ismail Serageldin – Egypt’s Renaissance Man

May 1st, 2014 | by MuslimScience
Ismail Serageldin – Egypt’s Renaissance Man

By Dr. Athar Osama


“Science has much to say.

Science has much to say to the Islamist zealots who preach an intolerant doctrine.

It has much to say to young democrats enamored of the new technologies.

It has much to say to those who yearn for a better economic future.

And more importantly, it has much to say about the kind of values that we must adopt if our societies are to be truly open and democratic, for these are the values of science.”

– Dr. Ismail Serageldin (The Values of Science, 2011)


An enigma of sorts, Ismail Serageldin wears many hats. His personality shines forth in a variety of shades and its myriad roles. The aphorism ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ is proven wrong by Serageldin, as he is a prime example of the master of all trades owing to the exceptional talents he has acquired over the course of his life, encountering unique experiences, and steering the helm of several arts , whilst gaining utmost respect and appreciation in each.

It is sometimes said, that the age of polymaths is long gone for phenomena, and knowledge has now become so complex, that it is hard for a single soul to master – or even operate – well across several domains. Instead, it is sometimes said, that multidisciplinary teams are the way to approach today’s complex problems, like global warming, food security, resource mobilization, etc. Nevertheless, if there is one individual in the Islamic World that comes near to the definition of a true polymath – the Renaissance Man – it is no other, than Ismail Serageldin of Egypt.

Serageldin, born in 1944 in Giza, grew up in Cairo and graduated in 1964 with a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering, from Cairo University. He later graduated with a Masters and PhD from Harvard University. He began his career as an economist and over time, delved in a range of fields and disciplines of inquiry, including, environment and ecology, water, agriculture, philosophy, humanities, and the sciences.

The Bibliotheca Alexandria

The Bibliotheca Alexandria

The depth and breadth of his intellectual canvass is so vast, that Serageldin was honored with 33 Honorary Doctorates fields as diverse as sociology, agriculture, international affairs, science, economics, laws, and arts, among others. Serageldin has published over 60 books and monographs and over 200 papers on a variety of topics including biotechnology, rural development, sustainability, and the value of science to society. In his home country, Serageldin, who is fondly referred to as the “most intelligent man in Egypt.”

During the several decades of his public career, Serageldin has held several important high positions including the Vice Presidency of the World Bank (1993-1998), Chairmanship of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR, 1994–2000), Chairmanship of the Global Water Partnership (1996–2000), the Chairmanship of Consultative Group to Assist the Poorest, a microfinance program (1995–2000) and the Chairmanship of the World Commission for Water in the 21st Century (August 1998-March 2000). For his tremendous public service across the range of these platforms, Serageldin was awarded the Public Welfare Medal, from the National Academy of Sciences, in May 2011. He has also received numerous other international awards from several countries, including, the Order of the Rising Sun from Japan and the Legion d’Honneur and the Commandeur of Arts and Letters of the French Republic.

Despite these momentous achievements, Dr. Serageldin is not without critics. He is a self-described secularist  and has received fierce backlash from several communities. They most significantly came to the forefront when he refused to have a mosque built in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the library for which he is the Founding Director. He is also known to be closely allied with former President Hosni Mobarik and his family and was once accused of embezzling funds into Suzzanne Mobarak’s accounts. The charges, however, remain unproven. These allegations came to the fore a few years ago, when Islamists in Egypt made an attempt to replace the Royal Library of Alexandria with a mosque.

His defenders and proponents consider him to be a preacher of Islamic liberalism, a modern scholar who sides with reason and tolerance in a society rampant with irrationality and extremism. For instance, in his essay ‘Islam, Science, and Values’ Serageldin notes:

Ismail Serageldin receives lifetime Africa Achievement Prize, December 2010

Ismail Serageldin receives lifetime Africa Achievement Prize, December 2010

“As the world explores the marvels of the genes and breaks down the secrets of the atom and reaches to the stars and calculates the age of the oldest rocks … we in the Muslim world debate “the hadith of the fly”… we debate whether a woman’s nail polish prevents her from having full ablutions, we look with suspicion on the new and try to erect barriers to limit where our minds may range… It is always amazes me to find this pernicious debate on “Islam and Science” being put forward as if they are contradictory.”

He also challenges the idea that ‘the nature of knowledge and truth is such that it precludes a true Muslim from being a practicing scientist, or accepting scientific evidence’ and goes on to challenge the Muslim Scientist to: “let us not waste time on artificial and misleading dichotomies that are neither supported by the primary sources nor by the historical record of the Muslim societies.”

Dr. Ismail Serageldin is a passionate advocate of education. As the founding Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina – one of the largest learning institutions in this part of the World, he believes that the only way any nation can guarantee its prosperity, is if it focuses on education and science, and “…cultures a better understanding of its future.” A very staunch believer in this idea, Serageldin certainly appears as a man of black and white beliefs, for whom certain strict demarcations decide all.

Ismail Serageldin receives honorary doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin, December 2009

Ismail Serageldin receives honorary doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin, December 2009

One would think that a man with so many achievements will be anything but modest. But that, Serageldin is not. Although he claims complete credit for the creation and establishment of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, he is ready and willing to accept his mistakes and acknowledge his inadequacies when needed. During the closing ceremony of a conference in 2010, he publicly apologized to Rashad Hussain, President Obama’s special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, saying, “I spoke to him in a tone that appeared to him to be dismissive, and I apologize for that.”

Serageldin is a staunch advocate of the freedom of expression. He feels that rules or practices that limit freedom of expression, are better done away with. At times, his passionate promotion and defense of his ideas may make him appear condescending, rude or stepping out of the boundaries, but, he strongly believes in peoples’ freedom to speak what’s on their minds, including those of other faiths, who choose to attack Islam.

For instance, he notes “Do you think that in the last 1,400 years, there were not books attacking Islam everywhere, there were colonial powers everywhere, and despite that Islam has spread throughout the world. So let us not be afraid of opinions and ideas; we can fight ideas with ideas.”

Dr. Serageldin shines as one of the foremost liberals in an illiberal world, a paragon of rationality and reason in a particularly irrational milieu and a staunch champion of science in an ignorant epoch of the Muslim World.

His efforts to improve the lot of his people are vastly visible in this part of the world and he continues to infuse a healthy sense of self-belief into people as, he believes, it is only belief in oneself that can trigger development as a whole. Serageldin would not have it any other way.


Ismail Serageldin with the Dalai Lama

Ismail Serageldin with the Dalai Lama







4Serageldin, I., 1996, Islam, Science, and Values



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