Task Force Essay: Science Education in Universities in the Islamic World

June 19th, 2015 | by MuslimScience
Task Force Essay: Science Education in Universities in the Islamic  World
February 2015

Dr. El Tayeb Mustafa

President, the Future University

10881762_778953362180080_8561438773100851984_nHow is science taught in Muslim universities? What are the languages being used? What are the credentials and pedagogical competencies of the professors? What textbooks are being used? What resources are available? Is there a reasonable balance between the offering of basic science programs (e.g. pure mathematics, theoretical/basic physics, etc.) and applied science programs? Are any science fields or topics avoided for cultural/religious reasons? Is the theory of evolution taught everywhere (and how)?  These are some of the issue that this short essay attempts to shed light on. At the outset, we must underline the fact that a comprehensive study of some of these requires a detailed survey that falls beyond the objective of this assay.

The state of science and technology in the Islamic World has often been referred to as poor. Comparisons of the main indicators: the Global Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD), the number of scientists per million, the knowledge Economy Index (KEI) and the Global Innovation Index (GII), demonstrate that the Islamic World is lagging behind in science and technology.

According to the latest data on the Global Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD), released by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics 20141, the vast majority of the Muslim countries are below 1%, with the exception of Tunisia 1.03%, Malaysia 1.1%. Next is Turkey (0.86%), Iran (0.75) and Morocco (0.73%). Much more modest are the percentages of Egypt (0.43%), Jordan (0.4%), United Arab Emirates (0.49 and Lebanon (0.30%). Finally, other countries (Oman, Algeria, Syria, etc.) do not even reach 0.2%.

Another important indicator of the poor state of science and technology and its linkage to the economy is the Knowledge Economy Index (KEI) 2. Developed by the World Bank, this indicator, with the highest value of 1, lists 142 countries in a descending order. Five countries out of the 57 OIC countries are among the top 50 countries; the first Muslim country is the UAE which ranks 42 followed by Bahrain 43, Oman 47, Malaysia 48 and Saudi Arabia 50.


According to the latest data on the Global Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD), released by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the vast majority of the Muslim countries are below 1%, with the exception of Tunisia 1.03%, Malaysia 1.1%. Next is Turkey (0.86%), followed by Iran (0.75) and Morocco (0.73%). Much more modest are the percentages of Egypt (0.43%), Jordan (0.4%), United Arab Emirates (0.49 and Lebanon (0.30%). Finally, other countries (Oman, Algeria, Syria, etc.) do not even reach 0.2%.

According to the last Global Innovation Index 20 14 3, 10 developing countries are among the top 50 innovative countries. The list includes Malta (25), Cyprus (30), Malaysia (33), United Arab Emirates (36), Saudi Arabia (38), Mauritius (40), Barbados (41), Chile (46) and Qatar (47).

These figures, however, mask the fact that the Islamic world is not a region such as Europe, Asia or Latin America. It is in fact a conglomerate of countries spreading over three continents: Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Moreover, it regroups countries with varying standards of living. Among the countries with high living standards are the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Brunei and Malaysia with per capita incomes among the highest in the word. There are many others with average per capita income such as Oman, Turkey and Iran. On the other end, there are many countries with low per capita income such as Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Chad, Comoros and Eritrea.

Before we dwell into the problems of science education in the Islamic World, we must state clearly that science education is a global problem. Many industrialized countries are facing enormous difficulties in this field. They are witnessing a steady decline in the interest in science among students. They also suffer from an acute shortage of teaching staff. The famous report of the National Academies Raising above the gathering storm, commissioned by the American Government demonstrates the seriousness of the matter in the United States. To respond to these challenges, they are developing new inquiry-based methods of teaching science in schools. Good examples are La Main A La Patte in France and STEM in the USA.


Universities (and schools) in the Islamic World are facing a decline in the number of students enrolling in science fields. They also suffer from a severe shortage of qualified staff. Most importantly, the students are not taught to think scientifically as stated by Bruce Alberts who said “Rather than learning how to think scientifically, students are generally being told about science and asked to remember facts. I am afraid not only students are taught that way but the teachers too were taught that way”. 4

Another important factor is that the oil-rich countries did not realize the importance of science and technology in their future economic development. Only lately that they adopted policies based on the realization that their sustainable development and progress depends on the application of scientific and technological knowledge and know-how in the various sectors of economy. Higher Education in the Islamic countries used to depend on a few excellent universities. With the increasing demand on higher education, governments launched new institutions of higher learning and encouraged the private sector to invest in higher education.  As a result, new universities were established in all those countries both private and public. This large number of institutions requires a corresponding number of teaching staff especially in the fields of science, engineering and technology.

A close look at the teaching of sciences curricula shows that the curricula in Islamic World are not very differ from those in western universities. In the biological sciences, for example, universities use the same scientific textbooks and references. For example, the most popular textbook for first and second level courses in Biology are the famous Campbell’s Biology and Banaszak, L., (2000). Foundations of Structural Biology. Academic Press, San Diego.  There are, of course, additional textbooks or references in local languages.


To illustrate this fact, here are the topics in a typical Biology curriculum: Classification of living organisms stressing evolutionary relations as the bases for classification, speciation, Genetics, population genetics: covering genes, gene-environment interaction, variation, evolution, adaptation, natural selection, fitness, Research methodology, Biotechnology and recombinant DNA technology, cloning, tissue culture, applications of genetic engineering in agriculture industry and medicine. The same applies to earth sciences and geology where curricula include: geological times and the evolution of life through geological eras, Paleontology, theories about the evolution of life, Embryology and Comparative anatomy of Vertebrates. The same applies for all courses in chemistry and Physics.

Let us now examine and compare with the contents of the curriculum of biological sciences as taught in the University of Oxford: Cells and genes, Organisms, Ecology, evolution, quantitative methods, Adaptations to the environment, Animal behavior, Cell and developmental biology, Disease, Ecology, Plants and people.

One of the reasons why teaching of science in Muslim universities is similar to teaching of science in the West, is the fact that most of these universities adopted one of the British, French or American systems. Although most of the staff that exists in these universities is Muslim, but they have fostered their knowledge about Science in non –Islamic countries, some of them were graduated there and some have also done their post-graduate education there.

Although, in general, science is taught in universities in the Islamic world as it taught in the West, it is fair to say that the way in which the subjects are taught may differ from one country to another. It is noteworthy to mention that although the contents of science curricula is similar, there are notable differences in the methodologies used as well as some boundary conditions that the teachers find themselves unable to surpass.  The teaching of science in the UK is now shifting from giving the students scientific facts to a mode whereby the students are taught how science works. Likewise, in Singapore, universities are now breaking away from lectures as the classical mode of delivery; students now have all their courseware in their tablets or laptops, they study at home and come to the university to discuss and exchange.

The languages used in teaching Science are Arabic and English or Arabic and French simultaneously. Although English is still used in many universities, there is a strong pressure on these universities to shift to Arabic or other local language. This particularly true for the undergraduate studied.

Usually the subjects of basic studies (physics, mathematics and chemistry) are essential and constitute 40% of the applied science and engineering programmes. This ratio is based on the understanding that, without a solid background in basic sciences, the performance of the students in applied Agencies and engineering tends to decline.


On teaching Darwin’s theory of Evolution

 In the recent past, the Darwin’s theory of evolution was taught in many universities in the Islamic World. Even today, evolution is taught in universities such as the Moroccan Mohammad V University, the capital’s oldest higher-education public institution. It is still the only one of its kind at a public university. What is remarkable and unexpected is the fact that evolution is offered as elective course within a Master programme in King Abdalla University for Science and technology (KAUST) because teaching evolution is banned in Saudi Arabia.

Evolution theory is also taught in a fragmented way at the undergraduate level in many universities in the Islamic world in the biology courses. In others such as Sudan, where it used to be taught as a full course, is now timidly taught in an integrated manner in biology topics. In all cases evolution theory is in the center of most of these topics. Many people do not accept it because they think it does not allow for their belief in Creation. The geological times and fossil records are scientifically acceptable but when it deals with the evolution of life it contradicts with their faith.

Medical Sciences deals with life. This is another point of conflict between what medical professionals were taught in medical schools and the beliefs and taboos prevalent in their society relation to the definition of life. In all those situations, the teaching in Islamic countries is generally in sync with the way science is taught in the west. The difference comes when teachers-either by conviction or obligation-point to what they perceive as conflict with religious beliefs.

It is very rare though that reference is made to Muslim scholars such Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) and his evolutionary philosophy. In his famous Al Mokaddima, he wrote about the origin of life: “…It started out from the minerals and progressed, in an ingenious, gradual manner, to plants and animals. The last stage of minerals is connected with the first stage of plants, such as herbs and seedless plants. The last stage of plants, such as palms and vines, is connected with the first stage of animals, such as snails and shellfish which have only the power of touch. The word ‘connection’ with regard to these created things means that the last stage of each group is fully prepared to become the first stage of the next group. “The animal world then widens, its species become numerous, and, in a gradual process of creation, it finally leads to man, who is able to think and reflect. The higher stage of man is reached from the world of the monkeys, in which both sagacity and perception are found, but which has not reached the stage of actual reflection and thinking. At this stage we come to the first stage of man.” 5

I am convinced that the problem of science education lies in the schools and not in the universities. It is in the schools that the main scientific facts and concepts are taught. It is also true that in several Muslim countries the curricula are being modified to conform to the religious thoughts. This process is known as Ta’aseel, often translated as Authentication. This revision of the curricula will have a lasting impact on the children minds by convincing them that any scientific fact that contradicts the religion must necessary be incorrect.  I, therefore, believe that it is urgent to counter this movement, which has been going for some years. One effective method is to introduce the Inquiry-based Science Education (IBSE).

It appears from the above that there is an urgent need to train the teachers on science and math education. They will likely improve the level of the students and consequently make it led difficult to graduate qualified. Conscious of this, the Future University, a private university of technology decided to tackle the problem of science education at schools. They explored the various methods, used in different parts of the world, such as IBSE (France), STEM (USA), Microscience (South Africa, UNESCO). In close cooperation with the Ministry of General Education, the university organized a teachers training workshop with major support from the International Centre for South-South Cooperation in Science, Technology and Innovation (ISTIC). A total of 42 teachers from the 17 States in Sudan as well as participants from neighboring countries were trained. Several international organizations and Academies participated in this event; this included the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), the World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), Sudanese National Academy of Sciences (SNAS) and the Egyptian Academy for scientific research and Technology.

The following international experts attended the Round Table and the Workshop: Pr. Adnan Badran, former Prime Minister of Jordan, Pr. Bruce Alberts, former President of the National Academies (USA); Dato Lee Yee Cheong, Chairman of ISTIC Governing Board, (Malays), Pr. Yves Quere, the French Academy of Sciences, Pr. Alec Boksenberg, Cambridge University, Pr. Mohammed Hassan IAP Co-Chair and R. Maurenzi, the Executive director of TWAS.

The most important development was the presence of the Minister of Education, not only during the opening ceremony, but throughout the Roundtable and the training workshop.  From the experiences of other countries, we know that the introduction of IBSE takes time. It also requires continuous support for its sustainability.  It is for this reason that the presence of high-level personalities was necessary; it served to send the message that IBSE is an important matter. We also made sure that there was adequate media coverage to sensitize the public about IBSE. All these efforts ensured the success of the introduction of IBSE in the Sudan.

During the second stage of this initiative, which will begin in February 2015, we shall examine the possibility of introducing the Islamic discoveries in the school science curricula. The exercise will be based on the methodology developed by LAMAP6 and translated into Arabic by the Islamic World Academy of Sciences. The method covers the following topics: a) light and vision: al-Haytham. b) The discovery of pulmonary circulation by Ibn al-Nafis d) The theory of the rainbow by al-Farisi.  e) The astrolabe or the heavens in your hand; Science and art: an example of symmetry; the invention of the water pump by al-Jazari. f) An introduction to the Arabic alchemy. g) The still and distillation of water and i) The discovery of the “balance of wisdom”.

 The overall objective of this initiative is to try and reconcile the young generation of Muslim pupils and student with science and demonstrate the essential fact this science is a common heritage.


  1. UNESCO Institute for Statistics, (
  2. World Bank (2014), Knowledge Economy Indicators, (
  3. Cornell University, INSEAD and WIOP (2014), The Global Innovation Index 2014
  4. Bruce Alberts: (2009), Redefining Science Education, Science, 323.
  5. Ghafaar Hussein (2013), Muslim Theory of Evolution,(
  6. Djebbar, A., Hosson. C., Jasmin, D. (2009) The discoveries in the Islamic countries, edition le Pommier, ISBN 978-2-7465-0379-3



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