TaskForce Essay: Are Muslim World’s Universities spreading a Culture of Science?

June 19th, 2015 | by MuslimScience
TaskForce Essay: Are Muslim World’s Universities spreading a Culture of Science?
February 2015

By: Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, FIAS

President of Republic of Mauritius

4411839_3_9752_ameenah-gurib-fakim-le-18-avril-2014_aace471e81046427d77d2df611750eef“Let us first consider what state of things is described by the word ‘Civilization’. Its true test lies in the fact that people living in it making bodily welfare the object of life…. The people of Europe today live in better-built houses than they did a hundred years ago…. Formerly, they wore skins, used spears as their weapons. Now they wear long trousers, and … instead of spears, they carry with them revolvers… Formerly, in Europe, people ploughed their lands mainly by manual labor. Now, one man can plough a vast tract by means of steam engines and can thus amass great wealth… Formerly, men travelled in wagons. Now, they fly through the air in trains at the rate of four hundred and more miles per day…. Formerly when people wanted to fight with one another, they measured between them their bodily strength; now it is possible to take away thousands of lives by one man working behind a gun from a hill…. There are now diseases of which people never dreamt of before, and an army of doctors is engaged in finding out their cures, and so hospitals have increased. This is a test of civilization… What more need I say?

The civilization is such that one has only to be patient and it will be self destroyed. According to the teaching of Muhammad this would be considered a satanic civilization. Hinduism calls it the Black Age… It must be shunned…”

Mahatma Gandhi




The above mentioned quote uttered almost a century ago, still translates the lack of trust that peoples from the East and those of Islamic belief still harbor vis a vis the Sciences and Medicine, in general. Since the eruption of Islam from the Arabian deserts in the 7th century, there have been repeated clashes between East and West and the West have systematically won this clash of civilizations, and one of the main reasons has been the superiority of Western Science, which has not always existed. Religious fervor only partially helped establish the Caliphate extending from Southern Spain all the way to Afghanistan.

Whilst the Abbasid Caliphate was at the cutting edge of the Science, the Arab world could boast to being home to the first true institutions of higher learning – the University of Al-Karaouine in Fez was founded in 859. Building on Greek and Indian foundations, Muslim mathematicians established the algebra (Arabic al-jabr) meaning ‘restoration’ as a discipline distinct from arithmetic and geometry. The first truly experimental scientist was Al-Haytam whose 7-volume book of Optics overthrew many misconceptions such as ‘we are able to see because our eyes emit light’.

The West owes a debt to the medieval Muslim world, for both its custodianship and classical wisdom and generation of new knowledge in cartography, medicine, philosophy as well as in mathematics and optics.  Those stars of the Sciences are the forbearers of the Muslim and the Arab world. Their great tradition is also our tradition, our history and our legacy. As the English thinker Roger Bacon had acknowledged that ‘Philosophy is drawn from the Muslims’. This is really captured in the voice of Ibn Al-Nafis.

“When hearing something unusual, do not preemptively reject it, for that would be folly. Indeed, horrible things may be true, and familiar and praised things may prove to be lies. Truth is truth itself, not because [many] people say it is.” – Ibn Al-Nafis, Sharh’ Ma’na Al Qanun

The question that comes to mind then is ‘How did the Muslim world come to fall behind the West in the realm of Science? How can OIC countries which house 70% of the world’s gas and oil resources; 25% of the world’s natural resources and with 25% of the world’s population have fallen behind so badly. This is measured also in collective GDP’s – the GDP of the entire Islamic world is estimated to be around 1.200 BN US$ which is less than of France and quarter that of Japan.

Part of the answer can be obtained when one considers the statistics of the OIC’s. Present statistics report that the Muslim world has only about 550 universities in all of its 57 OIC countries taken together compared to 8.407 Universities in India and with 1.2 Billion people. The United States, with less than 0.5billion people, has 5.758 universities. Out of this 1.4 billion Muslims, 800 million are illiterate (6 out of 10 Muslims cannot read). Large numbers of children in Africa and Arab countries are still shut out of classrooms with primary school participation at below 60% in 17 OIC countries. Illiteracy among Muslim women can be as high as 70%.

Whilst resources were behind booming economies in OIC’s, it is a fact that knowledge is now the main driving force of world economies and the basis of socio-economic transformation of individual countries. Recent advances in Information Technology, Biotechnology and other emerging disciplines hold immense prospects for the wellbeing of Mankind as a whole. Yet most OIC member states do not have a sound policy for increasing investment in basic and tertiary education as well as scientific research. They spend between 0.1-0.2% of their very small GDP on scientific research and contribute less than 1% to the world’s scientific literature. In contrast, 95% of the new science in the world is created in the developed world, which comprises only 1/5th of the world’s population and thereby owns most of the wealth of earth. This faulty vision has resulted in a number of problems such as low literacy rate, slow economic growth, increasing dependence on the West and transfer of resources from OIC member countries to the advanced world.

OIC leaders must understand that the exclusive reliance on borrowed technologies from other countries can only impede development and progress. Investment must be made in scientific and technological research both in basic and applied sciences and in frontier technologies. These should be made an integral part of respective national development plans. Thus the real wealth of countries whether they are resource-rich or resource-poor remains the talented students and youths. It is through harnessing this potential that true progress will be made.

As mentioned, the golden era of science and philosophy in the Islamic World lasted during the 700-1400 AD. This period witnessed unprecedented intellectual activities directed at unraveling the mysteries of nature and were characterized by the development of critical and analytical thinking that are such essential features in modern Science. These thought processes led to the Renaissance in Europe and laid the foundation of the modern era. Alas, this spirit of enquiry and analysis were replaced by dogma and ignorance, resulting in the erosion of the scientific spirit and accompanying political power in the Muslim world.

History has shown time and time again that advances in Science and Technology are necessary prerequisites for political and economic strength – a lesson that we seem to have forgotten and rituals has replaced the true dynamism that previously existed in the Muslim world.

It is acknowledged that tremendous advances have been made in the fields of Science and Technology in the last few decades. It is acknowledged that almost all facets of human existence – Communication, IT, Agriculture, Engineering have all been transformed by inputs from S & T essentially in the West. In these countries, policies have been put in place to translate research findings into processes and products as the leaders in these countries strongly believe that the cornerstone to their respective development program embraces S & T.

Similarly, it is therefore imperative that OIC member countries invest massively in education at all levels without neglecting basic and applied sciences. We should learn to shrug off this sick dependence that we have on the West for meeting all their needs such as IT, Machinery, Pharmaceuticals, etc.

For this to happen, the Muslim world should start by investing in the setting up of World-class Centres of Excellence and Universities. The latter are institutions where knowledge is created and applied towards the development of new products and processes. Nonetheless, resource-rich OIC countries must realize that their wealth is still NOT physical and natural resources but their youth – both male and female. Their creativity must be unleashed through the right level of investment, sustained opportunities so that they contribute to national development.

OIC Member states present widely differing scenarios in terms of Human capital, capital resources and infrastructure. Most of them are least developed and heavily dependent not only on foreign technology for most of their needs but even foreign aid towards budget support. While they espouse the wish to become self reliant, they sorely lack the necessary trained human capital even though many of them are endowed with natural resources.

Generally, richer OICs opt for expensive turnkey technology, buying whatever is available.

This puts the West in a highly enviable position of technology producers with less developed countries as technology-consumers thereby enhancing the ‘knowledge and technology-divide’. Often, the same Muslim scientists who would have failed to secure opportunities in their respective countries would have developed these new technologies. Often these scientists would have moved overseas where they benefit from appropriate research environment from where they can operate freely and productively. In gauging the wealth or poverty of many OIC countries and the impact of technology, it would be interesting to look at the input of technology in the economy of Finland: Nokia sales alone contribute to 26 BNUS$ and the GDP of Finland is 240 BNUS$.

OIC countries should shy away from producing low value goods as they can never help to create wealth. The latter can only be created with the higher end products from technology such as pharmaceuticals, products coming from biotechnology, computers, software and which essentially come from the West. Many such discoveries and development would have emerged from University research, provided institutions has invested and maintained the enabling environment.

Resource-rich countries can boast of owning natural resources but transforming them into high value products is another ball game altogether. The young and bright youngsters of these countries should be challenged into these areas of research. It is only with the education system inculcates critical and lateral thinking that such challenges can be tackled. However to achieve that level of finesse, requires strong academic leadership which unfortunately many OIC countries sorely lack. Yet, there is no dearth of these strong leaders but they are operating away from the OIC’s.


For such strong leadership to emerge in the OIC and in the developing world there are a few key factors that need to come together and only then changes will happen:

Prior to looking at Tertiary education, there is a need to take a closer look at the quality of education among boys and girls at a very young age. They should be taught to avoid learning by rote and reproduce facts with the sole aim of passing exams. They should be taught to challenge the status quo through their learning process.  For this to happen, these young children should be taught discipline and to look up to their teachers and respect them. For the teachers to stay, they must be paid a decent salary and have an appropriate environment where they can perform and be creative.

As soon as these youngsters have left high schools, they must be able to integrate Universities but purely on merit. The institution must also be a place where appointment and promotion are on merit and where there is accountability. These are the ingredients that promote transparency and work towards a culture of brain-gain.

OIC leaders must provide the necessary funds to upgrade respective Universities and promote a culture of excellence comparable to any internationally recognized Centre of Excellence. Staff members and research students will be competing internationally to have their research findings published in journals of repute. Both basic and applied research should be carried out as the former will generate new knowledge and data.

This fourth factor is concerned with the application of research and technology for industrial development and where interaction between researchers and the business community is called for. This close interaction with the private sector is weak not just in OIC but in the developing world as well. They have not been able to put in place a structure that would provide Venture Capital to entrepreneurial scientists nor have they encouraged any research to be carried out in industry. Yet this is the key to wealth creation. The world may never have seen Facebook or Google has this system not existed in the USA.

The fifth facet of development would involve the introduction of suitable government policies and mechanisms such as VC mentioned above to help those scientists-entrepreneurs emerge. Such measures prevent what is increasingly being referred to as ‘stagnant technologies’. Often the laws surrounding Intellectual property are weak and also there are no taxes or other incentives that would encourage private sector invest in research and development.



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