Science and the Islamic World
By Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy
Physics Today, August 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
Why is the Islamic world disengaged from science and the process of creating
new knowledge? No major invention or discovery has emerged from the Muslim
world for well over seven centuries now.
Islam's encounter with
science has had happy and unhappy periods. There was no science in Arab
culture in the initial period of Islam, around 610 AD. But as Islam
established itself politically and militarily, its territory expanded. A
generally tolerant and pluralistic Islamic culture allowed Muslims,
Christians, and Jews to create new works of art and science together. But
over time, the open-minded pursuits of philosophy, mathematics, and science
were increasingly relegated to the margins of Islam. A long period of
Muslim leaders today, realizing that military
power and economic growth flow from technology, frequently call for speedy
scientific development and a knowledge-based society. Scholars in the past
claimed that Islam lacks an "idea system" critical for sustaining a
scientific culture based on innovation, new experiences, quantification, and
empirical verification. In the current epoch, most Muslims reject such
charges. They argue that Islam sustained a vibrant intellectual culture
throughout the European Dark Ages.
Let us seek to understand the
state of science in the contemporary Islamic world. First, I will
quantitatively assess the current state of science in Muslim countries. Then
I will look at prevalent Muslim attitudes toward science, technology, and
modernity. Finally, we can turn to the fundamental question.
metrics of scientific progress are neither precise nor unique. I will use
— The quantity of scientific output
— The role played
by science and technology in the national economies
— The extent and
quality of higher education
— The degree to which science is present in
The output of the seven most scientifically
productive Muslim countries for physics papers, over the period from 1
January 1997 to 28 February 2007, together with the total number of
publications in all scientific fields, compared with Brazil, India, China,
and the US reveals significantly smaller numbers. The 57 countries of the
Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) have 8.5 scientists, engineers,
and technicians per 1000 population, compared with a world average of 40.7,
and 139.3 for countries of the OECD.
Forty-six Muslim countries
contributed 1.17% of the world's science literature, whereas 1.66% came from
India alone and 1.48% from Spain. Twenty Arab countries contributed 0.55%,
compared with 0.89% by Israel alone. The U.S. National Science Foundation
records that of the 28 lowest producers of scientific articles in 2003, half
belong to the OIC.
The situation may be even grimmer than the
publication numbers or perhaps even the citation counts suggest. Assessing
the scientific worth of publications is complicated further by the rapid
appearance of new international scientific journals that publish low-quality
The situation regarding patents is also discouraging: The OIC
countries produce negligibly few. According to official statistics, Pakistan
has produced only eight patents in the past 43 years.
wisdom suggests that bigger science budgets indicate, or will induce,
greater scientific activity. On average, the 57 OIC states spend an
estimated 0.3% of their gross national product on research and development,
which is far below the global average of 2.4%. But bigger budgets by
themselves are not a panacea. The capacity to put those funds to good use is
crucial. One determining factor is the number of available scientists,
engineers, and technicians. Those numbers are low for OIC countries.
There are scientific areas in which research has paid off in the Islamic
world. Agricultural research provides one case in point. Pakistan has good
results, for example, with new varieties of cotton, wheat, rice, and tea.
Defense technology is another area in which many developing countries have
invested, as they aim to both lessen their dependence on international arms
suppliers and promote domestic capabilities.
According to a recent
survey, among the 57 member states of the OIC, there are approximately 1800
universities. Of those, only 312 publish journal articles. For the top 20
universities, the average yearly production of journal articles was about
1500, a small but reasonable number. However, the average citation per
article is less than 1.0. No OIC university made the top-500 Academic
Ranking of World Universities.
Most universities in Islamic countries
have a starkly inferior quality of teaching and learning, a tenuous
connection to job skills, and research that is low in both quality and
quantity. Poor teaching owes more to inappropriate attitudes than to
material resources. Generally, obedience and rote learning are stressed, and
the authority of the teacher is rarely challenged. Debate, analysis, and
class discussions are infrequent.
At Quaid-i-Azam University in
Islamabad, where I teach, the constraints are similar to those existing in
most other Pakistani public-sector institutions. The campus has three
mosques but no bookstore. No Pakistani university, including QAU, allowed
Abdus Salam to set foot on its campus, although he had received the Nobel
Prize in 1979. The Ahmedi sect to which he belonged was officially declared
heretical in 1974 by the Pakistani government.
As intolerance and
militancy sweep across the Muslim world, personal and academic freedoms
diminish with the rising pressure to conform. In Pakistani universities, the
veil is now ubiquitous. My colleagues and I share a common observation that
over time most students have largely lapsed into becoming silent note-takers
and are less inclined to ask questions or take part in discussions.
Science is under pressure globally, and from every religion. As science
becomes an increasingly dominant part of human culture, its achievements
inspire both awe and fear. In the Islamic world, antiscience materials have
an immense presence on the internet, with thousands of elaborately designed
Islamic websites, some with view counters running into the hundreds of
thousands. Science, in the view of fundamentalists, is principally seen as
valuable for establishing yet more proofs of God, proving the truth of Islam
and the Qur'an, and showing that modern science would have been impossible
but for Muslim discoveries.
Although the relatively slow pace of
scientific development in Muslim countries cannot be disputed, many
explanations can. For example, it is a myth that women in Muslim countries
are largely excluded from higher education. In fact, the numbers are similar
to those in many Western countries. The near-absence of democracy in Muslim
countries is also not an especially important reason for slow scientific
development. Another myth is that the Muslim world rejects new technology.
It does not. The ubiquitous cell phone, that ultimate space-age device,
epitomizes the surprisingly quick absorption of black-box technology into
Some relatively more plausible reasons for the slow
scientific development of Muslim countries have been offered. First, even
though a handful of rich oil-producing Muslim countries have extravagant
incomes, most are fairly poor. Indeed, the OIC average for per capita income
is significantly less than the global average. Second, the inadequacy of
traditional Islamic languages is an important contributory reason. About 80%
of the world's scientific literature appears first in English. With the
exceptions of Iran and Turkey, translation rates are small. According to a
2002 United Nations report, "The entire Arab world translates about 330
books annually, one-fifth the number that Greece translates."
still deeper reasons are attitudinal, not material. At the base lies the yet
unresolved tension between traditional and modern modes of thought and
social behavior. Bread-and-butter science and technology requires learning
complicated but mundane rules and procedures that place no strain on any
reasonable individual's belief system. But science is fundamentally an
idea-system that has grown around the scientific method. The deliberately
cultivated scientific habit of mind is mandatory for successful work in all
science and related fields. Scientific progress constantly demands that
facts and hypotheses be checked and rechecked, and is unmindful of
authority. The scientific method is alien to traditional, unreformed
Science finds every soil barren in which miracles
are taken literally and seriously and revelation is considered to provide
authentic knowledge of the physical world. If the scientific method is
trashed, no amount of resources or loud declarations of intent to develop
science can compensate.
Religious fundamentalism is always bad news
for science. But what explains its meteoric rise in Islam over the past half
century? The West must accept its share of responsibility for reversing the
trend. As secularism retreats, Islamic fundamentalism fills the vacuum. But
Muslims do have a chance. One need only remember how the Anglo-American
elite perceived the Jews as they entered the United States at the opening of
the twentieth century.
If Muslim societies are to develop technology
instead of just using it, the global marketplace will insist on high skill
levels and intense social work habits. Science can prosper among Muslims
only with a willingness to accept certain basic philosophical and
attitudinal changes. The struggle to usher in science will have to go
side-by-side with a much wider campaign to elbow out rigid orthodoxy and
bring in modern thought, arts, philosophy, democracy, and pluralism.
In the quest for modernity and science, progressive Muslim forces have
been weakened as a consequence of the confrontation between Muslims and the
West. There can be no winners in that conflict.
Islam Versus Science
By Steve Paulson
The Chronicle Review, June 19, 2011
Edited by Andy Ross
Science in the Muslim world is in a dismal state. The Organization of
the Islamic Conference found that 20 Muslim states spent 0.34% of their GDP
on scientific research from 1996 to 2003, or 14% of the global average.
Fewer than 1% of their populations are scientists, engineers, or
technicians, compared with the world average of 4%, and 14% for the
developed world. They contribute only about 1% of the world's published
scientific papers. Scientists in 17 Arabic-speaking countries produced fewer
scientific publications in 2005 than Harvard University alone.
is no central church in Islam and thus no official position on scientific
controversies such as evolution or cloning. There's no clear separation
between church and state in most Muslim countries, so scientists lack the
autonomy that they enjoy in the West. They must frequently contend with the
scientific pronouncements of religious leaders.
Many Muslims are
especially bothered by evolution. By and large, Islamic culture is
creationist. Many Muslims don't have a problem with the evolution of plants
and animals but human evolution is a different story. According to the
Quran, God created Adam out of clay, so the idea that humans descended from
apes is simply beyond the pale for the vast majority of Muslims.
Dajani is a molecular biologist at Hashemite University, Jordan. She is
often asked about specific Quranic verses when she teaches a course on
evolution, and she points to other verses which she interprets as supporting
natural selection. She says the biggest challenge for Arab professors is to
get their students to think critically.
Adnan Oktar is based in
Turkey and distributes creationist media under the pen name Harun Yahya
around the Muslim world. In 2008, Oktar claimed that the "Masons manage the
world through a scientific dictatorship" and called Darwinism "a Satanic
plot" that nurtures terrorism around the world, "like the development of
mosquitoes in mud or in ponds."
Seyyed Hossein Nasr is a native of
Iran who teaches Islamic studies at George Washington University. He harks
back to the philosophers of Islam's golden age, but Nasr also dismisses
modern evolutionary theory as both bad science and flawed metaphysics.
Ziauddin Sardar is a London-based social critic who has taken up the
banner for "Islamic science". He says Western science "is inherently
destructive, and it does not, and cannot, fulfill the needs of Muslim
Many Muslims point to Islam's golden age as proof that
there's no conflict between Islam and science. What started as a movement to
translate the scientific and philosophical texts of ancient Greece and India
led to a remarkable flowering of science, philosophy, and theology.
Nidhal Guessoum, an Algerian-born astrophysicist at the American University
of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates:
"Whole fields needed to be invented
from scratch, such as algebra and the science of optics. Medicine and
astronomy were also greatly pushed forward."
Taner Edis, a
Turkish-American physicist at Truman State University, Missouri: "It's a
mistake to think of this as analogous to modern science. What Muslims were
doing back then was still a medieval, prescientific intellectual enterprise.
They never quite made the breakthrough, the Scientific Revolution, that took
place in Europe."
AR Sad story.