Posted by: Lister | August 8, 2007

Science and the Islamic world

Via Thoreau at UO: an article by Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor in Islamabad who is trying to figure out how Islamic science fell behind and how to bring about another Golden Age.

The stats are interesting and I hadn’t heard of Abdus Salam — co-winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics. But, the article states, he has been barred from Pakistani Universities. (One of which Hoodbhoy says has 3 Mosques and no bookstore).

Later on Hoodbhoy gets on to explanations, some of which he dismisses, for the poor science in Islamic countries.

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 percentage of women in the university student body is 35% in Egypt, 67% in Kuwait, 27% in Saudi Arabia, and 41% in Pakistan, for just a few examples. In the physical sciences and engineering, the proportion of women enrolled is roughly similar to that in the US. However, restrictions on the freedom of women leave them with far fewer choices, both in their personal lives and for professional advancement after graduation, relative to their male counterparts.

The near-absence of democracy in Muslim countries is also not an especially important reason for slow scientific development. It is certainly true that authoritarian regimes generally deny freedom of inquiry or dissent, cripple professional societies, intimidate universities, and limit contacts with the outside world. But no Muslim government today, even if dictatorial or imperfectly democratic, remotely approximates the terror of Hitler or Joseph Stalin—regimes in which science survived and could even advance.

Another myth is that the Muslim world rejects new technology. It does not. In earlier times, the orthodoxy had resisted new inventions such as the printing press, loudspeaker, and penicillin, but such rejection has all but vanished. The ubiquitous cell phone, that ultimate space-age device, epitomizes the surprisingly quick absorption of black-box technology into Islamic culture. For example, while driving in Islamabad, it would occasion no surprise if you were to receive an urgent SMS (short message service) requesting immediate prayers for helping Pakistan’s cricket team win a match. Popular new Islamic cell-phone models now provide the exact GPS-based direction for Muslims to face while praying, certified translations of the Qur’an, and step-by-step instructions for performing the pilgrimages of Haj and Umrah. Digital Qur’ans are already popular, and prayer rugs with microchips (for counting bend-downs during prayers) have made their debut.

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 and in the same boat as other developing countries. Indeed, the OIC average for per capita income is significantly less than the global average.

Second, the inadequacy of traditional Islamic languages—Arabic, Persian, Urdu—is an important contributory reason. About 80% of the world’s scientific literature appears first in English, and few traditional languages in the developing world have adequately adapted to new linguistic demands. With the exceptions of Iran and Turkey, translation rates are small. According to a 2002 United Nations report written by Arab intellectuals and released in Cairo, Egypt, “The entire Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one-fifth the number that Greece translates.” The report adds that in the 1000 years since the reign of the caliph Maa’moun, the Arabs have translated as many books as Spain translates in just one year.

[…] No grand dispute, such as between Galileo and Pope Urban VIII, is holding back the clock. 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. A bridge engineer, robotics expert, or microbiologist can certainly be a perfectly successful professional without pondering profound mysteries of the universe. Truly fundamental and ideology-laden issues confront only that tiny minority of scientists who grapple with cosmology, indeterminacy in quantum mechanical and chaotic systems, neuroscience, human evolution, and other such deep topics. Therefore, one could conclude that developing science is only a matter of setting up enough schools, universities, libraries, and laboratories, and purchasing the latest scientific tools and equipment.

But the above reasoning is superficial and misleading. Science is fundamentally an idea-system that has grown around a sort of skeleton wire frame — the scientific method. The deliberately cultivated scientific habit of mind is mandatory for successful work in all science and related fields where critical judgment is essential. Scientific progress constantly demands that facts and hypotheses be checked and rechecked, and is unmindful of authority. But there lies the problem: The scientific method is alien to traditional, unreformed religious thought. Only the exceptional individual is able to exercise such a mindset in a society in which absolute authority comes from above, questions are asked only with difficulty, the penalties for disbelief are severe, the intellect is denigrated, and a certainty exists that all answers are already known and must only be discovered.

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. In those circumstances, scientific research becomes, at best, a kind of cataloging or “butterfly-collecting” activity. It cannot be a creative process of genuine inquiry in which bold hypotheses are made and checked.

Religious fundamentalism is always bad news for science. But what explains its meteoric rise in Islam over the past half century? In the mid-1950s all Muslim leaders were secular, and secularism in Islam was growing. What changed? Here the West must accept its share of responsibility for reversing the trend. Iran under Mohammed Mossadeq, Indonesia under Ahmed Sukarno, and Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser are examples of secular but nationalist governments that wanted to protect their national wealth. Western imperial greed, however, subverted and overthrew them. At the same time, conservative oil-rich Arab states—such as Saudi Arabia—that exported extreme versions of Islam were US clients. The fundamentalist Hamas organization was helped by Israel in its fight against the secular Palestine Liberation Organization as part of a deliberate Israeli strategy in the 1980s. Perhaps most important, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the US Central Intelligence Agency armed the fiercest and most ideologically charged Islamic fighters and brought them from distant Muslim countries into Afghanistan, thus helping to create an extensive globalized jihad network. Today, as secularism continues to retreat, Islamic fundamentalism fills the vacuum.

How science can return to the Islamic world

In the 1980s an imagined “Islamic science” was posed as an alternative to “Western science.” The notion was widely propagated and received support from governments in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere. Muslim ideologues in the US, such as Ismail Faruqi and Syed Hossein Nasr, announced that a new science was about to be built on lofty moral principles such as tawheed (unity of God), ibadah (worship), khilafah (trusteeship), and rejection of zulm (tyranny), and that revelation rather than reason would be the ultimate guide to valid knowledge. Others took as literal statements of scientific fact verses from the Qur’an that related to descriptions of the physical world. Those attempts led to many elaborate and expensive Islamic science conferences around the world. Some scholars calculated the temperature of Hell, others the chemical composition of heavenly djinnis. None produced a new machine or instrument, conducted an experiment, or even formulated a single testable hypothesis.

A more pragmatic approach, which seeks promotion of regular science rather than Islamic science, is pursued by institutional bodies such as COMSTECH (Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation), which was established by the OIC’s Islamic Summit in 1981. It joined the IAS (Islamic Academy of Sciences) and ISESCO (Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) in serving the “ummah” (the global Muslim community). But a visit to the websites of those organizations reveals that over two decades, the combined sum of their activities amounts to sporadically held conferences on disparate subjects, a handful of research and travel grants, and small sums for repair of equipment and spare parts.

One almost despairs. Will science never return to the Islamic world? Shall the world always be split between those who have science and those who do not, with all the attendant consequences?

Bleak as the present looks, that outcome does not have to prevail. History has no final word, and Muslims do have a chance. One need only remember how the Anglo–American elite perceived the Jews as they entered the US at the opening of the 20th century. Academics such as Henry Herbert Goddard, the well-known eugenicist, described Jews in 1913 as “a hopelessly backward people, largely incapable of adjusting to the new demands of advanced capitalist societies.” His research found that 83% of Jews were “morons” — a term he popularized to describe the feeble-minded — and he went on to suggest that they should be used for tasks requiring an “immense amount of drudgery.” That ludicrous bigotry warrants no further discussion, beyond noting that the powerful have always created false images of the weak.

[…] Abdolkarim Soroush, described as Islam’s Martin Luther, was handpicked by Ayatollah Khomeini to lead the reform of Iran’s universities in the early 1980s. His efforts led to the introduction of modern analytical philosophers such as Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell into the curricula of Iranian universities. Another influential modern reformer is Abdelwahab Meddeb, a Tunisian who grew up in France. Meddeb argues that as early as the middle of the eighth century, Islam had produced the premises of the Enlightenment, and that between 750 and 1050, Muslim authors made use of an astounding freedom of thought in their approach to religious belief. In their analyses, says Meddeb, they bowed to the primacy of reason, honoring one of the basic principles of the Enlightenment.

In the quest for modernity and science, internal struggles continue within the Islamic world. Progressive Muslim forces have recently been weakened, but not extinguished, as a consequence of the confrontation between Muslims and the West. On an ever-shrinking globe, there can be no winners in that conflict: It is time to calm the waters. We must learn to drop the pursuit of narrow nationalist and religious agendas, both in the West and among Muslims. In the long run, political boundaries should and can be treated as artificial and temporary, as shown by the successful creation of the European Union. Just as important, the practice of religion must be a matter of choice for the individual, not enforced by the state. This leaves secular humanism, based on common sense and the principles of logic and reason, as our only reasonable choice for governance and progress. Being scientists, we understand this easily. The task is to persuade those who do not.

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