Islam and Science – a detailed analysis

There is a widespread belief in the non-Muslim world that the Islamic world has been in the throes of illiteracy and even when education is discussed it is only in context of Quran and Islamic education. Secular education – specially science based – is frowned upon and indeed termed as Anti-Islamic. It was difficult to see anyone from the Islamic world come up and say it and find the reasons for the pattern. Finally, here is a very interesting and detailed analysis by the Head of Physics of Qaid-e-Azam University – QAU – (the largest in Pakistan, I believe) – Pervez Hoodbhoy.

When he talks on the history of Science in Islam, he points to the time of Mu’tazilites – as the time of Golden period (between 8th to 15th century). So, was the time in Persia I guess. But in both cases, the protagonists differed and went away from the central Sunni traditional beliefs. Interestingly, Abdus Salam, the only Nobel Prize winner from Pakistan for particle physics, was banned from entering several Universities, including QAU. Why? because he belonged to Ahmedi sect – which has been termed as heretical (and not allowed to call themselves as Muslims or purport to use Islamic rituals or words) in Pakistan as long back as 1974 (and has been ethnically cleansed in Pakistan…for example, the Ahmediyas can be tried for blasphemy – leading to death – if they are caught addressing each other with the "Salam Alaikum" greeting!). So, my question is – is Islamic Science the labor of only the heretics and those who stray away from the central breed??

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He discusses how the Muslim devout have reconciled Islam to science by linking revelations to scientific discoveries, as many Islamic sites claim (for example below, which one of the slide shows is trying to imply).

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Another interesting point – I have heard it ad nauseum from women wearing veils or hijabs that they feel just fine and it gives them "dignity" etc. (even in Christian Amanpour’s "The God’s Warriors"). Well, Hoodbhoy differs and says veil has a debilitating effect on the participation of the girls:

The imposition of the veil makes a difference. My colleagues and I share a common observation that over time most students—particularly veiled females—have largely lapsed into becoming silent note-takers, are increasingly timid, and are less inclined to ask questions or take part in discussions. This lack of self-expression and confidence leads to most Pakistani university students, including those in their mid- or late-twenties, referring to themselves as boys and girls rather than as men and women.

Hoodbhoy makes the right analytical point when talking of the "encouragement" from some of the Islamic Governments in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) countries. He says putting millions of dollars of money is not enough – or even opening up universities. What is critical is the freedom of thought and the scientific temper! Only that can ensure an uptick in the education – SECULAR education fervour!

Is boosting resource allocations enough to energize science, or are more fundamental changes required? Scholars of the 19th century, such as the pioneering sociologist Max Weber, claimed that Islam lacks an "idea system" critical for sustaining a scientific culture based on innovation, new experiences, quantification, and empirical verification. Fatalism and an orientation toward the past, they said, makes progress difficult and even undesirable.

To show the bad state of science in Muslims countries (OIC), Hoodbhoy uses hard stats to show the situation (see the bold line – emphasis is mine).

A useful, if imperfect, indicator of scientific output is the number of published scientific research papers, together with the citations to them. Table 1 shows 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. A comparison with Brazil, India, China, and the US reveals significantly smaller numbers. A study by academics at the International Islamic University Malaysia2 showed that OIC countries 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 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (For more on the OECD, see 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 US NSF records that of the 28 lowest producers of scientific articles in 2003, half belong to the OIC.3

What is the reason? Again Hoodbhoy hits upon the correct point when he says that once you have relegated questioning way back and uphold the importance of revelation and miracles as the main source of science, then there is bad news for science:

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.

So, how will the situation change? He calls for a behavioral change… to emphasize on scientific temper and away from the belief based "science" education!

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.

Progress will require behavioral changes. If Muslim societies are to develop technology instead of just using it, the ruthlessly competitive global marketplace will insist on not only high skill levels but also intense social work habits. The latter are not easily reconcilable with religious demands made on a fully observant Muslim’s time, energy, and mental concentration: The faithful must participate in five daily congregational prayers, endure a month of fasting that taxes the body, recite daily from the Qur’an, and more. Although such duties orient believers admirably well toward success in the life hereafter, they make worldly success less likely. A more balanced approach will be needed.

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