It goes without saying that Islamophobes thrive off of a twisted interpretation of the “clash of civilizations.” Ideologically, they are unwilling to accept that Islam and Muslims have offered anything positive to humanity, this is a reflection of their deep-seated hatred and resentment of everything Islam and Muslim related.
The many years of impoverished education and scientific achievement in many Muslim majority nations is presented by racists and Islamophobes as evidence of the incompatibility of Islam and science, of Muslim “savageness” and a signifier of so-called “Western supremacism,” even though contingent factors (lack of capital, colonialism, dictatorship, etc.) and contexts are purposefully left out of the narrative.
An article today from the Economist however challenges such Islamophobic assumptions. It discusses how, with political and social change, a renewal and awakening of science is taking place in Muslim majority nations. The article suffers from some generalizations, but overall is quite good as it discusses challenges and progress, underlining the fact that such a development can only bode well for humanity at large.
A Muslim scientific awakening is under way. And the roots of scientific backwardness lie not with religious leaders, but with secular rulers, who are as stingy with cash as they are lavish with controls over independent thought.
The long view
The caricature of Islam’s endemic backwardness is easily dispelled. Between the eighth and the 13th centuries, while Europe stumbled through the dark ages, science thrived in Muslim lands. The Abbasid caliphs showered money on learning. The 11th century “Canon of Medicine” by Avicenna (pictured, with modern equipment he would have relished) was a standard medical text in Europe for hundreds of years. In the ninth century Muhammad al-Khwarizmi laid down the principles of algebra, a word derived from the name of his book, “Kitab al-Jabr”. Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham transformed the study of light and optics. Abu Raihan al-Biruni, a Persian, calculated the earth’s circumference to within 1%. And Muslim scholars did much to preserve the intellectual heritage of ancient Greece; centuries later it helped spark Europe’s scientific revolution.
Not only were science and Islam compatible, but religion could even spur scientific innovation. Accurately calculating the beginning of Ramadan (determined by the sighting of the new moon) motivated astronomers. The Hadith (the sayings of Muhammad) exhort believers to seek knowledge, “even as far as China”.
These scholars’ achievements are increasingly celebrated. Tens of thousands flocked to “1001 Inventions”, a touring exhibition about the golden age of Islamic science, in the Qatari capital, Doha, in the autumn. More importantly, however, rulers are realising the economic value of scientific research and have started to splurge accordingly. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which opened in 2009, has a $20 billion endowment that even rich American universities would envy.
Foreigners are already on their way there. Jean Fréchet, who heads research, is a French chemist tipped to win a Nobel prize. The Saudi newcomer boasts research collaborations with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and with Imperial College, London. The rulers of neighbouring Qatar is bumping up research spending from 0.8% to a planned 2.8% of GDP: depending on growth, that could reach $5 billion a year. Research spending in Turkey increased by over 10% each year between 2005 and 2010, by which year its cash outlays were twice Norway’s.
The tide of money is bearing a fleet of results. In the 2000 to 2009 period Turkey’s output of scientific papers rose from barely 5,000 to 22,000; with less cash, Iran’s went up 1,300, to nearly 15,000. Quantity does not imply quality, but the papers are getting better, too. Scientific journals, and not just the few based in the Islamic world, are citing these papers more frequently. A study in 2011 by Thomson Reuters, an information firm, shows that in the early 1990s other publishers cited scientific papers from Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey (the most prolific Muslim countries) four times less often than the global average. By 2009 it was only half as often. In the category of best-regarded mathematics papers, Iran now performs well above average, with 1.7% of its papers among the most-cited 1%, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia also doing well. Turkey scores highly on engineering.
Science and technology-related subjects, with their clear practical benefits, do best. Engineering dominates, with agricultural sciences not far behind. Medicine and chemistry are also popular. Value for money matters. Fazeel Mehmood Khan, who recently returned to Pakistan after doing a PhD in Germany on astrophysics and now works at the Government College University in Lahore, was told by his university’s vice-chancellor to stop chasing wild ideas (black holes, in his case) and do something useful.
Science is even crossing the region’s deepest divide. In 2000 SESAME, an international physics laboratory with the Middle East’s first particle accelerator, was set up in Jordan. It is modelled on CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory, which was created to bring together scientists from wartime foes. At SESAME Israeli boffins work with colleagues from places such as Iran and the Palestinian territories.