Revisiting Science in the Muslim World

For the Muslim world, the second half of the 20th century has been like a rude awakening from a medieval siesta. Filled with violence and traumas of unimaginable proportions, the sudden ushering into the 21st century has brought 1.6 billion Muslims face to face with challenges the likes of which they have never confronted in their long history. Most of these new challenges are related to science and technology, whose penetrating reach, impact on social and physical environments, ability to reshape and reconfigure lifestyles, and control over modes of production have deeply influenced the Muslim world during the last quarter of the 20th century. For a Western reader, the magnitude of this impact may be hard to understand. To get an idea of this change, we need to remember that from the environs of the Muslims’ holiest place on earth – the Ka’ba – to the remotest desert in Africa, there is no place where life has not been altered for Muslims because of science and technology produced in the West.

The phenomenal impact of modern science and technology on Islamic civilization has produced a corresponding change in Muslims’ attitude toward science and technology. Most Muslim states are now obsessed with the desire to produce science: governments, institutions of higher learning, individuals who affect public policy, and intellectuals are all flocking to the call. In most cases, this infatuation with modern science is, however, based on a misconception. To most, science means technology that can produce gadgets they see coming from the West. Pakistan’s success in producing an atomic bomb is often paraded as an example of sdentine achievement, whereas, in reality, the centrifugal process used to produce enriched uranium was merely a technological challenge. In general, Muslims show little understanding of the distinction between the science of Einstein and Heisenberg, which has changed our basic conceptions about the universe, and technologies, which are producing thousands of new consumer goods. For most people living in the rapidly emerging consumer societies of the Muslim world, the call to produce science is synonymous with the ability to mass-produce cheap goods à la China.

The Scientist-Bureaucrat-cum-Minister

At a different level, the obsession with science has produced a new breed of advocates: the scientist-bureaucrat-cumminister. These advocates have put a quasi-scientific gloss over the old arguments for science by sprinkling statistical figures in catch phrases: “From Indonesia to Morocco, Uganda to Kazakhstan, Muslim countries are home to 1 .3 billion people and three-quarters of the world’s fuel reserves, but their combined spending on science is less than 0.4 percent of GNP against the world average of 2.36 percent.” “Muslim nations must take a big leap forward in developing science and technology to catch up with the rest of the world.”

These and similar phrases are regurgitated ad nauseam in meetings, conferences, policy documents and planning commissions in countries as far apart as Iran and Morocco as well as pan-Islamic forums such as the Committee for Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH), an inter-governmental body established in 1983 by the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) for the promotion of science and technology in the Muslim world.
More often than not, these advocates are men (and in a few cases women) who have retired or are about to retire as the “leading scientists” of their country. Inducted into a bureaucratic or ministerial post by a military dictator or an autocratic king, they stand tall in their countries. But none has any real presence in the larger scientific community; none has produced anything like the science of an Erwin Schrödinger or E. P. Hubble. At best they have been good technicians, continuously churning out papers based on doctoral work done in England, France or America – publications most often valued for their weight rather than their quality.

Whatever the worth of their publications and the relevance of their work to the plight of their countries, these scientist-bureaucrat-cum-ministers are unaware of the larger framework in which modern science operates. Their statements and policies show a total lack of understanding of the most basic elements of the enterprise of science in the contemporary world. They do not understand that science and scientists do not exist in isolation from the general conditions of a society. Their obsession is with money with which, they claim, they can erect a local MIT They do not seem to understand that money can build a building and import instruments, but it cannot produce science.

A Caricature of Western Science

None of these measures produced science or technology in any of the 57 Muslim nation-states – at least, not the kind of science and technology that altered the course of human history during the 20th century. What was produced, and what continues to be produced in these nation-states, is a caricature of Western science. This was inevitable; the rickety structure of scientific enterprise propped up in these nation-states is without a sustaining backbone. These states’ effort toward producing science is like erecting a building without a foundation. They sent thousands of students to Europe and North America to obtain doctorates in various branches of science with the hope that they could help jump-start the production of science upon their return. The results could have been expected: armed with their PhDs, these students returned home to find that there was no infrastructure to do science. Libraries with the latest journals, laboratories with working instruments, industry in need of scientific and technological solutions to its problems, large pharmaceutical and defense industries (which feed enormous sums of money into the enterprise of science in the West) – none of these features of modern scientific research were present in the Muslim world, to which a substantial number of Westerntrained men and women returned in the last quarter of the 20th century.

These were, however, not necessarily scientists but merely men and women who had been awarded degrees by Western universities and who could do little more than repeat what they had done during their stay abroad. Those who could do truly original scientific research realized they would have to return to the West to do what their profession demanded, for conditions at home were simply not suitable. And so many returned to the West, not in the hundreds or thousands but in the hundreds of thousands. These men and women now work in laboratories and universities as far north as the Arctic and as far south as the South Pole. They are part of the Western scientific enterpriseable scientists who have made substantial contributions to modern science.
Road to Recovery

What will produce scientists capable of making meaningful contributions to life in the Muslim world is not something money can produce. It is a long process requiring fundamental changes in the political, social, economic and intellectual conditions of Islamic polity. It is not an overnight turnkey operation bought with ready cash. Rather, it is a process that can only be initiated through a slow, deliberate and sustained effort at producing a generation of men and women endowed with critical and capable minds, aware of all the complexities of the modern enterprise of science and deeply rooted in the vision of Islamic learning and scholarship that had once produced al-Birunis and Ibn al-Shatirs. No amount of thoughtlessly regurgitating statements of the kind now in vogue in the Muslim world can substitute for this process.

Science in the modern world is a complex enterprise deeply integrated into the economic life of the Western civilization. Most of the funding for basic research in science comes from defense and pharmaceutical industries, which in turn thrive on the high demand of what they produce. This process has a life of its own: A scientist or technologist is integrally linked to a mechanism of generating material resources through the sale of goods and services produced by his or her expertise, research is linked to industry, industry to the market, the market to a continuous flow of new goods produced through new inventions, which, in turn, are based on the research of scientists and technologists. This process of resource generation is vital for Western science and it is totally absent in the Muslim world. The contemporary enterprise of science in the Muslim world exists in an intellectual, social and economic vacuum and no amount of infusion of monetary resources can take it out of its cul-de-sac. Before anything can improve, a clearer understanding of the malaise is needed and very few Muslim governments or their advisers on science are willing to take this basic step, which is fundamental to a scientific approach to the problem.

Why science has not thrived in the Muslim world despite a golden tradition of a previous era is a question that cannot be answered without first understanding the mechanisms through which modern science is thriving in the West. In order to recover from its siesta, the Muslim world may not have to go through the 300 years of developments that took place in the West, but this recovery cannot be accomplished without fundamental changes in its intellectual, cultural, social and economic environment.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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