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Science in the Muslim world

01 Apr 2010

For hundreds of years, while Europe was mired in the Dark Ages, the medieval Islamic empire was at the forefront of science – in sad contrast to the state of many Muslim countries today. Jim Al-Khalili asks what has been impeding progress, and examines some projects that could herald a brighter future

Curious minds

There are more than a billion Muslims in the world today – over a fifth of the world’s total population – spread over many more than the 57 member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in which Islam is the official religion. These include some of the world’s wealthiest nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as some of the poorest, like Somalia and Sudan. The economies of some of these countries – such as the Gulf States, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Malaysia and Pakistan – have been growing steadily for a number of years, and yet, in comparison with the West, the Islamic world still appears somewhat disengaged from modern science.

The leaders of many of these countries understand very well that their economic growth, military power and national security all rely heavily on technological advances. The rhetoric is therefore often heard that they require a concerted effort in scientific research and development to catch up with the rest of the world’s knowledge-based societies. Indeed, government funding for science and education has grown sharply in recent years in many of these countries and several have been overhauling and modernizing their national scientific infrastructures. So what do I mean when I say that most are still disengaged from science?

Current state of research

According to data from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the World Bank, a group of 20 representative OIC countries spent 0.34% of their overall gross domestic product on scientific research between 1996 and 2003 – just one-seventh of the global average of 2.36%. Muslim countries also have fewer than 10 scientists, engineers and technicians per 1000 of the population, compared with the world average of 40, and 140 for the developed world. Between them they contribute only about 1% of the world’s published scientific papers. Indeed, the Royal Society’s Atlas of Islamic-World Science and Innovation reveals that scientists in the Arab world (comprising 17 of the OIC countries) produced a total of 13 444 scientific publications in 2005 – some 2000 fewer than the 15 455 achieved by Harvard University alone.

But it is the quality of basic scientific research in the Muslim world that is of more concern. One way of measuring the international prominence of a nation’s published scientific literature is via its relative citation index (RCI): this is the number of cited papers by a nation’s scientists as a fraction of all cited papers, divided by its own share of total papers published, with all citations of its own literature excluded to prevent bias. Thus, if a country produces 10% of the world’s scientific literature but receives only 5% of all citations in the rest of the world, its index will be 0.5. In a league table compiled in 2006 by the US National Science Board of the world’s top 45 nations ranked by their RCI in physics, only two OIC countries even register – Turkey with 0.344 and Iran with 0.484 – and only the latter shows a marked improvement between 1995 and 2003.

These bald statistics reveal how far scientists in Muslim nations are languishing behind the rest of the world. But there have been some outstanding Muslim scientists, not least the Pakistani theoretical physicist Abdus Salam (1926–1996), who dreamed of a scientific renaissance in the Islamic world. One of the greatest scientists of the second half of the 20th century, Salam shared the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics, with Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg, for his part in developing the electroweak theory: one of the most powerful and beautiful theories in science, it describes how two of the four fundamental forces of nature (the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force) are connected.

Although Salam was a pious Muslim, he was excommunicated by Pakistan in the 1970s because of his non-orthodox religious convictions and adherence to a relatively obscure Islamic sect called the Ahmadis (Physics World August 2009 pp32–35). Despite this, he remained loyal to his country and worked tirelessly to promote science in the Islamic world. But Salam’s dream was never realized and he left behind the following damning indictment: “Of all civilizations on this planet, science is weakest in the lands of Islam. The dangers of this weakness cannot be over-emphasized since the honourable survival of a society depends directly on its science and technology in the condition of the present age.”

Obstructive attitudes

One problem is that too many Muslims see modern science as a secular, even atheist, Western construct, and have forgotten the many wonderful contributions made by Muslim scholars during the height of a golden age that began in the first half of the 9th century and continued for several centuries. Brilliant advances were made in everything from mathematics, astronomy and medicine, to physics, chemistry, engineering and philosophy. It was an age epitomized by a spirit of rational enquiry at a time when most of Europe was stuck in the Dark Ages.

But this freethinking, curiosity-driven quest for knowledge slowly went into decline. I should make it clear that this downturn took place several centuries later than many in the West think, for original advances in medicine, mathematics and astronomy continued to be made well into the 15th century. The gradual decline that nevertheless took place did so for a variety of reasons, mainly due to the political fragmentation of the Islamic empire and weaker rulers no longer being interested in patronage of scholarship and learning. All of this coincided with the Renaissance in Europe moving in the opposite direction, which triggered the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. Add to this the later effects of colonialism that led to a kind of malaise and collective amnesia within the Muslim world about its own rich cultural heritage, and one can see the weakness and intellectual laziness of the argument that the decline should be blamed on an anti-science backlash from a more conservative Islam.

Nevertheless, it is sad but true that today many religions around the world see modern scientific disciplines such as cosmology or evolution as undermining their belief systems. Compare their view with that of the great Persian polymath al-Biruni (973–1048): “The stubborn critic would say: ‘What is the benefit of these sciences?’ He does not know the virtue that distinguishes mankind from all the animals: it is knowledge, in general, which is pursued solely by man, and which is pursued for the sake of knowledge itself, because its acquisition is truly delightful, and is unlike the pleasures desirable from other pursuits. For the good cannot be brought forth, and evil cannot be avoided, except by knowledge. What benefit then is more vivid? What use is more abundant?” Thankfully, enough Muslims now reject the notion that science and Islam are incompatible. In fact, given the current climate of tension and polarization between the Islamic world and the West, it is not surprising that many Muslims feel indignant when accused of not being culturally or intellectually equipped to raise their game when it comes to scientific achievements.

Reform required

Far more telling than the argument that it is religious conservatism that impedes scientific progress in the Muslim world are the antiquated administrative and bureaucratic systems many OIC countries inherited long ago from their colonial masters that have still not been replaced. This is compounded by a lack of political will to reform, to tackle corruption and to overhaul failing educational systems, institutions and attitudes. Thankfully, things are changing fast.

It is crucial that both Muslims and non-Muslims are reminded of a time when Islam and science were not at odds, albeit in a very different world. This is important not only for science to flourish once again in the Islamic world, but also as one of the many routes towards a future in which Muslims see the value of curiosity-driven scientific research, just as they did 1000 years ago.

As for how this can be achieved, the obvious first step is serious financial investment. It has been shown time and time again that bigger science budgets encourage greater scientific activity, and many Muslim governments, from Malaysia to Nigeria, are currently investing quite astonishing sums of money in new and exciting projects in an attempt to create world-class research institutions. For instance, the rulers of several of the Gulf States are building new universities with labour imported from the West for both construction and staffing.

But it is not simply a matter of throwing money at the problem. Even more important is having the political will to reform and to ensure real freedom of thinking. For example, Nader Fergany, lead author of the United Nations’ 2002 Arab Human Development Report, has stressed that what is needed above all else is a reform of scientific institutions, a respect for the freedoms of opinion and expression, ensuring high-quality education for all, and an accelerated transition to knowledge-based societies and the information age (Nature 444 33).

Forward-looking projects

Let us look briefly at the Middle East, where one can find a number of exciting new projects that have received considerable publicity within the region. The first is a new science park that opened in the spring of 2009 in a sprawling metropolis called Education City on the outskirts of Doha, the capital of Qatar, which is home to a number of branch campuses of some of the world’s leading universities, including Carnegie Mellon, Texas A&M and Northwestern. The Qatar Science and Technology Park, also based at Education City, hopes to be a hub for hi-tech companies from around the world that, one imagines, will try to emulate the success of California’s Silicon Valley.

Just as ambitious is the new $10bn King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), just completed on the west coast of Saudi Arabia near the city of Jeddah (Physics World November 2009 pp12–13). Incredibly, the vast campus of this international research university, complete with state-of-the-art labs and a $1.5bn budget for research facilities over its first five years, was built from scratch in less than three years. In a pioneering move, it is the first fully co-educational institution in Saudi Arabia, allowing women to sit alongside men in lecture halls rather than in separate rooms. The university promises to offer researchers the freedom to be creative and to embody the very highest international standards of research and education. The research programme has been tailored to support the country’s post-oil future in key areas such as exploiting solar energy and developing crops that can survive the country’s hot, dry climate. Many of the top universities in Europe and the US have been clamouring to be associated with it for – one hopes – scholarly rather than financial motives.

The final example is a project called SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East) (Physics World April 2008 pp16–17), which will be the region’s first major international research centre as a co-operative venture by scientists and governments in the region. When, in 1997, Germany decided to decommission its synchrotron research facility BESSY, it agreed to donate its components to the SESAME project, which was quickly developed under the auspices of UNESCO. It is now being built in Jordan, which had to fight off strong competition from other countries in the region. The research to be carried out at SESAME will include materials science, molecular biology, nanotechnology, X-ray imaging, archaeological analysis and clinical medical applications. Its current membership, along with the hosts, includes Israel, the Palestinian National Authority, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Bahrain and Cyprus, and this group is likely to expand as several other countries join the collaboration. New science should start in 2012.

Facing the future

So, is there a brighter future ahead for science in the Islamic world? Of course scientific researchers require adequate financial resources, but to compete on the world stage requires more than just the latest, shiniest equipment. The whole infrastructure of the research environment needs to be addressed, from laboratory technicians who understand how to use and maintain the equipment to the exercise of real intellectual freedom on the part of the scientists, and a healthy scepticism and courage to question experimental results. This culture change will not happen overnight and requires not only political will, but also an understanding of the true meaning of both academic freedom and the scientific method itself. Sadly, this can often be somewhat lacking, even in the West.

A cultural renaissance leading to a knowledge-based society is urgently required if the Muslim world is to accept and embrace not only the bricks and mortar of modern research labs along with the shiny particle accelerators and electron microscopes that they house, but also that spirit of curiosity that drives humankind to try to understand nature, whether it is to marvel at divine creation, or just to know how and why things are the way they are.

A golden age of science

The greatest period of sustained scientific advances during the 1500 years between the time of the Ancient Greeks and the European Renaissance took place in the great centres of learning across the medieval Islamic empire, such as Baghdad, Cairo, Cordoba and Samarkand. For instance, it is in Baghdad that we find the very first book on algebra (called Kitab al-Jebr, from which we derive the word “algebra”). It was unlike anything seen before, and a paradigm shift from the work of the Greek number theorist Diophantus. Written by the 9th-century mathematician al-Khwarizmi, it sparked many great advances in mathematics, all the way to the 15th-century Persian al-Kashi in Samerkand (who, among other achievements, calculated π to 16 decimal places), before the Europeans regained the lead in mathematics once again. The Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun created a new academy in Baghdad – the House of Wisdom – and built observatories in Baghdad and Damascus. He sponsored huge science projects that made vast improvements on the astronomical and geographical works of Greek scholars such as Ptolemy, which the Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars of the Baghdad academy had translated into Arabic.

Advances in medicine and anatomy would lead to Arabic texts by scholars such as al-Razi (Razes) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) replacing the Greek works of Galen and Hippocrates in the libraries of medieval Europe. The philosophical work of Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd (Averroës) influenced later European scholars such as Roger Bacon and St Thomas Aquinas. The Cordoban physician al-Zahrawi (Abulcasis) invented more than 200 surgical instruments – many of which are still in use today, such as forceps and the surgical syringe. At about this time, we also witness the birth of industrial chemistry, with remarkably sophisticated scientific methods being employed over the haphazard practice of alchemy, and advances in fields such as optics by the likes of Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) that would not be matched until Newton. For a period spanning over half a millennium, the international language of science was Arabic.

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