Last spring, Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst ran this article I wrote on science in the Muslim world, looking at the reasons why a society that was once at the pinnacle of scientific achievement now lags behind even other under-developed countries in conducting research. (Jane’s is a British publication so some of the language follows their style, not my Americanisms.)
JANE’S ISLAMIC AFFAIRS ANALYST – MARCH 01, 2007
Science in Islamic societies
At its intellectual peak, Islamic civilization was the world’s most sophisticated and scientifically advanced.
In modern times, Muslim countries have suffered a deficit in scientific research and development, in comparison to non-Muslim states.
Two obstacles to development in this field are a lack of funding from governments and a determinist worldview, whereby life is guided by religious, not scientific principles.
Although science flourished during Islam’s Golden Age (850CE to 1250CE), the current level of scientific research in the Muslim world is very low. Competing in the modern world requires mastery not only of technology, but also of scientific principles. While there are many structural and institutional barriers to scientific development in the Muslim world, the greatest obstacles may be cultural.
Viewed from nearly every perspective, the state of scientific research in the Muslim world looks bleak. The key indicators of the level of research in a country are its per capita publication of science and engineering articles. By this and most other indices, Muslim nations rank behind other comparable states. According to the National Science Foundation, between 2000 and 2003 the world average publication of science and engineering articles per million inhabitants was 137; the nations belonging to the Organisation of Islamic Conferences have an average of just 13.
While the limited scientific achievements of impoverished African Muslim countries are less surprising, oil rich middle-income Muslim states rarely conduct as much scientific research as comparable non-Muslim nations, with a few exceptions. The Middle East’s traditional leaders in this field, Egypt (described by the World Bank as a lower-middle income economy) and Saudi Arabia both produce about 25 articles per million inhabitants. Brazil, also a lower-middle income economy, produces 45 articles per million inhabitants. Malaysia, although home to a high-tech economy, publishes less than 21 articles per million inhabitants, higher than China (which produces 19 papers per inhabitant).
Pakistan, a low-income country and home to the 1979 Nobel Laureate in Physics, Abdus Salam, as well as the only Muslim country to develop a nuclear weapon, has been a leader in scientific achievement in the Muslim world. Yet, it produces less than three scientific articles per million people, whereas its similarly situated rival India produces over 11.
Even more crucial than raw production of articles is how frequently the articles are cited, which shows their importance to international science. Judged by this measure, most Muslim states have a marginal role in international science. In 2003, science and engineering articles produced by the Arab world were cited 12,182 times, representing 0.28 per cent of the world’s total. Articles from Brazil alone were cited approximately twice as often. Articles from Pakistan represented 0.02 per cent of international citations, compared to India, which accounts for 0.73 per cent.
The cause of this low level of scientific achievement is under-investment in research and development throughout the Muslim world. According to World Bank figures, with a few exceptions, Muslim countries invest less in research and development than non-Muslim countries with similar income levels. Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia spent only 0.2 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development. The international average for high-income countries is ten times that level, but between 1997 and 2002 Pakistan’s rival India, also a low-income country, spent over 0.7 per cent of its GDP on research and development. Non-Muslim middle-income states usually invest an average of nearly one per cent of GDP on research.
The reasons for this lack of investment in research and development are linked to the broader malaise facing much of the Muslim world. Muslim states top the indices of the most corrupt and least free nations. This means that the application of resources is at the discretion of a small ruling elite. Governments across the region have chosen not to focus o scientific research. Particularly in the Middle East and in Pakistan, governments have chosen to spend disproportionately on armaments, at the expense of scientific research.
In addition to problematic policies, the government and social systems are not conducive to scientific research. Endemic corruption means resources that are applied to research needs are not well spent. The education systems in most of the Muslim world are low quality and do not prepare students for university-level scientific study.
In most countries, substantial research and development is conducted in the private sector that operates in parallel to, and is sustained by, dynamic civil societies. However, these sectors are weak throughout the Islamic world. Inadequate bureaucracies and legal frameworks hamper the functioning of large institutions, particularly universities and corporations, essential for productive scientific research. In much of the Muslim world, the business sector is formally (through direct ownership) or informally (through ties among the elites) linked with the government and consequently their actions reflect the government’s priorities.
Scientific associations reflect the general weakness of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the Muslim world and are narrowly focused and poorly funded. Finally, modern science is an international affair, but there are minimal systematic exchanges of ideas between scientists both within the Muslim world and with the international scientific community as a whole, very often because of inter-state rivalries.
These failings have not been limited to Islamist regimes such as Saudi Arabia. Ostensibly secular regimes have allowed research and development to stagnate. Some countries, particularly secular Baathist-ruled Syria, have persecuted their scientific communities. At the same time, very few Muslim regimes are opposed to technology. Enormous sums have been spent by wealthy and impoverished Muslim regimes on technology transfers from the West. These turn-key projects, in which the technology is operated but not truly mastered, have been detrimental to developing local capabilities.
Radical Islamists are also comfortable with technology. Substantial numbers of engineers have been recruited by Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations, including 11 September 2001 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his nephew, 1993 World Trade Centre bomber, Ramzi Yousef. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is sometimes lightheartedly referred to as the Al-ikwhan al-muhandisun (Engineer Brothers).
An insight into this paradox can be seen in the efforts, particularly in Pakistan, to develop Islamic science. Prominent Pakistani scientists claim that the principles of science can be gleaned from the Quran. While these scientists readily embrace technology and have demonstrated substantial technical competence, seeking explanations from the Quran rather than through experimentation does little to develop the necessary scientific base. This situation encapsulates the position of science in the Muslim world. It is seen as a strictly instrumental means of achieving certain goals, but not as a means of understanding the world. However, without the study of scientific principles and the attendant pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, science stagnates.
These attitudes are in stark contrast with the ideals of Islam’s Golden Age. During its intellectual peak, Islamic civilization was the world’s most sophisticated and highly conducive to scientific inquiry. Muslim civilization built on a rich heritage of ancient knowledge of the Greeks, which Arab scholars translated and commented on. The Middle East-based Muslim civilizations absorbed learning from other centres worldwide, most notably India and China. This project of preservation and combination was substantial in its own right (later Western advances would have been impossible without the groundwork laid during this time), but the great scholars of this period also engaged in research, making discoveries in numerous fields including chemistry, mathematics, astronomy and medicine. Among the outstanding achievements of this period were the development of algebra, the beginnings of analytic geometry and important advances in trigonometry. In astronomy, Muslim scientists improved upon the work of the ancients and developed star maps that were used worldwide for centuries.
This Golden Age stagnated. Although Muslim civilization recovered, science did not. The Ottoman Empire rose to become one of the great powers of the world, its armies ranging deep into Europe. However, Ottoman attitudes towards science paralleled those of modern Muslim states. Heavily centralised, with little in the way of civil society, research was entirely dependent on the discretion of the Sultan. The Sultans generally preferred to purchase Western devices and import Western technicians than to finance their own.
One factor in the stagnation of Muslim science could be in the realm of philosophy and theology. Like the other monotheistic religions, Islam wrestles with the conflict between free will and determinism. An all-powerful deity reduces the scope for human initiative and reason. Muslim philosophers adopted Aristotelian philosophy and posited a universe set in motion by a radical deity and governed by laws that could be grasped by human reason.
The great Muslim philosophers such as Al-Farabi (d. 950), Avicenna (980-1037), and Averroes (1126-1198), had a profound impact on Western philosophy and ultimately this worldview entered into a creative tension with determinism in the West. In the Muslim world, however, this worldview was marginalised. The greatest anti-philosopher Al-Ghazali (1059-1111) argued for revelation over reason and that a universe governed by physical laws placed unacceptable limits on divine power.
Al-Ghazali and later thinkers posited a universe continually recreated at the deity’s discretion. Although Ghazali later inspired radical theoreticians such as Ibn Taymiya (1263-1328) and Ibn Wahhab (1703-1791) who argued for purifying Islam through strict adherence to the precepts of early Islam, it would be simplistic to characterise the Muslim world as simply being gripped by radical orthodoxy.
The Ottomans offered, by the standards of the time, minority protection and opportunities for advancement to all inhabitants of the empire. For centuries there was a greater flow of dissidents from Europe to the Ottoman Empire than vice versa. A more determinist worldview also had advantages for maintaining social harmony and avoiding political disruptions. For individuals, the determinist worldview that many tragedies are out of an individual’s hands can be a great source of comfort and is central to Islam’s appeal to hundreds of millions of people.
However, this view reduces the scope of human endeavor and curiosity. If phenomena occur according to divine whim, then there is less incentive for studying how phenomena occur. This dearth of curiosity in the Muslim world extended to areas outside of science. The 2002 Arab Human Development Report notes that the entire Arab world translates 330 books annually, one-fifth the number translated in Greece alone.
Further, the report notes that in the past millennia the Arab world has translated as many books (about 100,000) as Spain translates in a single year. This curiosity deficit extends into history. Even Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), one of the last great Muslim scholars, writing about a reported revival of philosophy in Europe, wrote dismissively: “But God knows what goes on over there!” Over the next few centuries there was minimal Middle Eastern exploration of Europe, while Europeans traveled
to the Middle East, studied the languages and translated the literature and established university departments to study the region.
There are a few exceptions to the overall weak state of science in the Muslim world. Turkey, which in per capita production of scientific papers and rates of international citation compares favourably to similarly situated Latin American countries, embarked on an extensive process of Westernisation under its national founder, Attaturk.
Jordan, a lower-middle income nation, also compares favorably with similarly situated non-Muslim states. The Jordanian royal family is committed to Westernisation, has generously sponsored the Royal Scientific Society and, unlike most Arab states, been willing to engage in scientific research programmes with Israel. Several of the wealthy Gulf states have begun developing national science programmes. Malaysia, the only Muslim state to be a major exporter of high tech products, had embarked on a national programme to develop these industries.
In recent years, Iran has increased its research output, having started from a very low base. The reformist governments of the 1990s encouraged scientific research and increased investment in higher education, which had been devastated by the Islamic revolution of 1979 and the Iran-Ira War of the 1980s. It is worth noting that many of the leading scholars of Islam’s Golden Age were Iranian and that although Iran is under an Islamic regime, it remains proud of its distinct pre-Islamic culture. Clearly, political leadership willing to invest the resources is essential to developing effective research and development programmes, but the willingness to diverge from mainstream Muslim thinking also appears to be crucial.
The adoption and expansion of scientific research in the Muslim world will be an important indicator of how Islam is coming to terms with modernity. Although Muslims may choose not to Westernise, it is not feasible for a society to compete in the modern world without substantial mastery of modern technology. However, the spread of modern science in the Muslim world may be more than an indicator of modernisation, it may also be the catalyst.
Country Number of publications in journals 1995-2004
Saudi Arabia 17,472
Source: Thomson Scientific Web of Science database
PULL QUOTE: “Seeking explanations from the Quran rather than through experimentation does little to develop the necessary scientific base”
RELATED ARTICLE:’Understanding Arab media analysis’ in Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, 24-Jul-2006.