Science in Muslim Countries

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Science  08 Aug 2008:
Vol. 321, Issue 5890, pp. 745
DOI: 10.1126/science.1162825
CREDIT: THE LIBRARYOF ALEXANDRIA

With more than a trillion dollars in cash and a population of over a billion people, the Muslim world should be poised for a remarkable scientific explosion. Yet despite some very high-profile projects in the Gulf, including the building of massive state-of-the-art facilities for research across all disciplines (and serious efforts elsewhere), the reality is that Muslim countries tend to spend less on scientific research itself, as distinct from buildings and equipment, as compared to other countries at the same income scale. Furthermore, even where funding for science has been available, the results in terms of output—research papers, citations, and patents—are disappointingly low. Why?

Throughout the Muslim world, we are witnessing an increasingly intolerant social milieu that is driven by self-appointed guardians of religious correctness, who inject their narrow interpretation of religion into all public debates. Rejecting rationality or evidentiary approaches, they increasingly force dissenting voices into silence and conformity with what they consider acceptable behavior. Of course, Muslim zealots are not alone in challenging the scientific enterprise; in the United States, battles over evolution and creationism continue to rage.

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Yet it was our Muslim forefathers who first held up the torch of rationality, tolerance, and the advancement of knowledge throughout the dark ages of medieval Europe. Centuries before the European scholars Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo considered the scientific method, the great thinker Ibn Al-Haytham (10th century) laid down the rules of the empirical approach, describing how the scientific method should operate through observation, measurement, experiment, and conclusion, the purpose being to “search for truth, not support of opinions.” Likewise, Ibn Al-Nafis (13th century) stressed the importance of accepting contrarian views, subject to the test of evidence and rational analysis.

This is the Muslim tradition that must be revived if current efforts are to bear the scientific fruit that a billion Muslims need and that the world has a right to expect of us. Rejecting politicized religiosity and reviving these traditions would promote the values of science in our societies.

There is a central core of universal values that any truly modern society must possess, and these are very much the values that science promotes: rationality, creativity, the search for truth, adherence to codes of behavior, and a certain constructive subversiveness. Science requires much more than money and projects. Science requires freedom: freedom to enquire, to challenge, to think, and to envision the unimagined. We must be able to question convention and arbitrate our disputes by the rules of evidence. It is the content of scientific work that matters, not the persons who produced it, regardless of the color of their skin, the god they choose to worship, the ethnic group they were born into, or their gender. These are the values of science, but even more, they are societal values worth defending, not just to promote the pursuit of science but to have a better and more humane society.

The future can be bright, but it requires a commitment to fight for the values of science and to reject obscurantism, fanaticism, and xenophobia. It requires that members of the scientific and academic communities in Muslim countries be willing to challenge accepted populist views and insist on creating the “space of freedom” necessary for the practice of science and the advancement of knowledge. We must engage with the media and the public and defend the values of science in our societies. These efforts will not be easy, but they constitute a major and necessary step toward liberating minds from the tyranny of intolerance, bigotry, and fear, and opening the doors to free inquiry, tolerance, and imagination.

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