Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Past Glories

Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy, chair and professor in the department of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan, has an interesting and important article in Physics Today about the question:

With well over a billion Muslims and extensive material resources, why is the Islamic world disengaged from science and the process of creating new knowledge?

By way of background, he relates the history of Golden Age in the Arabic world during the 9th - 13th centuries in mathematics, science, and medicine, that was brought to an end with the defeat of the Mutazilites, who sought to combine faith and reason, by their dogmatic rivals, the Asharites.

Except for a few temporary bright spots during the Ottoman Empire and a brief attempt to inculcate Islam with ideas from the Enlightenment in the 19th century, Islam has had a long dark fall from its pinnacle. In the 20th century, with the end of colonialism and the rise of initially secular Muslim states seeking modernization and technology, some hoped for an Islamic scientific renaissance. The question Hoodboy wants to answer is why it didn't happen. He cites 19th century scholars, such as Max Weber, for one possible answer:

... Islam lacks an "idea system" critical for sustaining a scientific culture based on innovation, new experiences, quantification, and empirical verification. Fatalism and an orientation toward the past, they said, makes progress difficult and even undesirable.

Hooboy tries to measure whatever progress there has been in science in the Islamic world with four metrics:

Hooboy's analysis of the first two metrics is nuanced but it's fair to say that any good news is extremely mixed. What is, at first glance, the most disturbing aspect of higher education in the Islamic countries is:

Academic and cultural freedoms on campuses are highly restricted in most Muslim countries. ... [F]ilms, drama, and music are frowned on, and sometimes even physical attacks by student vigilantes who believe that such pursuits violate Islamic norms take place. The campus [of Hooboy's university] has three mosques with a fourth one planned, but no bookstore.

A Pakistani Nobel Prize winner in physics is not allowed on Hooboy's university because he belongs to sect of Islam that the government has declared heretical. In Pakistan's universities, the veil for women is everywhere and whichever women students resist are under intense pressure to cover up. An influential local cleric issued the following warning to female students and faculty in 2007:

The government should abolish co-education. Quaid-i-Azam University has become a brothel. Its female professors and students roam in objectionable dresses. ... Sportswomen are spreading nudity. I warn the sportswomen of Islamabad to stop participating in sports. ... Our female students have not issued the threat of throwing acid on the uncovered faces of women. However, such a threat could be used for creating the fear of Islam among sinful women. There is no harm in it. There are far more horrible punishments in the hereafter for such women.

On the other hand, it was not so very long ago that Bob Jones University was imposing restrictions on its students more different in tone than in kind. Still, the larger point that Hooboy makes is that, unlike in America, there is little or no choice for students outside of acquiescence, except to go abroad to a completely different culture.

It is the fourth factor that has the most interest for me:

Science is under pressure globally, and from every religion. As science becomes an increasingly dominant part of human culture, its achievements inspire both awe and fear. Creationism and intelligent design, curbs on genetic research, pseudoscience, parapsychology, belief in UFOs, and so on are some of its manifestations in the West. Religious conservatives in the US have rallied against the teaching of Darwinian evolution. Extreme Hindu groups such as the Vishnu Hindu Parishad, which has called for ethnic cleansing of Christians and Muslims, have promoted various "temple miracles," including one in which an elephant-like God miraculously came alive and started drinking milk. Some extremist Jewish groups also derive additional political strength from antiscience movements.

In the Islamic world, opposition to science in the public arena takes additional forms. Antiscience materials have an immense presence on the internet, with thousands of elaborately designed Islamic websites, some with view counters running into the hundreds of thousands.

I'm not so sure Hooboy has been looking very closely at our websites in America. But be that as it may, there is no doubt that our creationists, most prominent among them of late being Ken Ham, would agree with the spirit of this, though with a few substitutions in dates, organizations and book titles:

Science, in the view of fundamentalists, is principally seen as valuable for establishing yet more proofs of God, proving the truth of Islam and the Qur'an, and showing that modern science would have been impossible but for Muslim discoveries. Antiquity alone seems to matter. One gets the impression that history's clock broke down somewhere during the 14th century and that plans for repair are, at best, vague. In that all-too-prevalent view, science is not about critical thought and awareness, creative uncertainties, or ceaseless explorations.

Hooboy gives some plausible contributing causes of scientific laggardness, including widespread poverty and the slowness of the Islamic world to translate scientific works, overwhelmingly in English, into Arabic, Persian and Urdu.

According to a 2002 United Nations report written by Arab intellectuals and released in Cairo, Egypt, "The entire Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one-fifth the number that Greece translates." The report adds that in the 1000 years since the reign of the caliph Maa'moun, the Arabs have translated as many books as Spain translates in just one year.

But Hooboy identifies the real problem as:

The scientific method is alien to traditional, unreformed religious thought. Only the exceptional individual is able to exercise such a mindset in a society in which absolute authority comes from above, questions are asked only with difficulty, the penalties for disbelief are severe, the intellect is denigrated, and a certainty exists that all answers are already known and must only be discovered.

Science finds very soil barren in which miracles are taken literally and seriously and revelation is considered to provide authentic knowledge of the physical world. If the scientific method is trashed, no amount of resources or loud declarations of intent to develop science can compensate. ...

In the 1980s an imagined "Islamic science" was posed as an alternative to "Western science." ... Those attempts led to many elaborate and expensive Islamic science conferences around the world. Some scholars calculated the temperature of Hell, others the chemical composition of heavenly djinnis. None produced a new machine or instrument, conducted an experiment, or even formulated a single testable hypothesis. ...

And Hooboy's prescription?

One almost despairs. Will science never return to the Islamic world? Shall the world always be split between those who have science and those who do not, with all the attendant consequences? ...

Bleak as the present looks, that outcome does not have to prevail. History has no final word, and Muslims do have a chance. ...

Science can prosper among Muslims once again, but only with a willingness to accept certain basic philosophical and attitudinal changes -- a Weltanschauung that shrugs off the dead hand of tradition, rejects fatalism and absolute belief in authority, accepts the legitimacy of temporal laws, values intellectual rigor and scientific honesty, and respects cultural and personal freedoms. The struggle to usher in science will have to go side-by-side with a much wider campaign to elbow out rigid orthodoxy and bring in modern thought, arts, philosophy, democracy, and pluralism. ...

When he figures out how to do that among Muslims, do you think he can let us here in America know the secret?

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