Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Why Muslims lag behind in science - Taner Edis

Here is Taner Edis talking about the religious state of Islamic science. This serves as a nice companion piece to an earlier article by Pervez Hoodbhoy. One thing they absolutely agree on is the separation of science with Islam, and this may be the biggest hurdle in the development of basic sciences in the Islamic world. Also check out Edis' excellent book, An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam.

Why was it so much harder for science to take root in the Muslim world?

It was harder for science to achieve intellectual and institutional independence. This was not restricted just to science. In the Western world, the institution of law achieved a kind of autonomy from religion early on. Some historians argue that this was really a precursor to science achieving autonomy as well. In the Muslim world, law was never entirely disentangled from religion. Islamic culture has not been as supportive of intellectual independence for different areas of life.

Did science actually decline in the Islamic world in the 14th or 15th centuries? Or is it just that science in Europe exploded a little later, leaving science in the Islamic world far behind?

It depends on which historian you consult. The older point of view has been that Islamic intellectual life and science went into a period of decline after the Golden Age. But nowadays, many historians argue that science in the Islamic world continued to develop at its own pace. I don't know if I would entirely agree. But it's definitely true that much more emphasis has to be put on Europe taking off and therefore a relative gap opening. It's not so much a story of Islamic decline as Europe inventing an entirely new way of thinking about the natural world and really making a break with medieval ways of thinking. That didn't happen in the Islamic world.

Yes, its more complicated than that, but still this is an important point when considering why scientific revolution didn't take place in the Islamic world.

On "Islamic Science" or "Islamization of science":

Many Muslim thinkers talk about trying to resurrect and tap into the past glory of Islamic science. Are you saying this is a mistake?

Yes and no. If you go back to the 9th through the 12th centuries, some practices were useful, such as being more open to intellectual currents from many directions. But other things are not going to be helpful. If you look into the literature on Islam and science, one of the names you will very soon encounter is Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who is a Muslim philosopher of science. He works in the United States but has origins in Iran.

He teaches at George Washington University. Clearly, he has a distinguished academic position.

That's right. Seyyed Hossein Nasr says he's trying to revive certain distinctly Muslim ways of thinking about the universe. But it's a revival of all the strands of classical Islamic thought, including those strands which are very antithetical to science as we understand it today.

Where does this actually create problems?

One of the features of medieval Islamic science that some modern Muslim thinkers want to revive is the way of perceiving the universe as a spiritual, God-centered place. This tends to work against the independence of science from religious institutions. It's precisely this autonomy that helped science make the breakthrough in the Western world. In the Muslim world, this is still a relatively controversial concept. There is a tendency to say that science should operate under the guidance of religious concerns. I think this is one of the obstacles facing science in the Islamic world.

But this is complicated. Everyone agrees that Western science has been successful at what it does. And yet I'm willing to bet that many Islamic thinkers would say the price of scientific success in the West has been too high. Once science was divorced from religion, you could argue that it was only a matter of time before secular values would triumph, atheism would become a viable option, and the modern world would end up with the rampant materialism and consumerism that we have today. A lot of Islamic thinkers don't want that version of Western science.

This is a dilemma for many people in the Muslim world who are thinking about science and religion. On the one hand, there is a desire to catch up, especially in the technological realm which underpins the military and commercial superiority of the Western world. On the other hand, there is a desire to adopt modern science in such a way that local religious culture is not corrupted. So yes, they are very concerned not to go down the Western path. You can find many Muslim thinkers who say that Western Christians made a mistake by allowing science to operate independently of religious constraints. However, that is the way modern science has achieved the success it has. So it's hard to negotiate between these options.

I don't want to sound like I'm describing the Muslim world as a monolithic entity with no differences between Muslims. There is a very heated internal debate in Muslim countries about how to respond to the modern West, and science is only one concern. Some say the Islamic world has to secularize. Turkey has for many decades been an example of taking a more secular path and adopting westernization full scale. It has had some successes, though it hasn't fully taken root. But a lot of people think if you try and westernize totally -- if you separate science from religion and you separate politics from religion -- then you end up with the more compartmentalized modern society that we're familiar with in the West. And they're reacting against it. The intellectual options in the debate over science and religion are very similar to what we have in the West. What's different is the historical background and the institutional landscape. In the Islamic world, the liberal option is much weaker compared to what we have in the Western world.

By "the liberal option," do you mean reading sacred texts as metaphor rather than literal truth? For instance, liberal Christians don't take the creation stories in Genesis as scientific fact. They read these stories more as poetry. Are you saying that option, for the most part, doesn't exist for Muslims because the Quran is seen as a text that's been handed down from God?

It would be an overstatement to say that option does not exist, but it has a much weaker social position. Let me give an example. Here in the United States, the mainstream scientific community has a big problem with creationist movements and intelligent design. As scientists, one of our closest allies in trying to combat creationism is the liberal religious community. It's much more effective to send somebody to a school board meeting who's not a scientist but actually a priest or rabbi or minister in a more liberal denomination and to explain that they don't see a conflict between teaching evolution and religion. But in the Muslim world, this is much more difficult because the public affinity toward creationism is much stronger. Darwinian thinking really hasn't penetrated the popular discourse. Plus, it's very hard for scientists who work in Muslim countries to find liberal religious figures who would go out there and publicly say Darwinian evolution is not a problem for Islam.

This is the new science battle ground in the Islamic world. Some religious scholars have somewhat accepted evolution, for example, very conservative Israr Ahmad in Pakistan, but they are outnumbered and even those that have accepted still have problems with human evolution.


Anonymous said...

I wrote this recently and I think it is relevant to this discussion.
In the last few months, I have seen several disturbing examples of serious scientific journals publishing fantasies about the Islamic "golden age" as if they were scientific fact. Some examples and my comments follow:

A. In an otherwise reasonable article about doctors and terrorism (NEJM,
August 16th, the author chose to insert a quote from the "Times" that panders to this trend. The quote states: "it (the terrorist attacks involving Muslim medics) also insults the pride that Muslims take in the achievements of their golden age, especially in the fields of medicine, surgery and pharmacology. Medicine owes more to Islam than to any other religion or philosophy. It was the great Muslim physicians of Spain and the Middle East who laid the foundations for today's science; it was the writings and medical observations of scholars such as Ibn Rushd (Averroes, as he was known in Europe) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) that led directly to the medical advances of the past nine centuries."

1. The idea that the work of so and so led directly to every advance in modern medicine in the next 9 centuries is true only in the sense that almost everything that happened in the interconnected world of Europe and the Middle East in the 12th century "led directly" to all that happened in subsequent centuries. Muslim physicians made some significant advances in medicine and, perhaps even more important, preserved and passed on the knowledge of the Greco-Roman world. But the idea of a "golden age" that is responsible for all progress in the modern world is simply the mirror image of the idea that Muslims are irredeemable barbarians who contributed nothing worthwhile to the world. Medieval Islamicate civilization, while undoubtedly civilized and progressive by the standards of the age, was not especially enlightened by modern standards. Slavery and torture were widespread, religious minorities faced discriminatory rules, the caliphate suffered repeated dynastic squabbles and civil wars, legal protections were minimal, women were kept out of public life and free enquiry was frequently suppressed at the whim of one or the other absolutist ruler. We should avoid the temptation to treat today's Muslims as children who may get upset if you don't throw them a few lines about the "golden age". The intentions behind such "positive lying" are undoubtedly benign, but in a scientific journal we should stick to verifiable claims and (relatively) objective data.

B. A few months ago, the scientific journal "Nature" published an amazing piece of Islamist apologetics ( by modern Islamist Ziauddin Sardar. Their intent was probably benign: maybe "Nature" hoped to foster some kind of modern, scientific culture in the Muslim world by promoting what they regard as benign and relatively civilized Islamism. But the article makes sweeping statements about history and historical categories ("classical Islam inspired science, progress in science made Muslims powerful, colonialism destroyed Islamic science, etc. etc") and offers them up as established facts.

1. As pointed out above, the purported golden age was hardly as "golden" as Sardar imagines.

2. A case can easily be made that this knowledge and creativity had not really died down in the settled areas of the Middle East prior to Arab conquest and political unification under the Arabs provided an opportunity for bright individuals to make contributions to human knowledge, as it has in other times. Religion could (and sometimes did) hinder the process, but rarely directly aided it (unless you wish to credit religion for providing the social glue that held society together, but then again, that same role has been played by other religions and continues to be played by other ideological constructs).

3. The idea that Islamic nations were powerful because of some significant technological advantage and devotion to science is open to question. One can easily argue that when it came to making war, the Islamic caliphate never reached the technical level of the Romans, but then again, neither did their opponents. Even the Romans repeatedly suffered defeats at the hands of technologically inferior opponents because the difference in war-making technology between barbarian and advanced civilization was not decisive in those times (and may not be decisive in some ways even today).

3. The idea that "colonialism" somehow destroyed classical Islamic science is laughable. By the time the colonial powers arrived, there was no scientific tradition in any part of the Middle East. This is the most easily refuted of Sardar's arguments and the fact that the editors of "Nature" are unaware of such elementary facts (or wish to ignore them) is deplorable.

C. In November 2006, "Nature" published a special on "Islam and Science" that was breathtaking in its superficiality ( For example:

1. The issue was introduced with repeated references to "Muslim science". Why is "Muslim science" a reasonable unit of analysis, but not "Hindu science", "Buddhist science" or even "Christian science"? We are talking about 50 countries with little in common beyond the allegiance of varying proportions of their population to one somewhat heterogeneous religious tradition. It may be (as the most extreme detractors and most extreme adherents of Islam are equally eager to claim) that there is something special about the adherents of Islam and in their case (and their case alone), it makes sense to define them by religion rather than by geography, culture, ethnicity or any other criterion. But this is a fraught and complex debate and the editors of "Nature", far from making a sensible contribution to it, do not even seem to be aware of its existence!
2. The editors state that: "There has never been a greater need for the measured, evidence-based approach to problems that comes from scientific training. Its contribution may be small amid the current turbulence, but it is all the more worth pursuing." But having said that, none of the contributors (with the exception of Nader Fergany) exhibit any signs of having taken their own advice. Party slogans and pop-culture bromides take the place of any attempt at analysis. One contributor states "In the late nineteenth century, Darwin's On the Origin of Species had a favorable reception in Muslim countries." how did he reach that conclusion? The great mass of Muslims was not even aware of the most elementary achievements of Modern science. The traditionally trained theologians had very little to say about Darwin and when they did find something to say, it was almost wholly negative. The acceptance of evolution by a few Western trained intellectuals hardly constitutes "favorable reception". Equally careless statements are made about the history of "Islamic science", the nature of politics in Muslim countries and the nature of Islam itself. The level of historiography and analysis on display would be an embarrassment in a good quality high school. In "Nature" it is downright shameful. One expects a higher standard of discourse from the premier scientific journal in the world.
3. The contributors repeatedly refer to a purported golden age of rationality and science in the Middle East about a thousand years ago. For example, asking Muslims to "reclaim... a great Islamic past in which new knowledge was valued and scholars were free to pursue all lines of enquiry". The reality is much more complicated than that. Islam as a religious tradition is not unusually open to outside influences. Like all other religious traditions, it absorbed much from the older traditions that existed in its area of influence, but it was rarely willing to openly admit such cultural borrowing and the doctors of Islam (like their counterparts in other traditions) tended to do their borrowing surreptitiously. The civilization that resulted was not especially enlightened by modern standards though for a time, the culture was vibrant and creative and amidst the usual medieval cruelty and caprice, individuals (not all of them Muslim) made multiple original contributions to human knowledge. That is all very well, and is a valid area of inquiry and comment, but a serious journal like "Nature" should either steer clear of this topic or make a sensible and scholarly contribution to it. Repeating fashionable nostrums because they suit the propaganda needs of the day is justifiable in mass communication but is a disservice to science.
4. They state that in Iran and Pakistan, the rise of political Islam has been accompanied by increases in university education and scientific activity. What (if any) is the causal connection between these events? What would have happened to universities without the rise of political Islam? Again, is "Islam" even the correct unit of analysis in this case? Can the particular histories of Pakistan, Chad and Saudi Arabia be described by one common descriptor, "Islam"? One article displays a figure showing the greatest increase in scientific output has occurred in Iran and Turkey. Since one is avowedly "Islamic" and the other avowedly "secular", an intelligent observer may be excused for wondering if something other than "Islam" explains or links these results. But the editors of "Nature" seem to have made a policy decision to divide the world into the "house of Islam" and the "house of unbelief" and having boxed themselves in, they end up making nonsensical comparisons between apples and oranges. One can have intelligent arguments about whether it is a good idea for a science journal to collect data on "Muslim countries versus non-Muslim countries" (without defining either), but the contributors to this issue do not make any of these arguments. Instead, they prefer to skirt all tough questions and gloss over all difficulties.
5. Most of the articles provide very little hard information. We learn little about the actual state of science in these countries and even less about the possible explanations for their lack of scientific development. Surely the editors of "Nature" could have made an effort to come up with some hard data or rethink their conceptual assumptions if no data could be found in the categories they had chosen?

Omar Ali MD

Assistant Professor of Pediatric Endocrinology

Medical College of W isconsin

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