Friday, August 03, 2007

Why Muslims lag behind in science - Pervez Hoodbhoy

Here is an excellent article by Pervez Hoodbhoy, Science and the Islamic world - the quest for rapprochement, published in this month's Physics Today. This is also a good summary of arguments from his book, Islam and Science - Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality. This is a long article but definitely worth the effort - so please read it and if you like, post comments here.

Couple of interesting things to note:
According to a recent survey, among the 57 member states of the OIC, there are approximately 1800 universities.5 Of those, only 312 publish journal articles. A ranking of the 50 most published among them yields these numbers: 26 are in Turkey, 9 in Iran, 3 each in Malaysia and Egypt, 2 in Pakistan, and 1 in each of Uganda, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, and Azerbaijan. For the top 20 universities, the average yearly production of journal articles was about 1500, a small but reasonable number. However, the average citation per article is less than 1.0 (the survey report does not state whether self-citations were excluded).
An average of less than one citation!! I really hope self-citation has been excluded from the study. But I think he rightly points out that just pouring money into science and education is not going to change much. What really needs to be changed is the attitude towards learning:

Poor teaching owes more to inappropriate attitudes than to material resources. Generally, obedience and rote learning are stressed, and the authority of the teacher is rarely challenged. Debate, analysis, and class discussions are infrequent.

An intellectual climate is essential. There are new universities coming up in Dubai, Sharjah, and Saudi Arabia and it will be interesting to see if students there will be exposed to intellectual traditions of the world and if they will have freedom to explore the boundaries of their own ideas.

Here, as in other Pakistani public universities, films, 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 has three mosques with a fourth one planned, but no bookstore.

Here, Pervez is talking about Quaid Azam University (QAU), which is the second highest ranked university amongst Islamic countries. Theater, films and music pose an interesting challenge. Even during the peak of Greek translations in the Islamic world (8th-10th century), much of Greek dramas and theater works were ignored. There is, of course, a rich tradition of story telling in the Arab world, such as the Arabian Nights, but I'm not sure how much theater and music permeated the general culture.

No Pakistani university, including QAU, allowed Abdus Salam to set foot on its campus, although he had received the Nobel Prize in 1979 for his role in formulating the standard model of particle physics. The Ahmedi sect to which he belonged, and which had earlier been considered to be Muslim, was officially declared heretical in 1974 by the Pakistani government.

The treatment of Ahmedis in Pakistan is simply shameful. In fact, in order to get a Pakistani passport, one has to declare that Ahmedis are non-Muslims (check out for yourself from the Government of Pakistan website and download passport application form from here. Look for item number 25). Ah...bigotry has so many faces. I really really hope, this insane portion of the passport form is dropped by the government soon.

In the article, Hoodbhoy later makes a bold statement regarding veils:

The imposition of the veil makes a difference. My colleagues and I share a common observation that over time most students—particularly veiled females—have largely lapsed into becoming silent note-takers, are increasingly timid, and are less inclined to ask questions or take part in discussions.
I'm curious if sociologists and psychologists have looked into the impact of veiling in a conservative society like Pakistan. The last 10 years have seen a sharp increase in voluntary veiling by educated, middle-class women, and there must be a noticeable difference in work and educational environments.

While in the remaining article, he talks about the importance of scientific and intellectual thinking, his most bold assertion (for Muslim countries) is tucked in his concluding paragraph:
Just as important, the practice of religion must be a matter of choice for the individual, not enforced by the state. This leaves secular humanism, based on common sense and the principles of logic and reason, as our only reasonable choice for governance and progress. Being scientists, we understand this easily. The task is to persuade those who do not.
Complete freedom of religion and secular humanism for Muslim countries! Amen. Hey...even US can use some secular humanism.


Anonymous said...

For muslims to start contributing again, is it mandatory that state and religion are divorced and many muslim scholars talk about islam being a "secular" religion. In short Is secularization of muslim states mandatory for the meaningful contribution by muslim states in science?

Anonymous said...

Ok, i will take the devil advocates' role here:

Even though I support secularism, but I have seen good researchers who r dogmatic in their beliefs.

So a dogmatic state can spawn good researchers? I think yes, if the researchers have schizophranic disorder of dual personalities: religous and scientific. Is it possible? I think yes.

Most religous states support religion for the poor class ppl and purely for repression. For the elite class (based on family or money), the rules r relaxed)

Muslim states r behind in science and tech because of mismanagement and misrule

Anonymous said...

I fully agree that in Muslim countries, especially Pakistan, religion should be strictly a matter of personal belief and choice, and it should have no role to play in politics and education. Otherwise we will never be able to propser or progress and will always be dependent upon non-Muslim countries for survival. If we want to remain backward, poor, undeveloped then continue with beards, hijab,Wahabism, Talibinsation and Islamic fundamentalism, pure and simple.

Anonymous said...

This is a long post that I wrote recently and 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

Salman Hameed said...

I think the key is complete freedom of inquiry. Can a religious based curriculum provide that? If yes, then that should not be a problem. In reality, however, religion is used to impose or at least influence the direction of education and science (and other speheres of life) in most Muslim countries. From that perspective, a secular view of keeping religion a personal matter will make it easier for the separation of science and religion, which in itself is necessary for the development of science in the contemporary world.

This does not mean that one has to abandon religion - just keep it separated from science. Similarly, this does not mean that there are no dogmatic scientists - sure enough, there are many. But things get decided based on scientific evidence regardless of one's dogma.

Anonymous said...

I have been an admirer of Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy’s writings on bringing about a scientific renaissance among modern-day Muslims. His 1991 book, Islam and Science – Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality, was an eye-opener for me. The Quran is a book of moral guidance and not a book of science, he wrote. In one clear sentence, he exposed the inadequacy of Muslims who would do away with the scientific method and install revelation (as they understood it) as the source of scientific progress and discovery. His subsequent writings on the topic only deepened my admiration.

Which was why, in an otherwise incisive article, I was disappointed by a solution he proposed for Muslim renaissance in science. Dr. Hoodbhoy recommends behavioral changes among Muslims to excel in a ruthlessly global marketplace dominated by science and technology. Such changes would allow Muslims to develop intense “social work habits” that “are not easily reconcilable with religious demands made on a fully observant Muslim’s time, energy, and mental concentrations. The faithful must participate in five daily congregational prayers, endure a month of fasting that taxes the body, recite daily from the Quran, and more. Although such duties orient believers admirably well toward success in the life hereafter, they make worldly success less likely. A more balanced approach will be needed.”

Dr. Hoodbhoy is suggesting that daily prayers, recitation of the Quran and month-long Ramadan fasting are hindrances to a Muslim’s attaining scientific excellence, since they disrupt sustained concentration of the mind. Although he does not spell out the details of “a more balanced approach,” the implication is clear: Do away with these religious demands, or, at the very least, reduce their frequency. How about praying only once at the end of the day, recite the Quran once a week perhaps, and forego fasting altogether?

I am surprised by the obvious errors Dr. Hoodbhoy has made in his argument. While it is commendable for Muslims to offer the five daily prayers in congregations, it is not a must. The prayers (with the exception of the Friday noon prayer) can be offered in private, taking no more than a few minutes and very little space. In fact, that is how most observant Muslims meet the requirements of their faith during workdays in their professional lives. If, for some reason, they cannot offer the daily prayers in time, they can make them up later.

His use of the word “endure” for the month of fasting is also perplexing. Most Muslims do not “endure” fasting but look forward to it as a time of physical cleansing and heightened spirituality.

The major flaw in Dr. Hoodbhoy’s suggestion is that religious practices prevent observant Muslims from focusing and maintaining the continuity of their thoughts, particularly in science. In fact, the opposite is true. Properly practiced (a challenge for many Muslims for whom religious observances have become rituals without meaning), prayers and fasting instill discipline, a prerequisite for concentration. His mentor, Nobel physicist Abdus Salam, is an obvious example. Salam was one of the great theoretical physicists of the twentieth century but he was also a devout Muslim, punctilious about the demands of his faith. In numerous essays and articles, Salam explained how his faith inspired his science and vice-versa. While most Muslim scientists of our times can hardly match Salam’s achievement, the science of many of them is also informed by the awe and wonder inspired by their faith.

So why are Muslim nations so far behind in science compared to the West? Why does the observation of Turkish-American physicist Taner Edis1 that “if all Muslim scientists working in basic science vanished from the face of the earth, the rest of the scientific community would barely notice” ring so true? Why is creationist literature unleashed by a Turkish clergy named Harun Yahya sweeping the Muslim world?

One reason is the lack of separation of mosque and state, and consequently, separation of mosque and science, in many Muslim countries. Science thrives on unfettered inquiry. If the clergy can impose religious limits on free inquiry and threaten dire consequences if the limits are transgressed, science can never advance.
Another related reason is the lack of quality education. Take the case of Dr. Hoodbhoy’s own country, Pakistan. As William Dalrymple noted recently in The Guardian on the occasion of Pakistan’s 60th independence anniversary2, only 1.8% of Pakistan's GDP is spent on government schools. 15% of these government schools are without a proper building; 52% without a boundary wall; 71% without electricity. Many of the barely functioning schools cram children of all grades into a single room, often sitting on the floor because of lack of desks. While 65% of India’s population is literate and rising, the figure for Pakistan is 49% and falling. Out of a population of 162 million, 83 million adults of 15 years and above are illiterate. It is worse for women: 65% of all female adults are illiterate. The absence of quality government schooling has compelled poorest Pakistanis to place their vulnerable children in the madrasa system. Madrasas offer free education but can turn their young wards into ideologues under the tutelage of fiery preachers, as the recent red mosque showdown in Islamabad demonstrated.
When one adds to this grim status quo the general lack of accountability and respect for law by the leaders of many Muslim countries, it is easy to see why engaging in genuine scientific research can become hazardous to one’s health.
Yet there is hope. Even conservative Muslims, like liberal Muslims, are becoming aware of the central role of science in defining the destiny of modern nations. Slowly but surely, they are beginning to see that science does not undermine religion but enriches it. The critical mass for change will occur sooner or later. One hopes, of course, that it will occur sooner rather than later.
1. Steve Paulson, The religious state of Islamic Science: An interview with Turkish-American physicist Taner Edis, Online Salon magazine, August 13, 2007
2. William Dalrymple, The ‘poor’ neighbor, The Guardian (UK), August 14, 2007

Tawhid1982 said...

Typical paki with an inferior complex this 'hoodbhoy', which isn't even a Muslim name, probably some parsi or hindu name.

He is supposedly a professor of physics, yet he fails to understand that such simplistic measures as number of journal articles or citations of articles published in mostly english language journals by mostly nonenglish language speaking Muslims will be rare, few and far between.

He also mentioned, ironically, the case of a few Iranian chemists duplicating and plagiarizing others' articles (without any source, links or reference) while it's common knowledge what happens in pakistan is widespread plagiarism in exams, in publications, in articles, even with degrees and certificate scrolls.

I think it's a little too hard for a britain's slave - paki - to realize that raw publications size or citations size indicates only that and nothing more, conclusively.

Muntazir Mahdi said...

well....i don't agree with professor hoodbhoy....secularism is not the gateway to science!!! Muslims of pasts like jabir bin hayan flourished in past....were they secular??so many other examples.....rather they were more inclined towards religion as compared to present day muslims! or people can say them more conserved!!

infact we don't understand religion....thats why we think religion and science two antiparallel is not so.....if it was Then Imam Jafir Sadiq as would never have given lectures on scientific subjects(like chemistry,geography astronomy)
(ref:see book Super man in Islam or latest edition super brain of Islam which is compiled by Western scholars (who even don't believe him to be Imam) so it is an unbiased book!

personally being a science student so far...i haven't find any scientific and religious teaching clashing with eachother Except EVOLUTION (which is still a theory and no one is sure enough to provide strong evidences)

in present day world see the example of IRAN a state where religion is in supreme power.....n all islamic laws are obeyed ....where u cannot drink in public!
where even when benazir went had to wear proper hijab!
so with such laws are they not progressing in science??????

they are progressing to an extent that US and israel are afraid of Iran!so......plz don't blame religion for our shortcomings!!!
kind of lame excuses!!!

Harun Küçük said...

I think the problems of the Muslim has to do with the public value of science in these countries: It is very, very low. I'm from Turkey, which is relatively well off among Muslim countries when it comes to research. Even here, science has little publicity and poor funding. Universities often serve as vocational schools and the centralized examination system makes it nearly impossible for the students to follow their passion. Academic salaries are exceptionally low, which means that most academics need to pick up overtime teaching or adjunct positions at private universities. These, I believe are the major culprits.

This, of course, is not to say that there aren't many, many Muslims who have a highly problematic relationship with science. Many Muslims still view science as something foreign to their culture. Some are opposed to it on metaphysical grounds -- evolution comes to mind, but any kind of deterministic worldview creates problems. Still others view science and Western values as a package. Anti-imperialism is perhaps THE defining feature of modern day Islamism. Thus, many Islamists rejects at least some Western values and, in the process, distance themselves from science as well. Last but not least, Turkish Islam has a fairly profound engagement with Western science, which perhaps explains why Turkey is both the best Muslim country in scientific research, but also the home of modern Muslim creationism.

I personally think secularism is a bit of an overkill in these debates, as we clearly need a more finely-tuned solution. The relationship between science and the public good is one route to take. The lack of clarity on the issue of true public good (not hand-outs or feeding the poor, mind you) and short-sightedness of the regimes might be the best targets. In a recent speech, Erdogan Bayraktar, the Turkish Minister of the Environment, said that the best Turkey could achieve was to become a "technical staff" country and that Turkey would have no inventors because Islamic culture was incompatible with the culture of invention. Bayraktar represents the present moderate Islamist government and his speech gives you a clear sense of what their targets are. Top-shelf research and robust academic culture is not a priority for them.

Other problems include the absence of meritocratic values and rampant corruption.

Of course, none of this has to do with Islam as such, but strike at the heart of cultural isolationism and reactionary attitudes towards the West. In short, I think Islam is not the problem, modern Islamism, however, insofar as it is a totalizing ideology and a mobilization mechanism, is a huge problem.

Other notes regarding the comments:

1. I think English journals published in the Anglo world is a partial, but accurate way to measure research performance. English is the language of much cutting edge research and cutting edge is where you want to be.

2. Evolution is not "just a theory" -- not more than gravity is. The mechanism of the evolution, namely, inherited characteristics and mutation, is as much a scientific fact as any other.

3. I completely agree with Salman about the freedom of speech. The Muslim world does not have it and badly needs it.

4. As for the "Islamicity" of medieval Muslim scientists: They were devout to be sure, but many of them would not pass the test of modern scripturalist Islam as exemplary Muslims.

Unknown said...

the status of scientific thinking in middle eastern culture is purely pathetic. It is shocking to see how they trade religion for all the wrong
deeds barred by religion. For example multiple marriage and keeping slave girls/concubines by rich Saudi sheikhs. belief in supernatural and thinking a special help will come from almighty God have left Muslim world very reluctant to improve their skill and knowledge which can allbe attained by repeated efforts-trial and error.

Truth finder said...

Can any one tell me , does secularism has any connection , with the science and technology advancement ...
Does science has any relation with the capitalism or communism ....
If yes what is that .....
And science and technology has limitation they can't give a system , rather explain the existing system .....
Though science can't says the origins of life ....
Science can say "how" ! But can't say "why" ....

Truth finder said...

Pakistan is totally lead by secular authority ...
Why then Pakistan can't lead in science and technology ?
There are so many big scientist who are religious , even Einstine was a religious person believing in god , is Tht make any obstacle , in his practicing science ..... ?
When , the renascence happen in Europe , there were maximum people was religious , does it make any obstacle in science and technology advancement ...?

Mr. Pervej said , Islam deals with morality , but Islam doesn't have any segment of study like " morality " ...
So he should study more about Islam ....

Powered by Blogger.