Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Economist article on Islam and Science

by Salman Hameed

This week's Economist has an article that talks about the currents status of science in the Muslim world. It takes a broad approach and starts with the dismal state of current science in much of the Muslim world:

THE sleep has been long and deep. In 2005 Harvard University produced more scientific papers than 17 Arabic-speaking countries combined. The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims have produced only two Nobel laureates in chemistry and physics. Both moved to the West: the only living one, the chemist Ahmed Hassan Zewail, is at the California Institute of Technology. By contrast Jews, outnumbered 100 to one by Muslims, have won 79. The 57 countries in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference spend a puny 0.81% of GDP on research and development, about a third of the world average. America, which has the world’s biggest science budget, spends 2.9%; Israel lavishes 4.4%. 
Many blame Islam’s supposed innate hostility to science. Some universities seem keener on prayer than study. Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, for example, has three mosques on campus, with a fourth planned, but no bookshop. Rote learning rather than critical thinking is the hallmark of higher education in many countries. The Saudi government supports books for Islamic schools such as “The Unchallengeable Miracles of the Qur’an: The Facts That Can’t Be Denied By Science” suggesting an inherent conflict between belief and reason.
But then it also talks about the rising publications from Turkey, Iran and other Muslim countries (I have also written about it here on Irtiqa: See the numbers for 2012 here and 2011 here)
In the 2000 to 2009 period Turkey’s output of scientific papers rose from barely 5,000 to 22,000; with less cash, Iran’s went up 1,300, to nearly 15,000. Quantity does not imply quality, but the papers are getting better, too. Scientific journals, and not just the few based in the Islamic world, are citing these papers more frequently. A study in 2011 by Thomson Reuters, an information firm, shows that in the early 1990s other publishers cited scientific papers from Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey (the most prolific Muslim countries) four times less often than the global average. By 2009 it was only half as often. In the category of best-regarded mathematics papers, Iran now performs well above average, with 1.7% of its papers among the most-cited 1%, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia also doing well. Turkey scores highly on engineering.
The article then goes on to highlight some of the challenges as well, especially those related to biological evolution. It cites my 2008 paper for the dismal statistics of evolution acceptance in the Muslim world. However, our more recent work based on oral interviews show a much more complicated picture. In particular, we find that people hear different things when they hear the mention of evolution or Darwin, and often times, it has little to do with science. This is also highlighted in the article:

Though such disbelief may be couched in religious terms, culture and politics play a bigger role, says Mr Hameed. Poor school education in many countries leaves minds open to misapprehension. A growing Islamic creationist movement is at work too. A controversial Turkish preacher who goes by the name of Harun Yahya is in the forefront. His website spews pamphlets and books decrying Darwin. Unlike his American counterparts, however, he concedes that the universe is billions of years old (not 6,000 years). 
But the barrier is not insuperable. Plenty of Muslim biologists have managed to reconcile their faith and their work. Fatimah Jackson, a biological anthropologist who converted to Islam, quotes Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the founders of genetics, saying that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Science describes how things change; Islam, in a larger sense, explains why, she says. 
Others take a similar line. “The Koran is not a science textbook,” says Rana Dajani, a Jordanian molecular biologist. “It provides people with guidelines as to how they should live their lives.” Interpretations of it, she argues, can evolve with new scientific discoveries. Koranic verses about the creation of man, for example, can now be read as providing support for evolution.
And it is great that the article goes on to talk about the work on stem cells research that is going on in Iran - and also in Malaysia, Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan:
Other parts of the life sciences, often tricky for Christians, have proved unproblematic for Muslims. In America researchers wanting to use embryonic stem cells (which, as their name suggests, must be taken from human embryos, usually spares left over from fertility treatments) have had to battle pro-life Christian conservatives and a federal ban on funding for their field. But according to Islam, the soul does not enter the fetus until between 40 and 120 days after conception—so scientists at the Royan Institute in Iran are able to carry out stem-cell research without attracting censure.
Here is a broad swath of issues in a condensed manner. Read the full article here. By the way, if you are interested, you should also check out this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education from last year: Does Islam Stand Against Science?


Anonymous said...

Another Voice. From the turkish islamic scolar Prof. Hüseyin Atay:

Science, Evolution and the Quran

Prof. Huseyin Atay's speech at Darwin- 200 Anniversary Conference that held in stanbul between 23-25 April 2009 by the Faraday Institute, St. Edmunds College, Cambridge.

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