SCIENCE IN MUSLIM WORLD Faisal Hashmi (JAN. 16, 2006)


 FAISAL HASHMI reviews a special issue on Islam and Science in the scientific journal Nature.

In the first week of November 2006 the science journal Nature published a special issue on science in the Muslim world. It was a collection of several reports by specialists that took stock of scientific and technological education in the Muslim world as well as research laboratories and other intellectual and artistic activity.

One of the reports said the main Muslim countries were spending so little time, effort and money on science and technology that it sometimes appeared as if Islam itself was antagonistic to science. It seems as if Islam does not encourage independent research. However, that is not the case. If it were so, the Muslim world would not have led the world in science and technology from 8th to 10th century.

Despite its past record, virtually the whole Muslim world is lagging behind every other country, except the few in Sub-Saharan Africa. Sometimes countries like Iran and Pakistan are referred to in this context, but that too is limited to bomb-making. One expert says that the reasons for this backwardness have less to do with science and more with politics. Because the rulers in most of these countries have not been elected by the people in fairly-conducted polls, they do not genuinely represent the will and aspirations of their people. Naturally, they are not greatly interested in improving the quality of life of their people through building a sound scientific and technological base.

No wonder, the Muslim countries spend next to nothing on scientific education and research. Even the relatively rich Gulf states spend only one-tenth of the percentage of Western budget allocation on science. The Gulf states lead in only one area of research, that is desalination of sea water. Even in this area most of the research is done in other countries. Nature calls these countries "oil rich, science poor".

These write-ups indicate a great Western concern over the scientific and technological backwardness of the Muslim world. However, the fact remains that the rulers responsible for all this have invariably been Western proteges. (Even Saddam Hussein was one, in his earlier years as Iraq’s dictator.)

One of the authors candidly admits that nearly all Muslim countries had been European colonies till the end of World War II. The colonial masters never bothered to start scientific and technological education and research in these lands. The resulting lag was only aggravated by the succeeding regimes. That being the case the erstwhile colonial powers can’t be absolved of the guilt just because they have chosen to pontificate about Muslim backwardness.

These write-ups don’t say that when the Afro-Asian countries got their freedom and tried to build a scientific and technological base, they were often discouraged from doing so. However, when some post-colonial state kept on forging ahead it was left alone to its own devices. When independent India tried to build steel plants and other core industries some Western powers tried to dissuade it. They said India could buy these products at a far lower price from Western suppliers instead of manufacturing them.

India ignored such arguments and carried on with its vision of building its industrial capability while countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan chose to buy from the West at a "cheaper" rate. However, it is because of its independent policy that India today has an extensive industrial base and an array of scientific institutions, IITs, medical and engineering colleges and other world-class institutions.

Not that long ago, the Western powers tried to dissuade Malaysia from making its own car, but Mahathir Mohammad pressed on. Today, they can build reasonably good cars, of which they are justifiably proud.

A Muslim author of one of these write-ups points out that knowledge is a sacred trust that is nobody’s exclusive property. That was the operative principle for Muslims from 8th to 13th century when they were producing an extraordinarily vast body of knowledge, which they shared with anybody who cared to partake of it. With today’s restrictive laws like Intellectual Property Rights and patents regime that principle is being turned upside down.

According to these articles some scientific research is being undertaken in a few countries, but scientists are not free there. No real scientific development is possible when right to free speech and establish institutions is not ensured. Creativity is severely blunted due to lack of growth of media and different art forms.

These write-ups also stress establishing good educational institutions, laboratories and universities. Scientists and other specialists of these countries should be encouraged to come back and settle in their own countries. One of the articles says that these recommendations may not work if Iraq and Palestine remain under foreign occupation.g


(Adapted from Hindi)

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