Dawn Internet Edition
By Dr Syed Amir
Abbasid Caliph Al-Mamun (786-833), a noted poet himself, was a great
patron of the arts and sciences. The House of Wisdom or the Institute
of Higher Learning, he founded more than twelve centuries ago in
Baghdad which attracted a large number of linguists and scholars from
around the world who came in quest of new knowledge.
The scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim, who worked there made impressive contributions to science, medicine, philosophy, mathematics and astronomy. Numerous prized books and manuscripts were translated from Greek, Sanskrit and Latin into Arabic, while Arab researchers enriched the classic texts with their own critical and erudite commentaries. Books, such as the Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Theology as well as Galen’s entire collection of medical treatise were rendered into Arabic. Many books were also translated from Arabic into Latin and served to transmit the cumulative knowledge of the East and ancient Greece to Europe. The remarkable feature of the Institute was that, in an era of religious orthodoxy and ecclesiastical intolerance, it placed no restrictions on the intellectual thought processes and permitted scholars unprecedented freedom to pursue knowledge wherever it took them. Royal and public patronage joined hands to usher in the golden era of Islamic science that was to last for many centuries.
In time, the majestic Islamic metropolises, Baghdad, Cordoba and Damascus, became centres of excellence, acquiring renown for their unrivalled universities and advanced civilisation. The writings of two medieval Muslim physicians and philosophers, Ibn Sena (Avicenna, 980-1037) in Central Asia and Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126-1198), in Cordoba are often credited with providing the stimulation that helped launch the European renaissance. Both scholars in their treatises emphasised the importance of logic and reason in understanding natural phenomena, rooted in principles established by Aristotle nearly a millennium earlier. Ibn Sena’s celebrated work, The Cannon of Medicine, was translated into Latin and disseminated throughout Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and was to serve as the standard medical text for hundreds of years. Spanish-Muslim philosopher, Ibn Rushd, in his dissertations argued that there was no contradiction between logic and science on the one hand and religion on the other, as both had valid claims on rationality. Perhaps, the last medieval Muslim scholar who made a major contribution to human knowledge was the anthropologist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1395) who’s Muqaddamah is recognised as the earliest, landmark study of the rise and fall of human civilisations.
After flourishing for many centuries, the splendid age of Islamic science seems to have ended around the fifteenth century. For a long time, Muslims had kept only sparse contacts with Europeans, believing they had little to learn from them. Momentous developments, such as the Renaissance, Reformation and Industrial Revolution, seem to have passed them by, leaving them behind in many branches of knowledge, including science and technology. In recent times, Muslim scientists working in their own countries have not made for any remarkable discoveries. Out of a total of 787 Nobel Laureates who received the prize since its inception over a century ago, only nine have been Muslims; among these only two, Ahmad Zewail of Egypt and Abdus Salam of Pakistan, were recognised for their contributions to science. However, neither of them worked in his native country. The other seven were Nobel Peace Prize winners or honored for their contributions to literature.
The technology gap between the Muslim world and the West is now attracting world-wide concern. International agencies, such as the United Nations and UNESCO, have set up various panels to examine the root causes of this growing disparity. The highly prestigious international science journal, Nature, in an unprecedented move, devoted a whole section of its November 2006 issue to the analysis of the contemporary relationship between Islam and science. The journal has relied for its conclusions on the statistical data base collected from 57 members of the organisation of Islamic countries (OIC), representing some 1.2 billion people. The findings are both sobering and distressing. This essay is based on the data drawn mostly from the Nature article.
In reality, attempts to collect any meaningful data from all 52 Islamic countries proved fruitless. Most did not have any documented information to contribute. However, it was possible to draw upon the official records from 22 countries. Much of the available information, unfortunately, paints a dismal picture. The average annual spending on research and development (R and D) in these countries is about 0.34 per cent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a measure of a country’s total economic output, compared to the global average that is nearer to 2.4 per cent. Turkey and Malaysia are exceptions; their spending on science relative to their income is highest among the Muslim countries and is comparable to that spent by some non-Muslim countries with equivalent GDPs. Pakistan is grouped with the low-income countries of the OIC, Bangladesh, Mauritania, and Uganda, and its spending is estimated to be about 0.3 per cent of its GDP. However, the picture has brightened recently for Pakistan as the Musharraf Government has considerably boosted the spending on science.
The neglect of science becomes most glaring in the case of oil-rich countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Brunei, which spend a lower percentage of their income than even poor countries, such as Pakistan, Sudan and Senegal. The reasons are not hard to find; their priorities lie elsewhere. Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria and Oman spend about 7 per cent of their GDP on military hardware, an enormous sum, which has earned them the dubious distinction of being the world’s top spenders on armaments. In a felicitous move, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Iran, Morocco and Tunisia, according to the World Bank, have now substantially increased their spending on education.
The overall neglect of science is reflected in the number of researchers per million people in the Muslim world estimated during 1996-2003. Muslim countries had some of the lowest ratios, an average of 500 researchers per million people, as compared to over 5,000 in Japan, Sweden and Finland. Only, Jordan fared better, with 2,000 researchers. Not surprising, with so few active scientists, the scientific output of Muslim countries has been miserly. The National Science Foundation in American estimated that in 2003, 699,000 scientific articles were published world-wide. The average number per million population was 137; however, for OIC member countries the number dropped to 13. Turkey again was an exception, having achieved a remarkable publication record of 6, 224 articles per year, with Iran and Egypt coming next, with each publishing about 1,800 articles. Turkey’s spectacular success is attributed to its modern and progressive education system reformed after the 1923 revolution that emphasises the teaching of science and mathematics.
The lack of emphasis on science and education has influenced multiple facets of knowledge. According to the Arab Human Development Report prepared by a group of 26 Arab scholars, on the average, only about 300 books are translated into Arabic annually. Just one European country, Greece, translates five-times more books than the entire Arab world. It is estimated that since the reign of Caliph Al Mamun, spanning a period of more than one thousand years, a mere 100,000 books have been rendered into Arabic from all sources,
A number of reasons have been advanced to explain the decline and degeneration of science in the Arab/Muslim world, provoking a lively debate among scholars and intellectuals. Dr Nader Fergany, the lead author of the Arab Human Development Report, and a contributor to Nature’s section on Islamic science, believes that the primary reason is not so much a deficit in investments in research; the overarching deficiency is the absence of democratic institutions in the Islamic world and a tradition that smothers all dissent and free expression, a vital prerequisite for the generation of new, innovative ideas. Institutions of learning, such as universities and colleges, in the west serve as crucibles where new theories are tested and vigorously debated. Arab/ Muslim countries do not encourage public expression of dissent or deviation from established, long-embedded convictions.
Many scholars believe that today’s global culture and the advent of the information age offer an unprecedented opportunity to the Islamic world to catch up with the western science by acquiring knowledge so freely available through the abundant sources of mass communication. There are other steps that can be taken readily. Dr Fergany recommends that an important first measure would be the reversal of the brain drain. If sufficiently powerful incentives are offered, they may lure back some of the bright scientists working in the west to their home lands. All these need careful, long-term planning. Whether in today’s political climate, when Muslims in the Arab Middle East are engaged in fratricidal conflict of mutual annihilation, anyone is particularly concerned about the lack of scientific progress remains an open question.
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