By Irfan Husain
19th, July 2014
CURIOUS to a fault, I follow scientific developments and discoveries with interest. In particular, recent advances in astrophysics and quantum phenomena fascinate me.
These inquiries into the birth of the universe and what it is composed of are at the very forefront of research. So when the elusive Higgs Boson was finally nailed down after years at the multi-billion dollar Large Hadron Collider, I was thrilled at the breakthrough.
Similarly, I got very excited when reports that a sub-nuclear particle might have exceeded the speed of light appeared in the media. Had this been proved conclusively, modern physics would have been turned on its head? Sadly, it was found that a wiring defect in the equipment has produced a number of false readings. According to some biologists, advances in medical science and nanotechnology have reached a point where people born recently stand a good chance of living for centuries. Life-prolonging technology has brought the old dream of everlasting life a few steps closer. Whether one would want to live forever is a different question.
Science Is Moribund In The Muslim World.
The list of scientific breakthroughs and advances goes on as governments, universities and corporations spend billions in laboratories and research facilities around the world. Every-where, that is, apart from Muslim countries.
Here, Dubai has built the world’s highest building, and is planning the largest shopping mall. This, it seems, is the sum total of our achievements. Even Muslim states that do not have the excuse of poverty spend their undeserved oil wealth in importing luxury goods, and weapons from the West to suppress their own populations.
Last year, I was invited to speak at the American University at Sharjah, and was impressed by the campus and facilities. Bright young students asked me interesting questions, and a senior faculty member showed me around. But the entire teaching staffs were foreigners.
It would appear that whatever passes for intellectual inquiry in the Muslim world is limited to determining who is a believer and who is not. The next stage is to determine what should be done with those deemed to be non-Muslims. Mostly, this line of inquiry starts and ends with some form of the death penalty.
OK, perhaps I exaggerate, but not by much. The reality is that for centuries, intellectual and artistic growth in the Islamic world has been largely stunted, while scientific progress is at a standstill.
When Richard Dawkins tweeted that only two Muslims had won the Nobel Prize for science, there was a storm of protest. (Actually, make that one as many Muslims do not accept Professor Abdus Salam as a believer). The truth is that the only meaningful research being carried out by Muslim scientists is outside their countries, mostly in Western universities and laboratories.
A fundamental problem is that theoretical research is posited on the premise that there are things out there that we do not know and understand. As one theory is proved through empirical research, another is cast aside as invalid. This is how science progresses.
However, if we believe that ancient, sacred texts contain all knowledge, there’s little incentive to delve deeper. Indeed, pure research can be deemed heretical.
But apart from these abstruse considerations, the grim reality is that currently, our focus is on the theological and political differences tearing the Muslim world apart. Shias and Sunnis are at each other’s throats across the Middle East. In Pakistan, Deobandis slug it out with Barelvis.
Long before the current bout of bloodletting, science in the Muslim world has been moribund for centuries. Indeed, our refusal to accept and internalise modern education based on reason is the cause of our decline. The West, meanwhile, rode the crest of the industrial revolution and went on to conquer much of the world.
Groups like Boko Haram, as well as the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, deplore what they call Western education, and regularly kill students and destroy schools. They are too ignorant to understand that nobody owns reason and rationality. But they do grasp that in a world where scientific education is available to all, they would be irrelevant and impotent.
The odd thing is that these same extremists regularly use the end-products of scientific enquiry to further their medieval agenda. They are adept users of the internet and the social media to indoctrinate young Muslims around the globe, and to raise funds. A Saudi Al Qaeda chemist is reported to have created a virtually undetectable explosive, causing yet more security checks at airports.
The last 15 years have witnessed a widening of the gulf between the Muslim world and most of the rest of mankind. Increasingly, we are viewed as violent, backward people. This perception — often exaggerated — has led to increasing Islamophobia, particularly in the West.
Respect among states, just as among individuals, is earned. Nations that do not contribute to human knowledge are passengers in humanity’s progress, and never drivers or navigators.