By Rafia Zakaria
November 4th, 2015
The past achievements of prominent Muslims, particularly Muslim scientists, play an important role in the lives of living ones. In schools all over the Muslim world, the achievements of one or the other long-dead Muslim scientist, Al Farabi or Ibne-Sina, Al Biruni or Ibn Rushd, are taught to schoolchildren who may be vulnerable to believing that science and Islam do not get along.
It is a half-hearted effort, however; for even while the achievements of Muslim scientists of yore are presented, few efforts seem to exist to align the rest of what children learn with the rigour and empiricism associated with scientific knowledge. Earthquakes and floods are routinely pinned to murky calculations of divine retribution and conspiracy theories offered up in place of logical proofs; indeed bygone Muslim scientists would have frowned upon many of the prognostications that are fed to a generally unscientific public on a regular basis.
Against this daunting setting, some living Muslim scientists have taken up the cause of reforming universities in the Muslim world towards the ostensible goal of producing more and better educated Muslim scientists. Last week, the Muslim World Science Initiative released its report on the state of universities in the Muslim world. The task force behind the effort was both diverse and venerable, including a former president of the US National Academy of Sciences and the president of Mauritius, who also happens to be a Muslim female scientist.
Many Muslims are confused about how far and how deeply they should embrace empirical scientific inquiry.
In the words of its conveners, one goal of the task force was to “jumpstart a dialogue within the society on critical issues at the intersection of science, society, and Islam” while recognising that the university itself is the most appropriate venue for such conversations to happen.
The findings in the report released by the task force are alarming, if not surprising. After reviewing the rankings of Muslim universities globally, the scientific production (numbers of paper publications and citations in peer reviewed journals), the level of spending on research and development, female participation in the scientific workforce, and other indicators, it was found that the overall state of science in the Muslim world remains “poor”.
The reasons, outlined in detail in the chapters of the report, are complex; for one, science education in most Organisation of Islamic Cooperation countries was narrowly focused, unable to give students the critical thinking skills to address complex multidisciplinary challenges. Often the teachers themselves did not have an education broad enough to be able to teach effectively, were untrained in inquiry-based science education and often stymied by oppressive bureaucracy. As a result, they failed pathetically to train those trying to learn.
The consequences of their failures could be seen not only in the lack of scientific production but also in the invisibility of students from Muslim countries in the sphere of international innovation. The OIC countries, home to 25pc of the world’s population, produce less than 2pc of the world’s patents, only 6pc of the world’s research publications and make up only 2.4pc of the world’s research expenditure. In this state of festering stagnation, the meritocracy that whets competition and innovation is threatened, if not entirely extinct. According to the task force’s findings, one major reason universities in the Muslim world fail is simply because the smartest students are not valued, encouraged or promoted.
All of the problems outlined in the empirical findings of the report would be familiar to professors and scientists in Pakistan. The confusion following the recent earthquake in the northern parts of the country, the inability to predict, the disinterest in studying and implementing scientifically proven methods of earthquake-proofing are all emblematic of a society disinterested in the sort of learning that is the foundation of progress everywhere else in the world. Pakistan’s beleaguered scientists, like all the others in the Muslim world, face the obscurantist notion that science in particular and innovation in general are enemies of faith and that any interaction with them must be imbued with cynicism and scepticism.
The fact is that many Muslims, both students and professors in universities, carry with them a core confusion, a seething uncertainty about how far and how deeply they should embrace empirical scientific inquiry. As many others have suggested, the scientists that were part of the task force recommend confronting this confusion head-on.
One particularly relevant recommendation that they support is the immediate introduction and systematic study of a “philosophy of science and history of the Muslim Golden Age and beyond”.
An inclusion of this material would provide scientific study in the Muslim world with a genealogy, a grounding that already exists but is rarely studied. Revealing to an extremism-assaulted student population, the fact that scientific inquiry by Muslim scientists began long before the advent of colonialism and modernity would expose the lie that says that rejecting science is somehow being true to Islam.
Educators (and students) in Pakistan have all experienced the awkward and often dispiriting classroom moments when one or a group of extremism-addled students begin to question the premises of scientific inquiry. In a campus climate where discussion and expression are often shadowed by threats to life and limb, few can dare to challenge the blindness and ignorance of such challenges. Often, if not always, the more threatening wins.
The report produced by the Muslim World Science Initiative is an attempt at targeting just this tension, one that is plaguing the university campus in much of the Muslim world. It may not be possible to magically or suddenly eliminate it, but the report gives some suggestions of small steps forward. Those in Pakistan interested in furthering the programme have been asked to join the Network of Excellence for Universities of Science that will be launched early next year. It is possible that in connecting with others facing similar challenges, science in the Muslim world can be rescued from abandonment and extinction.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.