By Sheikh Umar Ahmad
November 18, 2016
Science has its roots established as old as Islamic civilization. The institutes of scientific dissemination had been established first by Muslim dominated nations as is evident from history & historical monuments. The Islamic theology lays claim to the world’s oldest continually operational university. The University of Qarawiyyin was founded in Fes Morocco in 859 AD at the beginning of an Islamic Golden Age.
Despite such auspicious beginnings, universities of the Muslim world are now in dire straits. The 57 countries of the Muslim world those with Muslim majority population and part of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), are home to nearly 25% of the world’s people. But as of 2012, they had contributed only 1.6% of the world’s patents, 6% of its academic publications, and 2.4% of the global research expenditure. There have been only three Nobel laureates in the sciences from OIC countries which should be a global concern. Today these nations host fewer than a dozen universities in the top 400 of the many world rankings and none in the top 100 (Nature journal report 2016).
OIC countries on average invest less than 0.5% of their gross domestic product GDP on research and development (R&D) with only Malaysia spending slightly more than 1%, the world average being 1.78% with most advanced countries spending 2–3%). Students in the Muslim world who participate in standardized international science tests and conferences lag well behind their peers worldwide, and this grimming situation seems to be worsening with every passing day.
University science programmes used in these countries are narrow content based, with limited editions and outdated teaching methods. To become beacons in society, OIC universities need to revitalize their teaching methods to truly become meritocratic. They must develop new ways of assessing faculty members to reward valuable research, teaching and outreach. And for this to happen, regional governments must give universities more autonomy both in terms of carrying out their research of interest and financial inclusions.
Scientific research must be relevant and responsive to society’s intellectual and practical needs. For scientists and engineers to be creative, innovative and able to engage with questions of ethics, religion and the wider social purpose of research, students must receive a broad, liberal styled education. Quite a few institutions among OIC countries attempt to relate their students learning to their cultural backgrounds and contemporary knowledge.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the most recent Times Higher Education world university rankings named Sharif University as the only top university and number eight in the OIC. The global consensus is that enquiry-based and open competitive science education fosters the deepest understanding of scientific concepts and laws. A comprehensive and extensive modern methodology based teaching system will be most effective in dissemination of scientific knowledge. But in most OIC universities, lecture-based teaching still prevails.
Another problem associated is the assessment of faculty members, innovative curriculum changes, faculty appointments and promotions are set by ministry rules and decided by centralized commissions and bureaucracies. This leaves little room for universities to intervene & innovate. Scientific research must be relevant and responsive to society’s intellectual, economic and practical needs. This dual goal seems to be out of sight and often out of consideration for most academic institutions in the region.
Universities in OIC nations need to be granted more autonomy to transform themselves into meritocracies that strive for scientific excellence and lead rather than follow the winds of change towards greater transparency and meritocracy within their societies. Universities need to promote the right metrics, so that they do not inadvertently encourage plagiarism.
This is a task that must be undertaken by national or transnational bodies, such as the Islamic World Academy of Sciences (IAS) or the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO). Universities need to deliver more multidisciplinary, exploratory science education. A good start would be training for university teachers, with workshops on new tools, techniques, and approaches and toughest challenges that come their way. Barriers need to be broken between departments and colleges and new programmes constructed. Professors need to be free to teach topics that are not tightly regulated by ministries.
There should be grass root efforts across the Muslim world to stimulate curiosity about science among students of all ages operating without much government support. Ahmed Djebbar an emeritus science historian at the University of Lille in France has constructed an online pre-university-level course called ‘The Discoveries in Islamic Countries’ available in three languages, which relates science concepts to great discoveries and stories from the Islamic Golden Age.
Such courses should be scaled up, introduced and shared by institutions of higher learning. Universities will need to implement reforms individually & the inspiration from a few islands of excellence will in time turn the tide of public and political opinion. True transformation will require much broader action from ministries, regulators and funding agencies, and these may be the most resistant to change. Without tough reforms, the dream of a scientific revival in the Muslim world will always remain a dream & will never come to fore for particular interest to public concerned and for inclusive development in general.
Sheikh Umar Ahmad is working as Research fellow in Skin Biology Lab under Dr. Tasduq Abdullah, (Senior Scientist) at CSIR – Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine, Jammu (J&K). He has also qualified for University level Gold Medal of Excellence in Biotechnology.