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Is the Islamic World Heading into a Scientific Dark Age?

In a what have you done for me lately world, if you ask the average Muslim “What has Islam contributed to modern science?” you're likely to get a lot of names thrown at you. Names like Ibn Sina, Ibn Haytham, al-Kindi, al-Khawarizmi, etc.

Ask them to name a modern Muslim scientist and you may get a name drop like shamed Pakistani nuclear physicist A.Q. Khan. Ask them to name a Muslim Nobel Prize winner, and you likely won't get a response.

Isn't it shameful?

As of today, there are only two Muslims who have won the Nobel Prize in the sciences. Dr. Ahmed Zewail won for his pioneering work in femtochemistry, and Dr. Abdus Salam in Physics for his work on the weak electromagnetic force. And of these two, only Dr. Ahmed Zewail is still alive. So that means one living person in a population of 1.2 billion has contributed enough to the practical sciences to warrant worldwide recognition.

It should make one wonder why. Especially when you hear a lot of banter from Muslims who proudly state that Islam promotes scientific education.

So why not more prominent modern Muslim physicists, chemists, and biologists? Is it political turmoil? Is it poverty? Is it the religion? Was it colonialism? Is it terrorism? What was it? Well, let's delve into the history to try to find where it fell apart.

Around 832 A.D., the Abbasid Caliphate developed and urbanized the city of Baghdad. Because it was their capital, the Abbasids used it to fund and support scientific and philosophical discovery. For a long time, Baghdad was the center for world scholarship. A lot of early Muslim scientists traveled there to learn and discuss the prominent discoveries, and theories, of the time. Libraries were built, knowledge was transcribed, translated, and transported to the corners of the expanding Muslim Empire to quench the thirst for knowledge among great minds unable to travel and live in the newly established city.

Unfortunately, repeated foreign conquests by great conquerors like Chinqiz Khan and Timur the Lame, caused the downfall of the empire, led to repeated plunder and pillaging, and ended this enlightened period.

As the Islamic influence expanded into Western Europe, there was a development of a new place where scholars could once again flock to and learn. They called it al-Andalus. Libraries were formed. Architectural marvels were constructed, and knowledge was transferred. This time Muslims would more freely exchange knowledge with the European Christians and Jews. During this time, many prominent Muslim scientists again emerged. However, this declined when al-Andalus fell to the Inquisitors in 1492.

There was some feats of prominence that occurred after this time during the rule of the Ottomans, but a funny thing happened. The Ottoman Empire began to decline when the Europeans discovered the New World and no longer relied primarily on imports and trade from the East. Trade that, for the most part, forced them to travel through the Ottoman Empire.

At this time, the Ottoman Empire was the main hub of the Islamic World. The Mughals were running their own strong empire too, but they never patronized science like they patronized the arts.

As the Ottomans got bogged down in wars against the Europeans and Persians, they simultaneously began to adapt many European customs; trying to emulate their culture in an attempt to “modernize” themselves. In what the Orthodox Ulema Mullahs saw as Christianization of Ottoman Muslims, the Mullahs pushed for fatwas against many inventions and scientific discoveries that had bee flooding into Istanbul and other parts via trade from the Europeans. These Mullahs saw anything from Europe to be Christian, and thus un-Islamic. They pushed for a movement to return to a more traditional Ottoman lifestyle. A lifestyle that promoted nomadism and tribalism. This effectively halted a lot of scientific and technological output from the Ottoman Empire, until their fall after World War I.

Once colonialism came around, and the Islamic world fell victim to the exploitation of their resources, it was really no surprise these societies put the nail in the coffin of Islamic scientific progress. The focus for the people seems to have became either liberation or adherence to the colonialists. And when colonialism fell, they turned to warring and political power grabbing. The instability, constant threat of violence, and rise of various dictatorships that reviled oppression, further shifted focus in these places to either fixing their political state, their economic state, or their social state, and further away from scientific discovery. And it hasn't really changed since.

Pakistan had a wonderful opportunity to right this wrong when Dr. Abdus Salam wanted to setup his International Center for Theoretical Physics in the capital, but Pakistan ignorantly denied funding and support because of religious zealotry against the Ahmadiyya Muslims, the minority, and persecuted sect to which Dr. Abdus Salam belonged.

Maybe one day we'll see a revival of the early Islamic tradition of discovering and passing on information. Until then, however, it's off to the Dark Ages for the people who practice a religion that once enlightened many.

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Unknown said... July 29, 2009 at 9:52 AM

Latest column of dr Abdul Qadeer Khan (29th July 09)

Bhutto, Zia-ul-Haq Aur Kahota

Kapitano said... October 18, 2013 at 10:49 PM

Most scientists are atheists. That doesn't mean a believer can't be a scientist, but it does mean that, for a person to have the necessary mindset, they have to relegate their religion to their personal life.

There's no reason why muslims can't do this - christians managed just fine. But it would take a massive cultural change, and at the moment the arabic world at least still wants to keep one foot in the desert. Right now, with the arab economies doing well, they can afford to stave off secularisation. When the economies eventually crash, they'll have to rethink.

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