Science and Islam: A model for framing vs. popular science


17th century Arabic anatomy drawing, from the Advances of Islamic Sciences web site. In some Islamic sects, drawing living things is not allowed. As a very practical matter, this excludes students from taking part in certain activities in science classrooms.

During the Bell Museum Slapdown panel last week, Myers brought up differences between countries in public attitudes towards education. Mooney and Nisbet brought up the difficulty of making fundamental changes via “Popular Science” approaches, which I take to include public, popular culture as well as standard education (which is, after all, the main mechanism for cultural transmission of scientific viewpoints).

We did not develop the potential for the comparative argument as much as we could have during that discussion. As Nisbet suggested: We should be scientific about our understanding of how we present science. I agree. The comparative approach is a very useful one in science. We can ask questions like, how can other predominantly christian countries (like Italy, France, Britain and Spain) have such a better attitude (publicly and culturally) towards science (especially evolution) compared to the US? What’s the difference? Let’s get us some of that difference!

A repost from the Way Way Back Machine

And we can take this a step further … what about the Islamic world? Science is in much worse shape in the Islamic world than it is in the Christian world (if I may be allowed momentary use of those two fairly obnoxious terms). Indeed, the two worlds seem to barely overlap in terms of scientific involvement, education, and productivity. Perhaps by understanding the difference between these “worlds,” with respect to science and society, we can (shudder)… predict our own future as the fundamentalists take over? Or, more hopefully, simply learn more about the structure of the culture/scociety vis-a-vis science interface, to better understand and manage our own problems. Scientifically.

This brings us to this interesting question:

With well over a billion Muslims and extensive material resources, why is the Islamic world disengaged from science and the process of creating new knowledge?

This is addressed by Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy, of the department of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan, in a piece that’s not too recent, but interesting. Here.

Hoodbhoy provides a scientific analysis of this issue that I think is worth examination. Perhaps his insight, and his suggestions for promoting science in the Islamic world apply broadly.

Hoodbhoy points out that Islam, at one time in the past, was far more engaged in science than many other contemporary civilizations (see this post for related issues and links). All that original albegra, early work on optics, etc. was all written in Arabic, not to mention a great deal of astronomy and human anatomy. However, according to Hoodbhoy, there has not been a significant discovery or invention from the Islamic world in over 700 years. So, I’m guessing this isn’t just glitch.

It has been suggested that this is a fundamentally cultural matter:

Scholars of the 19th century, such as the pioneering sociologist Max Weber, claimed that Islam lacks an “idea system” critical for sustaining a scientific culture based on innovation, new experiences, quantification, and empirical verification. Fatalism and an orientation toward the past, they said, makes progress difficult and even undesirable.

Today, of course, Weber’s work on religion and culture is recognized as part of a broader, Morganian system of cultural and social classificiation … a pre-Boazian post hoc description of the superiority of Christian White Men. And of course, Muslims tend to be offended by this approach (a point not ignored in the essay by Hoodbhoy).

In defending the compatibility of science and Islam, Muslims argue that Islam had sustained a vibrant intellectual culture throughout the European Dark Ages and thus, by extension, is also capable of a modern scientific culture. The Pakistani physics Nobel Prize winner, Abdus Salam, would stress to audiences that one-eighth of the Qur’an is a call for Muslims to seek Allah’s signs in the universe and hence that science is a spiritual as well as a temporal duty for Muslims.

But Hoodbhoy’s essay is not an historical account but rather an attempt at a quantification of the state of science in the Muslim world today. He produces these two tables:

Table 1. The seven most scientifically productive Islamic countries as of early 2007,
compared against
a selection of other countries
Physics papers
Physics citations
All science papers
All science citations
1 685
11 287
40 925
2 952
7 934
26 958
Saudi Arabia
2 220
14 538
49 654
1 518
5 332
9 979
35 011
2 408
9 385
25 400
76 467
3 064
11 211
26 276
90 056
5 036
21 798
88 438
299 808
18 571
104 245
128 687
642 745
26 241
136 993
202 727
793 946
75 318
298 227
431 859
1 637 287
201 062
2 332 789
2 732 816
35 678 385
   These data are from the Philadelphia-based science information specialist, Thomson Scientific.

Table 2. High-technology exports as a percentage of total manufactured exports
Saudi Arabia
   These data are from the World Bank’s World
Development Report 2006.

Forty-six Muslim countries contributed 1.17% of the world’s science literature, whereas 1.66% came from India alone and 1.48% from Spain. Twenty Arab countries contributed 0.55%, compared with 0.89% by Israel alone.

The role played by science in creating high technology is an important science indicator. Comparing table 1 with table 2 shows there is little correlation between academic research papers and the role of S&T in the national economies of the seven listed countries. The anomalous position of Malaysia in table 2 has its explanation in the large direct investment made by multinational companies and in having trading partners that are overwhelmingly non-OIC countries.

The role of Higher Education is cited by Hoodbhoy. The 57 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference states have about 1,800 universities but only 312 that are engaged in research leading to journal articles. Among those universities that do produced published papers, the numbers are not terribly low, but the impact factor is abysmal. (The average rate of citation is less than 1.0 per paper).

Hoodbhoy also looks at science in popular culture. Hoodbhoy notes:

Science is under pressure globally, and from every religion. As science becomes an increasingly dominant part of human culture, its achievements inspire both awe and fear. Creationism and intelligent design, curbs on genetic research, pseudoscience, parapsychology, belief in UFOs, and so on are some of its manifestations in the West. Religious conservatives in the US have rallied against the teaching of Darwinian evolution. Extreme Hindu groups such as the Vishnu Hindu Parishad, which has called for ethnic cleansing of Christians and Muslims, have promoted various “temple miracles,” including one in which an elephant-like God miraculously came alive and started drinking milk. Some extremist Jewish groups also derive additional political strength from antiscience movements. For example, certain American cattle tycoons have for years been working with Israeli counterparts to try to breed a pure red heifer in Israel, which, by their interpretation of chapter 19 of the Book of Numbers, will signal the coming of the building of the Third Temple,7 an event that would ignite the Middle East.

In the Islamic world, there is a strong anti-science component of the Internet. Islamic fundamentalists see science mainly yas a means of establishing additional proofs of god and proving the truth of the Qur’an, while at the same time holding on to the idea that modern science would not have developed had it not been for the link served by Islam between classical and modern times.

Hoodbhoy discusses reasons for this situation, and, while unable to reject a modern version of Weber’s fundamental cultural difference as being a factor, describes the problem as more complex than mere non-modernism. Ultimately, he asks the question “How can science return to the Islamic world?”

Does Hoodbhoy suggest that Science simply needs to be repackaged … reframed … for broader acceptance and engagement in the Islamic world? Or does he suggest that decoupling religious practice and belief from science specifically and day to day life more generally is important? You judge:

Progress will require behavioral changes. If Muslim societies are to develop technology instead of just using it, the ruthlessly competitive global marketplace will insist on not only high skill levels but also intense social work habits. The latter are not easily reconcilable with religious demands made on a fully observant Muslim’s time, energy, and mental concentration: The faithful must participate in five daily congregational prayers, endure a month of fasting that taxes the body, recite daily from the Qur’an, and more. Although such duties orient believers admirably well toward success in the life hereafter, they make worldly success less likely. A more balanced approach will be needed.

Science can prosper among Muslims once again, but only with a willingness to accept certain basic philosophical and attitudinal changes--a Weltanschauung that shrugs off the dead hand of tradition, rejects fatalism and absolute belief in authority, accepts the legitimacy of temporal laws, values intellectual rigor and scientific honesty, and respects cultural and personal freedoms. The struggle to usher in science will have to go side-by-side with a much wider campaign to elbow out rigid orthodoxy and bring in modern thought, arts, philosophy, democracy, and pluralism.

I think many American consumers of of this discourse … from Islamic science to Framing and Science Education … often fail to realize that Christianity is not the problem in the US. Well, it can be a problem, but it is not the problem. The problem is fundamentalism. Virtually by definition, fundamentalism requires that all things human serve god and devotion to god. Thus, science is a legitimate pursuit only to the extent that this can happen. Science for science’s sake is at best a hobby, and science that produces any results that conflicts with religious dogma (such as evolution) or that requires practices not allowed by the religious doctrine (such as making a drawing of a living thing) is heretical.

The difference between a Christian Fundamentalist and a Muslim Fundamentalist is the difference between the eagle and the osprey. The eagle and the osprey cannot abide each other’s existence. But if you are the fish, you are nothing more than bird food.


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Greg Laden: The problem is fundamentalism.

Particularly flavors of fundamentalism insisting on Inerrancy, I suspect. Science philosophically requires accepting association of uncertainty (howsoever slight) with every observation.

There's a major issue that we can't forget that is implicit in what you discuss but needs to be stated explicitly: The Islamic world was the center of science and many other forms of learning and then then it stopped being so as it got more fundamentalist and reactionary. Fundamentalism is an actual danger. Dismissing fundamentalism as not a serious threat misses the point that we have a large scale example where fundamentalism really messed up the scientific productivity of a society for almost a millennium. We can't afford to be complacent.

FWIW, the branch point for Islam looks (to my layman's eyes) to have been ibn Rushd, aka Averroes; with the west largely accepting him and the Islamic world largely coming to reject him.

abb3w, I would put it back slightly. ib Rushd was responding in a large part to "The Incoherence of the Philosophers" and the entire set of movements and attitudes associated with that book. So it might be more accurate to say that Averroes failed to prevent the sweeping tide of irrationalism in the Islamic world even as his works helped push Christendom to being more accepting of rationalism and science.

Joshua Zelinsky @ # 2: The Islamic world was the center of science and many other forms of learning and then then it stopped being so as it got more fundamentalist and reactionary.

Can't remember where, but I've read at least one analysis which had it that the "Golden Age" of Islam ended when the Caliphate became so wealthy and powerful that it channeled most of its efforts into good old-fashioned secular imperialism. The next step was to quash independent thinking in general as potential dissent from the Muslim Way of Life (a tendency pushed past the point of no return by a series of terroristic "Frankish" invasions you may have heard about).

Of course, modern Western societies are immune from such jingoistic militarism, corruption, and short-sightedness - aren't they?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 12 Oct 2009 #permalink


It is my understanding that a major aspect of what happened was move towards religious fundamentalism as constructed by al-Ghazali and the later part of the Ashari movement. In general, people became more religiously focused. Moreover, the general philosophical attitude emphasized strongly that natural laws didn't exist in any meaningful sense. All was subject to the whim of God. The standard example of al-Ghazali was that a fire didn't burn a piece of wood. Rather, when a piece of wood was near a fire God decided to burn that individual piece of wood. This attitude is really not a great one when one is trying to do science. The combination of al-Ghazali's work and a general trend towards heightened religion made things quite bad.

I think much of why Islamic science froze 700 years ago (and I'd be more than happy to be shown to be wrong) is to look at what it was much of medieval Islamic science was trying to accomplish.

A thousand years ago, Islamic math and astronomy were trying to answer just one question: Given any point on the Earth, which way is Mecca?

Once that question was answered, such subjects were of no further use.

By LightningRose (not verified) on 13 Oct 2009 #permalink

Lightning, that's not accurate as I understand it. For example, Islamic mathematicians did a lot of number theory. No one ever thought that had anything to do with the location of Mecca. Moreover, the general problem of directional navigation wasn't solved by them. It is a very tricky problem that wasn't solved until quite sometime later.

Joshua Zelinsky: So it might be more accurate to say that Averroes failed to prevent the sweeping tide of irrationalism in the Islamic world

It's a question of whether you're looking for where things started to go wrong, versus the last major opportunity to turn things around again.