Reviving Science in Muslim Countries
I have been an admirer of Dr. Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy’s writings on bringing about a scientific renaissance among modern-day Muslims. His 1991 book, Islam and Science – Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality, was an eye-opener for me. The Quran is a book of moral guidance and not a book of science, he wrote. In one clear sentence, he exposed the inadequacy of Muslims who would do away with the scientific method and install revelation (as they understood it) as the source of scientific progress and discovery. His subsequent writings on the topic only deepened my admiration.
Which was why, in an otherwise incisive article in Physics Today, I was disappointed by a solution he proposed for Muslim renaissance in science. Dr. Hoodbhoy recommends behavioral changes among Muslims to excel in a ruthlessly global marketplace dominated by science and technology. Such changes would allow Muslims to develop intense “social work habits” that “are not easily reconcilable with religious demands made on a fully observant Muslim’s time, energy, and mental concentrations. The faithful must participate in five daily congregational prayers, endure a month of fasting that taxes the body, recite daily from the Quran, 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.”
Is Dr. Hoodbhoy suggesting that daily prayers, recitation of the Quran and month-long Ramadan fasting are hindrances to a Muslim’s attaining scientific excellence, since they disrupt sustained concentration? Although he does not spell out the details of “a more balanced approach,” the implication is clear: Do away with these religious demands, or, at the very least, reduce their frequency.
I am surprised by the obvious errors Dr. Hoodbhoy has made in his argument. While it is commendable for Muslims to offer the five daily prayers in congregations, it is not a must. The prayers (with the exception of the Friday noon prayer) can be offered in private, taking no more than a few minutes and very little space. In fact, that is how most observant Muslims meet the requirements of their faith during workdays in their professional lives. If, for some reason, they cannot offer the daily prayers on time, they can make them up later.
His use of the word “endure” for the month of fasting is also perplexing. Most Muslims do not “endure” fasting but look forward to it as a time of physical cleansing and heightened spirituality.
The major flaw in Dr. Hoodbhoy’s suggestion is that religious practices prevent observant Muslims from focusing and maintaining the continuity of their thoughts, particularly in science. In fact, the opposite is true. Properly practiced (a challenge for many Muslims for whom religious observances have become rituals without meaning), prayers and fasting instill discipline, a prerequisite for concentration. His mentor, Nobel physicist Abdus Salam, was an obvious example. Salam was one of the great theoretical physicists of the twentieth century but he was also a devout Muslim, punctilious about the demands of his faith. In numerous essays and articles, Salam explained how his faith inspired his science and vice-versa. While most Muslim scientists of our times can hardly match Salam’s achievement, the science of many of them is also informed by the awe and wonder inspired by their faith.
So why are Muslim nations so far behind in science compared to the West? Why does the observation of Turkish-American physicist Taner Edis that “if all Muslim scientists working in basic science vanished from the face of the earth, the rest of the scientific community would barely notice” ring so true? Why is creationist literature unleashed by a Turkish clergy named Harun Yahya sweeping the Muslim world?
One reason is the lack of separation of mosque and state, and consequently, separation of mosque and science, in many Muslim countries. Science thrives on unfettered inquiry. If the clergy can impose religious limits on free inquiry and threaten dire consequences if the limits are transgressed, science can never advance.
Another related reason is the lack of quality education. Take the case of Dr. Hoodbhoy’s own country, Pakistan. As William Dalrymple observed (The 'poor neighbor, The Guardian UK, August 14, 2007) on the occasion of Pakistan’s 60th independence anniversary, only 1.8% of Pakistan's GDP is spent on government schools. 15% of these government schools are without a proper building; 52% without a boundary wall; 71% without electricity. Many of the barely functioning schools cram children of all grades into a single room, often sitting on the floor because of lack of desks. While 65% of India’s population is literate and rising, the figure for Pakistan is 49% and falling. Out of a population of 162 million, 83 million adults of 15 years and above are illiterate. It is worse for women: 65% of all female adults are illiterate. The absence of quality government schooling has compelled the poorest Pakistanis to place their vulnerable children in the madrasa system. Madrasas offer free education but can turn their young wards into ideologues under the tutelage of fiery preachers, as the recent red mosque showdown in Islamabad demonstrated.
When one adds to this grim status quo the general lack of accountability and respect for law by the leaders of many Muslim countries, it is easy to see why engaging in genuine scientific research can become hazardous to one’s health.
Yet there is hope. Even diehard conservative Muslims are becoming aware of the central role of science in defining the destiny of modern nations. Slowly but surely, they are beginning to see that science does not undermine religion but enriches it. The wind of change is blowing and it can be stopped or reversed.