Islam’s reputation for hostility to science is a modern phenomenon.
As has been well documented, the Muslim world was a dynamo for scientific development during the time Europe was ensnared in darkness and superstition.
“Islam’s magnificent Golden Age in the 9th–13th centuries brought about major advances in mathematics, science, and medicine,” the publication wrote in 2007. “The Arabic language held sway in an age that created algebra, elucidated principles of optics, established the body’s circulation of blood, named stars, and created universities.”
The Economist highlights several of Islam’s scientific greats:
- Avicenna wrote the “Canon of Medicine” in the 11th century, a standard medical text used in Europe for hundreds of years;
- Muhammad al-Khwarizmi laid down the principles of algebra, a word derived from the name of his book, “Kitab al-Jabr,” in the ninth century;
- Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham transformed the study of light and optics, and is known as the father of modern optics and scientific methodology; and
- Abu Raihan al-Biruni calculated the earth’s circumference to within a single percent and has also been called the first anthropologist.
In addition, Muslim scholars did much to preserve the intellectual heritage of ancient Greece; centuries later it helped spark Europe’s scientific revolution.
Unfortunately, this period of great development came to a screeching halt long ago.
By the end of the 13th century, “science in the Islamic world essentially collapsed. No major invention or discovery has emerged from the Muslim world for well over seven centuries now,” according to Physics Today.
More than few Muslims rejected modern science as corrupt foreign thought, considering it incompatible with Islamic teachings.
The impact has been staggering:
“In 2005 Harvard University produced more scientific papers than 17 Arabic-speaking countries combined,” The Economist noted. “The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims have produced only two Nobel laureates in chemistry and physics. Both moved to the West: the only living one, the chemist Ahmed Hassan Zewail, is at the California Institute of Technology. By contrast Jews, outnumbered 100 to one by Muslims, have won 79.”
The publication noted that “rote learning rather than critical thinking is the hallmark of higher education” in many Muslim countries.
“Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, for example, has three mosques on campus, with a fourth planned, but no bookshop,” it reported.
Yet, an awakening may be underway.
Tens of thousands attended a touring exhibition titled “1001 Inventions” when it was in Qatar this past fall. The retrospective focused on the golden age of Islamic science, including displays on the above scientific greats.
“More importantly, however, rulers are realizing the economic value of scientific research and have started to splurge accordingly,” according to The Economist. “Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which opened in 2009, has a $20 billion endowment that even rich American universities would envy.”
Qatar is increasing research spending from 0.8 percent to a planned 2.8 percent of GDP, and research spending in Turkey increased by more than 10 percent each year between 2005 and 2010.
The results have been noticeable. Between 2000 and 2009, Turkish scientists more than quadrupled the number of scientific papers turned out, and Iran’s increase was even more impressive, from 1,300 to nearly 15,000.
Ibn Khaldun, the noted 14th century Muslim polymath, wrote that “the sciences increase with the increase in prosperity and with the greatness of civilization in a region.”
Perhaps the intensified interest in science and scientific knowledge taking place in the Muslim world is an indication that the region is ready to begin a new period of development.
Given Muslim scholars’ accomplishments a millennium ago, a renewed interest in science among Islamic nations augers well for scholarship as a whole.
(Above: Diagram of solar eclipse by Muslim scholar Abu Raihan al-Biruni [973-1048]).