Signs of scientific awakening in Muslim world

Islamic science

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.

How advanced was Islam’s scientific community? Extremely advanced, according to Physics Today.

“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]).

9 thoughts on “Signs of scientific awakening in Muslim world

  1. This is very welcome, encouraging news.

    I remember learning in school that there was, indeed, a golden age of Muslim science and technology that lasted from about the tenth to the thirteenth century. I especially recall learning that they developed Algebra (which I flunked the first time around)) and other mathematical concepts as well as medical procedures and applications unknown until that time (including the use of alcohol as an antiseptic).

    The beautiful art and architecture created by Muslims is still in evidence today, surviving as evidence of what could have been if continued.

    As I once heard someone say, “the beauty and the possibilities have been swallowed up (literally) by the sands of time.”

    In the meantime, the world has to deal with the ever-increasing hatred and madness of radical Islamic extremists whose stated aim is to rid the world of infidels (like us) – through genocide or by “conversion.”

    • I may be naive, but I would like to think that the radical extremists represent a very small portion of the Muslim world. Most Muslims, I believe, simply want access to many of the same things we value: education, a chance at prosperity and hope for the future, so that their children will have an opportunity for a better life than they themselves had.

      • No, CBC, I do not think for a moment that you are naive. From your posts that I have seen so far, you appear to be a very compassionate, fair-minded person.

        Most Muslims who emigrate to the U.S. and to (Western) Europe probably do want the advantages and the better life for themselves and their families that you cite.

        I want to be very clear here. I strongly oppose any form of discrimination or unfair treatment of ANY Muslim based on religion and/or ethnic background..

        However, I think that our experience of 9/11 was a turning point for us. It has sharpened our focus and made us wary of the Muslim world in general. I think, too, that the world has not yet experienced the full extent of the hatred and
        suspicion engendered by colonialism. (This is true not only for the Muslim world but also for Africa.)

        One group that I feel continues to be oppressed and mistreated are the Palestinian Muslims.

        They have been literally torn from their homes where they have lived for generations. Their lands, their only means of subsistence, have been bulldozed and lay barren and unproductive. In many areas they are walled in and, for the most part, are denied medical supplies and other necessities or must wait an excessive time for them.

        As far as the hope that you expressed in the first sentence of your reply the only thing that I can say is, “Time will tell.”



        I am open to your comments about this.

      • You make some good points, Alice. There’s no doubt that 9/11 was a wake-up call, though it probably shouldn’t have been given some of the actions that militant Islamists had taken against US and western interests in the previous couple of decades. The thing that struck me about many of the 9/11 attackers was that they were educated, rather than poor, easily manipulated individuals who had nothing to lose. They also had the backing of an extremely wealthy individual with a serious ax to grind against the west. As such he didn’t need the west and had no reason to co-exist peacefully. Most Muslims aren’t in that position, just as most Christians can’t afford to do what they please to those they dislike, results be damned.

        The Palestinian question is one that I see as many-layered. It is easy and convenient to focus blame on Israel for “dispossessing” the Palestinians, but as I understand it, many of the surrounding nations not only do not want the Palestinians in their own countries, they do their best to ferment trouble by keeping the pot stirred among the Palestinians. Most of the countries surrounding Israel won’t come out and say so, but they’d be happy if Israel ceased to exist. Using the Palestinians to create instability and turn world public opinion against the Israelis is much safer than trying to outright eliminate Israel, as was attempted in 1948, 1967 and 1973. I would say it’s unfortunate that things have devolved to the degree they have in the region, but many of the steps taken by Israel were ones which were seen as necessary for self-preservation. The Palestinians, egged on by outsiders, have been left holding the bag, so to speak.

        Thank you for your comments; I appreciate your time and insights. It’s folks like yourself that make me think about things more closely, and make writing a blog worthwhile. Take care.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful input, CBC; I appreciate it and have learned from it.

    Especially interesting to me were the points that you made about the other Mideast nations not wanting to take in Palestinians. I’ve often wondered why other Muslim nations (particularly wealthy Saudi Arabia) do not help the
    Palestinians. In effect, it seems that they continue to be used as pawns and to foment discord in that dangerously troubled region.

    One point I would add is that so many of the 9/ll radicals (and others, since captured and identified) appeared to assimilate so easily into our culture. That is, to me, damn scary! I think that may be one of the reasons that Muslims in this country are looked at suspiciously. Just a thought.

    Do you recall the film, “Lawrence of Arabia?”. Recall the scene where the various tribal leaders were gathered around a conference table after a major military victory. Lawrence’s
    aim was to try to change their inbred, centuries-old narrow views and to think in terms of unity. The leaders had no interest in changing their ways or their mindset. End of discussion! Tribalism, with its one-sided thinking still reigns. Also, the schism between the Sunni and the Shiite Muslims that dates back to the 7thC is a factor that is still very much relevant today and is the source of much hatred and discord in the Middle East.

    The backlash that was created after the colonialism period in both the Middle East and in Africa is still being perpetuated today and is the direct cause of tribal warfare in Africa.

    I did not mention Israel specifically when I commented on the Palestinian situation. Of course, it IS the current (and probably the next) rigid, right wing Zionist government that is responsible for the punitive actions against the Palestinians. I do not want to see Israel pushed into the sea and eliminated as a nation. Quite the contrary. My Christian roots and historic faith are entertwined in Israel. I want Israel to continue to exist and to thrive. However, I think that the sufferring and losses that its current government continue to inflict on the Palestinians are criminal and should not be condoned, particularly by the United States that continues to send them billions of dollars of our tax money that is used primarily for military purposes. AIPAC, their chief lobby, determines our Middle East foreign policy. I resent that, also!

    All of these factors, including the statements you have made, are a part of the seemingly unsolvable puzzle that is the Middle East.
    When I become so angry and frustrated about it, I pray,
    Maranatha, Maranatha Lord Jesus the Christ.


    • You are wise to pray when you come upon a seemingly intractable situation. I wish I would do more of that, to be honest.

      Ultimately, I think the situation in the Middle East boils down to the fact that until there is a substantial middle class in the region, we’re going to continue to see more problems like this. Europe’s internecine warfare didn’t end – with the exception of a couple of major 20th century wars – until a middle class tired of having its possessions and property laid waste by pillaging armies reached enough mass to demand that it either stop or be done somewhere else.

      If enough people in the Middle East acquire a better standard of living, they’ll want to protect what they have and they’ll have more of an interest in ending the ceaseless conflict. That that hasn’t happened in many countries is criminal, given the revenues that have been brought in through oil sales.

      Ultimately, an enhanced middle class leads to a democratic form of government, and democratic governments tend not to wage war on one another.

      • Thank you, CBC, for the time you have taken in these discussions. They have been very worthwhile for me and have pointed me in several directions for continued information and research. (I am a retired research librarian.)

        I strongly agree with you about the ME and the need for a middle class in that region. I don’t see it on the horizon, so I doubt that it will happen in my lifetime.

        One thing that could possibly happen in my lifetime though is the disappearance of the middle class in our own country. We are well on our way to a two-class society. I fear for the United States that our children and grandchildren will inherit!

        Again, thank you for your courtesy in allowing this exchange to continue on your blog.

      • I’ve enjoyed our discussions as well, Alice, and hope we can have many more.

        One thing to consider when thinking about the classes in America is to consider how much better off the lower class is, as a whole, in the US than it was 75 years ago. Now, some of this has come about through government entitlement programs which will mean more debt for future generations, but overall, today’s poor and lower-middle class are much better off that their equivalents were a century ago or during the Great Depression. We will have to pay the piper at some point, and I’m not sure how that will be done, but I believe many people classifed as lower income in our country would be middle class in other countries. And that’s more of an indication of the conditions in other countries than an indictment of anything here in the US.

        Thanks again for your notes, and take care.

  3. Pingback: Islamic militants now patrol east London hunting down drinkers and immodestly dressed wimmin. - Page 76

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