I suspect that Pervez Hoodbhoy’s personal concerns unjustifiably and recklessly led to narrow and predetermined conclusions about science and Muslim culture (“Science and the Islamic World—The Quest for Rapprochement,” Physics Today, Physics Today 0031-9228 60
Hoodbhoy missed an opportunity to discuss the teachings of Islam in relation to science, and the effects of historical, social, and political realities—a thesis that would have been much less stereotypical. I take issue with many aspects of the article and will comment on a select few.
Making connections between Islam and science is a precarious and complex undertaking. It is precarious in that true science cannot be characterized by the religion of those who engage in it, so any reference to “Muslim science” is without meaning. And the making of such connections is complex because nonreligious values govern how and whether science education and research are supported and encouraged. Clear distinctions must be made between the basic teachings in a given religion on one hand and the effects of religious fundamentalism on the other.
The question of why Islamic society seems disengaged from science when it contributed so much knowledge centuries ago may be relevant. Hoodbhoy disappoints with his casual attempt to answer it; he proposes instead a solution tantamount to changing Muslim societies (like the turning of a switch) to secular ones that accommodate science.
The author’s choice of data sets is questionable. The Organization of the Islamic Conference is a very loose political coalition of dissimilar states, and at least one of its member nations is closely aligned with the Christian tradition. The effect of politics on science in some of the organization’s countries is more pronounced than the effect of religion on science. Furthermore, the measure he used to gauge science productivity is not reliable; it does not account for the survival imperative of those nations or their efforts to meet national needs through applied science and engineering, which may trump contributions to pure science. A case in point, to which Hoodbhoy alluded, is the growing suite of technology projects in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East.
Funding may not be a panacea, as the author wisely stated, but steady funding is critical, and increases in government support for applied science initiatives across the region over the last decade have been significant. Hasn’t funding been the primary driver of growth in industrialized nations? Sustaining the funding, creating high expectations and a strong work ethic, and establishing educational systems and environments conducive to scientific engagement must follow. Hoodbhoy’s cynicism regarding the significance and the impact of regional developments in science and technology to date negates the rapprochement between science and Islamic societies that he leads us to believe is important.
Science’s absence from the national agenda appears to be common among developing countries, regardless of the people’s religion. Some nations have been deliberate about increasing science activities by strengthening education and substantially increasing funding. Some see economic growth as a motivator of science—a familiar concept in the West.
The Physics Today article also includes a casual, isolated reference to plagiarism in Iran. Plagiarism should not be tolerated at any level, in any setting; but the author should take a moment to review the situation more broadly. Regrettably, plagiarism occurs in other contexts, including Western countries, where university faculty members succumb to the pressure to publish for the sake of promotion and tenure.
Developing a strong science base takes time. Research growth at leading international universities and the ensuing advances in science and technology took decades and serious financing. They were made possible by strong national commitments and, in the case of the US, certain freedoms and a market economy. We should welcome signs of a growing science agenda in Muslim-based societies. It is our obligation as a global scientific community to support scientists in any way we can in their efforts to advance science everywhere.
Hoodbhoy wasted a good opportunity to suggest strategic initiatives that would help bridge the perceived chasm between science and Muslim-based societies, to identify areas and paths of likely success, and to explain how the industrialized West can be of assistance.