Can Islam Come Back to the Light of Science?
Sunday was the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere. As Earth's axis tilted, the sun reached its highest position in the sky, bathing the upper latitudes in enduring light. Residents of Fairbanks, Alaska experienced a day lasting nearly 22 hours, while denizens of Duluth, Minnesota witnessed a day lasting a more modest 16 hours.
In this, the International Year of Light, it is only fitting to mention the man who literally wrote the book on light: Ibn al-Haytham. A devout Muslim captivated by science, he believed that seeking truth and knowledge about the natural world would bring him closer to God. His quest -- one that was both scientific and spiritual -- led him to produce his masterpiece: the Book of Optics. Published roughly a thousand years ago, the tome described light more accurately than ever before, and most importantly, did so with meticulously detailed experimental evidence. Pivotally, Ibn al-Haytham outlined his experiments so that anyone could repeat them. His actions may have constituted the birth of the scientific method, itself.
Ibn al-Haytham published his monumental work during a golden age for science in the Middle East. Between roughly 750 and 1258, discoveries flowed from the Islamic world like water down the Tigris and Euphrates. No other region on Earth came close to rivaling the intellectual renaissance of the Middle East. Mighty libraries were established in Cairo, Aleppo, and Baghdad. Scholars from across the world gathered in metropolitan cities to share ideas. Revolutionary inventions and processes were a dime a dozen.
Then it all ended. Crusaders from Europe and invading Mongols from Asia were the primary culprits. War left the Islamic world in tatters. For years, poverty and division reigned. Eventually, from the ashes of burned books, broken libraries, and forgotten ideas, a more medieval mindset emerged, one that de-emphasized curiosity and stressed blind faith. During the golden age, Islamic leaders read passages in the Qur'an like “The scholar’s ink is more sacred than the blood of martyrs," and “Can they not look up to the clouds, how they are created; and to the Heaven how it is upraised; and the mountains how they are rooted, and to the earth how it is outspread?” and saw science as divine. But in a new era, Muslim leaders looked to science with apathetic eyes. Life's answers were already available in the holy texts; there was no need for further investigation.
This outlook hobbled science in the Islamic world for centuries. As The Economist reported, the effects persist today:
In 2005 Harvard University produced more scientific papers than 17 Arabic-speaking countries combined. 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 57 countries in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference spend a puny 0.81% of GDP on research and development, about a third of the world average. America, which has the world’s biggest science budget, spends 2.9%; Israel lavishes 4.4%.
There are signs the situation is improving. Thomson Reuters' latest global research report showed that the Arabian, Persian & Turkish Middle East is capturing an increasing share of scientific output, growing even faster than Asia and Latin America. Given recent political upheaval in the region, which has been both positive and negative, it will be interesting to see if this trend continues.
In the Reuters report, Ahmed Zewail, the first Egyptian scientist to win a Nobel Prize in a scientific field, shared three key ingredients to spur science in the Islamic world:
"First is the building of human resources by eliminating illiteracy, ensuring active participation of women in society, and improving education. Second, there is a need to reform national constitutions to allow freedom of thought, the minimizing of bureaucracy, the development of merit based systems, and the creation of a credible – and enforceable – legal code. Finally, the best way to regain self-confidence is to start centers of excellence in science and technology in each Muslim country to show it can be done, to show that Muslims can indeed compete in today’s globalized economy and to instill in the youth the desire for learning."
Unfortunately, Zewail's ideas will likely face roadblocks from entrenched, oppressive regimes and the dogmatic religion upon which they operate. Many Islamic societies are steeped in religious rules that restrict freedom and expression, two ideals key to science. Moreover, brutal punishments often await those that try to change the status quo.
The spread of ISIL is another unexpected barrier to science's spread in the Islamic world. In areas under the radical group's control, teaching evolution is out of the question, and physics and chemistry are taught with a key asterisk: Allah sets all the rules. The most heartbreaking thing of all is that students are not allowed to learn mathematics.
In this, the International Year of Light, there are signs of stagnation and signs of renewal for Islamic science. One can only hope that the inhabitants of the Islamic world will look to their glorious past and see illuminated a way forward.