Re­build­ing the Mus­lim House of Wis­dom

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Mus­lim gov­ern­ments know that eco­nomic growth, mil­i­tary power and na­tional se­cu­rity ben­e­fit greatly from tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances. Many of them have sharply in­creased fund­ing for sci­ence and education in re­cent years. And yet, in the view of many – es­pe­cially in the West – the Mus­lim world still seems to pre­fer to re­main dis­en­gaged from mod­ern sci­ence.

Th­ese skep­tics are not en­tirely wrong. Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries spend, on av­er­age, less than 0.5% of their GDP on re­search and de­vel­op­ment, com­pared with five times that in the ad­vanced economies. They also have fewer than ten sci­en­tists, en­gi­neers, and tech­ni­cians per thou­sand res­i­dents, com­pared to the global av­er­age of 40 – and 140 in the de­vel­oped world. And even th­ese fig­ures tend to un­der­state the prob­lem, which is less about spend­ing money or em­ploy­ing re­searchers than about the ba­sic qual­ity of the sci­ence be­ing pro­duced. To be sure, one should not be overly hasty in sin­gling out Mus­lim coun­tries for crit­i­cism; even in the sup­pos­edly “en­light­ened” West, an alarm­ingly high pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion re­gards sci­ence with sus­pi­cion or fear. And yet, in many parts of the Mus­lim world, sci­ence faces a unique chal­lenge; it is seen as a sec­u­lar – if not athe­ist – Western con­struct.

Too many Mus­lims have for­got­ten – or never learned about – the bril­liant sci­en­tific con­tri­bu­tions made by Is­lamic schol­ars a thou­sand years ago. They do not re­gard mod­ern sci­ence as in­dif­fer­ent or neu­tral with re­spect to Is­lamic teach­ing. In­deed, some prom­i­nent Is­lamic writ­ers have even ar­gued that sci­en­tific dis­ci­plines such as cos­mol­ogy ac­tu­ally un­der­mine the Is­lamic be­lief sys­tem. Ac­cord­ing to the Mus­lim philoso­pher Os­man Bakar, sci­ence comes un­der at­tack on the grounds that it “seeks to ex­plain nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena with­out re­course to spir­i­tual or meta­phys­i­cal causes, but rather in terms of nat­u­ral or ma­te­rial causes alone.”

Bakar

is

of course

en­tirely

cor­rect. Seek­ing

to

ex­plain nat­u­ral phe­nom­ena with­out re­course to meta­physics is ex­actly what sci­ence is about. But it is dif­fi­cult to think of a bet­ter de­fense of it than the one of­fered al­most ex­actly 1,000 years ago by the 11th-cen­tury Per­sian Mus­lim poly­math Abu Ray­han al-Bi­rani. “It is knowl­edge, in gen­eral, which is pur­sued solely by man, and which is pur­sued for the sake of knowl­edge it­self, be­cause its ac­qui­si­tion is truly de­light­ful, and is un­like the plea­sures de­sir­able from other pur­suits,” al­Bi­rani wrote. “For the good can­not be brought forth, and evil can­not be avoided, ex­cept by knowl­edge.”

For­tu­nately, a grow­ing num­ber of Mus­lims to­day would agree. And, given the ten­sion and po­lar­i­sa­tion be­tween the Is­lamic world and the West, it is not sur­pris­ing that many feel in­dig­nant when ac­cused of be­ing cul­tur­ally or in­tel­lec­tu­ally un­equipped for com­pet­i­tive­ness in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy. In­deed, that is why gov­ern­ments across the Mus­lim world are in­creas­ing their R&D bud­gets sharply.

But throw­ing money at the prob­lem is no panacea. Sci­en­tists do re­quire ad­e­quate fi­nanc­ing, of course, but com­pet­ing glob­ally re­quires more than just the lat­est shiny equip­ment. The en­tire in­fra­struc­ture of the re­search en­vi­ron­ment needs to be ad­dressed. That means not only en­sur­ing that lab­o­ra­tory tech­ni­cians un­der­stand how to use and main­tain the equip­ment, but also – and far more im­por­tant – nur­tur­ing the in­tel­lec­tual free­dom, skep­ti­cism, and courage to ask het­ero­dox ques­tions on which sci­en­tific progress de­pends.

If the Mus­lim world is to be­come a cen­tre of in­no­va­tion again, it is use­ful to re­call the Is­lamic “golden age” that stretched from the eighth cen­tury well into the fif­teenth. For ex­am­ple, the year 2021 will mark a mil­len­nium since the pub­li­ca­tion of Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Op­tics, one of the most im­por­tant texts in the his­tory of sci­ence. Writ­ten more than 600 years be­fore the birth of Isaac New­ton, alHaytham’s work is widely re­garded as one of the ear­li­est ex­am­ples of the mod­ern sci­en­tific method.

Among the most fa­mous of this era’s in­tel­lec­tual epi­cen­tres was Bagh­dad’s House of Wis­dom, at the time the largest repos­i­tory of books in the world. His­to­ri­ans may bicker over whether such an academy truly ex­isted and what func­tion it served; but such ar­gu­ments are less rel­e­vant than the sym­bolic power it still holds in the Is­lamic world.

When Gulf state lead­ers talk about their multi-bil­lion­dol­lar vi­sions of cre­at­ing a new House of Wis­dom, they are not con­cerned about whether the orig­i­nal was just a mod­est li­brary that a caliph in­her­ited from his father. They want to re­an­i­mate the spirit of free in­quiry that has been lost in Is­lamic cul­ture and that ur­gently needs to be re­cov­ered.

To achieve that, daunting chal­lenges re­main to be over­come. Many coun­tries de­vote an un­usu­ally large share of re­search fund­ing to­ward mil­i­tary tech­nol­ogy, a phe­nom­e­non driven more by geopol­i­tics and the un­fold­ing tragedies in the Middle East than by a thirst for pure knowl­edge. The bright­est young sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers in Syria have more press­ing mat­ters on their minds than ba­sic re­search and in­no­va­tion. And few in the Arab world are likely to view ad­vances in Ira­nian nu­clear tech­nol­ogy with the same equa­nim­ity as de­vel­op­ments in Malaysia’s soft­ware in­dus­try.

But it is none­the­less im­por­tant to recog­nise how much Mus­lim coun­tries could con­trib­ute to hu­mankind by nur­tur­ing once again the spirit of cu­rios­ity that drives sci­en­tific in­quiry – whether to marvel at di­vine cre­ation or just to try to un­der­stand why things are the way they are.

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