"Time to unite Islam and science"

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Wednesday, March 12, 2003 at 5:31PM :

I can just see Bush et al. getting all hot & bothered about this topic... might make more "terrists"...
13 March 2003

Nature 422, 99

Time to unite Islam and science

Science in Muslim countries is weak. The reasons for this deserve attention, as do the consequences for these nations' economic health. A meeting last week provided a start in this direction.

"I am a Muslim, and we Muslims don't usually speak out on such matters. But I'm going to, as I have a responsibility towards our children, society, education and the advancement of scientific thinking." The seemingly taboo question that «igdem Kagitcibasi, a psychologist and member of the Turkish Academy of Sciences, was nervously addressing was whether a lack of democracy and freedom of expression in the Islamic world might be one reason why there is no substantial culture of science and technology in these countries.

Addressing a satellite workshop on 'science, religion and values' at a meeting of top science officials from Islamic and Western countries last week in Trieste, Italy (see page 101), Kagitcibasi argued the need to tackle head-on this question: "Is 'Muslim culture' helping the advancement of our society or not?"

Provocatively, and perhaps undiplomatically given her secular Turkish background, she questioned, for example, Saudi Arabia's sponsorship of Wahhabism, a particularly rigid and austere form of Islam, at mosques and madrassas, or Islamic religious schools, worldwide. "Why are they opening up religious schools everywhere instead of ordinary schools devoted to basic education?" she asked.

Mohamed Falougi, deputy director general of the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, protested that such discussion was "inappropriate" and that Kagitcibasi had no right to say such things: "Islamic countries can teach any way they want, just as Judaism or Christianity do." It is true that explanations for the scientific ills in Islamic countries are complex. But the time has come to scrutinize Islam's relationship, inhibitory or otherwise, with science.

Neglecting the impact of Islam on science would not only be blind, but a disservice to Muslim peoples, who, if they are to become prosperous, need to shift from their flagging natural resource- and agriculture-based economies to knowledge-based ones. The Islamic world's science spending is just 0.2% of gross national product, its population of scientists is meagre, and its legal framework for innovation largely non-existent. Some countries, such as Pakistan, have recently shifted towards a culture of technology and scientific knowledge, but this is an exception. Its visionary, the higher-education minister, Atta-ur-Rahman, is an outspoken proponent of the need for a revolution in the Islamic world's commitment to science and education.

The Koran encourages the pursuit of science, and in its heyday the Islamic world was a cradle of science for six centuries. But many scientists, including Rahman, think that aspects of contemporary Muslim cultures are hindering the emergence of scientific cultures through narrow-mindedness, lack of basic freedoms, and pressure on individuals to conform, and not to challenge or think critically and creatively. Greater dialogue is needed among Muslim scholars and scientists about how to encourage science to flourish in the Islamic world.

Poverty, unemployment, the Middle East crisis and a perception of injustice with respect to the actions of the West are creating a cycle of violence and hatred, which often finds its expression in radical Islam. Science and education, the freedom to think critically, and contact with Western scientists can help to educate both sides, leading to a reform of Islam that brings to the fore the tolerance and scholarship that was for centuries the mark of the religion's practice.

Nature © Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2003 Registered No. 785998 England.

-- Sadie
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