The story of science in the Muslim world is extraordinary, influencing science to this day, and is not well known even within its own community. The days when Muslim or Islamic scientists led the world are long gone and that is cause for concern. An Oct. 29, 2015 Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology press release on EurekAlert argues that universities in Muslim countries must reinvent themselves to transform society and achieve scientific excellence,
A Task Force of international experts, formed by the Muslim World Science Initiative, today released a report [Science at Universities of the Muslim World] on the state of science at universities of the Muslim world.
To assess the state of science at universities of the Muslim world, the Task Force reviewed the rankings of Muslim-world’s universities globally, scientific production (number of papers published and citations), the level of spending on research and development (R&D), female participation in the scientific workforce, and other indicators.
The results were compared to those of countries deemed comparable in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, e.g. Brazil, Israel, Spain, South Africa, and South Korea.
The Task Force noted recent improvements in scientific publishing across a number of countries and a relatively healthy gender ratio among university students, even though the overall state of science in the Muslim World remains ‘poor,’ as depicted by
- the disproportionately small number of Nobel Laureates
- the small number of universities in top global rankings
- the low spending on R&D, and
- the abysmal performance of pre-university students on math and science tests
Seeking to assess if universities were the ‘main culprits’ in this sorry state of affairs, the Task Force highlighted significant challenges at the Universities of the Muslim World.
In particular, the Task Force lamented the fact that science education in most Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member countries was extremely narrow in focus and did little to enable students to think critically, especially beyond their respective domains of specialty.
The Task Force calls for broad liberal education for scientists and engineers to enable them to function effectively in addressing complex multi-disciplinary challenges that the world faces today.
The Task Force also noted that self-censorship was often practiced in the selection of topics to be taught, particularly regarding controversial subjects such as the theory of evolution.
The Task Force called for the introduction and systematic study of philosophy of science and history of the sciences of the Muslim ‘Golden Age’ and beyond for students to navigate and develop a perspective on these difficult disciplinary boundaries and overlaps. The language of instruction also created significant challenges.
Faculty members were also ill-trained to teach using cutting-edge methods such as inquiry-based science education and had little autonomy to innovate.
While the Task Force called for greater autonomy for the universities, it also emphasized that they must become meritocracies and aspire for true scientific excellence rather than playing for temporary gains in numbers or rankings. It also calls for zero tolerance on plagiarism and other forms of academic misconduct.
The Report of the Task Force includes: a foreword by the Chair, Tan Sri Zakri Abdul Hamid, the main assessment and recommendations, and individual essays written by the Task Force members on issues, including
- Science, Society & the University
- Are universities of the Muslim world helping spread a culture of science through society?
- Should Religion Be Kept Out of the Science Classroom?
- STEM Education and the Muslim Gender Divide and
- The Need of Liberal Education for Science and Engineering
The Task Force is putting out an open call for universities across the Muslim world to join a voluntary Network of Excellence of Universities for Science (NEXUS), to be launched early next year.
This peer group will be managed by the task force and housed in Tan Sri Zakri’s office. NEXUS will run summer schools for university administrators, monitor the progress of reforms at participating universities, and issue a peer report card that will assess the performance of the universities in meeting milestones, thus recognizing and inspiring further improvements. True transformation will require much broader action from ministries, regulators and funding agencies, and these may be the most resistant to change.
Releasing the Report of the Task Force, Tan Sri Zakri Abdul Hamid stressed that “universities must reinvent themselves to lead the scientific reforms in the Muslim World, and as they do so they must embrace key ideas of merit and transparency, engagement with society, and pedagogical and curricular innovation.”
Professor Nidhal Guessoum, the Task Force’s Convenor, noted that “Task Force members strongly believe that the most appropriate venue for action on our recommendations is the university itself. The most essential ingredient in creating excellence in science and science teaching at a university is a realization, within a university’s highest leadership and its faculty, of the need to give up the old and dated ways, renew the purpose, and re-write the genetic code of their university.
Dr. Athar Osama, the Director of the Project noted that “the purpose of Muslim World Science Initiative is to jumpstart a dialogue within the society on critical issues at the intersection of science, society, and Islam. The Task Force has done a commendable job in laying the groundwork for a very important conversation about our universities.”
The divide between science/technology/engineering/mathematics (STEM) education and other fields of interest such as social sciences, the arts, and the humanities may be larger in the Islamic world (and to some extent reversed with humanities looking down on science) but it is a problem elsewhere, often expressed as a form of snobbery, as I alluded to in my Aug. 7, 2015 posting titled: Science snobbery and the problem of accessibility.
An Oct. 28, 2015 Nature essay about Islam, science, and the report by Nidhal Guessou and Athar Osama (two members of the Task Force; Note: Links have been removed) provides more context,
The Islamic civilization lays claim to the world’s oldest continually operational university. The University of Qarawiyyin was founded in Fes, Morocco, in ad 859, at the beginning of an Islamic Golden Age. Despite such auspicious beginnings, universities in the region are now in dire straits, as demonstrated by a report we have authored, released this week (see go.nature.com/korli3).
The 57 countries of the Muslim world — those with a Muslim-majority population, and part of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) — are home to nearly 25% of the world’s people. But as of 2012, they had contributed only 1.6% of the world’s patents, 6% of its academic publications, and 2.4% of the global research expenditure1, 2.
The authors note problems and at least one success with regard to curriculum (from the Nature essay; Note: Links have been removed),
Science classes themselves have serious problems. The textbooks used in OIC universities are often imported from the United States or Europe. Although the content is of a high standard, they assume a Western experience and use English or French as the language of instruction. This disadvantages many students, and creates a disconnect between their education and culture. To encourage the production of higher-quality, local textbooks and other academic material, universities need to reward staff for producing these at least as much as they do for research publication.
Some basic facts are seen as controversial, and marginalized. Evolution, for example, is usually taught only to biology students, often as “a theory”, and is rarely connected to the rest of the body of knowledge. One ongoing study has found, for example, that most Malaysian physicians and medical students reject evolution (see go.nature.com/38cswo). Evolution needs to be taught widely and shown to be compatible with Islam and its culture6. Teaching the philosophy and history of science would help, too.
The global consensus is that enquiry-based science education fosters the deepest understanding of scientific concepts and laws. But in most OIC universities, lecture-based teaching still prevails. Exceptions are rare. One is the Petroleum Institute, an engineering university in Abu Dhabi, UAE, where the faculty has created a hands-on experience with positive results on student interest and enrolment, particularly of women.
For anyone interested in the full report, it can be requested from the Muslim Science website.
One final comment, here’s the list of task force members in the Oct. 29, 2015 news release which includes someone from Mauritius (my father was born there),
Tan Sri Zakri Abdul Hamid, Science Advisor to Prime Minister of Malaysia, Chair of the Task Force on Science at the Universities of the Muslim World
Prof. Nidhal Guessoum, American University of Sharjah, UAE, Convenor of the Task Force on Science at Universities of the Muslim World
Dr. Mohammad Yusoff Sulaiman, President and CEO, MiGHT, Malaysia, Co-Convenor of the Task Force on Science at Universities of the Muslim World.
Dr. Moneef Zou’bi, Executive Director, Islamic World Academy of Science (IAS)
Prof. Adil Najam, Dean Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University and former Vice Chancellor, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)
Prof. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, Fellow of IAS, President of the Republic of Mauritius, and Professor at University of Mauritius
Prof. Mustafa El-Tayeb, President , Future University, Khartoum, Sudan
Prof. Abdur Razak Dzulkifli, President of International Association of Universities (IAU), and former Vice Chancellor USM, Malaysia
Dr. Nadia Alhasani, Dean of Student Life (formerly Dean of Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE), The Petroleum Institute, Abu Dhabi, UAE
Prof. Jamal Mimouni, Professor, University of Constantine-1, Algeria
Dr. Dato Lee Yee Cheong, Chair ISTIC Governing Board / Chair IAP SEP Global Council
Prof. Michael Reiss, Professor of Science Education, UCL Institute of Education, University College, London, Expert Advisor to the Muslim-Science.Com Task Force on Science at Universities of the Muslim World
Prof. Bruce Alberts, Professor of Biochemistry, University of California, San Francisco; President Emeritus, National Academy of Sciences, and Recipient, 2014 US Presidential Medal of Science, Expert Advisor to the Muslim-Science.Com Task Force on Science at Universities of the Muslim World
Professor Shoaib S. H. Zaidi, Professor and Dean of School of Sciences and Engineering, Habib University, Karachi
Dr. Athar Osama, Founder Muslim World Science Initiative, and Project Director of the Task Forces Project.
1001 inventions exhibit
Reading about this report reminded me of a news item from five years ago when the London (UK) Science Museum launched the global tour of an exhibition titled, 1001 Inventions: Discover the Muslim Heritage in Our World,
This show is still making its way around the world with the latest stop, as of Oct. 20, 2015, at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.
A Jan. 21, 2010 article by Nick Higham and Margaret Ryan for BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) news online describes some of the exhibit highlights,
From about 700 to 1700, many of history’s finest scientists and technologists were to be found in the Muslim world.
In Christian Europe the light of scientific inquiry had largely been extinguished with the collapse of the Roman empire. But it survived, and indeed blazed brightly, elsewhere.
From Moorish Spain across North Africa to Damascus, Baghdad, Persia and all the way to India, scientists in the Muslim world were at the forefront of developments in medicine, astronomy, engineering, hydraulics, mathematics, chemistry, map-making and exploration.
Salim Al-Hassani, a former professor of engineering at Umist (University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology) is a moving force behind the exhibition, 1001 Inventions.
Visitors to the exhibition will be greeted by a 20 ft high replica of a spectacular clock designed in 1206 by the inventor Al-Jazari.
It incorporates elements from many cultures, representing the different cultural and scientific traditions which combined and flowed through the Muslim world.
The clock’s base is an elephant, representing India; inside the elephant the water-driven works of the clock derive from ancient Greece.
A Chinese dragon swings down from the top of the clock to mark the hours. At the top is a phoenix, representing ancient Egypt.
Sitting astride the elephant and inside the framework of the clock are automata, or puppets, wearing Arab turbans.
Elsewhere in the exhibition are displays devoted to water power, the spread of education (one of the world’s first universities was founded by a Muslim woman, Fatima al-Fihri), Muslim architecture and its influence on the modern world and Muslim explorers and geographers.
There is a display of 10th Century surgeons’ instruments, a lifesize model of a man called Abbas ibn Firnas, allegedly the first person to have flown with wings, and a model of the vast 100 yard-long junk commanded by the Muslim Chinese navigator, Zheng He.
The description of the exhibition items is compelling.
Science and the modern world debate (Humanism and Islam)
Yasmin Khan has written up a transcript of sorts in a Nov. 6, 2015 posting on the Guardian science blogs about a science debate (which took place Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015 in London, UK) where Humanist and Islamic perspectives were being discussed (Note: Links have been removed),
Two important figures came head-to-head at Conway Hall, to discuss Islamic versus Humanist perspectives on science and the modern world. Jim Al-Khalili made the final public appearance of his term as president of the British Humanist Association during this stimulating, and at times provoking, debate with Ziauddin Sardar, chair of the Muslim Institute.
Al-Khalili advocated the values of the European Enlightenment, arguing that ever since the “Age of Reason” took hold during the 18th century, Humanists have looked to science instead of religion to explore and comprehend the world. Sardar upheld the view that it is the combination of faith and reason that offers a fuller understanding of the world, maintaining that it was this worldview that enabled the development of science in the Islamic golden Age.
A practising Muslim, Sardar is on an independent mission to promote rational, considered thought in interpreting the Qur’an. He explained that when he came to the UK from Pakistan, he found comfort in the familiar language of mathematics, which set him on a trajectory to train as a physicist: “God doesn’t need me, I need him. It makes me a better person and a better scientist”, he said.
In short, Sardar’s view is that although human knowledge at times converges with the Qur’an, the text should certainly not be treated as a scientific encyclopaedia. In support of this view, Sardar lamented the emergence of the I’jaz movement, which insists the Qur’an contains descriptions of modern scientific phenomena ranging from quantum mechanics to accurate descriptions of the stages of embryology and geology. In Sardar’s opinion, this stems from insecurity and a personal need to vindicate Islam to others.
Jim Al-Khalili agreed that ascribing literal meanings to religious texts can be perilous and that these verses should be interpreted more metaphorically. Likewise, when Einstein famously said “God does not play dice” he was using a figure of speech to acknowledge that there are things we don’t yet understand but this shouldn’t stop us from trying to find out more.
Whilst Al-Khalili is a staunch atheist, he adopts what he describes as an “accommodationist” approach in his interactions with people of religious faith: “I don’t think people who believe in God are irrational, I just don’t see a need to believe there is a purpose for why things are the way they are.” Born in Bagdad, Al-Khalili grew up in Iraq. His mother was Christian and his father was Shia, but he never heard them quarrel about religion. By the time he reached his teens he felt that he had distanced himself from needing any form of spirituality and his subsequent scientific training cemented this worldview. He asserted that his core values are empathy, humility and respect, without being driven by a reward in an afterlife: “It’s not just people of religious faith that have a moral compass – morality is what makes us human.”
I encourage you to read Khan’s piece (Nov. 6, 2015 posting) in its entirety as she provides historical and contemporary context to what seems to have been a fascinating and nuanced debate. Plus, there’s a bit of a bonus at the end where Khan is described as the producer of Sindbad Sci-Fi, a website where they are Reimagining Arab Science Fiction. From the website’s About page,
Sindbad Sci-Fi is an initiative for spurring the discovery of and engagement with Arab Science Fiction through dialogue. Our aim is to sustain a growing community of interest through brokering face-to-face and online discussion, building new partnerships and project collaborations along the way.
Many of us know and love Sindbad the sailor as the fictional sailor from the Arabian Book of One Thousand and One Nights, considered as being an early composite work of proto-science fiction and fantasy. His extraordinary voyages led him to adventures in magical places whilst meeting monsters and encountering supernatural phenomena.
Sindbad Sci-Fi is reviving Sindbad’s adventurous spirit for exploration and discovery. Join us as we continue star trekking across the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and beyond. Together, we will boldly go where no one else has gone before!
I’m pretty sure somebody associated with this site is a Star Trek fan.