Science in Muslim countries today- By Ismail Serageldin

I can’t help it I want to share these words of wisdom with all my visitors.

For those of you who might not know who Dr. Serageldin is, the following is his short biography as it appears on his website

“Ismail Serageldin, Director, Library of Alexandria, also chairs the Boards of Directors for each of the BA’s affiliated research institutes and museums. He serves as Chair and Member of a number of advisory committees for academic, research, scientific and international institutions and civil society efforts which includes the Institut d’Egypte (Egyptian Academy of Science), TWAS (Third World Academy of Sciences), the Indian National Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the European Academy of Sciences and Arts. He is former Chairman, Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR, 1994-2000), Founder and former Chairman, the Global Water Partnership (GWP, 1996-2000) and the Consultative Group to Assist the Poorest (CGAP), a microfinance program (1995-2000) and was Distinguished Professor at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Serageldin has also served in a number of capacities at the World Bank, including as Vice President for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development (1992-1998), and for Special Programs (1998-2000). He has published over 50 books and monographs and over 200 papers on a variety of topics including biotechnology, rural development, sustainability, and the value of science to society. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering from Cairo University and Masters’ degree and a PhD from Harvard University and has received 21 honorary doctorates.”

Additionally he was my Boss in the Library of Alexandria for more than five years I spent there. In his article about Science in the Arab and Muslim World he says:

With more than a trillion dollars in cash and a population of over a billion people the Muslim world today should be poised for a remarkable scientific explosion. Yet, despite some very high-profile projects in the gulf, and serious efforts elsewhere, the observed reality is that Muslim countries tend to spend less on science per se (as distinct from buildings and facilities) than other countries at the same income scale. Furthermore, even where funding is and has been available, the results in terms of scientific output – papers, citations and patents – seems to be disappointingly low. Why?

Throughout the Muslim world we are witnessing an increasingly intolerant social milieu that is driven by self-appointed guardians of religious correctness, who inject their narrow interpretation of religion in all public debate. Rejecting rationality or evidentiary approaches, they increasingly force dissenting voices into silence and into conformity with what they would consider accepted behavior and speech. Of course, Muslim zealots are not the only ones who try to challenge the scientific enterprise, and in the US, the battles over evolution and creationism continue to rage.

Yet it was our Muslim forefathers who held up the torch of rationality, tolerance and the advancement of knowledge throughout the dark ages of medieval Europe.

Centuries before Bacon, Descartes and Galileo, Ibn Al-Haytham (10th C) laid down the rules of the empirical approach, describing how the scientific method should operate through observation, measurement, experiment and conclusion:

“We start by observing reality … We then proceed by increasing our research and measurement, subjecting premises to criticism, and being cautious in drawing conclusions… In all we do, our purpose should be … the search for truth, not support of opinions”.

— Ibn Al-Haytham, Kitab Al-Manadhir.

Likewise, listen to the voice of Ibn Al-Nafis (13th C) on accepting the contrarian view, subject to the test of evidence and rational analysis.

“When hearing something unusual, do not preemptively reject it, for that would be folly. Indeed, horrible things may be true, and familiar and praised things may prove to be lies.” — Ibn Al-Nafis, Sharh’ Ma’na Al Qanun.

This is the Muslim tradition that must be revived if the current projects are to bear the scientific fruit that a billion Muslims need and that the world has a right to expect of us. Rejecting politicized religiosity, and reviving these traditions would promote the values of science in our societies.

There is a central core of universal values that any truly modern society must possess, and these are very much the values that science promotes: rationality, creativity, the search for truth, adherence to codes of behavior and a certain constructive subversiveness. Science requires much more than money and projects, important as these are. Science requires freedom: Freedom to enquire, to challenge, to think, to imagine the unimagined. It cannot function within the arbitrary limits of convention, nor can it flourish if it is forced to shy away from challenging the accepted. It requires tolerant engagement with the contrarian view, accepting to arbitrate disputes by the rules of evidence and rationality.

The content of the scientific work is what is discussed, not the person who produced it, regardless of the color of their skin or the god they choose to worship or the ethnic group they were born into or their gender. These are societal values worth defending, not just to promote the pursuit of science, but to have a better and more humane society.

The scientists practicing in the Muslim world are a part of the international scientific community, which increasingly is a truly global cultural force. They must help create the “space of freedom” necessary for the practice of science, even more than the availability of money. It is these “values of science” that can unleash the full measure of their talent and their genius. All of that, however, requires liberating the mind from the tyranny of intolerance, bigotry and fear, and opening the doors to free inquiry, tolerance and imagination.



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