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Science as Salvation for Muslims

  The protests that have paralyzed international relations between Muslim countries and the West are a tragic reminder of the educational disparities which exist in today’s world. There is systemic inadequacy to appreciate critical thinking in the Muslim world which leads to this kind of knee-jerk emotionalism. Although many Muslims may claim to be educated...


The Islamic Academy in Sarajevo - Bosnia. Such centers have the potential to engage more directly with scientific learning - Photograph by Saleem H. Ali

The protests that have paralyzed international relations between Muslim countries and the West are a tragic reminder of the educational disparities which exist in today’s world. There is systemic inadequacy to appreciate critical thinking in the Muslim world which leads to this kind of knee-jerk emotionalism. Although many Muslims may claim to be educated — the basic premise of education is the ability to question, critically analyze,  and tolerate views with which we may not agree. The abhorrent film which provoked these recent riots could best be opposed not by a ban on the film itself,  but rather by criticizing it more openly. Such a mindset of open critique rather than censorship is a product of the scientific mind.

This is the time of year when science and peace find confluence in Scandinavia where the Nobel prizes are awarded for scientific discoveries, literature and for promoting peace. While many Islamic countries claim to have been victimized by the “war on terror”, it is interesting to note that since September 11, 2001, three of the seven individual Nobel peace laureates have been Muslims. Their area of recognition has spanned from human rights activism (Shirin Ebadi, 2003) to nuclear vigilance (Muhammad El Baradei, 2005) to micro-credit entrepreneurship (Muhammad Yunus, 2006), and most recently to the Arab spring protests (Tawakel Karman, 2011).

What is perhaps even more astonishing is that in the 110-year history of the Nobel peace prize there are only two other Muslims who have been so honored. Anwar Saadat (1978) and Yassir Arafat shared the prize with Israeli leaders for highly variable and controversial contributions to building peace in the Middle East.

Out of more than five hundred Nobel laureates in the sciences, only two have been of Muslim lineage. Pakistan can claim one of them: Abdus Salam, who shared the prize in physics in 1979, and memorably wore a shervani and turban to the award ceremony in Sweden. However, as a member of the Ahmadiya community, he was regrettably spurned at home as a non-Muslim and died in 1996 without fully being able to contribute to science education in Pakistan, despite his noblest intentions. Dr. Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian-American chemist based at the California Institute of Technology received the prize for chemistry in 1999 and is the Muslim world’s sole Nobel science star. He is clearly in high demand for this singular status and has also been appointed by President Obama as one of his “science envoys.” I had an opportunity to meet him recently at the World Economic Forum in Davos (in January 2012) and he noted the difficulty of getting science to be embraced by Muslims because of entrenched and misguided prejudice towards themes like evolution.

Unfortunately, Muslim theologians dismiss evolution as established science with canard theories like “intelligent design,” ironically taken from fundamentalist Christian traditions in the Southern United States. Ample scholarship by Muslim scientists has been provided to show that evolution and Islamic theology are compatible but a vast majority of Muslims continue to disavow this because of ignorance on the part of our major clerics (a recent book by Nidhal Guessoum titled Islam’s Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science, provides an excellent response to these controversies). Without having a basic predication in scientific understanding of the natural world, we cannot develop our intellectual base.

The reason for the paucity of Muslim laureates in the sciences is perhaps the relative intellectual inertia in the educational institutions in many Muslim countries. There is a tendency for many Muslims to atavistically celebrate the accomplishments of tenth-century Muslim mathematicians, while investing little in developing contemporary educational capacity. Far too often we hear from imams about the etymology of algebra coming from Arabic and the pharmaceutical accomplishments of Avicenna but do we ask why more of such great scholars have not been seen for a thousand years in Islamic countries? Furthermore, it is important to remember that the golden age of Islam was also its most pluralistic and even then there were fundamentalist forces who constantly threatened these scientists. Let us not forget the ruins of Madinat-al-Zahra, once a show-piece of Islamic art and learning, just outside Cordoba, which was destroyed not by any “infidels” but instead by radical and retrogressive Muslim factions.

Those Muslims who are educated and proceed to develop successful professional careers are often sanguine with a comfortable job but would rather not invest in cutting-edge creativity. An interesting example is the medical profession in which many Muslims have excelled considerably. However, most of these brilliant doctors are focused on making money in clinical practice rather than in creative research which would lead to laurels such as the Nobel prize. There is cultural complacence that leads to a mindset where success is marked by simply making a good living for the family, contributing some earnings to charity and then living a lavish life.

As for the recent Muslim peace laureates what is even more striking is that many Muslims have rejected their efforts and refused to accept them as role models, labeling them instead as stooges of the West.

I was amazed at the reaction of one Canadian Muslim professor to the Nobel Prize awarded to Muhammad Yunus. There was spiteful criticism of Dr Yunus as a narcissist who was charging the destitute exorbitant un-Islamic interest rates. As with Shirin Ebadi and Muhammad ElBaradei, many Muslims also consider Dr Yunus a “stooge of the West”. While there are some valid critiques of the Grameen Bank model in Bangladesh, it is unfortunate that any novel idea has to be met with such contrarian zeal with few alternative solutions. The overall picture is fairly clear: Bangladesh is at least showing strongly positive signs of development, as measured by indicators developed by Pakistan’s own celebrated economist, the late Mahbub-ul-Haq (who may well have become the first Muslim to win the Nobel Prize in economics had he lived long enough). According to the director of the UN’s Human Development Report, Kevin Watkins, Bangladesh has seen child mortality falling at an annual rate 50 percent higher than India and in 2006 the child survival rate is better in Bangladesh than in either India or Pakistan. This is especially remarkable for a country that has all natural odds against it with annual floods, cyclones and a capricious agricultural climate.

Let us now turn to another Muslim Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk of Turkey who won the Nobel Prize for literature. Given the attendance of the Turkish leadership at this year’s “U.S. Islamic World Forum” , understanding his place in this pantheon is quite significant as well. The late Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz is the only other Muslim writer to have won this prize. Both of these writers have been known to marginalize their Islamic identity at various times, and perhaps the literature prize mirrors the peace prize in its political message. Just as Gandhi was denied the peace prize despite being an inspiration to so many later laureates, some Muslim writers may claim a measure of discrimination here, contending that only a certain liberal elite is even considered seriously. In the case of Mr Pamuk, one Turkish writer commented in the Wall Street Journal that he “has not taught anyone anything they didn’t already know but has made precisely the right noises that the progressive arbiters of taste in Europe like to hear”.

While it may be argued that the literature, peace and economics prizes are politicized, there is little doubt that the science prize is quite authentic in its measure of excellence. This is where Muslims should admire our Jewish brethren and learn from them rather than grumbling about discrimination.

Alfred Nobel, the man who perfected the alchemy of dynamite, could scarcely have imagined how momentous his legacy would be for times to come. Every autumn we await the announcements from Scandinavia about this most coveted of international honors. As the pantheon of laureates grows larger and more diverse, the Islamic contribution to this prize remains relatively small. This is a time for introspection among Muslims and non-Muslims alike regarding the means and merits of such rewards, and how best to use them as incentives for improving the human condition.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.