Islam and science: a budding love affair?

The Economist argues that a Muslim scientific awakening is underway. Few things would please me more, although it seems to me that there is an inverse relation between a society’s overt religious piety and its willingness to truly embrace science. As far as Islam goes, I suppose the good news is that the situation can only get better.

In 2005 Harvard University produced more scientific papers than 17 Arabic-speaking countries combined. The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims have produced only two Nobel laureates in chemistry and physics. Both moved to the West … By contrast Jews, outnumbered 100 to one by Muslims, have won 79. The 57 countries in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference spend a puny 0.81% of GDP on research and development, about a third of the world average. … Some universities seem keener on prayer than study. Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, for example, has three mosques on campus, with a fourth planned, but no bookshop. Rote learning rather than critical thinking is the hallmark of higher education in many countries.

Not sure whether we ought to be confident that, in the words of the magazine,

The political storms shaking the Middle East could promote not only democracy, but revive scientific freethinking, too.

I don’t discount the contributions of moderate Muslims and small bands of (closet) secularists, but the revolutions seem primarily driven by throngs of islamist hardliners who couldn’t be more at odds with the overall body of science. And even the moderates (to the extent that they are in favor of actual science, divorced from the fairy tales of religion), will find their work cut out for them.

Consider, for instance, the exchange between a reporter from Discover magazine and Waheed Badawy, a chemistry professor at the University of Cairo. Badawy, though a Muslim, prides himself on seeing religion and science as “separate pursuits.” But when asked if a Muslim scientist or lecturer would be free to teach evolutionary biology — essentially, Darwin — the following exchange transpires.

“If you are asking if Adam came from a monkey, no,” Badawy responds. “Man did not come from a monkey. If I am religious, if I agree with Islam, then I have to respect all of the ideas of Islam. And one of these ideas is the creation of the human from Adam and Eve. If I am a scientist, I have to believe that.”

But from the point of view of a scientist, is it not just a story? I ask. He tells me that if I were writing an article saying that Adam and Eve is a big lie, it will not be accepted until I can prove it.

“Nobody can just write what he thinks without proof. But we have real proof that the story of Adam as the first man is true.”

“What proof?”

He looks at me with disbelief: “It’s written in the Koran.”

To the Muslims who, unlike Badawy, are committed to scientific standards of reason and proof: Work to do, Sahibi. Join us, we welcome you.

About Rogier:
Rogier is a Dutch-born, New-England-dwelling multi-media maven (OK, a writer and photographer) whose dead-tree publishing credits include the New York Times, Wired, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Reason.
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