Rebuilding the Muslim House of Wisdom
By Jim Al-Khalili Excerpts:
Muslim-majority countries spend, on average, less than 0.5% of their GDP on research and development, compared with five times that in the advanced economies. They also have fewer than ten scientists, engineers, and technicians per thousand residents, compared to the global average of 40 – and 140 in the developed world. And even these figures tend to understate the problem, which is less about spending money or employing researchers than about the basic quality of the science being produced.
To be sure, one should not be overly hasty in singling out Muslim countries for criticism; even in the supposedly “enlightened” West, an alarmingly high proportion of the population regards science with suspicion or fear. And yet, in many parts of the Muslim world, science faces a unique challenge; it is seen as a secular – if not atheist – Western construct.
Too many Muslims have forgotten – or never learned about – the brilliant scientific contributions made by Islamic scholars a thousand years ago. They do not regard modern science as indifferent or neutral with respect to Islamic teaching. Indeed, some prominent Islamic writers have even argued that scientific disciplines such as cosmology actually undermine the Islamic belief system. According to the Muslim philosopher Osman Bakar, science comes under attack on the grounds that it “seeks to explain natural phenomena without recourse to spiritual or metaphysical causes, but rather in terms of natural or material causes alone.”
Bakar is of course entirely correct. Seeking to explain natural phenomena without recourse to metaphysics is exactly what science is about. But it is difficult to think of a better defense of it than the one offered almost exactly 1,000 years ago by the 11th-century Persian Muslim polymath Abu Rayhan al-Birūni. “It is knowledge, in general, which is pursued solely by man, and which is pursued for the sake of knowledge itself, because its acquisition is truly delightful, and is unlike the pleasures desirable from other pursuits,” al-Birūni wrote. “For the good cannot be brought forth, and evil cannot be avoided, except by knowledge.”
If the Muslim world is to become a center of innovation again, it is useful to recall the Islamic “golden age” that stretched from the eighth century well into the fifteenth. For example, the year 2021 will mark a millennium since the publication of Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Optics, one of the most important texts in the history of science. Written more than 600 years before the birth of Isaac Newton, al-Haytham’s work is widely regarded as one of the earliest examples of the modern scientific method.
Among the most famous of this era’s intellectual epicenters was Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, at the time the largest repository of books in the world. Historians may bicker over whether such an academy truly existed and what function it served; but such arguments are less relevant than the symbolic power it still holds in the Islamic world.
But it is nonetheless important to recognize how much Muslim countries could contribute to humankind by nurturing once again the spirit of curiosity that drives scientific inquiry – whether to marvel at divine creation or just to try to understand why things are the way they are.
(Extracted from an article hosted on islam-science.net)