Scientific Research – Are these the Dark Ages in the Muslim World?
A survey of Muslim institutes of higher learning finds them lagging behind the rest of world when it comes to providing quality science and tech education.
By Dr. Athar Osama & Prof. Nidhal Guessoum
It is a well-known fact that 1.6 billion Muslims contribute a disproportionately smaller share to the world’s knowledge. This global community – forming the majority population of 57 countries and spanning virtually every single country of the world – has had only three Nobel laureates in science in the history of this prestigious prize. The number of universities from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member countries in the top 500 universities of the world is only a little better than that.
Clichés aside, there is a widely shared view that science in the Muslim world is significantly lagging behind the rest of the world. This view is partly based on indicators, such as global university rankings, research spending, researchers per million people, performance of pre-university students etc. The causes of this bad performance and potential remedies are hotly debated.
Of Recent Origin
We recently studied the status of universities in the Muslim world and found that while several countries have made progress, at least in terms of jumpstarting a culture of research and publishing, significant issues remain to be addressed. In particular, it has been found that science education at pre-university level fares worse in the Muslim world and there is little evidence that the situation improves when the young men and women join the university.
Only 17 among the top 400
Universities of the Muslim world have not ranked highly in the various global university rankings. In the 2014-15 edition of the QS World University Rankings, no university of the Muslim world was in the top 100, and only 17 ranked among the top 400 (11 between 300 and 400). Similarly, the most recent Times Higher Education World University Rankings had only 10 universities from the Muslim world in the top 400 (five of them between 300 and 400). This has often led to repeated calls to enhance rankings of universities in the Muslim world and to create world-class universities. While there has been some advancement on the former, the latter has remained largely inaccessible.
Broad, liberal, holistic education in science
One of the most significant findings were rather narrow disciplinary focus of science teaching in most universities of the Islamic world. In most OIC countries, the age at which children decide whether or not to pursue a scientific career and which discipline is between 14 to 18 years after which most of what they study is within the narrow confines of their chosen discipline. This not only does not augur well for their development as individuals of diverse and multiple interests, but also creates challenges for a fruitful scientific career.
Another area of weakness in teaching of science in the Muslim world is the absence of philosophy and even history of science from the university curricula. As a result, the scientists who are very good resources on the bench often fail to engage with this fascinating body of knowledge at a much deeper level to ask critical questions that they are supposed to do in the first place.
The notion of a university that mixes science with history and philosophy in modern times can help deal with this situation.
Oasis in the Desert
The American University of Sharjah is one such university that is an oasis in desert when it comes to providing a holistic liberal educational experience to its students who have to take courses in humanities, history, culture, and language regardless of their chosen disciplines. The university was recently ranked among the top 10 in the Arab world. Other American universities in Beirut and Cairo also follow a similar approach.
Curricular and pedagogical developments
The inability to engage with philosophy and history also reflects in the timidity to constructively engage with religious objections to science. While science curricula are often imported as is from the West, the controversial scientific ideas such as Darwin’s theory of evolution are taught in superficial and disjointed manner. As one observer notes the damage is often done in the “closing remarks from the instructor.”
Not well-trained in English
Another major challenge is the language of instruction. More often than not, particularly in the science subjects at the university level, the language of instruction is English, but only a few people are fully trained to absorb what is being taught in a non-native language with others suffering from significant information-loss.
Some Shining Examples
Science curriculum is heavily loaded in most Muslim nations instead of aiming for a deeper understanding of how the sciences work and scientist think, and how to analyse problems. Globally, sciences are today taught by using evidence-based practice instead of mere lecturing which promotes rote-learning rather than comprehension. It also owes itself to hiring Ph.Ds who may have some teaching experience during their doctoral studies, but would not have received training in the art of teaching. But there are a few shining experiences like Prof. Djebbar’s programme, titled Découvertes en Pays d’Islam in Tunisia helps teach scientific ideas by relating great examples and stories from the Golden Age of Islam, the 1001 Inventions traveling exhibition and its educational component, among others.
The greatness of the Muslim Golden Age of science did not come from the fact that those scientists were somehow better people, it was because they lived in a society that was open to rationality, inquiry, and doubt, but above all, merit. The magic comes not from the scientists but from the society.
Without making these tough choices to make science central to the affairs of Muslim societies, the dream of a scientific revival in the Muslim world shall remain a dream.
(Ather Osama is an honorary senior associate at Center for Research and Evaluation of Muslim Education at UCL Institute of Education, London. Prof. Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of Physics and Astronomy at American University of Sharjah)