About ’Islamic science’

A debate on-going and re-emerging from time to time.

On the SciDev portal (excellent news portal on science in the developing world) I read this opinion paper :

Islam Analysis : Science reforms need to show results, by Athar Osama 3 December 2010

The argument is that if science was more effective in muslim countries then it would have less problems defending itself. ALthough I cannot agree more (see my report of project ESTIME on science in Arab countries or the report (pdf) written by Roland Waast on the reserach systems in the Arab countries ), there are many side arguments that are strange.

Then the burden of the argument on the weakness of science is placed on "society" which, according to this point of view, shows no or little interest toward science.

"Such examples demonstrate the fragility of the ’social contract’ of science in these societies, whereby the entire rationale for funding science could come under question and take the ground from beneath the feet of the reformers."

I find it curious to present things such as "Saudi Arabia, for instance, has funded a US$2 billion, five-year science and technology action plan" without ever talking about contents ! See the priorities for Saudi Arabia in the Arab Thought Foundation which include the respect of the islamic ritual as one of its priorities....

I didnt know either that "Egypt also undertook a major reorganisation of education." (!) If its true that things are a bit clearer for Europeans with the creation of program RDI - a nice tool to spent the EU money in science - there hasnt been an institutional overhaul of the education neither of higher education. Anyway, that maybe the case...

What is apparent is that a turn has been taken in most countries : we are moving from a period where reform of the higher education was called in to a period where innovation and "results" are summoned. As if the mere importance of results would change the attitude of governments toward science. A very strong case for that is Morocco, Jordan, and to a lesser extent Algeria or Tunisia. Other countries such as Syria still focus mainly on strengthening their higher education. Its also the case of most countries in the Gulf (see Romani’s work).

And that the arguments seem so little documented, and probably this is the real problem. Policy exists in the islamic countries and is badly or not documented (with exceptions).

And the comments on the web page are just worth having a glance. When talking about "Science in muslim societies" you immediatly get your load of comments about "islamic science’" and the Holy Coran !

The first comment sets the tone :

The problem with muslim countries they have forgotten that God has sent the Holy Quran with scientific knowledge. This book is the mother of all knowledges and they are supposed to share it with others. But unfortunately they have dropped away this important part and lost their time in useless things.

That is th eold argument that the roman catholics used all along to deny any authority to science ! The Bible says it all ; why do research ? The Coran says it all, why go surch in any other place. Europe fought sternly to overpass this argument : it seems that is still not the case when talking about islamic countries. The sole wording "islamic science" should simply be an aberration. Nor islamic science, nor christian or jewish science makes any sens. Science is not faith, it has to go through a practice, a specific thought and argumentation and does not claim to provide the sort of outcomes you might want when practising religious rituals. And, it can co-exist with faith as has been beautifully shown by Stephen Jay Gould in his last book ! [1]

I recommend a nice little book where a famous Pakistani physics scientist [2] shows how difficult it gets to overcome some of the opposition againt science. But he also mentions that :

"Fortunately, the dominant Muslim response to the issue of the compatibility of science with islam is a rather sensible one - that of indifference. Most Muslims are quit content with a vague belief that there is consistency rather than conflict. This sis helped by the generally held view that science is a conglomeration of techniques, formulae, equipment, and machines. At best, science creates gadgets and even jobs. At worst, is is something technical, which is dreadfully boring and difficult to learn. In any case, the reasoning goes, it is better not to worry excesively over arcane matters" (p. 12)

BTW the article of Shapin [3] in the same booklet is a pearl of perfection in the theme of the social contract toward science.

[1- Stephen Jay Gould. Le Renard et le Hérisson : comment combler le fossé entre la science et les humanités ? Le Seuil Paris

  • Original : (The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox), 2003 (ISBN 2-02-061470-7)

[2Hoodbhoy, P. (2004). Returning Science to Islam - the rocky road ahead. In L. Anderson (Ed.), Trust me, I’m a scientist. London : The British Council pp. 6-24.

[3-Shapin, S. (2004). The way we trust now : the authority of science and the character of the scientist. In L. Anderson (Ed.), Trust me, I’m a scientist. London : The British Council pp. 6-24.

Posté le 24 décembre 2010