Islamic world faces intellectual stagnation
Is the Islamic world intellectually stagnating? One way to answer this is to ask how many world-class universities there are in Muslim countries.
The 2006 rankings of the world's top 200 universities by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), announced last week, show the poor state of academic institutions in Muslim countries.
The US, with 5 per cent of the world's population, has 54, or 27 per cent, of the top 200 universities. Forty-six Muslim countries on the other hand, with 16 per cent of the world's population, have only one or two per cent of the universities on the THES list. The two universities are Malaysia's Universiti Kabangsaan and University of Malaya, which rank 185th and 192nd with overall scores of 29.2 and 28.6 respectively from a possible 100. On the important measure of faculty citation, an indicator of intellectual creativity and impact, they scored lowest.
The THES rankings were based on the assessment of more than 1,000 higher education institutions using five key indicators. These included asking 3,700 research-active academics globally to name the top 30 research universities in their field of expertise as well as counting the citations per published paper by researchers at each institution. The other indicators were the number of foreign students enrolled, staff-student ratios and top companies' assessment of the quality of an institution's graduates. For Islamic countries, notwithstanding some isolated centres of excellence, these rankings confirmed the findings of other studies.
Some years ago, using data from the Science Citation Index produced by the Institute for Scientific Information, academics Mohammad Anwar and Abu Baker from the International Islamic University of Malaysia, revealed the total contribution of 46 predominantly Muslim countries to the world of science literature between 1990 and 1994 was a meagre 1.17 per cent of the total world output, as compared to 1.66 per cent for India and 1.48 percent for Spain. This study also showed that the 20 Arab countries contributed only 0.55 per cent to the scientific output, whereas Israel alone contributed 0.89 percent in the same period.
Another indicator of the intellectual insularity of the Arab world was reported in the 2002 report of the United Nations Development Fund on the Arab world. According to this report there is little writing or translation from other languages: 1,000 years since the caliph Mamoun the Arabs translated as many books as Spain translates in a single year. The consequences of intellectual stagnation are already reflected in the economic performance of the Muslim countries. A Brooking Institution study reported in The Economist (September 13, 2003) showed that over the past quarter-century, GDP per person in most Muslim countries has fallen or remained the same.
A prominent Muslim scientist and Nobel laureate, the late Abdus Salam, observed 20 years ago that: "of all civilisations on this planet, science is weakest in the lands of Islam. The dangers of this weakness cannot be over-emphasised since the honourable survival of a society depends directly on its science and technology in the condition of the present age". In the third industrial revolution with its "knowledge economy", in which creation of wealth will depend primarily on "brain industries", the scientific, technological and intellectual stagnation is going to have far reaching socio-economic repercussions.
Several factors can account for these conditions, the most important being the meagre resources allocated by Muslim countries to research and development. On average, Muslim countries spend 0.45 per cent of their GDP on research and development. The comparable figure for OECD countries is 2.3 per cent. These conditions are also a legacy of the colonialism experienced by most Muslim countries for an extended period in the past two centuries, during which they endured some of the worst excesses of racial and economic exploitation that stalled their development. But most of the causes of their present predicament can also be attributed to the prevailing cultural and political practices. Other countries like Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and India have taken notable strides in the fields of science and technology and are now among the major emerging economies.
The non-availability of funds can hardly justify the absence of good universities in resource-rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which are reportedly earning daily US$500 million each from their oil exports alone. An encouraging development that appears to be taking place is that as academic and administrative conditions in the public-sector universities have declined, the private sector has responded by establishing well-resourced universities. This is illustrated by the establishment of Aga Khan Medical University and Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan and Belkent University in Turkey.
The other conditions not conducive to the development of vibrant universities include the weak, undeveloped conditions of civil society in Muslim countries. Civil society refers to the presence of diverse non-governmental organisations and institutions strong enough to counterbalance the power of the central institutions of the state, which have a tendency to want to establish a monopoly over power and truth in society.
Muslim countries are increasingly under intense pressure from religious fundamentalists to impose epistemologies compatible with their versions of Islamic doctrines that are generally hostile to critical, rational thought. This is stifling the development of conditions conducive to the development and growth of vibrant institutions of higher learning.
In my recent studies of Islamic consciousness in a number of Middle Eastern Muslim countries, I was struck by an all-pervasive sense of humiliation arising from the inability of the Arab countries to match the military and technological superiority of Israel. This sense was further reinforced by the economic power and absolute technological superiority of the West vis-a-vis Muslim countries. This sense of humiliation is a major underlying cause of Islamic militancy and terrorism.
A robust civil society is a prerequisite for the development of a society based not on the tyranny of strongly held convictions and beliefs but on doubt and compromise. Science and technology prosper only under conditions that privilege the rule of reason and Nature. The influence of religious fundamentalist movements is having a deleterious effect on the academic conditions especially in the humanities and social sciences. The intellectual stagnation of Muslim countries threatens to imprison a significant proportion of humanity into permanent servitude.
There is a great urgency to create and nurture conditions promoting academic excellence and to develop strategies to arrest the decline of the institutions of higher learning to ensure an honourable survival of future generations of Muslims. This is probably the greatest and growing challenge facing the governments of the Muslim countries today.
The Jakarta Post
The writer is Australian Research Council professorial fellow and emeritus professor in the Department of Sociology, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia.
The Jakarta Post is a member of Asia News Network.