It is a half-hearted effort, however.
Although the achievements of Muslim scientific thinkers of yore are presented, few efforts are made to align what children learn with the rigour and empiricism of a modern scientific mindset.
Earthquakes and floods are routinely pinned to murky calculations of divine retribution, and conspiracy theories offered up in place of logical proofs. Bygone Muslim scientists would frown upon many of the prognostications that are fed to a generally unscientific public on a regular basis.
Against this daunting setting, some living Muslim scientists have taken up the cause of reforming universities in the Muslim world towards the goal of producing more and better-educated scientists.
The size of the challenge was underscored last week when the Muslim World Science Initiative (MWSI) released its report on the state of universities in the Muslim world. The goal of the panel behind the report – which included a former head of the US National Academy of Sciences and the president of Mauritius, who also happens to be a Muslim female scientist – was to “jumpstart a dialogue within society on critical issues at the intersection of science, society and Islam”.
The report reviewed the rankings of Muslim universities globally, as well as the number of science papers published and cited in peer-reviewed journals, the level of spending on research and development, female participation in the scientific workforce, and other indicators. It found that the overall state of science in the Muslim world remains “poor”.
The reasons, outlined in detail in the report, are complex. For one, science education in most Organisation of Islamic Cooperation countries was narrowly focused, unable to give students the critical thinking skills to address complex multidisciplinary challenges. Often the teachers themselves did not have an education broad enough to be able to teach effectively, were untrained in inquiry-based science education and often stymied by oppressive bureaucracy. As a result, they failed pathetically to train those trying to learn.
The consequences of their failures could be seen not only in the lack of scientific production but also in the invisibility of students from Muslim countries in the sphere of international innovation.
The OIC countries, home to 25 per cent of the world’s population, produce less than 2 per cent of the world’s patents, only 6 per cent of the world’s research publications and make up only 2.4 per cent of the world’s research expenditure.
In this state of festering stagnation, the meritocracy that whets competition and innovation is threatened, if not entirely extinct. According to the panel’s findings, one major reason universities in the Muslim world fail is simply because the smartest students are not valued, encouraged or promoted.
The problems outlined in the report would be familiar to any professor or scientist in Pakistan. The confusion following the recent earthquake in the north of the country, the inability to predict, the disinterest in studying and implementing scientifically proven methods of earthquake-proofing – all are emblematic of a society disinterested in the sort of learning that is the foundation of progress everywhere else in the world.
Pakistan’s beleaguered scientists, like all the others in the Muslim world, are up against the popular notion that science in particular and innovation in general are enemies of faith to be treated with cynicism and scepticism.
The fact is that many Muslims, both students and professors in universities, are stymied by a core confusion, a seething uncertainty about how far and how deeply they should embrace empirical scientific inquiry. The scientists on the MWSI panel have recommended confronting this confusion head-on.
They recommend the immediate introduction and systematic study of a “philosophy of science and history of the Muslim Golden Age and beyond”.
This would provide scientific study in the Muslim world with a genealogy, a foundation that already exists but is rarely studied. Revealing to a student population under assault from extremist ideology the fact that Muslim scientists were involved in empirical inquiry long before the advent of colonialism and modernity would expose the lie that says that rejecting science is somehow being true to Islam.
Educators and students in Pakistan have all experienced the awkward and often dispiriting classroom moment when one or a group of extremism-addled students begin to question the premises of scientific inquiry. In a campus climate where discussion and expression are often shadowed by threats to life and limb, few dare challenge the blindness and ignorance of such questioning. Often, the threatening tone wins the day.
The Muslim World Science Initiative’s report is a serious attempt at targeting this tension, which is plaguing university campuses across much of the Muslim world. It may not be possible to eliminate that tension quickly, but the report is a step in the right direction. Those in Pakistan interested in furthering the programme have been asked to join the Network of Excellence for Universities of Science that will be launched early next year. By connecting with others facing similar challenges, science in the Muslim world can be rescued from extinction.
Rafia Zakaria is a lawyer who also teaches constitutional law and political philosophy.