A rebirth of science in Islamic countries?

The Islamic Golden Age — a period that spanned the 7th to the 13th centuries A.D. — saw a flourishing of scholarship in the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, which at their greatest extent stretched across North Africa and the Middle East. Contrary to traditional views of Islamic science in this era as a mere preserver of ancient knowledge from Greek and Roman sources, the Golden Age is now understood by scholars to have laid the foundations of modern science hundreds of years before the Scientific Revolution that began in Europe in the 16th century. The Islamic Golden Age produced important empirical discoveries in optics, astronomy, chemistry, mathematics (including the invention of algebra) and medicine — and Muslim doctors even invented a form of medical peer review, in which visiting physicians filed their patient case notes with a panel of local doctors, who then reviewed the standard of care.

Shifting sands: Reawakening a scholarly tradition

The Golden Age eventually ended as a result of instability brought about by the Crusades from the West and Mongol invasions from the East. After centuries in the doldrums, is it now possible that a new wind has begun to blow in favor of “Islamic science” (that is, scientific research originating from the “Islamic world”; see below)?

The map of the Islamic world has shifted since the days of the Caliphs. Since 1969, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) has represented the interests of self-identifying Muslim nations of the world. Membership currently stands at 57 countries, and for the purposes of this article these will be considered as defining the modern Islamic world.

In the Golden Age, Baghdad was the political capital and seat of learning of the Abbasid Caliphate. At its intellectual heart was the “House of Wisdom”. This library and translation institute was destroyed in the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1238, during which priceless manuscripts were thrown into the River Tigris in such quantities that the waters were said to have run black with the ink from their pages.

Today, Baghdad remains the center of scientific production in Iraq, with the University of Baghdad accounting for almost 20% of the 1,281 articles produced in Iraq in the period 2004–08. However, today’s premier knowledge-producing institute across all OIC countries is the University of Tehran in Iran, with well over 1,500 articles published in the journal literature covered in Scopus. Although only inaugurated in 1934, the University of Tehran draws on a tradition of higher education stretching back over many centuries.

Iranian science in focus

Of all of the OIC countries, Iran best exemplifies the renewed spirit of scientific enquiry (as previously featured in Research Trends in December 2009). Indeed, measures of both input and output into the research system are showing very positive trends: Gross Expenditure on Research and Development (GERD) rose from 0.55% to 0.67% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) between 2001 and 2006, ranking it among the strongest performers in the OIC on this statistic in recent years

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