Source: The New Atlantis
By Hillel Ofek is a writer living in Austin, Texas. He is a former assistant editor of National Affairs.
Contemporary Islam is not known for its engagement in the modern scientific project. But it is heir to a legendary “Golden Age” of Arabic science frequently invoked by commentators hoping to make Muslims and Westerners more respectful and understanding of each other. President Obama, for instance, in his June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo, praised Muslims for their historical scientific and intellectual contributions to civilization:
It was Islam that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.
Such tributes to the Arab world’s era of scientific achievement are generally made in service of a broader political point, as they usually precede discussion of the region’s contemporary problems. They serve as an implicit exhortation: the great age of Arab science demonstrates that there is no categorical or congenital barrier to tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and advancement in the Islamic Middle East.
To anyone familiar with this Golden Age, roughly spanning the eighth through the thirteenth centuries a.d., the disparity between the intellectual achievements of the Middle East then and now — particularly relative to the rest of the world — is staggering indeed. In his 2002 book What Went Wrong?, historian Bernard Lewis notes that “for many centuries the world of Islam was in the forefront of human civilization and achievement.” “Nothing in Europe,” notes Jamil Ragep, a professor of the history of science at the University of Oklahoma, “could hold a candle to what was going on in the Islamic world until about 1600.” Algebra, algorithm, alchemy, alcohol, alkali, nadir, zenith, coffee, and lemon: these words all derive from Arabic, reflecting Islam’s contribution to the West.
Today, however, the spirit of science in the Muslim world is as dry as the desert. Pakistani physicist Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy laid out the grim statistics in a 2007 Physics Today article: Muslim countries have nine scientists, engineers, and technicians per thousand people, compared with a world average of forty-one. In these nations, there are approximately 1,800 universities, but only 312 of those universities have scholars who have published journal articles. Of the fifty most-published of these universities, twenty-six are in Turkey, nine are in Iran, three each are in Malaysia and Egypt, Pakistan has two, and Uganda, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, and Azerbaijan each have one.
There are roughly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, but only two scientists from Muslim countries have won Nobel Prizes in science (one for physics in 1979, the other for chemistry in 1999). Forty-six Muslim countries combined contribute just 1 percent of the world’s scientific literature; Spain and India each contribute more of the world’s scientific literature than those countries taken together. In fact, although Spain is hardly an intellectual superpower, it translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand years. “Though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West,” Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has observed, “for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading.”
Comparative metrics on the Arab world tell the same story. Arabs comprise 5 percent of the world’s population, but publish just 1.1 percent of its books, according to the U.N.’s 2003 Arab Human Development Report. Between 1980 and 2000, Korea granted 16,328 patents, while nine Arab countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E., granted a combined total of only 370, many of them registered by foreigners. A study in 1989 found that in one year, the United States published 10,481 scientific papers that were frequently cited, while the entire Arab world published only four. This may sound like the punch line of a bad joke, but when Nature magazine published a sketch of science in the Arab world in 2002, its reporter identified just three scientific areas in which Islamic countries excel: desalination, falconry, and camel reproduction. The recent push to establish new research and science institutions in the Arab world — described in these pages by Waleed Al-Shobakky (see “Petrodollar Science,” Fall 2008) — clearly still has a long way to go.
Given that Arabic science was the most advanced in the world up until about the thirteenth century, it is tempting to ask what went wrong — why it is that modern science did not arise from Baghdad or Cairo or Córdoba. We will turn to this question later, but it is important to keep in mind that the decline of scientific activity is the rule, not the exception, of civilizations. While it is commonplace to assume that the scientific revolution and the progress of technology were inevitable, in fact the West is the single sustained success story out of many civilizations with periods of scientific flourishing. Like the Muslims, the ancient Chinese and Indian civilizations, both of which were at one time far more advanced than the West, did not produce the scientific revolution.