Modern Science and Muslim World

Modern Science and Muslim World

There are more than a billion Muslims in the world today – over a fifth of the world’s total population – spread over many more than the 57 member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in which Islam is the official religion. These include some of the world’s wealthiest nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as some of the poorest, like Somalia and Sudan. The economies of some of these countries – such as the Gulf States, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Malaysia and Pakistan – have been growing steadily for a number of years, and yet, in comparison with the West, the Islamic world still appears somewhat disengaged from modern science. The leaders of many of these countries understand very well that their economic growth, military power and national security all rely heavily on technological advances. The rhetoric is therefore often heard that they require a concerted effort in scientific research and development to catch up with the rest of the world’s knowledge-based societies. Indeed, government funding for science and education has grown sharply in recent years in many of these countries and several have been overhauling and modernizing their national scientific infrastructures. For hundreds of years, while Europe was mired in the Dark Ages, the medieval Islamic empire was at the forefront of science – in sad contrast to the state of many Muslim countries today.

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One problem is that too many Muslims see modern science as a secular, even atheist, Western construct, and have forgotten the many wonderful contributions made by Muslim scholars during the height of a golden age that began in the first half of the 9th century and continued for several centuries. Brilliant advances were made in everything from mathematics, astronomy and medicine, to physics, chemistry, engineering and philosophy. It was an age epitomized by a spirit of rational enquiry at a time when most of Europe was stuck in the Dark Ages. But this freethinking, curiosity-driven quest for knowledge slowly went into decline. I should make it clear that this downturn took place several centuries later than many in the West think, for original advances in medicine, mathematics and astronomy continued to be made well into the 15th century. The gradual decline that nevertheless took place did so for a variety of reasons, mainly due to the political fragmentation of the Islamic empire and weaker rulers no longer being interested in patronage of scholarship and learning. All of this coincided with the Renaissance in Europe moving in the opposite direction, which triggered the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.

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