By Denis MacEoin

In April this year, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh ‘Ali Gomaa, told an interviewer what he meant as a flat statement of fact: that there are no female heart surgeons, as such work required strength and other capabilities that no woman possesses. He put it this way:

“You may have noticed that there is not a single female heart surgeon in the world… It’s amazing. It’s peculiar. Why do you think that there are none? Because it requires great physical effort — beyond what a woman is capable of. That’s in general. Along comes a woman who challenges this, and she succeeds in becoming a surgeon. But she is one woman among several million male surgeons.”

Now even a child could have carried out a simple Google search and realized that there are countless female surgeons and many female heart surgeons. It would not have taken long to find, for example, the US Association of Women Surgeons, which includes heart surgeons — and that would have settled his hash. But apparently deep-seated, pre-formed judgements about women’s abilities prevented Gomaa from using whatever powers of reasoning and intelligence he may possess.

Sadly, there often seems a profound absence of scientific probing within the Muslim world.

It seems reasonable to assume that levels of intelligence are pretty well the same around the world, regardless of race, gender, or religious affiliation. As human beings, we share the same brainpower, just as we share all other physical functions. Mercifully, earlier views of racial inequality have in most places been replaced by a more fact-based understanding of human characteristics. Today, theories put forward in the last two centuries of a supposed “racial supremacy” of white people have been happily discarded. In democratic societies, white supremacists are universally loathed.

In the OECD’s 2015 PISA science results, seven out of the top ten countries, based on achievements at school level, were in the Far East — including Japan and China, with Korea at eleven. The United States was number 25. In mathematics, the results were even more striking: the top seven countries ranged from Singapore to Korea, with the United States at 39, well below most European nations. While such results show that Asian students are indeed intelligent, there is a price to pay for those outstanding results. Students put in long school days and long school years, and live regimented lives. Recently, Chinese, Japanese and other educators have found that rote learning and endless drills produce high achievers without creativity, originality, or the ability to think for themselves. Often, as we shall see, rote learning in the Middle East seems to lead to poor educational outcomes.

For all that, we are all aware that different nations, different cultures and different religions achieve varied and even conflicting levels of intellectual achievement. The Western democracies, including Israel, have for some time now been the highest achievers in fields such as science, technology, medicine, information technology, astronomy and the exploration of space, as well as in modern academic disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, critical history, economics, analytical politics, statistics, and unbiased religious studies, among others. Western academic standards of rationality and objectivity have been behind most of those achievements. Sadly, many scholars in Western countries, not least the US, have abandoned even a semblance of neutrality on and off campus, following a deep politicization of many humanities subjects, above all the Middle East and related studies.

What follows has nothing to do with race or ethnicity. It is a discussion of why some cultures (in several forms) appear to have remained in high levels of ignorance and underachievement, and those cultures sometimes appear to include the culture of the religion of Islam, regardless of where it is practiced. Muslims belong to just about every ethnic group in the world, so it will be clear that concerns about their religion and culture (or cultures) are totally apart from race. Rather, they seem to stem from a widespread lack of literacy, opportunities for education and exposure to questioning, as well as to a wide range of ideas. Of course, if one is convinced that questioning might cause one to burn in hell forever, that could also be an impediment.

Perhaps the simplest way of showing this disparity between Islam and the rest is to compare the number of Muslim Nobel Prize winners with a much smaller group with comparable religious foundations, the international Jewish community.

There are approximately 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, a figure that may rise. There are roughly 14.4 million Jews in total. The disparity in numbers is remarkable. So is the disparity in Nobel Laureates. Take a deep breath. There have been twelve Muslim Nobel Laureates – seven for Peace (including one to an arch-terrorist, Yasser Arafat), two in Literature, one in Physics, and two in Chemistry. For a brief survey of how several of these Laureates have been treated by their fellow Muslims, see Gordon Fraser’s Oxford University Press article. As for the tiny Jewish population, there have been 193 Nobel Laureates, equaling 22% of Nobel Prize winners overall.

This may not matter to many Muslims, who might value life’s goals in a different way, such as regarding strict obedience to Islamic spirituality, law, and theology, as the only routes to paradise. Yet, increasingly large numbers of young Muslims, including many educated in Western universities, are ambitious to succeed in a range of more mundane pursuits and to see Islam return to the intellectual strength it displayed in its early centuries.

The disparity in creativity between the Islamic world and the West is shown in figures and comments by the secular Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy in his book, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality, and in an important article in Physics Today, “Science and the Islamic world: The quest for rapprochement”. Hoodbhoy provides striking information that shows the dearth of any real scientific or technological advance in the modern Islamic world in general. Focusing on the 57-member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), he writes:

A study by academics at the International Islamic University Malaysia showed that OIC countries have 8.5 scientists, engineers, and technicians per 1000 population, compared with a world average of 40.7, and 139.3 for countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Forty-six Muslim countries contributed 1.17% of the world’s science literature, whereas 1.66% came from India alone and 1.48% from Spain. Twenty Arab countries contributed 0.55%, compared with 0.89% by Israel alone. The US NSF [National Science Foundation] records that of the 28 lowest producers of scientific articles in 2003, half belong to the OIC.

This unworthy level of scientific innovation is reflected in the number of patents issued by Muslim countries:

The situation regarding patents is also discouraging: The OIC countries produce negligibly few. According to official statistics, Pakistan has produced only eight patents in the past 43 years.

Behind all that lies a visible absence of practicing scientists across the Islamic world:

Bigger budgets by themselves are not a panacea. The capacity to put those funds to good use is crucial. One determining factor is the number of available scientists, engineers, and technicians. Those numbers are low for OIC countries, averaging around 400–500 per million people, while developed countries typically lie in the range of 3500–5000 per million.

Building on this, Hoodbhoy tackles some of the root causes of this lack; they reflect the present writer’s own experience of teaching in a Moroccan university and studying at another in Iran:

Most universities in Islamic countries have… a starkly inferior quality of teaching and learning, a tenuous connection to job skills, and research that is low in both quality and quantity. Poor teaching owes more to inappropriate attitudes than to material resources. Generally, obedience and rote learning are stressed, and the authority of the teacher is rarely challenged. Debate, analysis, and class discussions are infrequent.

Hoodbhoy expands on that. At the heart of this problem, he says, lie attitudes developed from around the 10th century and later enforced across the Islamic world. Those attitudes have been greatly reinforced by the growth of radical Islam in the modern era. Here is Hoodbhoy:

At Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, where I teach, the constraints are similar to those existing in most other Pakistani public-sector institutions. This university serves the typical middle-class Pakistani student and, according to the survey referred to earlier, ranks number two among OIC universities. Here, as in other Pakistani public universities, films, drama, and music are frowned on, and sometimes even physical attacks by student vigilantes who believe that such pursuits violate Islamic norms take place. The campus has three mosques with a fourth one planned, but no bookstore. No Pakistani university, including QAU, allowed Abdus Salam to set foot on its campus, although he had received the Nobel Prize in 1979 for his role in formulating the standard model of particle physics.

The second-best university among 57 states has no bookstore. That alone is worth dwelling on. But Hoodbhoy goes farther, quoting a warning issued by the head of a mosque-seminary in Pakistan’s capital city:

The government should abolish co-education. Quaid-i-Azam University has become a brothel. Its female professors and students roam in objectionable dresses … Sportswomen are spreading nudity. I warn the sportswomen of Islamabad to stop participating in sports … Our female students have not issued the threat of throwing acid on the uncovered faces of women. However, such a threat could be used for creating the fear of Islam among sinful women. There is no harm in it. There are far more horrible punishments in the hereafter for such women.

It is not surprising then, as Hoodbhoy and his colleagues report, that most students — especially veiled females — have become silent note-takers, timid, and reluctant to ask questions or engage in discussions.

No Pakistani university allowed Abdus Salam to set foot on its campus, although he had received the Nobel Prize in Physics. 

Can this be reversed? Hoodbhoy is pessimistic, though he retains hope that the situation can eventually be resolved.

In the 1980s an imagined “Islamic science” was posed as an alternative to “Western science.” The notion was widely propagated and received support from governments in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere. Muslim ideologues in the US, such as Ismail Faruqi and Syed Hossein Nasr, announced that a new science was about to be built on lofty moral principles such as tawheed (unity of God), ibadah (worship), khilafah (trusteeship), and rejection of zulm (tyranny), and that revelation rather than reason would be the ultimate guide to valid knowledge. Others took as literal statements of scientific fact verses from the Qur’an that related to descriptions of the physical world. Those attempts led to many elaborate and expensive Islamic science conferences around the world. Some scholars calculated the temperature of Hell, others the chemical composition of heavenly djinnis. None produced a new machine or instrument, conducted an experiment, or even formulated a single testable hypothesis. A more pragmatic approach, which seeks promotion of regular science rather than Islamic science, is pursued by institutional bodies such as COMSTECH (Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation), which was established by the OIC’s Islamic Summit in 1981. It joined the IAS (Islamic Academy of Sciences) and ISESCO (Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) in serving the “ummah” (the global Muslim community). But a visit to the websites of those organizations reveals that over two decades, the combined sum of their activities amounts to sporadically held conferences on disparate subjects, a handful of research and travel grants, and small sums for repair of equipment and spare parts.

The very thought that “Islamic science” has to be different from “Western science” suggests the need for a radically different way of thinking. Scientific method is scientific method, rationality is rationality regardless of the religion practiced by individual scientists. Should we just shrug our collective shoulders and let the Muslim nations go their own way? Yes and no. A major problem lies in the fact that Islam is still expanding and that irrational attitudes in Muslim states have been growing, in stark contrast to the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century efforts in Iran, Turkey, Egypt and several other places, to move towards dispassionate and fact-based approaches to law, science, democracy, and even secularism.

This problem faces not only science. The strictures in the ways of thinking in Islamic fundamentalism affect all sorts of things, from politics to history to interfaith relations to peace negotiations. Here are some examples of the damage this does, not just to the Muslim world itself but to the rest of us. In 2016, UNESCO passed a resolution backed by 24 states, of which 11 were Muslim countries, and started by seven Muslim member states, declaring that sacred sites in Jerusalem — the Temple Mount and the Western Wall — are to be regarded henceforth as Muslim-only sites. This was followed by a 2017 resolution identifying the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem as Palestinian sites identified by their Arabic/Muslim names. These deeply insulting, counter-factual moves defy centuries of historical information, archaeological research, and common sense. These were Jewish sites long before Islam came on the scene, but the Muslim states that want to deny any genuine Jewish history there do so, not on the basis of such scholarship or knowledge of early texts, but purely through a supremacist act of Islamic rejection.

We may ask why a wealthy state such as Saudi Arabia still beheads people on charges of witchcraft and sorcery, yet the USA, the UK and other countries engage in close trade relations with it. In 2005, Shafayat Mohamed declared that the 2004 Indonesian tsunami had been caused by a rise in homosexuality, yet he remains the imam of the Deobandi militant Darul Uloom Institute in Florida. In 2016 a Muslim man, Omar Mateen, murdered 49 gay men at a nightclub in Orlando. Had he been influenced by Shafayat Mohamed’s words? In March this year, a French survey of the main factors leading to Islamic radicalization found that the chief factor was that young Muslims interviewed “defend an absolutist view of religion — believing both that there is ‘one true religion’ and that religion explains the creation of the world better than science.”

Islamic obscurantism and opposition to rational thought do not just harm Muslims; they cross all boundaries, geographical and intellectual. The belief that the Qur’an, shari’a law, or prophetic traditions override science and reason — or that shaykhs, imams, mullahs, and other religious authorities in Egypt’s al-Azhar University, or in Saudi Arabia, or in Iran or elsewhere, are superior in their knowledge and wisdom to scientists, university professors or elected politicians, merely because they are experts in Islamic theology and law — all guarantee that Islam will remain fixed in its classical stance that all innovation (bid’a) is heresy and that heresy leads to hellfire. And that affects all of us, deeply.


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