Some years ago, a young Muslim cleric walked into my office at the Islamic World Academy of Sciences (IAS) in Amman, Jordan. He objected to what he had read in some of our books about the status of science and technology in the Muslim world. He insisted that Muslims had made great discoveries in science, and the Muslim world had enormous wealth, agricultural and minerals resources, land mass and human capital, and that it was doing much better than the West in all domains. The IAS and similar scientific organisations were doing disservice to the ummah by suggesting that the Muslim world was seriously lagging behind in science and technology. I asked the cleric to look at some of the indicators we, and others in the international community of scientists, had adopted to measure science development: expenditure on science, research institutions, patents and publications produced. I went on to highlight that the Gross National Product (GNP) of the whole of the Muslim world was less, at the time, than that of Germany. Somewhat befuddled at the assortment of indicators I presented, he asked me to give a lecture on the subject to his colleagues and fellow students of fiqh at his college.
A few weeks later, I did. I talked about science and development in the Muslim world to an initially passive audience of around 500 young scholars of Islam. The would-be imams were subdued as I discussed the dire state of science and technology in the Muslim world. I argued how science could help in improving the economic situation of a country, providing water and energy security, better agriculture, and the provision of health and education services. The facts and figures I offered sadly fell on deaf ears. The only time the clerics reacted was when I pointed out that the Qur’an included numerous verses urging Muslims to contemplate and investigate life and the world around us.
There is a basic contradiction in what we read in the Qur’an, and hence believe, and what we actually do about science. In intellectual debates and discussion in Muslim circles, science seldom emerges as a subject of deliberation. When we talk about educational reform, we talk almost always about social sciences and hardly ever about science. The ‘Islamisation of Knowledge’ project, for example, had nothing really to say about natural sciences. When we do talk about science, it is always in terms of nostalgia, the ‘Golden Age’ of Islam when we made great strides in science and learning.