Islam, inimical to innovation?

Daily News Egypt
6 Min Read

LONDON: The names of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and Ibn al-Nafis may be less familiar to many people than those of Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein. But these and other Islamic scholars of the 12th and 13th centuries belong in the pantheon of thinkers whose work has shaped the direction of modern science.

Like that of China, the history of Islamic science and innovation is one of a period of great flourishing followed by a steep and protracted decline. Today, research and development spending across the 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) averages just 0.38 per cent of gross domestic product, compared with a global average of 2.36 per cent.

This is not simply a sign of relative poverty: oil-producing states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are among the lowest investors in research as a percentage of GDP. In 2005, the 17 countries of the Arab world together produced 13,444 scientific publications, fewer than the 15,455 achieved by Harvard University alone. A 2002 survey of science in the region could identify only three subjects in which it excelled: desalination technologies, camel reproduction and falconry research. This has led some commentators to suggest that there is something about Islam that is inimical to innovation. However, the picture is starting to change.

Across the Islamic world, the past 12 months have been punctuated by eye-catching announcements. In May 2007, the United Arab Emirates launched a $10 billion foundation to create research centers in Arab universities. In Nigeria, the government has poured $5 billion into a petroleum technology development fund to support research and education. In Qatar, a 2,500-acre education city has been constructed outside Doha and is home to international campuses of five of the world s top universities. Earlier, in August 2006, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia laid the foundation stone for a $2.6 billion university devoted to science and technology in Taif. In December last year, Egypt s President Hosni Mubarak launched a decade of science and technology .

At a multilateral level, there is also a focus on science and innovation. In 2005, the OIC announced a 10-year action programme, which identifies targets for educational reform and proposes that by 2015, member states should aim to spend 1.2 per cent of GDP on research and development. Particular impetus is coming from oil-rich nations, which see innovation as the key to their long-term prosperity.

How far and fast individual countries move up the innovation league tables remains to be seen. Few are likely to compete with Europe, Japan or the US in the foreseeable future, nor with the emerging science powers of China and India. But just as small nations such as Finland, Ireland and Singapore have proved some of the success stories of global innovation in the past decade, so the Islamic world may yet surprise us.

In the West, thanks to the best efforts of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others, there is a renewed tendency to see science and religion as polar opposites. Elsewhere, there is often a greater acceptance that faith has its place alongside evidence and reason. More religious Islamic governments are proving some of the most supportive of scientific research. Iran, to give one example, was the first Middle East country to develop a human embryonic stem cell line.

The path to a more innovative Islamic world is not without obstacles. Some daunting challenges remain. An unusually large share of the increased funding for research is being directed towards military technology – driven more by geopolitics than the pursuit of new knowledge. Advances in Iranian nuclear technology are unlikely to be viewed elsewhere with the same equanimity as developments in Malaysia s software industry.

There is still a substantial brain drain out of the Islamic world, with many talented scientists and engineers opting to pursue their careers in the United States and Europe, and little sign of the flows of returnees that have had such a positive impact in China and India. A final and more fundamental question is whether societies that are often still resistant to democracy and open debate can genuinely become hotbeds of creativity and invention. As Pervez Hoodbhoy, a leading Pakistani scientist, concludes in a recent article in Physics Today: The struggle to usher in science will have to go side by side with a much wider campaign to elbow out rigid orthodoxy and bring in modern thought, arts, philosophy, democracy and pluralism.

The writer is director of the Atlas of Ideas project at the think-tank Demos. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org. Source: Financial Times, www.ft.com.

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