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“Islam and Science Have Parted Ways”—A Muslim Professor Speaks

May 9, 2011

Talk about undaunted courage. I would like you to meet Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy, from Islamabad, Pakistan. With a doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Hoodbhoy could be famous solely for his contribution to the field of science. But he wants to change the world. It takes courage to say, “The Islamic world has disengaged from science and from the process of creating new knowledge.” You can read his interview with the Middle East Quarterly, “Islam and Science Have Parted Ways,” here.[1] What follows are the most important quotes from that interview.

Middle East Quarterly: Dr. Hoodbhoy, in 2007 you asked, “With well over a billion Muslims and extensive material resources, why is the Islamic world disengaged from science and the process of creating new knowledge?” Has anything changed?

Hoodbhoy:Sadly, little has changed. About seven centuries ago, after a spectacular Golden Age that lasted nearly four hundred years, Islam and science parted ways. Since then, they have never come together again. The biggest problem is Islamism, a radical and often militant interpretation of Islam that spills over from the theological domain into national and international politics . . . If such forces take hold of a society, they create a mindset unfavorable for critical inquiry.

Could the effect of Islam be distorting and diminishing the ability and work of scientists in countries where the religion dominates society?

MEQ: It seems that Muslims today are hampered by a culture that refuses to take on board the prerequisites for scientific and other intellectual progress—freedom of speech and thought to enable open discourse and free debate.

Hoodbhoy: The answer lies in doing away with an educational system that discourages questioning . Reform in the Muslim world will have to begin here. Students sit under the watchful eyes of despots while they memorize arbitrary sets of rules and an endless number of facts. They say “X is true and Y is false because that’s what the textbook says.” I grind my teeth whenever a student gives me this argument.

MEQ: What, then, should normal practice consist of?

Hoodbhoy: Teachers posing questions such as “How do we know? What is important to measure? How can we check the correctness of our measurements? What is the evidence?”  The aim should be to get students into the habits of posing such questions.

MEQ: Most Muslim countries tolerate outright plagiarism in Ph.D. theses and published books. What do you suppose is responsible for such self-defeating behavior that clearly acknowledges the superiority of properly assessed articles and dissertations?

Hoodbhoy: I call this “paper pollution.” The rapid increase in substandard publications and plagiarism is the consequence of giving large incentives for publishing research papers.

MEQ: How far have the madrasas in Pakistan made intellectual progress hard or impossible for society?

Hoodbhoy: They became dangerous when the Saudis used their petro-dollars in the 1970s to export Wahhabism across the world. These madrasas eventually became nurseries for the Taliban.

There is open war between those Muslims who stand for a liberal, moderate version of the faith and those who insist on literalism. The unresolved tension between traditional and modern modes of thought and social behavior is now playing itself out in ever more violent ways. On campuses, religious vigilantes enforce their version of Islam by forcing girls into the veil, destroying musical instruments, and putting a damper on cultural expression.

Muslims are at war with other Muslims. If the radicals win, or can at least terrify the moderates into following their restrictions, then there will be no personal and intellectual freedom and hence no thinking,  no ideas,  no innovations, discoveries, or progress. Our real challenge is to break with mental enslavement, to change attitudes, and to win our precious freedom.

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