Science in the Islamic World
Discover Magazine has an excellent article in its July 2007 issue looking at the state of science in the Muslim Middle East. The author, Todd Pitock, explains how the lack of intellectual freedom and spread of Islamist dogma have hindered scientific development in that part of the world:
I witness firsthand the overlapping strands of history as I navigate the chaos of Cairo, a city crammed with 20 million people, a quarter of Egypt’s population. In residential neighborhoods, beautiful old buildings crumble, and the people who live in them pile debris onto rooftops because there is no public service to take it away. Downtown, luxury hotels intermingle with casinos, minarets, and even a Pizza Hut. The American University in Cairo is a short distance from Tahrir Square, a wide traffic circle where bruised old vehicles brush pedestrians who make the perilous crossing. At all hours men smoke water pipes in city cafés; any woman in one of these qawas would almost certainly be a foreigner. Most Egyptian women wear a veil, and at the five designated times a day when the muezzins call, commanding the Muslims to pray, the men come, filling the city’s mosques.
The Islamic world looms large in the history of science, and there were long periods when Cairo—in Arabic, El Qahira, meaning “the victorious”—was a leading star in the Arabic universe of learning. Islam is in many ways more tolerant of scientific study than is Christian fundamentalism. It does not, for example, argue that the world is only 6,000 years old. Cloning research that does not involve people is becoming more widely accepted. In recent times, though, knowledge in Egypt has waned. And who is accountable for the decline?
El-Naggar has no doubts. “We are not behind because of Islam,” he says. “We are behind because of what the Americans and the British have done to us.”
The evil West is a common refrain with El-Naggar, who, paradoxically, often appears in a suit and tie, although he is wearing a pale green galabiyya when we meet. He says that he grieves for Western colleagues who spend all their time studying their areas of specialization but neglect their souls; it sets his teeth on edge how the West has “legalized” homosexuality. “You are bringing man far below the level of animals,” he laments. “As a scientist, I see the danger coming from the West, not the East.”
Science and Islam in Conflict