19 May 2011

A Nobelist tries to explain the nondevelopment of Islamic science and fails

In the 23 April 2011 issue of New Scientist, Ahmed Zewail, winner of the 1999 Nobel prize in chemistry, published an essay on the less than admirable state of science in the Islamic Middle Eastern countries. Zewail started off with a perennial question: "Why have Arab, Persian and Turkish scientists as a group underperformed compared with their colleagues in the west or with those rising in the east?" He then offered, without considering anything else, on an unimaginative cliché that blames it all on the West:

I think the answer lies in the recent history of the Arab, Persian and Turkish world. Consider what happened in the past century. First there was colonisation by western empires, which installed class and caste systems from outside. The result was huge populations of illiterate peasants.
What are the flaws in this argument that are unworthy of a Nobel winner?

1. The Ottoman Turkey was never colonized by western powers. In fact, for several centuries, the Ottomans themselves were the colonizers of the Middle East. So perhaps, if Zewail's claim has any truth in it, the blame for the scientific backwardness of the Middle East should lay with the Ottomans. But that doesn't explain why the Ottoman science itself remained far behind European science.

2. Moreover, a vast illiterate peasant population had always existed in Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East even centuries before the seafaring European nations discovered colonization in the 16th century. Science as we know it originated in Europe primarily during the 17th century. No such process took place in Turkey or in other Moslem countries during the same period or later. The European attempts to colonize the Moslem countries were mostly during the 19th century when the Moslem scientists were already more than 400 years behind their European colleagues.

3. The blame-it-on-colonization argument is not supported by historical examples. For example, if submission to an external power really had a stunting influence on the scientific development of a colonized nation, one would expect Indian science, if it had existed, to have been set back under 200 years of British rule. Today's Indian science is, however, far ahead of Moslem science.

So much for the claim that colonization derails the scientific development of the colonized.

The primary reason why a scientific revolution never happened in the Islamic countries may still have something to do with the Ottomans, specifically with the perennial fear of the new that permeated the Ottoman government. The Ottoman statesmen believed that novel ways of thinking in science, culture, philosophy and even in religion were to be feared lest they made the Sublime Porte lose control of its grip on the illiterate peasant population. In his book* on the Ottoman treatment of religious heretics (and non-religious adversaries taken as heretics), the Turkish author Ahmet Yaşar Ocak summarized the general Ottoman policy as follows [my translation]:
The Ottoman Government attempted to suppress and destroy any philosophy or action that could undermine the central authority regardless of who or which groups it originated with and what purpose it served.
He also summarized the amalgamation of religion and state as follows:
In the Ottoman Government, government and religion were not two adjacent circles; the circle of religion was entirely within the circle of government. The two circles overlap.
Consequently, the scientist class, the ulema, was incorporated within the government:
The primary function of the ulema was no more to produce knowledge to contribute to science as it had been in the past, but to provide Islamic education along the authority of the central government and to produce bureaucrats for the state.
Thus, scientists became tools for the maintenance of the status quo and independent science ceased to exist.

Can we also blame Islam itself for the woes of Islamic science? We know that even during the pre-Ottoman periods, the Middle Eastern Islamic rulers were wary of ideas that deviated from the common teachings. Many heretics suffered horrible deaths in the name of religion. But so did they in Europe. After all, nobody expects and forgets the Spanish Inquisition. But somehow, the European thinkers managed to overcome the religious oppression, while their Islamic counterparts remained subdued.

Regardless of what the historical factors underlying the lameness of Islamic science may be, I embrace Zewail's prescriptions:
I see three essential ingredients for progress. First is the building of human resources by promoting literacy, ensuring participation of women in society and improving education. Second, there is a need to reform national constitutions to allow freedom of thought, minimise bureaucracy, reward merit, and create credible- and enforceable- legal codes
Among these, the freedom of thought is probably the most needed one. Science in the Islamic countries will not begin to advance until the religion loses its grip on the citizens' minds.


*A.Y. Ocak. Osmanlı Toplumunda Zındıklar ve Mülhidler [Heretics and Atheists in Ottoman Society]. Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları. 1998.

7 comments:

Zombie said...

Religion and science will never be together...

thepowmill said...

An excellent well informed response. Thank you for the education.

Hepzibah The Watchman said...

I believe that science and religion are two puzzle pieces that fit nicely together for science is nothing more than the study of God's laws (gravity, E=mc 2, astronomy, etc.)

Still,the scholatic void in the Middle East is based on their religion. More than 50% of their populations are not allowed to utilize their God-given gifts. In many countries they are not allowed to pursue scholarship, careers or advancement. If they ever begin to validate women - then you will see their economies and scholarship soar.

Hollis said...

When religion is in power, it is dangerous to have new ideas, and difficult for science and other disciplines to progress. Your point about Europe's persecution of scientists is apt -- I'm reading about the emergence of science in the 1600s in Europe (Dolnick's The Clockwork Universe) and the reactions of the establishment. I'm glad I missed that era! so maybe the Muslim world is behind, and as religious power is undermined, science will advance.

Fred Schueler said...

If we take Britain as a mesocosm of Europe during the invention of the scientific community, and the founding of the Royal Society as the institutional foundation of British science, I think (influenced by a son-in-law who's working on changes in thinking during the English Revolution) that the religious turmoil of the Reformation had burned out faith in any particular infallible revelation. One expression of this was the Levellers, who decided that one couldn't boss God around, and had to accept each individual's particular revelation of truth as equally valid. I think the scholarly response to this was to have faith only in doubt, since faith in arbitrarily affirmed statements had failed so diversely.

That's the historical substructure for my definition of science as "the discipline of creating secure agreement from ignorance and discord by agreeing to value stories only for their vulnerability to being shown to be incorrect, and by agreeing to believe stories only to the extent that they have survived attempts to falsify them and are consistent with other such unfalsified stories." - http://pinicola.ca/kitchen.htm#scidef

John said...

The religious and political upheavals in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries probably helped make way for the Scientific Revolution. Fracturing of the traditional religious order meant that scientists could move out of reach of religious authorities who might want to suppress their ideas (or at least they could transmit their ideas to more tolerant areas). Political authorities had some incentive to tolerate or even encourage scientific research because of the intense competition among the European states. Some scientific research might undermine the political order in the future, but it was worth taking the risk if scientific advances would provide commercial or military advantages in the short term. One thing that might be interesting would be to compare scientific development in the countries most affected by the Reformation (Britain, Netherlands, German city-states) vs France vs the post-Reformation Habsburg Empire vs the Ottoman Empire. That might shed some light on the question.

finite empathy said...

It is regrettable that so many people, even, apparently, recipients of one of earth's most prestigious academic awards, must make such illogical and unsubstantiated claims.