August 17, 2007

Science and the Islamic world-The quest for rapprochement

This article grew out of the Max von Laue Lecture that I delivered earlier this year to celebrate that eminent physicist and man of strong social conscience. When Adolf Hitler was on the ascendancy, Laue was one of the very few German physicists of stature who dared to defend Albert Einstein and the theory of relativity. It therefore seems appropriate that a matter concerning science and civilization should be my concern here.

The question I want to pose—perhaps as much to myself as to anyone else—is this: 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? To be definite, I am here using the 57 countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as a proxy for the Islamic world.

It was not always this way. Islam's magnificent Golden Age in the 9th–13th centuries brought about major advances in mathematics, science, and medicine. The Arabic language held sway in an age that created algebra, elucidated principles of optics, established the body's circulation of blood, named stars, and created universities. But with the end of that period, science in the Islamic world essentially collapsed. No major invention or discovery has emerged from the Muslim world for well over seven centuries now. That arrested scientific development is one important element—although by no means the only one—that contributes to the present marginalization of Muslims and a growing sense of injustice and victimhood.

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