Story theme borrowed from another beat: Whatever happened to science in Islam?

Religion reporters should look beyond their ghetto for story themes, and here’s a good one: Why does science lag so notably in the Muslim world, and what can be done about it?

That question was raised by assistant editor Ross Pomeroy at Some religionistas may recall his 2012 piece for titled “Why Strict Atheism is Unscientific.”

The latest Pomeroy headline is equally controversial: “Can Islam Come Back to the Light of Science?” He presents data to highlight the problem, which is far broader than simply Mideast sheiks flying to London or New York for medical treatments:

In 2005, Harvard University alone produced more scientific papers than 17 Arabic-speaking nations combined. The Muslim population of 1.6 billion has produced only two Nobel Prize-winners in chemistry and physics in history, and both moved to the West to work.

Now, Jews are outnumbered 100 to one by Muslims globally yet boast 79 such Nobel laureates. The 57 nations in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation spend less than a percent of their collective gross domestic product on research and development, a third of the global average; Israel spends 4.4 percent.

What went wrong? A century after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, the Caliphate based in Baghdad was sponsoring new heights of scientific exploration. In that era “no other region on Earth came close to rivaling the intellectual renaissance of the Middle East,” Pomeroy reports. “Scholars from across the world” gathered in Muslim cities to share ideas, and “revolutionary inventions” flowed forth. For example, a thousand years ago the devout Ibn al-Haytham established the science of light, and more or less the scientific method itself, with his “Book of Optics.”

Pomeroy mistakenly says the Quran teaches that “the scholar’s ink is more sacred than the blood of martyrs.” Actually this paraphrases a saying of Muhammad in a hadith that scholars deem problematic in authority. He’s on solider ground citing a Quran passage with biblical parallels that fostered scientific curiosity: “Do you not see that God drives the clouds, then gathers them together and piles them up until you see rain pour from their midst. ... God alternates night and day -- there truly is a lesson in this for those who have eyes to see...”  (A.S. Abdel Haleem translation, 24:43-44).

Islam’s golden age collapsed in 1258 when Mongols from Central Asia (known for their prior leader Genghis Khan) invaded and pillaged Baghdad,  destroying its great libraries and creating a harsh culture across the region. Meanwhile, Islamic wealth and armies were consumed by the conflict with Christian Crusaders from Europe, adding to defensiveness.  Pomeroy thinks “a more medieval mindset emerged, one that de-emphasized curiosity and stressed blind faith. ... Life’s answers were already available in the holy texts; there was no need for further investigation. This outlook hobbled science in the Islamic world for centuries.”

What now? Pomeroy sees some improvement but is troubled that, for instance, the rising Islamic State forbids the teaching of math, which is astonishing in the light of Muslims’ onetime virtuosity in that subject. He agrees with Caltech’s Ahmed Hassan Zewail (chemistry Nobelist in 1999) that the Muslim world must tolerate freedom of thought, wipe out illiteracy, promote modern education, grant women full participation in society, establish merit-based employment, and develop reliable legal codes. A massive agenda.

A religion writer should fill in the one gaping hole in Pomeroy’s article: What do Muslim religious scholars have to say about all this?

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