Muslims and science | Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan

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Almost two decades ago, a large number of Muslim scientists and engineers were invited at the World Muslim Conference in Islamabad. The moving spirit behind this initiative was Senator Raja Zafarul, secretary general of the Muslim conference. He has the future of Muslims as his top priority and has always been active in trying to evolve a joint mechanism for their common goal. Unfortunately, due to lack of interest by the governments of Islamic countries, no substantial progress has been made. Only Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia have been able to make some progress. By becoming a nuclear and missile power, Pakistan earned a respectful place in the comity of Muslim nations.

My own experiences have convinced me that if we wish to be among the respected countries of the world, we will have to excel in the fields of science and technology – the two agents of change and respect. I am also convinced that if we wish to defend ourselves from the injustices of the advanced world, we will have to equip ourselves with the weapons of the latest research and development that are the vanguards of a powerful society. I also believe that if we wish to cure our misery-stricken Ummah from the curses of hunger, disease and exploitation, the path of science and technology is our only way out. These two instruments alone can lead us to a better future.

Science, it is said, was born from man’s curiosity to know about the nature of things around him and to understand the events that were taking place in the universe. While this curiosity is natural to mankind, it is made stronger among Muslims by their religion, which repeatedly exhorts them to ‘think’ and ‘reflect’ and try to comprehend the wonders and secrets of the cosmos and of biological existence.

The Quran places great emphasis on individual and collective research. It gives great importance to ‘men of understanding’ – scientists and engineers – whom it frequently refers to as ‘men who are wise’, ‘people of knowledge’, ‘the ones who consider’ and ‘those who understand’. No wonder Islam’s inspiration for scientific investigation served as a catalyst for the Muslim spirit of enquiry in the heyday of their civilisation. They made revolutionary contributions to scientific thought and activity at a time when the pursuit of science was considered taboo and punished like witchcraft elsewhere in the world. This contribution is fairly well-documented and well recognised. It is widely known that from the eighth to the 12th centuries, Muslims laid the foundations of ‘observational’ and ‘experimental’ techniques.

But there is such a stark contrast between our past and present. Those who liberated the human mind and taught men to think rationally and scientifically have now become prisoners of suffocating inaction. Those who led the world in the Middle Ages now lag way behind in following the lead in the modern age. They have few scientific institutions. They invest little in scientific research and their share in the growth of modern science and technology is dismal.

It is sad to note that while the Muslim Ummah constitutes one-fifth of the world population – it is larger than the populations of the US, Western Europe and Japan put together – its scientific community is not even mentionable when compared to that of these advanced countries. According to estimates made at the Islamic Conference held in Islamabad in 1983, the Muslim Ummah as a whole only had a total of about 46,000 research and development scientists and engineers.

At present, the science and technology manpower of Muslims in the world is estimated to be around 8 million – the lowest in the world. A recent study reveals that there are only 50,000 scientists and engineers in all the Muslim countries combined compared to 40,000 in Israel alone and 500,000 in Japan. Today, almost 94 percent of all research and development scientists are in the developed countries: there are 3,000 scientists for every one million people. In the Muslim world, this figure is less than 100 per million. Today the Muslim world only has one scientist for every 1,000 people while the former USSR has 100, Western Europe 50 and the world average is four.

Out of the approximately 100,000 scientific books and over two million articles produced in the world every year, the share of all Muslim countries put together is only about 1,000 publications. The lack of importance given to science and technology is further illustrated by the amount of money allocated to this vital field. We do not even spend one percent of our budget on science and technology while the advanced nations spend about five to seven percent.

Against this backdrop of apathy and indifference, it is satisfying to note that the importance of science and technology is gaining appreciation in many Muslim countries. Change is happening but needs to be greatly expedited. We possess an unlimited pool of human and material resources. Muslim countries supply 40 percent of the world’s raw materials, 60 percent of crude oil, 40 percent of natural gas, 80 percent of rubber and 75 percent of jute. However, despite such precious wealth, we still take a back seat when it comes to sharing the benefits.

Let us face these problems head on. Let us join hands for a better tomorrow by mutual cooperation and collaboration. Let us supplement each other’s efforts in promoting a science-friendly environment in our individual countries. This demands a firm commitment on the part of our respective governments.

We must give priority to putting our science and technology house in order. We need to frame our national science and technology policy and avoid duplication and wastage of valuable resources. We must give priority to scientists, researchers and engineers while framing policies as only a technical mind can comprehend the technical intricacies of a problem.

We also need to restructure our basic and higher educational systems as these lack the capability of meeting the demands of our time. An all-out effort should be made to acquire the maximum level of literacy. It is my belief that a joint front for our development will enable us to carve out a better world for our future generations.