Why has scientific progress stalled in many Islamic countries?

‘Critical Muslims’ square up to the challenges facing higher education and research

July 24, 2015
Visitors touch REEM-B robot, Pal Technology Robotics, Abu Dhabi, 2008
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Touch the future: ‘relatively inflexible education systems’ struggle to adapt

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Scientific progress in many Islamic countries has “come to a grinding halt” thanks in no small part to a “truly staggering…indifference shown by decision-makers”.

That is the view expressed by Moneef Zou’bi, director general of the Islamic World Academy of Sciences in Jordan, in a series of essays by academics exploring the issue of educational reform in the Muslim world.

The essays are published in the latest edition of Critical Muslim, a magazine designed to “showcase ground-breaking thinking on Islam and what it means to be a Muslim in a rapidly changing, interconnected world”.

For editor Jeremy Henzell-Thomas, research associate at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, Muslims need to steer a path between two opposing dangers when it comes to higher education and science.

One is the “lame duck” mentality, which frames answers to questions “only in terms of ‘catching up’ with Western models of knowledge production, professionalism, quality assurance, critical thinking, research, liberal arts” and so on.

The opposite trap is “the ‘cosy corner’ mentality, which prefers to occupy a parochial corner in which everything which is not explicitly ‘Islamicised’ is seen as threatening or deviant”.

In his essay, Dr Zou’bi writes that in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf are many “multi-billion dollar educational and scientific projects”. All, however, are “totally dependent on expatriates” and “exist in a culture that is indifferent to science at best, or aggressively anti-science at worst”, as exemplified by a YouTube video of a Saudi theologian in Sharjah telling a large audience that the Sun revolves around a stationary Earth.

Another contributor to the issue is Martin Rose, former director of the British Council in Morocco, now a visiting fellow at the Centre of Islamic Studies at Cambridge.

All the countries of North Africa, he argues, suffer from “relatively inflexible education systems geared still, for the most part, to a phase of national development that is past, and finding great difficulty in adapting to the needs of a modern world economy”.

Muhammad Nejatullah Siddiqi, professor emeritus in the department of management studies at Aligarh Muslim University in India, suggests that “the theory and practice of Muslim economics and banking [are] flawed, full of anomalies, and have basically failed as projects”.

However, perhaps the strongest critique emerges from the analysis of Abdelwahab El-Affendi, coordinator of the Democracy and Islam Programme at the University of Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Democracy, which “points to a fundamental crisis of knowledge-processing capacity” in the Islamic world, where “the quality of higher education is still not up to international standards” and “our contributions to international knowledge are so meagre as to be virtually non-existent”.

Yet although “quite a few centuries have been lost already”, Dr El-Affendi also highlights the potential for change through the creation of “centres of excellence…networked both among themselves and internationally”, where “sufficient conditions of economic viability and guaranteed freedoms could be secured”.


Critical Muslim 15: Educational Reform was published by the Muslim Institute and Hurst on 23 July 2015.

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