x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Rebuild the House of Wisdom, and make it home

For centuries, the Middle East led the world in academic research and scholarship. Jim Al-Khalili calls for a new golden age of Arab science.

Astronomical instruments from the Sultans of Science exhibition, held in Toronto in 2009. The achievements of Middle Eastern science's golden age were to prove a key influence on the discoveries of later European thinkers.
Astronomical instruments from the Sultans of Science exhibition, held in Toronto in 2009. The achievements of Middle Eastern science's golden age were to prove a key influence on the discoveries of later European thinkers.

An hour's drive south of Baghdad lies the town of Hindiyya. This was where I spent my last few happy teenage years in Iraq before leaving the country for good in 1979. The town takes its name from the Hindiyya Barrage, which was built across the Euphrates in 1913 by the soon-to-be-departing Ottomans. I have an abiding memory of this bridge. On cool autumn days I would skip afternoon school with my three best friends, Adel, Khalid and Zahr il Din, and walk across the Barrage to the riverside tourist resort on the opposite bank. We would buy a six-pack of Farida beer and sit down by the water discussing football, philosophy, movies and girls. 

Those happy days contrast dramatically with a second indelible image from the Gulf War of 1991. A CNN news report showed a gun battle in Hindiyya. A lone woman stood on the Barrage, trapped in the crossfire. For most viewers it would have simply been another scene of war in a far-off land. For me, instantly recognising the setting, it brought home the plight of the country I had left 12 years earlier. 

Today, Iraq is struggling to rebuild its most basic infrastructures as its seemingly chaotic new government attempts to create a stable, democratic and peaceful nation. As an academic scientist in the West, I can see the enormity of the task ahead - particularly in science and technology - if Iraq is to catch up with the rest of the developed world. 

The wider Arab world, and indeed the Muslim world as a whole, has no such excuse for lagging behind. Yet it still has a long way to go in terms of scientific and technological success. The dire state of scientific research in countries throughout the Middle East is put into sharp relief when compared with the past glories of the medieval Islamic Empire. 

It is my belief that it has never been more timely to explore the debt of modern science to the work of thinkers - Arab and Persian; Muslim, Christian and Jewish - from across the region.

More than a millennium ago academies such as Baghdad's House of Wisdom -a ninth-century library, translation house and renowned centre of scholarship thought to have been founded by the Caliph al-Ma'mun -attracted the best minds from all over the Islamic Empire. Among them was alKindi, the greatest of all Arab philosophers; alKhwarizmi, the Persian mathematician and father of algebra, and Hunayn ibn Ishaq, the Christian translator and physician.

When Islam arrived in the early seventh century, what we now call the Middle East was divided between the Persian and Byzantine empires. But with the spread of this new religion, a new axis of power emerged, ruled over by the Abbasid Dynasty from its newly founded capital, Baghdad.

Popular accounts of the history of scientific thought typically show a timeline in which no major advances take place during the period between the ancient Greeks and the European Renaissance. For the duration of this period, Western Europe and, by extension, the rest of the world, languished in the Dark Ages for 1,000years. 

In fact, for more than 700 years, the international language of science was Arabic - the language of the Qur'an and thus the official tongue of a vast empire that stretched from India to Spain.

Still, even those in the West who have a vague awareness of the scientific achievements of the Muslim world tend to think of them as little more than a reheating of Greek ideas, flavouredwith the occasional dash of original eastern spice. A grateful Europe then awoke from its slumber during the Renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries.

By this point many Arabic texts had already been translated into Latin by scholars, including the prolific Gerard of Cremona, who studied them in centres such as the famous translation school of Toledo which was founded in the middle of the 12th century by Bishop Raymond.

Today, the teaching of science in the Muslim world follows the western narrative - a fact to which I can personally testify, having been through the education system in Iraq in the 1960s and 1970s. While it is not surprising that European children are taught that Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler are the fathers of astronomy, it is disappointing that children in the Muslim world are taught the same thingand that they do not learn about the contributions of men such as the Iraqi physicist Ibn alHaytham, the Syrian astronomer alBattani and and the Persian mathematician, alKhwarizmi.

Of those countries today; that such reminiscing neglects the crucial difference between modern science and the innovations of the Muslim world which, they claim, was no more than a kind of "proto-science" anyway: crude attempts to make sense of the world blurred with theology and the occult. 

Surely, it would be far more sensible for the Muslim world to adopt a modern, secular rationalism based on 21st-century scientific knowledge and modern attitudes to scientific research. Why, then, would I suggest that Muslims can only advance scientifically in the modern world by adopting ways of thinking from 1,000 years ago?

My argument is that the boundaries between the medieval science of the Islamic world and modern science are based on outdated notions in which the achievements of Islamic scholars across a range of scientific disciplines are downplayed. 

While it is true that advances in science often take place in fits and starts, with long periods of stagnation in between, this impression is exaggerated when we focus on just one part of the world. Following the progress and development of scientific ideas in both space and time shows a more continuous process as knowledge evolves and spreads through different cultures and civilisations. Often, independent breakthroughs are made more than once, sometimes even simultaneously. But my point is not about the scientific Kindi, alKhwarizmi and Ibn alHaytham in history lessons, rather than in science classes. I now realise that these great scholars were regarded more as cultural heroes than scientific giants who made contributions every bit as important as Galileo and Newton. After all, alKhwarizmi gave the world algebraand Ibn alHaytham made advances in optics every bit as important and influential as Isaac Newton. I hope that remembering the rich scientific heritage of the Muslim world might instill a sense of pride that can propel scientific enquiry back to where it belongs: the very heart of a civilised and enlightened society.

The leaders of many Islamic countries understand very well that their economic growth, military power and national security all rely heavily on technological advances. A frequent theme of their rhetoric is that they require a concerted effort in scientific research and development in order to catch up with the rest of the world. 

Indeed, government funding for science and education has grown sharply in recent years in many of these countries, and several are overhauling and modernising their national scientific infrastructures. The ruling families of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for example, have begun to do this. Yet the region still remains largely disengaged from science. A recent study by the Royal Society in London revealed that scientists in the Arab world produced a total of 13,444 scientific publications in 2005 - some 2,000 fewer than the 15,455 achieved by Harvard University alone.

We should dismiss, however, the lazy argument that singles out religious conservatism for the lack of scientific progress in the Muslim world. Far more significant are the antiquated administrative and bureaucratic systems many Muslim countries inherited long ago from their colonial masters. The fact that these have not been replaced, along with a lack of political will to reform, tackle corruption and overhaul failing educational systems, represents a far greater problem. 

Indeed, if religious conservatism of the Muslim world is to blame for regressive attitudes towards science we should also be wary about the rest of the world, where science is coming under attack from many religions and belief systems. Even in the so-called "enlightened" developed world, an alarmingly large percentage of the population regards science with suspicion, even fear. This is exacerbated by the increasingly important role science plays in our lives, through technology, medical advances, the battle against climate change and dwindling resources, and the way it addresses ever more fundamental questions about the universe and our place in it.

Nowhere is the backlash against rational science seen more clearly than in the rise of creationism in the US and parts of Western Europe. The current row between evolutionary biologists and intelligent design advocates shows that the tensions between science and religion are far from confined to the Muslim world. 

Many people are afraid of science and even blame it for the world's problems. Leaving aside the rational worries many people have about issues such as climate change, pandemics or concerns over energy and water supplies - all of which can only be addressed and solved by responsible scientific solutions - many other fears, over GM crops producing Frankenstein food, hybrid embryo research producing Frankenstein babies, or nuclear power leaving future generations a legacy of toxic radioactive waste, are more often than not based on unfounded fears arising from a misunderstanding of the science involved. 

Nevertheless, there are undeniable tensions between science and religion in some parts of the Muslim world that must be addressed. The problem is that many Muslims see modern science as a secular, even atheist, western construct, and have forgotten the many contributions made by Muslim scholars 1,000 years ago. They are unable to separate science from religion and therefore do not see (modern) science as neutral with respect to Islamic teaching. They attack science on the grounds that it seeks to explain natural phenomena in terms of natural or material entities alone, without recourse to spiritual or metaphysical causes. But this is exactly what science is about and what it should be about. 

Thankfully, this view is by no means universal. Many Muslims today completely reject the notion that science and religion are incompatible. In fact, given the current climate of tension and polarisation between the Islamic world and the West, it is not surprising that many Muslims feel indignant when accused of not being culturally or intellectually equipped to raise their scientific game. 

To remind both Muslims and non-Muslims of a time when Islam and science were not at odds, albeit in a very different world, is crucial, not only for science to flourish once again in the Muslim world, but as one of the many routes towards a future in which Muslims do not feel under threat from science - just as they were able to feel 1,000 years ago.

As for how this can be achieved, the obvious first step is serious financial investment. Clearly, bigger science budgets encourage greater scientific activity. It has been shown that, among Muslim countries, there is a strong positive correlation between the number of top universities in a nation and its gross domestic product. This pattern can be seen clearly in Turkey and Iran, for example. And many governments are currently investing astonishing sums of money to create world-class research institutions. 

But it is not simply a matter of throwing money at the problem. What is needed above all else is a reform of scientific institutions. There has to be respect for freedom of opinion and expression, ensuring high-quality education for all, and an accelerated transition to knowledge-based societies and the information age.

So, is there a brighter future ahead for science in the Islamic world? Of course, scientific researchers require more than just the latest, shiniest equipment and the political rhetoric that frequently goes along with it. The whole structure of the research environment needs to be addressed - from laboratory technicians who understand how to use and maintain equipment to the ability to exercise real intellectual freedom, exhibit healthy scepticism and question experimental results; something that was preached unambiguously by the great 11th-century physicist, Ibn al Haytham. 

Just spending vast sums of money will not be enough to rebuild a scientific culture in the Muslim world. The clear separation of science from theology must also be ensured. Nor should religion be presented as holding a monopoly on ethics and morality. 

Astronomical research in the Islamic world began to wane - the likes of the great Ibn al Shatir notwithstanding, who advanced both the design of astronomical instruments and our understanding of planetary movement - once it became a service industry for Islam, rather than an independent scholarly pursuit. Indeed, truly original scientific enquiry can only take place in an environment where scientists are free to question perceived wisdom and make their own discoveries.

A cultural renaissance leading to a knowledge-based society is urgently required if wider Muslim society is to accept and embrace not only the bricks and mortar of modern research labs, but the spirit of curiosity that drives mankind to try to understand the world. It will take time, but it has happened before and it can happen again.

The Golden Age of Arabic science began with the founding father of chemistry, Jabir Ibn Hayyan in the eighth century and continued well into the 15th century with the discoveries of the great Persian mathematician, al-Kashi. That was 700 years of incredible achievements, with different centres across three continents, all taking their turn in the limelight. 

One of this period's brightest stars remains the House of Wisdom. Today, we cannot be sure what this institution looked like or even where in Baghdad it stood. However, it retains incredible symbolic power, embodying a spirit of free enquiry and exploration  that has, to a large extent, been lost for centuries. Now, slowly, it is being recovered.


Jim Al-Khalili OBE is a professor of physics, author and broadcaster based at the University of Surrey in the UK. His new book, Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science is out now.