How to regain past glory in science

MODERN Muslims tend to be nostalgic about the tremendous legacy of science left behind by Muslim scientists of centuries past. Many Muslims today can probably name some of these great figures who have been recognised as “fathers” of various fields of science.

However, should Muslims be satisfied just with the glory of the past? What about the here and now?

The Muslims of today seem to have lost the ability to master knowledge, let alone to create new knowledge, in particular, scientific knowledge. The late Prof Ahmed Zewail, a Muslim Nobel laureate from Egypt, outlined four main barriers that modern Muslims must overcome.

The first is the high rate of illiteracy in many Muslim communities and countries. This, according to him, is the failure of the educational system in these countries, which ultimately leads to high unemployment rates.

Education and literacy (including scientific literacy) are needed to solve socio-economic disparities in any community.

The second barrier is the limited use of human resources due to hierarchical dominance, strong seniority systems and the centralisation of power, which suppresses true human potential.

Little Napoleons in bureaucracy more often than not get in the way of scientific progress. We should learn from Caliph Harun al-Rashid, who established the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in the 9th century, thus providing an environment for scholars to conduct research without inhibiting their academic freedom.

The third barrier is the mixture of state laws and religious beliefs, causing confusion and chaos through the use of religion’s fundamental messages about the ethical, moral and human ingredients in life.

One fundamental message of Islam is that the religion is a complete way of life. Unfortunately, some people regard science as “worldly knowledge” and therefore, un-Islamic. This results in the dichotomy between Islam and science, which leads to Muslims being backward and left behind.

The fourth barrier that Prof Zewail identified is the incoherent vision for science and technology (S&T) in Muslim countries. Without a strong vision, focus and direction will be lost.

Most Muslim countries do not have clear plans for building indigenous S&T capabilities, creating a culture of scientific and technological innovation, and developing local scientists and technologists.

Foreign experts and consultants are often relied on when, in fact, there is local expertise to provide insights, inputs and suggestions to plan and navigate the vision for indigenous S&T.

Of course, the other major problem is implementation. While planning may look nice on paper, lack of proper monitoring results in failure in implementation. When a plan is not implemented properly, resources – financial, manpower and time – are wasted.

Prof Zewail said these problems could be overcome by taking three steps. The first is to eliminate illiteracy (including science illiteracy). This needs to be urgently tackled.

A current major concern in Malaysia is the lack of interest among young people to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) for their studies and career.

If this is left unaddressed, STEM in Malaysia would have a dim future, resulting in the incapability to build our human resource capacity in these critical fields.

The second step suggested by Prof Zewail is to allow freedom of thought, minimise bureaucracy and develop a merit system so as to encourage scientific innovation.

This is taking a cue from the Islamic civilisation, when scholars enjoyed the academic freedom to carry out research and innovation.

The third step is to build a sound science base by investing in special education for the scientifically gifted, establishing centres of excellence in science, and providing opportunities to apply knowledge in industry and the markets.

Unfortunately, science is not regarded as a major priority in many countries. As such, the growth of science is somewhat dampened.

There are many gifted youths whose potential can indeed be developed. The challenge is to spot them and support their development.

Malaysia must identify its niche areas in STEM that have high growth potential. Because of the challenges and threats of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the need to nurture young talent in these areas of STEM has never been more urgent.

It is not enough to only be nostalgic about the great scientists of the glorious Islamic civilisation.

Without a doubt, they are inspiring figures, but the inspiration should, by right, spur modern Muslims to be just like them, if not better.

Dr Shaikh Mohd Saifuddeen Shaikh Mohd Salleh is the director of Ikim’s Centre for Science and Environment Studies. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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