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Islam should be a driving force for scientific progress

In SciDev.Net's recent article, Change in the air: science in the Muslim world, Ehsan Masood writes that boosting science in Muslim states will not be easy, "in part because of the strong influence of religion".

Another article by Pervez Hoodbhoy, published on the same day, says "Science cannot prosper under the religious ... authoritarianism that runs deep in Pakistan" (see Science cannot prosper if its basis is rejected).

I contend that it is not Islam, but Muslim leaders and policymakers who are to blame for the lack of scientific progress in the Islamic world. Indeed, the strong influence of Islam in such countries should be a driving force behind scientific and technological advances, not an obstacle.

Hoodbhoy backed his statement with the example of Pakistan's mullahs ridiculing the notion that science could provide an explanation for the 2005 earthquake, saying instead that it was God's punishment for 'sinful' behaviour.

I think this example has either been taken out of context or indicates the need for better teaching of Islam. One-eighth (that is, 750 verses) of the Qur'an exhorts believers to study nature, to reflect, and to make the best use of reason in their search for the ultimate truth.

What is more, Muslims have a strong historical record of achievements in science and technology. In fact, Islamic medicine and science led the world for centuries while Europe stagnated in the Dark Ages.

Today's Islamic world is, however, a scientific desert: Muslim countries, home to 24 per cent of the world's total population, and 75 per cent of the world's oil wealth, generate less than five per cent of its science.

Hoodbhoy rightly points out that Pakistan's failure has been in civilian science. Its scientists have, however, had success developing defence technologies, such as nuclear missiles and other arms.

This indicates, again, that scientific prowess is down to political will, not religion.

Reviving science and learning in the Muslim world will require more than increased funding and a more relaxed approach to writing and publishing as the articles suggest. Muslim nations must make developing science and technology a central policy, and encourage learning in every field of knowledge, just as it was in the golden era of Arabic-Islamic civilisation.

The teachings of Islam emphasise "the acquiring of knowledge as bounden duties of each Muslim from the cradle to the grave" and that "the quest for knowledge and science is obligatory upon every Muslim man and woman".

Saying that Islam is a barrier to science progress is wrong. In fact, it is the other way round. Instead, Muslims need a better understanding of their religion and to implement its guidelines to develop knowledge-based economies in the Islamic world.