As we reflect upon the theme of Islamic Awareness week “Muslim Contributions across the Globe, “ it is striking to read article titles from Nature such as “Oil Rich, Science Poor” and “The Data Gap,” which actually detail the scientific deficit in the Muslim world today. The foremost Muslim scientist of the twentieth century, noble laureate Dr. Abdus Salam, acknowledged, “There is no question, but today, of all civilizations on this planet, science is the weakest in the lands of Islam.”
The issue begs two questions: first, to what extent was scientific knowledge valued by the founder of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, who lived 1400 years ago? Second, what role, if any, have the Muslims played in the annals of scientific progress. The answer to each is in sharp contrast to the poor state observed today.
The Prophet Muhammad stressed that it was the “obligation of every Muslim — man and woman — to acquire knowledge.” He explained that his followers should seek knowledge even if they had to go to China, then considered by the Arabs as the farthest land. The sayings highlight the importance of procuring a high education, even if it entailed hardship. Another important saying of his relates to women: Educate your daughters and earn Paradise. Thus 1400 years ago, Muslim parents were encouraged to provide a proper education to all of their children. They could, however, earn a special reward if they ensured this for their daughters.
As a result, scientific learning became paramount for the early Muslims. Proof for this is highlighted in the seminal contributions of early Muslim scientists. They include Jabir ibn Hayyan (721-813 CE), who helped found the study of compounds, coined by the Muslims as ‘alchemy,’ or chemistry. Al-Khwarizmi (780-840 CE), after whom was named ‘algorithm,’ introduced the concept of algebra (derived from ‘al-jabr’) to Europe. Then there were the giants of medicine, such as Al-Razi (865-926 CE), who wrote the first description of smallpox, and Ibn Sina (980-1037 CE), whose textbook Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine) served as the standard medical reference for generations of physicians, including in Europe, until the sixteenth century. Muslims contributed to, and often codified, every scientific discipline from astronomy to sociology.
Based on the inspiration for learning provided by the founder of Islam and its brilliant early success in advancing the breadth of scientific knowledge, it is likely that the world will look back at today’s lack of Muslim standing in the sciences as a glaring anomaly. When Muslim communities renew that fervor for learning taught by the Prophet, we are hopeful that scientific journals will soon report on how the Muslim world is making science rich, not by producing oil, but through important scientific discoveries. Their impressive record shows that it is possible. Embracing their Prophet’s advice for education will make the goal likely.
Sohail Husain is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Yale School of Medicine.