Muslims enrich world through science

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.


  • edrees

    the guy that wrote this article, i think ur not a muslim.

    1stly- like to tell you dont say "the founder of islam". Mohammad(saw) was the messenger of god just like jesus(a.s), moses (a.s) etc. but he was the final messenger.

    2ndly- he would have meant to seek knowledge on islam. because when god wants to do good to someone, god gives that person knowledge(on islam).

    3rdly- 4 all non muslims:

    2.136 QURAN
    Say: "We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one and another of them: And we submit to Allah (in Islam)."

    3.85 QURAN
    And whoever desires a religion other than Islam, it shall not be accepted from him, and in the hereafter he shall be one of the losers.

    so revert to islam before its too late. revert because everyone thats born is a muslim until their parents change his/her religion.

  • Anonymous

    So typical.

    Faced with a glaring shortcoming of contemporary Muslim societies, the author proceeds to cherry pick a few teachings of Mohammed and recount the past glories of Islam. Nothing about the actual problem - namely, the backwardness and barbarism and totalitarian religiosity rampant in the Muslim world, which leads the vast majority of its scholars to study - guess what - Islam. This would be the same cultural ethos that leads to the condemnation of gays, the stoning of adulterous women, the public flogging of rape victims, the shelling of Israeli neighborhoods, suicide bombings, and the flying of planes into buildings. I would suggest that one concerned with the dearth of science in the Muslim world address himself to the vicious anti-modernity and total lack of freedom that define contemporary Islam (thereby choking off science along with liberalism, democracy, and basic human rights). While this would require actually facing the ugly truths of 21st century Islam, it would at least be relevant to the issue. Such self-examination also offers the added benefit of not perpetuating the very anti-modernism that so plagues Islam… it would be, you might say, the "scientific" way to approach the problem - observation, analysis, all that good stuff.

  • ahhh

    Sorry to post over a trifling criticism but: to "beg the question" is NOT to "raise the question"

  • alum

    Poster #2: Bravo! One cannot say it any better than that. Amen!

  • Anonymous

    Wow, looks like only Yale's bigots decided to comment on this article.

    First of all, many Muslims I've met here are science majors, and the majority are WOMEN and from Muslim countries. So much for the stereotype. They are working hard to give a good name for their people!

    And it's a free country, anyone can practice whatever they want. Don't forget, it was Spanish Christians who slaughtered Native Americans.

    Oh, and who's killed more in this century? Hitler and Stalin or Muslims?

    Give them a chance to adjust and make up for societal flaws! No society is perfect! Muslims who know how to follow it correctly are some of the most peaceful and smartest people I have ever met. And I'm not Muslim at all.

  • Anonymous

    This is America. We have Freedom of Religion here. If they want to think Muhammad and Jesus are equal, that's their belief. Deal with it.

  • Recent Alum

    #5: Yes, atheist leaders like Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot have worst than Muslims. I don't think this refutes any argument that has been made in these comments.

    #6: No one has argued that Muslims should not have freedom of religion in America. One can be strongly critical of Islam and still recognize that Muslims are protected by the Free Exercise Clause to the same extent as Christians.

    The point made by some commenters is that Islam, historically, has been a very violent religion. Sure, some Muslims are peaceful, and I understand that there are coherent theological arguments to the effect that Islam is not inherently violent. But the point is that throughout history, on average, practitioners of Islam have consistently been far, far more violent than followers of other major religions, on average (though of course Muslim leaders historically have been nowhere near as oppressive as the atheist megalomaniacs mentioned above).

    It is important not to generalize and impute guilt on all Muslims by default and I agree that it is useful to point out the significant, positive contributions of Islam to science, as does the author of this piece. But let's not ignore the very real differences between most Christians/Jews and most Muslims, either.

  • 20th century fox?

    "Oh, and who's killed more in this century? Hitler and Stalin or Muslims?"

    What century are you living in?

  • Anonymous

    I think the commenter meant in one century… I can't believe no Muslims have come to the defense. This is crazy. I ask that all the people who commented to study the average historical death toll inflicted by each religion.

  • BenjaminL

    For more context one should see the articles:

    Robert Irwin, "Islamic Science and the Long Siesta" (TLS)

    Jim Giles, "Islam and Science: Oil Rich, Science Poor" (Nature)

    Ehsan Masood, "Arab Science: Blooms in the Desert" (Nature)