This article is a self-reflection on history and lessons therein for saving modern science.
Where I grew up, there was never a question of whether or not high school graduates would seek higher education. The question always was, which institution of higher learning to attend. Respect for higher education is and has always been an important part of the Iranian/Persian culture. Growing up in Iran, I remember learning about the great Muslim/Persian scientists and scholars including Ibn Sīnā who transformed the field of medicine, Ibn al-Haytham who was the father of the Scientific method as we know it today, Zakariya al-Razi who made tremendous contributions in the field of medicine and chemistry, and Al Khwarizmi who invented Algebra. These scholars lived during what’s called the “Golden Age of Islamic Science” between early 8th century to the middle of 13th century. The work of these and other Islamic scientists was translated into Latin and many other languages, which later influenced and shaped scholarly and scientific awakening of Europe after the Middle Ages. Modern science has a huge debt of gratitude to the Golden Age of Islamic Science and its brilliant scholars.
I remember a sense of tremendous pride when learning about these scholars and their influence in the advancement of science, mathematics, and medicine, but one question always bugled my mind: what happened to all that scientific and scholarly greatness? How did the Muslim world lost its leadership in intellectual and scientific pursuits? Recently, answers to these questions are becoming clear as I read science history books such as The War on Science by Shawn Otto, and search for information on this topic.
How the Muslim world lost it’s science mojo
There are different schools of thought about exactly who or what is to blame for the fall of science in the Muslim world. However, two individuals have been credited for pushing the Muslim world backwards in time by their opposition to scientists of their times and critical thinking:
1- Abu Hamid al-Ghazali– Al-Ghazali was one of the most influential Muslim philosophers and thought leaders who vehemently rejected Aristotle and Muslim scientists who were influenced by this Greek philosopher. He also rejected the notion of cause and effect in nature and held the view that things happen because God wanted them to happen. Thus, it has been said, he argued that the work of scientific inquiry to understand the world was useless because whatever God wishes will happen. His book The Incoherence of the Philosophers is said to have changed the course of Islamic philosophy towards fundamentalism and contributed to the downfall of science in the Muslim world. However, some dispute that it was Al-Ghazali’s books and his views that killed Islamic Science, and instead credit Nizam al-Mulk for the downfall of science in the Muslim world.
2- al-Hassan al-Tusi or better known as Nizam al-Mulk, Nizam al-Mulk was the powerful Prime Minister of the Sunni Seljuq Turkish Dynasty. Nizam al-Mulk set out to systematically destroy scientific inquiry by establishing religious colleges called Nizamiyah. These schools had the financial and political backing of the powerful Seljuq rulers. Graduates of Nizamiyah colleges were given influential roles in the judiciary branches of government and were trained in the art of debate. These colleges were merely a political tool for Nizam al-Mulk and the Dynasty he served as they were worried that the Shia form of Islam, championed by a group called Batinniya, was gaining prominence. The Batinniya interpreted religious texts like the Quran on the basis of the hidden or inner meaning rather than their literal meaning. This type of interpretation of religious texts allowed critical evaluation of religious texts and encouraged inquiry. The Nizamiyah colleges, on the other hand, set out to teach the opposite: a literal translation of Quran and religious texts without questioning their intent. Since Nizamiyah colleges provided better opportunities for career advancement, Muslim scholars noticed their students leaving traditional schools for these Sunni fundamentalist colleges to study religion. Furthermore, well versed with the art of debate, Nizamiyah graduates took on Muslim scientists and Batinniya to delegitimize them. Thus, the widespread penetration of Nizamiyah colleges led to the decline and eventual demise of scientific inquiry in the Muslim world.
The rise of the Golden age of Islamic Science was not incidental. The prominence of scientific inquiry in the Muslim world was a product of the powerful Abbasid Caliphate which ruled from the 8th to the middle of 13th century. The Abbasid rulers were “guardians of science” by putting great effort in advancing knowledge and scientific inquiry in the Muslim world. However, unfortunately, the Abbasid Caliphate did not last. About the same time that Nizamiyah colleges were established, the Abbasid Caliphate was on a decline, becoming fragmented and progressively less politically powerful. So, not only science in the Muslim world was under attack by powerful and well-funded ideological rivals, it also lost its guardian.
Another factor that may have contributed to the demise of Islamic science, Shawn Otto suggests in The War on Science, was the fact that scientific knowledge was not widely available to the non-expert public. The public at that time did not have the chance of examining for themselves the available knowledge, different interpretations of religious texts and schools of thought. Had they had this opportunity, Otto suggests, Islamic science may not have suffered such brutal demise.
The funny thing about history is it tends to repeat itself
It is hard to escape obvious parallels between the conditions that led to the demise of Islamic science and the times in which we currently live:
- United States has been a beacon of science and technology for a number of years. We have been at the forefront of scientific development and an envy of the world. Science has enjoyed the support of a pro-science administration for the past 8 years.
- A pro-science administration has been replaced by an anti-science ultra conservative government. Our new President has proposed drastic cuts to funding for NIH, DOE Office of Science and other institutions that advance our position in the scientific realm.
- A well funded and powerful fundamentalist branch of the Christian faith, namely creationists, advocates literal translation of the Bible as a way to understand the world as opposed to modern scientific inquiry. To advance these fundamentalist ideas into the greater public mind, creationists have even resorted to creating theme parks, such as the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter. In some states, they have even found their way into public education.
- Fundamental Christian colleges are abundant all over the United States, whose graduates are well versed in the art of debate and carry a torch for fundamentalism once they graduate. In the meantime, gaining a publicly funded secular higher education has become more and more out of reach as the government cuts funding for education.
- Our public k-12 education is on the decline and good quality secular education is at peril as our new education secretary aims at pulling public dollars away from public schools and distributing it towards charter schools, many of which teach creationism.
But wait, there’s more
In addition to the above mentioned political and religious forces, science is under attack from directions that is unique to our times:
- Climate scientists and climate science have been and continue to be attacked purely because their findings stand in the way of the fossil fuel industry’s profits.
- Plant scientists have been and continue to be attacked by the powerful and wealthy organic food industry through unfounded fear tactics against GMOs.
- Our medical practitioners, life scientists and science in general have been and continue to be attacked by anti-vaccine groups and the powerful and wealthy alternative-medicine industry.
Science is under attack from all sorts of directions, from the right and the left, due to ideological, political or financial reasons. In a way, science is facing more opposition and subject to more smear campaigns than it did in the Islamic world.
But wait, there’s hope
Even though modern science is under attack from more directions than it did in the Muslim world, our scientists have powerful tools at their disposal that were not available to Muslim scientists. As mentioned above, scientific knowledge was not broadly available to the public in the Muslim world, but this is not the case in the 21st century. Even though public understanding of science is not where it should be, opportunities to help advance the position of science in society is plenty, if scientists have the will to get out of their comfort zones and speak up. Here are some ways scientists can fight back:
- Attend March for Science on April 22nd . This March is a global movement to raise alarm to the growing anti-intellectualism that currently plagues our world. You can find a march near you by visiting the March for Science website.
- Learn the psychology and social science of message development and communication to help your messages to be noticed, heard and understood by the non-expert members of the public.
- Take advantage of the online revolution, and meet the public where they are. Learn to blog and participate in discussions on social media channels.
As science and reason faces an uphill battle against the dark forces of fundamentalism and corporate greed, scientists and science enthusiasts have a choice: remain silent like Muslim scholars of the past and accept demise, or speak for science. I choose the latter, who about you?