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Originally published in Tuttoscienze of LA STAMPA, 8th of August 2004

They founded algebra and translated the great works of the Greek thinkers: without their contribution we probably could not have known the wisdom of Euclid and Archimedes. Between the 9th and the 13th centuries_ while Europe was floundering about in its dark Middle Age_ the only people doing science at the highest levels were the Arabs and, more specifically, the Muslims. But what about the relationship between science and Islam, today? We have asked this of Pervez Hoodbhoy. Professor of nuclear physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad and winner of the Abdus Salam Medal for Mathematics 1984, Hoodbhoy is not only a physicist of international stature, but also a courageous intellectual whose opinions and analyses have appeared in some of the greatest newspapers of the world, like the Washington Post and Le Monde.

Professor Hoodbhoy, what is the current state of science in the Islamic countries?

Unfortunately, things are very bad. Muslims number 1 billion, spread over 48 countries. None of these have a viable educational system or a university of international stature. With the exception, possibly, of Iran and Turkey, there is no original research going on in Muslim countries: they basically try to acquire technology which already exists in the rest of the world, in particular defence technology. And so the state of science is really depressing. Tragically this situation has now persisted over many centuries.

However, in the Golden Age of Islam _between the 9th and the 13th centuries_ things were very different. What happened then?

At that time Islam was a rapidly expanding and dynamic system. Also it was rich and so at least a minority of people could afford to practice science, philosophy and things unrelated to daily existence. But most of all that was a time of tolerance.

Weren’t there fanatics even in those days?

Sure, there were religious fanatics, but rationalists and those who wanted a more open society had the upper hand. But then religious orthodoxy reawakened. Spearheaded by Imam Al-Ghazali, obscurantists championed revelation over reason, damned mathematics as an intoxicant of the soul and taught that man cannot make predictions about the natural world and phenomena, only God can. The loss of this rationalist tradition was a tragedy for Islam, a tragedy which Islam has not yet overcome. We are often told that Islam has been hijacked by fanatics since the 9/11. If Islam has been “hijacked”, that event did not happen on the 9/11, it happened in the 13th century. And we are often told that the Islamic religion is about peace. But the Islamic religion, like Christian and Jewish religion, is neither about peace nor about war: they are about absolute beliefs, and people who have absolute beliefs think they have the divine right to impose those beliefs upon others. When Europe was dominated by religion, Catholics killed Protestants and vice versa. This is what we are seeing in the Islamic world today: it is Shiites versus Sunnis, Sunnis versus Ahmadis, Muslims versus infidels.

You ascribe the decline of science and rationality in Islamic society to the reawakening of religious orthodoxy. However, although Western society also had huge problems with religion, it nonetheless produced the scientific revolution.

Yes, but to do so it was necessary to struggle against the Catholic Church and defeat it.

Did you have your Galileo and Giordano Bruno?

Many of the great minds of Islamic science were persecuted by sultans or by religious authorities, although they were not persecuted in the grand way that you saw with Bruno and Galileo as in Islam there is not a central religious authority, like the Pope.

Are scientists still persecuted, as happens to writers, like for example Rushdie?

No, there is no persecution for scientific beliefs but different societies allow different levels of tolerance. For example, in Pakistan and in Saudi Arabia the teaching of evolution is not allowed, whereas in Iran it is. High level scientific discoveries inspire little debate because the issues addressed by the Koran and the Bible are really the simplest ones such as: does the sun go round the earth or vice versa? These have long been solved. Scientific issues today are so complicated that even two scientists working in different areas don’t understand each other: today, a particle physicist does not understand a biophysicist. And so scientific issues are of very little interest to religious authorities who cannot understand them. On the other hand literature is about ideas and issues which many ordinary people can understand.

In any case, of the roughly 500 Nobel Prizes for science awarded by the Swedish Academy, 2 prizes have been won by Muslim scientists, and one of these was the great Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, who was a believer…

Yes, but he belonged to a particular Islamic sect, the Ahmadi one, which was declared Non-Muslim by the Pakistani Parliament in 1974. Today it is considered heretical and is harshly persecuted. And so today Pakistani students are not even told about a great mind like Salam.

Whereas you knew him very well.

Sure. And my biggest regret is that we could never invite him to my university because it would have been too dangerous for him: my colleague next door, who was an Ahmadi as well, was shot by fanatics and died in my car while I rushed him to the hospital.

If religious fanatics shoot believers, how can you survive in Pakistan?

I have survived so far…Muslims are so busy killing each other _ Shiites versus Sunnis, etc.._ that we who believe in secular ideas are not of their greatest concern, especially because we are so few!

You are perhaps at greater risk because even though you live and work in Pakistan, you studied at one of the temples of Western science: the MIT in Boston, where you currently are a visiting professor. Do your colleagues think you have been “corrupted” by the West?

Yes, they do not like my ideas at all, but I stress over and over that rationality and free thinking, which are the values at the basis of the work of every scientist worthy of the name, are neither Western nor Eastern values: they are universal values. As I already told you, Islamic civilisation also had a brilliant rationalist and scientific tradition, but that tradition has vanished.

While reading your articles, what surprised me was not only the very bad status of science in Islamic countries, but also that pseudo-science is common there. For example, you recount that one Pakistani engineer suggested solving the energy problems of your country by capturing the genies and extracting their energy, since according the Koran god created angels and genies from fire!

What is most shocking is that such an idea was not coming from a crackpot, it was coming from a very good engineer who was arrested for his contacts with Bin Laden.

Well, if Al Qaeda enrols engineers who think you can extract energy from a genius in the bottle, then there’s no need to worry!

Not really! Those people have technical skills: the engineer I was referring to was the designer of a nuclear power plant in Pakistan. Those who think that Al Qaeda militants are poor and uneducated are wrong: Al Qaeda leaders come from technical elites, they are educated. And so if you consider the case of that engineer, you can understand what religious fundamentalism can do to people’s thinking …

Since 9/11, we have often seen images of the two main characters of this “Century of Terror”: Bush and Bin Laden. The former comes down from helicopters full of high-tech diabolic devices, the latter comes down from the mountains holding a rod: they seem to come from different eras. Do Muslims realise that the real source of Western society’s power lies in its technology, which is a spin-off of science?

Muslim society is a pragmatic one: it does not at all regret its backwardness in science but it does regret its backwardness in technology because technology gives you military power and wealth.

Christian fundamentalists also despise the scientific method ad fear it intellectually, but unlike their Islamic counterparts, they are aware that sciece also brings them technological superiority with which to conquer the world. Of course, American neocons forget that inspite of overwhelming technological superiority ad military conquests, Americans live in great fear.Iin how many countries American citizens can safely walk in the streets, today? Due to their contempt for international law, the US has made enemies everywhere.

Trapped in this “Century of Terror”, where can we find hope for survival?

Certainly not in religion: if in the past religious conflicts killed millions of people, today, in the era of weapons of mass destruction, religious conflicts could unleash the Armageddon. We have but one choice: the path of rationality, which has produced science, the Enlightenment and tolerant societies where every man – and I would like to stress every woman – has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Do you think that the forces of reason can prevail before those of unreason unleash the Armageddon?

It is a race against time.