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Answering Zeweil’s Question? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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“Does the problem lie in the fact that we are Arabs or is it because we are Muslims?”

This depressing and puzzling question was posed by the Egyptian scientist Ahmed Zeweil who, in 1991, won the Noble Prize in Chemistry. The question was put forward at the Al Yamamah University in Riyadh, during his recent visit to the Saudi capital.

Zeweil asked this question in search of a convincing explanation for the failures of Arabs and Muslims to participate, even slightly, in the scientific renaissance that is taking place from East to West, from Japan to the United States bypassing Arab and Muslim regions.

Dr. Zeweil took the initiative to answer stating that the Arab individual is successful in the West since he is granted the elements required for success. He said, “It is wrong to associate problems with Islam since our Muslim ancestors were the most prominent in the field of science,” as quoted by Al Hayat newspaper, 6 January 2008.

Zeweil, who was engulfed by the number of requests from Arab governments to assist them in launching scientific revival from Saudi Arabia to Egypt and other countries, is completely focused on this problem: why is it that we are lagging so far behind in the field of science? He continues to assert upon the fact that the appropriate environment for scientific research is absent in the Arab world. Out of appreciation, he explained that had it not been for the freedom of creativity in the United States he would never have progressed in the field of science to such an extent.

Is it possible to separate the problem of scientific backwardness from other problems that relate to freedom and creativity in the Arab world? Or is scientific lifelessness simply part of the bigger problem in all other fields?

The West is not only developed in the field of science or scientific research. The West is developed in the fields of literature, arts, engineering, mathematics, politics and freedoms thus the renaissance and prosperity of science is simply one part of the “renaissance spirit”.

The West reached this point in fields of science and technology only through a prolonged philosophical, political and social struggle. This is the well-known and recorded truth that has been asserted in history books, which highlighted the struggles and pains that were encountered by the spirit of civilisation in the West.

The problem of scientific backwardness in the Arab and Muslim worlds is a reality and a catastrophe. “Nature,” a specialized scientific journal, dedicated one of its recent editions to this problem. The opening editorial of the magazine read, “The Islamic world is leading news headlines across the globe (…) however there is a complete absence of any official or public debate regarding science and knowledge.”

The Saudi writer Yusuf al Samaan stated in Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, 3 March 2007, that “In order for the scientific state to emerge and develop and to create a new society that seeks knowledge, we must first spread the values of objective and free thinking; in fact we need to develop a critical mentality. Such privilege is not granted by the frameworks of Islamic movements in addition to the surrounding society.”

I am aware that some parties claim that we are not obliged to imitate others and that the nature of the conflict between forces of backwardness and forces of progress in Europe is not a problem for us as our religion does not conflict with science as the case was with the church. Therefore the problem of secularism has been exported from the West to us, etc.

Despite that we are discussing the dominating culture in the interpretation of Islam at certain stages of history and not the religion in its essence; despite the efforts made in distinguishing between Islamic backwardness and the backwardness of the West, all of those attempts fail to convince the observer to stop comparing and contrasting between their backwardness and our backwardness and their approach to overcome this backwardness in comparison to ours. The issue deserves close examination rather than quick defence.

The most interesting thing about the debates among Muslims that look at scientific backwardness is that some parties, with “pathetic” pride, state that “We are the ones who saved the West from its backwardness. Thanks to the commentaries of Ibn Rushd (also known as Averroes) on Aristotle, particularly his attempts at rapprochement between philosophy and Shariah, in addition to Ibn Seena, Ibn al Nafees and other great astronomers, Latin thinkers were placed back on track and were able to progress

This is all great. However I have one question: Why were these figures able to have such a great influence upon the West but not upon their own peoples?

Was it us – the nation of those scientists – who refused to be handed over the heritage of science from our ancestors?

Imagine if Islamic thinkers came up with Newton’s Laws of Motion or established the scientific logic during the days of Imam Ghazali (1058-1111AD) or Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) or if they had seen what Galileo, Kepler or Copernicus had seen in the field of astronomy; what would the world have been like today? What would our culture be like? Would we be overwhelmed by psychological tension, recklessness and fear of openness? Is this tension a result of tense movements and figures that promote isolation and the creation of war with the entire world as well as a depressed audience that is in search of these figures and movements?

This dream never manifested. For centuries and centuries, we only praised Caliphates, jurists and poets from our history. This is not to deny the historical importance of such figures but the question is why did we not know about physics and natural sciences or Ibn Khaldoun’s theories of sociology and ekistics until we learnt about them through the discoveries of Orientalists?

The dilemma is deeper than the issue of expenditure on scientific research, not to deny the importance of this since we are far behind in the field of statistics in comparison to Israel let alone other countries! The problem cannot be confined to taking pride in Muslim scholars as the problem lies in putting the right question on the table.

In the book entitled “Illusions about Political Islam” that was written in French by Abdul Wahab al Muadab, translated into Arabic by Mohammed Bnees and published by Dar al Nahar, the author proposes a number of explanations for the withering spirit of civilization among Muslims and specifically Arabs. He noted that Islamic military, political and economic superiority was quite apparent between the eighth and eleventh centuries whilst Europe was in a state of backwardness. However, the crusades that lasted from 1099 to 1270 transformed the Italian cities (Genoa, Pisa and Venice) into centres of power and broke the intensity of the Islamic monopoly on Mediterranean trade.

Al Muadab cited from a seminar in which he took part with historian of astronomy and Brazilian Quantum Theorist Regis Morelon who is knowledgeable in Arab and Islamic history that major civilisations break their orbit over five centuries. He stated that the same cyclical phenomenon applies to Muslims and their civilizations that reached their peak between 750 and 1250 AD then continued throughout several other centuries with motivation and whilst competition was weak.

These are some of the western explanations for the loss of Islamic civilization. However there were other Islamic attempts to escape backwardness and join the convoy of scientific and civilization forces. The most prominent of these attempts was that of Mohamed Ali Pasha who ruled Egypt from 1805 to 1848. He spent large amounts of money on establishing technology in the country; furthermore, he sent students to Europe [to study]. He modernized the army and renovated the irrigation system; he also revamped the cotton and sugar industries and caused a surge in the infrastructure. However, his attempts had failed and Egypt remained in the same condition as other Arab countries suffering from technological and scientific subordination. So why did Mohamed Ali’s project fail whilst Japan succeeded even though the latter began its project many years later. The Japanese attempt began during the “Meiji era” or the period of enlightened rule in 1868.

Some attributed the failure of Mohamed Ali’s experience to the West preventing him from continuing with his endeavour while others believed that Mohamed Ali’s experience was lacking in terms of enlightenment as well as social, political and intellectual modernization aspects and that such experience was merely occupied with the military as well as technological sciences and similar fields.

In any case, the issue of an absent scientific renaissance remains. And if we want to be more accurate, let us then say that there is a deliberate absent civilization. This important question remains unanswered. Despite the latest attempts of some Arab countries to activate scientific research and the increase in the number of students sent to the west; despite the small number of news items regarding the endeavours of gifted individuals in the fields of innovation and research and despite names such as Dr Zeweil, Munir H Nayfeh, Sir Magdi Yacoub and Zaha Hadid: they have no impact or tangible results since they are merely exceptions to the norm.

The conclusion of this sad story is that we lack the spirit of “civilization” and we must admit to this. Even if we do not acknowledge it, this is the truth. We are still occupied with everything except the call for rekindling the spirit of civilization. Perhaps this spirit could hear us once again if we only we were to listen to it carefully and put an end to our clamour over our fear for identity and fear of invaders who seek to uproot

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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