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Technology and Applied Sciences

Hassan Radoine, Aaron Segal
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Technology and Applied Sciences

From the rise of Islam in the seventh century, Muslim scientists and scholars worked to establish a sound philosophical basis for scientific endeavors. Islam poses questions about creation, inspiring many Muslim scholars to explore the cosmos, the human body, nature, and the mystery of being. In the ninth century, this tendency toward exploring natural and divine realms, as well as encounters with other civilizations, opened the gate to major scientific investigations and the led to the founding of diverse philosophical schools in the Islamic world. While medieval European science was constrained by the papacy's condemnation of any attempt to question the absolute veracity of divine creation or any departure from the Platonic school of thought, many Muslim scientists adopted the principles of Greek philosophy and science, and in particular the Aristotelian method of inquiry. Between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, the interaction between philosophical speculation and experimentation boosted the development of science in Islamic territories, as Muslim scientists wrote treatises, made discoveries, and implemented ideas in fields such as agriculture, architecture, medicine, astrology, engineering, and navigation.

Europe underwent similar developments in the fourteenth century, when the humanist movement of the Renaissance created a worldview that promoted the experimental sciences. From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, Europe forged an ideological and cultural basis for the progressive modern sciences that would develop in the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, the Islamic world, suffering from economic and political decline and intellectual crisis, resisted the new ideas coming from Europe, and its scientific contributions had dwindled by the beginning of the twentieth century.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, colonization played a major role in exacerbating the scientific and economic decline of the Islamic world. Following Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798—in which the armies were accompanied by a retinue of scholars, sent to carry out a subsidiary mission of knowledge-gathering—the gap between European and Islamic science and technology widened. Exposure to European military supremacy and new scientific ideas made Muslim rulers aware of this discrepancy, and some governments ventured to respond. Among the first were Egypt and Iran, which sent students to Europe and recruited European technicians. Although these early efforts to shore up native science and technology by importing ideas, people, and objects failed, the attempts continued; for example, the Ottoman sultans began importing military technologies and specialists from the West.

As commerce expanded in the nineteenth century, disease vectors traveled with it, and major epidemics of cholera and plague occurred. Although European therapies (with the exception of smallpox inoculation) were little better than traditional Islamic medicine, European medical techniques were oriented toward research. The majority of the Muslim population continued to rely on traditional Islamic healers, but by 1840 rulers had brought European physicians to Tunis and Istanbul. One of the first innovations to be imposed on their advice was quarantine to close ports and commerce in response to epidemics.

The period between 1850 and the onset of World War I in 1914 was marked by the extraordinarily rapid diffusion of Western technologies throughout most of the Middle East, from Morocco to Iran. These included railways, telegraphs, steamships and steam engines, automobiles, and telephones. The opening of the Suez Canal (1868), the major engineering feat of the nineteenth century, reduced shipping time and distance and generated new trade. Much of the technology transfer took the form of government monopoly concessions to European firms. Often, members of minority communities provided clerical and skilled labor. There was little or no concern for the development of indigenous capabilities in technology adaptation, design, or maintenance.

Similarly, it was minorities who took the lead in establishing the first Western educational institutions in the region, with engineering figuring prominently in the curriculum. The Syrian Protestant College was founded in Beirut in 1868, soon to be followed by the Jesuits’ St. Joseph College. While some elite Muslim families sent their children to these and similar schools in Istanbul, Tunis, Tehran, Algiers, and elsewhere, they primarily served European expatriates and settlers and minority communities. However, one of their major contributions was the translation and publishing in Arabic of major scientific works. Although Charles Darwin'sOn the Origin of Species was not published in full in Arabic until 1918, excerpts had appeared in new Arabic science-education periodicals by 1876. Scientific societies were also founded in Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, and Istanbul in the late nineteenth century to support the first embryonic scientific communities.

Throughout the period 1800–1914 there was minimal formal Islamic resistance to the gradual spread of Western technologies and scientific ideas. The major opposition to Darwinian ideas of evolution came from Christian fundamentalist scholars rather than from Muslims. The medical discoveries of Pasteur, Koch, and others concerning microbes and bacteria were quickly accepted and taught in Middle Eastern medical schools. Public health measures to contain cholera, malaria, and other diseases were imposed by European authorities in North Africa and approved elsewhere by local elites. Where such innovations inspired resentment, it was often directed not at imported technologies but at the local minorities who were using them to their own advantage.

The period 1914–1945 was characterized by slow and often frustrating attempts to strengthen indigenous versus imported science and technology. New universities with an emphasis on engineering and medicine were established in Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and Sudan. However, the depression years reduced employment for graduates and increased discontent over the dominant role of expatriates and minorities.

There were faltering attempts at industrialization for small local markets in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Most technologies were imported, maintenance was a persistent problem, and there was limited shop-floor learning. The one exception was the petroleum industry, which after 1914 assumed major proportions in Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The practices of multinational firms varied, but everywhere there was some local subcontracting as well as maintenance engineering. Although local contractors lacked the resources to compete on major petroleum industry contracts, they did participate to some extent.

The nationalism that emerged at the end of World War I in the region did not put mastery of science and technology high on its agenda. The objective of the nationalists was to remove the colonial powers and their minority collaborators. The one exception was Turkey, where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk after 1922 launched an ambitious program of industrialization and expansion of engineering education.

The aftermath of World War II was quite different, as most Islamic countries began to gain their independence from colonial powers. The independence they achieved, however, was merely political. Most fell into chaos at all levels, and no grassroots policies were applied to launch major development projects. The reliance on European know-how was extensive, and the native educated elite was insufficient in numbers to fulfill the tremendous need for human talent. In addition, some countries, such as Algeria, saw industrialization as a means of progress but did not take into account the fact that their societies were still very agrarian, without the requisite infrastructure or a cultural understanding of industrialization. In fact, these countries’ rush to transform themselves socially and economically tended to exacerbate the economic crises they faced.

Obstacles to Research and Development.

The scientific and technological achievements of the post–World War II Islamic world have been impressive in some respects and disappointing in others. Since 1945 more than sixty new universities and technical schools have opened. Enrollment in science and engineering faculties multiplied, producing hundreds of thousands of graduates. Several hundred thousand students have gone abroad to North America, Europe, and the former Soviet Union for advanced study. Some have stayed abroad, but the majority have returned. There has, however, been a pronounced brain drain to the oil-exporting countries from Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

Despite the expansion of science and technology in the Islamic world in the twentieth century, a number of factors have hampered further development in these areas. Although there are now more universities, they remain oriented toward teaching rather than research. There are few strong doctoral programs or research centers of academic excellence. Engineering students often lack management training and hands-on experience. In spite of massive financial investment and the importing of foreign models, universities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other Gulf states cannot match their state-of-the-art facilities with research of a correspondingly high quality. Universities in the non-oil-exporting countries lack funds and equipment as well as incentives for research.

Language continues to be a problem. The Arab League has systematically promoted translations of scientific literature into Arabic and the creation of new vocabulary, but the available literature continues to be inadequate. At North African universities science and engineering instruction continues to be in French. The rooted Francophone culture has limited students’ and scientists’ access to international fora where English is prevalent. At East Asian universities, by contrast, one of the major factors promoting the development of technology has been widespread knowledge of the English language. Research on computerizing Arabic progresses, but it is not yet a working language for keeping up with current research in many fields.

The lack of institutionalized research at universities is seen across many Islamic societies. Applied research units have been centralized in government ministries of agriculture, health, and public works. Given limited budgets, patronage appointments, and the lack of links to the private sector or to universities, however, few of these units are productive.

The state-owned enterprises that are pervasive in countries such as Algeria and Syria also have internal research units. These are plagued by poor management, lack of funds and continuity, an inability to disseminate research, and personnel problems. The track record of research by state-owned firms in the region is dismal, and the diffusion of research is even worse. Lack of accountability has characterized many of these operations.

Local private firms prefer to import technology rather than to conduct in-house research or to collaborate with universities or government ministries. Industrial import-substitution continues to rely on foreign construction and maintenance. In spite of the massive construction spending in the oil-exporting countries since 1973, only two regional firms compete for major contracts, both founded in Lebanon and receiving no government support. Elsewhere, private construction and consulting firms concentrate on national markets where they enjoy preference and do little of their own design work. While oil exporters like Saudi Arabia import capital-intensive state-of-the-art technology with minimal adaptation, local private firms in other countries often import used machinery. Only in Turkey and Pakistan is there evidence of significant in-house informal learning to adapt used equipment.

Multinational firms active in the region prefer to conduct research at European or North American sites. There is some adaptive research in the petroleum and petrochemical industries, mostly on a small scale. The nationalization of the oil industry throughout the region has resulted in multinationals operating on contracts or concessions; this provides no incentives for joint ventures in research with state-owned companies.

The other institutional outlets for research are relatively minor. There are national and regional professional societies of physicists, dentists, engineers, and other disciplines. At best they provide professional journals and meetings, but no structures for research. In several countries, such as Syria, these professional societies have also been decimated by government repression. Researchers who attempt to travel abroad, to maintain overseas contacts, or to read European languages have been targets of suspicion.

Several attempts have been made to anchor research in financially solvent, autonomous foundations. One of the most successful is the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, a multinational research center for Third-World scholars. The International Center for Dry Lands Agriculture at Aleppo, Syria, part of the World Bank agricultural research consortium, is a similar institution.

The principal obstacles to native science and technology in the Islamic world do not stem from Islam itself. While there are a few advocates of “Islamic science” in Pakistan and elsewhere, most Muslim scientists believe in a universal science. Abdus Salam, a Nobel Prize–winning physicist, declares that “there truly is no disconsonance between Islam and modern science” (p. 212). Nevertheless, the lack of epistemological and ideological bases for science and technology has caused severe confusion among scientists, some of whom follow the West blindly, without seeking a contextual adaptation of their knowledge. These scientists lack the philosophical foundation to understand science as a cultural phenomenon. This is a result of their Eurocentric definition of science and their inability to establish a link with the Islamic world's own scientific heritage.

Science and technology are viewed in the Islamic world mainly as producers of objects to be consumed rather than as long-term catalysts of public welfare. Accordingly, most Islamic countries are consumers, rather than producers, of technology. Although the increase in oil revenues has led to dramatic and abrupt changes in the Gulf states—their cities mimic those of the West, generating huge economic markets, as in the case of Dubai, which experienced a boom from 2000 to 2008—this rapid pace of change has failed to generate a rooted process of technological advancement. The technology sector in the Middle East is very volatile and remains dependent on Western technology and human resources.

Despite the increase in the number of universities in the Islamic world, especially in the Gulf countries, investment in science and technology is very low vis-à-vis the global average. According to the World Bank's development indicators, from 1996 to 2003 Muslim countries spent on average less than 0.4 percent of their gross national product on research, in comparison with a world average of 2.3 percent. This statistic reflects a huge gap to be bridged, an undertaking requiring deliberate, long-term policies. The problem is systemic, and quite sensitive: the ability of Islamic countries to catch up to the West in science and technology in fact presupposes changes in their social and political structures, in order to forge a new cultural and political environment that would foster the development of science and technology. Herwig Schopper writes: “According to a series of highly self-critical reports assembled by Arab scholars and released by the United Nations, countries in the Arab world are finding it hard to improve the situation. As commentators from that region have noted, they continue to fall behind not only the developed countries of the West, but also emerging nations in East Asia” (pp. 35–36).

While Islamic countries are far behind the global standard in scientific research, the number of Muslim scientists educated either in their homeland or in the West has increased exponentially since the 1980s. However, the persistence of outdated structures governing research and the lack of incentives for scientists has made brain drain a serious problem for Islamic countries, as many scientists from the Islamic world move elsewhere to pursue their work. For example, official statistics gathered by the National Science Foundation counted thirteen thousand Egyptian scientists and engineers working in the United States as of 2000. A number of factors have contributed to the outflux of scientists from Islamic countries and to the low profile of technology and the sciences in these societies. Throughout history and in diverse societies all around the world, scientists and scholars have been accorded high social status. In the Islamic world at the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, scientists are low on the social scale, in comparison with an uneducated or even illiterate elite of politicians and businessmen. Consequently, the younger generation does not see scientific education as a means to gain social status and wealth. The high rate of unemployment among university graduates makes a scientific career appear even less promising. Furthermore, the tendency of regimes such as those of Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan to emphasize military applications of scientific research has also contributed to public ambivalence about science and technology. To the extent that governments have invested in new technologies, civilians have failed to reap the benefits. In 2005, as Pakistan was in the process of acquiring nuclear technology, an earthquake revealed the underdevelopment of its civilian infrastructure. This disparity between the façade of political power and the actual fragility of the country's infrastructure has hindered the development of research centers and institutions geared toward social and economic development.

Since 9/11, governments in the Islamic world have been under pressure from the international community to change their current policies, which are stifling innovation by being nondemocratic. Most of these governments are politically fragile, and their policies are not driven by economic growth and development strategies. Because of their internal instability and their perceptions of external threat, they do not perceive technology as a priority or as a means of positive change.

Government centralization of research institutions has made the governance of science an issue in the Islamic world. A UNESCO report states that, while some countries have taken steps to address this problem, their initiatives “do not prevent the research apparatus from being fragmented.… The Gulf countries are original, as they don't seem eager to build a national science base (research is rather a vestment for universities and an ornament for sponsors)” (p. 42). Despite the fact that several Islamic countries are aware of their weaknesses, their research agendas are driven neither by the needs of their societies nor by the research opportunities offered by the international community. As a result, the funding of research is always jeopardized by the priority given to short-term projects focused merely on improving the image of the government. No grassroots strategy has been forged to establish a coordinated, comprehensive interinstitutional policy that would involve all stakeholders as far as science and technology are concerned.

Initiatives to Promote Science and Technology.

Islamic countries have established several organizations and have held a number of conferences to promote the development of research. These initiatives seek to assess the technological needs of Islamic countries; to develop their resources, both human and material; and to address shortcomings through cooperation and coordination. Among these are the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), created in 1982 to promote and coordinate the development of the applied sciences and technology within the framework of Islamic values and to assist Muslim professionals and scientists in networking; the Arab Science and Technology Foundation (ASTF), established in 2000 by Shaykh Sultan bin Muḥammad al-Qāsimī, a member of the Supreme Council of the United Arab Emirates and the ruler of Sharjah; the Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH), formed by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1981; and the International Centre for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), created under the auspices of UNESCO in 2004 to help scientists and other professionals forge links with the international community.

Universities throughout the Islamic world have also been working to cultivate a greater awareness of the importance of science and technology, and they are beginning to realize that research is key to the functioning of a modern university. According to al-Qāsimī, who has done much to support science and improve the outcomes of educational systems in the Islamic world,

"There is a pressing need for a comprehensive study on the sciences and specializations needed for the process of technological development according to the needs and requirements, general and specific, of our Arab countries.… The Arab situation requires that we spare no effort since the Arab scientific achievements in their current state fall short of contributing to the building of the modern technological civilization and continuing at the same pace is a serious indicator."

Measures are also being taken to overhaul an anachronistic system of education that has caused science and technology in the Islamic world to stagnate. Universities have begun to take into account accomplishments in research as they review their faculty members for promotion, and they have begun to adjust salaries to measure up to the standards of particular fields.

Despite all obstacles, a number of individual scientists have excelled in many fields of science and technology, gaining international acclaim. Abdus Salam, a Pakistani, received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1979, and Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian, was awarded it for chemistry in 1999. That the vast Islamic world has produced only two Nobel laureates speaks to the catastrophic impact of a dysfunctional educational system on its potential for scientific achievement. However, the number of excellent scientists is increasing, and their work, together with the determination of some rulers to advance research, has had a great impact on education in science and technology. The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a graduate-level research university that will open in 2009, is a good example. Aiming to mitigate the discrepancy between the Gulf states’ vast resources and their poor performance in scientific research, the institution is dedicated to inspiring a new age of achievement in the kingdom that will also benefit the region and the world.

Although these individual initiatives are improving the state of research in science and technology in the Islamic world, governments still have much work to do if they are to bring their countries up to speed after nearly two centuries of lagging behind the global scientific momentum. Science and technology have the potential to become key catalysts for social and economic development, and their advancement is crucial in the face of the challenges of the twenty-first century, which demand the cultivation of an educated population.



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