Islam’s Achievement Gap

Are Islam’s contributions to science and civilization really that significant?

As the holy month of Ramadan has gotten underway, President Obama has intensified his longstanding mission to “remind us” of the progress and human advancement we all enjoy as a result of Islam and its practitioners. Thus, Obama’s Ramadan message and speech at the White House iftar dinner echoed his now-famous lecture on the indispensability of Islamic contributions first put forth in the president’s June 2009 speech to the “Muslim world” in Cairo, Egypt.

All this is really far too charitable. An honest look at the historic contributions Muslims have purportedly given the world contradicts the president’s diplomatic overtures fairly starkly. What’s more, his official lip-service stands to obscure the oppressive atmosphere in predominately Islamic countries, whose theocratic institutions may very well serve to crush the very possibility human advancement.

Muslims represent 25 percent of the plant’s population—more than 1 billion, according to About; some say more.  Now, how many Muslims have been Nobel Prize winners for science? Just two: Ahmed Zewail in 1999 for chemistry and Abdus Salam in 1979 for physics. For those keeping score, which apparently does not include the apparently, that’s two prize winners in more than a billion Muslims.

It’s instructive to compare that to the contributions made by Jews. Though representing only 0.2 percent of the world’s population, Jews have won a quarter of all Nobel Prizes awarded in the sciences. The Jewish State, in contrast to its Islamic counterparts, is no exception to the legacy of outsize achievement. Relative to its small size, Israel’s academia has been the world’s leading Nobel power for the past decade. Israelis and Jews across the globe consider these awards a source of considerable pride. Some Muslims and Arabs judge the awards a source of shame, considering Western cultural accomplishments as signs of infidel entities in decay.

But even using Islamic metrics, the achievements of the Muslim world seem dubious at best. The Islamic Development Bank (IDB), founded to foster economic development in its 57 member countries, released a major study in 2008 showing just how far behind Islamic countries lagged behind the developed world. The study stated that while “Education forms the basis for developing innovation, science and technology…according to the UN only six Islamic countries fall in the high human development index (HDI), 22 in the medium, as a many as 23 in low HDI category.” The lowest-ranking Islamic country ranks 173rd in a list if 178 countries.

The study went on to note:

The entire Muslim world constituting one-fifth of humanity, contributes barely 1,000 research articles out of 100,000 science books and 2,000,000 research articles published annually. While the West has an average of 3,000 science PhDs per million of its inhabitants, the number of IDB member countries is so dismally small that not even the statistics are available….The 57 predominately Muslim countries have about 23 percent of the world’s population, but less than 1 percent of its scientists who generate less than 5 percent of its science and make barely 1 percent of the world’s original research discoveries each year.

Although notable for its sober look at the Muslim world’s dearth of recent achievement, the IDB study did repeat the stock claim Islam once led the world in scientific endeavor.  “The deficiency in Muslim science and technology is particularly intriguing, given that Muslims were world leaders in science and technology a millennium ago,” the study lamented. The Obama administration seems to operate on a similar assumption. Not long ago, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden made headlines by suggesting that the president wanted to “engage more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science…and math and engineering.” But is that contribution really so historically significant?

The evidence suggests otherwise. Some scholars conclude that Islamic countries largely failed in developing modern science. According to a paper published by Global Politician, “Middle Eastern individuals primarily using the Arabic language included Arabs, Iranians, Christians, Jews, and others who were in the forefront of scientific advance…not necessarily Arab Muslims.”

Similarly, Toby E. Huff, chancellor professor of policy studies at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and author of studies in the rise of science, has written that “Islamic science was almost totally dependent upon translations, frequently made by non-Muslims of the achievements of pre-Islamic cultures, Greeks, Egyptians, Indians, etc. Moreover, a striking number of Muslim thinkers were Persians who owed more of their pre-Islamic heritage than they did to Islam.”

Professor Stanley L. Jaki, a Benedictine priest and author of many books on science, has observed that the improvements brought by Muslim scientists to the Greek scientific corpus were “never substantial.”

David Storobik, editor of Global Politician, the journal of international politics, said it is “an historical fact that the scientific revolution happened in Europe, not India, China, or the Middle East. There was also nothing quite like the medieval university in the Roman Empire. Whatever existed of real science in Roman times was almost entirely of Greek Origin. The medieval University then represented a real innovation.”

To be sure, some Muslim countries are taking steps toward progress. In the fall of 2009, Saudi Arabia launched a new graduate university for the sciences, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. But lest President Obama and the usual enthusiasts claim that this move represents Islam’s return to a tradition of achievement, it’s worth nothing that the school’s $10 billion endowment – the sixth largest in the world. – came from the United States.