Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy: "Islam and Science Have Parted Ways"

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy: "Islam and Science Have Parted Ways"

Article excerpt

Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy (b. 1950) is one of South Asia's leading nuclear physicists and perhaps Pakistan 's preeminent intellectual. Bearer of a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is chairman of the department of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad where, as a high-energy physicist, he carries out research into quantum field theory and particle phenomenology. He has also been a visiting professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and was visiting professor at MIT and Stanford. For some time, he has been a frequent contributor to Britain 's leading intellectual journal, Prospect. His extracurricular activities include a vocal opposition to the political philosophy of Islamism. He also writes about the self-enforced backwardness of the Muslim world in science, technology, trade, and education. His many articles and television documentaries have made a lasting impact on debate about education, Islam, and secularism in Pakistan. Denis MacEoin interviewed him by e-mail in October 2009.

MUSLIM DISENGAGEMENT FROM SCIENCE

Middle East Quarterly: In 2007, you asked, "With well over a billion Muslims and extensive material resources, why is the Islamic world disengaged from science and the process of creating new knowledge?"1 How would you answer that question today? Has anything changed?

Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy: Sadly, little has changed. About seven centuries ago, after a spectacular Golden Age that lasted nearly four hundred years, Islam and science parted ways. Since then, they have never come together again. Muslim contributions to pure and applied sciences - measured in terms of discoveries, publications, patents, and processes - have been marginal for more than 700 years. A modest rebirth in the nineteenth century has been eclipsed by the current, startling flight from science and modernity. This retreat began in the last decades of the twentieth century and appears to be gaining speed across the Muslim world.

MEQ: What role do you think is played by the ulema in blocking new knowledge by imposing the rulings against innovation?

Hoodbhoy: The traditional ulema are indeed a problem, but they are not the biggest one; the biggest problem is Islamism, a radical and often militant interpretation of Islam that spills over from the theological domain into national and international politics. Whenever and wherever religious fundamentalism dominates, blind faith clouds objective and rational thinking. If such forces take hold in a society, they create a mindset unfavorable for critical inquiry, including scientific inquiry, with its need to question received wisdom.

MEQ: Have religious conservatism and anti-science attitudes among Muslims always been as strong as today? Or were Muslims more proscience, say, a hundred years ago?

Hoodbhoy: In my childhood, the traditional ulema - who are so powerful today - were regarded as rather quaint objects and often ridiculed in private. Centuries ago the greatest poets of Persia, like Hafiz and Rumi, stripped away the mullahs' religious pretensions and exposed their stupidity. Today, however, those same mullahs have taken control of the Iranian republic. The answer lies just as much in the domain of world politics as in theology. Khomeini developed the doctrine known as "guardianship of the clergy," which gives the mullahs much wider powers than they generally exercised in the past. Instead of being simple religious leaders, they now became political leaders as well. This echoes the broader Islamic fusion of the spiritual and the temporal.

SCIENTISTS, TECHNOLOGISTS, AND ISLAMISTS

MEQ: Explaining the emergence of so many Muslim doctors, scientists, engineers, and other technologists as Islamists and, sometimes, as terrorists, Malise Ruthven suggests that a superficial understanding of science leads to a belief in authoritative texts and this slots in with a belief in the infallibility of the Qur'an. …

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