By Sheikh Umar Ahmad


Science is as old as the Islamic civilization. The institutes of scientific dissemination had been established first by Muslim dominated nations as is evident from history & historical monuments.

The Islamic theology lays claim to the world’s oldest continually operational university. The University of Qarawiyyin was founded in Fes Morocco in 859 AD, at the beginning of an Islamic Golden Age. Despite such auspicious beginnings, universities in the world are now in dire straits.

The 57 countries of the Muslim world, those with the Muslim-majority population, and part of the organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) — are home to nearly 25% of the world’s people. But as of 2012, they had contributed only 1.6% of the world’s patents, 6% of its academic publications, and 2.4% of the global research expenditure. There have been only three Nobel laureates in the sciences from OIC countries, today these nations host fewer than a dozen universities in the top 400 of the many world rankings and none in the top 100 (Nature
journal report 2016). OIC countries on average invest less than 0.5% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development (R&D) with only Malaysia spending slightly more than 1% (the world average being 1.78%, most advanced countries spend 2–3%). Students in the Muslim world who participate in standardized international science tests lag well behind their peers worldwide, and the situation seems to be worsening with every passing day.

University science programmes are using narrow content, limited edition and outdated teaching methods. To become beacons in society, OIC universities need to revitalize their teaching and for universities to become truly meritocratic, they must develop new ways of assessing faculty members to reward valuable research, teaching, and outreach. And for this to happen, governments must give universities more autonomy both in terms of carrying out their research of interest and financial inclusions. Scientific research must be relevant and responsive to society’s intellectual and practical needs.

For scientists and engineers to be creative, innovative
and able to engage with questions of ethics, religion and the wider social purpose of research, students must receive a broad, liberal styled education. Quite a few institutions among OIC countries attempt to relate their students’ learning to their cultural backgrounds and contemporary knowledge. It is perhaps no coincidence that the most recent Times Higher
Education world university rankings named Sharif University as the only top university and number eight in the OIC.

The global consensus is that inquiry-based and opens competitive science education fosters the deepest understanding of scientific concepts and laws. But in most OIC universities, lecture-based teaching still prevails. Another problem is that assessment of faculty members, innovative curriculum changes, faculty appointments, and promotions are set by ministry rules and decided by centralized commissions and bureaucracies. This leaves little room for universities to intervene & innovate. Universities in OIC nations need to be granted more autonomy to transform themselves into meritocracies that strive for scientific excellence and then lead rather than follow the winds of change towards greater development and transparency within their societies. Universities need to promote the right metrics so that they do not inadvertently encourage plagiarism. This is a task that must be undertaken by national or transnational bodies, such as the Islamic World Academy of Sciences (IAS) or the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO).

Universities need to deliver more multidisciplinary, exploratory science education. A good start would be training for university teachers, with workshops on new tools, techniques, and approaches and toughest challenges that come their way. Barriers need to be broken between departments and colleges and new programmes constructed. Professors need to be free to teach topics that are not tightly regulated by ministries.

There are grassroots efforts across the Muslim world to stimulate curiosity about science among students of all ages, operating without much government support. Ahmed Djebbar, an emeritus science historian at the University of Lille in France has constructed an online, pre- university-level course called ‘The Discoveries in Islamic Countries’ available in three languages, which relates science concepts to great discoveries and stories from the Islamic Golden Age. Such courses should be scaled up, introduced and shared by institutions of higher learning. Universities will need to implement reforms individually & the inspiration from a few islands of excellence will, in time, turn the tide of public and political opinion. True transformation will require much broader action from ministries, regulators and funding agencies, and these may be the most resistant to change. Without tough reforms, the dream of a scientific revival in the Muslim world will always remain a dream & will never come to fore for its particular interest and for inclusive development in general.

(The author is a Doctoral Research Scholar at CSIR – Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine, Jammu)