Divided World

Islam and the Threat of Curiosity

curiosity mars robot Chris Butler-Agentur Focus_effect
Endless curiosity drives innovation and progress.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The search for new ideas and questioning of long-held beliefs are considered dangerous in many Islamic societies – and a source of conflict in the world today.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The Muslim world has produced only two Nobel Prize winners in the past 100 years, Abdus Salam (physics, 1979) and Ahmed Zewail (chemistry, 1999).
    • Islamic countries account for about one-fifth of the global population.
    • Science was once big in the Islamic world, producing the Arabic numerals and the invention of zero.
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    Audio

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Albert Einstein was a master of understatement. “I don’t have any special talent,” the great physicist once said. “I’m just passionately curious.”

That seems not just humble, but downright banal for a man whose theory of relativity revolutionized science. Yet his statement is absolutely true. Curiosity is the prerequisite for science, for progress. Indeed, it is at the core of German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s observation: “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-imposed immaturity.”

It is precisely this concept that Islamist fundamentalists oppose. The search for new ideas and rigorous examination of what we believe to be true – without reference to any authority, even religious – are the most important building blocks for progress in Western democracies.

About 1,000 years ago, when medieval Europe was in the unyielding clutches of the Catholic Church, Islamic scholars declared war on superstition.

This is an extreme menace for Islamists, because in their world view the Koran is always right. All knowledge is contained in it, and science must be measured by that standard — not the other way around.

The painful process of freeing science from religion, which accompanied the Enlightenment in the West, never really occurred in Islamic societies. Theories of evolution or the Big Bang, which are also controversial for Christian fundamentalists, are considered blasphemy in the Islamist world.

Islam was not always against science. On the contrary, about 1,000 years ago, when medieval Europe was in the unyielding clutches of the Catholic Church, Islamic scholars declared war on superstition. They preserved the ancient scientific legacy of the Greeks, spreading it across their civilization and developing it further. We owe our “Arabic numerals” and the brilliant invention of zero to Islamic scholars.

But while at the start of the 18th century Europe began to free itself from the dictates of the church, fundamentalist tendencies became increasingly predominant in the Islamic world. Islam became more strict and science more religious. Societies based on Islamic law became less free.

Since then, there have been scarcely any notable contributions to scientific research from the Islamic world. In the last 100 years, there have only been two Islamic recipients of Nobel Prizes for science: Abdus Salam for physics in 1979, and Ahmed Zewail for chemistry in 1999.

This is the price of a lack of secular science in Islamic countries, where about one-fifth of the world’s population lives. This is the price of treating curiosity as a threat. The Immanuel Kant of Islam – an advocate for free inquiry in a closed world – is yet to come.

 

To contact the author: muenchrath@handelsblatt.com.

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