Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Review: Science & Islam: A History

Masood, Ehsan. Science & Islam: A History. London, UK: Icon Books Ltd; 2009. ISBN 978-184831-040-7

Ehsan Masood (Twitter) produced a BBC documentary on Islam and science. This book is its companion. It's excellent as a survey introduction to this topic in the history of science. It discusses multiple causes of historical phenomenon and the predominant historiography and its dissenters.

As in any work of history presented to the public, the academic academician, or even the humble ABD history student such as myself,  can find weaknesses.  But the wider public is not reading and watching our fascinating works, so maybe we can cut people like Ehsan Masood and Henry Louis Gates, Jr (Ali Mazrui's series on African history is better) and Neil deGrasse Tyson a break if they slip up now and again. Hopefully, the public intellectual strives to be like Carl Sagan and not Thomas Friedman, who can no doubt answer all of your questions.

The writing style is simple. The only references are listed as a bibliography at the end of the book.

Most readers will come away from the book thinking that, based on Muslims' past acceptance of the validity of scientific work, especially when it supported religiously-mandated activities such as determining prayer times or healing the sick or approved secular activities such as improving quality of life through applied technology in chemistry and horticulture, and their past tolerance of non-Muslims and non-orthodox Muslims, Muslims can participate in the global scientific enterprise.   Their history of coercive pre- and early modern monarchies and colonial administrations has placed  some stumbling blocks in their path, primarily mass suspicion of the science class, so to speak, as an arm of the state. The few who want more will simply need to follow up on the clues Dr. Ehsan has left for them to follow.

I personally think the bigger problem facing Muslim-majority society's participation in scientific production is the lack of infrastructure to support modern science (see this article for a description of how medical research might take place in a clinical setting), which is no longer a matter of one brilliant individual with enough time and energy to conduct his/her own experiments.

Brain drain is a serious problem.  Mills et al estimated that nine sub-Saharan African countries lost more than 2 billion USD of investment through the emigration of trained doctors. This investment equates to subsidizing medicine in the developed nations to which they immigrated.
Based on the number of doctors working from the nine source countries and the average cost of medical education in these countries, this equals a saving of at least $621m for Australia, $384m for Canada, $2.7bn for the United Kingdom, and $846m for the United States; $4.55bn in total.
The World Health Organization has adopted the WHO Global Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel, but implementation is not widespread (see Norway's effort).

Muslims are participating in the global scientific enterprise (my guess again is in applied science), as evidenced by searches in PubMed, the National Library of Medicine's indexing service of peer-reviewed biomedical publications. See articles where the first author's last name begins with Abdul (350 as of 2012-Jul-26), Abdel (299),  and Abdal (156).* Or Moham (679), Muham (68), Ahmad (845), and so on. They're just not participating, for the most part, in institutions in Muslim-majority countries.

And to whip out a Tom Friedman-like anecdote on you, I remember in 1988 or 1989 meeting in Cairo an Egyptian who studied physics in the Soviet Union. He told me how frustrated he was at not being able to do physics in Egypt because there was no institutional backing and lack of equipment.

Brain drain is simply one of the obstacles world systems theory predicts developing nations have to face.

I don't remember Ehsan Masood dealing with these types problems at all in his book.

Review my other blog entries related to science, particularly my reviews of Taner Edis's book Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam and George Saliba's Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance. I also liked a volume Ehsan Masood edited about how people are adapting to their arid climates.

On another note, no Georgia public library participating in the PINES system had the book, so I had to request it using my public library's Interlibrary Loan process. This cost me $8.65. Certainly this kind of book is appropriate for public libraries. Why doesn't my library carry this book?

*Christian Arabs have names like Abdulla and Abdelmasih, so some of these authors are certainly not Muslims.