Muslims should reflect on perceived lack of achievement


Richard Dawkins, the high priest of atheism, has been writing against religion for a long time. He is an evolutionary biologist and a former professor of public understanding of science at the University of Oxford. He has written many books on biology and on what he calls the delusion of religion and the absurdity of fixed false beliefs.

When it comes to religion, he is an equal-opportunity offender. Of late, he has been directing his salvos toward Islam.

In a recent tweet, he said that there are more Nobel laureates from Trinity College at Oxford than from the entire Muslim population. He further said: “Muslims as a group have not achieved anything worthwhile since the Middle Ages.”

For the record, there have been 10 Nobel laureates among Muslims. There were two in hard sciences: Abdus Salam from Pakistan, who received the prize in physics in 1979 — the first Muslim and the first Pakistani to receive a Nobel — and Ahmed Zewail from Egypt, who was awarded the chemistry prize in 1999. The other prizes: two in literature and six in peace.

If we take the Nobel Prize as a criterion of excellence, then most world religions, except Christianity and Judaism, would fall in that category of nonattainment, particularly in hard sciences.

Mr. Dawkins, however, conveniently ignores the significant contributions of Muslims to architecture, literature, astronomy, social sciences, and history, among other fields. These continued after the Middle Ages.

Let us give the devil his due (excuse the pun, but Mr. Dawkins’ 2003 book was titled A Devil’s Chaplain), and say that I agree with the overall thrust of his argument that scientific scholarship among Muslims has been stagnant for the past 1,000 years.

It is comforting for die-hard believers to rest on the laurels of their remote ancestors. But that cannot be a justification for the lack of intellectual curiosity that was deeply embedded in the Islamic world for more than a millennium.

The Persian quotation “Pidram sultan bood” fits that mind-set rather neatly. It means: Since my father was a king, I don’t have to do anything.

In light of the current scarcity of scholarship, it is absurd to keep regurgitating the long list of Arab and Muslim contributions to Western civilization. Or, for that matter, the pivotal role Muslims played in the European Renaissance.

I have often talked about the yawning disparity between “then” and “now” to students and teachers at my alma mater in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. Instead of engaging in a conversation about how this trend can be reversed, they try to engage me in debate about how the West has mistreated Muslims and played havoc with their traditions and institutions during colonial rule. Every time the subject is discussed, the response is the same.

I observed the same phenomenon in Dubai and Abu Dhabi a few years ago. Students there listened to me patiently but uncomfortably.

In the question-and-answer period, many of them drew my attention to the worldwide campaign against Muslims and their religion. It was as if what has been happening in the recent past in the Arab and Muslim world justified their complacency.

I asked a simple question at the end of that one-sided debate: What prevents each of you today from realizing your individual potential? They were not willing to address the core question.

There is a pervasive sense of victimhood among most Arabs and Muslims. It is exploited rather successfully by the self-appointed and self-anointed custodians of religion and religious history in those societies.

Grievances about past injustices are genuine. But they cannot explain a prevailing lack of progress in scientific endeavors.

Those of us who profess a faith don’t march as Mr. Dawkins’ foot soldiers in his crusade against religion. But his recent tweet about lack of scholarship among Muslims should give thinking Muslims pause.

It is much easier to return fire with fire. It takes prudence and reflection (in Arabic, tadabbur) on the current situation to address it.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

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