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TECHNOLOGY AND APPLIED SCIENCES. Between 100 and 1300 CE, the “golden age of science,” the Arab and greater Islamic world excelled in scientific activity and many fields of technology, such as civil engineering and optics. This edge disappeared with the invasion and destruction of urban Islamic life by the Mongols, the decline of agriculture and irrigation, the manifestations of religious and intellectual intolerance, and other factors. While science and scholarship thrived in Renaissance Europe, they withered in the Ottoman Empire. The historian Albert Hourani observes that “during the centuries of Ottoman rule there had been no advance in technology and a decline in the level of scientific knowledge” (A History of the Arab Peoples, Cambridge, 1991, p. 259). The lack of knowledge of Western languages blocked the flow of ideas.

Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1 798 with its additional mission of knowledge-gathering and entourage of scholars dramatized the science and technology gap. It resulted in initial efforts in Egypt and Iran to send students to Europe as well as the recruitment of European technicians. Although most of these early efforts at technology transfer failed, they set in motion other forces. The Ottoman sultans began importing military technology and specialists. Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Copts, and other minorities came forward to translate technical manuals and to serve as intermediaries for imported knowledge.

As commerce grew, disease vectors were transported and major epidemics of cholera and plague occurred. Although European therapies (with the exception of smallpox inoculation) were little better than traditional Islamic medicine, European medical techniques were oriented toward research. The majority of the population continued to rely on traditional Islamic healers, but rulers by 184o had brought European physicians to Tunis and Istanbul. One of the first innovations to be imposed on their advice was quarantine to close ports and commerce to epidemics.

The period between 185o and the onset of World War I in 1914 was marked by the extraordinarily rapid diffusion of Western technologies throughout most of the Middle East from Morocco to Iran. These included railways, telegraphs, steamships and steam engines, automobiles, and telephones. The opening of the Suez Canal (1868), the major engineering feat of the nineteenth century, reduced shipping time and distance and generated new trade. Much of the technology transfer took the form of government monopoly concessions to European firms. Often members of minority communities provided clerical and skilled labor. There was little or no concern for the development of indigenous capabilities in technology adaptation, design, or maintenance.

Similarly, it was minorities who took the lead in establishing the first Western educational institutions in the region, with engineering figuring prominently in the curriculum. The Syrian Protestant College was founded in Beirut in 1868, soon to be followed by the Jesuits’ St. Joseph College. While some elite Muslim families sent their children to these and similar schools in Istanbul, Tunis, Teheran, Algiers, and elsewhere, they primarily served European expatriates and settlers and minority communities. However, one of their major contributions was the translation and publishing in Arabic of major scientific works. Although Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species was not published in full in Arabic until 1918, excerpts had appeared in new Arabic science education periodicals by 1876. Scientific societies were also founded in Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, and Istanbul in the late nineteenth century to support the first embryonic scientific communities.

Throughout the period 1800-1914 there was minimal formal Islamic resistance to the gradual spread of western technologies and scientific ideas. The major opposition to Darwinian ideas of evolution came from Christian fundamentalist scholars rather than from Muslims. The medical discoveries of Pasteur, Koch, and others concerning microbes and bacteria were quickly accepted and taught in Middle Eastern medical schools. Public health measures to contain cholera, malaria, and other diseases were imposed by European authorities in North Africa and approved elsewhere by local elites. Where resentment occurred, it was often directed not at imported technologies but at the local minorities who were using them to their own advantage.

The period 1914-1945 was characterized by slow and often frustrating attempts to strengthen indigenous versus imported science and technology. New universities with an emphasis on engineering and medicine were established in Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and the Sudan. However, the depression years reduced employment for graduates and increased discontent over the dominant role of expatriates and minorities.

There were faltering attempts at industrialization for small local markets in Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Most technologies were imported, maintenance was a persistent problem, and there was limited shop-floor learning. The one exception was the petroleum industry, which after 1914 assumed major proportions in Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The practices of multinational firms varied, but there was everywhere some local subcontracting as well as maintenance engineering. Although local contractors lacked the resources to compete on major petroleum industry contracts, they did participate to some extent.

The nationalism that emerged at the end of World War I in the region did not put mastery of science and technology high on its agenda. The objective of the nationalists was to remove the colonial powers and their minority collaborators. The one exception was Turkey, where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk after 1922 launched an ambitious program of industrialization and expansion of engineering education.

The aftermath of World War II was quite different, with the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan, the 1948 Israeli war for independence, and the pursuit of independence and national sovereignty virtually everywhere. The war had underlined the importance of logistics, communications, mass public health programs, and transport. Governments were expected to do far more than they had in the past, with technology a key instrument.

The results from 1945 to the present have been sometimes impressive and sometimes disappointing. During this period more than sixty new universities and technical schools opened. Enrollment in science and engineering multiplied, with hundreds of thousands of graduates. Several hundred thousand students have gone abroad to North America, Europe, and the former Soviet Union for advanced study. Some have stayed abroad, but the majority have returned. There has, however, been a pronounced brain-drain to the oil-exporting countries from Egypt, the Sudan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Although female enrollment in science and engineering remains very low, there has been overall impressive growth in human resources.

The problem remains though that universities remain oriented toward teaching rather than research. There are few strong doctoral programs or research centers of academic excellence. Engineering students often lack management training and hands-on experience. In spite of massive financial investment and importation of foreign models, universities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the other Gulf states cannot match their state-of-the-art facilities with research. Universities in the non-oil-exporting countries lack funds and equipment as well as incentives for research.

Language continues to be a problem. The Arab League has systematically promoted scientific translations into Arabic and the creation of new vocabulary, but the available literature continues to be inadequate. At North African universities science and engineering instruction continues to be in French; in Saudi Arabia it is in English. Research on computerizing Arabic progresses, but it is not yet a working language for keeping up with current research in many fields.

The lack of institutionalized research in universities is reflected across many Islamic societies. Applied research units have been established in government ministries of agriculture, health, and public works; however, with limited budgets, patronage appointments, and few linkages to the private sector or to universities, few of these units are productive.

The state-owned enterprises that are pervasive in countries such as Algeria and Syria also have internal research units. These are plagued by poor management, lack of funds and continuity, an inability to disseminate research, and personnel problems. The record of research by state-owned firms in the region is dismal, and the diffusion of research is even worse. Lack of accountability has characterized many of these operations.

Local private firms prefer to import technology rather than to conduct in-house research or to collaborate with universities or government ministries. Industrial import-substitution continues to rely on foreign construction and maintenance. In spite of the massive construction spending in the oil-exporting countries since 1973, only two regional firms compete for major contracts, both founded in Lebanon and receiving no government support. Elsewhere private construction and consulting firms concentrate on national markets where they enjoy preference and do little of their own design work. While the oil-exporters like Saudi Arabia import capital-intensive state-of-the-art technology with minimal adaptation, local private firms in other countries often import used machinery. Only in Turkey and Pakistan is there evidence of significant in-house informal learning to adapt used equipment.

Multinational firms active in the region prefer to conduct research at European or North American sites. There is some adaptive research in the petroleum and petrochemical industries, mostly on a small scale. The nationalization of the oil industry throughout the region has resulted in multinationals operating on contracts and/or concessions; this provides no incentives for joint ventures in research with state-owned companies.

The other institutional outlets for research are relatively minor. There are national and regional professional societies of physicists, dentists, engineers, and other disciplines. At best they provide professional journals and meetings but no structures for research. In several countries, such as Syria, these professional societies have also been decimated by government repression. Researchers who attempt to travel abroad, to maintain overseas contacts, and to read European languages have been targets of suspicion.

Several attempts have been made to anchor research in financially solvent, automomous foundations. One of the most successful is the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, a multinational research center for thirdworld scholars. The International Center for Dry Lands Agriculture at Aleppo, Syria, part of the World Bank agricultural research consortium, is a similar institution.

The small size, limited resources and scarce professional personnel of many Islamic countries make regional cooperation in science and technology imperative. This has been discussed since the 1976 CASTARAB conference and a number of schemes proposed, but lack of funding, commitment, and interest have frustrated these efforts. Instead, science and technology policies continue to be pursued mostly at national levels. Pakistan is in the lead with a comprehensive, government-directed research effort including a nuclear energy program. Indonesia has directed its policy at high technology, including a national aerospace industry. Turkey has achieved modest research cooperation between the private and public sectors, especially in hydrology, textiles and agriculture. Egypt has a cumbersome, centralized research bureaucracy with few visible accomplishments. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have poured vast amounts of money into science and technology, but the mentality remains that of buying rather than developing indigenous capabilities. Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia maintain modest Frenchstyle centralized research policies; lack of linkages and diffusion limits their productivity. Iran and Iraq have concentrated on indigenous petroleum and weapons capabilities to the detriment of other sectors. Other countries like the Sudan or Yemen lack a nucleus of researchers, many of whom have emigrated.

These enormous disparities in resources and capabilities do not preclude cooperation. There is consensus on the research priorities for most of the region. These include solar energy, desalination, arid-lands agriculture, irrigation, animal sciences, and petrochemicals. Although major research on these subjects is taking place outside the region, there are a number of modest regional projects as well as some expensive technology transfers, for instance solar energy in Saudi Arabia. Agreement on priorities, long-term funding, and shared projects is feasible.

The principal obstacles to indigenous science and technology in the Islamic world do not stem from Islam itself. While there are a few advocates of “Islamic science” in Pakistan and elsewhere, most Muslim scientists believe in a universal science. Abdus Salam, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, declares that “there truly is no disconsonance between Islam and modern science” (1987, p. 212). Instead, the obstacles are repressive governments that arrest researchers and stifle freedom of inquiry, cultural practices that discourage women from studying science and engineering, deficient science education at all levels of instruction, failure to create research institutions with effective linkages, and a preference for buying science and technology.


Butterworth, Charles E., and I. William Zartman, eds. Political Islam. New York, 1992. Special issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, with excellent discussions of Islam and democracy.

Gallagher, Nancy E. Medicine and Power in Tunisia, 1780-1900. Cambridge, 1983. Covers the introduction of and reaction to European medicine.

Gallagher, Nancy E. Egypt’s Other Wars: Epidemics and the Politics of Public Health. Syracuse, N.Y., 1990. Insightful history of anticholera and -malaria campaigns in the 1940s.

Hassan, Ahmad Y. al-, and Donald R. Hill. Islamic Technology: An Illustrated History. London, 1992. Splendid account of the Islamic golden age of science and technology.

Hoodbhoy, Pervez. Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality. London, 1991. A Pakistani physicist forcefully rejects Islam in favor of a universal science.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, 1992. Monumental study, excellent on the golden age of science.

Issawi, Charles. Economic History of the Middle East and North Africa. New York, 1984. Detailed account of the nineteenth-century growth in trade and the introduction of innovations.

National Academy of Sciences. Scientists and Human Rights in Syria. Washington, D.C., 1993. Published by the Committee on Human Rights, this is a searing account of  plight of Syrian scientists. Salam, Abdus. Ideals and Realities: Selected Essays. Philadelphia, 1987. Reflections by a Nobel Prize-winning Pakistani physicist on Islam and science, among other topics.

Sardar, Ziauddin. Science and Technology in the Middle East. London, 1982. Country-by-country survey.

Selin, Helaine. Science across Cultures: An Annotated Bibliography of Books on Non-Western Science, Technology, and Medicine. New York, 1992.

Zahlan, Anthony. Acquiring Technological Capacity: A Study of Arab Consulting and Contracting Firms. New York, 1991.

Ziadat, Adel A. Western Science in the Arab World: The Impact of Darwinism, 1861-1930. London, 1986. History of the debate over Darwinism.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/technology-applied-sciences/

  • writerPosted On: October 4, 2018
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