The youngest Arab doctor

Posted on


Graduating from Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar (WCMC-Q), 20-year-old Iqbal El-Assaad is possibly the youngest Arab doctor ever.

Mohammed Yahia

Iqbal_El-Assad_WCMCq_graduate

Iqbal El-Assaad is the youngest medical doctor to graduate from Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar (WCMC-Q) in its ten-year history. When Iqbal was a toddler, she learnt algebra by watching her older siblings study. Before El-Assaad’s fifth birthday, her favourite pastimes were reading books and solving mathematical problems.

Following her graduation, Nature Middle East spoke to Iqbal about what it’s like to be a 20-year old medical doctor and hear what she plans for the future.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in medicine?

I made the decision to be a doctor myself when I was 12 years old. Growing up as a Palestinian living in Lebanon, I saw much suffering among my people since the Palestinians in Lebanon did not have health insurance.

My family and I visited the camps and saw how harsh the conditions there were. I saw many parents who see their children suffering but they can’t help them because they don’t have the money to do that. These visits to the camps made me feel that it is my responsibility to study medicine and try to help these people. Many of them cannot even afford the medication they need.

What role did your family play in your decision to pursue medical school?

I am the youngest among my siblings and my father first noticed when I was two-and-a-half years old that I was keen to learn when he was teaching my brothers. For my dad, education is always number one – especially for a girl. He always said that the boys will eventually find work but education is a girl’s weapon in the future. We grew up on this idea and my dad always encouraged me that if I have a dream I want to pursue, my parents would always help me.

I went to a private school in Lebanon that was based on the Lebanese curriculum, not an American school. After paying my tuition for the first two years, the principal of the school gave me a full scholarship. I used to skip grades and I was always the youngest person in my class.

I graduated from high school when I was 12 and Khaled Abany, who was then the education minister in Lebanon, honoured me as the youngest student to ever finish high school. I told him that I dreamt of being a doctor and he promised to try to secure a scholarship for me. The next day he contacted Sheikha Mozah [the Chairperson of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development] and she promised me a full scholarship to study at WCMC-Q.

Was it challenging being the youngest student in college?

The toughest time was when I first arrived in Qatar. I felt a lot of pressure because Qatar Foundation had given me the full scholarship without any tests. So I wanted to prove myself and prove that I was up to the trust people put in me.

The Lebanese education system prepares you very well for college so in terms of science and maths I found I was very well prepared.

I grew up with students who were always older than me so I am used to dealing with older people and I am mature enough to work with them. I always liked to study with friends in school and that carried on in college. This interaction has helped improve my way of thinking so that eventually people don’t even notice there is an age difference.

What is your next step now after graduation?

I am leaving soon for a three-year residency at the Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. After that I want to apply for a fellowship in paediatric cardiology, which will take three more years. I then want to come back to the Middle East and work between Qatar and Lebanon – to pay Qatar back. They have been sponsoring me for the past six years. I also want to go back to Lebanon to help my Palestinian people because they are the main inspiration for me to be a doctor and I would like to fulfil my childhood dream to make a difference to their lives.

Why paediatrics?

I can’t say exactly why, but I just love it. In our third year in college I found I was really happy to be able to help little kids. I also see the hardship of Palestinian children living in camps in Lebanon and that is part of the reason why I want to pursue paediatrics

Are you interested in doing any research?

I definitely want to pursue research. I did research during the summer of my second year and I fell in love with it. I even published at that time and was involved in two other studies. I really like the idea of discovering something new.

I hope in the future I can join an academic health centre where I can treat patients and also work in research.

What advice would you have to young people who would pursue medicine?

The only advice I would have is for students to study hard and make use of the opportunities in Qatar. Having world-class universities here in the Middle East is beyond imagination. This is the most important stage in their lives and they have to work for it.

For premed students, enjoy your lives now! It is a good time especially if you have good friends and it is not really too hard so you can get the best of both worlds.

Source : http://www.nature.com

Changing the blog’s path

Posted on Updated on


1) I am going to change me blog to my local language, Malays really soon. I will deleted or relocate the content that not suit the intent of the blog.

2) This blog are suppose to be personal blog but some of you may subscribe this blog due the religion content. I have relocate Islamic content to my new blog named http://lightforlearner.wordpress.com . The new blog is carrying my intent to learn more about Islam and sharing with others. This blog are more focus and the goal is clear.

3) Many of non-Muslim called me “religious”.Actually, I just a normal person who know more than you. In Islam, the word religious or “Mukmin” can not be simply given. I am just an engineer who learn more about science than religion. If I make a comparison, 70% of my educational life is about science and modern knowledge; only 10% of it is about Islam. I still scratching my head, thinking about this.

4) Some of you subscribe this blog due to politics, philosophy, reality, governance content. I have relocate this type of content to my another blog called http://realitydebate.wordpress.com/

5) For the one who subscribe me through my facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/pages/HifzanShafiee/183604641724366 . You will receive all the post from all my blog.

Thank for reading it, it have almost about 2 years!! Next month is my blog’s anniversary. It time to rebrand it.

Polemics of polygamy

Posted on Updated on


By Prof Datuk Dr Zaleha Kamaruddin, the Rector of the International Islamic University Malaysia

polygamy3

Although permitted in the Quran, there are two different views on the practice, men are generally in agreement but most women are not in favour of it.

POLYGAMY remains a controversial issue not only in Malaysia but many Muslim countries around the world. It has been the subject of many debates but is actually far from settled (Latest: newly-formed polygamy club propagated by Ikhwan).

According to a Malaysian anthropologist, Prof Azizah Kassim, whenever the issue of polygamy is debated in Malaysia, the conclusion that can be made is that men are positive while most women abhor it.

Why have such polemics occurred, and what are the causes behind these conflicts, especially in a situation where, despite its legal validity, polygamy has been largely perceived by many as a practice which fails to protect the rights of women?

Writings relating to the legal position of polygamy show that there is an agreement among Muslim jurists (classical and modern) that this practice is permitted in the Quran.

However, during the late 19th century, Sheikh Muhammad Abduh, a reformer who was the Grand Mufti of Egypt, in his Tafsir al-Manar questioned the practice of polygamy in a modern society.

He mentioned that polygamy might have once been useful and practical in early Muslim society but it could no longer be viewed in the same light in today’s society where it has, more often than not, been misused and has caused much pain and suffering among women.

His views are shared by many other jurists and thinkers, such as Rashid Redha, Muham-mad al Ghazali and Azizah al-Hibry.

On the other hand, there have also been writers and jurists who vehemently oppose any form of limitation on a practice which has clearly been permitted in the Quran.

Sheikh Muhammad Shaltut, Abu Zahrah, Aisha Abdul-Rahman, Zainab al-Ghazali, Mustafa al-Siba’i and Sheikh Abul-A’la al-Mawdudi are of the view that those who try to reinterpret the Quran in relation to polygamy are actually going against the very teachings of Islam.

Although there are two different views on polygamy, many Muslim countries today acknowledge the fact that polygamy can be abused, and have made improvements to the laws to curb such exploitation.

In Malaysia, steps have been taken to include the incorporation of specific provisions controlling the practice of polygamy through the Islamic Family Law Enactments of each state.

Latest research conducted by Dr Raihanah Abdullah has shown that the main cause for abuse in relation to polygamy in Malaysia stems from the lack of understanding on the concept and execution of justice. This has led to a prolonged antagonism and has caused various reactions from the public, especially women’s organisations.

The National Council for Women’s Organi-sations says it is not seeking to abolish polygamy, but opposes the way in which polygamy is being practised.

Issues of enforcement including finding better solutions to ensure justice and welfare for the wives and children need to be addressed.

Researchers have shown that one solution to the problems brought about by polygamy would be strict compliance with the conditions of polygamy based on the true teachings of Islam.

It is the absence of such realisation that has led to various difficulties associated with polygamy.

From the legal perspective, in order to rectify the situation, there is a need to consolidate the laws and to formulate a uniform approach to polygamy. Discrepancies in the law have allowed men, as Gavin Jones puts it: “…to ‘shop around’ and find another state where his application will succeed”.

Although the Government has made efforts to achieve uniformity in the laws for all Malaysian states, unfortunately, the aim was not achieved as when it was finally enforced, the states had discretionally amended several matters in the provisions of the law.

Researchers have shown that lighter penalties and limited jurisdiction between states also contribute to the inability to put a stop to the contravention of these laws.

The imposition of a minimum fine of RM1,000 and mandatory imprisonment ranging from as short as one month to a year should be imposed on offenders.

However, this view has also been objected to. It is argued that mandatory imprisonment would not solve the problem but instead aggravate it, as these men would not be able to maintain their families while serving prison time.

Aside from that, a more detailed review in deciding polygamy applications should also be made.

Judges should also play a more proactive role in ensuring that an applicant is truly capable of being fair before allowing his application. The views of existing wives should also be taken into consideration.

Besides educating the existing wife on her rights in a polygamous union, she should also be facilitated in making claims for maintenance against her husband should he fail to provide for her.

This should be done without the wife having to file an application for maintenance but be ordered by the judge during her husband’s application for polygamy.

A review of the law on the amount of maintenance – which had been abolished earlier – should be reintroduced.

There should also be provisions to prohibit husbands from changing the economic status of the existing wife and children.

There is also a need to expedite enforcement of other rights as well, such as claims for jointly acquired property.

It would be extremely unfair for the wife, who has worked equally hard as her husband, to suddenly share not only her husband, but also their property, with another woman.

These proposals are being looked into by the relevant authorities and some have been included among the amendments to the Islamic Family Law Bill said to be soon tabled in Parliament.

However, one should remember that the law has limitations, especially in matters relating to the heart.

CPA Australia – Accommodating Islamic finance critical to Australia’s economic future

Posted on Updated on


Logo_CPA

Australian tax laws should be amended to attract Islamic finance and other forms of alternative finance to benefit the economy, says CPA Australia.

In a submission to the Board of Taxation, CPA Australia says Islamic Finance will ultimately boost the Australian economy and help establish Australia as a financial services hub in the Asia-Pacific region.

Paul Drum, head of business and investment policy, CPA Australia, said attracting capital and investment through Islamic finance is a huge opportunity for Australia and would ultimately be good for economic growth.

‘Australia has emerged from the global financial crisis with strong economic position and a good regulatory regime. With our geographic position we are well placed to attract this increasingly significant component of global finance, and we need to take advantage of that,’ he said.

‘As a net importer of capital it is essential that we establish the right framework to attract and maintain a wide range of capital and financial products. Achieving this will be key to addressing many of our key economic issues including the funding of major infrastructure projects.’

Islamic finance is based on the principles of Islamic law (Shariah) which prohibits earning interest and instead focuses on profit sharing based on the buying and selling of tangible assets such as property.

‘Islamic finance offers huge potential for Australia’s financial services sector, but tax laws will need to be amended to accommodate other forms of alternative finance.

‘Some of Australia’s tax laws have a very specific legal based application which can exclude forms of alternative finance. Taking a broader economic and macro approach to policy in this area will be more beneficial and provide better long term benefits for Australia. It’s also more consistent with how tax law has developed in other areas such as taxation of financial arrangements.’

The CPA Australia submission also suggests Australia could adopt a similar approach to the United Kingdom, where only minor legal and regulatory reforms were required.

‘To achieve all of this will require significant work to align the accounting and tax treatment of Islamic and other alternative financial products. This must be a priority and CPA Australia looks forward to contributing to this process.’

Why The West Craves Materialism & Why The East Sticks To Religion

Posted on Updated on


By Imran Khan, Pakistan politician

Imran-Khan11-640x480

My generation grew up at a time when colonial hang up was at its peak. Our older generation had been slaves and had a huge inferiority complex of the British. The school I went to was similar to all elite schools in Pakistan.

Despite gaining independence, they were, and still are, producing replicas of public schoolboys rather than Pakistanis.

I read Shakespeare, which was fine, but no Allama Iqbal -the national poet of Pakistan. The class on Islamic studies was not taken seriously, and when I left school I was considered among the elite of the country because I could speak English and wore Western clothes.

Despite periodically shouting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ in school functions, I considered my own culture backward and religion outdated. Among our group if any one talked about religion, prayed or kept a beard he was immediately branded a Mullah.

Because of the power of the Western media, our heroes were Western movie stars or pop stars. When I went to Oxford already burdened with this hang up, things didn’t get any easier. At Oxford, not just Islam, but all religions were considered anachronism.

Science had replaced religion and if something couldn’t be logically proved it did not exist. All supernatural stuff was confined to the movies.

Philosophers like Darwin, who with his half-baked theory of evolution had supposedly disproved the creation of men and hence religion, were read and revered.

Moreover, European history reflected its awful experience with religion. The horrors committed by the Christian clergy during the Inquisition era had left a powerful impact on the Western mind.

To understand why the West is so keen on secularism, one should go to places like Cordoba in Spain and see the torture apparatus used during the Spanish Inquisition. Also the persecution of scientists as heretics by the clergy had convinced the Europeans that all religions are regressive.

However, the biggest factor that drove people like me away from religion was the selective Islam practiced by most of its preachers. In short, there was a huge difference between what they practiced and what they preached.Also, rather than explaining the philosophy behind the religion, there was an overemphasis on rituals. I feel that humans are different to animals. While, the latter can be drilled, humans need to be intellectually convinced. That is why the Qur’an constantly appeals to reason. The worst, of course, was the exploitation of Islam for political gains by various individuals or groups.

Hence, it was a miracle I did not become an atheist. The only reason why I did not was the powerful religious influence my mother wielded on me since my childhood. It was not so much out of conviction but love for her that I stayed a Muslim.

However, my Islam was selective. I accepted only parts of the religion that suited me. Prayers were restricted to Eid days and occasionally on Fridays, when my father insisted on taking me to the mosque with him.

All in all I was smoothly moving to becoming a Pukka Brown Sahib. After all I had the right credentials in terms of school, university and, above all, acceptability in the English aristocracy, something that our brown sahibs would give their lives for. So what led me to do a ‘lota’ on the Brown Sahib culture and instead become a ‘desi’?

Well it did not just happen overnight. Firstly, the inferiority complex that my generation had inherited gradually went as I developed into a world-class athlete. Secondly, I was in the unique position of living between two cultures. I began to see the advantages and the disadvantages of both societies.

In Western societies, institutions were strong while they were collapsing in our country. However, there was an area where we were and still are superior, and that is our family life. I began to realize that this was the Western society’s biggest loss. In trying to free itself from the oppression of the clergy, they had removed both God and religion from their lives.

While science, no matter how much it progresses, can answer a lot of questions – two questions it will never be able to answer: One, what is the purpose of our existence and two, what happens to us when we die?

It is this vacuum that I felt created the materialistic and the hedonistic culture. If this is the only life then one must make hay while the sun shines – and in order to do so one needs money. Such a culture is bound to cause psychological problems in a human being, as there was going to be an imbalance between the body and the soul.

Consequently, in the US, which has shown the greatest materialistic progress while giving its citizens numerous rights, almost 60 percent of the population consult psychiatrists. Yet, amazingly in modern psychology, there is no study of the human soul. Sweden and Switzerland, who provide the most welfare to their citizens, also have the highest suicide rates.Hence, man is not necessarily content with material well being and needs something more.

Since all morality has it roots in religion, once religion was removed, immorality has progressively grown since the 70s. Its direct impact has been on family life. In the UK the divorce rate is 60 percent, while it is estimated that there are over 35 percent single mothers. The crime rate is rising in almost all Western societies, but the most disturbing fact is the alarming increase in racism. While science always tries to prove the inequality of man (recent survey showing the American Black to be genetically less intelligent than whites) it is only religion that preaches the equality of man.

Between 1991 and 1997, it was estimated that total immigration into Europe was around 520,000 and there were racially motivated attacks all over, especially in Britain, France and Germany. In Pakistan during the Afghan war, we had over four million refugees, and despite the people being so much poorer, there was no racial tension.

There was a sequence of events in the 80s that moved me toward God as the Qur’an says: ‘There are signs for people of understanding. ‘ One of them was cricket. As I was a student of the game, the more I understood the game, the more I began to realize that what I considered to be chance was, in fact, the will of Allah. A pattern which became clearer with time. But it was not until Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ that my understanding of Islam began to develop.

People like me who were living in the Western world bore the brunt of anti-Islam prejudice that followed the Muslim reaction to the book. We were left with two choices: fight or flight. Since I felt strongly that the attacks on Islam were unfair, I decided to fight. It was then I realized that I was not equipped to do so as my knowledge of Islam was inadequate. Hence I started my research and for me a period of my greatest enlightenment. I read scholars like Ali Shariati, Muhammad Asad, Iqbal, Gai Eaton, plus of course, a study of Qur’an.

I will try to explain as concisely as is possible, what ‘discovering the truth’ meant for me. When the believers are addressed in the Qur’an, it always says ‘Those who believe and do good deeds.’ In other words, a Muslim has dual function, one toward God and the other toward fellow human beings.

The greatest impact of believing in God for me, meant that I lost all fear of human beings. The Qur’an liberates man from man when it says that life and death and respect and humiliation are God’s jurisdiction, so we do not have to bow before other human beings.

Moreover, since this is a transitory world where we prepare for the eternal one, I broke out of the self-imposed prisons, such as growing old (such a curse in the Western world, as a result of which, plastic surgeons are having a field day), materialism, ego, what people say and so on. It is important to note that one does not eliminate earthly desires. But instead of being controlled by them, one controls them.

By following the second part of believing in Islam, I have become a better human being. Rather than being self-centered and living for the self, I feel that because the Almighty gave so much to me, in turn I must use that blessing to help the less privileged. This I did by following the fundamentals of Islam rather than becoming a Kalashnikov wielding fanatic.

I have become a tolerant and a giving human being who feels compassion for the underprivileged. Instead of attributing success to myself, I know it is because of God’s will, hence I learned humility instead of arrogance.

Also, instead of the snobbish Brown Sahib attitude toward our masses, I believe in egalitarianism and strongly feel against the injustice done to the weak in our society. According to the Qur’an, ‘Oppression is worse than killing.’ In fact only now do I understand the true meaning of Islam, if you submit to the will of Allah, you have inner peace. Through my faith, I have discovered strength within me that I never knew existed and that has released my potential in life. I feel that in Pakistan we have selective Islam. Just believing in God and going through the rituals is not enough. One also has to be a good human being. I feel there are certain Western countries with far more Islamic traits than us in Pakistan, especially in the way they protect the rights of their citizens, or for that matter their justice system. In fact some of the finest individuals I know live there.

What I dislike about them is their double standards in the way they protect the rights of their citizens but consider citizens of other countries as being somehow inferior to them as human being, e.g. dumping toxic waste in the Third World, advertising cigarettes that are not allowed in the West and selling drugs that are banned in the West.

One of the problems facing Pakistan is the polarization of two reactionary groups. On the one side is the Westernized group that looks upon Islam through Western eyes and has inadequate knowledge about the subject. It reacts strongly to anyone trying to impose Islam in society and wants only a selective part of the religion. On the other extreme is the group that reacts to this Westernized elite and in trying to become a defender of the faith, takes up such intolerant and self-righteous attitudes that are repugnant to the spirit of Islam.

What needs to be done is to somehow start a dialogue between the two extreme. In order for this to happen, the group on whom the greatest proportion of our educational resources are spent in this country must study Islam properly.

Whether they become practicing Muslims or believe in God is entirely a personal choice. As the Qur’an tells us there is ‘no compulsion in religion.’ However, they must arm themselves with knowledge as a weapon to fight extremism. Just by turning up their noses at extremism the problem is not going to be solved.

The Qur’an calls Muslims ‘the middle nation’, not of extremes. The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) was told to simply give the message and not worry whether people converted or not, therefore, there is no question in Islam of forcing your opinions on anyone else.

Moreover, we are told to respect other religions, their places of worship and their prophets. It should be noted that no Muslim missionaries or armies ever went to Malaysia or Indonesia. The people converted to Islam due to the high principles and impeccable character of the Muslim traders. At the moment, the worst advertisements for Islam are the countries with their selective Islam, especially where religion is used to deprive people of their rights. In fact, a society that obeys fundamentals of Islam has to be a liberal one.

If Pakistan’s Westernized class starts to study Islam, not only will it be able to help society fight sectarianism and extremism, but it will also make them realize what a progressive religion Islam is. They will also be able to help the Western world by articulating Islamic concepts. Recently, Prince Charles accepted that the Western world can learn from Islam.But how can this happen if the group that is in the best position to project Islam gets its attitudes from the West and considers Islam backward? Islam is a universal religion and that is why our Prophet (peace be upon him) was called a Mercy for all mankind.

The race to score A’s and its implications

Posted on Updated on


score_home_image

The yearly examination results announcement season is here again and as usual the nation celebrates the achievements of top scorers not realizing that Malaysians’ preoccupation with “scoring” in school examinations does no one any favours.

For the high-achieving students themselves, it instills the perception that straight A’s are the be-all and end-all of school life.

Co-curricular activities and simply socialising with friends – so important in developing a child’s social skills – may thereby be neglected. Moreover, the pressure to keep on getting top marks could prove overbearing, and if the student should fare less well in a subsequent exam, there might be adverse effects on his or her emotional health sometimes resulting in depression or even suicides.

On their part, the non-top-scorers may feel as if they are left by the wayside amid the glorification of good grades, and end up having a sense of low self-worth and an inferiority complex.

Nor is society as a whole best served by the race for A’s. The prevailing exam culture has fostered a dependence on uncritical rote learning which will not help the cause of promoting creativity and innovation in the long run. And as has been well documented, many leading lights in business, the arts and science, such as Albert Einstein, James Cameron and Steve Jobs, were in fact dropouts.

The examination-based education system can in fact stifle creativity, original and critical thinking as such different modes of thought usually give us varied answers.

All this is not, of course, to celebrate mediocrity; on the contrary, we should always strive to improve ourselves and pursue high achievement. At the same time, we must also recognise that achievement comes in myriad forms, not just a string of A’s on the exam results slip.

While some people may be academically inclined, others may be good with their hands, have innate artistic abilities, be natural people persons … and the list goes on. Although these life skills do not feature in our examinations, they are often more important than academic skills because working life demands these communication, interpersonal, leadership and other qualities, often more than the technical skills. 

Rethink of our priorities may thus be in order. Instead of emphasising A’s at all costs, let us work towards an education system that nurtures well-rounded individuals and offers each student the opportunity to be the best they can be — now that would be something we can really be proud off.

The celebration of academic achievements through news reports should be stopped as it only serves to strengthen our preoccupation with academic achievements. We are producing skewed students who know a lot about examination-taking but lack other real life skills.

Islam & Science -The road to renewal

Posted on Updated on


After centuries of stagnation science is making a comeback in the Islamic world

Picture No. 10662330

THE sleep has been long and deep. In 2005 Harvard University produced more scientific papers than 17 Arabic-speaking countries combined. The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims have produced only two Nobel laureates in chemistry and physics. Both moved to the West: the only living one, the chemist Ahmed Hassan Zewail, is at the California Institute of Technology. By contrast Jews, outnumbered 100 to one by Muslims, have won 79. The 57 countries in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference spend a puny 0.81% of GDP on research and development, about a third of the world average. America, which has the world’s biggest science budget, spends 2.9%; Israel lavishes 4.4%.

Many blame Islam’s supposed innate hostility to science. Some universities seem keener on prayer than study. Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, for example, has three mosques on campus, with a fourth planned, but no bookshop. Rote learning rather than critical thinking is the hallmark of higher education in many countries. The Saudi government supports books for Islamic schools such as “The Unchallengeable Miracles of the Qur’an: The Facts That Can’t Be Denied By Science” suggesting an inherent conflict between belief and reason.

Many universities are timid about courses that touch even tangentially on politics or look at religion from a non-devotional standpoint. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a renowned Pakistani nuclear scientist, introduced a course on science and world affairs, including Islam’s relationship with science, at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, one of the country’s most progressive universities. Students were keen, but Mr Hoodbhoy’s contract was not renewed when it ran out in December; for no proper reason, he says. (The university insists that the decision had nothing to do with the course content.)

But look more closely and two things are clear. A Muslim scientific awakening is under way. And the roots of scientific backwardness lie not with religious leaders, but with secular rulers, who are as stingy with cash as they are lavish with controls over independent thought.

The long view

The caricature of Islam’s endemic backwardness is easily dispelled. Between the eighth and the 13th centuries, while Europe stumbled through the dark ages, science thrived in Muslim lands. The Abbasid caliphs showered money on learning. The 11th century “Canon of Medicine” by Avicenna (pictured, with modern equipment he would have relished) was a standard medical text in Europe for hundreds of years. In the ninth century Muhammad al-Khwarizmi laid down the principles of algebra, a word derived from the name of his book, “Kitab al-Jabr”. Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham transformed the study of light and optics. Abu Raihan al-Biruni, a Persian, calculated the earth’s circumference to within 1%. And Muslim scholars did much to preserve the intellectual heritage of ancient Greece; centuries later it helped spark Europe’s scientific revolution.

Not only were science and Islam compatible, but religion could even spur scientific innovation. Accurately calculating the beginning of Ramadan (determined by the sighting of the new moon) motivated astronomers. The Hadith (the sayings of Muhammad) exhort believers to seek knowledge, “even as far as China”.

These scholars’ achievements are increasingly celebrated. Tens of thousands flocked to “1001 Inventions”, a touring exhibition about the golden age of Islamic science, in the Qatari capital, Doha, in the autumn. More importantly, however, rulers are realising the economic value of scientific research and have started to splurge accordingly. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which opened in 2009, has a $20 billion endowment that even rich American universities would envy.

Foreigners are already on their way there. Jean Fréchet, who heads research, is a French chemist tipped to win a Nobel prize. The Saudi newcomer boasts research collaborations with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and with Imperial College, London. The rulers of neighbouring Qatar are bumping up research spending from 0.8% to a planned 2.8% of GDP: depending on growth, that could reach $5 billion a year. Research spending in Turkey increased by over 10% each year between 2005 and 2010, by which year its cash outlays were twice Norway’s.

The tide of money is bearing a fleet of results. In the 2000 to 2009 period Turkey’s output of scientific papers rose from barely 5,000 to 22,000; with less cash, Iran’s went up 1,300, to nearly 15,000. Quantity does not imply quality, but the papers are getting better, too. Scientific journals, and not just the few based in the Islamic world, are citing these papers more frequently. A study in 2011 by Thomson Reuters, an information firm, shows that in the early 1990s other publishers cited scientific papers from Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey (the most prolific Muslim countries) four times less often than the global average. By 2009 it was only half as often. In the category of best-regarded mathematics papers, Iran now performs well above average, with 1.7% of its papers among the most-cited 1%, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia also doing well. Turkey scores highly on engineering.

Science and technology-related subjects, with their clear practical benefits, do best. Engineering dominates, with agricultural sciences not far behind. Medicine and chemistry are also popular. Value for money matters. Fazeel Mehmood Khan, who recently returned to Pakistan after doing a PhD in Germany on astrophysics and now works at the Government College University in Lahore, was told by his university’s vice-chancellor to stop chasing wild ideas (black holes, in his case) and do something useful.

Science is even crossing the region’s deepest divide. In 2000 SESAME, an international physics laboratory with the Middle East’s first particle accelerator, was set up in Jordan. It is modelled on CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory, which was created to bring together scientists from wartime foes. At SESAME Israeli boffins work with colleagues from places such as Iran and the Palestinian territories.

By the book

Science of the kind practised at SESAME throws up few challenges to Muslim doctrine (and in many cases is so abstruse that religious censors would struggle to understand it). But biology—especially with an evolutionary angle—is different. Many Muslims are troubled by the notion that humans share a common ancestor with apes. Research published in 2008 by Salman Hameed of Hampshire College in Massachusetts, a Pakistani astronomer who now studies Muslim attitudes to science, found that fewer than 20% in Indonesia, Malaysia or Pakistan believed in Darwin’s theories. In Egypt it was just 8%.

Yasir Qadhi, an American chemical engineer turned cleric (who has studied in both the United States and Saudi Arabia), wrestled with this issue at a London conference on Islam and evolution this month. He had no objection to applying evolutionary theory to other lifeforms. But he insisted that Adam and Eve did not have parents and did not evolve from other species. Any alternative argument is “scripturally indefensible,” he said. Some, especially in the diaspora, conflate human evolution with atheism: rejecting it becomes a defining part of being a Muslim. (Some Christians take a similar approach to the Bible.)

Though such disbelief may be couched in religious terms, culture and politics play a bigger role, says Mr Hameed. Poor school education in many countries leaves minds open to misapprehension. A growing Islamic creationist movement is at work too. A controversial Turkish preacher who goes by the name of Harun Yahya is in the forefront. His website spews pamphlets and books decrying Darwin. Unlike his American counterparts, however, he concedes that the universe is billions of years old (not 6,000 years).

But the barrier is not insuperable. Plenty of Muslim biologists have managed to reconcile their faith and their work. Fatimah Jackson, a biological anthropologist who converted to Islam, quotes Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the founders of genetics, saying that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Science describes how things change; Islam, in a larger sense, explains why, she says.

Others take a similar line. “The Koran is not a science textbook,” says Rana Dajani, a Jordanian molecular biologist. “It provides people with guidelines as to how they should live their lives.” Interpretations of it, she argues, can evolve with new scientific discoveries. Koranic verses about the creation of man, for example, can now be read as providing support for evolution.

Other parts of the life sciences, often tricky for Christians, have proved unproblematic for Muslims. In America researchers wanting to use embryonic stem cells (which, as their name suggests, must be taken from human embryos, usually spares left over from fertility treatments) have had to battle pro-life Christian conservatives and a federal ban on funding for their field. But according to Islam, the soul does not enter the fetus until between 40 and 120 days after conception—so scientists at the Royan Institute in Iran are able to carry out stem-cell research without attracting censure.

But the kind of freedom that science demands is still rare in the Muslim world. With the rise of political Islam, including dogmatic Salafists who espouse a radical version of Islam, in such important countries as Egypt, some fear that it could be eroded further still. Others, however, remain hopeful. Muhammad Morsi, Egypt’s president, is a former professor of engineering at Zagazig University, near Cairo. He has a PhD in materials science from the University of Southern California (his dissertation was entitled “High-Temperature Electrical Conductivity and Defect Structure of Donor-Doped Al2O{-3}”). He has promised that his government will spend more on research.

Released from the restrictive control of the former regimes, scientists in Arab countries see a chance for progress. Scientists in Tunisia say they are already seeing promising reforms in the way university posts are filled. People are being elected, rather than appointed by the regime. The political storms shaking the Middle East could promote not only democracy, but revive scientific freethinking, too.

http://www.economist.com/news/international/21570677-after-centuries-stagnation-science-making-comeback-islamic-world-road