Is this the dark age of the Muslim world?

Muslims’ institutes of higher learning are lagging behind in providing quality science and technology education.
Published July 4, 2016

It is a well-known fact that 1.6 billion Muslims contribute a disproportionately smaller share to the world’s knowledge. This global community – forming the majority population of 57 countries and spanning virtually every single country of the world – has had only three Nobel laureates in science in the history of this prestigious prize. The number of universities from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member countries in the top 500 universities of the world is only a little better than that.

Clichés aside, there is a widely shared view that science in the Muslim world is significantly lagging behind the rest of the world. This view is partly based on indicators, such as global university rankings, research spending, researchers per million people, performance of pre-university students etc. The causes of this bad performance and potential remedies are hotly debated.

In recent years, a number of Muslim-majority countries have made strong efforts, particularly with respect to directing scarce resources for improving science, in general, and universities, in particular, to change this status quo of decades, if not centuries, and it is important to see how effective these efforts have been.

Universities are the bedrock of a knowledge society. In the developed world, these have evolved over hundreds of years into institutions that specialise in creating and disseminating knowledge. In the Muslim world, particularly the Arab world, universities are a relatively recent phenomenon: three quarters of all Arab universities were established in the last 25 years of the 20th century.

We recently studied the status of universities in the Muslim world and found that while several countries have made progress, at least in terms of jumpstarting a culture of research and publishing, significant issues remain to be addressed. In particular, it has been found that science education at pre-university level fares worse in the Muslim world and there is little evidence that the situation improves when the young men and women join the university.

Explore: Science education in schools

Universities of the Muslim world have not ranked highly in the various global university rankings. In the 2014-15 edition of the QS World University Rankings, no university of the Muslim world was in the top 100, and only 17 ranked among the top 400 (11 between 300 and 400). Similarly, the most recent the Times Higher Education World University Rankings had only 10 universities from the Muslim world in the top 400 (five of them between 300 and 400). This has often led to repeated calls to enhance rankings of universities in the Muslim world and to create ‘world-class’ universities. While there has been some advancement on the former, the latter has remained largely inaccessible.

Though there was lack of data on a number of factors, our report identified and analysed a number of important underlying themes and issues – particularly focusing on the universities – and made recommendations that would be a useful starting point for policymakers and academic leaders to implement.

Read more: Mapping Higher Education in Pakistan

Broad, liberal, holistic education in science

One of the most significant findings were rather narrow disciplinary focus of science teaching in most universities of the Islamic world. In most OIC countries, the age at which children decide whether or not to pursue a scientific career and which discipline is between 14 to 18 years after which most of what they study is within the narrow confines of their chosen discipline. This, not only does not auger well for their development as individuals of diverse and multiple interests, but also creates challenges for a fruitful scientific career.

Today’s scientists and engineers must be creative and innovative and work in multidisciplinary and multinational teams. This requires exposure to a broad and liberal education comprising not just scientific theory and practice but also humanities, social sciences, communications and language, and interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approach, etc. This can help develop a broad base of knowledge and questioning for a flexible mind that can relate to the theory and fundamentals of a given problem and see its application or context clearly and use this knowledge effectively.

Explore: 8 signs Pakistan is slipping further into an education crisis

Another area of weakness in teaching of science in the Muslim world is the absence of philosophy and even history of science from the university curricula.

As a result, the scientists who are very good resources on the bench often fail to engage with this fascinating body of knowledge at a much deeper level to ask critical questions that they are supposed to do in the first place.

The notion of a university that mixes science with history and philosophy in modern times can help deal with this situation.

The American University of Sharjah (AUS) is one such university that is an oasis in desert when it comes to providing a holistic liberal educational experience to its students who have to take courses in humanities, history, culture, and language regardless of their chosen disciplines. The university was recently ranked among the top 10 in the Arab world. Other American universities in Beirut and Cairo also follow a similar approach.

The Habib University, Karachi, is yet another recent and welcome development. Following the well-tested model of a US-style liberal arts university, Habib’s science and engineering programs require students to undertake a rigorous liberal arts course and seek to create scientists and engineers who can comprehend and tackle complex, interconnected issues and develop sustainable solutions for the society. Students must take subjects such as ‘understanding modernity’ and ‘Hikma 1 and 2’ – a two-course sequence literally translated as ‘Traditional Wisdom 1 and 2’ – in addition to many others that seek to create holistic rather than narrow disciplinary professionals. An extensive program of societal engagement that tests not only their knowledge but also their ability to adapt and utilise is also a part of the student experience.

Read more: Pakistan Caught up in the Plagiarism Trap

Curricular and pedagogical developments

The inability to engage with philosophy and history also reflects in the timidity to constructively engage with religious objections to science. While science curricula are often imported ‘as is’ from the West, the controversial scientific ideas such as Darwin’s theory of evolution are taught in superficial and disjointed manner. As one observer notes the damage is often done in the “closing remarks from the instructor.”

Another major challenge is the language of instruction. More often than not, particularly in the science subjects at the university level, the language of instruction is English but only a few people are fully trained to absorb what is being taught in a non-native language with others suffering from significant information-loss.

Beyond what is to be taught and the language of instruction – two issues of some importance in the Islamic World– the question of how science and mathematics are being taught is of critical importance as well. With few exceptions, science curricula at universities in the Muslim World tend to be heavily loaded, with extensive “coverage” of topics, instead of aiming for a deeper understanding of how the sciences work and scientists think, and how to analyse problems.

The global consensus today has moved to the need to introduce pedagogical innovation, using evidence-based practices in the teaching of science. Evidence is mounting against our age-old practice of lecture style science teaching that encourages rote learning and kills the natural creativity and interest of students. Inquiry-based science education (IBSE) is the new game in town and efforts are being made in several Muslim countries to implement these within classrooms. However, the universities in the Muslim world still continue lagging behind those in the developed world where many new initiatives and innovations on how science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) must be taught are currently underway.

Explore: No country for educationists: Quetta loses yet another bright mind

There are several reasons for this lag. The lack of competence amongst faculty is one of them. The university faculty are hired with a PhD in their fields; sometimes they will have had some experience as teaching assistants during their doctoral studies and sometimes not, but rarely – if ever – will they have received any pedagogical training. The lack of autonomy for universities is also another reason that hampers pedagogical innovation.

Following the lead of ‘La Main à la Pâte’, the Scientific Cooperation Foundation for Science Education, in France and other similar STEM programs in the developed world, there have been efforts in the Muslim world to adapt the IBSE with a “local flavour”, for example, Prof. Djebbar’s program, titled ‘Découvertes en Pays d’Islam’ in Tunisia helps teach scientific ideas by relating great examples and stories from the golden age of Islam, the ‘1001 Inventions’ traveling exhibition and its educational component, among others.

Efforts are also underway at even more foundational level and without much government support to popularise inquiry-based science education among younger students and the masses. In Pakistan, for instance, a range of organisations actively pursue this agenda. Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), Buraq Planetary Society, Khwarizmi Science Society (KSS), and Pakistan Science Club engage with students at various levels through science fairs, astronomy nights, and other hands-on sessions.

Read more: Higher Education: Past, Present and Future

Relevant and responsive science

Until recently, it has been widely understood, sometimes on the basis of actual data that science in the Muslim world (research papers published, invention patents registered, citations of scholarship, etc.,) has been largely trailing behind the rest of the world.

We gathered bibliometric data on science production for 20 OIC countries (and five ‘comparable’ ones) over the last two decades, 1996 to 2005 and 2006 to 2015 and found some interesting results.

The data shows that the OIC member countries have produced more papers in the last decade (2006 to 2015) compared to the previous one (1996 to 2005) and, for the more aggressive of these countries, at a rate greater than the comparable countries in the West.

However, quality is what matters most and this is gauged through the citation per-paper ratio. Papers from Muslim countries appear to be less frequently cited pointing to a reality that the Muslim countries produce research of lower quality than that of comparable countries. Furthermore, a recent list of top 100 most cited papers by the prestigious journal, Nature, had none of lead authors from the Muslim world.

Even though, the figures seem to be rather reasonable and encouraging for several – but not all – countries of the Muslim world, there may be ways to partially explain the inability of researchers from the Muslim world to be cited as often as their western counterparts. For example, page charges in high quality journals, citation bias against papers from ‘obscure’ universities, etc.

Explore: Could a smartphone app give Pakistan the push it needs to be polio-free?

However, in addition to being globally competitive, it is critical that the scientific research being carried out in the Muslim World in general, and the universities in particular, is of relevance and responsive to these societies. Many universities of the Muslim world appear to struggle in meeting the dual objectives of being both globally competitive and locally relevant for one can, almost by definition, exclude the other.

One approach being adopted by a number of Muslim countries is to bring, in fact almost transplant overnight, foreign universities and charge them to engage in cutting-edge research inspired by local problems. The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia, Masdar Institute of science and technology in United Arab Emirates, and several American University campuses in Education City in Doha are bold experiments to achieve just this with some success, though the jury is still out on whether this is sustainable in the long run. These are extremely expensive to operate and hence out of reach for a vast majority of the OIC member countries. More modest, but organically grown, approaches to creating globally competitive but locally relevant research programs can be seen at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) and the Aga Khan University (AKU) in Pakistan and Sharif University of Technology in Iran.

The newly-established Information Technology University (ITU) in Lahore, Pakistan is an interesting attempt to replicate a well-established model of in the West. Inspired by pedagogical style and ecosystem approach of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), ITU seeks to orient its students towards real-life problem-solving without, hopefully, losing track of engaging with appropriate dose of theoretical grounding. For instance, it has launched the Innovations for Poverty Alleviation (IPAL) Lab, mirroring a similar organisational construct at MIT that engages students in design and development of innovative solutions for community problems.

Read more: Our Varsities Have Turned into Junk Factories

Challenges, however, are still there in proper engagement with the society. In the vital discipline of science and technology for society, for instance, there is just one university in the entire Muslim world – the University of Malaya – that offers a program with the result that science and engineering graduates from within the Muslim world often struggle in connecting science with the society at large.

Creating world-class universities

But how would we create universities that can deliver on these lofty goals? The simple answer to the question is that universities must be meritocracies that hire best faculty and retain it with incentives. To do so, they must provide the right kind of productive environment that attracts such faculty and keeps them intellectually challenged, energised, and engaged.

The greatness of the Muslim ‘Golden Age’ of science did not come from the fact that those scientists were somehow better people, it was because they lived in a society that was open to rationality, inquiry, and doubt, but above all, merit. The magic comes not from the scientists but from the society.

Therefore, the whole purpose of science education and, by that token, the university enterprise, must not be to create impact factors and rankings but to create a society that values doubt, rationality, inquisitiveness, and merit.

But if we must create a society that have all the values, the task must begin at the universities for they are not only a microcosm of the society, but also literally the cradle that incubates and gives wings to the future scientists, engineers, and citizens. Unless our universities champion the values we crave for our society, there is minimal chance of creating such a society.

Transforming our universities into bastions of meritocracy for the society shall require some fundamental re-engineering – not just holding them accountable for the right objectives but also giving them autonomy to do so, and measuring and rewarding the right things.

Unfortunately, in recent years, in the midst of the rush to do more, policymakers have put in place incentives – sometimes very well-meaning incentives – that have led to significant collateral damage. Measuring and rewarding people for publications in impact factor journals and gauging university competitiveness by rankings alone are two examples of objectives that have perverted the system.

Quality and merit rather than quantity and meaningless targets should be the primary forces driving decision making in our universities.

Our universities must hire the best faculty, fund them to create meaningful scientific careers, and empower them to produce science and engineering graduates who are imbued with the right values and are capable of surviving and thriving in a complex and highly competitive world.

Read more: Research Landscape of Pakistan


Institutions of higher learning have existed in the Muslim world at least since 859 CE, when Fatima Al-Fihri created in Fes, Morocco, what is sometimes considered the world’s oldest university. Other centres of learning and research were established from Cordoba to Baghdad and Samarkand. A long period of decline set in, however, after the ‘Golden Age.’ Today, after large post-colonial investments in education by many countries, there is a sense that universities are not producing scientists and knowledge at nearly the levels that could reasonably be expected.

Creating a productive climate for science will require some fundamental re-tooling of the universities in the Muslim world. For instance, it will require a review and reform of science curricula and pedagogy in the Muslim world in a manner that learns from best practices (particularly inquiry-based science education); encouraging broad, holistic, and liberal education; greater multidisciplinary mindset; greater autonomy and effective pedagogical training of faculty; re-orientation towards greater relevance and service to society; adopting a zero tolerance policy towards plagiarism, academic fraud, and perversion of incentives; policy action to address the critical issue of language of instruction; and engaging science academies, science to action councils, and non-governmental entities to create role models to inspire the younger generation – particularly women – to take up scientific careers.

Without making these tough choices to make science central to the affairs of Muslim societies, the dream of a scientific revival in the Muslim world shall remain a dream.

This piece first appeared on MIT Technology Review Pakistan and has been reproduced with permission.

Dr. Athar Osama is an honorary senior associate at Center for Research and Evaluation of Muslim Education (CRÈME) at UCL Institute of Education, London and the founder of Muslim World Science Initiative, Islamabad, Pakistan. He is also a fellow of the New York-based World Technology Network (WTN) and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Prof. Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of Physics and Astronomy at American University of Sharjah and the author of ‘Islam’s Quantum Question: reconciling Muslim tradition and modern science. He was the convener of the task force on science at universities of the Muslim world.