The Arabs and Scientific Culture.. Intellectual Luxury or a Necessity of the Age?

The Arabs and Scientific Culture.. Intellectual Luxury or a Necessity of the Age?

As the year is approaching its end this month, Al-Arabi is launching its ambitious project calling for attaching further importance to scientific culture, a call we started six months ago by publishing the Scientific Arabi Supplement as a tool stressing the need for living the age of science and technology. In addition, this month's annual symposium entitled "Scientific Culture and Looking to the Future" is another tool which supports this call, as this component of human culture is really worthwhile.

  • A nation's real wealth today is its scientific advancement.
  • In the Arab world we are not suffering from the tyranny of the machine over man, but from the absence of the machine.
  • Scientific culture is a small system within society s overall cultural system.

Whenever there is talk about the so-called Modern Arab Renaissance Age, reference is made to the Egyptian Sheikh Rifaa El-Tahtawi as a leading advocate of Arab renaissance. He called foreign sciences what is today known as science and technology, which reflected the feeling of the early generation of Arab renaissance of the wide gap between Europe's achievements in science and technology and Arabs' and Muslims' failure in this respect. That came as a shock or even shocks to the Arab mind, namely this "foreign" civilization, which started with the French invasion of Egypt in 1798 led by Napoleon Bonaparte. Abdul Rahman Al Jabarti, Egypt's famous historian at the time, described French sciences and technological advances". They have strange matters, conditions and arrangements which produce such results that people like ourselves can't grasp "

Now, two centuries after that "shock" we are mere" onlookers" rather than "participants", and in all cases, we just fill this gap as "consumers" par excellence of the products of the West as well as the East, Without knowing, or trying to know how others produced those "things", let alone the ambition to produce something similar.

As far as science is concerned, the Arabs' picture is not very gloomy, of course; there are eminent scientists here and there in the Arab world, but, unfortunately at a time the Arabs import their prayer rugs and many of their clothes, toys, in addition to planes, cars, radios, TVs, computers and even light and heavy weapons, which are used in inter-Arab fighting in many instances. As for intercontinental missiles, space rockets, satellites and the like, these are still "foreign" products.

Why is the situation like that? Where should we start in order to change our conditions and adapt to the spirit of the age we are living in?

The suggested answer is "culture", or more specifically here scientific culture which leaves much to be desired in the Arab world.

The historical context

The questions about scientific culture currently facing us had previously faced scientifically and technologically advanced countries in the early l600s in Europe as suggested by some scholars and were associated with the renaissance and the "nucleus of the scientific revolution" which, as Samir Hanna Sadiq put it in his review of Stephen Gay Gold's book, led to "conflict and headache " about humanities physical sciences overlap. But that became more apparent about a century later. With the start of the scientific movement in Europe in the early 1700s there was a sharp ideological conflict between the intellectual elite, whose only weapons were arts and humanities, on the one hand, and a new type of thought compatible with the many scientific and technical innovations which changed people's daily life and social and economic conditions on the other. A two-pronged dilemma arose: one with the humanities- oriented intellectual elite, and the other with the general public. The former rejected that newcomer, and some regarded it as an evil threatening the predominant romanticism in arts and aesthetic values in life and culture. The latter were extremely estranged from such new inaccessible knowledge with its mathematical symbols, theories and vague terms. In view of that serious dilemma and lack of communication between the pioneers of the scientific movement and society, some pioneers opened channels of communication with people through symposiums, demonstrations, lectures and seminars to present and explain new advances in science and knowledge, the beginning of what we call today "scientific culture". In his paper entitled " Scientific Culture : the Key to Development", Dr. Khidr Muhammad Al-Shibani says: Pioneers of the scientific movement were aware of that problem, and many of them were keen to communicate with the intellectual and political leaders as well as people in general to simplify concepts and explain scientific facts. One such prominent pioneer in the early 19th century was the British physicist Michael Faraday, whose discovery of electromagnetic induction led to the invention of the electric dynamo. Faraday was keen to give public lectures and explain his work, and was famous for his skill in dialogue and grabbing the audience's attention. He became the spokesman of the scientific movement and an advocate of popular science education, and his public lectures attracted various levels of British society. That led the (British) Royal Society to establish the Faraday Prize to be awarded to those who make a significant contribution to popular science education. Two interesting stories were reported about Faraday: First, at the end of one of his public lectures an old woman asked him provocatively: What use is electromagnetic induction? His answer was in the form of another question: Madam, what use is a newborn baby? Second, at another lecture attended by the then British Prime Minister he asked Faraday: But what use is electricity? Faraday gave a smart answer: Sir, one day you will collect taxes out of electricity".

Faraday was not the only person who made that endeavour. Debates among discoverers and thinkers played a role in science education and provided popular stories and insights into scientific logic, methodology, empiricism and reasoning. One famous debate was contributed to by a prominent microbe hunter, Robert Koch, who made a breakthrough in medicine by his discovery of microorganisms as a cause of infectious diseases, such as cholera and anthrax. Though he was not good at argument, his defence of his discovery through presenting his experiments on infection and microbe culture were a sort of scientific culture demonstration which journalists, writers and correspondents reported. That perhaps was the first attempt in preparing what are called "science editors", who are greatly involved in science education, though they are not charged with the full task in this respect. With considerable, rapid advances in science, it has become necessary that scientists by themselves present their knowledge directly to the public. Einstein wrote about his theory of relativity. Others followed that tradition; the most well-known being the disabled British scientist Stephen Hawking, whose famous book "A Brief History of Time", was long a top bestseller worldwide. The American scientist Carl Sagan also wrote popular science books about astrophysics and cosmology.

Implications and conclusions

As the above review shows, the first signs of "scientific culture" came in response to the need for explaining new scientific facts to people and the elite. But, what for? Was that just for self-assertion on the part of the leaders of the new scientific movement?

Nations are deeper than that. That's why the British thinker C.P. Snow addressed this issue as a problem in contemporary Western thought, representing a division between the humanities, including arts, and physical sciences, including modern technology that threatens the prosperity of modern Western society. He found such a threat in the rift between the intellectual elite, and science and scientists: "There are strong mutual suspicions and misunderstandings between those involved in the humanities and physical scientists which can have disastrous results on the future of technology." He also referred to the rift between the general public and science: "It is dangerous to have two irreconcilable cultures at a time science controls the greatest part of our destiny".

Applying this view to the Arab world which forms part of the so-called" developing" or "under-developed" world will reveal that the danger is not limited to the duplication and division among the cultural components of a single society but extends to our very existence, particularly in today's world in which the balance of power and influence is measured by the amount of wealth and power derived mainly from scientific advancement. Without active participation in today's world of science and technology, reliance or non-renewable natural wealth and conventional products of backward agriculture and out of date industry brings our development to a standstill and threatens our future. Here, I ask the readers to compare between us and the Jewish state, which in term of science and scientific achievements, is among the world's leading industrial nations, while we depend on others to satisfy our everyday needs.

Moral influences

In a study published in 1970, Dr Hassan Hanafi, professor of Islamic philosophy, said: "We are not suffering from the tyranny of the machine over man, but from the absence of the machine and the continuing manual mentality and delay in the rise of the industrialization mentality. Any attack on the machine is now groundless." This argument, which is over three decodes old, is still valid and it echoes Snow's views regarding the rift between the public and elite, and science whish prevents the shaping of such public opinion that supports science and forces decision makers to activate such support.

This aspect of attention to scientific culture is restricted to the material gain of culture, which we are badly in need of; however there is another aspect which Dr. Hanafi referred to 35 years ago, namely that concerned with adapting thinking styles to the spirit of the times. Many of our disasters are the result of out-of-date thinking styles. The scientific thinking approach, if adopted by the mainstream, can definitely make conditions meet the requirements of the moment. Scientific culture is nearer to the philosophy of science than the facts of science. Philosophy here, as Dr. Osama Al-Khouli put it, means "critical thinking and active enquiry at all levels." Accordingly, scientific culture stresses scientific methodology in the full sense of the word not just empiricism and statistics, and it is closely related to critical thinking and objective awareness.

Such an awareness requires scientific facts, critical thinking and an attitude to life, i.e. a philosophy of existence, not in the spiritual or religious context, but in the social and environmental one.

The above review outlines the argument concerning scientific culture and the attempts made to present science to the elite and people in general in the West. But the situation is different in the Arab World, as there is still confusion and controversy, which is only natural since we are not produces of anything new in science and technology, as there is no scientific movement to he presented to the elite and others. Many discussions have taken place in the Arab world about the concept of scientific culture, the longest being the one published in the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram in the last four months of 1996 and was contributed to by a number of scientists, physicians, academics and those interested in the philosophy of science from the faculties of arts. The main results of that dialogue were:

Publishing the facts of science in a simple way is not the ultimate goal of scientific culture, for culture in its broad sense, is the sum total of science, arts and knowledge which guides man to adopt attitudes and lifestyle, and one of the key objectives of scientific culture is to help man develop a scientific approach to his daily problems. Scientific culture helps non specialists use scientific methods which no society can do without in solving not only scientific but daily problems as well.

Scientific culture is a media discipline which Arab media colleges should focus on to graduate a generation of science reporters capable of carrying the message objectively, thus meeting the needs of society.

Publishing scientific culture may be undertaken by scientists having the ability to write, explain and simplify the facts of science. Many well-known books have been published over the ages by scientists engaged in popular science education, such as Boyle, Pascal, and even Einstein, Crick and Hawking.

The call for the "philosophical assimilation" of the achievements of Western civilization and of the countries which have adopted the tools of scientific advancement in the East, and not for the consumption of their products, to produce such knowledge that meets the challenges of the age and does not clash with our culture.

Scientific culture is a small system within the overall cultural system forming a part of overall society. This small system includes simplified science, science media, science publishing, scientific trips, scientific values and science fiction as well.

Ordinary man's attitude to the considerations and concepts of scientific culture, including methodology, enquiry, objectivity, integrity, observation and hypotheses, is strongly influenced by the local community. A culture of discipline arouses the need for scientific culture in the prosperity of which thrive the trends and mechanisms of the culture of progress.

All the above is only a quick note stressing that scientific culture is not just an elite's intellectual luxury but a necessity of the times and an inevitable tool for the better, without compromising our deeply-rooted Arab culture and identity, whose branches extend to enrich cultural diversity worldwide. There is no contradiction in this matter, and the examples of Japan, China, Korea, and Muslim Malaysia's Mahatir Muhammad, which I have referred to in previous articles in Al-Arabi, are not far away from us here in the East.


Sulaiman Al-Askary

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