Sharia-Compliant Science

Austin Dacey

The official results of the disputed Iranian presidential election in June 2009 aren’t the only unbelievable numbers to come out of Tehran lately. This fall, the publisher of the peer-reviewed journal Engineering and Computers withdrew a paper co-authored by Iran’s science minister, Kamran Daneshjou, after Nature magazine revealed that it had been plagiarized. The paper, “Analysis of Critical Ricochet Angle Using Two Space Discretization Methods,” contained significant portions of text, figures, and tables copied from a 2002 article by South Korean researchers in the Journal of Physics.1

Critics have also questioned the legitimacy of the academic credentials of Daneshjou, a professor at Iran University of Science and Technology (his online vita currently states that he did doctoral studies at the Imperial Collage of London).2 As it happens, Kaneshjou was running the Interior Ministry’s election headquarters in June, and his new appointment came courtesy of the man who claimed victory, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Maybe it does all add up.

Perhaps this behavior is to be expected from a member of Iran’s mullahcractic regime, which has perfected the tradition of taqiyya, or religiously-sanctioned dissimulation. What is more shocking is that Iran is among the more scientifically productive nations in the Islamic world—for present purposes, defined as the fifty-seven members of the intergovernmental Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

A Revolution Deferred

Here are some astonishing figures from Pervez Hoodbhoy, chairman of the department of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan:

A study by academics at the International Islamic University Malaysia showed that OIC countries have 8.5 scientists, engineers, and technicians per 1000 population, compared with a world average of 40.7…. Forty-six Muslim countries contributed 1.17% of the world’s science literature, whereas 1.66% came from India alone and 1.48% from Spain. Twenty Arab countries contributed 0.55%, compared with 0.89% by Israel alone. The [U.S. National Science Foundation] records that of the 28 lowest producers of scientific articles in 2003, half belong to the OIC.3

Another survey found that of the approximately 1,800 universities in OIC countries,

only 312 publish journal articles. A ranking of the 50 most published among them yields these numbers: 26 are in Turkey, 9 in Iran, 3 each in Malaysia and Egypt, 2 in Pakistan, and 1 in each of Uganda, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, and Azerbaijan. For the top 20 universities, the average yearly production of journal articles was about 1500, a small but reasonable number. However, the average citation per article is less than 1.0 (the survey report does not state whether self-citations were excluded).

Even Turkey, the most scientifically productive of OIC states, produced only 88,000 research papers between 1996 and 2005, less than the typical output of a single Ivy League university in the same period.4

Recent years have seen bold hikes in scientific research funding by governments such as Turkey, Pakistan, and Qatar, but nothing yet seems to have made a dent in the fundamental reality: Science in the Muslim world is moribund.

Abstaining from Science

In 1979, the OIC established a new body to promote science: the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (ISESCO). Headquartered in an ostentatious complex in Rabat, Morocco, and maintaining regional offices in Paris, Tehran, Chad, the Union of the Comoros, and the Emirate of Sharjah, ISESCO would, according to its charter, “support the efforts of Member States in developing programmes of education and technical and practical training; and encourage researchers and inventors from the Member States.” Last year, ISESCO claimed it would partner with UN bodies such as UNESCO and UNICEF to undertake close to two hundred projects costing around $6 million.

Yet according to Hoodbhoy, the achievements of this and sister initiatives (such as the OIC’s Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation) to date have amounted to little more than “sporadically held conferences on disparate subjects, a handful of research and travel grants, and small sums for repair of equipment and spare parts.”

In 2006, ISESCO published a Guide for the Incorporation of Reproductive Health and Gender Concepts into Islamic Education Curricula, obviously a critically important subject area where some scientific facts are in order. The Guide, which can be found on ISESCO’s Web site, is addressed to curriculum developers, textbook writers, and those responsible for training instructors in formal Islamic education for students aged six to nineteen. Its introduction stresses the need “to supply, at the proper time, adolescents with appropriate health information on the biological aspects within the framework of Islamic rulings and values” and emphasizes “the fact that Sharia, whether in its original or interpretative sources, is the only source for establishing, interpreting, clarifying, and incorporating reproductive health issues, including adolescent health, in the programs of formal education.”5

What follows contains not a shred of science but instead a series of checklists and tips for imparting Sharia rulings on matters of health, hygiene, and sexual ethics. The ISESCO authors mention the Islamic basis for upholding “equality in human dignity” and “good treatment of the girl and kindness towards her” and opposing female circumcision and “indiscrimination between the sexes” (sic?). They also instruct teachers that Islam forbids, among other things, fornication, homosexuality, intercourse during menstruation, and khulwa (an unrelated man and woman being alone together). At the same time, they assert that Islamic law justifies polygamous marriage and, above all, abstinence.

The student should adhere to the lofty Islamic morals and ideals that call for modesty, lowering one’s gaze, avoiding mixing and being alone with a person with whom one can be intimate, abstinence, resisting shameful deeds, avoiding any provocative act or item of dress that may encourage sexual harassment and lapsing into harlotry . . . [and] observe abstinence before marriage.

And this from a publication that was “compiled in cooperation with United Nations Population Fund”!6

In this Guide, as in numerous other documents, ISESCO is only doing its job. Rather than seeking Muslim integration with the global research and academic communities, its stated mission is to advance science “within the framework of the civilizational reference of the Islamic world and in the light of the human Islamic values and ideals.” In this case, ISESCO does not even do students the service of setting forth the relevant empirical evidence for the purpose of beating it senseless with religious precepts.

Elsewhere, ISESCO dispenses with pretexts at pedagogy altogether and joins in familiar Islamist propaganda against Jews. In Protection of Islamic and Christian Holy Sites in Palestine, the proceedings of a conference held in Amman in November 2004, Adnane Ibrahim Hassan Al Subah writes, “Jews are the enemies of Allah, the enemies of faith and of the worship of Allah”7—not a paragon of experimentally testable hypotheses. In a sickening touch, copies of this ISESCO publication were distributed at an OIC-sponsored “Inter-institutional Forum on Universal Shared Values: Challenges and New Paradigms,” attended by various UN dignitaries and held in the chambers of the UN Human Rights Council in December 2008 on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN gadfly David Littman sent an open letter of complaint the following month; he has yet to receive a response from the Islamic Scientific, Educational, and Cultural Organization.

While ISESCO has the right to promote Islamic values, some of the practices it endorses are arguably contrary to international human rights standards found in treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of Child, to which most OIC states are signatories. Certainly the UN has no business partnering with them in its efforts to support responsible family planning. This is all the more disappointing because ISESCO’s Sharia-based approach described above is only the most conservative way to promulgate reproductive health science within the framework of Islamic values. There are alternatives, such as a program pioneered by the UN Population Fund that trains Afghan clerics on issues of women’s health and rights.

The broader question remains: what explains the malaise of Muslim science and what can be done about it?


  1. “Exclusive: Paper Co-Authored by Iran’s Science Minister Duplicates Earlier Paper – September 22, 2009,” The Great Beyond. Available at, accessed 28 November 2009.
  2. Borzou Daragahi, “IRAN: Proposed Education Minister Accused of Making Up His Degrees,” Los Angeles Times (August 29, 2009). Available at accessed 28 November 2009.
  3. Pervez Hoodbhoy, “Science and the Islamic World: The Quest for Rapprochment,” Physics Today (August 2007). Available at accessed 25 November 2009. Hoodbhoy is also the author of Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality (London: Zed Books, 1991). See also the special issue of “Islam and Science,” Nature 444, 19 (2006).
  4. Ehsan Masood, “New Wave for Islamic Science,” BBC News (February 16, 2009).
  5.; accessed 25 November 2009.
  7.; accessed 25 November 2009.

Austin Dacey

Austin Dacey, Ph.D., is former director of Science and the Public, a program of the Center for Inquiry and State University of New York at Buffalo, and author of several articles and books, including The Secular Conscience. He holds a doctorate in applied ethics and social philosophy and has taught most recently at Polytechnic Institute of New York University.