Opinion : What should drive research in the Muslim world?

AN ARTICLE WRITTEN BY PROF. SAYED AZAM-ALI
FEATURED IN NEW STRAITS TIMES, LETTERS SECTION
15 JUNE 2018
What should drive research in the Muslim world?
 
The news that The University of Malaya (UM) has achieved 87th place in the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) University Rankings is a genuine cause for celebration for all Malaysians. With Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) at 184th, Malaysia now boasts the two top ranked universities in the Muslim world. However, every silver lining has a cloud. Despite these significant achievements, the fact is that the academic performance of universities in Muslim countries lags behind the rest of the world. At this time of contemplation for all Muslims and the dawn of a new era for all Malaysians, it is appropriate to ask `why?’ Here are some reflections. 
 
Are we doing as well as we should be?
No. Muslims represent a quarter of Humanity. Based on population, there should be around 50 universities from Muslim countries in the top 200 QS Ranking. In fact, there are three (King Faisal University in Saudi Arabia is ranked 189).  
 
Well perhaps we don’t really have an academic tradition of scholarship? 
Nonsense. Whilst most students are dazzled by the antiquity of universities like Oxford and Cambridge, they remain unaware that the first universities were founded in Asia and Africa, predating European universities often by hundreds of years. Which Muslim student knows that the University of Al Quaraouiyine, founded in Morocco in 859 by a woman (Fatima al-Fihri), is the oldest existing, continually operating, degree awarding educational institution in the world? Western mathematicians and scientists owe a debt to the Islamic scholars who helped Europe emerge from the Dark Ages.   
 
We don’t have the resources
Not true. Muslims are amongst the richest people on earth. Based on per capita income, six of the richest 25 countries are Muslim - here at least we meet our quota. Of course, individual wealth in a few small, rich countries is not a measure of the wealth of our resources. But here again we have no excuses. From the fossil reserves of the Middle-East to the biodiversity of Asia, Muslims can claim more than their share of the planet’s bounty. Malaysia alone hosts 5% of the world’s plant species and some of the richest sources of terrestrial and marine biodiversity on the planet. Muslim countries span a `fertile crescent’ from Senegal (further west than Ireland), Kazakhstan (further north than Denmark) and Indonesia (further east than Japan and further south than Brazil).   
 
It’s not all about league tables
True, but even if we ignore the blunt tool of university rankings, research from Muslim countries is less cited than that elsewhere. No author in the 100 most cited papers in the prestigious journal, Nature, was from a Muslim country. Despite forming the majority population of 57 nations and citizenship of most others, only three Muslim scientists are amongst over 900 Nobel Prize laureates. Muslim countries rarely feature in metrics of research performance, spending or scientific discoveries. 
 
Muslim countries face no challenges worthy of scientific study  
Really? Almost half of the global poor live in the Muslim world. Sixty percent of Muslims are below 30 years of age, most live in rural poverty. Unemployment is often high, especially for women and youth. At the same time, many Muslim countries depend on food imports since they cannot feed their own people. If we built a `Trumpian Wall’ around the Muslim world, many of us would starve. We have already seen that in the recent past a combination of food shortages, volatile climates and insufficient energy resources have unleashed public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people can no longer feed themselves. If ever we needed research to meet our own challenges it is now.
   
Climate change is someone else’s problem
No, it’s ours. By 2030, the world's Muslim population will increase by 35% to 2.2 billion people. Food and nutritional insecurity coupled with climate change disproportionately affect Muslim countries, many of which are prone to rising sea levels, extreme weather and fragile infrastructure. Most Muslim countries have experienced at least one climate-related disaster without the means to deal with it. 
 
By their geography, all Muslim countries are in the front line of climate change. There are increasingly fewer places to run to and nowhere to hide from its consequences. Whilst the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement aimed to keep global temperature increases to within 2°C, current predictions are over 3°C. Imagine what each Muslim country will feel like when it is 3°C hotter with increasingly volatile and unpredictable weather patterns and disruptions to food production systems. We must provide communities with the skills and tools needed to cope with changing and unpredictable climates. Business-as-usual will not build climate-resilient communities, innovations might.    
 
How will university rankings help?
By themselves, they won’t. For too long scientists have been encouraged, indeed rewarded, for working in narrow disciplinary silos with a single objective – to publish.  It is easier to follow the `publish or perish’ maxim than to cross its boundaries. Cited publications remain the currency of academic success. However, to solve existential challenges (such as climate change), scientists must increasingly work in multidisciplinary, multinational teams. They must welcome contributions from colleagues who neither look nor think like them but bring new perspectives to a common challenge. This means that we must share not compete for resources, welcome new ideas and encourage debate. We must ask whether our research is relevant to the challenges facing our communities and learn lessons from elsewhere. Publications will not empower communities, shared experiences might.      
 
Islamic finance; a unique mechanism  
Islamic finance offers unique instruments to build climate resilient communities. Its principles and modus operandi bring a different perspective to sustainability. For zakat funds to be used for their purpose, an additional condition needs to be met, i.e. the beneficiaries must be poor. The institution of waqf can help communities cope with humanitarian crises resulting from climate change. Awqaf foundations can directly engage in provision of goods and services related to climate mitigation and adaptation. Islamic Green funds and Islamic Green Sukuk can contribute to research on climate change. Whilst the principles of Islamic finance can support climate change research, it is researchers who must work with and within communities to deliver climate resilience.
 
Finance is not enough – we need innovation
In this new era, we must rethink how we support and reward academic research. Innovation, not only publications, should be our yardstick. Instead of being its nemesis, bureaucracy should facilitate innovation, encourage collaboration, reward achievement, remove restrictions and cherish diversity. Rather than simply counting their publications, academic hierarchies must allow young researchers to challenge the status quo and find innovative solutions to the challenges that we all face. We need to nurture their talents and channel their frustrations so that they can contribute to the change that we need. Without learning from Islamic scholars between the 9th to 14th century, it is not clear whether Europe would have emerged from the Dark Ages to dominate modern science and technology. It is now time to repay that debt to the Muslim world not as competitors but as partners. 
 
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