Science in the Islamic world: an interview with Nobel Laureate Ahmed Zewail

For over a hundred years, the Nobel Prize has been awarded for the highest achievements in physical sciences, peace and literature. In this period, only two scientists from the Muslim world have qualified for the prize in physical sciences: Abdus Salam of Pakistan in physics (1979) and Ahmed Zewail of Egypt in chemistry (1999). Abdus Salam passed away in 1996, making Ahmed Zewail the only living Nobel Laureate in physical sciences in the Muslim world.
Science in the Islamic world flourished between the eighth and the eleventh century CE. If there had been a Nobel Prize in that period, on most occasions it would have gone to a Muslim scientist, but the situation is quite different today. Why did scientific discovery decline in the Muslim world? What should Muslims do to regain the excellence in science that they once had? What are the current prospects in this respect in the Islamic world? To find answers to these questions, we talked to Ahmed Zewail about his own fascinating journey to the Nobel Prize and his views about science in the Islamic world.

In one of your recent commentaries in the Independent newspaper, you quote a beautiful verse from the Qur’an “Indeed! God will not change the good condition of the people as long as they do not change their state of goodness themselves” (Rad 13:11). Why did you quote this verse?

If you look at the height of Muslim achievement, Muslims were then acting individually as good Muslims, meaning that they read the Qur’an and they thought of the good things they were supposed to do, for example, to acquire knowledge. As you know, the first word that was revealed of the Qur’an was “read” and this respect for learning is repeated everywhere to the point that scientists of magnitude are almost put on the level of prophets in many ways in the Qur’an. So the Muslims of the early days recognized the importance of acquiring knowledge, but frankly, nowadays because of the deterioration that has taken place among the Muslims, we have become so possessed by the idea of conspiracy theories that we like to blame other people for our decline.
There is no doubt in my mind that there are many external forces that have contributed to our decline, but the truth of the matter is that it falls to us to do better. I am proud to see any Muslim, young or old, achieving at the highest level. In every case I see, I realize that these people did not let external things stop them and they have gone on to achieve. So I can summarize the reasons for our general decline, and I’m taking it verbatim from the Qur’an, as being our own problem.

In your book, you say, “The Sidi Ibrahim al-Desuqi mosque was very important in my life because it defined my early childhood. I used to go to the mosque to study… In Islam, the mosque is not just for prayer, but it is also for scholarship” (p. 15). Do you think this remains true?

Unfortunately, in recent years the mosque has been used by people who are not enlightened about Islam to propagate their point of view, not Islam’s point of view, so a political component has grown in it. It’s a lack of enlightenment on these people’s part. Growing up in Egypt, I remember Al-Azhar as being one of the centers of enlightenment of the world. Now, I didn’t reach Al-Azhar but on the other hand, even in my own town there was a mosque where we used to go and see the Imam, and the main thing he would try to tell us as young boys was that “you’ve got to achieve in knowledge; you’ve got to be the best doctor or the best engineer.” We used to study in the mosque. It was marvelous. I mean, we would meet as young people in the mosque-of course, we would pray-but then after we had prayed, we would all sit down and look at our school books and our study notes, and so it was a center of gravity. In fact, in my book I say that the mosque was the center of gravity for the whole town.

In a number of places in the book you talk about the importance of “having a passion” to achieve something. Have we, as Muslims, lost our passion for science and scholarship? If so, how can we reignite this in the younger generations?

I don’t think we have lost our passion, no. Especially since the Nobel Prize, I have spoken all over the Muslim world from Cairo to Malaysia, from Istanbul to Lebanon, and thousands of people come to my lectures. What I have found is that young people are hungry to achieve-they have that passion for achievement. The problem, unfortunately, is that they are not in the right system to make them realize their potential. So, I always say that the biggest asset right now in the Muslim world is actually its human capital. If this is used in the right way and we rebuild the old centers of excellence to attract the best minds, I believe that the Muslim world can undergo a huge transition. There are political issues, and a lot of political problems, but I don’t think that the problem with the Muslim world is lack of economic resources or lack of human capital. We have both types of resources.

Some people argue that religion and science cannot coexist. What is your take on this issue?

Some of the best minds in the world are religious people. So the claim that in order to be a rational scientist, by definition, you must not believe in a religion is a bit naïve. It seems to me also that it is quite strongly dogmatic. Religion is very important for people for a variety of reasons and I don’t see a conflict between the two.

What do you think about The Fountain, especially from the perspective of promoting the coexistence of science and religion?

Let me tell you why I like The Fountain and, as you know, I subscribe to it. I thank you for introducing me to it. The reason I like The Fountain is that it tends to explain things with reason and in a rational way, but it doesn’t stop the writers utilizing excerpts from the Qur’an that support their argument. But I need the rationality. It seems to me that the fact that the magazine uses this approach and respects the values of reason and knowledge and science will make it more effective.

Do you see the success of people like yourself and Abdus Salam as exceptional individual cases, or as early signs of a revival in the Islamic world?

Not early signs of revival, I always say that I’ve been fortunate to gain two things from my early childhood and my adulthood. First, I’m very proud of the value system that I was given by my family and the way I grew up as a Muslim in Egypt. I did not grow up in a system where I got into drugs and violence; I had never seen a gun before I left Egypt. The values that I acquired from my family were extremely important and gave me confidence for what I have achieved in my life. But besides that and importantly, I did get a good education in Egypt up to the level of university. What America has given me is a system of appreciation and opportunity, and that is what we are lacking in the Muslim world. If I had stayed in Egypt, I would not have been able to do what I have done because of this lack of opportunity and appreciation for achievement.
Let me give you another example; part of the Muslim world is very poor, but there is a big part of it that is very rich. The very rich part has not invested in the human capital. On the other hand, on a recent trip to Malaysia, I met Dr. Mahathir Mohammed, the former prime minister. Now, Malaysia is a country 60% of whose population is Muslim. It is possible to see the results of the experiment that has been carried out in Malaysia. Malaysia has made a transition-its GDP is much higher than most Muslim countries, and they are moving into the developed world-and this has been done in a country with a 60% Muslim population. What they did was to invest in education. Dr. Mohammed told me that, in order to make the transition from an almost underdeveloped economy depending on tin and rubber into one producing micro-electronics and the like, they invested as much as 20% of the GDP in education. So I think the formula is very, very clear in terms of what you can get out of this.

In one of your recent newspaper articles, you mention that one of the primary goals of education in the Muslim world should be “to promote critical thinking.” What do you mean by critical thinking?

Young people are very confused right now; they don’t know what is wrong and what is right. What I mean by critical thinking is that we all have been given the gift of the mind to think, so we should educate the people to think about what’s morally right and what’s morally wrong, but let them also think about, for example, science. There is nothing wrong with studying different points of view about what’s going on in the universe. If you are a good Muslim, it’s up to you-you have the garden of knowledge and you choose what you think. But to intimidate people and say things like “You cannot do this, don’t do that, don’t read about this…” that’s not critical thinking! That’s not what we need.
The Prophet would not allow that forbidding attitude today in my opinion because he was progressive in his thinking; his is a message of peace and critical thinking. In the twenty-first century now, people are thinking about having colonies on the moon, people are thinking about dissecting genes and opening up a whole new world of treatment for molecular diseases, people are thinking about watching atoms on the femtosecond timescale. And we as Muslims need to keep up with this.

You say in the book, “We should not divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and must not allow for the creation of barriers through slogans such as the ‘clash of civilizations’ or the ‘conflict of religions’-we need dialogue not conflict or clashes!” What do you think is the best way of achieving this dialogue?

Let me say, and perhaps I am putting this too strongly, that I think there is ignorance on both sides. There is a large proportion of the population in the Muslim world that I feel is not informed; they are not sophisticated enough to speak to the mind of the west. On the other hand, in the west they have neglected to learn about the Muslim world for a long time and treat it as if there must necessarily be a conflict with Muslims. With this kind of attitude on both sides, we can never get into dialogue.
You know, when I first came to the United States, they used to call the Japanese “the Japs” and the Chinese “the Red Chinese” and so on. Nowadays, because there has been a dialogue and we are starting to understand different cultures, there are Chinese and Japanese restaurants all over the country. China has McDonalds… But we have not done this as far as the Muslim world is concerned. For example, what do they know here in the US about Turkish culture? It could be a start to take the story of the Ottoman Empire and let them learn about the baklava and Turkish hospitality. The same thing is true for the Arabs. We have not done a good job, and on their side I must say they have neglected for a long time to develop any knowledge of the Muslim world or to understand faith or the strong feelings of the Muslims about their faith.
On the individual level, both sides need to be exposed to each other more, and here exchange programs and all kinds of education centers can help. But I tend to put more blame on the Muslim world because we have not taken the initiative to communicate about ourselves as much as the rest of the world does.

You live in California with your wife and two children. How do you keep the balance of work and family life and other personal issues?

I have been fortunate in this because my wife’s father is a professor and she has seen what it means for somebody to work hard, so she knows. She has said many times that my first love is my work. However, having said that, I think my children will say that I am a caring father. I try to balance things. For example, I always spend Sundays with my children; even if I’m staying home reading, they are around me. I see them, I go with them to soccer games, and so on. If you don’t, if you take it to the extreme and you claim that your work is everything, then you have weakened a whole corner of your life, and I don’t believe you will have the strength to do many other things in life.

What is it that keeps you so motivated even after getting a Nobel Prize? Does your background as a Muslim play a role in this?

I think it is a composite of things. First of all, God created me with a passion for whatever I do. If I read a book, I have the passion to finish it. The other thing is my background, as you said. When I came to the United States, I was challenged. As I mention in my book, there were political barriers, there were cultural barriers and scientific barriers. So I was challenged to show that somebody with my background, someone who is a Muslim and grew up with mosques and everything like that can achieve something.
Nowadays, I also try to go beyond the Nobel Prize, and I ask myself if I can help people and if I can help science in general. Perhaps also because of my upbringing and the mosque, I have faith. So I think it’s that kind of faith in life, in the universe, in myself, and in God, of course-all of this makes me who I am.
Nuh Gedik is an Assistant Professor of Physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Before moving to MIT, he worked as a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech in the research group of Prof. Ahmed Zewail.

Published in The Fountain Magazine, issue 67 / January-February 2009.

About Professor Ahmed Zewail

Professor Zewail completed his undergraduate education the University of Alexandria, Egypt, and his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. His honors include more than a hundred prizes, awards, orders of merit, and orders of state from around the world. Professor Zewail was awarded the 1999 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his pioneering developments in the field of femtoscience, making it possible to observe the movement of the individual atoms in a femtosecond, that is, a millionth of a billionth of a second.
Professor Zewail is also renowned for his public lectures and writings on science and technology, education and world affairs, and for his tireless efforts to help the have-nots. In his recent biography Voyage through Time-Walks of Life to the Nobel Prize, he relates his life and work up to his receipt of the Nobel Prize, and he suggests a concrete course of action for the world of the have-nots and a new vision of world order.