A conversation with Dr. Nidhal Guessoum on underlying problems in Universities of the Muslim World

Prof Dr. Nidhal Guessoum is an Algerian astrophysicist based in  the UAE. He completed M.Sc and P.hD in Physics at the University of California, San Diego (USA). Currently, he is serving as a professor at the American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. Dr. Nidhal has research interests ranging from gamma-ray astrophysics, such as positron-electron annihilation, nuclear gamma-ray lines, and gamma-ray bursts, to Mars .

Besides his academic work, Prof. Guessoum is the author of a handful of books and  regularly writes about issues related to science, education, the Arab world, and Islam.  He is a regular columnist for  Arab News and has written for several other news outlets, including notable contributions to Nature Middle East.  He has frequently appeared on international TV channels.

Scientia Pakistan caught him during his recent visit to Pakistan and our editorial team memberMohammad Abdullah Khan had a  short and interesting conversation with him on underlying problems  of universities in the Muslim world. Here are some excerpts.

Abdullah: Professor, we have seen luxury buildings, costly cars, and magnificent buildings in the Middle East but very few world-class universities and institutes. What do you think are the urgent steps much needed for the revival of science and technology in the Muslim world? 

Professor Guessoum: Thank you very much for this opportunity. This is a long and big question and problem. Indeed, in the Muslim world, the universities that are in the top 400 can be counted as a dozen or two dozen maximum. And that is, of course, a concern because we want to ensure that students around the Muslim world, and they number in tens of millions, are receiving quality education and not just going to university and getting degrees and diplomas. Especially in fields where they are going to have a significant impact on societies. Whether it is in management or science and technology or medicine or other areas that are critical or vital.

There have been improvements, we  must say. There have been improvements in many countries, where universities have become aware that they are  trailing behind, and that is in a way thanks to the rankings that have appeared in different places. People have realized that  their universities often rank in the bottom 1000 or something like that. So they have started to take steps to push the faculty to improve: in their research especially; in the updating of their knowledge; in the delivery of education to students; in bringing more equipment; updating the teaching methods; even the administrative methods have to be improved; improving the quality of libraries; and so on and so forth.

There is also more emphasis on accreditation; there is more emphasis on checking that programs and curricula are being covered properly. So there are a number of places, including in the Middle East, Pakistan, and the rest of the Muslim world, where there is an awareness that there are important steps to be taken, such as those I mentioned.

We are still far behind, there is no doubt about that, as yearly rankings show. The efforts that have  been made in the last five to ten years have started to produce improvements at a number of universities that have been  climbing in the rankings. But the general trend in the Muslim world is that the quality of education is way behind. This will take a generation because the improvement of the delivery of knowledge to the students will lead to better professors  and to better administrators. Hence the next wave will further improve education and this will be an iterative process. So let’s wait and see what happens over the next five to ten years; hopefully, these efforts will continue, will bear some fruit and point to specific areas that  require more work.

Mohammad Abdullah Khan with Dr. Nidhal Guessoum
Mohammad Abdullah Khan with Dr. Nidhal Guessoum

Abdullah: Professor, there is a view, especially in the south Asian region, about the contribution of Muslim scientists and the tendency to glorify the past accomplishments of great scientists claiming them to be the fathers of various scientific fields. So should we still cling on to past achievements?

Professor  Guessoum: If you are talking about the old Islamic civilization, there is no doubt that a thousand years ago, maybe five hundred years ago, this region was the top region in terms of science and technology in the entire world. The history of science shows that there was incredible work being done in this region including, for example, in astronomy, with a number of observatories that were built, large scale, precise, and important measurements, models were being developed; medicines were  produced; in surgery, new tools new techniques, new drugs for curing different illnesses; hospitals being built, advanced ways, including sometimes psychology, psychiatry using music, and so on.

But we cannot keep on  looking back. Yes, we had the greatest scientists and thinkers in different fields,  but we cannot keep on looking at the past. We need to understand what happened in this region since then, to this broad culture, which encompasses almost 2 billion people now. What happened to it? What needs to be done now?  Is it something within the societies? Is it something within the economic systems? Is it because of the recent colonial history we suffered? Is it because of the big population that we have, and it is challenging to take care of all  its developmental needs? 

After colonialism was over (defeated), people felt that there was some essential infrastructures to be built. We need to build schools, hospitals, and roads. The priority  was not to do top astronomy. The priority was vital needs and proper infrastructure. But that is past. Colonialism has been gone for more than fifty or sixty years from the Muslim world. There has been mismanagement. There have been bad policies, and there have been certain socio-cultural trends that have prevented us from moving forward. We have had a wave of radical Islamism. We have had a wave of fundamentalism. We have had dictatorship and corruption. So we need to look at what happened and what is happening and stop looking at the past.

Dr Nidhal
Dr. Nidhal

Abdullah: Professor, you have been to western universities as well as in Muslim universities. Keeping in view the past glorious legacy of Muslim scientists, what do you think is the crucial  ingredient that is missing today, in Muslim universities, scholars, and researchers, that is inhibiting technological progress in the Muslim world?

Professor Guessoum: First, it is difficult to talk about Muslim universities in general and western universities. There are universities in the Muslim world that are better than some western universities. But they are only a small number. And it is difficult to pinpoint one factor or one criterion that needs to be changed. There are several factors that people have identified: we need proper management, first of all; We need greater discipline in covering the programs. In my personal experience, the curriculum is not covered properly  in many cases.

The examination procedure needs to be done more rigorously. There has to be an evaluation, rigorous evaluation of every course, and every faculty member. Just like we evaluate the students and give them grades, we need to evaluate the faculty and the courses. How well did we do? What happened? The evaluation has to be objective, and it has to be multidimensional. The students have to evaluate the course. The head of the department has to evaluate the faculty. The faculty has to do self-evaluations, and this has to be continuously improved. What needs to be done next time I teach the same course? What needs to be done with my other colleagues who have been teaching the same course?  Everyone must understand that we need to be disciplined; we need to complete the curriculum; we need to do the examinations properly; we need to do the experiments properly. We need to write term papers. We need to root out plagiarism. And so forth.

There is also another  important issue. The faculty has to understand that research is not a luxury and is not only just to get promoted. You must do research because you must stay up-to-date in your field. That is why you do research, first and foremost. And of course, you contribute to the production of knowledge, and you involve students, and you inform them of what is happening in this field: here are the current questions and current problems, and here is what we are doing in this university, and this is what other groups are doing in the region or in the west, and so on. So we need to make sure that research is an integral part of academic life.

We also need to give some freedom to the faculty. It is not that we are going to check and monitor and evaluate  every faculty and every course, every year, with annual reports and this and that. The faculty has to be given some freedom to innovate in teaching, to change some things, to do something a little bit new, different. I should be able to try something,  to pursue this line of research, and to publish as I want. Researchers must not be censored. And the faculty has to be supported financially, administratively, and in terms of resources, including library subscription, the possibility of traveling to conferences, to invite researchers and collaborators to come and spend a few weeks and maybe give a few lectures or teach  special courses.

There has to be this dynamic  within each university and with the rest of the world. Otherwise, if we keep teaching the same old way, then mediocrity  sets in, and people just say, “I finished two-thirds of the course, that’s enough. I have given the students one exam. No need for homework, no need for assignments, no need to do projects, no need to do presentations.” And things start to become more and more mediocre. 

Abdullah Khan and Dr. Nidhal at LUMS, Pakistan
Abdullah Khan and Dr. Nidhal at LUMS, Pakistan

Abdullah: Sir Roger Penrose is a harsh critic of inflationary theory in cosmology. Other theorists and astrophysics argue that we need a considerable paradigm shift in cosmology; do you agree with ment?

Professor  Guessoum: well first, to be honest, I am not a cosmologist. I am aware of and I understand essential cosmology  (I teach that as part of my astrophysics courses). But I have never taught cosmology as a full course, and I have never published a cosmology paper, just to be fully honest. But I have discussed and presented even inflation to my students and explained what we know about inflation now and why it is widely accepted. Is there strong evidence for inflation, and why do top scientists like Roger Penrose reject inflation and think that it is not a valid theory? Penrose thinks that inflation is not acceptable because you can get anything you want from inflation. You can tweak it any way you want. You can modify it any way you want, you can put any parameters you want, and you can fit your results  to data in cosmology.

Others think that inflation is a valid and strong paradigm because it at least explains some features from the universe that the standard big bang theory wasn’t able to explain. For example, the so-called horizon problem, the so-called flatness problem, the monopole problem, and when we started to have very detailed data on the cosmic microwave background, including the different fluctuations, inflation was able to explain them.

 But people like Penrose say, “of course, you got a good fit, you put in the right parameters, what do you expect?” But others say, “yeah, but not every theory where you put the right parameters, you get the right fit.” And there are theories out there like the standard model of elementary particles, where you have a number of parameters which you have to put, and yet everybody likes the standard model of elementary particles. 

Now, some important experiments are coming soon. The so-called  BICEP Array or BICEP 3, which should start producing results within a year or less, and that should give some further data from a different perspective, such as the polarization of the cosmic microwave background affected by gravitational waves. Things like that. If it really fits what the inflationary model claims, then it will be another confirmation that this inflationary model is generally true even though it still requires quite a bit of initial input, and we don’t know why that initial input is like that. So I think it is a fascinating debate within the cosmology community whether inflation is the right way to go and keep on going. And maybe we will understand a lot more with it, or  perhaps we need to shift completely to another paradigm and try to explain the features of the universe from another perspective.    

Abdullah: How can we connect, Islamic traditions with modern science to foster our growth in Science and Technology, Research and Development, and other areas?

Professor Guessoum:  As we were saying a moment ago, the Islamic civilization, for roughly about a thousand years, was prosperous in science and other fields.  Not just in science by the way, in the arts and philosophy too. In many different fields, the Islamic civilization was a glorious civilization. But in particular, in science and medicine and technology, it produced an incredible legacy. What we need to learn from it is this strong encouragement to go and discover. And there are verses in the Quran which urge us to explore and contemplate the intricacies of the universe. There is a huge tradition of that among  many Muslim thinkers: Al-Beruni and Ibne-Sina from this part of the world, and many others like Ibne-Rushd from Andalusia, Spain, and different thinkers from the entire Islamic world, who explained that the Islamic culture itself pushed them and encouraged them to go and seek and discover.

So that idea is what we need to reignite. Islam is not just about the  rituals, and the Quran is not a book where we try to find facts. The Quran is a source of encouragement and a source of impetus. It is pushing us, and it is calling on us. It is challenging us to discover, think, contemplate, compare, etc., and that tradition of looking at the entire world and the entire field of knowledge, not just  what will help us live better. People spent so much time and money on astronomy, and while some of it was useful in daily life because people calculate prayer times or things like that, more than 90% of astronomy done in those days had no practical application, but people really wanted to do that.

They wanted very accurate data. They wanted sophisticated models, and they discussed it, and there were sometimes big observatories with 15, 20 full-time astronomers who were there to do just pure astronomy. So people were interested in many things and felt that everything which could be learned was worthy of being learned. I think this general philosophy which, as I said, they got from the Islamic tradition, is what we need to reinvigorate. People now have a very narrow understanding of how Islam and the Quran relate to science, and we need to open their minds and open their perceptions to that worldview, including from their own tradition.      

Abdullah:  As it is evident that our governments are not willing to do anything for the promotion of science and technology. Can we make a pool of scientists from Iran, Algeria, Turkey, Pakistan, GCC, or UAE to help themselves with the deep interaction of science promotion and research? If yes, how we can set these parallel organizations of scholars from the Muslim World?

Professor Guessoum: I don’t think we need a parallel organization;what we need is what we might call south-south collaboration, instead of – or in addition to – north-south collaboration. We have a tendency, and this is almost everywhere in the world, not just in the Muslim world,to seek collaboration with the north or with the west. And this is understandable because that’s where the top science is being done, so you want to go to the top lab, want to go to the top university, and spend a few months there. Every student here, even at LUMS, or at any university, would dream of spending even a summer or spending a few  weeks at Oxford or Cambridge or MIT or Caltech. And scientists, if you give them a chance and say, “you can go and spend your summer at Princeton or Imperial College,” they would jump on that. But if you say, “you can go spend two months in Algeria or Jordan,” they would say, “why would I do that?”

What we need is to develop this internal collaboration between universities in a given country, between universities of neighboring countries, between universities in a region, which shares the same culture. We can exchange students and resources. You have incredible labs here; I have visited  the LUMSphysics labs, for example, and I would love to send my students from the UAE to LUMS to spend a few weeks and do some experiments that we do not have at all in my department at my university. Why would I send them to MIT, which is much more expensive and difficult to set up (visas and all), when I can send them to Lahore or  some nearby city or country where excellent resources may be available. 

People here share the same culture as Arabs, more or less. There’s a little mosque next door.  All food is halal. And there is some outstanding science. We need to explain to people that there are some excellent reasons why we need to develop this internal or regional collaboration. There is some expertise that we do not have, and we have some experts that you do not have in some fields or some areas.  Having said that, we should not isolate ourselves and say, “let’s just collaborate among ourselves and forget the west.” We cannot forget the west because the top-top science is done there. Likewise, we cannot forget the east. We have to connect with China, which is becoming a top player in science and it’s almost number one,  alongside the USA. We must connect with Japan, with Europe, and with the rest of the world. But I think we do need to develop this sort of regional intra-Islamic world collaboration, because there are some very good resources in various places.

It is much easier and much cheaper; because it is a common culture; it is easier for everybody to come and spend some time here. I spent almost a week here. I have felt tremendous hospitality and love and connection with people, as if I have come many times before, as if I know the people here, although it is my first visit. I didn’t feel like it was a very strange place where I have never been. You know, if you go to China you don’t understand anything; you’re lost. You go to Japan, it is very difficult to adjust. You come here, the next day you are already at home. So  I think we need to develop that kind of dynamic. 

Abdullah: Your book “The Young Muslim’s Guide to Modern Science” is a remarkable source in the history of Muslim authors. How could we make our scholars, university students and teachers, willing to know more what modern science says?

Professor Guessoum: Well, I am glad you said that, and I have some good news: that this book will be translated into Urdu very soon Inshallah. Hopefully, within six months or less than a year, it will be available to everybody in Pakistan. So I am very encouraged by that. This is a short book meant for students and teachers. It is meant to show them that science is fascinating, that you can learn at least the basics of all of science. Just because you are interested in biology doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know some astronomy and cosmology. At least the basics that  every educated person should know.

I have a chapter on all you need to know in physics, all you need to know in and all you need to know in biology. What is the difference between a chromosome,a gene, and DNA? What is the difference between a star,a galaxy, a cluster,planets, an asteroid, a meteorite,  etc.? So I think this is a useful introduction, first of all. Secondly, it is a book that insists on students knowing some history of science. It is not enough to know a little bit about biology or a little bit of cosmology. You need to understand how we came to know these things. How did all of the knowledge of humanity in these topics come about? What steps we took and what stages and phases we passed through to reach what we now know. 

Then I have a whole section on what are the big questions now in physics, in cosmology, in biology, and so on. What are researchers most interested in and trying to find? And also, I tried to connect this with the broader knowledge of the people. How to connect this with  people’s religious culture, with philosophy, with ethics. I wanted to give an introduction of how to place science in its proper context with the rest of knowledge. It is not enough to understand science in complete disconnection from everything else. I am a human being, I am an educated person, and I am a Muslim. Some people are very religious. Some people are not very religious. But religion plays a very important role in our world. This is why this book is titled “The young Muslim’s guide to modern science,” so this addresses Muslim youngsters, who are surrounded by Islam, whether  they are very religious or not.

So you need to know how to connect these things with the history of science and the history of the entire humanity, including the contribution of the Islamic world. But not just look at the Islamic world. All the way back to Babylonians, Greeks, Chinese and Muslims, and the West,  with a whole long section on western contributions to science, which of course, has been huge after the Islamic civilization. So I tried to give a short but rounded introduction to science and different branches within a broader context

Also, read; Extraterrestrial life, A talk with Dr. Bruce Damer  

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