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Science, Capitalism and Islam Author(s): Vasant Kaiwar Reviewed work(s): Source: Economic and Political Weekl y,

Science, Capitalism and Islam Author(s): Vasant Kaiwar Reviewed work(s):

Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 29, No. 9 (Feb. 26, 1994), pp. 489-500 Published by: Economic and Political Weekly

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Vasant Kaiwar



'Islamicscience' is notgood science since neitheritspremnisesnorconclusionsare theleast bit in doubt.It merelyseeks to affirn whatis knoWn(thatis, maximspresentin the Qu'ran)notsearch intothe unknown,thusmakingafraudtulentuse of the term 'science'. Atthe same time,withthe institutionalisationof science undercapitalisin,thenotionof 'pure'or value-freescience has lost some of itsforce. In theforn of endlesslymultiplyingcommodities,whoseproductionis mlediatedthroughthe logic of thecompetitivepursuitofprofit, modernscience has becomethoroughlyitnbricatedin the existingstructureofproduction, therebylosing sight of thepossibilityof humanemancipationthat is inherentin it.

Muslim society, bullied by the militarymight of the west, pushed into retrogradepositions by reactionary internal forces, torn by bitter rivalries and enmities, disappointed by its historical fate, and culturally wedded to the past,is in dire need of educational, social and political reformif science and humandignity are to flourish.



THE importance and timeliness of Pervez Hoodbhoy's Islam and Science, Religious

Orthodoxyand the Battle for Rationality'

cannot be overstated. It is

of thedisastrousstateof scientificeducation andresearchin Pakistan(andotherMuslim countries), an essay on the history of the discoveries and innovationsof Muslim sci- entists in the 'golden age of Islam,' andan eloquent argumentfor the universalismof science against Islamic fundamentalistat- temptsto concoct an Islamic science vis-a- vis western science. It is also and most importantlyaplea foracriticalcommitment to planned,democraticmodernisationwith science as acrucialcomponentof education

and development. The preface by Abdus Samad, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, sets the tone of the book by declaring, "There is only one universal science, its problemsandmodalitiesareuniversal.There

is no such thing as Islamic science, just as there is no Hindu science, no Jewish sci- ence, no Confucian science, no Christian


stating, "Science is indeed the intellectual propertyof all humankind,and part of the universalcultural heritage".' Modern sci- ence, Hoodbhoyexplains, is a set of 'defi- nite' rules by which "one seeks a compre- hensionof thephysicaluniverse." Its power andauthorityaresoley due to amethodthat combines observation and inference, with experimentand logical consistency as the "sole arbitersof truth".4Toqualifyasscien- tific, a theory must make predictions that canbe checkedforcorrectnessagainst "ob- servation and experiment," that is, there must be room for falsifiability, a principle thatKarlPopperasserted. An unfalsifiable

2 Hoodbhoyechoes this sentiment

an investigation

theory is not a scientific theory. Against this criterion, whatpasses for Islamic sci- ence has "no epistemological standing as science. "5

Islamicscience is not good science since neither its premises nor conclusions are the least bit in doubt. It merely seeks to affirm what is known (that is, the maxims present in the Qur'an) not search into the unknown. Islamic science seeks no new mathematical principles, no new experi- ments will bedesigned for its verification, and no new devices or machines will be built on account of it. It is "a fraudulent use of the term science," sharing none of the qualities of the scientific workthatthe M*uslimscientists of Islam's 'golden age' carried out. Pioneers like Ibn Sina (Avicenna), IbnRushd (Averroes), Ibn al- Haytham, Ibn Khaldun, and others were devout Muslims who nonetheless prac- tised science of anessentially secularkind. Of course, they incurredthe wrathof or- thodox elements in Muslim society, and were most often threatened not by non- Muslims but by a "virulent anti-science section" of the Muslim ulema.6 Seen in this historical light, the Islamic funda- mentalism of the late 20th century is a throwback to medieval attitudes, singu- larly inappropriate to the challenges of our time. Against this reactionary ten- dency, Hoodbhoy asserts that no set of moral or theological principles permits one to build a new science. Scientific researchhas only one standardof validity:

Does it, or does it not, meet the challenge of experiment?Greatscientists likeGalileo andNewton, devoutChristiansthemselves who hadno desireto challengethereligious

beliefs of theirtime, did opt to pursuetheir

inquiriesthoughitmeantunderminingChris- thereby positing the divine nature of

tian dogma.7No less a challenge faces the

Muslim scientist of today-to establish an autonomousspaceforscientificwork,while choosing whetheror not to remain true to one's religion. It is perhapsa commentary on thesadstateof manythirdworldcountries thatthese fightingwordsneed to be uttered and the autonomyof science from religion (andreligiously-basedpolitics)reasserted.

All knowledge, according to the funda- mentalists, is revealed in the holy text(s); an increase of knowledge is a matter of finding new interpretations of holy writ. This position is clearly stated in Maurice Bucaille, The Bible, 7he Qur'an and Sci- ence, in which the Quran is presented as the source of all scientific facts. For each topic thathe discusses, he finds quotations


the Quran that have some plausible

agreement with scientific facts. This, Bucaille asserts, is proof of the Quran's miraculous nature. The problem with this approach, Hoodbhoy wryly notes, is that the proof of aproposition is only meaning- ful if the possibility of disproof (a la Popper)is al-soentertained. Fora believer, the disproof of the Quran s divine nature is is unthinkable; for the non-believer the exercise is uninteresting.Science is shame- less in abandoning old theories, once fal- sified; religious texts, on the other hand, are supposed to reveal eternal truths (by definition unfalsifiable). Bucaille, basing himself upon the Quran. does not make a single prediction that could be tested on the basis of experiment and observation.8 All he can do is take existing scientific facts andfind a roughly similar statement in the Quran, leaving faith to do the rest. Nem KumarJain [Science and Scientists in India] takes a similar approach. Quot- ing from the Bhagvad Gita 2-16 ("What does not exist cannot come into existence

and what exists cannot be destroyed"), he assertsthatthelawof conservationof matter and energy was known to thie ancients,


Gita and concluding that nothing new has been added to the stock of human knowl- edge since thescriptureswere set down.Not

only is this sort of exercise extremely


and disingenuous, but, as Jayant Narlikar hascommented,IHinduscriptureshavebeen citedin proofof boththeSteadyStatetheory

of creationand the Big Bang theory!9 Georges Sartonarguesthatin ancientand

medieval times, the artsof observationand experimentation were so underdeveloped

that whatever positive


and tlhereforevery unreliable.In compari-


unshakable:"Not being basedon observa-

knowledge they re-


thieological costructions


A Critique of Fundamentalism and Parochialism

Fundamentalistsof all religious stripes


to bring science

into line



r eligious text(s) of theirrespective faiths.


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February 26,



tion, no amount of observation could de- stroy them; not being based on deduction, no amount of logic could impugn them.

They stood

experience."'" Theological 'explanation'

frequentlycompleted the scientists' obser- vations." Today's fundamentaliststake a


tific observationandtheorymustbe madeto fit theunalterabletextof the scriptures,or it must be shown thatthose scripturesantici- patedmodernscientific findings.Giventhat the Qurandid not anticipate, or cannot le- gitimate, many modern discoveries, it be- comes necessary to disaffirm those discov- eries, and to divide science itself along culturallines; thatis, to fabricateanIslamic societies because its epistemology is basi- cally in conflict with the Islamic view. Sci- ence and technology must be broughtinto line with 10 basicIslamic values,including, 'tawheed' (unity of God), 'ibadah' (wor- ship), and 'khilafah(trusteeship).Whatthat means is anyone's guess; readerswho seek morethanplatitudes,Hoodbhoywarns,will

be disappointed.'2

For the secular, thereis 'thirdworld sci- ence' whose advocatesdeclarethatmodern science and technoLogyarebasedon 'west- ern experience and epistemology', and are for thatreason ill-suited to the needs of the third world. They speak of the need to 'debrainwash'the people of the thirdworld andto fight 'foreign-trainedscientists' who arethe "greatestgerm-carriersof the west- ern virus against which our societies are

apart and above the world of



Such sentiments


foundamonga recentcropof 'philosophers of science' like SusanthaGoonatilakewho finds thatscience in many thirdworldsoci- eties is neitheroriginal norcreative, is iso- lated from the society at large, and is fur- thermoredivorced in spirit and substance fromtheknowledgeandphilosophieswhich existed inpre-colonialtimes.14 Goonatilake, in a profoundly anti-Whiggish move, lo- cates the sources of wisdom in the distant past. Thus, only the ancient civilisations contain sufficient wisdom to save third world countries from their crisis. Scien- tific and medical research must seek the "rich historical, scientific andconceptual traditions such as those of south Asia or China." Ayurvedicmedicine, forexample, could be "screened for new growth-points which could be married to contemporary


Vandana Shiva's StayingAliveadvocates a similarposition.6 Both arepartof a larger chorus of voices raised against 'western science'. In some respects, they areno dif- ferentfromthefundamentalistposition,since the founts of knowledge thatoughtto guide modern scientific practice in non-western societies are located in ancienttexts which arealso the sources of a people's (nation's) spirituallife and vitality. Thereis avolkischromanticismaboutthis feverish searchin pre-colonial archivesfor



. Is


the sources of rejuvenationof the science andsociety of thirdworldpeoples. By elid- ing the distinction between popularprac- tices and the elite textual tradition the proponentsof 'thirdworldscience' require to believe thatpre-colonial society was an organicunityuntilthewest impingedon it, a fictionalnotion at best.Also implicit is the proposition that only supposedly au- tochthonoustexts andpracticesarecapable of developingthe scientific knowledgethat third world peoples require to solve their urgentproblems.Giventhatmanyproblems including hunger,famine, and disease ex- isted long before the arrivalof the colonial powers, one might ask why a scientific system to deal with these problemshadnot alreadyevolved. In general,the whole pro- paganda of these latter-dayromantics re- quiresmorefaithin bloodandsoil ideology than the historicalevidence can support.'7 Te rootsof thiskindof thinkingactuallygo no furtherbackthanthecultural-paternalist wing of Orientalism,which posited thatin the conservative 'east' people gave "im- plicit obedience" to ancienttexts thatwent back to the dawn of their civilisation.8 Ironically,Goonatilakeand otherromanti- callyinclinedpopulistshavetakenthisrather

literally, claiming implicitly that in

absence of westernimpact,people in these

societies would still continue to follow the precepts contained in their religious and


logues believed that the development of

modern science in Europewas simply the

inexorablemarch of the Greek genius via

theRenaissanceandtheEnlightenmentinto the industrialrevolution with a few inter- ruptions.20Similarly, populist ideologues in the thirdworldwouldlike to believe that the only way theirsocieties can achieve an authenticdevelopmentof scienceis torelink with theirforgottenpast, forgottennot be- cause it is irrelevantto the problems they face todaybutbecausethe 'west'introduced anarbitraryruptureintheprocessof cultural

continuity.In more ways thanone, the ex- oticism of 19th centuryracialism has be-

come the literal truthof late 20th century


were. Needless to say, the recommenda- tionsofpopulistintellectualshavenotyielded a programmeandmethodologyof scientific research. Forthe Orientalist,Islam (or some other faith) constitutedthe overarchingstructure within which social, political andintellec- tuallife was framed;yet this crudeforn of culturalreductionismdoes not speakto the realitiesof eithermedievalormodernlife.2' Islamic fundamentalistshave given a new lease of life to this reductionistconstruct developed by the practitionersof the hu- manist disciplines popular in the 19tlh cenitury-the history of religionisand the study of historical and comparative linguistics22-forcibly attemptingto unify aspects of life that were separate even



indigenous exoticism as it


before western colonialism. It is in this

context that both the imperatives andlim-

its of the

science become apparent. While Islamic science might provide a psychological defence against the "insistent pressure of modernscience'"," thekey imperativethat sustains it is state policy, and the money made available as a result.24Islamic sci- ence has become linked to the material

support that strategically-placedindividu- als, organisations, and governments have provided-Saudi money being particularly

importantin this regard.25In Pakistan,sec- tions of the politically conservative ulema who wished to increase their power have seized on Islamic science to extend the domain of religious law into the sphereof


ship thatruledPakistanfrom 1977 to 1988, andits successor governments,not wanting to set asideresourcesformoderneducation, healthcare andotherbenefits for its people,

have found the appeasementof the conser- vative ulema a convenient way to cement a political alliance and devolve some of the state'sresponsibilitiestoreligiousauthorities. The limits of this approachin the field of

attempt to develop an Islamic


tion, are obvious. Not only are levels of educationalcompetenceextremelylow, even bythirdworldstandards,butwhatpassesfor

scientific researchin Pakistanis often ludi- crous. The appendix to Islam and Science gives some examples thatarebothhilarious and tragic:for example, a Pakistaniscien- tist, chairmanof the Holy Qur'anResearch Foundationin Islamabad,advocated using fiery creaturescalled 'jinns', who presum- ablyinhabitthe heavens, togeneratepower, thus solving Pakistan's energy problem in an environmentally sound fashion. Simi- larly, othershave used Einstein's theoryto calculate the speed of heaven andthe angle of god, andprovidedotherinformationben- eficial to Pakistan's economic progress. Unlike their 19tli century counterparts, modem-day Islamists are forced to pay at least lip-service to developing a science curriculum.Islamic science serves the pur- pose well enough. Theelites afterall do not have to educatetheirclhildrenin the second rate schools that combine orthodox reli- gious instruction witlhan utterly outdated

and useless scientific curriculum.The rich

attendprivateschools andcolleges andthen

go on to American universities. When ill, they consult doctors,not hakims.The latter are exclusively for the poor. This repro- duces ruling class privilege, and a lack of concern for the well-being of the people.27 Ratherthan focus attention on developing theknowledge needed for a thoroughtrans-

formation of society, so

the benefit of modern education, health care, andemployment, the developmentof an Islamic curriculum ensures that those subject to it learn nothing thlatwill enable them to addressserious problems.

that all may have

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February 26,


The romantic populists (Goonatilake, Shiiva,anda hostof others)may appearto be

a fi)rcry from such movements, butin their

essentialistportrayalsof culturaldifferences,

andtheirattributionof theproblemsof their societies to the cultural dominance of the west,theydoshareacertaincommonground. The elite progenitorsof populist ideology, like high-level bureaucr.atsand military kleptocrats,can ignore it in their everyday lives for all practical purposes. They, too, have access to all the fruits of modern science, modern education, medical care, airtravel, fellowships, and sometimesjobs in the despised west.


Hoodbhoyrejectstherival parochialisms of east andwest. He locates the capacityfor scientific thought in a humancapacity for


tional man has emerged from the realm of biological evolution endowed with innate mental structures capable of abstract

thought".28 Noam Chomsky's discoveryof

a universal human grammarsuggests that fundamentally "human thought and

behaviourareentirelyuniversal." Thatde- molishes racist theories of development


In thisview, it only needs "externalstimuli to set cognitive and creative processes in

operation. "

As an example of the westernparochial- ism he rejects,he quotesfroma recentwork by Michael MoravcsikanndJohn Ziman:

"the oneness of us all' 29


With Europeanindustrial civilisation comes European science.-.the process of economic growth and social development is entirely predicated on the 'rational materialism' of post-RenaissanceEuropeandits northAmeri-

can colonies

taken for granted that European science

should become a dominant cultural force throughout the world.3'

In the present discussion, it is

Against this, Hoodbhoyasks: Could Euro- peanscience have made theprogressit did, without the availability of advances made elsewhere,notablyin the Muslim world?In his view it is 'utterlyaccidental' thatmod- ernscience shouldhavedeveloped over the last 400 years in Europe. Only with the development of an industrial civilisation didscience becomepartof cultureandexer- cised a vital influence on everyday life. Looked at in this light, "paroclhialpridein the historical cultures which we acciden- tally happento be associated with appears

quite irrational"."32


goes on to add that

many thirdworld scholars have embraced modernscience andare thankfulit found a fertile soil in Europe.


one miglht take exception



accountof the developmentof science is a refreshing and, in many ways, insightful blast at the rival parochialismsthatappear to have settledinto a comfortabledotage in our academic culture. Hoodbhoy's state-

mentsunderlinethehistoricalcircumstances in which science becamelinkedto practical productiveactivityinearlymodernEurope, so thatit ceased an esoteric activity. An eminent physicist, floodbhoy is no naive celebrant of modern science. HIe emphasises thatmany of the promises sci- ence madefora betterworldhaveremained unfulfilled. Science may have created a global village but the villagers have not learnttotalkwithorcomprehendeachother. We live in a dangerouslypolluted worldin whichthe "wastesof industrialcivilisation" destroyfragileecosystems. Militaristswith dangerous designs have used, or abused, science for theirown ends. Ourcontinued existenceis indoubtdueto "Oppenheimer's sin." Despite this, he states, without the benefits of science, humankindwas "help- less before wind and storm, ravaged by plagueanddisease, andterrorisedby mind- less superstitions." The human mind, an incomparableinstrument,was wasted.Sci- ence liberated human beings from those conditions, and holds, in his opinion, the best possibility for tackling our innumer- able problems,providedthereis also a so- cially conscious process to regulateits ap- plications.I will returnto this themebelow.


Towards a More Cosmopolitan

Understanding of Civilisation

The failureof largeareasof theerstwlile colonial worldto achieve economic devel- opmenthascontributedin partto revivalist andfundamentalisttrends.These "political movements under the guise of religion" have in turn encourageda 'resurgenceof essentialism'.3 However,it is worthnoting that even so confirmed a culturalist as GustaveEvon Grunebaumhasstressedthat the 'medievaleastandwest' (read:theArab worldandEurope)hadat least two roots in common: one, the cultural legacy of thie 'heathenworld' aroundthe Mediterraneani, and two, Judeo-Christianmonotheism, the 'east' being the "more conscientious heir until a repentantwest turnedback to its origins aided by Easternguidance"'.' The identity,ornear-identity,of the"fundamen- tal structuresof their civilisations" may havecontributedin no smallmeasureto the "acrim6ny of their rivalry," but it was a meaningful rivalry in the scnse that the combatantsfought on the same plane. The "slogans andreasoningof one partycould be understoodby the other".35Acrimony was not, however,theo1y productof their interaction;genuinerespectexistedbetween the Byzantines and first the Persians and thentheArabs.Theophylactusof Simocatta makesthe Persianking Khosrauwriteto the emperorMauricius:

Thereare two eyes to which divinityhas confidedthe taskof illuminatingtheworld:

thesearethepowerfulmonarchyof theRo- mans and the wisely governedcommon-


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February 26,


wealth of the Persians. By these two great empires, the barbarous and war-loving na- tions are kept in check, and mankind given --betterand safer government throughout.36

And when during and after the eighth century, the Arabs took the place of the Persians, it is they who constituted the pil-

lars of civilisation.

only their nations were lettered; only they

the brutislh desires of the

barbarians, such as the Turks and Chinese" .31 The spell of Arabic knowledge was so strong

thatmany Spanish Clhristians neglected their traditions in favour of Arabic. Alvaro, a Christian zealot, writing in 854 AD de- plored this tendency:

Alas! the young Christians who are most

Aside from the Indians,

"keep aloof from


for theirtalents have no knowl-

edge of any literature or language save the Arabic they amass whole libraries of [Ara- bic] books at a vast cost, and they every-


the mention of Christianbooks they disdain-

fully protestthat such works areunworthyof their notice.38

Thomas Aquinas used the works of Maimonides (d 1204) and Ibn Rushd (Aveiroes, d 1198) and employed a manner of argument familiar from Muslim scholas- ticism. Dante, while consigning Muhammad

to inferno, was nonetheless indebted to Muslim visionaries whose works had been translated into Latin. Parallel efforts in alchemy and astrology witl "Islam as teacher and Christendom a self-willed student intro- duced more concepts and associations to be held in common".39 The Byzantines relied on Arab medicine, and Ibn Sina's Canon of Medicine, translated into Latin, was taught

for centuries in European universities.


Haytham' s treatise on optics, and Ibn Rushd

became the first philosopher of thie Refor- mation. Indeed, for many years the Univer-

sity of Paris only admitted Aristotle as ex- plained in Ibn Rushd's commentary.40

vhere sing the praises of Arabian lore







Arabic civilisation

itself was a rich tapes-

try woven from many threads. The Arabian

Nights, for example, drew on Indian and

Persian, Jewish and Greek, Babylonian


Egyptian sources, fusing them with "genu- inely Arabic elements". In this synthesis, it is a "small scale likeness of Islamic civilisation as a whole". With a shift in emphasis away from the Indian, Babylonian and Egyptian towards the Persian, Greek and Judeo-Christiani, and a much greater emphasis on the genuinely Arabic, "the structure of Islamic civilisation repeats the structure of the Nights". Thoroughly syn- cretistic, it proved its vitality by coating "each and every borrowing with its inimi- table patina" 41 The adoption of mental hab- its that had supported Greek science helped

scientific activity: "the ability to discuss problems according to thle categories of formal logic; the appreciation of purely theoretical speculation, and above all, the acknowledgement of a 'secular' science,


fully independentof anyreligioussectarian- ism"." Atthesametime,rulersandscholars enriched their field of knowledge with the scientific texts of Byzantium, Greece, Per- sia andIndia.


Thereis no question thatIslam played an importantrole in facilitating the develop- mentof Arabicculture.Itgave theArabs"an identity, a consciousness and a worldview transcendingthe hitherto narrowconfines of tribalandethnic existence"." lTheyalso learntfromMuhammadthata "community undergod was moremeaningfulandthusof

greater political


than a community

under tribal law".4" Why did Islam itself prevail in seventh century Arabiaand then spreadoutwardswith such dazzling speed? H1G Wells offers a secular explanation:

Islamprevailedbecauseitwasthebestsocial andpoliticalorderthe timescouldoffer.It prevailedbecauseeverywhereit foundpo- liticallyapatheticpeoples,robbed,oppressed,

bullied, uneducated and unorganised and it

foundselfishandunsoundgovernmentsout of touchwith any peopleat all. It was the broadest,freshest,cleanestpoliticalideathat hadyetcomeintoactualactivityin theworld andit offeredbettertermsthananyotherto themassof mankind.45 Even if Islam had no direct causal role

to play in the ensuing cultural revolution, it provided at least the ideological frame- work for the construction of a new politi- cal system, far transcendinganything that contemporaryfeudal Europe could boast. The world of Islam became, for several centuries, the cultural heart of world civilisation. Arabs and non-Arabs living within the magnetic field of this powerful new culture found themselves in posses- sion of the "dazzling intellectualtreasures of ancientcivilisations". Theirleritagecon- sisted of Greek philosophy and science,


ematics, and Chinese technology. Certain aspectsof EgyptianandBabylonianscience unknownto the Greeks were available to them.This 'umam-al-awail'(knowledgeof antiquity)was a "vast storehouseof intel- lectualtreasures".46 Von Grunebaumis un- questionablyrightin statingthatthestupen- - dous rise of this civilisation between 750 and950 AD wastheresultof the "spontane- ous collaborationof thebestmindsof all thie Empire's nationalities".'` During this pe- riod,thereweremassive translationprojects to make availablethe scientific knowledge of antiquityto Arabicspeakers.TIhlietransla- tors were, for the most part, non-Muslims; thegreatestof them,HunaynIbnIslhaq,was aNestorian Christian,othlerswere pagans, Jacobites, and Buddlhists. The projccts undertaken at this stage represented the assimilation of importedknowledge.48By the high middle ages (1000-1250 AD), the translation projects had been completed.

Arabic,not Greek,now became thlevehlicle


of intellectual thought.Many of -the most importantscientific minds were concen- tratedin the lands that came under Arab dominance. Most of the prominentscien- tists were now Muslims: Ibn al-Haytham (965-1039), Al-Biruni (9973-1051), Omar Khayyam(1038-1123), Nasir-ud-dinTusi (1201-1274), not to mention the redoubt-

able Ibn Sina (980-1037),

Ibn Rushd

(1 126-1198) andIbnKhaldun(1332-1406). Thousandsflocked to the universitiesthat were establishedin Baghdadand in south- ernSpain,andaspiritof freedompermitted Muslims, ChristiansandJews to workside by side. Besides the universities,therewere the 'bait-ul-hiikmah',astronomicalobser- vatories,hospitals, andschools.49 Europeanmerchantsand studentscame intocontactwiththisbrilliantnewscientific culturemainlyinSpainandSicily, thenear- est point of contact between the two civilisations. In 1085, when Toledo fell to theChristians,Europeanstudentsflockedto

this city to leam science as it was transmit- ted in Arabic.they employed Jewish inter- pretersto converse andto translate.In 12th centurySpain,Platoof Tivoli, Gherardoof Cremona, Adelardof Bath and Robert of


cal manuscriptsinto Latin.Y? Contemporaries divided the fields of knowledge into indigenous(Arab)andfor- eign sciences. Yusufal-Hwarizmi'sKeysof the Sciences written in 976 AD counted


mar, 'kitaba'(theartofthesecretaryinclud- ing the terminologyof governmentadmin- istration), prosody, and history as indig- enous sciences, while classifying philoso- phy, logic, medicine, arithmetic,geometry, astronomyand astrology,music, mechan- ics, andalchemyas foreignsciences.5"In a modern classification, most of what we could consider science belongs to the for- eign category.Islamic fundamentalistsand western writers have therefore tended to dismiss the-science of Islam's 'goldenage' as no more than a "natural and logical extensionof Greekscience". Forexample, Greek myths from the time of Arius and Pythagorasinspiredalchemy; while scien- tificallydubious,it wastheparentscienceof modern chemistry, producing important knowledge of the propertiesof acids and alkalis. Similarly, the work of Ibn al- Haytham onpoptics was a logical extension of Greek thoughton the subject. Muslim mathematicianstook upproblemsthathad been considered by their Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Indian predeces- sors. Indeed,theso-called Arabicnumerals were originally taken from Indian math- ematics, whichexerciseda fundamentalin- fluence in the developmentof algebra.52 I-loodbhoyhimself finds nothingunusual in this, as all science is cumulative, pro- gressing by absorbingexisting knowledge and generating innovations. A universal desireto ulnderstandthephysicalworlddrove


Ahegreat scientists, many of whom were practicing,if attimesunorthodox,Muslims. Their methods were those used by good

scientists invalf-a-gv o-bservatiop,experi- mentation, and mathematical proof." Ibn Rushdrefutedal-Ghazzali's view of divine interventionto explain every physical phe- nomenonbynoting: "To deny theexistence of efficient causes which are observed in

sensiblethingsis sophistry

Denialof cause

implies denial of knowledge and denial of knowledge implies thatnothingintheworld

can really be known".'. Similarly Ibn al-

Hatibof Granada,a famous statesman,his- torian and physician, bravedorthodoxy in his studyof theplague, stating: "The exist- ence of contagion is established by experi- ence, studyandtheevidence, by trustworthy

reports of transmission by

thespreadof it by personsfromone houseto

another "

daringprinciple that, "A proof takenfrom the traditionshas to undergo modification

when in manifest contradiction with the evidence of theperception of thesenses' s

To appreciate the boldness of this thesis,


bered that "the Prophethad expressly de- nied the existence of thecontagion"'5A Despite these advances, science in the medieval Muslim world was an esoteric

pursuit for the elites, often patronised by progressive rulers, for example, al-Kindi

(801-873) in the

Mamun, and Ibn Rushd in the court of Caliphal-Mansur.While the elites pursued scientific knowledge in private academies, such knowledge was rigorously excluded fromthecurriculumof the 'madrassas'(ven-

ues for religious education). The scientists themselves showedfearof andcontemptfor themasses, cheerfully advocatingone truth forthe 'ignorantmasses' andanotherforthe elect. Underlyingthis dualism was a fearof the mullahs who could mobilise the masses

garments by

He went on to enunciate the

court of the Caliph al-

against the scientists

and rationalist phi-


Patronageitself was fickle. Occasionally, when conservative rulers succeeded more enlightened ones, these eminent court sci- entistsweresubjectedto severe harassment,

and sometimes

banishment.This is what

happenedto al-Kindiwhen al-Mutawakil,a 'crueldrunkensot' in league with the qazis andmullahs,ascendedtothecaliphate.There

was a round-up and extermination of the 'mu'tazilites' (mu'tazila = dissenters), Is- lamic scholastic philosopherswhose belief in freewill andreasonwas considereddam-

aging to

literalist opposed to the mu'tazilites, pro- claimed a holy war on science, and de-


pits of Baghdadbegan to fulminate against the holdersof heterodoxviews. Rationalist philosoplers fled Baghdadformorebenign locations.58Justaselitist rulers,interestedin

the pursuitof abstractrational knowledge foritsOWnlsake,could fosterthescienlces,so

orthodoxy. Ahmed ibn Hanbal, a

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February 26,


reactionaryleadersor a populist allianceof mullahs and the uneducatedmasses-could foment a rebellion against the pursuit of such knowledge-a potent combination. Technicalapplicationwas not an-induce- ment to scientific endeavour, nor was sci-

ence a separateandautonomousintellectual activity with its own institutionalspace. In this, the situationof Muslim science was no differentfromthesituationinancientGreece; afterall Anaxagoraswas driven from Ath- ens for teaching his scientific views.59Nor,

for thatmatter,was

eval and early modern Europe. Hoodbhoy provides a numberof examples of inquisi- torial repression of scientific inquiry in


IbnKhaldunperhapsrepresentedbestthe ambiguity in medieval Muslim science; thoughhimself a pioneerof materialistex- planation in social science, he stated that "partof the beautyof man's Islam,resigna- tionof god" wastoleavealonewhatdoesnot concern him.6"It is ironic thatsuch a great scientific mind shouldhave voiced the sen- timents of a religious hierarchy that was coming toestablishastranglelholdonknowl- edge in theMuslim world.IbnKhaldunwas keenly conscious of thisdecline, remarking thatwith the extinctionof scientific knowl- edge, civilisation had perished throughout the Muslim west (the Maghrib).The repre- sentatives of what remained of scientific eruditionwere forced to evade the surveil- lanceof orthodoxdoctors.Thesituationwas slightly better in southern Persia, Transoxania,andEgypt.However,andmost significantly,he writesthatinthelandof the Franks,on the northshoreof theMediterra- nean, philosophical studies were flourish- ing; scientific work was revived in those parts and a great numberof students and teacherswere involved in its development and promotion.62Given this situation, the "'outstanding puzzle", according to Hoodbhoy,is how individualswere able to sustain scientific thoughtover a period of some six centuries. About 700 years ago, however,thisgreatcivilisationlost the "will and ability" to do science, apart from an occasional flurryin theOttomanperiodand in Mehmet Ali's Egypt.63 By 1500, the culturalinfluence of Islam on Europehad sunk to comparativeinsig- nificance. Europe "vaguely realised thatit hadnothingessential to learnfrom its age- old opponent, and in the Muslim world political success engendered a deceptive

feeling of security

I thinkit is fair to say thatIslam itself was

not the singularcause of either the rise and efflorescence of Muslim science or of its decline. Theideological andpolitical unity, and the sense of liberationfiom tribaland ethnicidentities,thataccompanieditsspread mobilised the creative energies of genera- tions of people. In due course, it became anobstacle in the sense thatIslamic ortho- doxy provided ideological weaponry for

it different from medi-

and self-sufficiency'X64

those who wished to combine piety with conservatism.


Social and Political Roots of Scientific Revolution

Given the esoteric and elite nature of science in theMuslimworld,aconservative ruling alliance of religious and secular au- thorities could effectively hobble the fur- ther development of '-science by denying patronageto thescientists.65Didthistypeof alliance also tlhwartthe development of capitalism?There was certainly an exten- sive 'capitalistsector' in theMuslim world from the early eighth century, the most highlydevelopedinhistorybeforetheworld market created by the western European bourgeoisie.The extent of the marketwas due initially to "the military victories of Islam, andthe long durationof the unified Muslimempire." When,finally,theempire broke up, the "power of the ideological bond" preventedwatertightfrontiersfrom developing.66Capital had achieved a high level of organisation,butfailedto developa capitalisteconomy toutcourt.Why?Quot- ing Marx ("The relationshipof labour to


presupposesan historicalprocess

whichdissolves thedifferentformsinwhich the labourer is an owner and the owner labours",) Rodinsonimplies thatthe struc- tureof powerwassuchthatcapitalistswere, by andlarge,unableto becomethe immedi- -ateownersof theprocessof labour.Appar- ently both slavery and peasantownership, with statesupport,coincided with a system in whichapraetorianelite controlledpoliti- cal power, enforced taxation and limited capital's interventionin the economy to a largelydistributionaryrole (thatis, capital- ists werefree to makethe profitsof circula- tion and alienation but not the profits of enterprise).The commercialbourgeoisie,a factorof considerableimportanceup to the early 11thcentury,was thereafterreduced to a secondaryrole in Muslim societies, as "castes of slave soldiers,mostly of Turkish origin, became established throughoutthe MiddleEast". Thecapitalistsectorbeganto


Symptomaticof this political structure, and the urbanhabitationof the military- feudalpolitical elite, was the absencefrom the Muslim world of autonomouscities or


oped in earlymodernEurope.Guildsin the Muslim world were not organisationsthat workmencreatedtoprotectthemselvesasnd theircraft.Rather,they were organisations thatthe stateputin place "to supervisethe craftandworkmenand above all to protect


Fora numberof reasons,tlherefore,neither a powerfulentrepreneurialbourgeoisienor an autonomousartisanalclass emerged in the Muslim world.69In practicethis meant thatpopularforces,withoutextra-economic


and Political


February 26,


privileges or monopolies, were not avail-

able to take up the development of science and technology. This seems a more apt explanationthanthefictitious notionputout by Syed HosseinNasr,anIranian'historian'

of science, that Muslims

building machines chose not to do so be-

cause this would upset the balance betwen


ity of [their]existence" 7.0 The potent combination of the ulema and authoritarianrulers thus robbed Mus- lim society of the potential benefits of scientific and technical development. The power and wealth of the elites themselves rested on neither a rational knowledge of the physical world nor the development of the technical means of production. Elite strategy could concentrate on the elabora- tion of the structures of extra-economic controlandthebrainwashingof the popular masses into a naturalisation, and indeed supernaturalisation,of the hiierarchiesthey lived under and the misery thay experi- enced.71One consequence of all this was to reinforcethe resignationist, even fatalistic, aspects of Islamic ideology. In the theologocentricview, Islamitself couldthen be held responsible for both the technical backwardnessand the fatalism widely ob- served in the Muslim world, effectively exempting the political structurefrom any responsibility.72But, as Rodinson demon- stratesquoting Destanne de Bemis's study of the Tunisianpeasantry,fatalism is asso- ciatedwiththeenormousweightof "chancy" factorsthatconditionthesuccess of produc- tive efforts. Resignation,on the otherhand, may be aperfectly rationalaccommodation

to the futility of trying to change the status quo under the existing conditions of the distributionof power.Organisedreligionis, of course, diabolically clever at teaching people tosublimatetheirdissatisfactioninto

a supplicationof forces beyondhumancon- trol. Similar attitudes were widespread in medieval Europe.73The definitive setting

attitudes in western Europe

aside of these

was the result of many converging forces, mostcompactlymanifestedinthedeclineof the authorityof feudal lords andthe church and the rise of capitalist production. This profound economic and ideological trans- formation has its roots in the social and political struggles of late medieval Europe thatled to the gradualseparationof church andstate, andthe growing independenceof thebourgeoisiefromfeudalmonopoliesand

controls. It is in this revolutionarymilieu thatmodem science comes intpexistence. It

is necessaryto understandthisso astoputin

perspective the very different trajectoryof

while capable of

the Muslim



Hoodbhoy correctly states that in pre- moderntimes therewas no symbiotic rela- tkdnshipbetween science and technology. Science did not lead to notable improve-


mnentsin agriculture,housing, clothing, or even weapons of war. Science was "book- learming,disputatious and often abstract, withoutthesearchingtestof practicaluse",. Technology was empirical,ad hoc, without


few andfarbetween.While it is truethatthe symbiosis of science and technology does not achieve its mature form until the 19th century, the beginnings of this process go back almost to the mid-16th century. EdgarZilsel, a Germanhistorianof sci- ence,describesthecomplex processthrough

which the practical world of the plebeian artisancame into contact with the learned world of the university scholars. To the plebeian craftsmenin the Europeantowns, the "occult qualities and substantialforms of the scholastics and the verbosity of the humanists" were of no interest. Many of them,by theRenaissance,hadoutgrownthe guild restrictionson craft trainihgandpro- ductionandwereexperimentinginthefields of mechanics, acoustics, chemistry, metal- lurgy, geometry, and anatomy. Many of these pioneers were uneducatedcraftsmen, and we do not know their names. We do, however, know the names of the educated:

forexample, Brunelleschi(1377-1446) who constructed the cupola of the cathedralat



VanoccioBiringucci(d 1538) "whosebook- let on metallurgyis one of thefirstchemical treatisesfree of alchemistiesuperstition".75

Though these 'superior' artisans had al- ready developed considerable theoretical andpracticalknowledgewhichitheyapplied

to the tasks of production, they had not learnedto proceed systematically; as a re- sulttheirachievementsform a collection of


ing of intellect was an elite activity, re- served for university scholars and for hu- manistic literati. Experimentationand ob- servation was left to more or less plebeian workers.Thetwo worldsdidnotmeet asyet. The former did not regard the latter very

highly. We regardthecraftsmenandartists, not the university windbags, as the true heroesof the Renaissanceandhave created themyth thatthey were equally honouredin their time. Yet, in the literatureof the Re- naissance,they recede into the background; if mentionedatall,itis inanextremelycareless way. As long as the separationof these two


ing of the termwas impossible".7 However, starting around 1550, a few learmedauthorsbeganto be interestedin the

da Vinci



"isolated discoveries' ' .


nomnically so important". TIhey composed

Latin and vernacular works on the geo- graphicaldiscoveries, navigation and car- tography,mining and metallurgy, survey- ing, mechanics, and gunnery. Eventually the social barrierbetween the two compo- nents of the scientific method began to breakdown. The "methods of the superior

arts, which had become



craftsmen were adopted by academically trainedscholars:real science was born'.78 Zilsel mentions some famous examples of the new scientific cultureat work.William Gilbert (1544-1603), physician to queen ElizabethI, publishedthe first book by an aca-demicallytrainedscholarbasedentirely on laboratoryexperimentandpersonalob- servations. He attacked Aristotelianism, belief in authority and, "humanisticverbos- ity." IHisscientificmethodderivedfromthat of foundrymen,miners,andnavigatorswith whomhehadpersonalcontacts.Manyof the experimentaldevices he used were taken froma vernacularbooklet by the compass- maker RobertNorman, a retired mariner. Galileo (1564-1642) studied mathematics privatelyat the Accademiadel Disegno in Florence.The school was foundedin 1562 foryoungartistsandartist-engineers.Zilsel remarksthatthefoundingof thisschool was an importantstep in the process by which

" eengineeringanditsmethodsrosegradually fromthe workshopsof craftsmenandeven- tually penetratedthe field of academic in- struction."Galileolecturedoonmathematics andastronomyattheUniversityof Pisaand privately on mechanics and engineering. He conducted research on pumps, on the regulation of rivers and the construction of fortresses. He liked to visit dockyards and talk with the workmen. His greatest discovery-the law of falling bodies, pub- lished in the Discorsi-developed from a problemin contemporarygunnery.Galileo found the solution to the problemby com- biningcraftsman-styleexperimentationwith learned mathematical analysis. In the Discorsi, Galileo gives the mathematical deductions in Latin and describes the ex- perimentsin Italian.After1610, he gave up writing in Latin altogether and addressedl himself to non-scholars.He expressed his aversion to contemporaryprofessors and humanists in his treatises and letters.79 FrancisBacon (1561-1626) attackedbelief in authorityandimitationof antiquitywith passion,andsetupanalternativestandardof "'methodicalscientific researchfor the ad- vancementof humancivilisation". Ilis vi- sion of the ideal state as depicted in Nova Atlantisrests on scientific andtechnologi- cal progressvia theplannedco-operationof scientists,whouse andcontinuetheinvesti- gations of their fellow workers.These sci- entistswhoaretherulersof theNew Atlantis are also divided into nine groupsbased otn the principle of division of labour.Bacon constructeda model on the experience of craftsmenwho drewon each other's work, andon thegrowingdivision of labourin the economy of hiisday.80 The emergenceof science in the modern seniserequiredtheconvergenceof a number of coniditions:the transcendenceof feudal extra-economiccontrolsand the guild sys- tem, bothof which limited the freedomof producersto experimentand develop new methods and devices. Renaissancecrafts-


men and their successors must have ex- pected to retain, and profit from, the new methods they pioneered. At the same time, therehadto be a closing of the gap between university science (disputatious and scho- lastic) andpopularempiricalpractices.The university-trainedscholarscouldcontribute

"logical training,learning,tlheoreticalinter- est", while thelowerstratumadded"causal


titativerulesof operation,disregardof school


convergence was decisive, and represents one remarkablefeatureof thesocial revolu- tion that accompanied the birthof modern science. It was this social revolution that enabled western Europe to transformthe techniquesar1 cientific knowledge of an- tiquity and thb Muslim world, and in due course to vault over the more advanced civilisations of theMiddle EastandAsia. As noted,a similarconvergence, andthe social revolution in both signified and heralded, did not occur in the social formationsof the Muslim world.



Thetransformationof theEuropeanecono- mies of theAtlanticseaboardis toocomplex a phenomenonto enter into here. Suffice it to say that modern economic growth re- quiredthe establishmentof capitalist farm- ing and industry in which not only the instrumentsof productionbutlabourpower too became commodities. All "fixed, fast- frozen relations, with their trainof ancient andvenerableprejudices" had to be swept away,"allnew-formedones" hadtobecome antiquatedbeforetheycouldl"ossify. 9"82 As Marxpointedout, "The needof aconstantly expandingmarketforitsproductschasesthe bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the

globe.''83 As dynamic


unhinderedby feudal or guild restrictions, spurredthe search for new sources of raw materialsandmarkets,new devices opened

upnewproductivepossibilities. Capitalism,

tout court, was now a real force in the world.

"Europeancapitalism"presented"in atan- gible way asuperiorformationto whichone hadto submitor adaptoneself." Most non- Europeanstates, whose internal political- economic structureshad resisted the full developmentof capitalismandscience,were in no position to undertakea rapidtransfor- mation, especially as they now lay in the "threateningshadow of the overwhelming superiority" of the imperialist nations of Europe.'MClearly,some rulerseitherdidnot fathiomthe nature of the beast they con- frontedor foundthatcollaborationwith the Europeanimperialistsserved theirbest in- terests.Only thatcanexplain the policies of theOttomangovernmentbetween 1818(the commercialtreatyof 1818 and the 'firman' of 1820 that an Ottomanminister felt was taking "'aline more favourableto foreign interests than native ones") to 1881 (the decree of Muharramthat gave European

and Political Weekly

February 26,


organisation)scomplete control over the Turkishecon'my).85Indeed, in both Leba- non and Egypt, the 'collaboration' of the Ottomangovenunentwas animportantcom- ponent of European capitalist penetration and the subsequent deindustrialisationof those regions. By 1913, foreign interestsor minorities with close links to Europeoper- atedmost of theindustrialenterprisesin the Ottoman empire. Capital resources in the

269 nominally Ottoman enterprises were

owned as follows: 10 percentby foreigners, 50 per cent by Greeks, 20 per cent by Armenians,5 per cent by Jews, andonly 15 percent by Muslim Turks.86Themotives of the imperialist nations were transparent enough. What about those of the Ottoman government? Two motives suggest them- selves: the Ottomanrulers may have been trying to accommodate the insistent de- mands of the western states withoutTrans- formingtheirownagrarianempire,the ource of their revenue and power; and thieymay have wanted to prevent the rise of a local

bourgeoisie,especially outside the Turkish

heartland, that would

dence from the feudal imperialismof Tur- key. Intheevent,thisplayedintotheall-too- powerfulcapitalistimperialismof the west. Elsewhere,Europeanconquestproceeded with the Maxim gun and the Gatling gun, steamships, telegraphs, and all the para- phernalia of the modern inidustrial economy.87Science and technology fur- nished the knowledge'andthe weapons for Europeto conquer the less developed na- tions.Theagrarianandpastoralcivilisations, with theirmoribund political andideologi- cal structuresconfronting the heavy artil-

lery of Europeancapitalism, were in no position to resist. Disciplined European troops,ornativetroopsdrilledandequipped byEuropeanofficers,decimatedmuchlarger local armies "untutoredin military tech- niques." Therapidityof theseconquestsleft Muslims,andothers,"numbed,disoriented and unsureof themselves".88 Reactionary ideologues, unwillingor unableto face the challenges ahead, strove vainly to escape themby "constructingunrealisticmodelsof a thirdpath,a mythicalKoraniceconomy," finding favour not only among mystical minds with a "fantastic picture of social reality"butalsoamongEuropeansin"search of asalutarymyth" 89 Third-worldismmade its appearance.

press for indepen-


Modernisation from Above

Theemergingbourgeoisiein thecolonies

and ex-colonies knew very well

that there

was no such thing as an Islamic economy:

The fundamentalchoice confrontingthem was whetherforeign or local agency would carry out the necessary capitalist modernisation.Thisgave riseto twolinesof thought that Hoodbhoy characterises as reconstructionist and pragmatist. The

reconstructionistsmightbe seen as the pro- ponents of a Muslim reformation. Their mainaim wasto reinterpretthefaithso asto remove obstacles to modernisation,to rec- oncile the "demandsof moderncivilisation withthe teachingsandtraditionsof Islam." This school held thatduringthe time of the Prophetandthe Khilafa-i-Rashida(thefour righteouscaliphs),Islamhadbeena "revo- lutionary,progressive,liberalandrational" force. Subsequently, it became rigid as 'taqlid' (tradition)triumphedover 'ijtihad' (innovation).9 Tlhegreat achievements of Muslim science represented,in their opinl- ion, solid proof of the harmony between Islam and science. They draw attentionto thefactthatnearly750 verses(one-eighthof the Quran)exhortbelievers to studynature andpursuescience. Fromthis, they "infer thatthepursuitof science is bothareligious duty as well as a pragmatic necessity".9' Syed Ahmed Khan(1817-1898) wished to reintroducesome of thatpioneeringspiritof innovation back into Muslim educational life. Prior to founding the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh (later AligarhMuslimUniversity)in 1877,hehad startedschools, a 'scientific' society forthe translationof westernknowledgeintoUrdu, anda weekly magazinein UrduandEnglish otnfacingpages.Hisrejectionof theauthor- ity of traditionalscholars and the sayings ('hadith')attributedto Muhammad,andhis relianceon his ownjudgmentininterpreting the Quranshow his almost Protestantap- proachto religion."'Given his ideological predilections,it was not surprisingthathe foundnocontradictionbetweentheworldof god, containedin the Quran,andscientific truths.If therewas acontradiction,he advo- cateda symbolicreadingof theformer.The Quranwas meantto be amoralguide, not a shackle on modernisation.93His disciple Syed Ameer Ali (1849-1924) wrote 77Te Spiritof Islamin 1891as achallengeto both the Orientalistsand Muslim reactionaries. He comparedthe situation of the Muslim worldin the 19thcenturyto thatof medieval Christianity,andexplicitly advocatedaref- ormationtobringreligiouspracticeintoline with the needs of the bourgeoisworld.94 Thepragmatistswereless concernedwith anIslamicreformationthanwith bombard- ing Muslim society with enougheconomic progress to loosen the grip of religious orthodoxy. JamaluddinAfghani, for ex- ample,was not aboveusinga little strategic IslamicrhetoricwheninIndiabutconceded in adebatewithErnstRenan(in theJournal des Debats) in the early 1880s thatall reli- gionswereintolerant,thatIslamhadtriedto stifle science andstop its progress,andthat the religious view should 'lose its power'. He saw Islam pragmaticallyas a unifying force against the west, but criticised the Indianulema for their division of science into a Muslim science anda Europeansci- ence, andforbiddingthe latterto Muslims. In general,Afghanitook a farmoreopposi-


and Political


February 26,


tional positionI to the British than Syed

AlunedKhan,whomindeedhecharacterised as a 'sycophant'.9 With the development of political aspirations among an emerg- ing bourgeoisie in the colonial world, the pragmatic line became incorporatedinto a


modernisationfrom above. ZiaGokalp's pithyaphorism, "Belong to theTurkishnation,theMuslimreligion, and Europeancivilisation," admirablycaptures the sentiment of this new movement. In 1925, Kemal Ataturkwaxed lyrical abouta moderncivilisation that





pierces the mountains,flies across the

heavens,sees everythingeven to the stars thatareinvisibleto the nakedeye, this sci-


civilisation]to whose seethingtorrentit is vainto offer resistance.96 Ilis minister of justice, Mahmud Esad, declaredayearlaterthatthe "Turkishnation has decided to accept modern civilisation and its living principles withoutany condi- tionorreservation. " 97TalatI-larb,anEgyp- tiancapitalist,expressed similarsentiments to a Frenchjournalist:



We wantto follow yourexample

quirementsaremodest.We merelydesirea place in the sun, to live like otherpeople, producingand increasingour production, exportingwhatwe produce,consumingand increasingourconsumption.Inordertoreach thisgoalwe areworkingin accordancewith


In a morepracticalvein, Zia Gokalppro- nounced that 'large-scale i