Science and Islam: Rebuilding a Modern Iraq

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Christopher Rose
A monument to ancient Islamic astronomer Ulugh Beg in a mosque in Uzbekistan. Ulugh Beg was a figure in the Golden Age of Islam in the 14th century. Modern Islam is facing a sharp divide between the religion and scientific thought.

Iraq has a long history of contributing to scientific discovery, however as religious leaders increasingly take control of the war-torn nation, that tradition is under threat.

Once a hub for scholars and intellectuals, Iraq and the Middle East were the epicenter of knowledge and learning. Home to Bayt al-Hikma, or the House of Wisdom, between the 10th and 13th centuries, medieval Iraq experienced what was known as the Golden Age of Islam, revolutionizing scientific thought.

However, in recent years there has been a sharp divide between Islam and science, exacerbated by war and unrest. The lack of scientific material available in Iraq is particularly damaging to the country’s development, having severe repercussions on education, public policy, and socio-economic advancement.

However, in recent years, a group of young Iraqis have taken a stand against the Islamic government’s strict control over media, and are working to promote ‘radical’ ideas outside of religion.

Working side by side, The Iraqi Translation Project and Real Sciences translate works of science into Arabic, and make them available to the public. Founded in 2011 and 2013, respectively, both organizations have grown to gain over 13,000 followers on Facebook.

Often translating texts on Darwin, evolutionary theory, outer space, and human physiology, they are passionate about science and believe that it will help reduce sectarian conflicts in their community.

In 2013, members of the two groups started an initiative, called “I am Iraqi, I Read,” in response to government crackdowns on the sale and publication of literary material. Hundreds of people gathered on the famous Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad for a book festival and peaceful demonstration in support of rebuilding the lost culture of reading.

A symbol of Islamic philosophy in Iraq, the market for books is dominated by religious works, often endorsing sectarianism, nationalism, pan-Arabism, and even communism. Books based on science and reason are rare commodities, and difficult to find in the local market.

Government regulations prohibit scientific articles or works, which are thought to go against the teachings of Islam. In parts of Iraq controlled by ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), where the government has little influence, ISIS fighters are systematically indoctrinating young children and building a new generation of Islamic extremists willing to fight for their cause. Teaching subjects such as math, science, and music are banned. Last year, in the city of Mosul, ISIS fighters carried out a series of home invasions, getting rid of any non-Islamic books.

Pioneers, rebels, and revolutionaries in their field, Real Sciences and The Iraqi Translation Project are paving the way for a new, liberal Iraq.