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This article appeared in the "Editor's File"
in The Textbook Letter, Volume 12, Number 2.

Simplistic Question, Valid Point

William J. Bennetta

Volume 12, Number 1 of The Textbook Letter presented my review of INTO ISLAM, a fraudulent curriculum manual produced by Interaction Publishers, Inc. In that review, I quoted a three-sentence passage from Tariq Ali's recent book The Clash of Fundamentalisms. Here is the passage:

What I want to know is why there is never a single Muslim name when the Nobel Prizes for Physics and Chemistry are announced each year. Are intelligence, talent and inspiration absent from Muslim genes? They never were in the past. What explains the rigor mortis?

Soon after Volume 12, Number 1 was distributed, my colleague Lawrence S. Lerner correctly told me that the three men who had shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1979 included one who bore a Muslim name -- Abdus Salam [see note 1, below].

Tariq Ali's rhetorical question, then, was misconceived and simplistic, yet the point that Ali was seeking to make was quite valid: No representative of the Muslim world has ever won a Nobel Prize in physics or in chemistry. Abdus Salam was one of the winners of the Prize in physics in 1979, and another man who had a Muslim name, Ahmed H. Zewail, took the Prize in chemistry in 1999 [note 2], but both of these men had pursued their scientific work in the West, not in the lands of Islam.

Although Salam was born in what is now Pakistan, he obtained his graduate education in England, spent most of his career in England, and established a research center at Trieste. When he won the Prize, he was a professor of theoretical physics at Imperial College, London. Zewail, a native of Egypt, earned two degrees from Alexandria University, but he took his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania and then made his career in California. He is now a professor of chemical physics at the California Institute of Technology.

With these facts before me, I wish that I hadn't used Tariq Ali's misleading passage in my review of INTO ISLAM. I wish that I had chosen, instead, this paragraph in which Bernard Lewis has called attention to the same phenomenon that Ali had in mind:

[The rejection of natural science by the Arabic Middle East] is one of the more striking differences between the Middle East and other parts of the non-Western world that have in one way or another endured the impact of Western civilization. At the present time scientists in many Asian countries make important contributions to what is no longer a Western but a worldwide scientific movement. Except for some Westernized enclaves in the Middle East and some scientists of Middle Eastern origin working in the West, the Middle-Eastern contribution -- as reflected for example in the internationally recognized journals that are at the cutting edge of scientific progress -- compares poorly with that of other non-Western regions or, even more dramatically, with its own past record. [note 3].

Postscript: In the time since my review of Interaction Publishers' INTO ISLAM ran in TTL, I have learned that Interaction Publishers has been acquired by Highsmith Inc. (Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin), a company whose principal business is the marketing of furniture and other kinds of equipment to libraries and schools. Interaction Publishers' curriculum manuals, including INTO ISLAM, are now being promoted to educators by Highsmith.

Notes

  1. The two other men were Sheldon Glashow and Steven Weinberg. All three were honored for their contributions to the theory of how elementary particles interact. [return to text]

  2. In awarding the Prize in chemistry to Zewail, the Nobel Foundation cited his "studies of the transition states of chemical reactions using femtosecond spectroscopy." [return to text]

  3. See chapter 3 in Lewis's book What Went Wrong? (issued by Oxford University Press in 2002). [return to text]


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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