‘We Must All Be Aware Of Each Other’

Prof. Dr. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu is a world-class scholar with countless articles and papers and over thirty books on the history of science, Turkish culture and Ottoman/Turkish - Arab relations.

He is also the first elected secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. We talked with him about the importance accord to the Middle East, the history of science and the important accord to science in the Islamic world.

Why was scientific development interrupted in the Islamic world in the past?

Science in the Islamic world continued brilliant up to the 16thcentury. During the period of Murad III, Taqiyuddin was way ahead of the Europeans in astronomy, mathematics and the manufacture of mechanical clocks. What we need to do is identify correctly the reference points of our own history of science.  All the ancient civilizations - Islamic, Indian, Chinese and Japanese, which is a sub-group of Chinese - fell behind. The crux of the matter lies in the fact that Europe moved farther ahead. Europe advanced rapidly and achieved a different kind of development. This was actually the phenomenon we call the scientific revolution, and together with the industrial revolution it widened the gap.

What is the relationship between scientific production and the history and philosophy of science in Turkey?

We must read and assess efforts to catch up with the West from a new perspective in the scientific development that has been under way in Turkey and in the Islamic world for the last two hundred years. When I took office, we aimed to increase the share of our national income allocated to research and development to one percent. In the developed countries it is close to 2.5 percent. In Turkey it was 0.71 percent in 2007. The average in the Islamic countries is around 0.5 percent. Economically speaking, what is important is not to have wealth but to utilize resources in bodies engaged in research and development.

What is your view on efforts regarding women’s rights in the Middle East?

The situation of women in the Middle East is truly distressing. The treatment accorded women in some societies has to stop. These are practices stemming from tradition in any case and have nothing to do with Islam. Islam ensured that women gained their rights 14 centuries ago. Woman became legally competent with the coming of Islam. The OIC held two important meetings on this subject in Istanbul and Cairo. We are creating a new organization that is concerned with the rights of women.

What is the level of the Islamic world’s relationship with art today?

Judging by the recent past, interest in art and artistic production has grown in the Islamic world. But we are remiss when it comes to being aware of each other. The Egyptian Nobel laureate writer Necib Mahfuz, for example, is translated into Turkish from the English. This is not right. Similarly our own Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk, is translated into Arabic via English. We need to facilitate close linguistic ties among the Islamic countries.

Can you cite a few examples of eastern scholars whose work has impressed you?

Of course. Khwarezmi, for example, who was the founder of arithmetic, algebra and logarithms. Ibnü’l-Heysem, the founder of modern optics. Ibn Sina (Avicenna) was very important in philosophy and medicine. Farabi represents the pinnacle in philosophy. Aristotle, they say, was the first teacher and Farabi the second. That’s how significant he was. There are many important figures among the Ottomans as well. Kadızade Rumi of Bursa, for example, who grew up in Bursa, went to Samarqand and became the teacher of Ulugh Beg and Ali Kuşçu. Ali Kuşçu came to Istanbul from Samarqand and produced important works that influenced the Ottomans. All these figures made enormous contributions to the scientific world in their fields. If it had not been for them, there would have been no scientific revolution.

As one who knows the region well, how would you assess the perception of Turks and Turkey in the Middle East?

The presence of the Turks in the Middle East is much older than their presence in the geographical boundaries of today’s Turkey. When the Turks first came from Central Asia, they settled in Samarra, which had been built near Baghdad in the time of the Abbasid Empire. An Abbasid army commander of Turkish origin, Ahmet ibn Tolun, went to Cairo and founded his own state there. In this sense the presence of the Turks in the Middle East goes back a long way. The Turks have a very important role in the political and demographic structure of the Middle East and in the formation of its culture.

As Secretary General of the OIC, what are your views on the process of economic cooperation among the Islamic countries in terms of    realpolitik?
It would be wrong to speak of an economic union today. It would be more correct to talk about a second phase of moving forward and following up on developing relations than to speak of economic unity or integration per se. When we speak of an economic union, the European Union comes to mind, and it is a good example. But it is essential to understand and analyze this process very well. Such harmony is not something that comes about in a day. The European Union is a process that started after the Second World War and is still continuing today. Outside the political framework, the two most important factors here are geographical proximity and very similar levels of economic structure. It is essential to realize the importance of the scientific, technological and cultural level of the human resources that sustain such economic development and take it forward, and the necessity for the countries involved to be at comparable levels. We don’t have that yet.

Ziya Paşa remarked on the differences in terms of development between the Islamic world and western civilization in his verses. What are the reasons for that?

Ziya Paşa lived in the second half of the 19th century, a time when Muslim intellectuals were ruled by a psychotic sense of defeat vis à vis the West. The actual history of what is expressed in this couplet must be put in context. The second half of the 19th century was a period when Europe’s material culture was at its zenith. A time when colonization was spreading and the European countries were absorbing the resources of their colonies to their own countries. The difference between Western Europe and the rest of the world widened with the Industrial Revolution especially. With that new superiority, Europe began to dominate the entire world.

Prof.Dr. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu 1943 Kahire doğumlu. Mısır Ayn Şems Üniversitesi Fen Fakültesi’nden mezun olduktan sonra Ankara Üniversitesi Fen Fakültesi’nde doktorasını tamamlayıp İngiltere Exeter Üniversitesi’nde akademik çalışmalar yaptı ve 1984’te profesör oldu. Devlet Üstün Hizmet Madalyası sahibi olan İhsanoğlu, İstanbul Üniversitesi Edebiyat Fakültesi Bilim Tarihi Bölümü Kurucu Başkanlığı’nın yanı sıra Harvard Üniversitesi ve UNESCO’da çeşitli görevler yürüttü.
Prof. Dr. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu was born in Cairo in 1943. After graduating from the  School of Science of Egypt’s Ayn Shems University, he completed his doctorate at the Ankara University School of Science. Continuing his academic studies at the University of Exeter in England, he became a professor in 1984. İhsanoğlu, who holds the Medal for Distinguished Service to the Turkish State, has been the Founding Chairman of the History Department of the University of Istanbul Faculty of Literature as well as serving in various capacities at Harvard University and in UNESCO.


Located Istanbul’s Gülhane Park, this museum, which opened in 2008, features models and maquettes of scientific projects undertaken by Islamic scholars through the ages together with multivision and promotional films. The museum includes sections on astronomy, clocks, navigation, geography, war technology, medicine, biology, zoology, architecture, physics, chemistry and optics.