Muslim students across the region now have the opportunity to delve into ongoing debates on the relationship between science and religion.
This opportunity comes after a recent Dh3 million grant was awarded by the John Templeton Foundation to Prof Nidhal Guessoum, professor of physics at the American University of Sharjah (AUS). Prof Guessoum and Dr Jean Staune from the Interdisciplinary University of Paris were jointly awarded for their proposal titled ‘Islam and Science: An educational approach'.
"In recent years, I have been involved in discussing science and religion, particularly Islam, worldwide," Prof Guessoum said. "The idea behind the proposal is to widen the discussion and address it more specifically for students."
The grant will fund a series of intensive educational training workshops for students and young researchers on topics relating to the dialogue between Islam and modern science. The areas of instruction will be on subjects like cosmology, evolution, environment and practical astronomy as well and result in the production of booklets, video and other educational material. The workshops will be conducted across eight countries in the Muslim world and Europe over the course of three years; namely, the UAE, Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Malaysia, the UK and France.
"International discussion on science and religion is taking place at an advanced level — and we need to produce a new generation of scholars who can bring the Islamic voice to them," the astrophysicist said. "The goal is for us to produce educational material from the workshops so other students and the general public will benefit from them; which is part of a larger initiative to produce more information and knowledge."
The subsequent scholarly material and manuscripts will be made available electronically at a later stage.
Prof Guessoum added the first installment of the three-day workshops is scheduled to kick off in Paris in the next few weeks. While the dates for the UAE workshops are yet to be determined, they will be in the coming academic year.
Applications to attend the workshops are open to all students in the respective countries. However, up to 25 students will be chosen per workshop based on a mandatory academic essay about the relationship between Islam and an area of science.
"We are looking for people who have enough background and are actually serious about these topics," he said.
"We don't want to take anyone who pretends they are interested but hasn't actually read or thought enough about such topics and who is therefore unable to express himself properly."
The top 20 students will later be selected from across all eight countries to attend a two-week summer school advanced programme.
"The idea is by the end of the three years, we would have talked to over 200 Muslim students," he said. "Some of whom will then, in turn, go on to write about these topics in a more educated fashion and participate in international discussions."
Prof Guessoum expects students to be surprised at the discourse they will be exposed to in terms of new and pre-existing ideas.
He is also, however, anticipating a possible backlash as some people may find it hard to accept certain ideas.
"I am anticipating some serious discussions by people who are surprised by some topics we address in, say biology, evolution and bioethics," he said. "Some people may not be completely ready to accept some of the ideas."
However, he added the possible resistance or controversy as a result of such discussions is all part of the learning process.
"This is education, if you are not surprised or have a change of mind after being exposed to new ideas, then you are not getting educated," he said.
"There could possibly be a backlash from the Muslim community but as long as it remains civil, we will welcome it; because it can only lead to more discussions and enlightenment for everyone."