WITH AMERICAN embassies threatened or burning and the hostages still in captivity, it is difficult to remember -- or care -- that anything else of importance is going on in the Islamic countries where nearly one-third of the world's people live. But something else, intimately related to these events, is happening: a revival of Islam. Though its nature and extent are by no means clear, a better understanding of the forces at play could be of profound importance to post-crisis U.S. relations with the Muslim world.

One of the first realms to feel the effect of this revival -- and perhaps a paradigm of other changes still to come -- was, surprisingly, science. The discussion formally began at an international conference in Saudi Arabia in 1976, whose purpose was to discuss "Islamic science" -- what it is and how to do it. There are some eminent Muslim scientists who believe that science is universal and value-free and that therefore an Islamic science does not even exist. There are also people who feel that Islam's purposes would be served by such means as teaching and practicing science in Arabic, and avoiding areas of research incompatible with Islamic beliefs -- for example, the fermentation of sugar to produce alcohol. This group sees science in much the same way as the West views applied science -- as a means to achieve social goals. Increasingly though, and especially in Iran, a more extreme view, which sees basic research as intrinsically ideological, is beginning to prevail.

This group believes that Islamic science, like Islamic politics, is inseparable from Islamic religion, particularly its concept of God. This connection, according to a report in the British magazine Nature, dictates profoundly different assumptions about man's place and role in the universe. As described by Abdullah Naseef, vice rector of one of Saudi Arabia's eminent universities, Islamic science is a concept poles apart from -- indeed, almost inconceivable to -- Western science: "Aggressive rationalism is considered by Islam to be anti-human. So Islamic science does not accept the tyranny of one, supreme method." Islamic science, he continues, cannot be "fooled into believing that the method of experimental and theoretical sciences can lead to eternal truths."

Iran provides an early glimpse of what such views can mean in practice. A new development plan, encompassing science, technology and education, will soon be presented to the Revolutionary Council -- assuming that the council does not disappear first. The plan redefines Iran's development as "a compound of actions that take the society closer to God." The aim is explicitly not to have a "prosperous society," but rather to "elevate human values." Beneath the revolutionary rhetoric, this means, among other things, that science and technology will no longer be imported. Research institutes in Iran that relied mainly on Western science have already been closed. The nuclear energy program and some heavy industry projects have also been shut down. Emphasis will be shifted to agriculture, cottage industry, de-urbanization and rural development.

The search for an Islamic science is unlikely to prove successful because, so far as we know, the "experimental and theoretical" method is the only route to scientific truths. Technology, applied science, is another matter, and there the search may be successful and beneficial, producing a society for more in tune with Islamic values than one imported from the West. The mistake for this country would be to dismiss what is happening in Iran and elsewhere as nothing more than a mindless rejection of modernity prompted by a few extremists. The failure to be aware of, let alone understand, the forces at work in the Muslim world has already proved costly enough.