Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality

  • Book Title:
 Islam And Science
  • Book Author:
Pervez Hoodbhoy
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Islam and Science: Are They Compatible?

lmagine for a moment a team of Martian anthropologists visiting Earth sometime between the 9th and 13th centuries. Their mission is to study the cultural and social evolution of the human species. Observation reveals that some societies are dynamic and evolving towards higher and more sophisticated forms, while others are static and crippled by traditions and rituals.

The visitors file a report with headquarters that the civilization with greatest promise is the lslamic civilization with itsBait-ul-Hikmah, astronomical observatories, hospitals and schools. Baghdad, the intellectual centre of the world to which scholars travel from distant lands, appears the brightest spot on earth. To Martian eyes, lbn Haytham and Omar Khayyam are recognizable as precursors of the modern scientist, a bearer of the universal cosmic intelligence. in contrast, Europe, with its witch-burning popes, appears retrograde and barbaric, sunk in the gloom of the Dark Ages.

Suppose now that the same extra-terrestrial team was to return today. With some embarrassment they would have to report back that their earlier prediction had turned out to be wrong. The part of humanity which once seemed to offer the greatest promise now appears inescapably trapped in a state of frozen medievalism, rejecting the new and clinging desperately to the old.

On the other hand, the former retrogrades have climbed the evolutionary ladder and are now aiming for the stars. Was this stunning reversal of roles, ask the visitors, the mere misfortune of one and the good fortune of the ot her? Was it due to in vasi ons and military defeats? Or was it the result of a fundamental shift in outlook and attitudes? in the study of the rise and fail of civilizations, the academic from Mars would find the lslamic case most interesting.

About 700 years ago, lslamic civilization almost completely lost the will and ability to do science. Since that time, apart from attempts during the Ottoman period and in Mohammed Ali’s Egypt, there have been no significant efforts at recovery.

Many Muslims acknowledge, and express profound regret at, this fact. lndeed, this is the major preoccupation of the modernist faction in Islam. But most traditionalists f eel no regret – in fact, many welcome this loss because, in their view, keeping a distance from science helps preserve lslam from corrupting, secular influences.

Scientific development and ideology are indivisibly linked. Hence the fundamental question: is the lslamic faith in harmonious complementarity with the science of the natura! world or is there. rather, an irreconcilable conflict between a metaphysical system based on faith and the demands of reason and empirical enquiry? For ever a thousand years philosophers and theologians oflslam have pondered this question which, particularly in this age of space travel and gene splicing, continues to invite intense debate and disagreement.

Reformist, modernist, and orthodox Muslims have argued with one anot her ever the compatibility of Jslam and science almost to the point of exhaustion. Drawing their ammunition from the same vast storehouse of Islamic tradition. they have chosen different exernplars and scriptural interpretations to arrive at whatever position they considered correct in the first place, At the heart of the dispute is the fundamental issue: science is a secular pursuit, and it is impossible for it to be otherwise. The secular character of science does not mean that it necessarily repudiates the existence of the Divine.

But it does mean that the validation of scientific truths does not rely on any form of spiritual authority; observation, experimentation, and logic are the sole arbiters which decide what is true or false. Scientists are free to be as religious as they please. but scicnce recognizes no laws outside its own.

Given that this dispute has been around for so long – and hence that its resolution to the satisfaction of all appears well nigh impossible – it would be wholly pretentious of me to assume that any further discussion. no matter how well reasoned, could put an end to the mat ter. But, even if there exists a strong temptation to relegate the issue to the backwaters of one’s consciousness, its sheer importance permits no easy escape. As the 20th century spins towards the year 2000, the attitude of Islaın to science – what it is in theory as well as in actual practice – acquires immense and unprecedented importance for Muslim society. No lenger is science, as in the splendid courts of Harun al-Rashid and al-Ma’mun, simply entertainment for enlightened princes or a subject for the exchange of polemics between scholars.

Instead, it has become the very means by which. for better or worse. the en tire human civilization is being irreversibly transformed. Military strength, political power and economic prosperity have become contingent upon the ability of modern nations to understand, control, and create modern science. The hi-tech war waged by the West against lraq – televised instantly and watched globally- is one vivid illustration of this.

Historically, thecivilization oflslam has paid a heavy price for having failed to acquire science. Indeed. this failure accounts for the retreat oflslamic civilization, and the ascendancy of the West, ever the centuries. Jn medieval times, Islam’s relationship to the West had been of a qualitatively different nature.

There were times of intimate and fruitful collaboration, as well as times of violence and confrontation. Seven centuries of Muslim rule in Spain gave to the Europeans, among other things, access to the accumulated treasures of Greek and Islamic learning. But, on the other hand, the protracted and bitter confrontation during the Crusades, and later the Ottoman domination of the Balkans, left on both sides a heritage of prejudice and resentment. This feeling of hostiHty caused the differences between the two civilizations to be magnifıed. But, as Eqbal Ahmed points out, there had…..

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