InsightMay June 2006

Is Science And Religion Discourse Relevant To Islam?

Dr. Munawar A. Anees

The Matrix

The discourse on science and religion has come of age. Of the three Abrahamic traditions, the Jewish and the Christian debate seem to be gaining a sufficient degree of maturity. Here the epistemological and theological issues are open to question with an extensive body of literature on the subject. Whatever the underpinnings of modernity or the later period, it is not uncommon to find scientist-theologian or the believing scientist across the West.

On the contrary, the issue of science and religion in the Muslim context is one of confusion and curiosity. This brief essay sets out to probe if a discourse on science and religion bears any relevance to the Muslim world. It looks at the Islamic concept of knowledge as derived from the Quran and the Tradition of the Prophet; its manifestation through the ages; challenges of modernity and postmodernism and; finally, what the future holds for the Muslim discourse.

Knowledge as a unity

The archetypal concept of Tawhid is central to any Muslim discourse on epistemology. Tawhid (unity of God) is a worldview wherefrom emanate all Islamic values. The unflinching faith in this core value lies at the heart of Muslim ethos. Little wonder that Muslim philosophers and theologians have jealously guarded this primal attribute of God in formulating constructs and juridical opinions.

An Islamic understanding of the nature and practice of knowledge (‘ilm), therefore, must be tied to the concept of Tawhid. At its face value the apparent dichotomy of “science” and “religion” would appear to be a fallacy. Islamic epistemology recognizes knowledge only as a unity, a manifestation of God’s gift to humankind where He Himself is the ultimate source of all knowledge. The Quranic pronouncement makes it clear that God created Adam and taught him what he knew not. He granted him an ascendancy over the angels and made him His vicegerent on earth. The divine nature and moral nuance of knowledge in Islamic worldview set the basic premise: all knowledge comes from God and is organically linked as a unifying entity. The human endeavor in knowing is but an act of mercy of God.

The Quran is replete with references to knowledge, its attributes, and its different embodiments. It is instructive to note that the first word of the first revelation of the Quran was Iqra, setting the divine command to read. The same prime verses proclaims that it is He Who taught (the use of) the pen and taught man that which he knew not. There are nearly eight hundred verses in the Quran that exhort the believers to delve into knowledge. They speak of intellect, wisdom, discernment, and vision as signs of the Creator. Critical observation of Nature is held by the Quran as one of the gateways to the knowledge of the Divine.

How pivotal is the Quranic emphasis upon knowledge, both divine and natural, is shown by the fact that the Prophet himself is urged to pray to God for an increase in his knowledge. According to several Ahadith (Traditions) of the Prophet, he continually reminded Muslims to strive in the path of knowledge. He is known is to have said that the pen of the scholar is mightier than the sword of the fighter. He is said to have elevated men of learning to the status of prophets. Even if one needed to travel to China in pursuit of knowledge one must do, he declared. In the Prophetic Tradition, the acquisition knowledge is an obligation of every Muslim man and woman just as he counseled them to seek knowledge from cradle to grave.

The Quranic and the Prophetic commandments on knowledge provide the matrix within which Islamic epistemology operates. The foregoing references to some of these commandments make it clear that all knowledge is divine in origin, an act of mercy upon humankind. As such reductionistic approach to knowledge carries little meanings within the Islamic framework. This is not to say that subtleties of reductionism, such as theory reductionism or process reductionism, are ignored.

The point that needs to be highlighted is that Islamic epistemology has a single source of knowledge and that source is divine. Human knowledge is but a manifestation of that knowledge. The “creation” of human knowledge takes place within the divine mould. For utilitarian purposes man is free to resort to a methodology of his choice. But it runs contrary to the essence of Islamic theory of knowledge for man to view any piece of knowledge as his own creation. On the contrary, Islam appeals to man’s faculties of reason as an instrument of divine understanding and holds acquisition knowledge as an act of worship.

Knowledge in action

Imbued with the spirit of Tawhid, early Muslim civilization made phenomenal strides in imbibing and advancing all type of knowledge. Within the first three centuries of the advent of Islam, Muslims became heir to the intellectual traditions of a number of civilizations including Greek, Roman, Persian, and Hindu. They were motivated in their zeal for knowledge by the Quranic and the Prophetic commands. How those commands were translated into reality during the formative phase of Muslim history will not fail to impress any impartial observer.

It is not an exaggeration that the medieval Muslim period witnessed one of the finest juxtapositions of spiritual and natural knowledge. For instance, a number of fundamental contributions in astronomy were made because geographically dispersed Muslims wanted to determine the exact direction of Qibla in Makkah for performing their five daily prayers. Much the same way the Quran provided a great impetus for evolution in other areas of learning such as health sciences, philosophy, linguistics, and geography.

Similarly, the pioneering efforts in shaping a methodology of transmission of the Prophetic Tradition gave rise to many auxiliary disciplines. The issue of integrity of the received text was deemed crucial for the preservation and transmission of the Tradition. Two things mattered: the transmitters themselves and the text. The methodological rigor applied in fulfilling these two prerequisites for the accuracy of the recorded Tradition gave birth to what we know today as biographical dictionaries. This was an offshoot of ilm ar-rijal – the Arabic equivalent of Who’s Who. Ibn Khallikan’s work is one of the classics as is Ibn an-Nadim’s al-Fihrist for being the world’s first bio-bibliography.

Against an injustice of historiography, new literature is emerging to show that Muslims were not mere transmitters of ancient wisdom. They skillfully acquired knowledge of arts and sciences from distant lands and different civilizations. Much of what triggered the European Renaissance can be safely attributed to the stock of knowledge transmitted via the Arabic translations of the ancient texts. Above all, for nearly five hundred years Muslim Spain remained a living witness to the free flowering of intellect where Jews, Christians, and Muslims engaged in the legendary Convivencia. Unfortunately, with the Reconquista came the Inquisition, forced conversion, and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain. This coincided with the rise of the Ottoman Empire where Muslim scholastic tradition received due patronage. However, by the early eighteenth century this tradition began to show signs of degeneration. Next centuries would witness a further deterioration of Muslim intellectual prowess.

Martyrs of Modernity?

For a long time, “Civilization of the Book” – so aptly conveying the Quranic essence – remained one of the oft-quoted attributes of Muslim society. By the late nineteenth century the same civilization presented itself on the lowest rung of the intellectual ladder. Another century would pass and the same people who upheld intellectual tradition as a religious obligation would engage in book burning in Bradford, England.

A satisfactory explanation for the decay in Muslim intellect remains a challenge for historians and social scientists. On the other hand, a squabble over the chronological sequence of the decline makes no positive contribution to our understanding of the phenomenon. It is without intellectual depth and reduces the Muslim scholarship to merely an entry in the annals of history.

Beyond the loss of political power and economic territory, the insular shift in the Muslim attitude toward the Enlightenment can easily be seen as one of the major factors in this transition. Large scale colonization that coincided with the European Enlightenment left lasting imprints upon Muslim ability to face the challenges of modernity. Even though two centuries of colonization have ended and the classical variety of colonialism has been dismantled, the deep wounds inflicted upon Muslim psyche make their presence felt.

Colonial powers are not blameless. But to attribute all Muslim ills to the colonial experience is tantamount to escapism, refusal to self-analysis and self-criticism. More than half a century has elapsed since the classical colonialism departed from much of the Muslim world. However, Muslims continue to harp on the colonial legacy instead of engaging in positive self-reflection.

The omnipresent bogy of colonialism has led to both fear and rejection. At the same time it is a failure of Muslim perception to take stock of the ideational currents in the West. This is highly pronounced in the context of scientific and technological progress where lack of substantive knowledge remains one of the major obstacles for the growth of a culture of science.

Not long ago the reluctance to accept lithography, condemnation of telegraph as a toy of devil, or refusal to acknowledge human landing on the moon are reflective of public understanding of science. Similarly, the ban on artificial insemination by husband in at least one Muslim country shows how well biology is taught and understood for theologians to issue such a verdict. Not discounting the meager support for science education and research in the Muslim world there are serious setbacks in developing positive and critical attitudes toward science and its products. This in turn carries deep implications for a healthy engagement of science and religion.

Apologists at Large

The Muslim experience of modernity has produced a healthy crop of apologists who come in all shapes and forms. Perhaps two centuries are not enough to shed the vestiges of nostalgia that Muslims in general carry with them. The power of the West has instilled a fear for which nostalgic indulgence seems to offer a convenient escape route. The most visible and deceptively gratifying approach is to seek “scientific” answers in the Quran.

The Quranic literalism has mushroomed over the last four or so decades. It all started with the publication of a book by a French medical doctor, Maurice Bucaille, who marshaled the argument that the Quranic account of the “scientific” discoveries is far more accurate than that of other holy scriptures. He set the textual criticism in an ontological perspective and tried to argue that the Quran foretold what science was discovering today.

Bucaille became an instant celebrity throughout the Muslim world. He seemed to have hit just the right chord in a milieu rife with all shades of apologia: Astronaut Neil Armstrong was rumored to have heard the Muslim call to prayer (adhan) as he landed on the moon. Nobody ever questioned the scientific basis of such an event! On the contrary, at least two Muslim states officially sponsored international conferences to investigate the “scientific miracles” of the Quran. A permanent institution is now actively engaged in this line of research.

The literalist approach to the Quran covers a vast number of scientific disciplines from embryology to geology. We now are told that the speed of light can be directly calculated from the Quran and that one can harvest spiritual energy simply by controlling the spirits (jinn). Another pastime is to indulge into the “mathematical miracle” of the Quran. An Egyptian computer expert, Rashad Khalifah, who later made a claim to prophethood and was murdered under mysterious circumstances in Tucson, Arizona, made lopsided arguments that the figure of 19 is the key to the understanding of the Quran. According to Khalifah, scientific discoveries lie hidden in different permutations of the figure 19 and all one needs is a high-speed computer-aided numerological analysis of the Quran to unravel that knowledge.

Another celebrity of the apologist hall of fame is the Canadian embryologist, Keith Moore, whose “scientific” study of the human embryological sequence in the Quran has won him a place in some text books on the subject. It is true that the Quran mentions a certain sequence of human reproduction from conception to full fetal growth. However, one makes such literal interpretations of the sacred text vis a vis the biological reality at the risk of intellectual peril. For all measures, biology has both structural and functional levels. It is unclear at what level one can make a safe and valid interpolation.

Quranic literalism is a fallacy. The apologetic zeal wants to “prove” the truth of the Quran by invoking the scientific methodology. In its second chapter the Quran makes a statement of self-truth proclaiming it to be a Book in which there is no doubt. Therefore, it runs contrary to the fundamental premise of Islamic epistemology to argue that Quran is in need of a validation of its truth claim by scientific methods. That makes belief subservient to the human agency, denying the divine role in imparting knowledge. At the same time, it negates the organic unity of all knowledge.

Anyone familiar with the basics of scientific methodology would be in the know that the method has its own nemesis. It is ever-changing and the interpretation always requiring a fresh validation. That makes the scientific methodology bound to a spatiotemporal frame of reference. This procedural flaw does not apply to the sacred text. Its pronouncement has a seal of authenticity and finality, though subject to differing interpretations.

If one is to accept the newly discovered equivalences between the sacred text and the scientific account then what one is supposed to make of the scared text once the scientific ground shifts and new interpretations are in vogue? The unilateral quest for scientific authentication and validation of the sacred text is totally oblivious of the implications for belief once the results fall short of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps it is safe to recognize that the phenomenological statements in the sacred text are simply normative in essence and not amenable to transient human perception.

Science a la Islam

The environmental movement in the West is generally credited with the rise of social accountability of science and the end of its heroic image. Among others, coming under influence from these currents the coinage “Islamic science” entered the modern debate. Seyyed Hossein Nasr is a deserving protagonist of this new mode of thought. His achievement lies in creating a scholastic frame of reference to initiate a discourse on the interfaces between science and Islam. His prolific writings on the subject constitute the groundwork for a modern philosophical and historical interpretation of science in Muslim society. This is a far cry from the nostalgia and apologia that have characterized much of the discourse.

Beyond Nasr’s fundamental contribution in giving a face to “Islamic Science” the subject continues to beg for a definition. A half-baked attempt at “Islamization” of knowledge has shown that by merely putting a prefix to the titles of disciplines – Islamic Astronomy, Islamic Biology, Islamic Economics – no scholarly purpose is served. Taking a cue from the idea that knowledge is not value-free and is generated within the framework of an ideology, the Islamization seeks to infuse, nay rather reinvent modern knowledge with a top layer of Islamic values.

A critical look at the Islamization methodology exposes its flaws. It appears to be having many similarities with the creation/evolution debate or the uproar on intelligent design. One fails to find answers as to how the Islamic values would be integrated within the body of knowledge; how those same values would affect the processes of knowing; and finally, how this newly packaged knowledge would share its common heritage with knowledge generated outside the Islamic framework?

A few writers, including some neophytes, have attempted to present Islamic science as a panacea for the ills of the Muslim community. Their approach is either to take a cursory look at the history of science in Islam and condemn the Western science for its alleged destruction of the Muslim societies or to transplant a few isolated concepts from the Shariah onto the working models of science. Both suffer from intellectual thinness. While one reduces Islamic science to an insular, passive, and xenophobic mode, the other makes a mockery of the genuine Muslim scholarship in shoddy journalistic parlance.

Besides Nasr, perhaps the only positive development is a bi-annual publication, Journal of Islamic Science, published by the Muslim Association for the Advancement of Science, Aligarh, India. For almost two decades the journal has survived against heavy odds. Its utility lies in providing a forum for debate, no matter how small. Moreover, the editors have consistently labored on expounding the Islamic value system without making premature conclusions about Islamic science.

Frightening Future

The Muslim fall from grace is a civilizational issue. The multiple causes for the fall can neither be reduced to classical or neocolonialism nor to someone’s political whims. It is self-deceptive to mock the West while making arrogant claims about the absence of dichotomy of knowledge in Islam. In any search for the reasons of the fall, therefore, the issue of science and religion remains highly significant.

The relevance of science and religion discourse for Islam can easily be discerned through the rise and fall of knowledge across the Muslim historical spectrum. Some comfort may be derived in realizing the organic unity of all knowledge. But that is the point from where emerges a real challenge to the Muslim intellect. To invoke false pride in comparing the status of knowledge with other societies, where modernity or secularism poses its peculiar problems, is a failure of both perception and judgment.

The paradigm of Tawhid as the raison d’être for Islamic epistemology and the Prophetic Tradition are no impediment to knowledge in Islam. On the contrary, they offer a matrix around which free inquiry is not only encouraged but made obligatory as a matter of belief. The task before the Muslim intellectual, therefore, is not to engage in futile debates with the West but to map out a strategy to exploit the unified knowledge.

The confusion about the status of knowledge is one of the critical issues in science and religion discourse in the Islamic context. Literalism, apologia, Islamization, and the recently vulgarized version of “Islamic science” are but offshoots of an obscurantism that continues to plague the evolution of Muslim intellect. Notwithstanding the economic and political obstacles to the advancement of knowledge in the Muslim world, there is a serious epistemological stagnation caused by an explosive mix of apologia and personal political agendas.

While the religious establishment has not known educational innovation for a long time, the intellectuals are engaged in an imaginary discourse that has little bearing on Islamic theory of knowledge or socioeconomic utility of knowledge. If the present status quo in Muslim philosophy is any yardstick then there is an urgent need to initiate a valid and authentic discourse on science and Islam is one of the major intellectual challenges of our times.

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