InsightNovember December 2004

Islam , Scientism, Modernity & Dialogue:Probing the Future

M. Darrol Bryant

The topic probed here is too vast, the issues too vital and the matters too complex to be adequately addressed in a single essay.  Yet they stand very near the nexus of the challenges facing the great traditions of Islam – and the avowed purpose of this journal.  Thus my intention is to put forward three probes for consideration.   I do so as a student of religion and culture, one who has long been interested in the interface of religion and culture, including science and technology.  I have also long been interested in the interface of religions with one another, especially Islam and Christianity.[1]

But now let me turn to my probes.  They are three in number, with a corollary to the first.

First, why is modernity a challenge to the Abrahamic faiths – and particularly to Islam?
“Modernity” is a multifaceted and complex phenomenon.  Here we look at two aspects of modernity understood as the modern Western outlook that emerged in the 1700s and has come to be dominant in modern Western societies.  There will be two aspects or faces of modernity that will be central to these probes.  The first is modernity as “scientism,’ the second is modernity as secular, human based societies.   These theses about modernity are contentious and could be more fully explored, but here they are simply stated for purposes of these probes.

First, we turn to modernity as scientism.  In 1996 I edited, together with Dr. Syed J. Naqvi, a special issue of the International Journal of Science and Technology on “Values and Attitudes in Science and Technology.”[2]  The contributions to the journal explored diverse aspects of the issue of “values and attitudes in science and technology” from a variety of perspectives, including Islamic ones.  But running through those disparate perspectives was an agreement that modernity, understood as resting on the emergence of the new empirical sciences and technologies did challenge the great religious traditions. Why so?  There I argued that

In the long history of humankind, religion has been the matrix out of which culture has emerged and has provided the sacred canopy for its activities.  This is true not only for archaic traditions where religion and culture were virtually synonymous, but also for the great classical cultures of China, India, the Middle East and the West.  It was from the way that these varied cultures experienced and apprehended the Divine that the determining patterns of cultural life, including its tools and technologies, emerged and were legitimated… Of course, the classical cultures/civilizations were inspired and integrated by diverse religious traditions…

And then my crucial point:  The sole exception to this religion/cultural interface is modern Western culture.[3] What made it exceptional?  It was not founded on the Transcendent, but in the Secular.

This point has been made by many others including Huston Smith who notes in his Forgotten Truth that “our modern Western outlook has differed in its soul from what might otherwise by called ‘the human unanimity” because of its commitment to “scientism,” the view that the material world disclosed by science is the only world there is.  Smith saw scientism – which he distinguished from science – as pervasive in Western culture including its educational institutions, the media, and the law.

Later in his highly acclaimed Why Religion Matters, the Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief Smith wrote that

“Scientism adds to science two corollaries:” (i) that the “scientific method is, if not the only reliable method of getting at truth, then at least the most reliable method,” and (ii) “that the things science deals with – material entities – are the most fundamental things that exist.”  Both of these assumptions are unwarranted – and lead to what Smith sees as “the tunnel of modernity.”  If scientism were true, then, he argues, religion lies condemned, since it fails to deal with anything that is real.  Carl Sagan, voiced the assumptions of scientism when he said at the beginning of his
Cosmos series on television, that “the Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”[4]  Thus scientism renders the world of spirit as null and void, not part of reality.  It is this presumption and pretension, that religion – whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Taoist or traditional native spiritualities –  must resist.  Scientism is, Smith continues, the floor of the tunnel of modernity but it is supported by higher education, the Media and the law as he shows in chapters five, six, and seven of his Why Religion Matters.  Here Smith shows how scientism has affected higher education – evidenced in the marginalization of religion and its impact on other disciplines; the media – and how it handles religion, as seen in the infamous Scopes trial of the 1920s in Tennessee that pitted Darwinian science against American Fundamentalism; and the law – as seen in Stephan Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion.  In these chapters, Smith’s wide reading is obvious as he incisively, and with surprising good humour, challenges the idols of our time.  A similar critique of modernity has been offered by George Grant, the distinguished Canadian social philosopher, who saw modernity as characterized by the longing for “mastery over the non-human and human world.”  And similar points have been made Seyyed Hossein Nasr who sees “secularizing and desacralizing tendencies” at the heart of modernity.[5]  These more philosophical analyses of modernity see the rejection of transcendence at the heart of modernity.

While the scientism – not the sciences – of modernity challenged the religious traditions, there were Christians who played leading roles in the development of these new sciences and the new philosophies that gave rise to the modernity as scientism worldview.  But that does not make modernity an expression of Christianity, nor does it allow for the identification of modern Western culture with Christianity as is sometimes assumed in the non-Western world.  We need, rather, to grasp that modernity as scientism, or modernity as the reduction of reality to what is given to us in the empirical sciences is a profound challenge to traditional religions including Christianity because it denies the reality of spirit.  Thus modernity as scientism seeks to eclipse transcendence, to deny the reality of Allah, of God, of Yahweh or to reduce such beliefs to projections of human longing.  Neither Islam with its affirmation of Allah as the “Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds” nor Christianity with its belief in “God, the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth,” nor native North America traditions with its affirmation of “the Great Spirit” can assent to this assumption.  Reality is more than such scientism allows.  God is the primal reality and the source of all that is.   Here I stand philosophically with the traditionalists – and it seems to me that Muslims should as well.

Now, as a corollary to this first probe, this does not mean that that all Muslims, just like Christians, are opposed to the empirical sciences and technologies that emerged in the modern Western era.  Scientism is not equal to the new sciences and technologies, but an unwarranted extension.  It rather means that all of the great traditions found themselves struggling with the emergent “scientism” of the new sciences and technologies.  As Wilfrid Cantwell Smith, the distinguished Canadian scholar of Islam pointed out already in his 1957 study of “a people in the turmoil of the modern world.  The Muslim community in our day, like the rest of mankind, is in serious transition. What distinguishes it is that its members face the perplexities and opportunities of modernity as heirs of a unique tradition.”[6] (v)  While much of the Muslim world found itself colonized by the imperial ambitions of modern Western societies, there is range of attitudes within the Muslim world towards modern sciences and technologies.  While some are uneasy about modern sciences and technologies because they see its scientism, there are others who see those sciences and technologies as linked to westernization.   Nevertheless, there is growing evidence that Muslim elites are increasingly embracing modern sciences and technologies.[7]   Can they do so without embracing the worldview of “scientism” that comes with it?

Ismail Serageldin, for example, argues that the Qur’an’s emphasis on “the search for knowledge (ilm) and truth (haq)” should lead Muslims to embrace modern science and technology.   He sees “the promotion of science as an integral part of modernization…[which] is not synonymous with westernization.”  Modernization, Serageldin asserts, rests on a “deep humanism” which should be embraced by Muslims though he acknowledges that “this will require liberating the Muslim mind from fear of the different, the new and the foreign and promotion of respect of diversity…” He concludes that “the promotion of the scientific outlook is necessary…and is in itself a major part of promoting the societal values – the profoundly Islamic values – that are at the core of modernization and development.”  Dr. Sohail Inayatullah is not quite as sanguine and argues that “Islam must engage in the global science and technology revolution but within the values and terms of Islamic science.” Whether that is possible remains to be seen.  And figures like Yunus Negus argues a more traditional view when he says that “the starting point for science within Islam is that the universe was brought into being by Allah from nothing”[8] – a view rejected by the modern sciences that consider God an “unnecessary hypothesis.”  And so the debate continues within the Muslim world as it struggles with the challenge of modern sciences and technologies.  Across the Muslim world we see a range of attitudes towards the new sciences and technologies of modernity.

But there is another face to modernity.  It also means the emergence of secular, liberal, human based societies in the West.  There are always arguments and disagreements about the historical timetable that gave birth to modern societies in the West.  Some link the emergence of modernity to the “aftermath of the Renaissance.”  I see it otherwise and would point to the Enlightenment in the 1700s as the prime source of modernity understood as founded on the autonomy of the human.[9]   Here tradition is seen as the heavy hand of the past that must be rejected in order for the autonomous individual and society to emerge.  These developments gave rise to modern, liberal, western states that disposed kings and elevated the rising merchant/middle classes.  They became democracies and they promised equality.  Thus to be modern was to be socially democratic.  Here again modernity challenged the Abrahamic religions, though there were elements within Christianity that allied themselves with these newly emergent cultural forces and championed democracy.  And some elements within Protestant Christianity were fundamental to the emergence of the social face of modernity.

However, the Western societies transformed by modernity also had imperial ambitions.  And as a consequence Western social forms have been increasingly globalized, especially in the twentieth century.  In Bernard Lewis’ book, What Went Wrong? The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), Lewis fails to even acknowledge that traditional Muslim lands were largely under colonial rule or domination at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Yet this imperial tendency is also part of the social face of modernity in the West.  Despite this political domination of the Muslim world, the twentieth century saw the resurgence of the Islamic world.  And thus by the end of the century Muslim “nation-states” – something unknown in the longer Islamic traditions – had been created throughout Northern Africa, the Middle East, and all the way to Indonesia.  As a consequence, the Muslim world has been challenged and affected by modern social forms.

These developments in the Western world were, in some respects, liberating.  They gave unprecedented autonomy to human beings as they affirmed – in the words of the French Revolution – “equalitate, libertae e’ fratenite” to all citizens, at least in theory if not always in practice.  Democratic forms of government rested not on divine decree but on the general will of the people.  Human rights were affirmed, capitalist economic forms flourished, and so on and so forth.  Of course these new social forms of modernity have only been realized ambiguously but they were unanimous in their rejection of tradition and visions of human dependence on the divine.[10]  While these developments have their origin in the West, they have become the global norm and challenged historic Muslim social forms as well as many historic Christian forms.  Thus the turmoil we see in the Muslim world as it struggles with this dimension of modernity.

And here again we see diverse responses in the Muslim world ranging from the outright rejection of the social forms of modernity in the case of Iran, to the embracing of these Western forms in the case of Turkey.   Here too the Muslim world is challenged to find its way in relation to modern social forms that originated in the Western world.

And this brings me to my third and final probe, but one that moves in a different direction from those explored above. Again, our probe will be more schematic than detailed, more raising an issue than exhausting it.   In 1996, Samuel Huntington of Harvard University argued that in the post-Cold War world,

The fundamental source of conflict …will not be ideological or primarily economic.  The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural…the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.[11]

He then went on to argue that the principle clash would be between the Islamic world and the West.  In some ways, events since 1996 seem to bear him out.  The on-going issue of Palestine/Israel, the wars initiated by the USA against Iraq, the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the crises in the former Yugoslavia and the Sudan, etc. all have a significant Muslim component.  But what do they have to do with the “clash of civilizations?”  Nothing so far as I can see.  They are rather about politics (Middle East), oil (Iraq), domination (Bosnia and Sudan), and terrorism and hostility to the USA.  Huntington’s is a disturbing but incomplete and in some respects wrong-headed analysis.  In the twentieth century, Islam has more dealt with the continuing impact of Western imperial ambitions and colonialism than it has been an intact civilization able to clash with the West.  Moreover, Huntington’s ‘realpolitik’ assumptions about the world does not even envisage the possibility of a dialogue of civilizations, including religions, but just assumes conflict.  Thus Huntington ignores other evidence that points in a different direction.

We in the West remain appallingly ignorant of Islam, even though it is a great religious and cultural tradition.  It is the world’s second largest tradition, with more than 25% of the world’s believing population.  It is the fastest growing religion in North America, due both to immigration and conversion.  There are now nearly 600,000 Muslims in Canada and more than 5 million in the USA. [12] It is a religion that is distinguished by the depth of its prayer – it is one of the 5 Pillars of Islam – and its faith in Allah.  Islam means “the peace that comes with submission/surrender to Allah” and it has shaped the spiritual life of people’s for centuries since its emergence in the 600s.  It is a tradition deserving of our respect, though it is, as Smith shows, a tradition in tranisition as it struggles with modernity.

Yet Christians have an awful record in relation to Islam.  It has more maligned than understood this great faith. We have called it “Mohammadenism” – offensive to Muslims – rather than by its proper name.  Its Prophet has been denigrated by Christians time and again.[13]  Its Scripture, the Qu-ran, has not been acknowledged and is little known or studied by Christians.   It is a history that has contributed to many negative images of Islam within the Christian world.  Christians need to overcome this history in their relations with Muslims.

There are some signs in our times that this is beginning to happen.  For example, the 2nd Vatican Council of the Catholic Church called for dialogue with Islam, as has the World Council of Churches.  And since the late 1960s and early 70s there have been on-going meetings between Muslims and Christians.  And there are those within the Muslim world who have also initiated dialogue with Christians in the hope of moving beyond some of the ignorance and misunderstanding that has too much characterized Muslim/Christian relations. [14] Also important is the presence of significant numbers of Muslims within the West – in Europe and in North America.  This movement of people’s due to the end of colonization, the need for labour in many European countries like Germany, and the immigration of Muslims to the West requires us to begin to understand these people and their faith.  We are not doing particularly well and prejudice is still wide-spread and rampant.  Just yesterday I read a story about a New York judge asking an elderly Muslim woman who had come to court about a parking ticket if “she was a terrorist.”  She fainted.  But Western societies are having to deal with Muslims in ways they never did before.  As Muslim citizens emerge in Western societies we discover that the Other is part of us.  And on the ground throughout the West there are groups working at dialogue with their new Muslim neighbours.

It is such efforts that will prove Huntington wrong, though we should not minimize the obstacles faced in efforts to build bridges of understanding between Muslims and Christians.  Nor should we ignore the fact that many within the Muslim and Christian worlds are unwilling to engage in dialogue.

Thus we need to work for dialogue between these traditions as crucial to the future of Islam – as well as Christianity.  It is only through dialogue that we will discover our way through the ambiguous challenges of modernity as scientism and society as secular – and hopefully to move beyond some of its dominant assumptions.
[1] An earlier version of this paper was presented at a conference on Science, Technology, Modernity and Religion at the University of Ottawa in May 2003.  See my Muslim-Christian Dialogue: Promise and Problems (St. Paul, MN: Paragon Press, 1998) which I co-edited with Dr. S. A. Ali of Hamdard University in New Delhi, Woven on the Loom of Time: Many Faiths and One Divine Purpose (New Delhi: Suryodaya Books, 1999) and Religion in a New Key (Kitchener: Pandora, 2002).

[2] See the International Journal of Science and Technology, Spring 1996, Vol. 9, No.2, which includes my contribution “The Values and Attitudes of Science and Technology: a Cross-cultural Perspective’’ pp. 11-18.

[3] Bryant, “Values and Attitudes of Science & Technology,” p. 11.

[4] As quoted in Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters, see full reference below, p. 20.

[5] See Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth (NY: Harper & Row, 1976) and Beyond the Post-Modern Mind (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2nd ed, 1989),  George Grant, Technology & Empire (Toronto: Anansi Press, 1969),  S. H. Nasr, The Need for a Sacred Science (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1993), and Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters, the Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief (New York: HarperSan Fancisco, 2001), pp. 60-61.

[6] See Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Islam in Modern History (Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1957),  p. v. This study, though dated in some respects, is still worth our attention.

[7] See, for example, Islam and Ecology, edited by F. Khalid (London: Cassell, 1992).

[8] The views of Mr. Serageldin (100-108) and Dr. Inayatullah (35-50) and others are to be found in the International Journal of Science and Techology, Spring 1966 mentioned above.  Yunus Negus, “Science within Islam,” in Islam & Ecology, p. 39.

[9] See my “Beyond the Enlightenment: An Unfinished Exploration of Modernity,”  The Future of Religion: Postmodern Perspectives, eds. C. Lamb & D. Cohn Sherbok (London: Middlesex University), pp. 26-40.

[10]See Paulos Mar Gregorios, Enlightenment: East & West (Delhi: B.R. Publishing, 1989).

[11] S. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?,” Foreign Affairs 72, No.3, p. 22.  It was expanded to book form in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

[12] For population information see

[13] See, for example, Karen Armstrong, Muhammad, A Biography of the Prophet (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), pp. 21 ff.

[14] See my Muslim-Christian Dialogue cited above.  It is but one of a growing number of volumes in the West that seek dialogue with Muslims.  Here the aim is not debate, nor to show the other wrong; the aim is mutual understanding.  This is especially challenging for Muslims and Christians since there are points of profound difference between the traditions. And, in this volume, those are acknowledged.


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