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Islam, Contemporary Issues in Science and Religion

Islam, Contemporary Issues in Science and Religion

In the nineteenth century, the Muslim world's encounter with modern science took the form of a double challenge, simultaneously material and intellectual. The Ottoman Empire's defense against the military rise of Western countries, followed by successful colonization, made it necessary to acquire Western technology, and, therefore, the science behind it. The pressure of modern science on Islam has remained very strong. The West appears as the model of progress that the Muslim world has to reach, or at least follow, through the training of technicians and engineers and through the massive transfer of those technologies that are key to development. But more than anything else, the encounter of Islam with modern science stimulated philosophical and doctrinal thinking, provoked in some fashion by an inaugural event, the now famous lecture titled "Islam and Science," which Ernest Renan (18231892) delivered at the Sorbonne in 1883. In the lecture, where he expressed his own positivist perspective, Renan criticized the Muslims' utter inability to produce scientific discoveries, as well as their supposed inability to think rationally. Intellectual Muslims of the time, who were in contact with the Western intelligentsia, considered the lecture offensive. Those intellectuals, with precursor Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani (18381897), then championed the idea that Islam never experienced a rupture between science and religion, whereas Christianity, and especially Catholicism, had known a long period of conflict with science. They argued that modern science is nothing other than "Muslim science" developed long ago in the classical era of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, and finally transferred to the West in thirteenth-century Spain, thanks to translations that later would make possible both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

For the intellectuals who founded the "modernist" movement within Islam, there is nothing wrong, in principle, with science. What remains unacceptable, however, are the distortions imposed upon science by the materialistic and positivist views held by Western philosophers and antireligious scientists. Modern science could not emerge in the Muslim world, even though it was quite advanced at a certain time, because of "superstitions" that were added to the original religion and encouraged quietist fatalism more than action. The result of this awakening of consciousness as to the progressive slipping into torpor (jumu¯d ) of Islamic societies is the modernists' call for a renaissance (nahḍah ) through reform (Ịla¯̣ ) of Islamic thinking.

Muslim intellectuals who study relationships between science and religion draw their ideas from Islam's epistemology. Indeed, Islamic tradition emphasizes the search for "knowledge" ('ilm ), a word that recurs more than four hundred times in the Qur'an and in many prophetic traditions in such forms as "the search for knowledge is a religious obligation," or "search for knowledge all the way to China." This knowledge has three aspects: religious knowledge transmitted through revelation, knowledge of the world acquired through investigation and meditation, and knowledge of a spiritual nature granted by God. Different attitudes about the relationship between science and religion proceed from the different emphases placed on those three aspects. The word (âyât ) describes both God's signs in the cosmos and the verses in the Qur'anic text. Many passages, called "cosmic verses" (âyât kawniyyah ) by commentators, direct the reader's attention to nature's phenomena, where the reader is to learn to decipher the creator's work. Islam's fundamental perspective is to affirm divine uniqueness (tawḥd ), which ensures oneness of knowledge, insofar as all true knowledge leads back to God. Therefore, there could not be disagreement between data resulting from knowledge of the world and data delivered through revelation, nor could there be the "double truth" (duplex veritas ) condemned in the Western medieval world and falsely attributed to Muslim philosophers.

The fundamental idea of oneness of knowledge appears in the positions of two major players in the history of Muslim thinking, whose works are still very much read today. Abu¯ Ha¯mid al-Ghazâl (10581111), in The Deliverer from Error (al-Munqidh mini¯ aḍ - Ḍalâl ), champions that rational certitude is granted by divine gift. If there is disagreement between the results of falsafah (philosophy and science of Hellenic inspiration) and the teachings of religious tradition, it is because philosophers took their investigations outside the domain of validity of their own fields, which led them to enunciate flawed propositions. In the long test-case opinion ( fatwá )the format he used in his book, On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy (Kita¯b Faṣl al-Maqa¯l )Abu¯ al-Wali¯d Muhammad Ibn Rushd (11261198) states that the practice of philosophy and of science is a canonical religious obligation. For him, if there is apparent disagreement between philosophy and revelation, then religious texts must be subjected to interpretation (ta'wil ) or risk impiety by making God say things that are manifestly false. Contemporary Muslim positions on science fall into three main categories that keep to the idea, in one way or another, of the oneness of knowledge.

The majority position considers, in step with of the reformers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that there is nothing essentially bad about science. The West, the current producer of scientific discoveries, may be blamed only for its materialistic vision and its indifference to morals. What this trend identifies as science are essentially the natural sciences, not human sciences permeated with the West's antireligious values. Science is considered as the means to convey "facts" that are, in essence, totally neutral. What the West lacks is the sense of ethics that some Western scientists exhibit personally, but which is not visible enough or at all in Western societies. Some great Muslim scientists, such as Mohammed Abdus Salam (19261996), who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1979, have advocated the development of modern science in the Muslim word. Such defenders of science evoke the glorious hours of the great period of science in Islam, invoke the long list of Muslim scientists whom "history forgot," and strive to build a future that promotes the emancipating role of education.

This trend has enjoyed considerable growth, while being used, in some fashion, for apologetic purposes. In 1976, Maurice Bucaille, a French surgeon, released The Bible, the Qur'an, and Science, a study of the scriptures "in light of modern knowledge," and concluded the Qur'an to be authentic because of "the presence in the text of scientific exposés which, examined in our times, are a challenge to human analysis" (p. 255). The original intent was not to tackle the relationships between science and religion in Islam but rather to take part in the debate between contemporary Orientalists and Islamists on the status of the Qur'an and to bring into the debate elements supporting its authenticity. This idea of the "scientific evidence" of the truth of the Qur'an spread through the Muslim world with the many translations of Bucaille's work, and it became amplified to the point of being a major force in contemporary Muslim apologetics, where the traditional theme of "the inimitability of the Qur'an" (i'ja¯z al-qur'a¯n ) is fully reinterpreted from the perspective of "Qur'anic science." Throughout, "Western scientists" identify in the Qur'an the latest discoveries of modern science (cosmology, embryology, geophysics, meteorology, biology), thereby affirming the truth of Islam. The supporters of this position hold a concept of science that gives no thought to its vision of the world, nor to its epistemological or methodological presuppositions. Some go even further, whencalling on the scripture to deliver quantitative scientific information, such as the very precise measure of the speed of lightthey claim to be founding an "Islamic science" on entirely new methods. But, as physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy points out in his Islam and Science (1991), which takes a stand against such diversion, "specifying a set of moral and theological principlesno matter how elevateddoes not permit one to build a new science from scratch" (p.78). There is only one way to make science, and "Islamic science" of the glorious past was nothing but universal science being practiced by scientists belonging to the Arab-Islamic civilization.


View of the presuppositions of modern science

The second trend rejects this idea of universal science and emphasizes the necessity of examining the epistemological and methodological presuppositions of modern science of Western origin. These presuppositions may not be accepted by the Muslim world. This trend has its roots in critics from philosophy and history of science. Karl Popper (19021994), Thomas Kuhn (19221996), and Paul Feyerabend (19241994) contributed, each in his way, to questioning the notion of scientific truth, the nature of experimental methods, and the independence of science's productions with regard to the cultural and social environment in which they appear. In a climate heavily influenced by the relativism and antirealism of postmodern deconstruction, Muslim critics of Western science reject the idea that there is only one way to pursue science. They strive to define founding principles for an "Islamic science" by planting scientific knowledge and technological activity in the ideas of Islamic tradition and the values of religious law (shari¯'ah ), but with nuances that result from differences of interpretation.

That is how Isma'il Raji Al-Faruqi (19211986) elaborated a program of Islamization of knowledge, carried out with the creation in 1981 in Herndon, Virginia, of the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), in response to the experiences and the thinking of Muslims working in North American universities and research institutes. This program is based on the observation of a malaise within the Muslim community (ummah ), which originates in the importation of a vision of the world totally foreign to the Muslim perspective. For the IIIT, the Islamization of knowledge is all encompassing: It starts with God's word, which can and must apply to all areas of human activity, since God created man as his "representative" or "vice-regent on Earth" (khalifa¯t Alla'h fi¯ al-ard ). The IIIT's work leads to the conception of a project for the development of a scientific practice at the heart of a religious vision of the world and of society. In fact, the IIIT's undertaking aims more at the social sciences than at the natural sciences, which are considered to be more neutral from the standpoint of methodology.

Other intellectuals, such as Ziauddin Sardar (1951) and the members of the more or less informal school of thought known as ijma¯li¯ (selfdesignated in this fashion in reference to the "synthetic" vision it offers), are also aware of the threat that the West's vision of the world, as it is conveyed by science, represents for Islam. Deeply influenced by Kuhn's analysis of scientific development, they note that Western science and technology are not neutral activities but partake of a cultural project and become a tool for the dissemination of the West's ideological, political, and economic interests. To import modern science and technology into Islam, one needs to rebuild the epistemological foundations of science, keeping in mind the perspective of interconnections between the various domains of human lifea perspective that is peculiar to Islam. Sardar himself has compared the ijmalis' position to al-Ghaza¯li¯'s.

Assessment of the metaphysical foundations of science

The third trend in Islamic thought is characterized by a deep assessment of the metaphysical foundations that support the vision of the world suggested by Islamic tradition. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1933) is its most important proponent. He has been a champion of a return to the notion of "Sacred Science." This trend originates in the criticism of the modern world put forth by French metaphysicist René Guénon (18861951), and later by authors in his wake, such as Frithjof Schuon (19071994) and Titus Burckhardt (19081984), all Muslims of Western origin. Guénon explained how modern Western civilization is an anomaly insofar as it is the only civilization in the world that developed without reference to transcendence. Guénon mentions the universal teaching of humanity's religions and traditions, all of which are nothing but adaptations of the originalessentially metaphysicaltradition. The destiny of human beings is the intellectual knowledge of eternal truths, not the exploration of the quantitative aspects of the cosmos. In this context, Nasr denounces not so much the malaise of the Muslim community, but rather that of Western societies that are obsessed with developing a scientific knowledge anchored in a quantitative approach to reality and in the domination of nature, which results in its pure and simple destruction.

Nasr's position and that of the other defenders of this traditional trendwhich some chose to call perennialist (in reference to Sophia perennis, the "eternal wisdom" of divine origin, which they perpetuate)inscribes itself not only in the critique of Western epistemology, but in a deep calling into question of the Western idea of a reality reduced to matter alone. The perennialists propose a doctrine of knowledge as a succession of epiphanies, where truth and beauty appear as complementary aspects of the same ultimate reality. They call for a return to a spiritual view of the world and the rehabilitation of a traditional "Islamic science," which would preserve the harmony of the being within creation. In contrast, critics of such a radical position denounce its elitism and emphasize the difficulty of implementing its program in current circumstances.

The various currents within contemporary Muslim thinking are evidence of the intense questioning of the relationship between science and religion. In this context, the Muslim academic world has been operating as a kind of melting pot, where numerous ideas of Islamic or Western origin are elaborated anew in an effort to synthesize them. The fundamental elements remain true to Islamic thinking: the repeated affirmation of God's uniqueness, which unites both creation and humanity; the open nature of the very process of acquisition of knowledge of the world, which, by essence, is unlimited since it originates and ends in the knowledge of God; the narrow interconnection of knowledge and ethics; and, finally, the responsibility of human beings on Earth in their capacity as vice-regents, who must use the world but not abuse it and behave as good gardeners must in their garden. In addition, the metaphysics underlying epistemology and ethics is deeply marked by the dialectic of the visible and of the invisible. Phenomena are the signs of divine action in the cosmos. In fact, God is present in the world, the creation of which God ceaselessly "renews" at every moment (tajdi¯d al-khalq ). The articulation of this form of "opportunism" with causalityand modern science's determinism and indeterminismremains to be elaborated.

Critical thinking on the very elaboration of science as an activity marked by culture is now part of the discourse. In contrast, one must acknowledge that the latest developments in contemporary sciencenotably those dealing with mathematical undecidability, the uncertainty of quantum physics, the unpredictability of chaos theory, as well as the questioning by biology of evolution, and by neuroscience of conscienceneed, no doubt, some further thinking. Indeed, these developments may provide interesting ways to shatter the reductionist and scientist view of the world. They constitute a kind of cornerstone for a metaphysics and epistemology that could give meaning to science as it is done in laboratories and research institutes.

Finally, one has to provide content to the term Islamic science. The issue is simultaneously one of ethics (personal and collective), of epistemology, and of the metaphysical Weltanschauung it presupposes. When passing from theory to practice, each current of thought must face specific problems resulting not only from its specific position but also from the Muslim world's economic and social difficulties. What remains to be established is the degree to which the most ambitious projectthat of Islamic science as Sacred Sciencecan amount to more than a nostalgic glance at the past and move on to the stage of its actual implementation by a spiritual and intellectual elite. The future of the Islamic civilization's contribution to the development of universal knowledge is tied to the answer that will be given to that question.


See also AverroËs; Avicenna; Islam; Islam, History of Science and Religion


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bruno guiderdoni

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