Islam and Science: Notes on an Ongoing Debate
College of the Holy Cross
In his preface to Heisenberg‟s Physics and Philosophy, F. S. C. Northop made the
following observation on the spread of modern science to non-Western societies:
“…modern ways are going to alter and in part destroy traditional customs and
values. It is frequently assumed by native leaders of non-Western societies, and also
often by their Western advisers, that the problem of introducing modern scientific
instruments and ways into Asia, the Middle East and Africa is merely that of giving the
native people their political independence and then providing them with the funds and
the practical instruments … one cannot bring in the instruments of modern physics
without sooner or later introducing its philosophical mentality, and this mentality, as it
captures the scientifically trained youth, upsets the old familial and tribal moral 1loyalties.”
Northop, who made these remarks more than four decades ago, did not have to wait too long to see his predictions come true. The changes brought about by modern science in the minds and lives of people in the Muslim world have been no less profound and deep-seated than they are for people living in the western hemisphere. The crisis of legitimacy and the dissolution of traditional certainties, closely related to the scientistic worldview of modern natural sciences, have a deep impact on how people in the Islamic world relate to the question of science on the one hand, and their intellectual and scientific tradition, on the other. The wide spectrum of views on the issue range from Muslim scientists and professionals who take science to be a pure and disengaged study of natural phenomena with no hidden or explicit ideological assumptions to those who consider modern science essentially materialistic, reductionist and thus in conflict with the ethos of the religious view of the universe. Regardless of what particular position one takes in this debate, the urgency of addressing the question of (modern) science is as fresh and challenging today as it was more than a century ago for Jamal al-Din Afghani, ththe father of Islamic modernism in the 19 century, and his generation.
There are two important components to this debate. The first one pertains to the practical needs and concerns of Muslim countries. Keeping up with modern science and technology is the number one priority of governments in the Muslim world, as it is in fact everywhere else, and every year billions of dollars are allocated for science education, research, and transfer of technology. From Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, to Mahathir Muhammad, the primer minister of Malaysia, the goal has remained the same: to fill the gap between Western and Islamic societies by empowering Muslim countries with the tools and blessings of modern science. Not only the ruling elites but also the populace at large are convinced of the intrinsic power and necessity of science and technology for this is where the superiority of the West lies in.
1 Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (New York: Harper and
Row Publishers, 1958), p. 2.
In this sense, the Islamic world is no less pragmatic and utilitarian in its quest for power-through-technology than its European and American counterparts.
The second component of the debate over Islam and science in Muslim societies concerns the intellectual domain, which links the discussion both to modern science and its philosophical foundations and the Islamic scientific tradition as an alternative way of studying the order of nature. The philosophical foundations and, by derivation, built-in presuppositions of modern science and its historical rise in Europe have long been debated and well analyzed. Even long before the Kuhnian and post-modernist criticisms of modern science as a cultural product essentially embedded in pre-scientific assumptions and social-historical proclivities and necessities, a number of important studies showed how philosophical, cosmological, religious and metaphysical ideas played instrumental roles in the shaping of the modern scientific worldview from Galileo to Newton. Edmund Burtt‟s The Foundations of Modern Physical Sciences and Frances
A. Yates‟ Giardano Bruno and The Hermetic Tradition, inter alia, were major thchallenges to the 19 century view of science as studying natural phenomena from a
standpoint which Thomas Nagel has aptly described as „view from nowhere‟, viz., seeing the world not from a particular point in it but rather over it, hence assuming an a-historical position towards it. Therefore, there is no need to reiterate the main arguments of scientific historicism here. Rather, I shall focus on how the Muslim world has responded to this debate and what possible positions we may expect to arise from these responses.
Scientific Universalism versus Cultural Particularism
The participation of Muslim philosophers and scholars in the debate over the historicity of modern science has added a new dimension to the debate in that the defenders of a scientific tradition rooted in Islamic metaphysics and cosmology have clearly argued for the cultural specificity and differentiation of scientific traditions. Such advocates of Islamic science as Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Naquib al-Attas, Osman Bakar, to name a few, have defended a cultural particularism of some kind against scientific universalism whereby the a-historical claims of modern scientism (and not science as such) to universal truth and validity are rejected and alternative ways of studying the order of nature are maintained against the onslaught of scientific materialism and reductionism. This is best illustrated in the sharp contrast between the religious-sacred view of nature and the secular outlook of modern science. While the various religious traditions developed a complex cosmology and approached the world of nature as imbued with intrinsic meaning, order, and even bliss as a way of marveling at the work of the Great Artisan, modern science or rather scientism regards such metaphysical and aesthetic considerations philosophically unfounded and scientifically inconsequential for the work of the scientist. Examples abound in number to show the disparity between the two perspectives.
Bertrand Russell‟s celebrated essay called “A Free Man‟s Worship”, for instance, was written as a testimonial to this view of science. If we accept, according to Russell, the scientific view of the universe as a theory of everything, we will be saved from the
„confusions‟ of both philosophy and religion at once.
“Such in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world
which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals
henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no
prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and
fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms;
that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual
life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration,
all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death
of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be
buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins -- all these things, if not quite beyond
dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to 2stand”.
Russell‟s radical scientism has lost much of its élan today. But it remains the unwritten code of the popular perceptions of science. Furthermore, the stark contrast that we see between Russell‟s view of science and traditional cosmologies is also to be found within the Western intellectual tradition in various controversies such as evolution versus creationism. But the contrast is sharper in the case of Islamic thought because the Islamic world has not been as exposed and vulnerable to the effects of secularization as the Judeo-Christian thought has been in the last three centuries.
It is obvious that construing modern science as a particular and not the only way of studying natural phenomena poses a serious challenge to the exclusivist and absolutist claims of modern natural sciences that reduce reality to what can be measured empirically. To better understand how this criticism applies to modern Western science, we should remember here an important distinction made in philosophy of science between the context of discovery and the context of justification. While the context of discovery refers to what the scientist actually does in her lab, the context of justification refers to how the scientist‟s work is interpreted and articulated in different frameworks of analysis. Insofar as the context of discovery is concerned, we may be justified in assuming a linear historical line that connects Ptolemy, Abu Bakr al-Razi or Nasir al-Din al-Tusi to Newton or Max Planck: the successes or failures of these scientists of different historical periods and cultural settings can be explained in terms of the accumulation of scientific knowledge, refinement of measurement, exactitude in prediction, advancement in taxonomy, etc. What they all have in common is the continuity of the context of discovery whereby religious and cultural elements have a relatively small role to play.
The issue takes on a substantially different form when we move to the next level, i.e., the context of justification in which we attempt to understand and interpret the meaning
of the empirical work of the scientist on the ground. Here, we are no longer in the world of „bare facts‟ without suppositions notwithstanding the fact that the very concept of
„bare facts‟ as the building blocks of scientific procedures is open to question. Science is no longer a mirror juxtaposed against the world and the scientist the incorrigible interpreter of the reality of things. Rather, every interpretation, extrapolation, deduction, induction, and even prediction is screened through a set of philosophical assumptions whether they are articulated explicitly or remain tacit. It is at this level of analysis that science becomes a cultural artifact bound by particular traditions, postulations, and needs. The basic tenets of modern science, which make it a secular enterprise, are all produced
2 Mysticism and Logic (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957), p. 45.
at the context of justification and can be accepted, questioned and/or rejected primarily on philosophical grounds.
In this sense, the multiplicity of scientific worldviews, if we may use such a term, is part and parcel of every scientific tradition in that the findings of a particular scientist or in a particular field of science are interpreted in a variety of ways that may or may not agree with other interpretations. In fact, this was the case in traditional societies where we have always multiple cosmologies both across and within specific traditions. Take the case of Islamic and Christian cosmologies. Both traditions produced elaborate cosmological schemes tightly linked to the astronomy and physics of their times, i.e., the Ptolemaic-Aristotelian astronomy. Naturally, the cosmology of Dante‟s Divine Comedy
was structured along the lines of Biblical and Christian thought whereas Islamic cosmology was the result of a deliberate attempt to reconcile Greek-Aristotelian cosmology with Qur‟anic theology and eschatology. Yet, we still find more cases of plurality within each of these traditions. The scholastic-Thomistic view of nature is not the same as St. Francis of Asisi‟s mystical and poetical deliberations of nature. In the same way, certain parts of Ibn Sina‟s Neoplatonic cosmology or that of the Brethren of Purity are considerably different from Ibn al-„Arabi‟s “Five Divine Presences” and Mulla
Sadra‟s mundus imaginalis.
The case for particularism and the multiplicity of interpretations within and across various cultural traditions does not lead to parochialism. It is always possible to draw multiple conclusions from the same data both in science and philosophy, and as such plurality does not invalidate the veracity and relevance of divergent readings. In fact, one may even argue that the apparent diversity of traditional cosmologies is rooted in an underlying unity in that such postulates as the universe as a sign of God (ayat Allah in
Arabic and vestigia Dei in Latin), teleology, intrinsic intelligibility of the world, order and harmony, and so on are all shared by various schools of thought. At this point, the concept of Islamic science has a lot to offer to the current religion-science debate especially if this term is understood in a broader sense to include the reassertion of the religious view of the universe as an alternative vision to the profane and secular worldview of modern scientism. Considering the eroding impact of scientism on traditional beliefs and practices and the disastrous consequences of scientific and technological development without boundaries, the Islamic world can make a strong case for a new vision of science that will both cater to the practical needs of modern society and preserve the spiritual and ethical significance of the world of nature – a case for
which people of other religious traditions have to collaborate to foster a common ground for a science that is in peace and harmony with both heaven and earth at the same time.
The Islamic World and Science Today
As I mentioned above, there are two important aspects to how the question of science is addressed in the Islamic world today. On the one hand, the Islamic intellectual thand scientific tradition, going back to the rise of Islam as a world civilization in the 9 thand 10 centuries, remains a major source of knowledge and inspiration for the contemporary Muslim world in its quest for self-identity and self-esteem. The glory of Islamic civilization stretching from Andalusia and the Balkans to Persia and India and the historic contributions of such Muslim scientists as Ibn al-Haytham, Khwarazmi, Ibn Sina, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and others to the development of science are remembered
throughout the Islamic world as more than a mere grandeur of the past. Rather, this tradition of remarkable scientific achievement and philosophical articulation is a witness to the study of the world of nature within a religious and sacred framework that delivered to both the spiritual and practical needs of human society. In this sense, the historical experience of Islamic science is an invaluable asset for the development of an Islamic philosophy of science today.
The big challenge facing the Islamic world is to show the relevance of this tradition today. This brings us to the second aspect of the science debate in the Islamic world and it is how to deal with modern science without succumbing to the temptations of secular scientism. There is a world of difference between Ibn Sina‟s Neoplatonic cosmology and modern science not only in terms of cumulative knowledge and heuristic advancement but also in the philosophical outlook of the two systems of the universe. For a devout follower of modern science like John Searle, “there is really nothing in the universe but 3physical particles and fields of force acting on physical particles”, and this makes
matters supposedly easier once we rest our case for a spiritual vision of the universe. The question for the Islamic world, however, is this: after four centuries of not practicing science in full scale and for the last century trying to transfer of science and technology from the West, will the Islamic world ever be in a position where it will put its own „paradigm‟ in place and re-develop a scientific tradition that will be in harmony with its religious tenets and aspirations on the one hand, and cater to its practical needs, on the other?
The confusion that plagues the minds of countless scientists in the Muslim world and across the globe arises precisely from the lack of a balance between the discourse and practice of science in an Islamic context. For some, the question of religion or any other philosophical consideration is simply not there. The scientist goes about her own work and fulfills her function in her scientific community without bothering herself with any such philosophical issues. In most cases, however, the Muslim scientist is split between her profession as a scientist and her value system as a believer. The scientist works as part of a global scientific community and remains mostly indifferent to questions of ethics, cosmology, religion, etc. The believer practices her religion but brings very little from her devotion to bear on his scientific work. We thus end up having split identities with very little ground to integrate the two in a meaningful and cogent manner.
Now, part of this problem has to do with the resistance of the scientisticly minded Muslim professionals to accept any alternative to modern science except, perhaps, when it comes to the ethical and environmental misdeeds of modern science. This is a common phenomenon in spite of the fact that the groundwork for an Islamic concept of science and its conceptual scheme has already been done by a long list of Muslim scholars that include S. H. Nasr, Rene Guenon, O. Bakar, Alparslan Acikgenc, Muzaffar Iqbal, Mahdi Golshani, Ziauddin Sardar, Zaki Kirmani, and many others with important differences 4among them. The task at hand, however, is rendered more difficult by the simple
3 John Searle, The Rediscovery of Mind (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press,
1994), p. 30. 4 For a detailed analysis of the three major views of science represented by these figures in the Islamic world, see my “Three Views of Science in the Islamic World” in God, Life and the Cosmos: Christian and
Islamic Perspectives, eds. Ted Peters, Muzaffar Iqbal, Syed Nomanul Haq, (Ashgate, 2002), pp. 43-75.
nonexistence of a strong and parallel scientific tradition in the Muslim world. The possibility of applying an Islamic framework of science to actual scientific work is alarmingly limited in the sense that the level of scientific infrastructure in Muslim countries from physics and engineering to medicine and astronomy is simply not comparable with that of the West that controls the world over the pace and direction of scientific research and technological innovation. Furthermore, the global network of scientific programs and technological novelties, funded by governments and powerful transnational corporations, makes it extremely hard if not impossible for any scientist to go against the grain and open up new venues for the flourishing of an alternative vision of the universe beyond the parameters of modern science. This we see clearly in how Muslim scientists deal with such controversial issues as evolution versus creationism, genetic engineering, human cloning, and nuclear technology. The fact that some people in the Islamic world take pride in the creation of atomic bomb, or the so-called „Islamic
bomb‟, by Muslim scientists as a token of the return of the glory of Islamic civilization is
an indication of the graveness of the problem.
Needless to say, all these problems speak to the urgency of the question of science in the Muslim world. Until and unless the Islamic world recovers its intellectual and scientific tradition on the one hand, and comes to terms with the challenges of modern science, on the other, we will either join the camp of scientific universalism and reduce reality to what the natural sciences can reveal, or join the camp of radical anti-realism of the postmodernists, as it has often been the case among the Muslim critics of secular science, and deny any validity to science or, for that matter, any other human endeavor. The Islamic intellectual and scientific tradition can provide a comprehensive framework which will address the challenge of studying the universe in a non-reductionist way and preserve the sacred meaning of nature – a framework shared by other religious traditions
from Judaism and Christianity to traditional Hinduism and Buddhism.