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Three Views of Science in the Islamic World

Three Views of Science in the Islamic World

Publisher: www.muslimphilosophy.com


Three Views of Science in the Islamic World

I. Kalin



This version is published on behalf of www.alhassanain.org/english

The composing errors are not corrected.

Table of Contents

Intoduction 5

Science as the Servant of God: the Dimension of Social Ethics 9

The Epistemic View of Science: For and Against the Method 16

The Sacred versus the Secular: The Metaphysics of Science 20

Conclusion 24

Notes 25


There is hardly any subject as vexed and vital for the contemporary Islamic world as the question of modern science. Since its earliest encounter with modern Western science in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Islamic world has had to deal with science for practical and intellectual reasons. At the level of practical needs, modern science was seen as the sine qua non of the advancement and defense of Muslim countries in the field of military technology. The Ottoman political body, which, unlike the other parts of the Islamic world, was in direct contact with European powers, was convinced that its political and military decline was due to the lack of proper defense mechanisms against the European armies. To fill this gap, a number of massive reforms were introduced by Mahmud II with the hope of stopping the rapid decline of the Empire, and a new class of military officers and bureaucrats, who became the first point of contact between the traditional world of Islam and modern secular West, was created.[1] A similar project, in fact a more successful one, was introduced in Egypt by Muhammad Ali whose aspirations were later given a new voice by Taha Hussain and his generation. The leitmotif of this period was that of extreme practicality: the Muslim world needed power, especially military power, to stand back on its feet, and new technologies powered by modern science were the only way to have it.[2] The modern conception of science as a medium of power was to have a profound impact on the relation between the Muslim world and modern science, which was then already equated with technology, progress, power, and prosperity -- a mode of perception still prevalent among the masses in the Islamic world.

The second level of encounter between traditional beliefs and modern science was of an intellectual nature with lasting consequences the most important of which was the re-shaping of the self-perception of the Islamic world. Using Husserl’s analysis ofSelbstverstandnis , a key term in Husserl’s anthropology of ‘Western man’, vonGrunebaum takes the reception of modern science to be a turning point in the self-view of the traditional Islamic civilization and its approach to history.[3] One of the recurring themes of this epochal even, viz., the incompatibility of traditional beliefs with the dicta of modern science, is forcefully stated in a speech by Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, who was as much aware of the practical urgencies of the post-independence war Turkey as he was passionately engaged in creating a new identity for Turkish people: ‘We shall take science and knowledge from wherever they may be, and put them in the mind of every member of the nation. For science and for knowledge, there are no restrictions and no conditions. For a nation that insists on preserving a host of traditions and beliefs that rest on no logical proof, progress is very difficult, perhaps even impossible’.[4]

On a relatively smaller scale, the revealing clash between the secular premises of modern science and the traditional Islamic worldview was brought home to many Muslim intellectuals with the publication of Renan's famous lectureL'Islamisme et la science given in Sorbonne in 1883, in which he strongly argued for the irrationality and inability of Muslim peoples to produce science. For us today, Renan's quasi-racist attack on the Islamic faith and crude promulgation of positivism as the new religion of the modern world makes little sense. Nevertheless, it was an eye opener for the Muslim intelligentsia of the time about the way the achievements of modern Western science were presented. Spearheaded by Jamal al-Din Afghani in Persia andNamik Kemal in the Ottoman empire, the Muslim men of letters took upon themselves the task of responding to what they considered to be the distortion of modern science at the hands of some anti-religious philosophers, and produced a sizable discourse on modern science with all the fervor and confusion of their tumultuous times.[5] As we shall see below, Afghani, inter alia, came to epitomize the mindset of his time when he based his historical apology against Renan on the assumption that there could be no clash between religion and science, be it traditional or modern, and that modern Western science was nothing other than the original true Islamic science shipped back, via the Renaissance and Enlightenment, to the Islamic world. By the same token, there is nothing essentially wrong with modern science, and it is the materialistic representation of science that lies at the heart of the so-called religion-science controversy.[6] Namik Kemal joined Afghani with a rebuttal of his own in his RenanMudafanamesi (The Defense against Renan), focusing, unlikeAfhgani , on the scientific achievements of the Arabs, namely the Muslim countries of the past.[7] In contrast to these Muslim intellectuals who sought to place modern science within the context of Islamic worldview, a number of prominent Christian writers in the Arab world includingJurji Zaydan (d. 1914), Shibli al-Shumayyil (d. 1916), FarahAntun (d. 1922) and Ya'qubSarruf (d. 1927), begun to advocate the secular outlook of modern science as a way of joining the European path of modernization, hence taking primarily a philosophical and secular stance on the ongoing debate between religion and science.[8]

These two positions are still with us today as they continue to represent the ambitions as well as failures of the Islamic world in its elusive relation with modern science. Islamic countries spend billions of dollars every year for transfer of technology, science education and research programs. The goal set by the Ottomans in the 19th century has remained more or less the same: gaining power through technological advancement. Furthermore, the financial wedding between science and technology, begun with the industrial revolution, makes it ever harder to search for 'pure science', and the bottom line for the Muslim as well as the Western world becomes technology rather than science. The will of the Islamic countries to participate in the modernization process through transfer of technology obscures the philosophical dimension of the problem, leading to the kind of simplistic and reductionist thinking upon which we will touch shortly.

As for the intellectual challenge posed by modern science, it can hardly be said to have dwindled or disappeared in spite of the diminishing sway of positivism and its allies among the learned. There is a peculiar situation in the wake of the rise of new philosophies of science with new developments in scientific research, extending from the ousting of positivism and physical materialism to quantum mechanics and anti-realism. The postmodernist wave has shaken our confidence in science with consequences far beyond the scientific field, and many young Muslim students and intellectuals see no problem with adopting the relativist and anti-realist stances of a Kuhn orFeyerabend . The dike of modern science broken, it is assumed that religion and science can now begin talking to each other whereas the truth is that neither has a firm standing because both of them have been deprived of their truth-value by the anti-realist and relativist philosophies of our time. The popularity of the current discussions of philosophy of science in Muslim countries is indicative of the volatile nature of the subject as well as its long history among the Muslim intelligentsia.[9]

It would not be a stretch to say that the contemporary Islamic world is gripped by the challenges of these two divergent yet related points of view, which shape its perception of science in a number of fundamental ways. On the one hand, the governments and ruling elite of Islamic countries consider it to be of the highest priority to keep up with the global race of technological innovation from communications and medical engineering to weapon industry and satellite technology.[10] Arguments to the contrary are seen as a call for resisting the irreversible process of modernization, or for backwardness, to say the least. On the other hand, it has become common wisdom that the consequences of the application of modern natural sciences to fields that have never been encroached upon before pose serious threats to the environment and human life. This is coupled with the threat of modern science becoming the pseudo-religion of the age, forcing religion to the margins of modern society, or at least making it a matter of personal choice and social ethics. This creates a bitter conflict of consciousness in the Muslim mind, a conflict between the sacred and the worldly power, between belief and scientific precision, and between seeing nature as the cosmic book of God and as a source of exploitation and domination.

When we look at the current discourse on science in the Islamic world, we see a number of competing trends and positions, each with its own claims and solutions. Without pretending to be exhaustive, they can be classified under three headings as ethical, epistemological and ontological/metaphysical views of science. The ethical/puritanical view of science, which is the most common attitude in the Islamic world, considers modern science as essentially neutral and objective, dealing with the book of nature as it is, with no philosophical or ideological components attached to it. Such problems as the environmental crisis, positivism, materialism, etc., all of which are related to modern science in one way or another, can be solved by adding an ethical dimension to the practice and teaching of science. The second position, which we may call the epistemological view, is concerned primarily with the epistemic status of modern physical sciences, their truth claims, methods of achieving sound knowledge, and function for the society at large. Taking science as a social construction, the epistemic school puts special emphasis on the history and sociology of science. Finally, the ontological/metaphysical view of science marks an interesting shift from the philosophy to the metaphysics of science, and its most important claim lies in its insistence on the analysis of the metaphysical and ontological foundations of modern physical sciences. As we shall see below, it is to this school, represented, inter alia, by such Muslim thinkers asSeyyid Hossein Nasr andNaquib al-Attas , that the concept of Islamic science goes back, a concept which has caused a great deal of discussion as well as confusion in Islamic intellectual circles.

Science as the Servant of God:the Dimension of Social Ethics

The most common attitude towards science in the Islamic world is to see it as an objective study of the world of nature, namely as a way of deciphering the signs of God in the cosmic book of the universe. Natural sciences discover the Divine codes built into the cosmos by its Creator, and in doing so, help the believer marvel at the wonders of God's creation. Seen under this light, science functions within a religious, albeit overtly simplistic, framework. The image of science as the decoder of the sacred language of the cosmos is certainly an old one, going back to the traditional Islamic sciences whose purpose was not just to find the direction of theqiblah or the times of the prayers but also to understand the reality of things as they are. Construed as such, science is surely a noble enterprise, and it was within this framework that the Muslim intellectuals, when they encountered the edifice of modern science in the 18th and 19th centuries, did not hesitate to translate the word 'ilm (and its plural 'ulum ) for science in the sense of modern physical sciences.[11]

This attitude can best be seen among the forerunners of Islamic modernism, especially among those who addressed the question of science as the most urgent problem of the Islamic world. Jamal al-Din Afghani in his celebrated attack on the 'materialists', i.e.,Haqiqat-i mazhab-i naichiri wa bayan-i hal-i nachiriyan , translated into Arabic by Muhammad Abduh as al-Radd 'ala'l-dahriyyin , was engaged in a self-proclaimed battle of saving science from the positivists, a battle for which he derived support from both the history of Islamic and modern sciences. He had the following to say in his celebrated response to Renan:

'If it is true that the Muslim religion is an obstacle to the development of sciences, can one affirm that this obstacle will not disappear someday? How does the Muslim religion differ on this point from other religions? All religions are intolerant, each one in its way. The Christian religion, I mean the society that follows its inspirations and its teachings and is formed in its image, has emerged from the first period to which I have just alluded; thenceforth free and independent, it seems to advance rapidly on the road of progress and science, whereas Muslim society has not yet freed itself from the tutelage of religion. Realizing, however, that the Christian religion preceded the Muslim religion in the world by many centuries, I cannot keep from hoping that Muhammadan society will succeed someday in breaking its bonds and marching resolutely in the path of civilization after the manner of Western society…No I cannot admit that this hope be denied to Islam.'[12]

Afghani's voice, which was carried on by such figures as Muhammad Abduh, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, RashidRida , Muhammad Iqbal, Mehmet AkifErsoy ,Namik Kemal, SaidNursi and FaridWajdi , was the epitome of the sentiments of the time: modern science is nothing but Islamic science shipped back to the Islamic world via the ports of European Renaissance and Enlightenment. In other words, science is not a culture-specific enterprise, and as such it is not the exclusive property of any civilization.Afhgani puts it in the following way:

'The strangest thing of all is that our ulama these days have divided science into two parts. One they call Muslim science, and one European science. Because of this they forbid others to teach some of the useful sciences. They have not understood that science is that noble thing that has no connection with any nation, and is not distinguished by anything but itself. Rather, everything that is known is known by science, and every nation that becomes renowned becomes renowned through science. Men must be related to science, not science to men. (…)

The father and mother of science is proof, and proof is neither Aristotle nor Galileo. The truth is where there is proof, and those who forbid science and knowledge in the belief that they are safeguarding the Islamic religion are really the enemies of that religion. The Islamic religion is the closest of religions to science and knowledge, and there is no incompatibility between science and knowledge and the foundation of Islamic faith.'[13]

For this generation of Muslim thinkers, Western science was clearly and categorically distinguishable from Western values, the underlying assumption being that the secular worldview of modern West had no inroads into the structure and operation of the natural sciences. The task is therefore not to unearth the philosophical underpinnings of modern science but to import it without the ethical component that comes from Western culture, which is alien to the Islamic ethos. The best example of this attitude was given by Mehmet AkifErsoy , the famous intellectual of the Ottoman empire and the poet of the national anthem of Turkey. Akif, who lived at a time when the Ottoman empire and parts of the Islamic world were being divided and fiercely attacked by European powers, made a clear-cut distinction between Western science and European life-style, calling for the full-fledged adoption of Western science while totally rejecting the manners and mores of European civilization.

The idea of locating modern science within the framework of Islamic ethics is an attitude that is still with us today. Most of the practitioners of science in the Islamic world, namely engineers, doctors, chemists, physicists believe in the inherent neutrality of physical sciences, and the questions of justification, domination, control, etc., simply do not arise for them. Since science is a value-free enterprise, the differences between various scientific traditions, if such a thing is allowed at all, come about at the level of justification, not experimentation and operation.Thus when a scientist, be he a Muslim, Hindu or simply non-believer, looks at the chemical components of the minerals, he sees the same thing, operates on the same set of elements under the same set of conditions, and arrives presumably at the same or commensurable conclusions. It is the practical application of these findings to various fields and technologies that makes the difference, if any, between Ptolemy, Ibnal-Haytham , or F. Bacon.

It is not difficult to see the imagery of the torch of science inherent in this view. Being the most prevalent attitude towards the history of science both in the Islamic and Western world, this view considers history of science progressing along a linear trajectory of discoveries and heuristic advancements. The torch of science transmitted from one nation to another, from one historical period to another, signifies the constant progress of

scientific research, relegating such facts as religious convictions, philosophical assumptions and/or social infrastructure to a set of preparatory conditions necessary for the advancement of science.Thus the only difference between the science of the 13th century Islamic world and that of the 19th century Europe turns out to be quantitative, that is, in terms of the accumulation and further specialization of scientific knowledge about the physical world. By the same token, the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centurieswas a revolution not in the outlook of the modern man concerning nature and the meaning of scientific investigation but in the methodological tools and formulations of the natural sciences. This is how the majority of the 19th century intellectuals would have interpreted the history of science and the rise of modern natural sciences, and this is how the subject is still taught today in the schools in the Islamic world.[14]

A logical result of this view of science is the incorporation of scientific findings as confirmations of the Islamic faith. In the pre-modern era when the religious worldview was strong, no scientist deemed it necessary to subject the Quranic verses to a 'scientific' reading, hoping, perhaps, to improve one's faith in religion or showing the religious basis of scientific investigation. As a trait of the modern period, however, many believers of different religions and denominations look for possible confirmations from the sciences for their religious belief, confirmations that would, it is hoped, both increase the truth-value of the sacred book and ward off the hegemonic onslaught of the positivists. A good example of this approach in the Islamic world is without doubt SaidNursi (1877-1960), the famous scholar, activist and founder of theNurcu movement in Turkey.

SaidNursi's views on the relation between faith and science were formulated at a time when the rude positivism of the late 1900s was made the official ideology of the newly established Turkish republic. Unlike many of his contemporaries,Nursi had a considerable knowledge of the scientific findings of his time. His method in confronting Western science was a simple yet highly influential one: instead of taking a position against it, he incorporated its findings within the theistic perspective, thus preempting any serious confrontation between science and religion. SinceNursi , like many of his contemporaries, was acutely aware of the power of modern natural sciences, and, as we see in his great workRisale-i Nur, he certainly believed in the universal objectivity of their discoveries.[15] For him, reading the verses of the Qur'an through the eyes of modern physical sciences had not only an instrumental value for protecting the faith of the youth who were coming under the sway of the 19th century positivism and empiricism. It was also the beginning of a new method of substantiating the Islamic faith on the basis of the certainties of modern physical sciences, and reading the cosmic verses of the Qur'an within the matrix of scientific discoveries.

As a religious scholarwell grounded in traditional Islamic sciences,Nursi was aware of the apparent discrepancy between traditional cosmology articulated by Muslim philosophers and Sufis and the Newtonian world-picture which contained no religious terms. Instead of rejecting the mechanistic view of the universe presented by modern science,Nursi saw an interesting parallel between it and the kalam arguments from design (nizam). In his view, the classical arguments from design, used profusely by Muslim and Christian thinkers alike, were meant to prove the eternal order and harmony built into the texture of the cosmos by the Divine creator, and as such they do not contradict Newtonian determinism. If the mechanistic view of the universe presents a world-picture in which nothing can remain scientifically unaccounted for, then this proves not the fortuitous generation of the cosmos but its creation by an intelligent agent, which is nothing other than the Divine artisan.[16] Therefore the depiction of the universe as a machine or clock, the two favorite symbols of the deists of the 19th century, does not nullify the theistic claims of creation. On the contrary, rationality as regularity, harmony and predictability,Nursi would wholeheartedly argue, lies at the heart of the religious view of the cosmos.Thus the mechanistic view of the universe, which was hailed by the secularists and positivists of the 19th century as the indisputable triumph of reason over against religion, poses no threat to the theistic conception of the universe. AsMardin points out, this attitude was so influential amongNursi's followers that vocabularies taken from 19th century thermodynamics and electricity became household terms of theNurcu movement.Thus the physical world is described as 'afabrika-i kainat (factory of the universe) (Lem'alar , 287); life is a machine of the future from the exalted benchwork of the universe (hayat kainatin tezgah-i azamindabir istikbal makinesidir ) (Lem'alar , 371). Sabri, one of the first disciples ofBediuzzaman , speaks of 'machines which produce the electricity of the Nur factory' when speaking of the work of disciples.'[17]

Nursi's approach to modern science has been interpreted in a number of variant and, sometimes, conflicting ways. There are those who take his coping with science as a powerful way of deconstructing its metaphysical claims by using the language of Newtonian physics, chemistry and astronomy.[18] The opposite side of the controversy is represented by those who tend to emphasize the influence of modern science and positivism onNursi -- an influence visible in the entire generation of 19th century Muslim scholars, intellectuals, and activists. Even though one can easily detect an apparent incongruity between whatNursi had intended by his so-called 'scientific commentary' (al-tafsir al-ilmi) and what his followers made out of it[19] , the roots of his theistic scientism, one may claim, are ultimately traceable to hisRisale-i Nur.[20] A few examples will suffice to illustrate this point. When discussing the miracles of the prophets mentioned in the Qur'an,Nursi identifies two main reasons for their dispensation by the Divine authority. The first reason pertains to the veracity of the prophets of God, viz., they have been sent with an undeniable truth (burhan ) to summon people to God's eternal word. The second reason, and this is what concerns us here, is that the prophetic miracles contain in them the seed of the future developments of human civilization. The story of the Prophet Sulayman (Solomon) mentioned in the Qur'an (Saba', 34/12), for instance, predicts the invention of modern aviation systems. AsNursi interprets it, the fact that God has given the wind underSulayman's command to travel long distances in a short period of time points to the future possibility of traveling in the air in general, and to the invention of aircraft (teyyare ) in particular.[21] Another example is the Prophet Moses' miracle to bring out water from the earth, as mentioned in the Qur'an (Baqarah, 2/60), when he and his followers were searching for water in the middle of the desert. According toNursi , this event predicts the development of modern drilling techniques to dig out such indispensable substances of modern industry as oil, mineral water and natural gas. Following the same line of thinking, so typical of his generation of Qur'anic commentators,Nursi explains the mention of iron and 'its being softened to David' (Saba', 34/10) as a sign of the future significance of iron and, perhaps, steel for modern industry.[22] Another striking example of howNursi was deeply engaged in scientific exegesis is his interpretation of the verse of the light (Nur, 24/35), upon which such colossal figures of Islamic history as Ibn Sina andGhazzali have written commentaries. Among many of the other profound and esoteric meanings of the light verse, which depicts God as the 'light of the heavens and the earth', is the allusion to the future invention of electricity whose continuous diffusion of light is compared to the Qur'anic expression 'light upon light' (nurun 'ala nur) mentioned in the verse.[23]

These examples, the number of which can easily be multiplied, and the way they are justified, were in tandem with a presiding idea, whichNursi adopted and elaborated with full force. This he called the 'miracle of the teaching of Divine names to Adam' (talim-i esma mucizesi ). The Qur'an tells us in Baqarah 2/31 that God, after creating Adam as his vicegerent on earth, to which the angels had objected for fear of corruption on earth, taught him 'all the names' (or according to another reading 'the names of all things',asma'a kullaha ). Throughout the Islamic intellectual history, this verse has been interpreted in a myriad of different ways, ranging from the most literalist to the most esoteric readings. In a daring statement,Nursi takes this miracle of Adam, the father of humanity, as greater and more perfect than those of all the other prophets after him for it embodies and comprises the entire spectrum of 'all the progress and perfection human beings will ever achieve in the course of their history'.[24] Essentially, it is on the basis of this principle thatNursi justifies his scientific and 'progressive' exegesis of various verses of the Qur'an. True, interpretations of this kind can be found in traditional commentaries on the Qur'an or among the Sufis. What is peculiar aboutNursi's new hermeneutics, if we may use such an appellation here, is the scientific and modern context in which it is articulated and carried out.

In its vulgarized version, SaidNursi's encounter with modern science has led to a torrent of one-to-one correspondences between new scientific findings and Qur'anic verses, generating an unprecedented interest in natural sciences among his followers. Moreover, his position on science as the decoder of the sacred language of nature influenced a whole generation of Turkish students, professionals and lay people with repercussions outside the Turkish-speaking world. Today, his followers are extremely successful in matters related to sciences and engineering, and continueNursi's method of integrating the findings of modern physical sciences into the theistic perspective of Abrahamic religions. They are, however, also extremely poor and unprepared when it comes to the philosophical aspects of the subject.

The pages of the journalSizinti , published byNursi's followers in Turkish, and its English version Fountain, are filled with essays trying to show the miracle of creation through comparisons between the cosmological verses of the Qur'an and new scientific discoveries. Expectedly, every new discovery, in this point of view, is yet another proof for the miracle and credibility of the Qur'an. In this sense,Nursi's progeny is the father of what we might call 'Bucaillism ' in the Islamic world. The idea of verifying the cosmological verses of the Qur'an via the scrutiny of the science of the day is a highly modern attitude by which it is hoped to confront and overcome the challenges of modern secular science. The fact that the same set of scientific data can equally be used within different contexts of justification and thus yield completely different and incommensurable results does not arise as a problem, neither the overtly secular nature of the world-view of modern science is considered to be a threat to the religious view of nature and the universe. The deliberate ignorance of the problem is seen, we have to admit, as the solution, and the most poignant result of this is the rise of a class of Muslim scientists and engineers who pray five times a day but whose conception of science is largely determined by the postulates of modern scientific worldview.

This, however, does not prevent the proponents of this view from seeing the problems inflicted upon the world of nature and human life by modern science. The environmental crisis, hazards of genetic engineering, air pollution, rapid destruction of countless species, nuclear and chemical weapon industry are all admitted as problems we have to deal with. Yet the proposed remedy is an expected one: inserting a dimension of social and environmental ethics will put under control, if not completely solve, the problems mentioned. In other words, science should be subjected to ethics at the level of policy decisions. Accordingly, the aforementioned problems of modern science can be overcome by better management and advanced techniques of environmental engineering. Reminiscent of Habermas' defense of the project of modernity which he considers incomplete as of yet, this view looks for the solution in the problem itself: further advancement in scientific research and technologies will create new methods of controlling the environmental crisis and all the problems associated with modern science. In short, we need more science to overcome its misdeeds.

The great majority of people in the Islamic as well as Western world share the sentiments of the above view of science that we have just summarized. Many people from all walks of life believe in the necessity of upholding an ethical framework within which scientific investigation should be carried out and controlled. This has certainly important policy implications for scientific research funded by federal governments and business corporations in many parts of the world. The point that is inevitably obscured, however, is much more crucial than having an influence on policy decisions. To limit ethics to policy implementations is to make it a matter of personal preference for the scientific community whose political and financial freedom against governments and giant corporations is highly questionable. The fact that the scientists who approve human cloning and genetic alteration believe in theistic evolution does not change

the course of modern science. The conflict of consciousness to which we referred above resurfaces here in the form of people whose hearts and emotions are attached to the mandates of their respective religion but whose minds are empty of the religious view of the universe.