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The problematic relation between Islam and Science

Taner Edis is a Turkish American physicist who often writes about the contemporary relation(s) between Religion and Science, particularly in the West. He is “a child of a secularist Turkish father and a nonreligious American mother,” but more importantly, he describes himself as an avowed “naturalist” and an “Enlightenment rationalist.” He has contributed to the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, among other publications. In previous writings, he had to some extent specialized in creationism and Intelligent Design issues and sometimes written short pieces on Science and Islam, but this is his first full-fledged exploration of the latter topic.

Edis is a very good writer, one who can strike a good balance between an academic treatment of a subject and a popular presentation. He has few interesting stories or anecdotes to relate, but his approach is personal: we are never in doubt about what he thinks of any idea. His latest book contains some interesting and useful pages, particularly when he treats Turkish aspects of the subject, from the Nurcu movement (the modern revivalist Islamic movement named after its leader and icon Said Nursi) to Harun Yahya (the latest Islamic “phenomenon”, currently leading a very strong creationist charge). His sharp and tough treatment of the “science in the Qur’an” topic is also a good piece, particularly as it exposes the huge ignorance that prevails among Muslim writers (including academics) who dwell in that very popular trend. Edis is correct in stressing that this is not just a marginal and passing fad; it is not, like astrology or the paranormal interests in the west, an irrelevant field of activity; the “science in the Qur’an” phenomenon is a major topic of discourse among most educated Muslims. Also, Edis is strong in his defense of Science, though he tends to be rather one-dimensional if not simplistic in his portrayal of it as an absolutely objective, universal, and definitive approach to the world.

In most of the book, Edis lives up to his positivist anti-religious stand, dismissing all Muslim attempts to harmonize science with Islam – from the ridiculous ones to the much more acceptable, promising, and even valid ones – with sarcasm and scorn. Nothing, other than full-fledged secularist views, seems to please him, and this black-and-white vision soon becomes irritating. But in the last few pages, Edis is seized with doubts, and – though very late – becomes much more moderate and conciliatory. Indeed, the first 245 pages are filled with statements like “So the best solution [for Islam] may be to fake [harmony], the way Islamic banks pretend not to deal in interest rates” and “More Mutazilism, more philosophy, a renewed commitment to medieval metaphysics – none of these can be the centerpiece of an effort to improve Muslim science today. Modern science is simply too different; Muslims cannot adapt to it in medieval terms”, although on the next page he allows for Christianity what he opposes for Islam: “[Christianity] allowed science to emerge from within [its] own religion-centered intellectual life.” But in the last few pages Edis writes: “it is not easy to pronounce the West a model of success while Islam lags behind”; “I cannot claim that my Enlightenment rationalism is a universal way of life that should compel the allegiance of every rational person”; “in the scientifically advanced West, we have our own illusions of harmony, our own myths that help us strike a balance”; “so perhaps a better way to describe the relationship between science and religion in Islam today would be as a search for balance.” I full-heartedly agree with Edis on those final pronouncements, but the first 95% of his book deserve a critical reading.

Let me now come to my critical remarks. First the book deals almost exclusively with Turkey. Edis has little familiarity with the rest of the Muslim world; for example, discussing authors like Seyyed Qutb, Muhammad al-Ghazali, Ahmad Khalaf-Allah, and Nasr Abu Zayd (all Egyptians), he seems unaware that the first one was hanged (for political reasons) more than 40 years ago, the second has been dead for a decade — and neither one is ever referred to on issues relating to science; and he seems to have confused the last two, even though their (similar) ordeals occurred some 50 years apart. Secondly, Edis tends to use marginally relevant references for his subject, like the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi. Thirdly, our writer uses the words “modern” and “modernity” rather capriciously, never having defined them, and appears to simply mean by that “secular and western” (e.g. “even modern, largely secular people fast” in Turkey; “women’s dress is the most visible marker of difference between traditional and more modern people”). In particular, the twentieth century Muslim reformers were not “modernists” in his view, simply because they still wanted to uphold their religion, even if it was with a new outlook.

Now, Edis addresses some important topics in this book: science in Islam’s golden age; the question of evolution in Islam; and the possible solutions to the problematic relation between science and Islam.

The history of science in the Islamic civilization received a biased and shoddy treatment. It is clear throughout the long chapter devoted to the topic that Edis is only interested in dispelling the “myth” (a favorite word of his) that Islam and Science were in great harmony in the past and can therefore be so again today. Our author is desperate to find angles of attack, and when none of them work in the end he declares that Islam did not give birth to modern science simply because the latter’s emergence in the west was an accident (“Europeans stumbled upon modern science by a series of accidents”; “They got lucky.”).

The flaws in his treatment are many and varied. He starts with a simplistic and stereotypical assessment (“Muslims preserved and extended the science of antiquity”), even though today we know that there were major discoveries and new fields created. He moves on to a distorted description, stressing a strong interest in “occult” activities and minimizing the importance of what he repeatedly calls “foreign sciences” – never mind that branches like algebra and optics were newly created and others were revolutionized. And he decries what he regards as a primitive educational system, claiming that the system was limited to madrasas and Sufi orders, completely ignoring the great universities and superb libraries that existed from Baghdad to Cordova. He ends up blaming the very nature of Islam, claiming that (modern) science could not develop therein because the concept of “laws” could not be granted any autonomy… What can we make of a work that aims to address the harmony (or lack thereof) between Islam and science, a book that devotes close to 50 pages trying to explore history in search of clues for that, but never once mentions al-Biruni, Ibn Sina, or Ibn Rushd (who wrote “The Decisive Treatise On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy”), all of them scientists of the highest order…

The question of Evolution and Islam receives a similarly prejudiced and partial treatment. Edis starts by declaring that “biological evolution is harder to fit into the Qur’anic picture”, although he acknowledges that “many Muslims agree that some forms of life could very well be related to one another”, “devout Muslims hold a variety of positions concerning common descent”, and “Muslims who think evolution can be accommodated are not rare.” So what’s the problem then? Our author raises the bar in order to find Islam faulty and decides that it is “Darwinian evolution”, by which he means purely materialistic, non-purposeful evolution, that one must accept in order to be truly scientific! And since “Muslims oppose this naturalism,” they have a serious problem with the scientific worldview. Stunned by such radicalism, I stutter “wait, wait, it’s not so black and white, there are various interpretations of evolution, a purely random materialistic scenario is one dominant viewpoint, but ‘guided evolution’ is not an uncommonly held interpretation of the theory, etc.” But Edis will have none of this; to him any soft interpretation is tantamount to “Intelligent Design” (or at least “ID-lite ideas”), i.e. at best a metaphysical feel-good gloss and at worst a scientifically ridiculous approach: “a non-Darwinian conception of evolution, though conciliatory, has also become intellectually irrelevant to science.” He would do well to read John Haught, Keith Ward, and other thinkers who have given theistic/guided evolution much more serious thought. Obsessed with “Intelligent Design”, Edis assimilates any viewpoint that brings theism to the picture with ID (“Some Christian philosophers sympathetic to ID dream of a ‘theistic science’”); never mind the fact that “theistic science” has existed for decades, well before ID came onto the scene; never mind the fact that there are Muslims (e.g. Mehdi Golshani) who have written books on “theistic science” with not a single word on ID… But what to do with a physicist who claims that even the fine-tuning of the universe and the anthropic cosmological principle are pretty much ID ideas “of dubious scientific value”, which would come as a shock to many scientists, including atheists like Steven Weinberg, who have found the cosmic fine-tuning (minus the theistic overtones that often come with it) not only unassailable but scientifically useful…

If thinkers are going to adopt such a hardline and extreme position as Edis does here, then of course there is no way we can find any harmony between science and Islam, or between science and any religious stand for that matter.

Last but not least, I would like to comment on the author’s general conclusions. Until the last few pages, it appeared to me that the solution espoused by Edis to the Science-Islam problem is a full-fledged secularization and brave embrace of materialism. But in the last (short) chapter, he started to wonder about the effectiveness of that solution and to explore other options. He first admits that the failure of secularism in Turkey (where “Darwinian ideas penetrated the most”), particularly in its inability to make the society more scientifically minded, must force observers to reconsider any proposed secular solutions. Indeed, Turkey is where Muslim creationism (Harun Yahya, Mustafa Akyol) has emerged en force.

Is the liberal Christianity model then a viable one for Muslims to adopt? “After all,” Edis says, “the liberal Christian formula is a proven success”, though he does not explain exactly in what way it is. Unfortunately, our author is too unfamiliar with the contemporary (or even the classical) Muslim literature on the subject to make a valuable assessment of this option.

Could then a “separation of spheres” (a la Stephen J. Gould’s NOMA, the “non-overlapping magisteria”) do it for us? Here too, the only Muslim reference the author can find that remotely resembles such a plan is the Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush, who apparently wants to give science as much autonomy from religion as possible.

Then Edis gets another interesting idea: how about if we let fundamentalism take over and fail? In his view, fundamentalism is bound to drive educated people to the other pole; and indeed, the example of Soroush is telling, since his view – the most liberal in this regard – came from Iran! But that’s just wishful thinking. After all, we have not seen any such modernist uprising on the wake of the failure of the Talibans or that of other (failing) fundamentalist regimes.

And that is why and how Edis finds himself having to compromise – in the last few pages. He writes: “In the end, I do not think that more secular approaches to Islam are viable alternatives.” He adds: “Nowadays I tend to agree with John Gray that there is no one way of life demanded by reason and that trying to negotiate a peaceful coexistence between incommensurable ways of life is a more realistic goal.” Indeed, that has been the position of many Muslim scientists like me, people who do not subscribe to anything like creationism or “science in the Qur’an”, but who realize first that modern science (with its strongly materialistic cloak) is not a universal and eternally valid prescription, and secondly that a more “harmonious” approach can be sought and – hopefully – found. Even Edis seems to agree that this is an important project in itself, not only for the Islamic society but for the rest of the world as well: “the Muslim experience with science is also relevant to the international scientific community, though it is largely based in the more secular West.”

So even if his book was mostly a thinking-aloud exercise and a search for answers to questions that are indeed very complex, and even if his style was often contemptuous and inflexible, Edis has done a good service to anyone who is seriously interested in the subject. One hopes that both Edis and his readers will have learned from this flawed exercise.

By Nidhal Guessoum.

Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah. You can follow him on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/@NidhalGuessoum.