Book Notes: Islam’s Quantum Question

There have been several books published recently touting the historical contributions of Islamic scholars to the early history of science (in the Middle Ages), but fewer assessing the relationship between Muslim tradition and the challenges that modern science presents to it today.

Nidhal Guessoum, an astronomer at the American University of Sharjah, takes on this daunting task with his engaging book, Islam’s Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.

American readers familiar with the seemingly interminable “debates” between creationists and biologists on evolution, will not be surprised to find that many Muslims, depending on their background, also reject Darwin.

But as Guessoum reveals, Islamic attitudes to science are more complex (and also more frustrating), depending on the subject. I was surprised, for example, to read that the Iranian mullahs had no problem approving embryonic stem cell research. But it turns out Muslim tradition has always been fairly liberal in its interpretation about the point at which a fetus can be considered fully human.

On the other hand, as Guessoum attests from his own experience, getting officials from any two Muslim countries to agree about the role modern astronomy should play in the correct determination of the new moon, for prayer purposes, can be a daunting task.

Just over four hundred pages, Islam’s Quantum Question is organized into three sections. The first reviews Islam, the Qur’an and its attitude toward science, both historically and in the present.

Well aware of his audience, Guessoum’s chapters in this first section include several brief bios of historic and recent Islamic philosophers and scientists and their views on how Muslim societies should regard pure science and the applications of technology. The gamut runs from the urgent call to embrace modern science–to warnings that a truly Islamic science needs to avoid the presuppositions of the Western tradition.

The second section discusses modern debates on evolution, cosmology and teleology–and how Muslim intellectuals have responded to these issues. It’s startling, for example, to read about the highly regarded Pakistani philosopher and poet, Muhammad Iqbal, a devoutly religious mystic, who dismissed two classic Western arguments for the existence of God–as a complete waste of time.

Logically speaking [he said] the movement from the finite to the infinite as embodied in the cosmological argument is quite illegitimate; and the argument fails in total. (Kant had denied the validity of the argument, considering it a mere variant of the ontological argument.)

And for Iqbal, the teleological argument is no better. […] ‘At best, it gives us a skillful external contriver working on a pre-existing dead and intractable material, the elements of which are, by their own nature, incapable of orderly structures and combinations. The argument gives us a contriver only and not a creator…

Well,  so much for Leibniz and Paley. But to give a sense of how broad the attitudes of Muslim intellectuals are toward science and their own tradition, two figures Guessoum discusses are briefly worth noting.

The first, Sayed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University, believes Islam needs to adopt a unique attitude toward science–in essence, to purge Western science of its faults, and make it sacred:

Indeed, Nasr notes that modern science, being a secular enterprise, is an anomaly with regard to human history. He remarks that the Western civilization is the first one to construct a science, a knowledge and description of nature that negates the sacred altogether. He makes a causal link between this fact and the problems that have resulted from science and its applications (technology); indeed, Nasr blames modern science in toto for all the ills that can be found in modern society, from the onslaught on the environment, to the ‘debasement’ of man. (p. 112)

In stark contrast, consider the Nobel-prize winning physicist Muhammad Abdus Salam, who died in 1996 and whom, as Guessoum tells us, made a seriously different assessment of science and its relation to Islam:

In trying to insist on the universality of science and its methods, Salam asks: ‘Was the science of the Middle Ages really “Islamic Science”?’ He answers: ‘the story of famous Muslim scientists of the Middle Ages such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn al-Haitham and Ibn Sina shows that, aside from being Muslims, there seems to have been nothing Islamic about them or their achievements. On the contrary, their lives were distinctly unIslamic.’ He adds that, for Ibn al-Haitham, ‘Truth was only that which was presented as material for the sense perception. No wonder that he was generally regarded as a heretic, and has been almost totally forgotten in the Muslim world.’ (p. 133)

The third section of Islam’s Quantum Question deals with science education broadly in Muslim countries today, and here Guessoum brings his own personal experience as a teacher and scientist to bear on what he argues is the urgent need–not just for Muslim students to study science, but to have a fuller grasp of the philosophy of science and its history in relation to Islam.

I believe that despite many efforts at unearthing and presenting to the public (Muslim and western) the wealth of scientific works that the golden-era Muslim scholars produced, there is still serious ignorance as to what was done exactly. Most of the discourse on the Islamic civilization has remained superficial and ill-informed. Hence, there is a need to teach the (whole) history of science rigorously and vigorously in the general curriculum.

The next important issue is the need to engage the Islamic scholars in a serious dialogue and convince them that scientists have as much to say on topics that have for too long remained the monopoly of the religious scholars and their discourse. (p. 343)

Such a broad exposure is needed, Guessoum argues, to counter the tendency of many Muslims to adopt counterproductive attitudes to science and technology. And this includes the need for Islamic philosophers and religious scholars to study how the Christian churches in the West have (largely though by no means completely) adapted to the findings of science and its implications for religious beliefs.

I’ve only scratched the surface of the many issues Guessoum takes on, including his own personal faith and how science informs it. His style is engaging and his knowledge of topics outside his own field very broad. Islam’s Quantum Question is highly recommended.

By John Farrell, published in Forbes.