Islam and Science: Notes on an Ongoing Debate 1/3

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 loyalties.” [1]

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, the father of Islamic modernism in the 19th 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. 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 challenges to the 19th 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.

To be continued…

By Ibrahim Kalin

[1] Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1958), p. 2.