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

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 and scientific tradition, going back to the rise of Islam as a world civilization in the 9th and 10th 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 physical particles and fields of force acting on physical particles” [3], 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 among them [4]. The task at hand, however, is rendered more difficult by the simple 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.

By Ibrahim Kalin, College of the Holy Cross.

[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.