By Pervez Hoodbhoy
Guardian – 25 November 2009
The question: Can Islam be reconciled with science?
Material resources are immaterial to the current sorry state of science in Islam. To do science, it is first necessary to accept the key premises underlying science – causality and the absence of divine intervention in physical processes, and a belief in the existence of physical law. Without the scientific method you cannot have science because science is all about objective and rational thinking. Science demands a mindset that incessantly questions and challenges assumptions, not one that relies upon received wisdom. If this condition is not fulfilled, all the money and machines in the world make no difference.
Can Islam accept the premises of science? There are some versions of the religion that can, and others that simply cannot.
But before proceeding further, let me distinguish between ancient science – which Muslims did brilliantly – and modern science. They are not quite the same but are so often confused together that it is important to make the point. The ancient science of the Greeks, Chinese, Muslims, and Hindus was a rather limited affair that did not put any theological system under undue stress. Scholars observed, drew a few conclusions, and wrote a treatise that only a few could read. It was inconceivable at that time to imagine that the workings of the entire physical world could be understood from just a handful of basic principles. There was almost no link to technology and therefore no impact upon how people actually lived.
Not so for modern science. This product of the European Enlightenment is now the essence of a universal human civilisation. Although it was fuelled by the discoveries of ancient science, including Muslim science, the Enlightenment had an impact that was totally different from the stellar works of individual ancient scholars.
Modern science defines our world by constantly creating new technologies. It also claims to explain everything from the scale of the atom to the universe, and from times that range from the present to the very birth of the universe. It evokes resistance among traditionalists because it offers an explanation of how humans emerged from the depths of biological evolution to their present form. All this makes it hugely different from ancient science, which is what the Greeks and Muslims – as well as Chinese and Hindus – had done so splendidly in their respective times. So if a civilisation did great ancient science, this does not automatically mean that it is equally qualified for doing modern science.
To return to the issue of the compatibility of science with Islam: at one level the for-and-against arguments resemble those for Christianity. Islam has had its share of pro-science reformers, such as the 19th century figure from India, Syed Ahmad Khan and the Iranian Jamaluddin Afghani, who argued that miracles specified in the Qur’an must be understood in broad allegorical terms rather than literally. Following the rationalist (Mutazillite) tradition of 9th century Islam, Muslim rationalists insisted on an interpretation that was in conformity with the observed truths of science. This meant doing away with cherished beliefs, also held by Christians, of the great flood and Adam’s descent from heaven, etc. It was a risky proposition at that time but it was far safer than it is today when the mood has shifted away from empirical inquiry.
On the other hand, fundamentalist versions of all religions, including Islam, are philosophically averse to the notion of material forces running the world. They insist that the divine hand constantly intervenes, and so individual wellbeing requires constant supplications to the powers “up above”. This belief system ascribes earthquakes, as well as drought and floods, to divine wrath. On this basis, it would be fair to say that Saudi Islam, or the various Wahhabi-Salafi-Deobandi versions, reject material causality and hence the very basis of modern science.
Shia Islam, on the other hand, while politically assertive and insurrectionist, is less inclined towards pre-modern beliefs. Ayatollah Khomeini was quite content to keep science and Islam in separate domains. He once remarked that there is no such thing as Islamic mathematics. Nor did he take a position against Darwinism. In fact, Iran is one of the rare Muslim countries where the theory of evolution is taught. Today it is a front-runner in stem-cell research – something which President George Bush and his neo-conservative administration had sought to ban from the United States.
But there is another side of the coin: Khomeini also developed the doctrine known as “guardianship of the clergy” (vilayat-e-faqih) which gives mullahs much wider powers than they had generally exercised in the past. Instead of being simple religious leaders, in post-revolutionary Iran they became political leaders as well. This echoed the broader Islamic fusion of the spiritual and the temporal, something that science is acutely uncomfortable with.
To conclude: scientific progress in Muslim countries requires greater personal and intellectual freedom. Without this there can be no thinking, ideas, innovations, discoveries, or progress. The real challenge is not better equipment or faster internet connectivity. Instead, to move ahead in science, Muslims need freedom from dogmatic beliefs and a culture that questions rather than obeys.