Islam vs. Science
Are Muslim beliefs compatible with critical inquiry? A new study is sparking debate
Heresy. Throughout the Muslim world, there is a widespread suspicion that science is heresy—or at least those parts of science that cannot be used, or twisted, to support literalist interpretations of Islamic scriptures. Needless to say, this suspicion has received support from other varieties of religious fundamentalism, including the Christian and Hindu ones.
Some modern scholars make a more serious intellectual argument for the compatibility of science and traditional Islamic thought. And those thinkers believe that ignorance of an Islamically based understanding of science is what really impedes its pursuit in the contemporary Muslim world.
One of the more articulate proponents of that position is the Iranian-born philosopher of science Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University and the author of, among other books, Science and Civilization in Islam. Educated at MIT and Harvard, Nasr has long argued that Islamic science must be understood "not as a chapter in the history of western science, but as an independent way of looking at the work of nature." Nasr insists that traditional Muslim scientists never went the way of Descartes and Newton in reducing the physical world to its material and mechanistic aspects. Nor did Muslims accept that humans can know this world with certainty only through its quantifiable properties. Instead, traditional Muslim scientists held that a full understanding of nature also required seeing its parts as signs of divine purpose. Furthermore, Nasr holds, this approach to science did not die at the end of the 13th century but inspired work in fields such as medicine through the 16th and 17th centuries.
But change did come during the colonial period. Not only did Europeans impose their approach to science on Muslim elites, but many Muslim reformers themselves advocated the adoption of modern science as the best means of catching up with the West. Yet in their zeal, Nasr says, these reformers carelessly tossed aside the rich perspectives of traditional Islamic thought for more streamlined—and often more literalist—approaches to sacred teaching. "This effort didn't go very far," Nasr says, "because instead of being integrated into Islamic culture, the science was merely tacked on."
Nasr's call for an Islamic approach to modern science has no shortage of critics who see it as spurious (and as politically correct) as appeals for Indian science, Chinese science, or even feminist science. But even scholars who acknowledge that culture may have some effect on how people conceive the practice of science say that, finally, certain standards of scientific practice must be upheld, whether the work is being done in Bombay or Beirut.
And the real problem in most of the Islamic world, Hoodbhoy insists, is an "unresolved tension between traditional and modern modes of thought and social behavior." Muslims who embrace uncritical literalism cannot embrace the scientific method, which requires that facts and hypotheses be tested heedless of any established authority. Hoodbhoy sums up the problem eloquently:
"If the scientific method is trashed, no amount of resources or loud declarations of intent to develop science can compensate. In those circumstances, scientific research becomes, at best, a kind of cataloging or 'butterfly-collecting' activity. It cannot be a creative process of genuine inquiry in which bold hypotheses are made and checked."