Islam and Science: Which Islam?
It is most unfortunate that much of the contemporary discourse on the subject of Islam and science is clouded with all kinds of confusion. This abundant confusion stems largely from the failure of many participants in the discourse to provide proper definitions and clarifications of key terms central to the discussion. Clearly, here both terms ‘Islam’ and ‘science’ are central to the whole discourse, and thus they need to be well-defined and explained.
Then there is a failure to clearly state the precise context in which the terms are being used in the discussion. Given the multiple senses in which the terms might be understood, these two failures can have undesirable consequences on the outcome of the discourse. We often find cases of gross misunderstanding because of misunderstanding the context in which these terms are used. These sources of misunderstanding need to be addressed, more so when we are confronted with a situation in which a significant portion of contemporary works on Islam and science are polemical in nature and tend to perpetuate misunderstanding. A complete and objective account of the Muslim discourse on Islam and science inclusive of the theme ‘Islamic science’, particularly in the post-colonial period is yet to be written. Works produced so far that purport to give such an account, while being informative in certain respects, have failed to present an accurate picture of the intellectual position on modern science and Islamic science of each of the major discussants in the discourse. We are fully aware, for example, that the views of Seyyed Hossein Nasr on the subject, a major voice in the discourse in any standard, and our position have been distorted and misunderstood in many of these accounts. This is particularly true of Ziauddin Sardar’s account in his Explorations in Islamic Science (London: Mansell, 1989).
It is differences in the understanding of both Islam and science that have resulted in corresponding differences in views on the Islamicity of science and its modern variant as well as on the conception of Islamic science. Even among those who agree with the idea of Islamic science as being philosophically different from modern science and as being a logical alternative to the latter, there is a disagreement on the scope and dimensions of the former science, such as we find between Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Ziauddin Sardar. Nasr’s notion of Islamic science is far more embracing and comprehensive than Sardar’s. This is not because Nasr has incorporated many ‘un-Islamic’ elements into Islamic science so as to make it expensive, as claimed by Sardar, but rather because they are applying different criteria of Islamicity to various ideas, concepts, theories and philosophies which Muslims have developed in their civilization over the centuries.
It seems to us that Nasr is employing in his works the principle of al-tawhid as the core defining element of Islam and, accordingly, as the main criterion of Islamicity of science, and he understands this term in the most universal sense as the Quran does, which is certainly far wider in meaning and application that what Sardar understands by the same term (refer An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993). To accept al-tawhid in its most universal sense is to acknowledge the possible existence of tawhidic perspectives on knowledge and other things in cultures and civilizations other than Islam. For this reason, Nasr has not dismissed as un-Islamic, elements of foreign sciences some Muslims of the past had adopted and integrated into Islamic science as long as these are in conformity with the tawhidic perspectives. As a good example, the Pythagorean perspective on cosmology and mathematics is rightly understood by Nasr as one of the foreign tawhidic perspectives which found an intellectual home in Islamic science.
Whatever kinds of relationship between Islam and science are to emerge prominently in our discussion will then depend on the meanings given to the terms ‘Islam’ and ‘science’ or which of their respective dimensions are emphasized. Which Islam or which part of Islam is it that is being related to science? Indeed, the term Islam may be understood in several senses. It has been used by certain people to refer to the normative teachings of the religion as contained in the Quran and prophetic traditions. There are Muslims who, when speaking about the relationship between Islam and science, do not want even to consider the hadith literature as a source of their understanding of the former. [Not all who reject hadith are involved in intellectual discussions on Islam and science. But a good example of intellectual groups that reject hadith literature in their discourse on Islam and science is the Malaysian Jemaah Quran led by Kassim Ahmad, the country’s well-known and controversial literary figure, a former ideologue of scientific socialism and leader of an opposition political party. Interestingly, he sees completely compatibility between modern science and Islam on the argument that science in all ages is value-free]. Arguing that the Quran is divine whereas the hadith are of purely human origin and thus possibly questionable in their authenticity, this group of Muslims depends solely on their own interpretations of the Quran for their formulation of the relationship of Islam and science. They want to understand Islam, including its perspectives on science, by going directly to the first source, the Quran, and not through the intermediary of the historical manifestations of the religion in the form of its spiritual traditions, intellectual culture, and civilization. Such an attitude toward Islam’s intellectual past is also to be found among the believers in hadiths.
Then there are those who use the word Islam not only to refer to its normative teachings that allow for fresh interpretations, but also to its culture and civilization as these dimensions have been manifested throughout Muslim history. If Islam is understood in this sense, then it has to be inclusive of its past intellectual culture, of which science used to be an integral part. A discussion on Islam and science based on this broader meaning of Islam would necessarily differ in scope, content, and depth from the one that ignores the traditional theories and practices of science in Islamic civilization and their conceptual relationships with religion. It is a position that is informed by a solid knowledge of the history of Islam, as a religion, and Islam, as a civilization. This civilizational approach to the Islam and science discourse which is sensitive to tradition is based on the conviction that past formulations of the relationship between religion and science have an intrinsic value that make them relevant to contemporary attempts to arrive at the same conceptual goal (refer Nasr’s works Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993; Science and Civilization in Islam, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968; Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study, London: World of Islam Festival Publishing Co., 1976; and The Need for a Sacred Science, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993). Some have disputed the value of this approach to our contemporary needs. But whichever decision we make on the relevance of tradition to contemporary discourse should only be based on a careful and objective study of past formulations, at least those associated with important scholars of Islamic intellectual history.
In our view, the most significant formulations would be those of the practising scientists. Pertinent to our whole discussion, we are rather fortunate to have a long list of Muslim scientists in the past who were very knowledgeable in religion and other fields of study like history and philosophy. Their works on religion and science strike us as intellectually more revealing and appealing in helping us today to articulate relationships between the two domains that those produced by theologians and other men of religion with a limited knowledge of science. [Our present stance deals precisely with formulations on the relationships between religion and science as seen from the Islamic perspective but which put greater emphasis on the intellectual positions adopted by Muslim philosophers and scientists of the past].
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