My twelve-year-old son Rumi, is a fan of Stephen Hawkings’ book, A Brief History of Time. He has been blogging about the book for nearly a year now. I remember reading the book when it was first published in 1988 and I found it fascinating and even enthralling. It inspired in me an awe towards the immenseness of the cosmos and the insignificance of human knowledge at the same time it awakened in me a pride in the courageous nature of humans that compels them to seek solutions, both philosophical and scientific, to the deep mysteries of our universe.
So forgive me if I abstain from taking head-on Stephen Hawkings’ newfound arrogance towards God and focus mainly on the issue at hand – “Can God and Science co-exist?”. In reality, given their denial of global warming and evolution, I think we should be asking the question; can American conservatives and science co-exist? But we shall save that for another day.
Islamic Intellectual Heritage and Science
As far as Muslims and Islamic intellectual history is concerned, the religious literalists who opposed logic, like Ibn Taymiyyah, and the mystics who opposed philosophy like Al-Ghazali, were few and far between. Indeed science and theology would have co-existed harmoniously in the Islamic world, as it did for centuries, if scientists and philosophers, had not taken the metaphysical turn and started reflecting on God as if God was a physical entity or a philosophical idea apprehensible through their respective epistemologies.
Over 800 years ago, the great Islamic philosopher and jurist, Ibn Rushd, known in the West as Averroes, not only argued that science and religion were compatible but insisted that the Islamic Shariah mandated the scientific study of the universe as part of the divine law. In an exceptional monograph, Fasl Al Maqaal (the decisive Treatise), Ibn Rushd went even further, he argued that the methods of logical reasoning that Islamic jurists employed in understanding the Shariah, the divine law, were the same as those employed by philosophers to understand the creation and through this get a glimpse of the Creator.
Before readers jump to the conclusion that there is a significant difference between science and philosophy, I want to submit that what Ibn Rushd called philosophy then, we now understand as science. Philosophy for Ibn Rushd was the study of nature as manifestation of the Divine. Hence the conclusions we draw about the mundane world using empirical methods provide deep insights into the sacred.
The great Indian reformer, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan who established the modern university of Aligarh in India, described the harmony of science and religion by arguing that the Holy Quran was the word of God and the creation was the work of God, and the two could not be contradictory. Science, for Muslims, is another way of reading the sacred text. Science, in my opinion, is reflection (fikr) on the work of God and religion is invoking in prayer (zikr) the word of God.
The Quran calls Muslims to Science
Muslims believe that the Quran is the literal word of God and hence all Koranic injunctions are direct orders from their Lord. Therefore most Muslims read the following verses from the Quran as religious mandate for science.
Have they not reflected on the heavens and the Earth and all things God has created? (Quran 7:185).
Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding.
Who remember Allah while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], “Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You (Quran 3:190-191].
There are many more verses in the Quran that demand that Muslims use reason, scientific and historical methods, to understand their world and recognize it as the material manifestation of God’s will. The verses I have reported are the same that inspired Ibn Rushd to conclude that science for Muslims is a sharia requirement.
Having said all the above, I must concede that today we live in the dark ages of Islam. There is no doubt that today the more religious Muslims are, the less scientific they are. Look at societies across the world, nearly everywhere science is welcome and more cherished than in the Muslim world. Tiny European nations do more research in science than the entire Muslim World.
Even in American Muslim communities, especially mosque-centered communities, there is no appreciation for science. Every year Muslims in America host hundreds of conferences, conventions and bazaars, they are all about identity and there is none that appreciates the study of science. There is an association of Muslim scientists but its critical condition is indicative of the health of science in the Muslim World. There are some Muslim scientists in Western universities doing cutting edge research and Muslims who work in applied sciences, like engineers and doctors, but usually in environments fostered by non-Muslims or in those, which are far from removed from the oppressive influence of religious elements.
Some Muslims are trying to show that Islam in its heydays was a bastion of science and innovation. The travelling museum – 1001 inventions – is an excellent example of such endeavors. The works of Dr. Syed Hossein Nasr, who devoted his entire life to make the point that there is such a thing as Islamic science and Islamic philosophy. But the point is, when we talk of Islamic science, we immediately talk about history not science. Islamic science is a thing of the past. Narratives of Islamic science are ghost stories that we tell our children today to shore up their identity as Muslims.
Soon, Muslims will welcome the month of Ramadan. And I will once again witness, with a heavy heart, the board of my local mosque, composed of doctors, computer scientists, and chemists reject science in favor of tradition to determine when Ramadan begins. Rejection of science, for many mosques across the nation, has become a religious ritual of Ramadan.
Yes, science and sharia are surely compatible, but unfortunately at present the believer and science find it hard to co-exist.
Muqtedar Khan | May 18, 2011 10:28 AM