Thursday, January 29, 2015

Islam and science have problems with their relationship

In August 2013, Richard Dawkins elicited one of his periodic bouts of controversy by tweeting that Trinity College, Cambridge had produced many more Nobel Laureates than the entire Muslim world.  While no one could deny that his tweet was objectively correct, any serious point he might have been making was drowned out by the condemnation of his quasi-racist language.  This is a shame because, unfortunately, science in much of the Muslim world really is in crisis.  

Nidhal Guessoum (who is associated with this website), a professor of Physics and Astronomy at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, likes to ask his students and colleagues about their scientific beliefs.  Despite living just down the road from the multinational entrepôt of Dubai, he has found that only about ten per cent of Muslims at the university accept that human beings evolved from other animals.  We should bear in mind that Guessoum is asking only undergraduates and members of the university faculty.  The population at large is likely to be even more dismissive of Darwin.  In comparison, Gallup polls of Americans have consistently found that half of those surveyed accept humans are descended from apes. We tend to think of the United States as a haven for creationists, but it has nothing on the UAE.  If the problem of science among Muslims were confined to rejecting Darwin, we would at least be confronting an opponent familiar from debates with Christian creationists.  But, as Professor Guessoum explains in Islam’s Quantum Question, science in the Islamic world has further problems.  He’s written the book to help explain Muslim attitudes towards science and discuss ways that the situation can be improved.  Unfortunately, besides creationism, there are several other serious threats to a harmonious relationship between Islam and modern science.  
The first threat is the claim that science is an imperialist cultural artefact with no objective claim to truth.  This leaves people in Islamic countries free to reject science as a colonial imposition.  The situation is made worse by left-wing professors in the West.  Muslim intellectuals in the United States and United Kingdom, who have drunk deep of the beguiling draught of postmodernism, have attempted to build an Islamic science better suited to their co-religionists.  Thinkers like Ziauddin Sardar and Seyyed Hossein Nasr are not household names, but their rejection of western science as incompatible with Islam has become conventional wisdom in many Muslim countries. Of course, their attempts to create an alternative natural philosophy have been an abject failure and they have been reduced to bickering among themselves.  In Islam’s Quantum Question, Guessoum is always impeccably polite, but it is clear he despairs of views like these.  His ridicule of Sardar, Nasr and their fellow travellers is all the more devastating for being so gently expressed.  Guessoum knows perfectly well that science is universal.  Its truths are the same everywhere. The idea of a specifically Islamic science makes as little sense as a Christian or atheist one.  This is why Abdus Salam, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979 for his work on the weak nuclear force, is one of Guessoum’s heroes.  Salam saw himself as an ambassador for science to the developing world.  It goes without saying that he found no conflict between his own Muslim devotion and his epochal work in nuclear physics.
A second threat is the low status of science in Muslim-majority countries.  For example, at the beginning of his book, Guessoum mentions two competitions for the pupils at his son’s school in the UAE.  One was for a science project that he was asked to judge.  It is fair to say he was less than impressed by the quality of many of the entries, but attendance was so sparse that there were few people to notice.  Three days later, the school held its annual Koranic memorisation competition.  Hundreds of parents, the local media and various guests of honour crammed into the school hall to witness prizes totalling $20,000 being handed out to the pupils.  With educational priorities like these, it is hardly surprising that the Muslim world has to import scientists and engineers from the West or send its own sons and daughters to be trained there.
The third threat is even more insidious.  The school of I’jaz teaches that the findings of modern science have been miraculously present in the Koran all along.  The verse “the Originator of the heavens and the earth! When he decrees a thing, he says only: ‘Be!’ And it is.” (Q:2:117) is taken as a reference to the Big Bang.  But proponents of I’jaz make even more surprising claims.  They can derive the speed of light, being 300,000,000 metres per second, from the verse “He directeth the ordinance from the heaven unto the earth; then it ascendeth unto Him in a Day, whereof the measure is a thousand years of that ye reckon.” (Q32:5).  Guessoum devotes one of the appendices of his book to refuting this “calculation” of the speed of light.  But there are many other examples taken extremely seriously and he is clearly angered that I’jaz is so influential.  Unfortunately, despite having much in common with the Bible Code craze of a few years back, I’jaz is fast becoming mainstream in Muslim countries.  Guessoum found that 80% of the Muslim faculty and students at his university in the UAE believed that the Koran contains explicit statements now known to be scientific facts.  
Guessoum himself suffers from none of these misapprehensions.  He is a believing Muslim but his scientific views are similar to those of most of his Western colleagues: he wholehearted accepts Darwin’s theory (rejecting intelligent design) and sees science as universal rather than local.  He rejects I’jaz but does see the merit, like many Christians, of the fine-tuning argument and theistic evolution.

Guessoum’s experience shows that reconciling Islam and Science is a problem that has already been solved.  Islam’s awesome thirteen hundred years of scholarship has already furnished the answers in this debate.  All that is needed is to retool the arguments developed centuries ago to make them fit for the modern era.  The original debate between Islamic and foreign sciences took place in the ninth to twelfth centuries when ancient Greek natural philosophy and mathematics were first translated into Arabic.  Admittedly, back then, in a high-scoring game, the mystics eventually prevailed with a late winner from Al Ghazzali (d. 1111).  Warning Muslims against the work of Euclid and Ptolemy, Al-Ghazzali said they are “the preliminary to the sciences of the ancients, which contain wrong and harmful creeds.”  He was probably talking specifically about astrology but as his influence has waxed, the sciences in the Islamic World have waned.  

That is not to say that the traditional picture of Al Ghazzali snuffing out Golden Age science is accurate.  The astronomical work of Nasir al-Tusi (d. 1274) and Idn al-Shatir (d. 1375) alone refutes that theory.  The mathematical models of both these scholars were used, unacknowledged, by Nicolas Copernicus (d. 1543) in his Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.  Nidhal Guessoum’s own favourite Islamic thinker is Idn Rushd, known as Averroes in the West.  He took on the challenge of Al-Ghazzali and has been a pariah among conservative Muslims ever since.  Only in the West is Averroes hailed as one of the most important thinkers in history.  

So obviously, science in the Islamic world did not break the mould in the way that it did in the West.  But, as George Saliba notes in his Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, the question of why modern science didn’t arise in the Muslim world is the wrong one to ask.  It didn’t arise in all sorts of advanced civilisations including China or India; ancient Greece and Rome; or Sassanid Persia and its great antagonist Byzantium.  Instead, we should be wondering why a recognisably modern science had arisen in the West by the end of the nineteenth century.  That this didn’t happen elsewhere isn’t because of the deficiencies of other societies.  It’s just that there was a unique conjunction of historical contingencies in one place and time.  Exactly what those contingencies were remains a matter of much debate.

What, then, is the solution to Islam’s quantum question?

There are some clues in Guessoum’s book.  One element is the need to ensure that any discussion of science is grounded in the Koran.  The esteem in which this book is held among Muslims is well known.  Since it is full of injunctions to observe and understand nature, there is strong support for science to be found within its pages.  It also supports a philosophy of the unity and predictability of nature which adheres well to the axioms of modern science.  

Obviously, Koranic literalism can be unhelpful.  Luckily, there is a history of interpretation that allows the Koran to be read in a figurative rather than literal way where necessary.  A passage that looks like a straightforward statement of fact is likely to also have a range of metaphorical and religious interpretations.  Guessoum warns of some pitfalls in this approach.  For instance, the Arabic word commonly translated as science today, ‘ilm, has the wider meaning of “knowledge” in classical Arabic.  Nonetheless, the essential lesson is that revering the Koran as the word of God does not also mean having to treat it as a scientific textbook.

To a great extent, the relationship between science and Christianity is of academic interest only.  Readers of this blog might find the subject fascinating but it only rarely impinges on public life.  When it does, the issue in question is almost always creationism which most scholars in the field regard as one of the subject’s least interesting manifestations.  The situation among Muslims is different.  For them, the question of how to reconcile science to Islam is of epochal importance.  The best-case scenario could well see them in a better place than the West – a science that recognises its ethical boundaries and rejects the naïve utilitarianism of so many western scientists.  But for the present, the story is much less encouraging.  Nidhal Guessoum is in no doubt that the relationship between science and Islam is highly problematic and that this is holding back the development of Muslim societies.  Sadly, there is little that western Christians can do about this.  

Given the importance of its subject-matter, it is unfortunate that Islam’s Quantum Question is such a poorly organised and written book.  Even the title is a misnomer – Guessoum tells us early on he’s got hardly anything to say about quantum mechanics.  The book was originally in French and, as far as I can tell, Professor Guessoum translated it into English himself.  The result is difficult to read and even harder to follow.  For most readers, the amount of new material is more than can be easily swallowed.  Muslim thinkers come thick and fast, sometimes referred to by their surnames and sometimes by their given names.  Keeping track of who is who and what they all think becomes a serious challenge.  It’s not even clear for whom the book is for.  There is lots of material which looks like it is aimed at an audience of western non-Muslims.  But Guessoum also spends a great deal of space elucidating the basic philosophy of science and presenting evidence that evolution is true.  

Deep within his book there is an essential text fighting to get out.  There is no doubting the significance or the urgency of the issues it raises.  Thus, despite its faults as a piece of writing, it is something that everyone interested in the interface between science and religion should read.

This article is a much expanded version of a review originally published in Science and Christian Belief 26(2) 2014.

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Sabina's Musings said...

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Sabina's Musings said...


Anonymous said...

The problem with Dawkins' statement was not the least that it was plain scientific nonsense. Comparing populations at the extremes (and I think we can agree that Nobel laureates are extremes, yes?) is not a useful endeavor.

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Sachal Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Remove Darwinian evolution entirely, and we would still have refrigeration, modern medicine, and rocket ships to the moon. Why would anyone use it as an acid test for the acceptance of "science"?

Unknown said...


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