Science and Islamic World?

Today’s cast of my RSS net collected the usual detritus from the Web. But among the haul of news and trivia, I found one remarkable item from Science and the Islamic world—The quest for rapprochement by Pervez Hoodbhoy, chair and professor in the department of physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Hoodbhoy states his thesis as a question early in the essay:

The question I want to pose—perhaps as much to myself as to anyone else—is this: With well over a billion Muslims and extensive material resources, why is the Islamic world disengaged from science and the process of creating new knowledge?

…It was not always this way. Islam’s magnificent Golden Age in the 9th–13th centuries brought about major advances in mathematics, science, and medicine. The Arabic language held sway in an age that created algebra, elucidated principles of optics, established the body’s circulation of blood, named stars, and created universities. But with the end of that period, science in the Islamic world essentially collapsed. No major invention or discovery has emerged from the Muslim world for well over seven centuries now. That arrested scientific development is one important element—although by no means the only one—that contributes to the present marginalization of Muslims and a growing sense of injustice and victimhood.

You can read Hoodbhoy’s extended, thoughtful, and revealing answer to that specific question yourself (and you can find more of Hoodbhoy’s essays here and here). But two key passages in his paper state the problem more generally and suggest its implications beyond the Muslim world.

First, Hoodbhoy notes,

Science is under pressure globally, and from every religion. As science becomes an increasingly dominant part of human culture, its achievements inspire both awe and fear. Creationism and intelligent design, curbs on genetic research, pseudoscience, parapsychology, belief in UFOs, and so on are some of its manifestations in the West.

To confirm Hoodbhoy’s point, you have only to recall recent candidates’ debates; when asked if they did not “believe” in evolution by means of natural selection, Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls eagerly thrust their hands in air.

Hoodbhoy later states the core issue more specifically:

It’s the thought that counts

…At the base lies the yet unresolved tension between traditional and modern modes of thought and social behavior.

That assertion needs explanation. No grand dispute, such as between Galileo and Pope Urban VIII, is holding back the clock. Bread-and-butter science and technology requires learning complicated but mundane rules and procedures that place no strain on any reasonable individual’s belief system. A bridge engineer, robotics expert, or microbiologist can certainly be a perfectly successful professional without pondering profound mysteries of the universe. Truly fundamental and ideology-laden issues confront only that tiny minority of scientists who grapple with cosmology, indeterminacy in quantum mechanical and chaotic systems, neuroscience, human evolution, and other such deep topics. Therefore, one could conclude that developing science is only a matter of setting up enough schools, universities, libraries, and laboratories, and purchasing the latest scientific tools and equipment.

But the above reasoning is superficial and misleading. Science is fundamentally an idea-system that has grown around a sort of skeleton wire frame—the scientific method. The deliberately cultivated scientific habit of mind is mandatory for successful work in all science and related fields where critical judgment is essential. Scientific progress constantly demands that facts and hypotheses be checked and rechecked, and is unmindful of authority. But there lies the problem: The scientific method is alien to traditional, unreformed religious thought. Only the exceptional individual is able to exercise such a mindset in a society in which absolute authority comes from above, questions are asked only with difficulty, the penalties for disbelief are severe, the intellect is denigrated, and a certainty exists that all answers are already known and must only be discovered.

Science finds every soil barren in which miracles are taken literally and seriously and revelation is considered to provide authentic knowledge of the physical world. 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.

Wolpert There’s the rub. It’s the subject of Lewis Wolpert’s wonderful The Unnatural Nature of Science, Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins, and Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries by Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg. And the fundamental (I use that word advisedly) argument is hardly new. C.P. Snow famously raised similar issues in 1959 in The Two Cultures.

The mathematician Jacob Bronowski played a variation on the theme in, among other works, his lyrical Science and Human Values (1956; revised and expanded in 1962). It’s worth quoting Bronowski, if only to encourage you to read his books (even if some of his delightful metaphors have been overrun by technology):

What is the insight with which the scientist tries to see into nature? Can it indeed be called either imaginative or creative? To the literary man the question may seem merely silly. He has been taught that science is a large collection of facts; and if this is true, then the only seeing which scientists need do is, he supposes, seeing the facts. He pictures them, the colorless professionals of science, going off to work in the morning into the universe in a neutral, unexposed state. They then expose themselves like a photographic plate. And then in the darkroom or laboratory they develop the image, so that suddenly and startlingly it appears, printed in capital letters, as a new formula for atomic energy…

The readers of Christopher Isherwood do not take him literally when he writes “I am a camera.” Yet the same readers solemnly carry with them from their schooldays this foolish picture of the scientist fixing by some mechanical process the facts of nature. I have had of all people a historian tell me that science is a collection of facts, and his voice had not even the ironic rasp of one filing cabinet reproving another. (10–11)

But to wander back to that fundamental point: A society (or culture) “…in which absolute authority comes from above, questions are asked only with difficulty, the penalties for disbelief are severe, the intellect is denigrated, and a certainty exists that all answers are already known and must only be discovered.”

We in the West may smugly assume (despite evidence exposed each day on television news and in the newspapers) that such attitudes prevail only in the Middle East. But read, for example, the doctrinal statement of Liberty University, which states in part:

We affirm that the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, though written by men, was supernaturally inspired by God so that all its words are the written true revelation of God; it is therefore inerrant in the originals and authoritative in all matters. It is to be understood by all through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, its meaning determined by the historical, grammatical, and literary use of the author’s language, comparing Scripture with Scripture.

Hoodbhoy stated his question too narrowly, and we focus only on Islam at our peril.


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