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Islam, Science and Cultural Values - 2003-10-13


The Muslim world was home to a thriving community of scientific thought and research well into the 1800’s. However, over the past two centuries the role of science in the Islamic world has waned. Muslim professors say this has hurt their culture in many ways, and they are eager to see science re-embraced by Muslim peoples.

That will not be easy, they admit, as Islam and modern science often seem at odds. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University, says there are three main inconsistencies between science and Islam.

First, there is the science claim to totality. In Islam only Allah has total and pure knowledge. Second, modern science insists that the physical order of the universe is an independent reality. That conflicts with Islam, which believes all reality is related to Allah. Finally, science holds that the phenomena in the universe are simply facts, but Islam says they are all signs of God.

“So you have here a very, very important confrontation of two world views,” he says. “That is, one which sees the world as facts, and one which sees the world as symbols or signs which speak of a reality beyond themselves. And because of this, the religious view of reality is irrelevant to modern science. And they always talk about separating the two: science and religion. But Islam cannot accept that.”

Professor Nasr says all major religions have faced these issues, but in the Muslim world the debate has caused a terrible paralysis. Although Muslim governments praise science, they are not thinking of pure, modern science but rather technology and the power it confers. Even the most fundamentalist, puritanical forms of Islam, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, seek the benefits of technology.

“These extremist groups, whether they are terrorist or whether they are politically active or militarily active it doesn’t makes any difference,” he says. “They have no qualms about making use of the latest results of Western technology. Today the most fanatical Muslims have several cell phones, one in each pocket. So you have this attitude that we hate Western philosophy but we love Western science. And by science we mean technology.”

If there is such a vast conflict between science and Islam today, how did science prosper in earlier Islamic cultures? Many Muslims credit Al-Ma’mun, a 9th century Caliph of Baghdad, with the promotion of science and philosophy. He was a patron of learning and founded an academy called the House of Wisdom where Greek philosophical and scientific works were translated.

George Saliba, professor of Arabic and Islamic science at Columbia University in New York, doesn’t altogether dismiss this theory, but says the rise of Islamic science cannot be attributed to open-minded leaders alone.

“This is a problem that keeps reoccurring over and over again that you need an enlightened ruler to allow these things to happen,” he says. “The underlying assumption of all of this is that science comes from above. It comes by government dictation. It comes by people who allow these things to happen or not allow these things to happen. And to a great extent this may be true. But I have looked at all the books that were translated from Greek into Arabic and I found only one of them with an inscription on the fly leaf that says, ‘This book was translated by the order of al-Ma’mun.’ Only one.”

Professor Saliba suggests that while good leadership can foster science, it can also arise from an individual’s desire to explain what is unknown. He urges today’s young Muslim philosophers and scientists not to be discouraged by their political climate. Professor Saliba says Muslims place too much emphasis on this as they do with another misperception: that Arabic doesn’t lend itself to scientific conceptions.

“The Arabs are only poets. They don’t know how to produce science,” he says. “All of this is garbage that you hear all over the place. It has grown to such an extent that the Arab League has an official office dedicated to scientific translations. The office coins terminology for science because the Arab League is also under the impression that Arabic is unwieldy. It doesn’t lend itself to scientific treatments and so on and so forth. And I read in the text of a book from the year 829 perfectly good Arabic. Perfectly good technical terminology coined and used in context and used even sometimes to correct the original Greek text. Hey, this opens up all sorts of things.”

Professor Saliba says a clear understanding of the historical role of science in Islam is crucial for reviving science today.

So how does a contemporary Muslim scientist practice his craft in the Islamic world? Osman Bakar is a visiting professor at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Mr. Bakar says one approach is to pursue what is called “Islamic science” that takes into consideration Islamic beliefs and values.

“So the term ‘Islamic science’ has cropped up because the issue is if Muslims want to pursue science, what kind of science will they pursue?” he says. “One group suggests that science has to be Islamic. In a sense that it must conform, must be consistent with the doctrines of Islam, that it must be compatible with the cultural environment, with the religious culture in particular.”

Professor Bakar says another group within the Islamic world opposes that term because they say science is universal - neither Eastern nor Western.

Science is a human enterprise, says Mustanir Mir, director of the Center of Islamic Studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio. And human beings of all eras have practiced it with differing assumptions and objectives. Therefore, like all other peoples Muslims will engage in it. But obstacles remain.

He wonders if Muslim scientists may be so disillusioned with the state of affairs in their world the lack of democratic, open societies and few economic prospects that they simply lack the curiosity and drive behind all scientific discoveries.

“Is it simply or even primarily a question of perspectives? Is something else involved?” he asks. “Not only the larger historical and social forces but also the will. The will of a people to succeed against odds. To make new discoveries. To rise and shine in brief. And what about the changed times and changed context? It seems to me that Muslims today suffer from a certain alienation. They find themselves in a world that is vastly different from the one about which they read in their history books. And they wonder what has changed and who has changed?”

Although the scholars offered no easy answers for restoring science to its once prominent role is the Islamic world, they say the fact that they gathered to discuss the issue is an important step forward.

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