Islamic science: contradiction of terms?

The headline for this week's current reading on the Island is perhaps unfair. It's become trite to point out that algebra and algorithm, to name just two mathematical terms, are derived from Muslim scholars. But as Taner Edis, the author of the book "An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam" argues in an interview with Salon's Steve Paulson, it's been a long time since Islam produced anything like a scientific advance. And even back in the 10th century, when Islam was the sole guardian of the ancient wisdom the Greeks, they weren't doing much of anything that resembles modern science. Why is that?

Paulson introduces his interview by anticipating this October's launch of the first Muslim astronaut, a Malaysian, into space, and asking

How will he face Mecca during his five daily prayers while his space ship is whizzing around the Earth? How can he hold the prayer position in zero gravity? Such concerns may sound absurd to us, but the Malaysian space chief is taking them quite seriously.

He's right. They do seem absurd. And that's the problem. If your culture is hung up on the challenge of how to pray in zero-g, how can you possibly hope to meet any consequential scientific challenges?

For Edis, the obstacles preventing the emergence of a genuine scientific culture in Islam (while admitting that the religion is not monolithic) are the same ones that prevent the emergence of true democracy or a just legal system. In Islam, nothing can be separated from the teachings of the Koran. Science with religion is not just a foreign concept to devout Muslims, it is unthinkable or, at best, something to be feared.

For example, Paul asks about Darwinian evolution and the idea that humans share a common ancestor with chimpanzees. Edis replies:

That's definitely a no-no. And this goes beyond creationism.... By and large, because the Quran is fairly explicit about the special creation of humans -- Adam and Eve and so forth -- you will find that Muslims will typically be very reluctant to allow for human evolution.

If that sounds a little familiar, it should. Edis makes a fair bit of effort to distinguish Islam from Christianity's more fundamentalist sects, but the parallels are difficult to ignore.

Paulson: There are a lot of people in the United States -- liberal Christians, Jews and Buddhists - who also complain about what they call "scientism" -- the idea that science explains all there is in the world. It obliterates the spiritual life. These people also tend to be fully supportive of evolution, but they say science can only explain so much.

Edis: You can find Muslim thinkers making similar pronouncements. "Scientism" and "reductionism" have become stock accusations in religious circles. I don't know if there's much more content here than saying, "I don't like naturalistic ideas."

I concede that the Western world has a lot to apologize for (thermonuclear weapons, reality television, Paris Hilton and so forth), but the unavoidable truth is science is what rid the world of smallpox, and if it hadn't been for some paranoid mullahs, we could have added polio to the list of eradicated diseases a few years ago. And we're going to need more science, not less, to find practical, ethical and politically viable solutions to climate change, which is a product of global energy-production habits, including those of Islamic societies.

This approach to science -- turning your back on its cultural context but embracing the benefits when it suits you -- reminds me of those who refuse to vaccinate their children. The only reason parents can do that without fear that their children will contract a preventable disease is that most everyone else is vaccinating their children. The holdouts get all the benefits of vaccines without shouldering their share of the tiny health risk associated with procedure, risks that all responsible parents do accept. It's not just hypocritical and selfish, it's unethical.

So is there hope of one day bringing Islam within the fold of science? If so, it will depend on the same strategies employed, with limited success, in the West to marginalize extremist Christians. Edis is doubtful.

As scientists, one of our closest allies in trying to combat creationism is the liberal religious community. It's much more effective to send somebody to a school board meeting who's not a scientist but actually a priest or rabbi or minister in a more liberal denomination and to explain that they don't see a conflict between teaching evolution and religion. But in the Muslim world, this is much more difficult because the public affinity toward creationism is much stronger. Darwinian thinking really hasn't penetrated the popular discourse. Plus, it's very hard for scientists who work in Muslim countries to find liberal religious figures who would go out there and publicly say Darwinian evolution is not a problem for Islam.

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I suggest that we define "Gospelism" however we like as a pejorative for supernaturalism and proceed to attack it. Edis dissected "Scientism" as essentially:"I don't like naturalist ideas". A definition, not his position.
The supernaturalist fears not science so much as the methodology. He might be required to demonstrate the very existence of the referents of his concepts and the idea is quite uncomfortable indeed. The skeptic rightly exploits this uneasiness by asking the theist for proof (trial) of his claims. Bibliolatry is so common that he cannot imagine a challenge that cannot be met with the proper quotation.
Gospelism is simply an untried speculation.

Muslim science may not be too healthy, but Muslim creationism is alive and well.

Most bookshops in Indonesia [world's largest Muslim country] have a range of "science" books by the well-known Turkish creationist Harun Yahya. The books on physics, chemistry etc, are (I assume, haven't read them) fairly straight descriptions of the science. But something funny happens when he writes about biology. You find books entitled "The Humanitarian Disaster of Darwinism", featuring on the cover pictures of such soulmates as Darwin, Hitler, Mussolini and Mao Zedong. The theme of course is the guilt by association where Darwinism is conflated with social Darwinism.

Last year, they held a conference in Jakarta on Harun Yahya's writings, attended by the great man himself. You don't find too many books about evolution in Jakarta bookshops.

By John Monfries (not verified) on 16 Aug 2007 #permalink

Has anyone checked out the book Science and Islam: A History? I'm looking forward to the TV series tonight and like James I'm interested in the possibility of Islam in the realm of science. The official tie-in book looks really interesting in examining Islamic faith and the rise of science - I didn't know any of this stuff:

Musa al-Khwarizmi, developed algebra in 9th century Baghdad
al-Jazari, a Turkish engineer of the 13th century invented the crank, the camshaft, and the reciprocating piston
ibn Sina's textbook Canon of Medicine was a standard work in Europe's universities until the 1600s


I'd be interested to know what you think!