Islamic perspective

The soul of the world order: Islam and scientific fundamentalism


A crisis of knowledge of immense proportions overwhelms the contemporary Muslim civilization: The erstwhile “Civilization of the Book” is humbled today under the intellectual thatch of the West. This is an indictment made, paradoxically, in good faith!

Faith, and not science, was the quintessence of the nascent Muslim civilization. The inspiration for the grand synthesis of the seventh century was embodied in the very first command of the Qur'an: Read (iqra). For the next five centuries this and some eight hundred Qur'anic exhortations on knowledge ('ilm) remained the prime movers behind the triumph of the Muslim intellect.

Certainly, the dichotomy of Revelation and reason had vanished which, to the arch secularist Ernest Renan, was “the heaviest chain that humanity has ever borne.”

On the contrary, the creative Muslim impulse spread its liberating influence far and wide: it fueled the engine of the European Renaissance. Spain, the then Muslim land most proximal to mainland Europe, became the bedrock of large-scale knowledge transfer as opposed to today's controversial and shallow-by-content technology transfer.

The floodgates of knowledge unlocked in Muslim Spain left their lasting imprints on every conceivable domain of the Western society. Even the Christian Scholastic Theology was not immune from this cognitive seduction. Nay, no palpable synthesis was possible without the thirteenth century rediscovery of Muslim Aristotelian scholarship, as exemplified by Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Ironically, coming on the eve of the Colombian triumph, Marilyn Waldman's summation on the Muslims in Spain is instructive of the past glory:

Even in defeat, Muslim culture continued to exert its influence, as in Charles V's Renaissance palace in the Alhambra and the cathedral in the middle of the Great Mosque at Cordoba. Muslim culture, as absorbed by Spanish Christians, also indirectly influenced the New World in the form of family honor codes, home design, and the plateresque style of architecture. Romance and Spanish have been filled with Arabic loanwords, be they chemical, culinary, agricultural, technological, social, or scientific. Muslims introduced new crops, such as sugar cane, rice, cotton, and a number of fruits. Their wind-tower technology still heats and cools some Spanish homes, and their irrigation technologies still water some Spanish fields.

(The Christopher Columbus Encyclopedia, edited by S. A. Bedini, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992, p. 493.)

Coincidentally, for a Muslim witnessing the celebration of the Colombian myth while writing from a Muslim land (Malay Peninsula) that once posed a challenge to the expansionary aims of the Spanish explorers, history seems to have come full circle “between the geographical extremities of Islamic power.”

Given the historical context, and contrary to Fukuyama's assertion, across vast stretches of the Muslim lands neither history has come to an end nor the last man (or, for that matter, woman) has made an appearance. The heroic image of science that unleashed in the West a relentless quest for domination and control of nature never took root in the Muslim psyche. If not for a nostalgic voyage but for the call of justice, it is imperative that Muslim cognitive evolution (and devolution) be examined in an historical perspective.

Spiritual and temporal

The historicity of our discourse is important, due mainly to the diametrically opposite Islamic and Western claims to epistemology. For Islam, the spiritual and the temporal are the two sides of the same coin. Little wonder, no Muslim “Pope” (sic, there is no ordained clergy in Islam) ever found an occasion to tender an apology for Galileo!

This concept of immanent unicity (tawhid) - which has its Western and Muslim critics, and rightly so, for the Muslim failure in formulating intellectually and socially viable political and power matrices - is at the heart of Muslim epistemology as well. In theory, and to some extent practice, then while religion and science are two different epistemic categories in the Western mind, they are, in the Muslim eye, parts of a continuum complementing each other.

The professed claim of science - understandably, the Western science - is that of doubt. Yet, the tyranny of the Method ossifies the same doubt into a “faith” or a truth-claim. The postmodernist rejection of truth as an Enlightenment value goes beyond that and equates it with a power claim. Conversely, faith constitutes the genesis of epistemic quest in Islam!

In this respect, those who debate the issues of religion and science without regard to the essential nature of Islamic epistemology are likely to expose their naivete. Our narrative on the Spanish Muslim science notwithstanding, the acculturation of science in other Muslim lands - the accomplishment by the 14th century Syrian Astronomer Ibn ash-Shatir is a case in point - defies the proclaimed rancor between religion and science.

Similarly, disputations and discourses between the “fatalistic” Ash'arites and the “rationalist” Mu'tazilites give credence to Muslim intellectual vibrancy.

Back to the earlier indictment. Indeed, Muslims are at the receiving end. As an Ummah they are living through the darkest hour of their history. Whether the genocide in Bosnia, dispossession in Palestine, brutality in Kashmir, denial of freedom in the land of Moros (reminds me of an akin term - Moors - the Spanish pejorative for Muslims), abject poverty in Muslim Africa, and political repression across Muslim lands (from Algiers to Baghdad to Cairo) is a function of the colonial past or a systematic Western exploitation of the Other in the Muslim world is subject to differing interpretations. Without acquiescing to the vagaries of postmodernism on political power, it is the crisis of knowledge that has thrown the Ummah into an abyss. No exotic claims about alien intervention can absolve Muslims of their intellectual docility.

Critique of Western science

The sciolism in today's Muslim world about epistemological intricacies of religion and science is evident at different levels. First there are those who, oblivious of the internal critique of Western science - inclusive of anti-reductionism and feminist radicalism - cling to the alleged value neutrality of knowledge generation. For them, a paradigm shift is yet to be born.

I have, for instance, little hesitation in attending to the call of the first Pakistani Nobel laureate physicist Muhammad Abdus Salam for fortifying Muslim capabilities in science and technology. But, somehow, the psychedelic images of elementary particles bouncing through the Superconducting Supercollider seem to blur for him the boundaries between religion and science.

While he relentlessly pursues the cause of science and technology, he stops short of reconciling his professed Islamic concept of knowledge with modern science and technology. This in spite of his Nobel colleague Steven Weinberg's extravagant claim that physics can act as a moral and cultural force! An exorcism unified theory style? Is it any different from the affirmed religious orthodoxy?

Second, there are those who keep no secret of loss of their intellectual identity in applying a reverse logic to the Qur'an. For them, the normative Book of Guidance is suddenly transformed into a handbook of science and technology. In their ardent zeal to “prove” the eternal truth of the Qur'an they are light years ahead of the book-burning, book-bashing Creationists of the southern Baptist United States.

Thanks to the debased ingenuity we are delivered from the burden of studying hardcore science and technology for all is given in the Qur'an. From the mysteries of biological reproduction to the morphology of mountains to the nature of intergalactic realm, there is nothing for which they do not have a one-to-one Qur'anic equivalent. Furthermore, one of the Pakistani scientists (indeed, this imaginative power is not a monopoly of the so-called orthodox) would be happy to enlighten you on how to calculate per-capita spiritual activity. Anyone?

Question of values

A variation on the same theme but purportedly salvaging the Muslim intellect from suffocating into the secularist void is the so-called Islamization of Knowledge. In its conceptual allegiance to Western science and technology it is no different from that of Muhammad Abdus Salam: It takes the value neutrality of knowledge as a monolith and spins an aura of Islamic terms and ideas around the corpus of substantive knowledge. Lest there be an accusation of harsh criticism, I should say their success in elucidating some aspects of Islamic economics deserves commendation. At the same time it serves to expose internal contradictions of the very idea by showing that any Islamization must address the crucial issue of values.

Given the infectious spread of scientific fundamentalism in its mutated but banal forms, what prospects are there for a genuine Islamic epistemology? Is the idea of “Islamic science” feasible in our times? In the words of one of the most respected contemporary Muslim scholars, Syed Muhammad Naquib al-'Attas, this proposition carries a ring of certainty: “Belief has cognitive content; and one of the main points of divergence between true religion and secular philosophy and science is the way in which the sources and methods of knowledge are understood”.

This statement has profound implications for Islamic science for it identifies three major epistemic categories.

First, it brings belief into the cognitive domain as opposed to scientific liberalism which makes its repudiation a prerequisite to the discourse;

Second, in searching for its source, it is neither reductionist nor determinist. Instead, it accords due recognition to the “nature of phenomena” and “empirical reality”;

And lastly, it settles for a method which is an extension of Islamic metaphysics by stating that “Knowledge is limitless because the objects of knowledge are without limit.”

In essence, the challenge of post-scientific society is that of reasserting a spiritual identity. Cultural relativism and plurality as vindicated by postmodernism put an even higher premium on soul-searching by Muslims. The answer lies not in holding fast to the paling phantom of scientific fundamentalism but carving new cognitive niches without losing touch with substantive knowledge.

Putting our brief reflections in a global context, history again seems to be coming full circle: when the Muslims yielded Spain to the forces of Reconquista, they left behind a rich tradition of knowledge. Today when the genocidal forces of the Serbs are engaged in eliminating the last Muslim stronghold in the heart of Europe, Muslims have nothing to offer from their cognitive repository. Even their material wealth has failed in putting a stop to the Serbian aggression. The two civilizations stand bankrupt but on different accounts. Thus resurfaces the question of knowledge and power. The way the Muslim intellect faces this predicament will shape its destiny.

Dr. Anees is an Executive Director, Knowledge Management Systems (KnowSys) 925 N. Eleventh Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85705, USA. Tel/Fax 1.602.532.7148. Email:knowsys@usa.net

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