Bringing Muslims Back to Science


The most important rule in Islam is "judgment on anything is a branch of conceptualizing it". To determine whether a belief can be accepted by a Muslim or not, this is the first and most often repeated principle. However, when it comes to matters scientific, this indispensable rule for correct judgment is paradoxically the most disregarded one.

Ever since the decline of the Islamic civilization and the end of its Golden Age, Muslims have ironically taken up superstitious and irrational thinking habits they had previously dropped when they originally accepted the Message of Prophet Muhammad. The ideas that the sun could eclipse for the death of someone, that certain numbers have magical powers, or that birds flying in a certain direction indicates an omen of some kind were among superstitious beliefs explicitly pointed out by Prophet Muhammad and in verses in the Quran for their irrationality. Unfortunately, it seems that Muslims have gone full circle. Out of the top 20 countries in overall science output, Turkey is the sole Muslim representative, barely sneaking in at number 19.

Overly simplistic explanations of this phenomenon have pointed to Al-Ghazali (c 1058-1111), one of the most influential Muslim theologians. His work, The Incoherence of Philosophers, is cited for its negative impact on Muslim thinking. This, however, is a grave misrepresentation of Al-Ghazali, his attack on contemporary philosophers, and the Islamic civilization as a whole.

Contrary to how it is popularly misconstrued, Al-Ghazali's attack against the philosophers was not an attack against science. The Incoherence is viewed as one that defended Islamic theology from what was considered an unjustified encroachment of science onto it. It is worthy to note here that although Al-Ghazali aimed to refute the turning of science into theology, he acknowledged empirically valid claims as such and did not prescribe for Muslims to ignore them.

As for the Muslim scientific and intellectual decline being attributed to Al-Ghazali, this claim is overly speculative and one-dimensional. No civilization deserves to be called a civilization, if the works of a single individual, regardless of who it is, can bring it crashing down. The decline of a civilization is a complex process that is influenced by numerous factors. Oversimplification in this regard is disingenuous and can further a people's stagnation because it prevents proper assessment of where the problems lie.

The problem Muslims have with regard to the relationship between science and religion today is in their reliance on people who are not professional scientists or theologians. It is not uncommon to see Muslims rely on professional debaters to learn about science and the "Islamic" position on matters such as the theory of evolution. Furthermore, when they do direct their questions at scientists or theologians, most Muslim scientists and theologians do not respect the limits of their expertise and regularly speak of matters they know little about.

When Prophet Muhammad migrated to Medina, he moved from a business hub in Arabia to an agriculture-based society. He was not familiar with farming practices and upon observing how cross-pollination took place he voiced his wonder. Human intervention to manipulate outcomes in nature was counter-intuitive to him.

The companions misunderstood the Prophet's wonder to be a religious decree not to cross-pollinate their palm trees. Upon realizing a very poor crop yield, they approached him to ask for a metaphysical reason. Prophet Muhammad's response was, "You know the affairs of your worldly matters better". In other words, the reasons for the poor crop yield are to be sought in physical practices.

It is a relatively modern phenomenon to see Muslims in mass turn Scriptural sources into scientific textbooks. In fact, a careful reading of traditional texts of Islamic theology would reveal to the reader that imposing a scientific interpretation on Scripture is a form of heresy. The consequences of such a practice will always be negative for Scripture not due to an inherent problem within it, but a problem with the reader.

What is desperately needed for modern Muslims is to come to terms with the fact that progress is not going to come from theological debates. Many spend their time in reproducing Christian apologetics as Muslim arguments, or attempting to "refute" that we evolved. What are currently perceived as conflicts between science and Islam are misguided constructs imposed by people who should not be engaged in these discussions in the first place.

It is ironic that Al-Ghazali, falsely accused for the decline of Islamic civilization by superseding religion over science, warned against bringing religious discourse where it does not belong. He compared religious discourse to medicine, only needed in certain contexts, and scientific discourse to food, always needed for sustenance. If Al-Ghazali were around today, he would assert that Muslim religious discourse on matters scientific is poisonous, killing the scientific aspirations of the religious, and the religious aspirations of the scientists.

There is no such thing as an "Islamic" position on the validity of a scientific theory. In fact, scientific theories have no concern with any religious or non-religious positions on them. Empirically unsubstantiated claims, even if they sound perfectly logical, are not fully accepted until they survive the rigor of experimentation. No amount of philosophical refutations or Scriptural references will change facts. Scientific progress is not based on its congruency with Scripture, or whether the scientist believes or disbelieves in God. It is based on resolving conflicts between hypotheses and experimental data.

It may be difficult to accept for many Muslims that questions in science are areas of inquiry where one is not allowed to appeal to God. But this is a product of how they have been cognitively conditioned with regards to this issue. Ironically, some of the most spiritually elated people are scientists who identify themselves as atheists. This is because they do not approach science assuming they have all the answers.

The universe is truly magnificent, and for a religious person to appreciate it as a Creation in the broad sense of the word, they have to negate their presumptions. If there is an Islamic position on science, it is that when you do not invoke God as an explanation that His magnificence unfolds in your quest to understanding His Creation.

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Mohamed Ghilan is a neuroscience PhD candidate at the University of Victoria, Canada, and a student of Islamic jurisprudence.


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  4 Comments   Comment

  1. Integrity loving ilm from Angelistan

    As Salam alaikum,

    I think the heart of the problem is the state of current Muslim cultures I.e. Stagnant &

    that begins with the teaching of the youngest children.

    Instead of exploring the wonders & beauty of diverse creation as a testament to the

    creativity of our Khaliq & fashioner, many are pounded into parrot fashion feats of dry

    recall.

    Where are the families sitting down earnestly talking about the wonders of science in

    our homes & trips shopping etc, mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins, friends &

    grandparents? Everybody is too busy earning, scheming & being content with

    Darwinian savage existence, knowledge reduced to utilititarian pass certificates.

    If any child has a questioning mind, then that spirit isn't nurtured but soon crushed by

    negative reactions.

    Here in the West, after basic economic freedom, whilst xs tv pap avoiding status

    competition & ubiquitous digital dummies, enjoying books & discussing things, the

    children of my family are sponges for learning, & excel at school.

  2. T.I. from USA

    Bringing Muslims to science will require them to accept theories that are contradictory to their beliefs. You'll find that to be a step too far for them.

  3. shaque from United States

    II see many article stating that Muslim are not interested in

    Science and to make any progress they have to copy European reasons

    for learning science. Many Muslims intellectuals are suffering from

    inferiority complex. They simply forget that Islamic concept of

    human existance is completely different from Christianity

    (philosophy of Rome/Egypt) Judaisim (philosophy of practitionar of

    golden cow and not followers of Moses and Haroon)and Hinduism.

    Although all religions came from same source. Except Islam manmade

    modifications were introduced in scriptures to give much more

    importance to material life. Importance and attraction of material

    thing including military superiority led to massive sponsorship of

    science in urope and other societies. For example worldwarII led to

    massive funding in Scientific education and we see the results now

    of uneven human progress. Scienctific knowledge used during Islamic

    period were never used massively for military and or material

    purposes. It was sustained only for exploiting nature's bounty.

    Western science has poullouted nature and has started war against

    creation. We see now the results. I believe that Muslim must learn

    knowledge that creater has placed for human and submit to his will.

    I do not think blindly coying Western quest for science will do any

    good to Muslim world. Instead Muslim should use the science for

    human progress not military or material progress. By the way I have

    practised science and engineering all my life and I can see that

    humanity is in dire need of proper use of science and engineering

    based on Islamic principal. Muslim scientist or engineers will

    never be encouraged or sponsored by to-days corporate or government

    agencies who either want science to be used for military and or

    material purposes only