ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Modern Science and Islamic Essentialism

Early Muslim civilisation was open to critical thinking, reason and consequently accepted eclecticism that included scientific observation and theory. In contrast, the Islamic fundamentalists have rejected this eclecticism and have favoured a closed and inward looking world view that restricts itself to a literalist reading and understanding of the Quran. A trend has taken shape to "Islamicise" science, which sees modern science antithetical to Islam and has deteriorated into obscurantism. This has only resulted in the vandalisation of the core edifices of Islam, which exhort its believers to constantly seek knowledge.

Lindberg 1978]



SPECIAL ARTICLEseptember 6, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly56and Islamic civilisation, including its science, is being proudly projected as a monolith, solely dependent on Quranic revelation. Today’s fundamentalists take a deliberately antiquated stance: either scientific observation and theory must be made to fit the unalterable text of scriptures, or it must be shown that those scriptures anticipated modern scientific findings. Given that the Quran did not anticipate or cannot legitimate many modern dis-coveries, it becomes necessary to disaffirm those discoveries, and to divide science itself along cultural lines; that is, to fabricate an Islamic science consistent with the Quran in opposition to a “western”scienceunsuitable for Islamic societies because its epistemology is basically in conflict with the Islamic view [Kaiwar 1992]. Suffocating from the loss of pluralism and pro-gressive thought, which were distinctive traits of the Muslim past, how long will the globalMuslimcommunity(‘ummah’) continuetosufferafterthe foreclosure of the gates of reasoned argument (‘ijtihad’) a millennium ago? [Anees 2001]. We have reached a point where some of us are ready to disown our past; the contributions of believers are being thrown out as works of heretics. Literalism has so profoundly taken over a section of Muslim scholars that they are ready to rewritetheirhistoryofsci-ence in the light of this ill-conceived Islam. Syed Ahmad Khan’s Reformist MovementI want to discuss the attempts of one such group called the Muslim Association for the Advancement of Science (MAAS) based in Aligarh. It is an irony that such an exercise is being carried out from Aligarh, a centre of Muslim reform and modernisation led by Syed Ahmad Khan in the 19th century. He aimed at turn-ing “out free-spirited, intellectually accomplished, emotionally mature generations of young Muslims whose self-definitions would reflect liberation from the control of religious and tradi-tional sources of loyalty and an unchallenged commitment to such underlying features of modernism as science and the ideal of progress” [Hasan 2004]. Syed Ahmad Khan countered such forces during his movement and tried hard to convey that “there is not a single nation in the world which acquired excellence, ma-terial progress, and spiritual happiness entirely by virtue of its own efforts” [Habib 2000]. Syed Ahmad Khan felt that prejudice (‘taassub’) and progress could not go together. Munshi Zakaul-lah, a close associate of Syed Ahmad Khan and a mathematician was of the view that “the early Muslims (Arabs) did not hesitate to learn from others. They accepted non-Muslims and non-Arabs as their teachers and through their invention and researches [sic]; they expanded the frontiers of knowledge and achieved the privilege of being teachers to other communities.” Syed Ahmad’s reformist movement from Aligarh put forth a refreshingly mod-ern interpretation of Quranic verses, which, despite some opposi-tion from the orthodox ulama, was accepted by Muslims by and large. The multiple readings of the Quran were much more ac-ceptablein the 19th century than in the 21st century today. The early modernists like Maulvi Karamat Ali, who preceded Syed Ahmad, could comfortably reconcile Islam with modern science and did not see any antagonism between the two [Habib 2004]. The 19th century intellectuals and religious leaders confronted the situation where the evangelicals and the East India Company officials were using modern science to undermine local religious beliefs – both Muslim as well as Hindu. By the end of the 19th century they reckoned with the futility of the enterprise [Raina and Habib 2004; Gosling 1976]. In fact, the first generation of In-dian scientists and intellectuals of a relatively progressive per-suasion legitimated the pursuit of modern science by neutralising the idea that modern science was western. For doing so they ar-gued that while science was morally worthwhile and economi-cally beneficial, this science revealed to us the laws that governed the external world. But there was another science that the eastern religions had grasped that revealed to us the inner world of man. This dual separation of the two realms enabled them to protect science from religion and to shield their own culture from the cultural imperialism of the colonisers [Raina 2003].Colonial PresenceWe also need to keep in mind that most of these reformers and modernists, who espoused the cause of modern science, were not scientists themselves and quite a few were not even trained in western education. The need to acquire new knowledge, lack of which was held responsible for colonial subjugation, became a battle cry for all 19th century groups except a small section of the ulama who called for the revival of the Islamic spiritual and ethical norms. Munshi Zakaullah avowed while attending the Delhi Durbar that he felt degraded by bowing before a foreign ruler and turning to Muslim rule in Spain when Cordoba emerged as a centre of light and learning. He would say: “We are asking back from Europe today some payment for the debt you owe to us on account of what we did for you in the Middle Ages. Students from Oxford and Cambridge used to go to Spain to learn from us science and mathematics; now we come to you instead” [Hasan 2005]. Here Zakaullah did not merely express his discomfort with colonialism but he also made a profound statement about his notion of knowledge, quite at odds with the present day under-standing, which was succinctly put by his friend and biographer C F Andrews in the following words: “There was more than a kindly humour in such a phrase; there was the recognition of the truth, that knowledge is a universal possession, now held by one race, now held by another for the good of all” [Andrews 1911]. Now the same engagement with modern science is being dubbed as the “colonised discourse” by some scholars. In a recent work, Muzaffar Iqbal goes into the early years of Islam to conclude that “unlike the Islam and science nexus that had developed naturally in the eighth century…the new discourse is strained, laboured and carries the burden assigned to Islam in the discourse: the le-gitimisation of the modernists’ agenda” [Iqbal 2002]. And this is not true of Islamists alone, we have our own anti-modernists, who find modern science devilish and against the very spirit of Indian civilisation. Like Muzaffar Iqbal, they also end up dubbing scientists like J C Bose as colonised minds [Nandy 1995]. The irony of their obsession with colonialism, the “West” and the “imperialism of categories” is that their project grants too much power to the very ideas and institutions that they want to challenge [Baber 2006]. Akeel Bilgrami’s reference to the “neurotic obses-sion with the western and colonial determination of their present condition” and his remark that “it will prove a final victory for

Even today, the post-colonial Islamic societies are faced with some real as well as perceived western cultural and intellectual hegemonisation. This is being misused by some ideologues of Islamic science to dub modern science as part of the evil colonial baggage to be accepted at your own peril. For them modern science is an epistemological as well as cultural break from an earlier unadulterated Islamic past.4 For the proponents of Islamic science, modern science “is not universally verifiable for its self imposed empirical limitations put it outside the pale of a unified system of knowledge” [Anees and Davies 1988: 249-60]. They find it “subjective rather than objective since it is coloured with the social, cultural and historical values of the society by which it is manufactured and distributed” (ibid). This is their critique of the Eurocentric history of science, and Islamic science is proposed as an alternative to modern science, because modern science is embedded in a particular culture and epistemology not compatible with Islamic values. This particular culture has thrown up an exploitative and unethical science and Islamic science for them is a valid alternative to this monster called modern science. It is a tragic fact of history that modern technoscience has been an active agent in the global European conquest, which has brought devastating consequences for nature as well as for colonised cultures. On this count, criticism of modern science is nothing new; rather it has grown from within science itself. However this sectarian, religion inspired criticism of modern science rides piggyback on some valid critiques of it. T

I have used some representative samples of the journal for my analysis in this paper, picking a few from each decade, beginning from the mid-1980s of the last century. Kirmani’s

This does not mean that science ceased to exist in the Islamic world; however the focus surely shifted towards the defence of the so-called Islamic sciences vis-a-vis the ‘awail’ sciences (foreign sciences).

SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW september 6, 200859faith, we need to remind ourselves that there are other firm foun-dations upon which we can build moral and ethical projects, in both private and public life….In our own recent history, there is perhaps no better practical instance of the effort to find a non-religious bedrock for morality than that of Nehru himself [Khilnani 2002]. Explaining his position on faith, Nehru wrote to Gandhi in 1933:Religion is not familiar ground for me, and as I have grown older, I have definitely drifted away from it. I have something else in its place, some-thing older than just intellect and reason, which gives me strength and hope. Apart from this indefinable and indefinite urge, which may have just a tinge of religion in it and yet is wholly different from it, I have grown entirely to rely on the workings of the mind. Perhaps they are weak supports to rely upon, but search, as I will; I can see no better ones (ibid).Modernist ReformersAnother protagonist of Islamic science, S W A Husaini, goes a step further by rejecting the term Islamic science in favour of Sharriyah science and pleads that shariah rules be applied where it is applicable in the acquisition of rational knowledge. He proposes the development of Shariyyah philosophy of science, Shariyyah history of science,Shariyyah sociology of science andShariyyah policy of science [Husaini 1986]. For himShariyyah science meant the total exclusion of some disciplines like numero-logy, alchemy and music [Husaini 1985]. Contrast this approach with the 19th century Indian modernist reformer and maulvi based in Calcutta. Maulvi Karamat Ali, who was a teacher at a madrasa in the late 19th century and also an expert in music, and who wrote thus in his book Makhiz-i-Uloom in 1867:Alas! That our nobility, so devoted to music, should have neglected it so far as not to carry it to that perfection when it would melt and soften the human heart. Had they taken this trouble, it would have become necessary to them to direct their attention towards mathematics. It is a matter of pain and regret that they should hear as well as learn music from ignorant buffoons (p 78).Even Imam Ghazali in the 11th century devoted a chapter on music in hisIhya Ulum al-Deen where he says that there is some-thing wrong with the man or woman who does not like music. He declared “One who is not moved by music is unsound of mind and intemperate; is far from spirituality and is denser than birds and beasts because everyone is affected by melodious sounds” [Joommal 1985]. Among our modern day Islamic scholars, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad has this to say about music, which is in stark contrast to the perversion of Husaini and his ilk:I can always remain happy doing without the necessities of life, but I cannot live without music. A sweet voice is the support and prop of my life, a healing for my mental labours. Sweet music is the cure for all the ills and ailments of my body and heart.6Azad was aware that the prophet only denounced excessive music or poetry as corrupting, music as such was not prohibited. While digging the trench around Medinah in preparation for battle, the prophet and his companions were singing songs (Bukhari/Muslim).7 It is clear that music is an anathema only for the myopic, bigoted, spoilsport apostles of self-righteous Islam and regrettably, most of the Muslims have succumbed to their vicious campaign against this significant cultural expression.M Riaz Kirmani, the present editor of the journal comes out with another alternative term for Islamic science, which he calls “ilm al-mashiyah” [Kirmani 1987]. He finds this term closer to Islam but takes it further away from science by bringing in the role of the creator and also acknowledging other sources of knowledge. The term “mashiyyah” means Allah’s will so through “ilm al mashiyyah” Kirmani intends to carry out the study of Allah’s will operative in the affairs of the universe, be it nature or society. He accepts revela-tion as a source, which may provide paradigms for generation and application of science [Ahmad 1990: 26-27]. Most of the essential-ist projects are self-righteous; they deride the arrogance of modern science but drag the Quran and Allah to humble not only science but also other religions. “Church fought the battle with ‘science’ on false grounds and lost the battle”. “The Church lost the battle because they have not the scripture in the original form”. “They polluted divine guidance with facts against truth” [Khan 1990]. It ends with a final statement that “we have got al-Furqan, the crite-rion (of right and wrong) which is the essence of all scriptures in original form”, meaning thereby that all other knowledge and faiths are mere falsehoods. This so-called Islamic position is un-Islamic as it lacks the Islamic humility, which is the very cornerstone of Quranic philosophy as well as central to the prophet’s own conduct. The Quranic term for humility is khushu. The opposite of humility is arrogance (kibr in Quranic terminology). The Quran speaks of Satan (iblis) as the arrogant one who refused to obey god’s command to show humility towards the creatures. In other words, one may consider the absence of humility tantamount to arrogance, which is not an angelic, but a satanic attribute. Arro-gance defines its own boundaries, foreclosing new possibilities of knowledge. Further, the Quran states that arrogance leads to tyranny (zulm) [Anees 2001]. Besides, all this exclusivist exercises to define science in terms of Quranic revelation and Allah’s will, go to undermine the very enterprise of science. In Islamic science rationality is not denied but in case of contradiction it is revelation that will prevail over rationality [Rehman 1987: 54]. In this case it is no more the pursuit of the unknown but merely the rediscovery of knowledge, including scientific knowledge, already revealed in the Quran and the sayings of the prophet.Lack of Symbolic InterpretationNone of the present day Islamic aficionados care to read the Quran and prophetic traditions symbolically, using their intelli-gence for interpretation, as repeatedly urged in the holy book. Muslims were to cultivate a sacramental or symbolic attitude:Verily, in the creation of the heavens and of the earth and the succes-sion of night and day and in the ships that speed through the sea with what is useful to man: and in the waters which god sends down from the sky, giving life thereby to the earth after it had been lifeless, and causing all manner of living creatures to multiply thereon: and in the change of the winds, and the clouds that run their appointed courses between sky and earth: (in all this) there are messages (ayat) indeed for a people who use their reason.8The Quran nowhere insists for the literal interpretation of the text, rather it constantly stresses the need for intelligence in deciphering the “signs” or “messages” of god. Muslims are not to abdicate their reason but to look at the world attentively and with curiosity. It was this attitude that later enabled Muslims to build a fine tradition of natural science, which has never been seen as such a danger to religion as in Christianity.9 Munshi

The journal continues with its search for an Islamic science into the 21st century and published a detailed piece called ‘Towards Developing Islamic Science’ in 2001 [Islam 2001: 121-36]. It begins by reiterating that “an intrinsic part of western civilisation is the ‘western science’ or ‘modern science’, which is quite different from the science practised during the golden era of Islam” (ibid). Nobody can dispute that modern science is different from an early medieval science-Islamic, Chinese, Indian or any other for that matter. Each civilisation had its seminal role in the progress of knowledge, which Eurocentrism denied through the centuries of imperialist expansion into the non-western world. However, we cannot conclude, as the author does in this paper that “the kind of science that has been developed and practised in the west, appears as quite antithetical and inimical to Islam, and hence we need to call the science developed by the Muslims in the golden era of Islam as Islamic science, and the present science pervasive in the west as ‘western science’....” (ibid). Like other articulators of Islamic science, he also fails to put forth a viable and convincing definition of Islamic science, mere claims that Islamic science will be able to “meet the physical, cultural and spiritual needs and requirements of Muslim societies” (ibid) serves no purpose.

A recent study dubs all 19th century reformist exhortations to pursue modern science as reductionist because the word ilm was conveniently used to produce a new strand of Islam and science discourse [Iqbal 2002: 244]. In that case, is it not reductionism to limit ilm to mean merely knowledge about god? If that was so then why did the prophet make this distinction in his famous saying “To listen to the instructions of science and learning for one hour is more meritorious than standing up in prayer for a thousand nights”.12 The prophet of Islam exhorted his newfound followers to pursue both the sacred as well as secular and both the exercises for him were ultimately a search for the truth of god. The concept of ilm or knowledge is being misread and misinterpreted by a large number of Islamic scholars and activists today in the same manner as the notion of jihad is being hijacked and trivialised by some Islamic extremists.13 Both are akin to the vandalisation of the core edifice of Islam where ilm and jihad occupied a central place.

this past, perceived as unadulterated, was not really so. This most sought after and pristine Islamic past had its illustrious Nestorian Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Chinese and Buddhist contributors, who were welcomed by the liberal Caliphs of Baghdad to engage in the production of this corpus of scientific knowledge, which later came to be called Islamic science. Today one tries to forget or deliberately overlook its multicultural and multireligious origins.

– (1983): ‘The Transmission of Greek and Arabic Learning to the West’ in David C Lindberg (ed), Science in the Middle Ages, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 52-90, also Colin A Ronan (1983), The Cambridge Illustrated History of the World’s Science,

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 202-03.

Islam, Mohd Saidul (2001): ‘Towards Developing Islamic Science: A Review and Appraisal’, Journal of Islamic Science, Vol 17, Nos 1-2, pp 121-36.

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top