48. An Illusion of Harmony: Taner Edis

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48. An Illusion of Harmony: Taner Edis

Post  Patguy on Wed Dec 30, 2009 2:11 am

“Because thinkers such as [Sayyid] Qutb remain positive about applied science, their ambivalence about Western science and their antitheoretical attitudes do not attract as much attention. Fundamentalists sincerely think of themselves as supporting science while endorsing views that would cripple scientific practice.”

The subtitle is: Science and Religion in Islam. Edis addresses the history and current relationship of Islam to science, and reaches some gloomy conclusions.

Islam has a long history of intellectual achievement, but as Edis points out, most of the developments in Islamic science have been technological adaptations (as when the Ottomans needed new weapons and tactics to fight the West), or have been in the more abstract sciences, such as mathematics. There have been few theoretical innovations, and nothing along the lines of Newtonian physics, Copernican astronomy or Darwinian evolution. In fact, the Quran and the history of Islam have been generally hostile to many major scientific trends, because of two things:

1) A suspicion of reason and scientific thinking. Islam is a religion based on divine revelation, and although different scholars over the centuries have ascribed human reason more or less importance, it is still, by the nature of the religion, subordinate to revelation. Revelation is not subject to skeptical thinking and cannot be critiqued through the scientific method—it is, in fact, antithetical to it.

2) A discomfort with the implications of certain theories, evolution especially, but also advances in physics that seem to further marginalize the earth and its place in the universe. It’s hard to reconcile the idea of a metaphysically special place for humanity when physics tells us we’re just a speck of dust floating in the infinite void.

So, although some Islamic scholars like to claim that Islam is a “scientific” religion, and that there is no tension between scientific progress and religious ideas, Edis exposes this as an illusion. Creationist thought is big in the Muslim world, and other forms of pseudoscience are also common. Even reputable scholars publish papers that to my mind seem like total lunacy:

“A particular lowlight is a ‘Scientific Miracles Conference’ at which [Pakistani] science and engineering professors try to explain Muhammed’s ascension to heaven through relativistic time dilation, make graphs plotting the quantity of divine reward versus the number of people in the praying congregation, or speculate that the origins of jinn are in methane gas and other saturated hydrocarbons. These are not isolated incidents: the Muslim world appears to be well supplied with physicists who claim that they can calculate the speed of light based on Quranic verses and with engineers who do bizarre mathematical calculations to show that the Quran is a miracle. Today, most of these are easily available on the Internet. Critics such as [physicist Pervez] Hoodbhoy can only react with disgust and suggest that the Muslim world is in dire need of genuine skeptical rationalism and real scientific thinking.”

Even liberal or progressive Islamic thinkers are crippled by their adherence to the Quran as revelation. Some Islamic thinkers borrow Western ideas of postmodernism to critique the metanarrative of Western science as “progress” (while ignoring postmodernism’s suspicion of authority and absolutes, and its love of irony). Others look for evidence of the divine in the weird activity of quantum particles, which in the West is known as New Age bullshit. Some are genuinely seeking to infuse science with an Islamic ethical component, as in this stirring quotation by Mehmet S. Aydin about future models of economic development:

“The Western world is in dire need of a spiritually strong philosophy of development. The Islamic world must learn from the historical mistakes committed by the West in its concept of development. In the material development of the West, a large role was played by an insufficiently moral conception of production and consumption, exploitation of humans and nature for sinful gains, and therefore the blood and sweat of the oppressed. Having seen power and domination as the prime virtues, and having formulated many things such as rationality—especially economic rationality—according to these ‘virtues,’ the West has only recently started working on and thinking about ‘human and environment-centered development models.’”

There isn’t much there that I disagree with. Technological development has indeed gone hand in hand with environmental devastation and economic oppression. But Aydin’s notions of an ethical model for scientific advancement are crippled by the need to operate within a Quranic framework supported by revelation. Progressive Islamic ideas must work hard to fit themselves into the cracks of the conservative religious structure, and as long as they continue to do so, Islam will lag miserably behind the West in real scientific advancement.

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