Sunday, June 24, 2007

Cover story of Discover Magazine on "Science & Islam"

The lead story of the July issue of Discover is on the conflict between science & Islam. Its not a very deep analysis, but it provides anecdotal snapshots of attitude towards science and religion in Egypt, Tunisia, and Jordan.

Science and Islam in Conflict

All over the world, no matter what the cultural or language differences, science is more or less guided by scientific principles—except in many Islamic countries, where it is guided by the Koran. This is the ultimate story about science and religion.

Cairo, Egypt: “There is no conflict between Islam and science,” Zaghloul El-Naggar declares as we sit in the parlor of his villa in Maadi, an affluent suburb of Cairo. “Science is inquisition. It’s running after the unknown. Islam encourages seeking knowledge. It’s considered an act of worship.”

What people call the scientific method, he explains, is really the Islamic method: “All the wealth of knowledge in the world has actually emanated from Muslim civilization. The Prophet Muhammad said to seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave. The very first verse came down: ‘Read.’ You are required to try to know something about your creator through meditation, through analysis, experimentation, and observation.”

Read the full article here


Nizam said...

Interesting article, Salman. Not being in academia or the sciences, I wonder how the hurdles faced by these people in the "Muslim world" compare to those faced here in the U.S. - e.g. academic and departmental politics, as well as ideological considerations (e.g. global warming research?)

What disturbed me most was the idea that a "scientist" like El-Naggar would cite a verse Quran as "proof" of a scientific theory. This proposition, and to an extent the entire enterprise known as "Islamic Science", have problematic implications on questions of scriptural interpretation and the very idea of truth.

If scripture can be interpreted as being literal or figurative, and as descriptive or normative, and furthermore, if these determinations are made by the reader of scripture, then we cannot rely solely on a scriptural verse as proof or disproof of a scientific theory.

In other words, the presence or absence of a Quranic verse is neither necessary nor sufficient to yield any scientific conclusion. It always has to be supplemented with actual observation and testing against the prevailing theories of the day. The way these scientists play fast and loose with the number of joints in the body, for example, indicates that aim is not to gain actual scientific knowledge, but to support their preformed religious belief in the authenticity of a certain source. That is not science.

So-called "Islamic science" has very little to offer the world that would not be better accomplished by leaving religion out of it. The only reason I say "very little" and not "nothing at all" is because there are ethical questions governing the conduct of scientists that Islam may have useful insights on. (And modern secular moral philosophy gives us as good or better outcomes there as well.)

While Islamic cultures may have been more amenable to scientific inquiry in past centuries, pursuing an ideologically blindered "Islamic Science" agenda is no way to resurrect that legacy.

Salman Hameed said...

I think there is no comparison between teaching/research hurdles mentioned in the article and those here in the US, especially if you consider universities and colleges. There is relatively more pressure on school teachers to avoid talking about evolution in several parts of the US, but the conseuqences of defying that pressure are still lot less serious than, say in Egypt.

Yes, politics and ideologies do play a role in departments, but I think, again the stakes are very different. Second, the tenure system (despite its shortcomings) does protect an individual from these types of pressures. Furthermore, you can make a fuss in the press, and you will likely find support in the society (though some issues can get tricky - for example the recent case of De Paul University's Norman Finkelstein). This goes to the issue of general freedom of expression, which is in short supply in Muslim countries. I'm sure, however, that conditions in universties vary a lot from Morocco to Indonesia.

It would be good to get feedback from some faculty members at one of these universities. Anyone reading this?

I completely agree about your second point. There is no gain from this type of Islamic science. This tactic of playing fast and loose with numbers is widely used to defend different beliefs. For example, the New York Times bestseller, the Bible Code, uses just this type of analysis, not to all the Da Vinci code mania and predictions of Nostradamus. If your interpretations have this much room, you can find amazing things in any text. By the way, an Australian mathematician did find more historical events in the text of Moby Dick, than those found in the Bible Code (this is perhaps a further digression, but here is an article from Skeptical Inquirer about the Bible Code:
I think the underlying set of principles are roughly the same in all these cases.