Friday, May 14, 2010

Islam and Technology - From Nanotechnology to Ringtones and Facebook

This is a guest post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah.

“Islam” and “Technology” are two very broad fields, and for a short blog piece to be so titled is somewhere between meaningless and overly ambitious. I’ll try to be neither. The intersection of these two fields is itself very broad, and I’m here only setting the table for the many items that will be placed upon it (in the future) by me and others. Indeed, we are now all too familiar with the “Science and Religion” discourse and debates, but one seldom hears about “Technology and Religion”, except perhaps in areas of ethics (applications of Science with some input from Religion). And yet Technology pervades our lives (I mean the lives of humans very generally, not just the educated ones) so much more than Science, and some of its effects are directly relevant to religious concepts and principles.

Technology has of course existed since the dawn of humanity, starting with hand-axes and hunting spears and the invention/discovery of fire, and reaching all the way to nuclear bombs, genetic engineering, and Wi-Fi. Technology, often – though not necessarily – understood as the application of Science, has more and more often called upon human thinkers (ethicists, sociologists, lawmakers, and religious leaders) to present views and guidelines on what we should accept and allow; technology – unlike science – should not have a free reign to explore whatever it can…

And technology has now started to “disturb” the religious lives of the faithful. In a recent survey I did among a hundred students at my university, one of the statements on which I asked them to state their degree of agreement/disagreement was “Modern Technology has made it harder for people to live a religious life”; it was very interesting to see that responses were largely spread from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”, with female students largely agreeing with the statement, while male students largely disagreed with it. I know, the statement itself is very broad and fuzzy, and so perhaps each of my student respondents interpreted it differently, hence reaching a different conclusion…

I also recently took part in a seminar on Islamic Theology and Modern Issues, where the field of Science and Technology was discussed at some length. It was interesting to note that the question of technology and ethics took a large fraction of the discussions, starting from nuclear bombs to genetic engineering, particularly focusing on issues of life and death, the prerogatives of God (hence the theological interest).

But I am equally interested in how Technology changes the mindset of people, their worldviews and outlooks toward life. And in this respect, Modern Technology has definitely affected society(ies). For example, in mosques (as, I am sure, equally in churches and synagogues), the faithful are constantly disturbed by phones ringing in the middle of prayers and sermons. Someone (a westerner) once said that the worst invention of the 20th century was the telephone for it seemed to give people the right to invite themselves at will into others’ living rooms…

On a related note, a few months ago, the Egyptian High Authority for Fatwas issued a decree prohibiting the usage of Qur’anic verses and such holy material as ringtones of phones; indeed, those were deemed “inappropriate, misleading and demeaning to God's words.”

At the afore-mentioned Islamic Theology seminar, one religious scholar told me that the Egyptian Islamic authorities had recently been debating whether Second Life (the famous virtual world) should be embraced, perhaps by setting up mosques and sending in preachers. The scholar also told me that nanotechnology, with its potential ground-breaking applications, was the subject of high interest to the religious authorities. And on a lighter note, you may have heard that Al-Azhar (the oldest Islamic university and arguably the most influential Sunni institution in the world) recently denied that its fatwa committee had issued a ruling against Facebook (a number of Muslim critics had insisted that it “increased illicit relations between unmarried men and women”).

As I said above, there are so many sub-fields and issues to the interface between Technology and Religion/Islam, and these are just a few recent occurrences. I have no doubt that we will very soon be looking at this subject from many perspectives.

9 comments:

emre said...

What does it say about a society when the morality police is trying to decide whether or not to set up a *virtual* appendage. They will chase you down even in a video game.

Anonymous said...

You may be the right person to answer this.

Is there any evidence that suggests or proves that the moon was split into two halves sometime in the past?

I heard someone say that the moon has a belt of rocks that proves this. Is it true?

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thanks for the question. No, there is no evidence whatsoever (rocks, measurements, observations) that the moon split into two halves at any point. In fact even Muslim scholars do not all agree that the "event" happened physically...

I have a few pages on this in my upcoming book (due out in October -- more on that in due time).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your answer.

I heard that an American astronomer on a BBC documentary confirmed this. May be only NASA knows about it and it is on one of those 'secret' files. I would not think an astronomer will lie about something like that on a BBC documentary.

No that 'the event' happened physically. But, if there is evidence to suggest or prove that the moon was split, that would mean it could have very well happened physically.

Any way, thanks once again for your answer. Should I look forward to read your book? I hope it is not an expanded version of the paper you presented (was it in Algeria?).

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Actually that "BBC story" is quite well known, though it has no basis in reality. Sorry... I think if some such huge revelation (the moon having split!) were to be made on the BBC or anywhere of repute, the whole world would have talked about it, drawn consequences from it, and followed up with measurements and explorations; don't you think so?

As to my book (sorry for the plug), yes I truly believe it will be a useful one on Islam and Science, and no it is not an expanded version of the paper I presented in Algeria; in fact an expanded version of that paper constitutes only 1 of about 12 chapters (on very different topics) of the book. I'll tell you all more about it when it's out.

Best wishes.

Anonymous said...

Well, about the moon story... I myself have not seen that documentary. So i do not know what was said on it. What I know is that it is just a matter time before the moon is explored in detail by human beings. If there is such evidence, then it can be hidden only for a certain amount of time. If there is no such evidence, then too nothing to worry because as you said, it was not probably a physical event. Having said that, I will not be least bit surprised if this evidence is something that is already there but not made public.
Thanks and good luck with your book.

Anonymous said...

Well, about the moon story... I myself have not seen that documentary. So i do not know what was said on it. What I know is that it is just a matter time before the moon is explored in detail by human beings. If there is such evidence, then it can be hidden only for a certain amount of time. If there is no such evidence, then too nothing to worry because as you said, it was not probably a physical event. Having said that, I will not be least bit surprised if this evidence is something that is already there but not made public.
Thanks and good luck with your book.

Anonymous said...

Well, about the moon story... I myself have not seen that documentary. So i do not know what was said on it. What I know is that it is just a matter time before the moon is explored in detail by human beings. If there is such evidence, then it can be hidden only for a certain amount of time. If there is no such evidence, then too nothing to worry because as you said, it was not probably a physical event. Having said that, I will not be least bit surprised if this evidence is something that is already there but not made public.
Thanks and good luck with your book.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the multiple posts. Unlike my previous comments here, today my comment was not posted immediately and I thought I must re-post it to make sure it is posted.