Monday, June 07, 2010

A Report from the Islamic Astronomy Conference

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

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged (in anticipation) about a conference that was going to take place in Abu Dhabi in the field often referred to as “Islamic Astronomy”. This phrase itself may be awkward, if not controversial and objectionable; indeed, how could anyone define an “Islamic” astronomy, could there be a Jewish astronomy, a Buddhist astronomy, etc.? Well, the phrase may be awkward, but I did not invent it; it has been used by some of the world’s foremost (non-Muslim) experts, e.g. Owen Gingerich (who wrote an article with that very title in Scientific American in 1986) and David King (who has published several works with that title or something very close, e.g. “Mathematical Islamic Astronomy”). It is simply a short phrase by which experts refer to one of two intertwined fields: (a) the astronomy that was developed during Islam’s “golden age”; (b) the applications of Astronomy to Islamic areas, such as prayer and fasting times.

Anyway, the conference in Abu Dhabi took place with about 200 participants from 26 countries, not counting 20 Muslim scholars (jurists) and some media reporters (including Al-Jazeera TV, which recorded a few of the talks for later broadcast). As I noted in my preliminary blog piece, although Muslim astronomers who contribute to this field have often had encounters with Islamic scholars, this was the first time that the latter were invited to such a conference as a large group, representing Saudi Arabia (at least 4 Sunni and 1 Shii scholars), Oman, UAE, Egypt, Libya, Turkey, UK, USA, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Sweden… None of them were speakers, although they insisted on giving talks, complaining that just listening and asking questions or making short comments did not put them as equals with the astronomers. The organizers (me among them, at least on the science side) refused this, insisting that this was an Astronomy conference, with papers refereed by a scientific committee made entirely of astronomers (fifteen experts from 11 countries, including two non-Muslims from the UK and the USA), and that full rigor and scientific integrity had to be maintained.

The solution we found to this (diplomatic) conundrum was to hold two side meetings between a dozen astronomers and a dozen Islamic scholars. This too was a first, and a “Memorandum of Understanding” was reached at the end. The scholars wanted to establish a number of “certainties”: they repeatedly asked whether our calculations – and which ones – could be taken as absolutely certain, so as to base Islamic decisions (when to start and end fasting, for instance) upon them. The astronomers, without being so explicit, wanted to establish themselves as the body who speaks on such matters; in other words, we wanted to impart on the jurists the idea that scientific topics must be the exclusive province of scientists, and theologians and jurists must abide by those conclusions and not step in front and start making proclamations. We ended up reaching a reasonable agreement, one which the astronomers considered to be a huge quantum leap, considering the Islamic scholars’ past reluctance to give any ground on such topics. The document, which is being translated, will be widely distributed (the media will surely find it very interesting!) and posted around. I will let you know when that happens – hopefully very soon.

OK, so what topics were addressed and which ones saw some interesting contributions and discussions? The issue of the Islamic calendar has now stepped to the front, I am happy to note. Why (am I happy)? Because for the first time in decades, if not centuries, there is now a wide realization that constructing and implementing a calendar for all Islamic events, whether religious or social, is the one way to avoid the chaos that we continue to witness whenever an occasion like the start of Ramadan comes up. And Muslim astronomers have really made significant progress on this, both on the science itself and on raising everyone’s understanding and awareness of its significance. In some future piece, I will explain the status of this topic.

Another issue saw some significant astronomical propositions, that of the prayer times at high latitudes, where the Islamic “canonical” rules for determining prayer times (ones that apply in moderate latitudes) do not work. This is a rather timely and urgent issue now, both because Muslim communities in high-latitude regions like Canada, UK, and Scandinavia have become very large, and because Ramadan is gradually shifting and will soon be taking place in June and July when the problem is most acute.

Finally, for the first time in such a conference, a session was devoted to Islam, Astronomy, and Environment, and it met with high interest, which was somewhat surprising to the organizers. This is a welcome development, and it has been concluded that the Environment is now an important topic for Muslims, and future conferences will feature it more prominently. And last but not least, half a dozen papers revolved around Education (and Astronomy and Islam), with one (female) presenter showing the results of a survey among students and graduates on their knowledge/ignorance of basic astronomical concepts, particularly what relates to the Moon and the Sun and their daily and monthly motions/variations. The results were, not surprisingly, depressing, but they served to underscore the need for everyone to work harder on that front. It was also decide to enlarge the scope of such a survey to as many countries and institutions (schools, mosques, work places, etc.).

To summarize: A really good conference in practically every way, with progress on many issues and fronts, particularly the thorny one of the relation and turf battle between the astronomers and the Islamic scholars.

14 comments:

emre said...

I get incensed whenever I hear people speak of the need to develop an "Islamic science" to catch up with the West! I vaguely remember the name Seyyed Hossein Nasr mentioned in this context.

Thank you relating the highlights of the conference.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thanks, emre, but that's exactly why I made sure I'd clear up the meaning and usage of "Islamic Astronomy" at the start of my report piece. This is totally different from the "Islamic Science" idea, which indeed S. H. Nasr and others proposed and debated in the eighties. The latter concept has largely been abandoned, so I don't think I need to discuss it in any detail, but it's not the case for "Islamic Astronomy", which as I've pointed out, is often used by western experts in that field.

If there is a need to further expound on that issue, I will gladly do.

mani said...

Alham-Du-Lillah

Thanks for share, really helpful. Also, please take a look at my blog
www.religionislamconcepts.muslimblogs.com
Allah help us both to spread the message of Islam.

Anonymous said...

What is Islamic Science?

"The latter concept has largely been abandoned ... "

May be I am not getting what you are saying. Care to elaborate please?

You seem to be saying that a term or a phrase is valid only if they are used by the West. Am I right?

emre said...

The point is that the scientific method is independent of the religion of the scientists practicing it, thus it is absurd to speak of Islamic science.

It's amazing how Islam seeks to pervade every aspect of life, warranted or not.

Anonymous said...

Hi emre,

Thanks for your comment.

I agree scientific methods are independent of religion. But, Islam has a distinct touch on many aspects of life, including science. So talking of Islamic Science is, in my mind, not a dishonour to science at all.

If I say Islamic architecture, you will have a particular image in your mind. Similarly, if I say Islamic poetry, or Islamic design, it will be the same.

We may or may not have a counterpart to these aspects in other religions. But that does not mean the Islamic angle or the Islamic touch to these aspects are any less.

We do not have USA-ology, or UK-ology or Saudi Arabiology or Pakistanology. But we do have Egyptology as a university subject taught in many international universities.

What I mean by this is that not every country have a subject specific to them taught in an international university. But where it is relevant, it is there.

I am not saying that Egyptology is specific to Islam, but that it is specific to Egypt.

Sciences like astronomy for instance matters more to no other religion. Many verses of the Qur'an talks of science. The range is between quantum science and cosmology. What more can you expect to rightfully deserve recognition?

So, I think "Islamic Science" must be recognised as such.

Islam has NEVER been a hindrance to gaining knowledge nor to science. This is in contrast to what happened during the Dark Ages.

Islamic Science is a distinctive entity. We might as well appreciate and acknowledge it rather than try to bury it with history.

It saddens me when people try to discredit what deserves praise.

emre said...

Egyptology does have American and British equivalent; American Studies, and British Studies, respectively. But your analogy is inappropriate because these fields are by definition tied to one society, whereas science is practiced the same way the world over: hypotheses are proposed, and confirmed or refuted.

Scientists do not accept things on faith, so claims in scripture carry no weight. Still, I'm curious what you think the Koran has to say on cosmology or "quantum science". Could you go into details?

Anonymous said...

"Scientists do not accept things on faith, so claims in scripture carry no weight."

I agree with the first part.
I disagree that 'claims in scripture carry no weight.'

About quantum science and cosmology ...
I am not qualified to go on an elaboration. I am not an astronomer nor am I an Islamic Religious Scholar.

But I think I do understand this verse from Qur'an. What it says suffices to say the Qur'an talks of both.

"Do not the Unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together (as one unit of creation), before we clove them asunder? We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?" The Qur'an 021:030

The Big Bang Theory tells us that the universe was a singularity at one point of time.

But remember, we have not figured out what the origin of life was like. Nor do we have any idea of the role quantum relations might have played in it.

I have studied enough biology to believe that the mystery of origin of life has very much to do with quantum science of H2O.

It is easy to dismiss what is there in scripture. But this is only after a superficial read. If you contemplate a bit, scripture carries a lot of meaning.

I am a person who is curious about many things. I posted a verse from Qur'an sometime ago, hoping that it carries some meaning to astronomers. But, despite this blog being maintained by 2 astronomers, no one has replied to it. Not that I am complaining, but that I am a bit disappointed for I was curious to know.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thanks to all, and sorry for my late replies; I have been on travel and just got back (13 hours of flight, nonstop, and 8 hours of time-zone difference)!

Looks like there's some serious interest in the question of "Islamic Science", and since the whole discussion depends strongly on what is meant by "Islamic Science", it can't be addressed in one comment at the bottom of a blog piece.

I promise to thus address it more fully in a future piece (in less than 1000 words, though; this is a blog after all, not a review journal)...

Sanaa Abdo said...

Thank you very much for this report about our last great conference.
Yes it was such a successful meeting.
I started believing of having our Islamic calender and actually I started explaining the meaning of this to people around me, we need to start working in spreading these concepts, vocabulary, and terms related to this among as many people as we know.
Good luck Dear Nidhal, and hope for coming great meetings.

emre said...

That verse you quoted from the Koran in support of the Big Bang theory is characteristically vague; it has no scientific value. If the Big Bang theory had not been developed, who would guess that that verse referred to the Big Bang?

Once a scientific theory has been propounded, it's easy to go back to your holy books and try to find a supporting statement. I do not see how you can start from the nebulous statements in scripture and arrive at a quantifiable scientific theory.

"If you contemplate a bit, scripture carries a lot of meaning."

Yes, but this is not the blessing it might seem. The fact that scriptural statements can be interpreted in many ways reduces their accuracy to the point of uselessness. For example, when scripture says the Earth is so-and-so years old, are we supposed to take it literally? Suppose we do. Then we determine through alternative scientific methods that the literal interpretation can't be right, so unless we're fanatics we revise our interpretation to something more hazy...

Anonymous said...

@ Nidhal

"Looks like there's some serious interest in the question of "Islamic Science" "

Yes, i would love to know more.


@ Sanaa

"I started explaining the meaning of this to people around me, we need to start working in spreading these concepts, vocabulary, and terms related to this among as many people as we know."

Absolutely. If we (Muslims) do not do it, who else will do it?


@ emre

"If the Big Bang theory had not been developed, who would guess that that verse referred to the Big Bang?"

This is the problem.
Let me ask you something.
IF, only IF, Einstein was made aware of this verse from Qur'an, do you think he would have still introduced the 'cosmological constant?' Even if would, I think his approach would have been different. You know, Einstein's equations DID calculate that the universe is expanding. BUT he stood with the view prevalent in his time by introducing a 'constant.' He later told that this was his biggest blunder.

The Qur'an is not a science text book. It is a book of 'signs' as they say. So you cannot expect everything to be given in the Qur'an as plain and simple. It is more subtle than that. This is why you say the verse I quoted is "characteristically vague."

If everything is given in Qur'an, when do we get a chance to use our intelligence? God expects us to use our intelligence to unravel the mysteries of the universe.

Let me also put what I said about Einstein differently.
Suppose it was an Islamic scientist who was working to figure out whether the universe is expanding, or steady, do you think he would have stood by the steady state theory even though his equations show it is expanding? I am sure he would not!

All life, the Qur'an says, was created from water. We have still not discovered this fact. But we cannot ignore it either.

This why we need "Islamic Science." There is much science to explore from what is given in Islam. If the Muslims form the majority of top level scientists today (like we used to have several hundred years ago,) we would have done so much that this religion cannot be misunderstood by so many.

It saddens me that for some in the West, there is nothing good about Islam. It is a religion of suicide bombers. It saddens me more that this is the image people try hard to fix on Islam and bury everything else about this religion.

"For example, when scripture says the Earth is so-and-so years old, are we supposed to take it literally?"

I am guessing you are talking of the claims of young Earth creationists. I have not read the Bible or Torah sufficiently enough to comment on what is given on these books.

But I am sure the Qur'an does not give a figure for the age of the Earth.

emre said...

"IF, only IF, Einstein was made aware of this verse from Qur'an, do you think he would have still introduced the 'cosmological constant?'"

I'm pretty sure he would not have done anything differently. The thought that goes into developing a theory like Einstein's is so far beyond the complexity of nebulous verbal statements in scriptures that they offer essentially no help.

"Suppose it was an Islamic scientist who was working to figure out whether the universe is expanding, or steady, do you think he would have stood by the steady state theory even though his equations show it is expanding? I am sure he would not!"

Again, I don't think the religion of the scientist makes any difference. All you need is a method to determine whether the universe is expanding or not, and then you take some measurements. I might be misunderstanding your question.

"All life, the Qur'an says, was created from water. We have still not discovered this fact. But we cannot ignore it either."

Water is one of the basic ingredients of life. This is a well-known fact, and I do not think anyone ignores or denies it.

"But I am sure the Qur'an does not give a figure for the age of the Earth."

The Koran says the earth was made in six days, but that's not the point. I am merely trying to demonstrate the difficulty in nailing anything down with scripture.

Thank you for reading.

Anonymous said...

"The Koran says the earth was made in six days, but that's not the point."

the arabic word used in Qur'an to say 'days' in these verses are 'yawm' or 'ayyamin.' Yawm is singular and ayyamin is plural.

Yam means a day. But it also means a period of time. It can be anything from a moment to an epoch of time.

So what is meant by 'six days' CANNOT be taken to literally mean six calendar days even according to a literal translation of Qur'an.

Thank you for reading too.