Three Views of Science in the Islamic World

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Three Views of Science in the Islamic World
I. Kalin
There is hardly any subject as vexed and vital for the contemporary Islamic world as the question of modern science. Since its earliest encounter with modern Western science in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Islamic world has had to deal with science for practical and intellectual reasons. At the level of practical needs, modern science was seen as the sine qua non of the advancement and defense of Muslim countries in the field of military technology. The Ottoman political body, which, unlike the other parts of the Islamic world, was in direct contact with European powers, was convinced that its political and military decline was due to the lack of proper defense mechanisms against the European armies. To fill this gap, a number of massive reforms were introduced by Mahmud II with the hope of stopping the rapid decline of the Empire, and a new class of military officers and bureaucrats, who became the first point of contact between the traditional world of Islam and modern secular West, was created.1 A similar project, in fact a more successful one, was introduced in Egypt by Muhammad Ali whose aspirations were later given a new voice by Taha Hussain and his generation. The leitmotif of this period was that of extreme practicality: the Muslim world needed power, especially military power, to stand back on its feet, and new technologies powered by modern science were the only way to have it.2 The modern conception of science as a medium of power was to have a profound impact on the relation between the Muslim world and modern science, which was then already equated with technology, progress, power, and prosperity -- a mode of perception still prevalent among the masses in the Islamic world.
The second level of encounter between traditional beliefs and modern science was of an intellectual nature with lasting consequences the most important of which was the re-shaping of the self-perception of the Islamic world. Using Husserl’s analysis of Selbstverstandnis, a key term in Husserl’s anthropology of ‘Western man’, von Grunebaum takes the reception of modern science to be a turning point in the self-view of the traditional Islamic civilization and its approach to history.3 One of the recurring themes of this epochal even, viz., the incompatibility of traditional beliefs with the dicta of modern science, is forcefully stated in a speech by Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, who was as much aware of the practical urgencies of the post-independence war Turkey as he was passionately engaged in creating a new identity for Turkish people: ‘We shall take science and knowledge from wherever they may be, and put them in the mind of every member of the nation. For science and for knowledge, there are no restrictions and no conditions. For a nation that insists on preserving a host of traditions and beliefs that rest on no logical proof, progress is very difficult, perhaps even impossible’.4
On a relatively smaller scale, the revealing clash between the secular premises of modern science and the traditional Islamic worldview was brought home to many Muslim intellectuals with the publication of Renan's famous lecture L'Islamisme et la science given in Sorbonne in 1883, in which he strongly argued for the irrationality and inability of Muslim peoples to produce science. For us today, Renan's quasi-racist attack on the Islamic faith and crude promulgation of positivism as the new religion of the modern world makes little sense. Nevertheless, it was an eye opener for the Muslim intelligentsia of the time about the way the achievements of modern Western science were presented. Spearheaded by Jamal al-Din Afghani in Persia and Namik Kemal in the Ottoman empire, the Muslim men of letters took upon themselves the task of responding to what they considered to be the distortion of modern science at the hands of some anti-religious philosophers, and produced a sizable discourse on modern science with all the fervor and confusion of their tumultuous times.5 As we shall see below, Afghani, inter alia, came to epitomize the mindset of his time when he based his historical apology against Renan on the assumption that there could be no clash between religion and science, be it traditional or modern, and that modern Western science was nothing other than the original true Islamic science shipped back, via the Renaissance and Enlightenment, to the Islamic world. By the same token, there is nothing essentially wrong with modern science, and it is the materialistic representation of science that lies at the heart of the so-called religion-science controversy.6 Namik Kemal joined Afghani with a rebuttal of his own in his Renan Mudafanamesi (The Defense against Renan), focusing, unlike Afhgani, on the scientific achievements of the Arabs, namely the Muslim countries of the past.7 In contrast to these Muslim intellectuals who sought to place modern science within the context of Islamic worldview, a number of prominent Christian writers in the Arab world including Jurji Zaydan (d. 1914), Shibli al-Shumayyil (d. 1916), Farah Antun (d. 1922) and Ya'qub Sarruf (d. 1927), begun to advocate the secular outlook of modern science as a way of joining the European path of modernization, hence taking primarily a philosophical and secular stance on the ongoing debate between religion and science.8
These two positions are still with us today as they continue to represent the ambitions as well as failures of the Islamic world in its elusive relation with modern science. Islamic countries spend billions of dollars every year for transfer of technology, science education and research programs. The goal set by the Ottomans in the 19th century has remained more or less the same: gaining power through technological advancement. Furthermore, the financial wedding between science and technology, begun with the industrial revolution, makes it ever harder to search for 'pure science', and the bottom line for the Muslim as well as the Western world becomes technology rather than science. The will of the Islamic countries to participate in the modernization process through transfer of technology obscures the philosophical dimension of the problem, leading to the kind of simplistic and reductionist thinking upon which we will touch shortly.
As for the intellectual challenge posed by modern science, it can hardly be said to have dwindled or disappeared in spite of the diminishing sway of positivism and its allies among the learned. There is a peculiar situation in the wake of the rise of new philosophies of science with new developments in scientific research, extending from the ousting of positivism and physical materialism to quantum mechanics and anti-realism. The postmodernist wave has shaken our confidence in science with consequences far beyond the scientific field, and many young Muslim students and intellectuals see no problem with adopting the relativist and anti-realist stances of a Kuhn or Feyerabend. The dike of modern science broken, it is assumed that religion and science can now begin talking to each other whereas the truth is that neither has a firm standing because both of them have been deprived of their truth-value by the anti-realist and relativist philosophies of our time. The popularity of the current discussions of philosophy of science in Muslim countries is indicative of the volatile nature of the subject as well as its long history among the Muslim intelligentsia.9
It would not be a stretch to say that the contemporary Islamic world is gripped by the challenges of these two divergent yet related points of view, which shape its perception of science in a number of fundamental ways. On the one hand, the governments and ruling elite of Islamic countries consider it to be of the highest priority to keep up with the global race of technological innovation from communications and medical engineering to weapon industry and satellite technology.10 Arguments to the contrary are seen as a call for resisting the irreversible process of modernization, or for backwardness, to say the least. On the other hand, it has become common wisdom that the consequences of the application of modern natural sciences to fields that have never been encroached upon before pose serious threats to the environment and human life. This is coupled with the threat of modern science becoming the pseudo-religion of the age, forcing religion to the margins of modern society, or at least making it a matter of personal choice and social ethics. This creates a bitter conflict of consciousness in the Muslim mind, a conflict between the sacred and the worldly power, between belief and scientific precision, and between seeing nature as the cosmic book of God and as a source of exploitation and domination.
When we look at the current discourse on science in the Islamic world, we see a number of competing trends and positions, each with its own claims and solutions. Without pretending to be exhaustive, they can be classified under three headings as ethical, epistemological and ontological/metaphysical views of science. The ethical/puritanical view of science, which is the most common attitude in the Islamic world, considers modern science as essentially neutral and objective, dealing with the book of nature as it is, with no philosophical or ideological components attached to it. Such problems as the environmental crisis, positivism, materialism, etc., all of which are related to modern science in one way or another, can be solved by adding an ethical dimension to the practice and teaching of science. The second position, which we may call the epistemological view, is concerned primarily with the epistemic status of modern physical sciences, their truth claims, methods of achieving sound knowledge, and function for the society at large. Taking science as a social construction, the epistemic school puts special emphasis on the history and sociology of science. Finally, the ontological/metaphysical view of science marks an interesting shift from the philosophy to the metaphysics of science, and its most important claim lies in its insistence on the analysis of the metaphysical and ontological foundations of modern physical sciences. As we shall see below, it is to this school, represented, inter alia, by such Muslim thinkers as Seyyid Hossein Nasr and Naquib al-Attas, that the concept of Islamic science goes back, a concept which has caused a great deal of discussion as well as confusion in Islamic intellectual circles.

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