Three Views of Science in the Islamic World



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The three views of science presented here testify to the vibrancy of the ongoing debate on science in the present world of Islam. Needless to say, there are many aspects to this debate, and many borderline cases and criss-crossings have to be admitted as part of the continuous struggle of the Muslim world to come to terms with the problem of science both in its traditional-Islamic and modern Western senses. It is nevertheless certain that the growing awareness of the Islamic world concerning its scientific tradition on the one hand, and the ways in which it tries to cope with the challenges of modern Western science on the other, are among the momentous events of the history of contemporary Islam. It remains to be seen what kind of interaction will play out between the three positions analyzed above. Be that as it may, the future course of science debate in the Islamic world is more than likely to be shaped by these positions with all of their ambitions and promises.



1 Among those who were sent to Europe as the reconnoiterer of the Islamic world was Yirmisekiz Mehmet Celebi (Chalabi). He arrived at Paris as the Ottoman ambassador in 1720 and became one of the first Ottomans to give a first-hand report of 'modern' Europe, especially France. When compared with the accounts of earlier Muslim travelers to Europe, such as that of Evliya Celebi, his reports and letters show in qn unequivocal way the psychology of the 18th century: a proud Muslim soul torn between the glory of his history and the mind-boggling advancement of the 'afranj', the infidels of Europe. Mehmet Celebi's reports published under the title of Sefaretname became a small genre of its own to be followed by later Ottoman envoys to Europe. His Sefaretname has also been translated into French by Julien Galland as Relation de l'embassade de Mehmet Effendi a la cour de France en 1721 ecrite par lui meme et traduit par Julien Galland (Constantinople and Paris, 1757). For a brief account on Mehmet Celebi in English, see Bernard Lewis, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1982), pp. 114-116.

2 See, among others, Bernard Lewis, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, pp. 221-238; and H. A. R. Gibb and Harold Bowen (eds.), Islamic Society and the West: A Study of the Impact of Western Civilization on Moslem Culture in the Near East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957), vol. I, parts I & II.

3 G. E. Von Grunebaum, Modern Islam: The Search for Cultural Identity (Connecticut; Greenwood Press, 1962), pp. 103-111.

4 Ataturk’un Soylev ve Demecleri (Ankara, 1952), II, 44, from a speech given in October 27, 1922; quoted in Von Grunebaum, ibid., p. 104.

5 Although the most celebrated responses to Renan belong to J. Afghani and N. Kemal, a number of other refutations have been written. The Turkish scholar Ducane Cundioglu lists twelve major refutations, ten of which are by Muslims, and the list comprises such names as Sayyid Amir Ali, Rashid Rida, Celal Nuri, Louis Massignon, and Muhammad Hamidullah. For an excellent survey of the subject, see his 'Ernest Renan ve 'Reddiyeler' Baglaminda Islam-Bilim Tartismalarina Bibliyografik Bir Katki', Divan, Vol. 2 (Istanbul, 1996), pp. 1-94.

6 The full text of Afhgani's rebuttal 'Refutation of the Materialists' is translated by Nikki R. Keddie, An Islamic Response to Imperialism, Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 130-174.

7 Namik Kemal’s Defense has been published in Turkish many times. For a brief account of his political thought in general and apology in particular, see Serif Mardin, The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought: A Study in the Modernization of Turkish Political Ideas (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000; originally published in 1962), pp. 283-336.

8 For the radical positivism of Shumayyil and Antun, see Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age: 1798-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 245-259; Hisham Sharabi, Arab Intellectuals and the West: The Formative Years 1875-1941 (Washington DC: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1970). See also Osman Bakar 'Muslim Intellectual Responses to Modern Science' in his Tawhid and Science: Essays on the History and Philosophy of Islamic Science (Kuala Lumpur: Secretariat for Islamic Philosophy and Science, 1991), pp. 205-207.

9 Turkey is a case in point. The growing literature on the philosophy of science in Turkish, with translations from European languages and indigenous contributions of Turkish scholars, is far beyond the other Islamic languages both in quality and quantity. Interestingly enough, the Muslim intellectuals have been more vocal in this debate, carrying the heritage of the Islamic sciences of nature into the very center of the current discourse on science. In addition to philosophical discussions, there is now a serious work done on the history of Islamic and especially Ottoman science, which was begun some years back under the direction of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, head of the department of the history of Ottoman science at the University of Istanbul.

10 See the remarks of Abdus Salam, the Nobel laureate and one of the famous scientists of the 20th century, Ideals and Realities: Selected Essays of Abdus Salam, ed. by C. H. Lai (Singapore: World Scientific, 1987).

11 Osman Amin, one of the prominent figures of Egyptian intellectual scene of the last century and perhaps the most outspoken vanguard of the 19th century Islamic modernism represented by Afghani, Abduh and Abd al-Raziq, interprets Abduh's vision of modern science as a veritable attempt to revive the traditional concept of knowledge ('ilm). He has the following to say: 'Islam has been accused of being hostile to the development of science and culture. For 'Abduh there is nothing more false than such hasty or partial judgments. In the search for truth, Islam prescribes reasons [sic.], condemns blind imitation and blames those who attach themselves without discernment to the habits and opinions of their forefathers. How then can Islam, based on the requirements of human nature and reason, and itself urging its faithful to seek and reason, to develop their knowledge and to perfect their understanding -- how can such a faith be incapable of satisfying the demands of science and culture? … Did not the Prophet of Islam say: 'Seek to learn science even though you have to find it in China.' … undoubtedly the religion which declared that 'the ink of a scholar is as precious as the blood of martyrs' cannot be accused of obscurantism in its essential nature.' Osman Amin, Lights on Contemporary Moslem Philosophy (The Renaissance Bookshop: Cairo, 1958), pp. 140-141; cf. also pp. 105-106.

12 Afghani's letter to Renan, published in Journal de Debats, May 18, 1883, translated in Kiddie, ibid., p. 183.

13 Afghani, 'Lecture on Teaching and Learning', in Keddie, ibid., p. 107.

14 Perhaps the most notable exception, albeit in a rather negative sense, was Sayyid Ahmad Khan who had called for the complete rejection of the traditional notions of nature under the name of 'new theology' (ilm-i kalam-i jadid). Afhgani was well aware of the perils of this point of view, and thus did not hesitate to include Ahmad Khan among the 'materialists', whom he called 'neicheri', namely the naturalists. For Afghani's response, see his 'The Materialists in India', al-'Urwat al-Wuthqa, August 28, 1884, translated in N. R. Keddie, ibid., pp. 175-180.

15 In one of his famous aphorisms, Nursi stresses the importance of the unity of the heart and reason for the future of humanity. But he qualifies reason (akil, aql in Arabic) as 'the sciences of modern civilization' (funun-u medeniye): 'The light of the heart (vicdan, wijdan in Arabic) are the religious sciences whereas the light of reason are the modern sciences. The truth emerges out of the blend of the two. When they are separated, the former causes dogmatism and the latter deception and suspicion.' Said Nursi, Munazarat (Istanbul: Tenvir Nesriyat, 1978), p. 81.

16 Nursi's works, especially the Sozler (Istanbul: Sinan Matbaasi, 1958), are replete with references to God as the Great or Absolute Artisan (sani-i mutlak) of the universe. It goes without saying that Nursi was not alone in approaching the deterministic and orderly universe of modern science from this peculiar point of view. In fact, this was a common attitude among the forerunners of what is called the 'scientific method of commenting upon the Qur'an' (al-tafsir al-'ilmi and/or al-tafsir al-fanni) such as Muhammad Abdu, Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Iskandarani, Sayyid Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, and Muhammad Abdullah Draz. Like Nursi, these figures were passionately engaged in reconciling the scientific findings of 19th century physical sciences with the cosmological verses of the Qur'an and, in some cases, the sayings (hadith) of the Prophet of Islam. For these figures and the concept of scientific commentary, see Ahmad Umar Abu Hijr, al-Tafsir al-'Ilmi li'l-Qur'an fi'l-Mizan (Beirut, 1991) and Muhammad Husayn al-Dhahabi, al-Tafsir wa'l-Mufassirun, 2 vols (Beirut, 1976).

17 Serif Mardin, Religion and Social Change in Turkey: The Case of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (New York: SUNY Press, 1989), p. 214. Mardin also makes interesting remarks concerning Nursi's ambivalent relation to Sufi cosmology represented especially by Ibn Arabi. Ibid., pp. 203-212.

18 Without exception, all of Nursi's followers appeal to the first view, rejecting any association with positivism. For a defense of this position, see, among others, Yamine B. Mermer, 'The Hermeneutical Dimension of Science: A Critical Analysis Based on Said Nursi's Risale-i Nur', The Muslim World, Special Issue: Said Nursi and the Turkish Experience, ed. by M. Hakan Yavuz, Vol. LXXXIX, Nos. 3-4 (July-October, 1999), pp. 270-296. Mermer's essay is also interesting for making a case for occasionalism on the basis of Nursi's views.

19 I am grateful to Drs. Ali Mermer and Yamine B. Mermer for drawing my attention to this incongruity, which should perhaps be emphasized more than I can afford here. I will be dealing with Nursi's position on science in full detail in a separate study.

20 The ambiguity, for want of a better term, of Nursi's position on modern science is illustrated by an interesting incident which Nursi narrates in his Kastamonu Lahikasi (Ankara: Dogus Matbaasi, 1958), p. 179. According to the story, a Naqshibandi darwish, a member of the Naqshibandiyyah order, has read a section of the Risale-i Nur on the meaning of 'ism-i Hakem (the Divine name of the Arbiter) dealing with sun and the solar system, and concluded that 'these works [i.e., the Risaleler] deal with scientific matters just like the scientists and cosmographers'. In response to this 'delusion' (vehim), Nursi has the same treatise read to him in his presence, upon which the darwish admits his misunderstanding. This incident is narrated by Nursi, we may presume, as a preemptive act to separate Nursi's 'scientific exegesis' from the method of modenr physical sciences.

21 Sozler (Istanbul: Sinan Matbaasi, 1958), p. 265, and Isharat al-i'jaz fi mazanni'l-ijaz (Istanbul, 1994), p. 311.

22 Sozler, p. 266.

23 Ibid., pp. 263; see also his Sikke-i Tasdik-i Gaybi (Istanbul: Sinan Matbaasi, 1958), p. 76.

24 Sozler, pp. 272-273; Isharat, p. 310.

25 Heidegger makes his case in two of his famous essays ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ and ‘The Age of the World Picture’. These essays have been published in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, Translated and with an Introduction by William Lowitt, (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1977). See also, in the same collection of essays, his ‘Science and Reflection’, pp. 155-182.

26 Charles Taylor puts it in the following way: ‘Is the expression which makes us human essentially a self-expression, in that we are mainly responding to our way of feeling/experiencing the world, and bringing this to expression? Or are we responding to the reality in which we are set, in which we are included of course, but which is not reducible to our experience of it?’ See Charles Taylor, Human Agency and Language: Philosophical Papers, vol. I., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 238.

27 Heidegger calls this ‘projection’, through which the world of nature is made the subject-matter of mathematico-physical sciences: ‘What is decisive for its development [viz., the development of mathematical physics] does not lie in its rather high esteem for the observation of 'facts', nor in its 'application' of mathematics in determining the character of normal processes; it lies rather in the way in which Nature herself is mathematically projected. In this projection, something constantly present-at-hand (matter) is uncovered beforehand, and the horizon is opened so that one may be guided by looking at those constitutive items in it, which are quantitatively determinable (motion, force, location, and time). Only 'in the light' of a Nature which has been projected in this fashion can anything like a 'fact' be found and set up for an experiment regulated and delimited in terms of this projection. The 'grounding' of 'factual science' was possible only because the researchers understood that in principle there are no 'bare facts'’. Being and Time, tr. by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978), pp. 413-4.

28 To illustrate the lure of postmodernism in the current debate, one may refer to Alan Sokal’s now famous hoax and its wholehearted incorporation by M. Zaki Kirmani, a member of the Aligarh school. Alan Sokal, a physicist and philosopher of science, published an article in Social Text 46/47 (Spring-Summer, 1996), pp. 217-52 titled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”. In the article, Sokal, using the recent findings and discussions in quantum physics, made a case for what is labeled as ‘postmodern science’, giving perhaps one of the most incredulous versions of postmodernist discourse on science. The article was published by Social Text in all seriousness. After the publication of the article, however, Sokal shocked the academic world by declaring that his article was a hoax and that its sole purpose was to expose what goes under the name of postmodernism. As expected, the Sokal hoax quickly became a hallmark of intellectual masquerading so rampant in academic circles today. In the wake of the publication of his article and the debate that ensued afterwards, Sokal made his overall case in Intellectual Impostures (London: Profile Books, 1998) authored with Jean Bricmont. Sokal’s famous article appears at the end of this book. Apparently not aware of the Sokal event, A. Z. Kirmani quotes the aforementioned article in earnest to make a case for postmodern science, which he then relates to Islamic science. For Kirmani’s views, see his “Islamic Science Debate: Entering the New Millennium”, Hamdard Islamicus Vol. XXIII, No. 4 (October-December, 2000), pp. 33-34.

29 See, Ismail R. al-Faruqi Islamization of Knowledge: General Principles and Work Plan (Washington DC: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1982). This book has been largely revised and expanded in its 1989 edition by a group of scholars associated with the International Institute of Islamic Thought.

30 Jamal Berzinji, one of the family members of IIIT, mentions the natural sciences only once (p. 28) in his informative article on Islamization of knowledge and IIIT’s role in its development. See his ‘History of Islamization of Knowledge and Contributions of the International Institute of Islamic Thought’ in Muslims and Islamization in North America: Problems & Prospects, ed. by Amber Haque (Maryland: Amana Publications, 1999), pp. 13-31.

31 For an informative analysis of Faruqi's work on Islamization, see Leif Stenberg, The Islamization of Science: Four Muslim Positions Developing an Islamic Modernity (Lund: Lund Studies in History of Religions, 1996), pp. 153-219.

32 For an exposition and defense of the views of these two groups, see A. Z. Kirmani, ibid., pp. 7-36.

33 Ziauddin Sardar, Explorations in Islamic Science, (London: Mansell Publishing Ltd., 1989), p. 155. This emphatic denial itself is quite telling for our discussion here.

34 Z. Sardar, Islamic Futures (London: Mansell Publishing Ltd., 1985), p. 157.

35 Nasr uses the word metaphysics as the all-inclusive science of the Divine Principle, which comprises both ontology and theology: 'If Being is envisaged as the principle of existence or of all that exists, then It cannot be identified with the Principle as such because the Principle is not exhausted by its creating aspect. Being is the first determination of the Supreme Principle in the direction of manifestation, and ontology remains only a part of metaphysics and is incomplete as long as it envisages the Principle only as Being in the sense defined.' Knowledge and the Sacred (New York: SUNY Press, 1989), p. 136.

36 Perhaps the most systematic and comprehensive exposition of this idea is to be found in Mulla Sadra's concept of nature (tabi'ah) and substantial movement (al-harakat al-jawhariyyah). See the section on natural philosophy (‘ilm al-tabi’ah) in his al-Hikmat al-muta’aliyah fi’l-asfar al-arba’at al-’aqliyyah, ed. by M. Rida al-Muzaffar, (Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1981), vol. 3, part. 1. Sadra’s work is also important for its highly articulated cosmology which is comparable only to that of Ibn al-‘Arabi.

37 For an analysis of such concepts as quality, quantity, unity, simplicity regularity, etc., from the traditional point of view, see Rene Guenon, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (London, 1953), especially, pp. 19-100.

38 S. H. Nasr, Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study (Kent: World of Islam Festival Publishing Company Ltd, 1976), pp. 3-9; and S. M. Naquib al-Attas, 'Islam and the Philosophy of Science' in his Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam: An Exposition of the Fundamental Elements of the Worldview of Islam (Kuala Lumpur: ISTAC, 1995), and Islam and Secularism (Kuala Lumpur: Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, 1978).

39 'Islamic science is that scientific activity which takes place ultimately within the Islamic worldview (which can now be identified also as the Islamic conceptual environment); but as an extension of it directly within the Islamic scientific conceptual scheme (which can be identified also as the Islamic context of sciences).' Alparslan Acikgenc, Islamic Science: Towards a Definition (Kuala Lumpur: ISTAC, 1996), p. 38.

40 S. H. Nasr, Science and Civilization in Islam (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992), p. 22.

41 Ibid., p. 24.

42 For Nasr's concept of philosophy, see his 'The Meaning and Concept of Philosophy in Islam' and 'the Qur'an and the Hadith as Source and Inspiration of Islamic Philosophy' in History of Islamic Philosophy, 2 vols, ed. by S. H. Nasr and O. Leaman (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 21-39.

43 This has been noted by many Western historians of science. See, for instance, Edwin Arthur Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1932) and Wolfgang Smith, Cosmos and Transcendence: Breaking Through the Barrier of Scientistic Belief (Illinois: Sherwood Sugden & Company, 1984). For the transformation of the concept of nature in the Western tradition, see R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), especially pp. 133-177. For a thorough study of the ongoing debate on the meaning of the Scientific Revolution, see H. Floris Cohen, The Scientific Revolution: A Historiographical Inquiry (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994). Cohen’s book has also a useful section (pp. 384-417) on Islamic science in relation to the Scientific Revolution.

44 Russell has provided one of the most elegant expressions of the secular outlook of modern physical sciences in his celebrated essay 'A Free Man's Worship'. See his Mysticism and Logic (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957), pp. 44-54. It would not be out of place to quote him here to underline the sharp contrast between the secular and traditional conceptions of science: 'Such in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins -- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.' Ibid., p. 45.

45 Nasr has given a full account of this process in his Religion and the Order of Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), which is a comprehensive and detailed sequel to his earlier work Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man (Chicago: ABC International, 1999). I have dealt with Nasr’s conception of science in greater detail in my 'The Sacred versus the Secular: Nasr on Science', The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ed. by L. E. Hahn, R. E. Auxier, and L. W. Stone, (Chicago: Open Court, 2001), pp. 445-462.



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