Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Review: Taner Edis "An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam"

This explicitly non-Muslim author examines the attempts contemporary Muslims are making in scientific fields. While these attempts have similarities to Western religious communities' attempts at science, the continued strength of Muslims' attachment to their religious texts and the limitations those Muslims have placed on scientific inquiry of those Muslims who disregard religious texts in the course of scientific inquiry have retarded true scientific progress in predominantly Muslim countries.

I believe Muslims can benefit from reading this book, and I agree with many of the points Dr. Edis makes. At the end of the review I'll in sha Allah suggest some different emphases I'd place.

I personally think the main reason for the phenomena Dr. Edis criticizes is the place of Muslim countries on the periphery of the world economic system. Dr. Edis mentions this as a worthy line of inquiry, but, and I can't blame him, restricts himself to "a narrower set of questions concerning Muslim thinking about science and religion." This topic is interesting in-and-of itself, but the fact that it took place for the most part in Europe caused Muslims to argue that "friction between science and relgion is an artifact of the authoritarian church structure of medieval Christianity." (p. 25)

Muslims point to scientific advances in Muslim-ruled lands in the "golden-age" of Islam to claim that Islam and science are compatible. While this can be useful propaganda for nationalistic narratives, Dr. Edis writes:

And the main problem with such myths is that they obscure the radical differences between modern and medieval science. Medieval Muslims may have enjoyed the most advanced knowledge about nature in their time, but they did not do science in the modern sense. The most noticeable difference is, naturally, how religion pervades the medieval Muslim conception of reality; other areas of knowledge were never independent of religion to begin with. Concepts like God, divine purpose, design, and morality were integral to the whole enterprise of acquiring and interpreting knowledge, whether it was in medicine or astronomy. (pp. 46-7)
In other words, real science is not taking place if there's a possibility for God jalla jalaalu to intervene. Most Muslim philosophers and orthodox thinkers advocated varieties of occasionalism, the belief that "God creates the world anew and decides the motion of of its constituent atoms in each moment." (p. 51)

The important thing the author wants Muslims who want modern science to understand is that it is:

new and different, that it has significant discontinuenties with medieval thinking of all sorts. Europeans stumbled upon modern science by a series of accidents; it was not an inevitable outgrowth of their past religious culture. They got lucky. So instead of reclaiming past glories, Muslims can think of claiming a part in a scientific enterprise open to all comers. (p. 57)
Of course, some Muslims, pointing to the shrinking space for religion in European countries, might not think Europeans were so lucky, and Dr. Edis mentions this in the concluding chapter. Also, I think students of world-systems theory may question if scientific enterprise is "open to all comers."

Chapter 3, "Finding Science in the Quran", criticizes Muslims who attempt to reconcile passages of the Quran with scientific findings. Most of the discussion concerns the movement identifying with Said Nursi in the author's native country of Turkey. Said Nursi's followers

put even more emphasis on showing how scientific discoveries were anticipated in the Quran. If a book revealed fourteen centuries ago not only made no scientific mistakes but also contained knowledge not discovered until recently, then it clearly must have a divine author. (p. 93)
Similar developments took place in other Muslim countries. Muslims especially gravitated to Westerners such as Maurice Bucaille and Keith L. Moore who published books and papers comparing passages in the Quran to the conclusions of contemporary science.

Dr. Edis writes "It does not take much medical knowledge to see that Bucaille and Moore's procedure consists of reading modern medical details into some very vague and general statements in the Quran. Moreover, they overlook much more plausible ways of understanding these statements." (p. 96) Regarding the phrase in the Quran "seven heavens", Dr. Edis argues that "religious texts preserve fragments of ancient cosmologies rather than prophesy modern scientific developments." (p.99)

I have three comments related to this issue:

  1. If a "Westerner" says something we Muslims believe we can turn into propaganda, we should be really cautious and make sure that "Westerner" is authoritative. Let us avoid what Egyptians call `uqdat al-khawaaga.'
  2. I've never heard of an American becoming a Muslim because of the "scientific miracle" of the Quran. In fact, personal relationships, and ultimately God's guidance and grace, are really the only things I've heard Muslim reverts/converts talk about.
  3. It's not easy to combine knowledge of Quran interpretation and leading edge science. The more sophisticated discussions of "embryology" in the Qur'an rely on Arabic lexicographies, hadith literature and exegesis, not simply Yusuf Ali's translation of the Quran into English. And I don't expect leading physicists and medical researchers to spend years on these topics. Similarly, I would hardly expect or encourage a Muslim religious scholar to take years to learn theoretical physics. So, those who claim that the Quran describes physical reality and hence is Divine and those who claim that the Quran's description of physical reality is inaccurate and hence is of human origin are both likely overstepping their areas of expertise. Also, both camps would need to be intellectual historians to determine how prevelant the ideas were in southwest Asia at the time of revelation of Quran.
So I am in general agreement with Dr. Edis that we Muslims should drop this type of apologetic. At the same time, I read in the 16th chapter of the Quran (Yusuf Ali's translation):
16:5 And cattle He has created for you (men): from them ye derive warmth, and numerous benefits, and of their (meat) ye eat.
16:6 And ye have a sense of pride and beauty in them as ye drive them home in the evening, and as ye lead them forth to pasture in the morning.
16:7 And they carry your heavy loads to lands that ye could not (otherwise) reach except with souls distressed: for your Lord is indeed Most Kind, Most Merciful,
16:8 And (He has created) horses, mules, and donkeys, for you to ride and use for show; and He has created (other) things of which ye have no knowledge.
I then think about small boys on foot in Nigeria with thin sticks driving along herds of cows. Should not we humans be grateful to God jall jalaalu for allowing use of creatures much more powerful physically than us? Now I know that archaeologists can trace the domestication of these animals, and I know that if you know what you're doing, you can reproduce the training of animals. So you don't need God to explain livestock. But gratefulness to God is still what I think about when hearing these passages.

Chapter 4 is Dr. Enis's review of Muslims' responses to the biological theory of evolution. I've long ago become fearful of the popularity of the writings attributed to Harun Yahya on this topic. My main concern is that American Muslims who have grown up with this poor science will learn in their 2nd biology class in college that we adults were giving them incorrect information, and then they will assume that the other things we teach them are incorrect as well. So this chapter is in general a detailed case study of one important theory in the model of the issues raised in chapter 3. One particularly upsetting phenomenon is the exchange between North American and Muslim creationists.

One interesting remark in this chapter concerns the Egyptian author Abdul Sabbur Chahine, who "wrote a book arguing that Adam was preceded by other prehuman creatures who had evolved to reach a human shape, trying to reconcile science and religion by adopting a new interpretation of the relevant verses in the Quran. His work led to a huge public outcry and charges of apostasy." (p. 142)

A more serious point Dr. Edis makes in this chapter is how contemporary Muslims use the concept of fitra or fitrah, combined with snippets of pseudo-biology, to support fiqh positions. "... [S]ince nature embodies a moral order, violating natural boundaries in matters of sexuality is also a moral pervision. By reaffirming creation in the face of fluidity and variation inherent in modern biological understandings of life, [Harun] Yahya defends social boundaries inscribed into nature." [p. 146]

Chapter 5, "Redeeming the Human Sciences," notes the paucity of productive social science research coming from people promoting "Islamic" orientations. Of interest is the use of critique-of-power postmodernism in the works of Michel Foucalt and Edward Said by proponents of "Islamization" of the social sciences without applying postmodernist irony to the religious sciences.

I personally am very much in agreement with the critique-of-power postmodernist strain, and I have used Edward Said extensively in my college papers (sadly, unpublished). Furthermore, I believe that important movements among historians such as Afrocentrism and world-systems theory have made important contributions. But the strengths of these movements in historical research are as a counter-balance to Eurocentrism and an emphasis on the voices and actions of non-Europeans. Islamizationists have yet to show how the use of religious texts adds to historical and sociological studies.

Dr. Edis in chapters 6 & 7, "A Liberal Faith?" and "Science at Arm's Length", backs up from the details of the attitudes of contemporary Muslims towards science and tries to imagine potential developments:

In the West, science and religion conflicted, cooperated, and generally muddled through to get to a point where even when they disagree today, respectable people do not make a great fuss about it. It might appear that the Muslim world could take a painless shortcut-adopt a liberal position that shies away from interfering with science. But this is not so easy. The very awareness by Muslims of how science and Christianity have developed together changes the Muslim response. [p. 225]
This is a point that I wish the neoconservatives and others who want to "reform" the Muslims would grasp. Aside from the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in Dr. Edis's quote above, and of course non-Muslims' observations of Muslims impacts the situation as well, the processes in Europe occurred over five centuries and more. Most Muslim nations have only been aware of "science" for between 100 and 200 years. And how committed is the United States to science when it conflicts with its religion/ideology of neoliberalism, in the light of the climate change issue, for exampe?

One day I'm planning to write a piece describing religion, particularly Islam, in science fiction. The authors I intend to profile are Kim Stanley Robinson, Frank Herbert, David Brin and Orson Scott Card. One of the themes I intend to explore is scientist as policy maker and ruler. Robinson, in the Mars and Capitol trilogies, particularly emphasizes the suitability of scientists' involvement in policy. While I think Robinson exaggerates the heroism of some of his characters, in particular the protagonist of the Capitol trilogy, who climbs mountains, befriends the homeless, eschews housing with camping equipment in the park, plays spy, studies Emerson and Thoreau, advances science and advocates successfully for climate change amelioration and prevention policies, considering the tremendous ecological challenges we humans face, we need different policy perspectives than the current economic elites who dominate in both the developed and undeveloped countries. For this reason alone, we Muslims need to create room for scientists to do their work.

The other problem I think Dr. Edis's book illustrates (although he does not specifically mention this) is the substitution among some Muslims of rhetorical beauty or cohesion for what I would call "reality." I was eating lunch one day at a Pakistani restaurant in Indianapolis, IN which had the satellite channel al-Jazeera on. A panel was discussing the United States's army's uncovering of mass graves in Iraq in 2003. The panelists were discussing the United States's motives for discussing the mass graves and analyzing media coverage. Yet nobody talked about the fact that thousands of people were killed so quickly or extra-judiciously such that they could not even be buried properly. A similar situation exists in Muslims' lack of reaction to the crisis in Dar Fur. We're more worried about concepts such as colonialism and fairness and bias than the murder of hundreds of thousands, rape as a war tactic, scorched-earth policies and millions of refugees in Sudan and Chad. I think a healthier attitude towards science would lead, in the United States and predominantly Muslim countries, towards more humane policies.

Hardcover: 265 pages
Publisher: Prometheus Books (February 27, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1591024498
ISBN-13: 978-1591024491
Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.1 x 0.9 inches

Related Resources
Link to an interview with Abdul Sabbur Chahine. Link to an article refuting Abdul Sabbur Chahine's views. The source Dr. Edis used for this topic is pp. 262-4 in Raymond William Baker's Islam without Fear: Egypt and the New Islamists (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003). Another article: http://www.naralkira.com/ My quick glance at these documents seemed to indicate that Abdul Sabbur did not base his claims on biologists' studies, but rather exegesis. More later if I get a chance to review this material. The interview did say Abdul Sabbur was found innocent of the charges brought against him.


Ayman H Fadel said...

Artice in NYT about conference on Darwin's ideas in Alexandria, Egypt.

Ayman H Fadel said...

Knowledge regained

In contrast to their forebears, modern Muslims have a childlike view of science, especially evolution. This needs to change

Editorial in The Guardian by Usama Hasan