Islam and Scientific Fundamentalism
Munawar Ahmad Anees has been a prominent figure on
the Asian Muslim intellectual scene for many years. He was editor of Islamica
Periodica until his arrest linked to the trial of his associate, Malaysian
Deputy Prime Minster Anwar Ibrahim. Though Ibrahim is still in jail, Munawar
lives in exile in the United States.
His provocative 1989 book, Islam and Biological Futures, explores questions
of ethics and rights, in the Islamic context, raised by abortion, artificial
insemination and surrogate motherhood.
Kuala Lumpur-A crisis of knowledge of immense
proportions overwhelms the contemporary Muslim civilization: The erstwhile
Civilization of the Book is humbled today under the intellectual thatch
of the West. This is an indictment made, paradoxically, in good faith!
Faith, and not science, was the quintessence of the nascent Muslim civilization.
The inspiration for the grand synthesis of the seventh century was embodied
in the very first command of the Koran: Read (iqra). For the next five
centuries this and some 800 Koranic exhortations on knowledge ('ilm) remained
the prime movers behind the triumph of the Muslim intellect. Certainly,
the dichotomy of Revelation and reason which, to the arch secularist Ernest
Renan, was "the heaviest chain that humanity has ever borne,"
On the contrary, the creative Muslim impulse spread its liberating influence
far and wide: It fueled the engine of the European Renaissance. Spain,
the then Muslim land closest to mainland Europe, became the bedrock of
large-scale knowledge transfer as opposed to today's controversial and
shallow-by-content technology transfer.
The floodgates of knowledge unlocked in Muslim Spain left their lasting
imprints on every conceivable domain of the Western society. Even the
Christian Scholastic Theology was not immune to this cognitive seduction.
Indeed, no palpable synthesis was possible without the 13th-century rediscovery
of Muslim Aristotelian scholarship, as exemplified by Ibu Sina (Avicenna)
and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Ironically, coming on the eve of the Columbian
triumph, Marilyn Waldman's summation on the Muslims in Spain in The Christopher
Columbus Encyclopedia is instructive of the past glory:
"Even in defeat, Muslim culture continued to exert its influence,
as in Charles V's Renaissance palace in the Alhambra and the cathedral
in the middle of the Great Mosque at Cordoba. Muslim culture, as absorbed
by Spanish Christians, also indirectly influenced the New World in the
form of family honor codes, home design and the plateresque style of architecture.
Romance and Spanish have been filled with Arabic loanwords, be they chemical,
culinary, agricultural, technological, social or scientific. Muslims introduced
new crops, such as sugar cane, rice, cotton, and a number of fruits. Their
wind-tower technology still heats and cools some Spanish homes, and their
irrigation technologies still water some Spanish fields."
Coincidentally, for a Muslim witnessing the celebration of the Columbian
myth while writing from a Muslim land (Malay Peninsula) that once posed
a challenge to the expansionary aims of the Spanish explorers, history
seems to have come full circle "between the geographical extremities
of Islamic power."
Given the historical context, and contrary to Francis Fukuyama's assertion,
across vast stretches of the Muslim lands neither has history come to
an end nor has the last man (or, for that matter, woman) made an appearance.
The heroic image of science that unleashed in the West a relentless quest
for domination and control of nature never took root in the Muslim psyche.
If not for a nostalgic voyage but for the call of justice, it is imperative
that Muslim cognitive evolution (and devolution) be examined in an historical
The historicity of our discourse is important, due mainly to the diametrically
opposite Islamic and Western claims to epistemology, or the grounds of
knowledge. For Islam, the spiritual and the temporal are the two sides
of the same coin. Little wonder, no Muslim "Pope" (there is
no ordained clergy in Islam) ever found an occasion to tender an apology
The concept of immanent unicity (tawhid)-which rightly has its Western
and Muslim critics because of the Muslim failure in formulating intellectually
and socially viable political and power arrangements-is at the heart of
Muslim epistemology as well. In theory, and to some extent practice, while
religion and science are two different epistemic categories in the Western
mind, they are, in the Muslim eye, parts of a continuum complementing
The professed claim of Western science is that of doubt. Yet, the tyranny
of the scientific method ossifies the same doubt into a "faith"
or a truth-claim. The postmodernist rejection of truth as an Enlightenment
value goes beyond that and equates it with a power claim. Conversely,
faith constitutes the genesis of quest for knowledge in Islam!
In this respect, those who debate the issues of religion and science without
regard to the essential nature of Islamic epistemology are likely to expose
their naivete. Our narrative on the Spanish Muslim science notwithstanding,
the acculturation of science in other Muslim lands-the accomplishment
by the 14th-century Syrian astronomer Iba ash-Shatir is a case in point-defies
the proclaimed rancor between religion and science. Similarly, disputations
and discourses between the "fatalistic" Ash 'arites and the
"rationalist" Mu 'tazilites give credence to Muslim intellectual
DARK PRESENT | Back to the present. Muslims today are at the receiving
end of Western domination. As an Ummah (the global Muslim community),
they are living through the darkest hour of their history-the genocide
in Bosnia, dispossession in Palestine, brutality in Kashmir, denial of
freedom in the land of Moros. This reminds us of an akin term, Moors,
the Spanish pejorative for Muslims, abject poverty in Muslim Africa and
political repression across Muslim lands (from Algiers to Baghdad to Cairo).
Whether these are a function of the colonial past or a systematic Western
exploitation of the Other in the Muslim world is subject to differing
interpretations. Without acquiescing to the vagaries of postmodernism
on political power, it is the crisis of knowledge that has thrown the
Ummah into an abyss. No exotic claims about alien intervention can absolve
Muslims of their intellectual docility.
The confusion in today's Muslim world about epistemological intricacies
of religion and science is evident at different levels. First there are
those who, oblivious of the internal critique of Western science-inclusive
of anti-reductionism and feminist radicalism-cling to the alleged value
neutrality of knowledge generation. For them, a paradigm shift is yet
to be born.
We have, for instance, little hesitation in attending to the call of the
first Pakistani Nobel Laureate physicist Muhammad Abdus Salam for fortifying
Muslim capabilities in science and technology.
But, somehow, the psychedelic images of elementary particles bouncing
through the Superconducting Supercollider seem to erect for him new boundaries
between religion and science. While he relentlessly pursues the cause
of science and technology, he stops short of reconciling his professed
Islamic concept of knowledge with modern science and technology. This
in spite of his Nobel colleague Steven Weinberg's extravagant claim that
physics can act as a moral and cultural force! An exorcism, unified theory
style? Is it any different from the affirmed religious orthodoxy?
Second, there are those who keep no secret of the loss of their intellectual
identity in applying a reverse logic to the Koran. For them, the normative
Book of Guidance is suddenly transformed into a handbook of science and
technology. In their zeal to "prove" the eternal truth of the
Koran they are light years ahead of the book-burning, book-bashing creationists
of the Southern Baptist United States.
According to their debased ingenuity we are delivered from the burden
of studying hard-core science and technology, for all is given in the
Koran. From the mysteries of biological reproduction to the morphology
of mountains to the nature of intergalactic realm there is nothing for
which they do not have a one-to-one Koranic equivalent. Furthermore, one
Pakistani scientist (indeed, this imaginative power is not a monopoly
of the so-called orthodox) would be happy to enlighten you on how to calculate
per-capita spiritual activity. Anyone?
A variation on the same theme but purportedly salvaging the Muslim intellect
from suffocating in the secularist void is the so-called Islamization
of knowledge. In its conceptual allegiance to Western science and technology
it is no different from that of Muhammad Abdus Salam: It takes the value
neutrality of knowledge as a monolith and spins an aura of Islamic terms
and ideas around the corpus of substantive knowledge. Lest there be an
accusation of harsh criticism, we should say their success in elucidating
some aspects of Islamic economics deserves commendation. At the same time
it serves to expose internal contradictions of the very idea by showing
that any Islamization must address the crucial issue of values.
ISLAMIC EPISTEMOLOGY | Given the infectious spread of scientific
fundamentalism in its mutated but banal forms, what prospects are there
for a genuine Islamic epistemology? Is the idea of "Islamic science"
feasible in our times? In the words of one of the celebrated contemporary
Muslim scholars, Syed Muhammad Naquib al-'Attas, this proposition carries
a ring of certainty: "Belief has cognitive content; and one of the
main points of divergence between true religion and secular philosophy
and science is the way in which the sources and methods of knowledge are
This statement has profound implications for Islamic science for it identifies
three major epistemic categories. First, it brings belief into the cognitive
domain as opposed to scientific liberalism which makes the repudiation
of belief a prerequisite to the discourse. Second, in searching for its
source, it is neither reductionist nor determinist. Instead, it accords
due recognition to the "nature of phenomena" and "empirical
reality." Lastly, it settles for a method which is an extension of
Islamic metaphysics by stating that "knowledge is limitless because
the objects of knowledge are without limit."
In essence, the challenge of post-scientific society is that of reasserting
a spiritual identity. Cultural relativism and plurality as vindicated
by postmodernism put an even higher premium on soul-searching by Muslims.
The answer lies not in holding fast to the paling phantom of scientific
fundamentalism but carving new cognitive niches without losing touch with