Today's date:
  Fall 2004

When Galileo Meets Allah

FARIDA FAOUZIA CHARFI is one of North Africa's most outspoken women scientists. She is professor at the Faculty of Sciences and the Institut Preparatoire aux Etudes Scientifiques in Tunis. She writes regularly in scientific journals on the optical and electronic properties of semiconductors and electromagnetism. In this essay, she asks why Islam fell into a civilizational slumber just as the West took off. This article appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of NPQ.

Tunis--Most Arab-Islamic countries are today passing through a serious political and cultural crisis. After the failure of Arab nationalism and the lost illusion of rapid economic and social development, a certain fringe of the population is seeking refuge through a return to the sacred.

For a traditional society to accept modernity is to accept the wrenching dislocations caused by any deep-seated and radical change. This wrenching experience may be bearable when it is the price to be paid for development. But, if development proves beyond reach, the whole deal goes sour. Since economic improvement has not arrived on time and as promised in the Arab-Islamic world, conservative traditionalists took advantage of this perceived betrayal to spread their fundamentalist ideology by force. The Iranian revolution or the coup of the Islamists in Sudan came about according to this dynamic. Elsewhere, the Islamists are also attempting to impose their religious order by violence.

The assassinations of intellectuals and foreigners in Egypt or Algeria, the numerous death sentences against writers--all stem from practices once believed to have faded into the past. These acts reveal that the fundamentalists are confined in a world that is foreign to modern man; they belie the claim of the fundamentalists that they belong to modernity, an illusion shared not only by their gullible supporters but also by some Western observers who cherish what they regard as the rediscovered authenticity of decolonized cultures.

In those countries where fundamentalism has taken hold among the youth in the universities, it is striking to observe that the fundamentalist students are in a majority in the scientific institutions. This situation astonishes Western observers because they tend to believe that a scientific mind is of necessity modern. At first glance, one would expect to find the majority of fundamentalists among jurists and men of letters since the humanities and social sciences, unlike the physical sciences, can provide a thread of continuity with the past.

This, however, is only an apparent paradox. The humanities, literature and philosophy allow a global view of problems in time, through the history of ideas, and in space, through the comparative study of different civilizations. As such, these disciplines encourage a certain open-mindedness. The exact sciences can, of course, ensure the same open-mindedness--but only if they are correctly taught and if they are not cut off from their theoretical content to the extent of being reduced to mere technique. It has been observed, furthermore, that fundamentalists are even more numerous in the engineering than the science faculties. They are, in other words, more users of the results of science than creators.

Contrary, then, to what one would expect, a scientific education does not equal modernization of the mind. And Islamists are not well adapted to modernity.

Indeed, traditionalists and Islamists resist assimilation because their aim is the opposite: to gain control of state power in order to "re-Islamicize" a society corrupted by Western values.

As Oliver Roy has insightfully noted, the Islamists do not recommend a "return" to what existed before, as do the fundamentalists in the strict sense of the term; rather they seek "a political reappropriation of society and modern technology." In short, Islamic fundamentalists want to govern society with ideas of the past and the technical means of modernity.

During a pre-election meeting in 1991, the Algerian fundamentalist leaders did not hesitate to use laser technology to inscribe on a cloud in the sky the sacred formula "Allah is Great" so as to let the crowd believe that they were conversing directly with God.

GALILEO MEETS ALLAH | At root, the Islamic fundamentalists do not accept the theoretical foundations of modern science. They reject the modern scientific culture from its very origins--when the Earth was first ejected from its central position in the cosmos.

Ptolemy's model, accepted for around 14 centuries in the entire Mediterranean basin, was first cleansed of fixed celestial spheres where stars were located, which, being obviously immutable, were a symbol of perfection and divinity. Copernicus reduced the Earth to a planet, a roving body with the same status as the other planets of the solar system. Around 1915, Shapley decentered the solar system by placing it toward the periphery of our galaxy. The sun for him was only one among the billions of stars that inhabit our galaxy, not the immutable face of God. Modern science in these ways demolished the system of privileged reference posited by religion.

Islamic society has not contributed to these conquests of knowledge. It has remained outside the research work that has been the basis of scientific modernity.

One form of reaction by Islamists to their absence from the momentous discoveries and redefinitions of modern science has been to over-emphasize the contribution of Arabs in the field of the sciences while expressing some reservations on the very real contribution of Westerners to scientific advancement. Thus, it will be insistently affirmed that the laws of optics stated by Descartes were entirely the fruit of the work done by Ibn al-Haytam.

It is certainly true that the mathematical sciences have progressed thanks to the Arabic contribution, but their contribution in the field of astronomy has been overestimated. They developed astronomical instruments and enriched the repertoire of astronomical observations.

For a modern scientist, though this contribution is not insignificant, it is not decisive. The fact is that Arabs have not put forward any new representations of the world; they have not begun to challenge Ptolemy's ancient model.

SELECTIVE MEMORY OF THE ISLAMISTS | What is extremely significant in this connection is that the fundamentalists do not lay claim to the whole of the Islamic heritage, in particular, the rationalist philosophy propounded by Ibn Rochd (12th century), who was called Averroes by the Latins. Ibn Rochd is known for his commentaries on the writings of Aristotle and for his philosophical work which contributed to the separation of faith and knowledge, religion and philosophy.

"Nothing proves better divine wisdom than the order of the cosmos," Ibn Rochd wrote. "The order of the cosmos can be proved by reason. To deny causality is to deny divine wisdom, for causality is a necessary relation. The only function of reason is to discover causality and that which denies causality denies reason and does not grasp science and knowledge." These words were set down in Ibn Rochd's famous work, "Self-destruction of Self-destruction," a reply to Ghazali's work (11th century) "Self-destruction of Philosophy."

By affirming that divine law requires the rational study of things and that there is, therefore, no contradiction between divine law and philosophy, Ibn Rochd offered an answer to the anti-rationalist views of Ghazali.

For Ghazali the world is not eternal. God has existed without the world and then along with the world. His will is free and unbounded. God is the exclusive cause of everything in this world. In "Self-destruction of Philosophy," Ghazali rejects all submission of nature to laws that would bind the will of God: "The cosmos is voluntary. It is the permanent creation of God and does not obey any norm....The first master is God and knowledge is transmitted by revelation in the first instance and then through the prophets..."

For Ghazali, the only knowledge there can be is that which stems from revelation: "...the principle of the natural sciences is to recognize that nature is in the service of the Omnipotent: It does not act of its own volition but is used in the service of its creator. It is in this way that the sun, moon, stars and the elements are subject to the divine order: nothing in them allows them to act spontaneously....Although unconnected to religion, mathematics are the basis of the other sciences. Therefore, he who studies them runs the risk of being infected by their vices. Few can deal with these calculations without succumbing to the danger of losing faith."

Ghazali's views are present in today's fundamentalist discourse. They refuse to admit that man has formulated a representation of the universe based in the discovery of fundamental physical laws. To confer such power on men is unacceptable to them.

For the fundamentalist, all the mysteries of nature are explained in the Koran. God governs nature, which cannot therefore be beyond His control by the autonomous functioning of physical laws. This view of Ghazali and of fundamentalists today was opposed by Ibn Rochd's conception: "The reason for their negation of natural causality arises from the fear of knowing the world to be born of a natural cause and yet, if they only knew that nature is created and that nothing better proves the existence of the Maker than the presence of this perfectly organized object..."

Ibn Rochd was persecuted for his views. He was condemned to silence. Many of his books were burned. Fortunately, his works were later rediscovered and translated into Hebrew and Latin in the West.

For centuries in the Muslim world, Ghazali's thought prevailed. Fundamentalists therefore prefer technology, which leaves little room for doubt, to science that incites one to reflection. Paradoxically, then, the writings of someone like Ibn Rochd that are more than 10 centuries old are more in conformity with the rational spirit of our times than the views that are held currently by our "scientific" Islamists.

At the outset of the 21st century it is difficult not to recognize the advances, for example, in physics or of biology. Islamists admit that which does not risk challenging the explanations given in religious texts. Out of the progress in biology, they are content to retain the consequences of the development of medicine; but the theory of the evolution of the species does not need to be taught. Out of the progress in physics, the remarkable development of the means of communication is willingly retained, but they are ill at ease with the finite value of the speed of light.

To partially accept fundamental laws of physics is to render the whole theory incoherent. The rational step is to propose another theory that is logically coherent; this requires an analysis of the principles that underlie theories and their relations and not a simple rejection of some of them. In order to undertake such work, an open mind that is free of all constraints is necessary.

To explore, understand, criticize, innovate, create without forbidding any question, without banning any field and giving the imagination free play--all this implies that one has freed oneself from all dogma. This is unfortunately not the case in the Islamic world where reference to the sacred is inevitable and where the most socially correct thing is to be in conformity with Islam rather than to believe in God.

SACRED ACTS OF INTOLERANCE | It is in the name of this unavoidable reference to the sacred that scientific knowledge is mutilated. But it is also in the name of this unavoidable reference to the sacred that freedom of expression and imagination is restricted to the extent of condemning authors to death.

It is in the name of the sacred that in June 1992, Egyptian militants assassinated Faraj Fouda, a writer whom they considered an apostate. It was in the name of God that the fundamentalists launched the campaign against a university professor, Nasr Hamed Abou Zeid, also accused of apostasy, to force a separation from his wife. Such acts reveal for all to see how fundamentalism lowers intelligence to the level of emotional and visceral reflexes.

This irrational step constitutes an important curb on the cultural and scientific development of Islamic countries where scientific thought is in many ways less free than it was during certain periods of the Middle Ages. It was in Christian Europe from the 13th century onward that modern thought was developed. It allowed the passage from the holy text to the text that is interpreted, evolved, thus leaving room for reason.

It has been pointed out in comparative studies of Islam and Christianity that the point of arrival of the former was the point of departure for the latter. The history of opening up in Christianity was the history of closing down in Islam.

It is time again for the rehabilitation of Ibn Rochd in order to open up Islam just as the rehabilitation of Galileo contributed in a significant way to the development of modern scientific thought. If Islam cannot manage in this era to separate knowledge from belief, it will find itself further and further separated from the rest of the world.