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Islam and Science: A Comment

A response to Irfan Habib's article, "Modern Science and Islamic Essentialism" (6 September 2008).


Islam and Science: A Comment
which has also been taken by quite a few Muslim critics to imply moral relativism and quantum mechanical uncertainty as an unacceptable limitation on the power Anand Chandavarkar of Allah. While the teaching of the Dar-

A response to Irfan Habib’s article, “Modern Science and Islamic Essentialism” (6 September 2008).

I thank, with the usual disclaimer, Deena Khatkhate for useful comments.

Anand Chandavarkar (anandchand@, based in Washington, has been a commentator in EPW for decades and has written often on philosophy and economic thought.

n his thought-provoking article (EPW, 6 September 2008) Irfan Habib has argued how a literalist interpretation of the Quran and the Hadith has led to obscurantism and hampered original and eclectic scientific research in Muslim countries. Generally, his analysis, how ever, r aises several significant issues, which need to be addressed in order to give a more comprehensive and yet b alanced overview of this very important theme.

To begin with, any such discussion has to hark back logically and historically, to the basic Islamic doctrine of jahiliyah which strictly denotes the age of ignorance before the advent of Islam (622 AD) to the extent of even repudiating the seminal knowledge of the Greeks (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid et al) and the Romans (Justinian, Virgil et al). Subsequently, with the spread of Islam this doctrine has been extended to mean an interdiction of non-Islamic knowledge. This has often led to barbarous aberrations like the destruction of the ancient Indian universities of Nalanda, Uddantapura and Vikramashila – older than Oxbridge and the Sorbonne – by Bakhtiyar Khilji and other Muslim r ulers, or the torching of the Alexandria library in Egypt, a priceless repository of Hellenic learning, by Caliph Omar, invoking the classic dilemma of deductive logic: “If it is not in the Quran it is dangerous; if it is in the Quran it is unnecessary.”

An authoritative Pakistani scientist, Pervez Hoodbhoy (1995) has noted how Muslim orthodoxy (jahiliyah in another guise) has made obscurantist changes in the science syllabus of sunni Muslim countries. These include some or all of the f ollowing: introduction of all scientific facts with reference to Allah; dilution of concept of causality to accommodate the divine will: rewriting of all science books by authors of sound Islamic beliefs; r emoval of non-Muslim names associated with specific laws of physics (e g, Boyle’s Law or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity) winian theory of evolution is allowed in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, it was removed from the syllabus in Pakistan during the regime of Zia-ul-Haq and is expressly forbidden in Saudi Arabia and the Sudan. Significantly, the Shia Iranian clergy has allowed science syllabus in schools to maintain its secular character, which has paid ample dividends judging from the success of Iran’s nuclear power though it has not prevented the persecution of and exodus of prominent academics like Ramin Jahanbegloo, a leading sociologist (Barone 2008: 41).

It is no coincidence that Tunisia, the closest approximation in the Arab and Muslim world to the separation of mosque and State, has also the most modernistic science syllabus in the Islamic world in stark contrast to Egypt, supposedly the most advanced Arab country, where even the most western-oriented scientist at some point or other declares himself a good Muslim like the geologist El-Naggar who in his T reasures of the Sunnah tries to show that the Quran anticipated modern science (Pitock 2008: 36). It is estimated that nations of the Organisation of Islamic Conference spend only about 0.34% of their GDP on research and development compared with a global average of 2.36%. At the same time, Oman, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen each devoted more than 7% of GDP to arms. According to the scientific citations index even the most advanced Muslim countries like Egypt and Turkey are well below I srael and India (Hoodbhoy 1995: 15).

The tragic predicament of Abdus Salam, the Pakistani physics Nobel laureate (1979) is a cautionary tale illustrative of the hurdles faced by scientists in Muslim countries. Salam, despite being the most articulate and effective proponent of M uslim scientific development and the founder director of the International C entre for Theoretical Physics, Trieste, Italy, has had to leave Pakistan when his Ahmadiyah sect was officially excommunicated by

december 6, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly


an act of the Pakistan parliament in 1974. Less known is the fact that the S audi Arabian authorities had also declared his fundamental work that unified the weak and electromagnetic interactions, along with Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow, as being subversive of the shariah!

The humanistic sciences and the arts in Muslim countries have fared no better. For instance, Pakistan’s pre-Islamic archaeological heritage too is being systematically destroyed by lack of political will and ignorance. The last remaining Buddha of Swat, a seven metre high 1,300 years old carving, was dynamited in November 2007 by radical Islamists. The main site of Buddhist art at Chilas has been defaced by political graffiti. As Martin Benman of the Hiedelberg Academy said: “History for the average Pakistani begins in 1947” (Alice Albinia 2008: 42). No wonder that Mortimer Wheeler, the first director of archaeology in Pakistan, exclaimed in despair: “Archaeology is more of a vendetta than a science.”

Irfan Habib asks: “how long will the global Muslim community (ummah) continue to suffer after the closure of the gates of reasoned argument (ijtihad) a millennium ago,” but in common with other Islamic scholars like Bernard Lewis, Akbar Ahmed and Wael Hallaq (1984), does not pause to offer any explanations why such a constructive doctrine has lapsed into unmerited oblivion. This warrants close analysis. While in general i jtihad denotes the utmost endeavour, physical or mental, expended in a particular activity, in practice Islamic scholars have tended to restrict it narrowly to the jurist’s mental faculty in reaching a legal ruling that is inferential and thus probable. Since all aspects of life are regulated by the shariah, ijtihad too must be commensurate with the obligation and need to discuss the law. But can ijtihad be legitimately extended to cover any lacunae in the Quran and Sharia like the exegesis of the Bible and the Torah? This is the critical question which Islamic scholars do not seem to have really addressed. One explanation is that consensus on ijtihad has been thwarted by the continued existence of renowned mujtahids up to the 10/16th century, the Muslim practice of choosing a mujtahid at the turn of each century; and the opposition of the Hanbali and Shafi jurists which also weakened the coalition of Hanafis and Malikils (Hallaq 1984: 34). While Hallaq has substantiated the continuity of ijtehad he still fails to explain why this has been narrowly confined to legal theory and not extended to all branches of knowledge.

The advancement of knowledge depends fundamentally on the degree to which any society is closed or open to invoke the classic dichotomy of Karl P opper (1945) insofar as science is a matter of transparency and peer review in regard to the formulation of conjecture, theory, testable hypotheses and proof. Pluralism is the essence of a self-critical open society. It is no accident that the apogee of Islamic science and knowledge was reached in Moorish Spain which was not hag-ridden by Islamic orthodoxy and satisfied the criteria of an open society to the extent possible in medieval times.

The prospects of progressive Islam conducive to scientific advancement in the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere are not too reassuring judging by the triumph of the fundamentalist Deoband model over the modernist Aligarh model of Syed Ahmed (Ahmed 2007), and the rejection of the secular philosophy of the Egyptian savant, Taha Husayn. Science can flourish only in a secular democracy which is precluded by the Islamic doctrine of the unity of religion (Deen) and state (D’Wala). Today even the so-called Muslim democracies like Malaysia and Turkey are not really secular. The Malaysian constitution specifies that “Islam is the religion of the federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony…and the head of the state, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is also head of religion of the state” Article 3 (1) (emphasis provided). The much touted Turkish secular state is seen on closer analysis to have a strong substraction of sunni Islam disguised as Kemalism and unredeemed by the p eriodic genocide of Christian Greeks and Armenians (Anderson 2008).

The overriding challenge for Islamic society is whether it has the will and capacity to respond to the clarion call of Abdus Salam to separate religion and s cience when they are unable to separate religion and state. Only an endogenous Islamic Enlightenment is the answer. To promote science in Muslim countries, Islamic society has to come to terms with modernity. The Turkish physicist, Taner Edis, of Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, has presented a balanced survey and agenda in his four books on science and faith, including An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam (Prometheus 2007). Meanwhile, we are all indebted to Irfan Habib for his catalytic role in this momentous debate.


Ahmed, Akbar (2007): Journey into Islam: the Crisis of Globalisation (Washington DC: Brookings I nstitution Press).

Albinia, Alice (2008): “In Deep Water”, New Statesman, September, p 42.

Anderson, Perry (2008): “After the Ottomans”, 11 September, pp 3-12; “After Kemal”, 25 September, pp 13-22, London Review of Books, Vol 30, Nos 17 and 18.

Barone, Jennifer (2008): “At War with Science in Iran”, Discover, July, p 41.

Hallaq, Wael B (1984): “Was the Gate of Ijtihad Closed”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 16: pp 3-41.

Hoodbhoy, Pervez (1995): “Science” in Vol 4 in John L Esposito, Editor in Chief, Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World (New York: Oxford University Press).

Popper, Karl (1945): The Open Society and Its Enemies (London: Routledge Kegan Paul).

Pitock, Todd (2008): “Science and Islam”, Discover, July, pp 36-45.

For the Attention of Subscribers and Subscription Agencies Outside India It has come to our notice that a large number of subscriptions to the EPW from outside the country together with the subscription payments sent to supposed subscription agents in India have not been forwarded to us. We wish to point out to subscribers and subscription agencies outside India that all foreign subscriptions, together with the appropriate remittances, must be forwarded to us and not to unauthorised third parties in India. We take no responsibility whatsoever in respect of subscriptions not registered with us. MANAGER

Economic & Political Weekly

december 6, 2008

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