Can there be an Islamic Science?

Jihad or Ijtihad
Religious Orthodoxy and modern Science in contemporary Islam
S. Irfan Habib
HarperCollins Publishers India
Rs. 299, 190 pages.
Reviewed by Maqbool Ahmed Siraj


Last three decades were the decades of rise of political Islam. Taking their cue from the Iranian revolution, Islamists came up with theories of Islamic banking, Islamic journalism, Islamic sciences, quite oblivious of the deleterious impact of sectarianism, these would introduce into the knowledge stream.
Evidently, much of these stemmed as a result of—rather than a response to—the frustration with the callous governments and cynicism regarding the future. True, there was need to question the Eurocentrism of modern science, but the new trend was to replace it with Islamcentrism, a folly that has led to utterly laughable ideas emerging from such centres, several of which were fuelled with Saudi petrodollars. Projects like ‘Scientific Miracles in the Quran’ practically discovered everything from Relativity to Quantum Mechanics and from Big Bang to Embryology in the Holy Quran.
Author Prof. Irfan Habib, the noted historian from Aligarh, questions if there is a need for Islamically validated science. The Quran is a book of guidance and the effort to derive scientific facts from its verses is not merely misplaced but is fraught with risks, for, the Science is known for rubbishing its own theories while marching on the trajectory of its progress. But the Quran is not alterable. So where would these Islamists stand?
Political Islam has been responsible for purging Islam of all humanitarian and pluralist values. Muslims made seminal contributions to science during the 8th and 9th centuries and most of the scientists belonged to Mua’tazila, a people who belonged to school of freethinkers and rationalists. Baitul Hikmah set up by the Abbasids at Baghdad had scientists belonging to a vast array of nationalities viz, Greeks, Arabs, Hindus and Chinese. Ijtihad, or independent reasoning was the prerogative of the lay believer during the era, rather than conformism. Islam gave birth to four major institutions not heard of earlier in the Greek or Roman civilization i.e., the hospital, the madrassa or school, the public library and the observatory which acted as the base institutions for empirical studies. This era came to a close as freethinking came to be suspected and dubbed heresy. Islam’s hidden Vatican came to the fore and took hold of the senses. It went hammer and tongs against the ones who dared to question the clergy.
Decay set in as the baton of science passed over to Europe waking up from slumber of dark ages. It was not until 18th century that Muslims began to analyse the reason for their decline and degeneration and realize the folly of abandoning reason and rationalism and succumbing to the medieval fantasies. Several Muslim names pop up from the era. Abu Talib Londony (1752-1806) linked the decline of Muslims as a nation to neglecting science. Maulvi Karamat Ali, who was born in Jaunpur, but spent most of his time in Calcutta, welcomed the establishment of Western institutions in India. Arguing that since Muslims had learnt science from the Greek in the past, it would be no sin if they learnt it from Europe now. Karamat’s stand was totally in contrast with the other ulema who rejected Science because it was coming riding the crest of British imperialism. Abdur Rahim Dahri (died 1853) and Abdul Latif (died 1893) also energetically espoused the cause of modern science. But the general trend was to see as science having a subversive influence on Islam. A combination of hurt pride, defiance and conservatism all led to the rejection of modern learning. Jamaluddin al-Afghani, though a pan-Islamist and anti-imperialist, was categorical in criticism of those who divided science into modern science and Islamic science. Opposition to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s Aligarh movement bears no repetition.
At the root of the project ‘Islamic science’ is the fear of secularism, rationalism and its (science’s) total rejection of orthodoxy. But even while loathing science, the very same Islamists do not feel qualms in using technology and employing it for dissemination of their obscurantist ideology. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan likened this attitude to fanaticism and taassub which blinds the Muslim society from accepting anything from others and considering all nations except their own inferior.
Two instances from the Prophet’s life serve as pointers to shunning exclusivism while acceptance of knowledge. First among them is the Hadees that exhorts Muslims to go to even as far as China in pursuit of knowledge. Second, the Prophet asked the non-Muslim prisoners from Battle of Badr to seek their release in lieu of imparting literacy to two Muslims from Madinah. Obviously, Muslims were being encouraged to seek knowledge from wherever it could be available.
Even otherwise, knowledge has never been exclusive preserve of an single community, hence cannot be expected to carry the stamp of purity. Excellence has shifted from capital to capital within the same empires and has enriched from intercultural contact. The book exposes the hollowness of some of the postulates of the ‘Islamic Science’. For instance, the Journal of Islamic Science, from Muslim Association of Advancement in Science, at Aligarh (not affiliated to the Aligarh Muslim University) says: ‘In Islamic science, rationality is not denied but in case of contradiction it is revelation that will prevail’. Habib questions: ‘How does it fit into the definition of science which is nothing other than pursuit of the unknown?’
Idea of rebuilding of science with Muslim foundation is not really convincing. Most of such ideas by the Islamists do not make much contact with actual productive science.
The chapter on Maulana Abul Kalam Azad titled ‘Striving for a composite and pluralist India’ seems to be incongruous with the theme of the book though it marginally buttresses the argument that an education system that stagnates the mind need to be shown the door.
The book is a useful read and serves to tear the deceptive veils the naïve followers of political Islam are covering themselves with. Repetitions of same details do mar the taste, but there is no gainsaying that it sweeps away the cobwebs of confusion from a topic that Muslims were shy of discussing.

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