Secular science confronts Islam

Physics Today has a very interesting, and refreshing, online article (hat tip Sargasso) on Islam and science that ties in neatly with AFOE’s review of Olivier Roy’s latest book Secularism confronts Islam. The article is written by Pervez Hoodbhoy, nuclear physics professor at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan. As usual, I shall give our readers one quote, but please do and go read the whole thing.

In the quest for modernity and science, internal struggles continue within the Islamic world. Progressive Muslim forces have recently been weakened, but not extinguished, as a consequence of the confrontation between Muslims and the West. On an ever-shrinking globe, there can be no winners in that conflict: It is time to calm the waters. We must learn to drop the pursuit of narrow nationalist and religious agendas, both in the West and among Muslims. In the long run, political boundaries should and can be treated as artificial and temporary, as shown by the successful creation of the European Union. Just as important, the practice of religion must be a matter of choice for the individual, not enforced by the state. This leaves secular humanism, based on common sense and the principles of logic and reason, as our only reasonable choice for governance and progress. Being scientists, we understand this easily. The task is to persuade those who do not.

10 thoughts on “Secular science confronts Islam

  1. From the link Bob provides:

    Everyone agrees that Western science has been successful at what it does. And yet I’m willing to bet that many Islamic thinkers would say the price of scientific success in the West has been too high. Once science was divorced from religion, you could argue that it was only a matter of time before secular values would triumph, atheism would become a viable option, and the modern world would end up with the rampant materialism and consumerism that we have today. A lot of Islamic thinkers don’t want that version of Western science. (…) I don’t want to sound like I’m describing the Muslim world as a monolithic entity with no differences between Muslims. There is a very heated internal debate in Muslim countries about how to respond to the modern West, and science is only one concern. Some say the Islamic world has to secularize. Turkey has for many decades been an example of taking a more secular path and adopting westernization full scale. It has had some successes, though it hasn’t fully taken root. But a lot of people think if you try and westernize totally — if you separate science from religion and you separate politics from religion — then you end up with the more compartmentalized modern society that we’re familiar with in the West. And they’re reacting against it. The intellectual options in the debate over science and religion are very similar to what we have in the West. What’s different is the historical background and the institutional landscape. In the Islamic world, the liberal option is much weaker compared to what we have in the Western world.

  2. That is jumping too short. They are very aware that science makes weapons and they know what happened the last time they were hopelessly outgunned.
    If they reject modern science they will have to fight it elsewhere.

  3. In the last few months, I have seen several disturbing examples of serious scientific journals publishing fantasies about the Islamic “golden age” as if they were scientific fact. Some examples and my comments follow:

    A. In an otherwise reasonable article about doctors and terrorism (NEJM,
    August 16th, the author chose to insert a quote from the “Times” that panders to this trend. The quote states: “it (the terrorist attacks involving Muslim medics) also insults the pride that Muslims take in the achievements of their golden age, especially in the fields of medicine, surgery and pharmacology. Medicine owes more to Islam than to any other religion or philosophy. It was the great Muslim physicians of Spain and the Middle East who laid the foundations for today’s science; it was the writings and medical observations of scholars such as Ibn Rushd (Averroes, as he was known in Europe) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) that led directly to the medical advances of the past nine centuries.”

    1. The idea that the work of so and so led directly to every advance in modern medicine in the next 9 centuries is true only in the sense that almost everything that happened in the interconnected world of Europe and the Middle East in the 12th century “led directly” to all that happened in subsequent centuries. Muslim physicians made some significant advances in medicine and, perhaps even more important, preserved and passed on the knowledge of the Greco-Roman world. But the idea of a “golden age” that is responsible for all progress in the modern world is simply the mirror image of the idea that Muslims are irredeemable barbarians who contributed nothing worthwhile to the world. Medieval Islamicate civilization, while undoubtedly civilized and progressive by the standards of the age, was not especially enlightened by modern standards. Slavery and torture were widespread, religious minorities faced discriminatory rules, the caliphate suffered repeated dynastic squabbles and civil wars, legal protections were minimal, women were kept out of public life and free enquiry was frequently suppressed at the whim of one or the other absolutist ruler. We should avoid the temptation to treat today’s Muslims as children who may get upset if you don’t throw them a few lines about the “golden age”. The intentions behind such “positive lying” are undoubtedly benign, but in a scientific journal we should stick to verifiable claims and (relatively) objective data.

    B. A few months ago, the scientific journal “Nature” published an amazing piece of Islamist apologetics ( by modern Islamist Ziauddin Sardar. Their intent was probably benign: maybe “Nature” hoped to foster some kind of modern, scientific culture in the Muslim world by promoting what they regard as benign and relatively civilized Islamism. But the article makes sweeping statements about history and historical categories (“classical Islam inspired science, progress in science made Muslims powerful, colonialism destroyed Islamic science, etc. etc”) and offers them up as established facts.

    1. As pointed out above, the purported golden age was hardly as “golden” as Sardar imagines.

    2. A case can easily be made that this knowledge and creativity had not really died down in the settled areas of the Middle East prior to Arab conquest and political unification under the Arabs provided an opportunity for bright individuals to make contributions to human knowledge, as it has in other times. Religion could (and sometimes did) hinder the process, but rarely directly aided it (unless you wish to credit religion for providing the social glue that held society together, but then again, that same role has been played by other religions and continues to be played by other ideological constructs).

    3. The idea that Islamic nations were powerful because of some significant technological advantage and devotion to science is open to question. One can easily argue that when it came to making war, the Islamic caliphate never reached the technical level of the Romans, but then again, neither did their opponents. Even the Romans repeatedly suffered defeats at the hands of technologically inferior opponents because the difference in war-making technology between barbarian and advanced civilization was not decisive in those times (and may not be decisive in some ways even today).

    3. The idea that “colonialism” somehow destroyed classical Islamic science is laughable. By the time the colonial powers arrived, there was no scientific tradition in any part of the Middle East. This is the most easily refuted of Sardar’s arguments and the fact that the editors of “Nature” are unaware of such elementary facts (or wish to ignore them) is deplorable.

    C. In November 2006, “Nature” published a special on “Islam and Science” that was breathtaking in its superficiality ( For example:

    1. The issue was introduced with repeated references to “Muslim science”. Why is “Muslim science” a reasonable unit of analysis, but not “Hindu science”, “Buddhist science” or even “Christian science”? We are talking about 50 countries with little in common beyond the allegiance of varying proportions of their population to one somewhat heterogeneous religious tradition. It may be (as the most extreme detractors and most extreme adherents of Islam are equally eager to claim) that there is something special about the adherents of Islam and in their case (and their case alone), it makes sense to define them by religion rather than by geography, culture, ethnicity or any other criterion. But this is a fraught and complex debate and the editors of “Nature”, far from making a sensible contribution to it, do not even seem to be aware of its existence!
    2. The editors state that: “There has never been a greater need for the measured, evidence-based approach to problems that comes from scientific training. Its contribution may be small amid the current turbulence, but it is all the more worth pursuing.” But having said that, none of the contributors (with the exception of Nader Fergany) exhibit any signs of having taken their own advice. Party slogans and pop-culture bromides take the place of any attempt at analysis. One contributor states “In the late nineteenth century, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had a favorable reception in Muslim countries.” how did he reach that conclusion? The great mass of Muslims was not even aware of the most elementary achievements of Modern science. The traditionally trained theologians had very little to say about Darwin and when they did find something to say, it was almost wholly negative. The acceptance of evolution by a few Western trained intellectuals hardly constitutes “favorable reception”. Equally careless statements are made about the history of “Islamic science”, the nature of politics in Muslim countries and the nature of Islam itself. The level of historiography and analysis on display would be an embarrassment in a good quality high school. In “Nature” it is downright shameful. One expects a higher standard of discourse from the premier scientific journal in the world.
    3. The contributors repeatedly refer to a purported golden age of rationality and science in the Middle East about a thousand years ago. For example, asking Muslims to “reclaim… a great Islamic past in which new knowledge was valued and scholars were free to pursue all lines of enquiry”. The reality is much more complicated than that. Islam as a religious tradition is not unusually open to outside influences. Like all other religious traditions, it absorbed much from the older traditions that existed in its area of influence, but it was rarely willing to openly admit such cultural borrowing and the doctors of Islam (like their counterparts in other traditions) tended to do their borrowing surreptitiously. The civilization that resulted was not especially enlightened by modern standards though for a time, the culture was vibrant and creative and amidst the usual medieval cruelty and caprice, individuals (not all of them Muslim) made multiple original contributions to human knowledge. That is all very well, and is a valid area of inquiry and comment, but a serious journal like “Nature” should either steer clear of this topic or make a sensible and scholarly contribution to it. Repeating fashionable nostrums because they suit the propaganda needs of the day is justifiable in mass communication but is a disservice to science.
    4. They state that in Iran and Pakistan, the rise of political Islam has been accompanied by increases in university education and scientific activity. What (if any) is the causal connection between these events? What would have happened to universities without the rise of political Islam? Again, is “Islam” even the correct unit of analysis in this case? Can the particular histories of Pakistan, Chad and Saudi Arabia be described by one common descriptor, “Islam”? One article displays a figure showing the greatest increase in scientific output has occurred in Iran and Turkey. Since one is avowedly “Islamic” and the other avowedly “secular”, an intelligent observer may be excused for wondering if something other than “Islam” explains or links these results. But the editors of “Nature” seem to have made a policy decision to divide the world into the “house of Islam” and the “house of unbelief” and having boxed themselves in, they end up making nonsensical comparisons between apples and oranges. One can have intelligent arguments about whether it is a good idea for a science journal to collect data on “Muslim countries versus non-Muslim countries” (without defining either), but the contributors to this issue do not make any of these arguments. Instead, they prefer to skirt all tough questions and gloss over all difficulties.
    5. Most of the articles provide very little hard information. We learn little about the actual state of science in these countries and even less about the possible explanations for their lack of scientific development. Surely the editors of “Nature” could have made an effort to come up with some hard data or rethink their conceptual assumptions if no data could be found in the categories they had chosen?

    Omar Ali MD

  4. Omar, fully agree that while the histories and achievements of ‘Muslim’ culture(s), as of most non-Western cultures, deserve greater attention and appreciation than they have gotten in most Western popular literature, it is equally wrong to overcompensate by exagerating their importance or, in this case, their Islamic nature.

    I also agree that many seem to overlook the importance of the Roman/Greek inheritance when speaking of the ‘Islamic’ “golde age”. The eastern Med. was the most advanced/populous part of the world at the time. This part of the world, including its scientific culture, was then inherited by the rather small and unadvanced Arabs. However, I’m not so sure about how quickly the eastern Med. was ‘islamicized’. I remember reading somewhere that even as ‘late’ as the 12th century a substantial part of Egypt’s population was Christian. I guess it could be likened to 15th and 16th century Spain where there were not only significant Muslim and Jewish minorities, but also large number of more or less forced converts to Catholicism.

  5. I guess one lesson is that most modern day countries/cultures are much less mono-cultural than we tend to think.

  6. “I guess one lesson is that most modern day countries/cultures are much less mono-cultural than we tend to think.”

    I agree, Oskar. And much more organic as well. They are like living organisms, feeding and filtering and shedding…

    Yet, as with most species (if you could see a country/culture/region/people as a species) they also retain some distinct, recognizable features that set them apart from others. Even when those features may not be 100% “pure” (I hate that word, but I hope you catch my drift).

    I find all of this extremely fascinating and amazing at the same time.

  7. Guy, indeed it is fascinating stuff. Although I I agree that most cultures/nations probably have retained some feature(s) throughout history I’m not sure of the significance of it. There’s a risk of rationalizing with hindsight.

    Let’s say for the sake of argument that a feature of Swedish (I’m Swedish) culture throughout history has been “social equality”. However, if we go back to 17th century Sweden, there were probably a lot of other national ‘features’ which one could have expected would have retained, e.g. “military aggressiveness” or “theological fanaticism” or whatever.

    Just a thought.

Comments are closed.