By T.O. Shanavas for New Age Islam
09 July, 2014
Science has been defined as, “a continuing effort to discover and increase human knowledge and understanding through disciplined research. Using controlled methods, scientists collect observable evidence of natural or social phenomena, record measurable data relating to the observations, and analyze this information to construct theoretical explanations of how things work.”
Based upon this definition, physicians, engineers, chemists, physicists, pharmacists, sociologists, biologists, and many other professionals who utilize the scientific method are called scientists. Unfortunately, many Muslims among the scientific community lead a double life. In their professional life they are true believers in science, but, when it comes to their religious lives, they passionately reject many well-established scientific theories such as theories related astronomy and its application for moon-sighting, the theory of evolution and its applications. They have a truth tell in the mosques and another for their external professional lives. The old Latin expressions, “contra evidential credo (I believe despite the evidence)” and credo quia evidentia (I believe because of evidence),” most accurately differentiate their dual lives.
Moreover, almost all mosques and Islamic centres even in the West are impervious fortresses against any fresh ideas including new approach to the interpretations of the Qur’an.
As most physicians (and people working in other in all other scientific fields) know, what they learned during formal education is but a basis onto which new knowledge is added as they progress though their professional lives. Once, more advanced remedies and methodologies are discovered, one does not apply the same remedies and solutions learned during formal education. Yet, how do the Muslim scientists fare regarding new knowledge within the context of religion?
Many Muslim scientists relentlessly question the validity of scientific opinions in scientific environments if it does not corroborate with their logic and knowledge. But at the same times they passively accept old and worn out, commentaries, Tafsir, of the Qur’an as the absolute unquestionable truth. Such intellectual lethargy and dishonesty is exhibited all across the community of Muslim scientists despite the fact that many of the commentaries written in the past, some in a very remote past, conflict with current scientific knowledge that Muslim scientists use in their daily professional life. It is an amusing contradiction that many of our Muslim scientists accept science at one level but reject it at another. Why don’t they apply the same intellectual curiosity to their faith as they enthusiastically apply in other dominions of scientific knowledge?
In order to reconcile this contradiction, many Muslim scientists cite the evolving nature of scientific theories. It is a fact that “science has truth with proof but without certainty.” It must be noted, though, that the science-rejecting Muslim scientists accept religious truth with certainty but without proof. Their self-protective alleged reasons for it are that the scientific theories are not absolute, that the human intellect is not reliable, and the religious truth is absolute.
Their rationalization is internally incoherent. They forget that humans must utilize their intellect to determine whether the Hindu Geetha, or Jewish Torah or Christian Gospel, or Muslim Qur’an or all of them are to be acknowledged as holy books from God. If science-rejecting Muslim scientists have determined that intellect cannot be considered a reliable human faculty for decision-making, then why should anyone accept their point of view in matters relating to any human affairs or ever their certainty about any specific holy book? Candidly speaking, these Muslim scientists must accept the argument that Muslim faith is blind and they reject the Quranic verse (8:22):“The worst animals before God are the deaf, the dumb, and those who do not use their reason.”
At the time of birth, babies have only instincts and reflexes. They show their need by crying and attaching to those who feed them and comfort them. Mothers became the center of their universe. As babies get older their world-view evolves, though still focused primarily on their mothers. Gradually this restricted view matures and broadens by adding family, friends, community, and the natural world. A world-picture is an echo of the underlining system of thought by which we process and harmonize our recurring experiences that we label as “facts.” Generally, a fact is defined as something that is true, something that actually exists, or something having objective reality that can be verified according to an established standard of evaluation. The more closely any particular fact is linked to the core of one’s world-picture, the greater its subjective meaning and importance to us.
In other words, everything that is in harmony with our world-picture appears to us as truth. This interconnection between world-picture and truth can create profound positive as well as negative impact in any community, particularly in religious communities. The significances and outcome of the interconnection between world-picture and truth are illustrated by the history of Muslims. The arrival of religion of Islam transformed ordinary Arab life of 14th century into one of the most advanced civilization in less than two hundred years. George Sarton, previously the professor of History of Science at Harvard University, most elegantly describes this miracle of transformation:
“Briefest enumeration of the Arabic contributions to knowledge would be too long to be inserted here…The creation of a new civilization of international and encyclopaedic magnitude within less than two centuries is something that we describe, but cannot explain…Indeed the superiority of Muslim culture, say in the eleventh century, was so great that we can understand their intellectual pride. It is easy to imagine their doctors speaking of western barbarians almost in the same spirit as ours do of the ‘Orientals.’ If there had been some ferocious eugenists among the Moslems they might have suggested some means breeding out all the western Christians and Greeks because of their hopeless backwardness. At that time Muslim pride would have been more conceivable because they almost reached their climax, and pride is never as great as when the fall is near. On the contrary only a few Christians were then aware of their inferiority; that awareness did not come upon them until much later—by the middle of thirteenth century.” [Ref: George Sarton: “The History of Science and The New Humanism.” Page 87-90]
The story of Muslims that Professor Sarton described happened when free speech and difference of opinion were the core values and spirit of Muslim community. It is at a time, in fact over two centuries before Roger bacon (The west claims Bacon as the father of scientific method), al-Biruni wrote in Vestiges of the Past (Athar-ul-Baqiya): “We must clear our minds . . . from all causes that blind people to the truth–old custom, party, spirit, personal rivalry or passion, the desire for influence.” It was the time when Muslims and the religion of Islam celebrated and practiced science and scientific method proudly. That was the world-picture and the truth then. What was the result? In The Making of Humanity, British historian Robert Briffault gives the answer: “While Europe wallowed in ignorance and barbarism, Muslim cities constituted “centers of civilization and intellectual activity.”
On the other hand, current Muslims have a different world-picture and the truth. We reject science and scientific method in mosques and in Muslim communities even by Muslims trained in science. Our traditional scholars parrot uncritically what they heard from the schools with almost no academic freedom for dissensions. So, the “truth or Tafsir” reverberating all across Muslim world from the Muslim scholars and Imams whose world-picture is stuck in the past and who have very limited knowledge of science of natural world, distort the meaning of the Qur’an when the Qur’an is meant to be timeless and ever-relevant.
I do not have to describe the negative impact of interconnection between world picture and truth on the contemporary Muslims all across the world including US. Currently, there is not much creative and critical thinking among Muslims. Experimental science is almost non-existent among them. A large segment of Muslim population lives in poverty even though they get the food produced in foreign lands with modern technology. Muslims blow up mosques and other places of worships almost every day. Totalitarian rulers are scared of their own people and constantly seek outside help to preserve and protect their reign over their subjects. Muslim extremists run amok blowing themselves talking innocent bystanders.
According to George Sarton, Christians in the Middle Ages were not even aware of their state of inferiority over Muslims (“On the contrary only a few Christians were then aware of their inferiority; that awareness did not come upon them until much later—by the middle of thirteenth century.”). Unfortunately, the role has reversed in the twenty first century. Muslims at large are unaware of their inferiority in scientific field and in other fields of knowledge.
We, Muslims, have to ask, “What do we expect from the future generation of Muslims, when they hear about the unreliability of science in the mosques and from their parents trained in science?” The answer is clearly written in the following true story. The most prestigious science research competition for US high school seniors is Intel Science Talent Search. Within the lists of 300 semifinalists for each year (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014), there are 49, 56, 46, 60, and 62 names of Hindu-American community respectively. There are many more from Chinese community among the semi-finalists. However, there are only 1, 3, 5, 3, and 4 Muslim sounding names in the list of Intel Science Talent Search Semi-finalists during the same period. Similarly, we meet many Indian and Chinese scholars as guest lecturers in national scientific meetings, but Muslim scientists are conspicuously absent except a rare one here and there among scholars. Why?
Human progress occurs in places where there is an unrestricted welcoming conduit for new ideas. Unfortunately, Muslim leaders and scholars across America feel intimidated by science so that they avoid any honest discussion of science or new ideas or new inferences. Productive scientists who invent new technology or discover new laws or propose new theories are all critical thinkers. They think abnormally, i.e., question the soundness widely accepted concepts, theories, and facts. Most Islamic centers, Imams, and Muslim scholars, even 99.9 % Muslims at large discourage critical thinking.
I have listed here the major characteristics of critical thinkers in blue print and what happens in Islamic center, Muslim communities, and the homes in pink for easy comparison. Critical thinkers are skeptical [Islamic centers generally do not allow skeptical enquiries], open-minded [Islamic centers are not open-minded], respect evidence [Islamic centers do not respect scientific or other evidences except what Imams preach] and reasoning [reasoning is rejected if it contradicts Imams’ reasoning], look at different points of view [Islamic centers do not promote looking at different point of view], and will change positions when reason leads them to do so [Imams and the Islamic centers, and its leadership never allow to change position when reason leads to do so]. This is true with most Muslims parents also. Contemporary Islam is an organized religion that indoctrinates its members who listen passively and uncritically religious dogmas to religious scholars who are illiterate in the field of science.
When children grow up in an environment where critical thinking is not appreciated and is discouraged, they grow up with a fear to think critically (i.e., out of the box thinking) and become non-productive in scientific research.
On the other hand, Hindu religion is not an organized religion especially in America. They generally do not send their children to temples to be indoctrinated. Their children are not in an environment that suppresses critical thinking. So, non-Muslim Indian students have less fear to think out of box and to become a critical thinker. It is true with Chinese American students also because of their ancestral the Confucius philosophy. This is one of the major reasons for many Indian and Chinese American high school students in the lists such as Intel Talent Search finalists and also the reason for the absence of Muslim scientists among scholarly panels in scientific meetings. So, as long as the current attitude of isolationism exists among US Muslims, I am very pessimistic about future of Muslim community at large.
How then do Muslim scientists’ best respond to science-rejecting Muslims? How do rational Muslims respond to the question that science is always evolving and confirmed scientific observations could be proved wrong in the future? Should one reject the Qur’an if further scientific discoveries replace the present paradigm with a new one? Definitely not! If the Qur’an is the Divine Book in human vernacular, “the universe is a “written scroll” (Qur’an 21:104) in the material medium, the language of the natural world. The Qur’anic verses are called Ayat. The phenomena of the material world, Allah similarly refers to as Ayat:“And in the earth are signs [Ayat] for those who have firm faith, and in your own selves. Do you not discern?” (Qur’an 51:20-21).
These two Books, one the Qur’an and the other the Book of Nature come from the same divine source and so one divine revelation cannot contradict the other. In other words, God, unlike most Muslims, speaks same truth in and out of mosques. According to the Qur’an, God provides humans with ample evidence in the universe to serve as proof of His existence. If God told humans one thing in the Qur’an and gave the evidence in His book of Universe, this would do the opposite of proving His existence. So, an occasional contradiction has nothing to do with these two divine books but all to do with interpretations or the meaning of the two books. As this meaning can be distorted by our subjective world-picture, it is vitally important that Muslims must always seek the most objective meaning that is relevant to any particular point in human history and modify our world-picture.
As such when we encounter contradictions between the two Divine Books, the fault for the conflict lies at the pedestals of our world picture and its interpretation, not in the Books. Therefore, Muslims must go back and re-read the two Books in order to reconcile the contradictory meanings and revise their world-picture emerged from their previous reading. The Quran demands such repeated experimentation, until the resolution of the conflict:“He created seven heavens in layers. You do not see any discordance in the creation of the All-beneficent. Look again! Do you see any flaw? Look again, once more. Your look, return to you, humbled and weary.” (67:3-4). Therefore, the Qur’an and the science demand repeated experimentation. When the meaning of the two divine books comes together without conflict, the genuine truth become visible.
Finally, we, Muslims, talk today about `Qur’anic truth’ as the truest kind of truth, the kind we swear by, the kind we feel in our bones to be true, the last truth of all that we are not willing to give up. It is that kind of truth which has to be unraveled and restated harmoniously from both divine books. We shall not be afraid to tell the truth as it appears to us. Indeed, if we truly believe in God, we should recognize that Allah gave us the brains to conduct scientific research. Not to do so — not to use the marvelous gift of intelligence with which He has blessed us — would not only be impolite, it would express a heinous ingratitude to God. The Qur’an cautions the consequence of the squandering of divine gift offered to humanity in verse: “Behold! In the creation of heavens and the earth, and alternations of night and day,–There are indeed Signs for men of understanding,–Men who celebrate the praise of God, standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and contemplating the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth: ‘Our Lord! Not for naught hast Thou created (all) this! Glory to Thee! Give us salvation from the penalty of fire.’ (3:190-191)
If the Muslims want to participate and contribute in the ongoing scientific advancement they need to change their current mindset. They need to transform mosques and Islamic centers into centers of intellectual discourse. Muslims have to take fear out of their mind in confronting opposing point of views and ideas and re-define their world-picture integrating scientific method. Muslims need to re-read the divine books, the Qur’an and the Universe, so that there is no conflict in the meaning of the verses from the two books.
Most people are in the colleges to have job to make money. There is nothing wrong with it. Whatever may be the field or job that a person is in, he/she must find out what research is going on in their field of study and try to find out the most advanced research going in that the field. They must persevere to reach next higher level of truth in every branch of basic sciences, humanities, and spirituality. Every Muslim must try to associate with most revered thinkers in their field of interest. Steven Chu was trained as young man at Bell Laboratories. While he was working there, he was assigned to a team 20 elite physicists for a project. Out of these 20 young physicists, their association with brilliant minds led 7 of them to receive Nobel Prize. This is a beautiful example of spectacular rise due to the association with brilliant passionate truth seekers. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-7gWsoXtUw
So, from kinder garden to university and also in their professional life, Muslims must try to surround themselves with the people who have a passion for the truth in the material and spiritual world in order to succeed in this world and the Hereafter. Finally, Muslims must always bear in mind that “. . . Verily Allah never will change the condition of people unless they change it themselves.” (Quran 13:11) and so prayers without human action are worthless.
T.O. Shanavas is a native of Kerala, but is now based in the USA. He is an MD. He is the author of “Islamic Theory of evolution of Evolution The Missing Link Between Darwin and The Origin of Species.” Co-author of the book, And God Said, "Let There Be Evolution!": Reconciling The Book Of Genesis, The Qur'an, And The Theory Of Evolution. Edited by Prof. Charles M. Wynn and Prof. Arthur W. Wiggins.