Monday, November 06, 2006

The Mosque and the Test Tube

MosqueGiven this blog's frequent interest in the relationship between religion and science, readers may be interested in a new symposium in Nature about science & Islam:
Walk down a street in some predominantly Muslim cities and the chances are that you'll see taxis and buses bearing in Arabic the words "Seek knowledge, even as far as China". Attributed to the prophet Muhammad, the words encapsulate two principles: the duty of Muslims to seek an understanding of God's creation, and to search for knowledge beyond Islamic cultures.

In an unfortunate contrast, across the Muslim world secular governments are giving way to more overtly religious 'Islamist' leaderships that suppress free enquiry and critical-minded scholarship. How very different from the great age of scientific study lasting from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries, when leaders encouraged science and when debate and disagreement were more highly valued. That history can inspire today's young Muslims towards scientific ambition. But there is a danger of such inspiration being thwarted by currents in contemporary Islamic thought and politics.


Anonymous Patrick S. O'Donnell said...


I very much appreciate this post. And you're absolutely right about 'the duty of Muslims to seek an understanding of God's creation, and to search for knowledge beyond Islamic cultures.' Indeed, as Oliver Leaman has reminded us, 'The Qur'an repeats many times that the truth of what it reports can and should be assessed by reason, and it has been argued that if religions were to be classified in terms of degree of respect for reason, the Islam would surely rank as the leading faith.' [I think the comparison was made in regard to Judaism and Christianity]

Elsewhere, I made the following comments about the controversy surrounding the Pope's recent comments about Islam: The Pope's characterization of the role of reason in relation to God within the Islamic tradition was inaccurate and not at all representative of that typically found within its philosophy and theology. The role of reason within the Islamic tradition(s) was far more generous than that accorded it within the history of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. What is more, while it was Christians who contributed, through their translation of key texts from Greek into Arabic, to the appropriation of Greek philosophy within Islam, it was in fact Islam that, in turn, later proved decisive in influencing the role reason would come to play in Catholicism, exemplified most eloquently in the work of Aquinas. For Aquinas owed much to Islamic philosophy and theology, especially the work of Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and it is hard to imagine the 'rational' character of the former's theology without this influence. While I find the Pope's narration of a reconciliation between Greek logos and Christian faith to be of some interest, his manner of juxtaposing this story with a misleading portrait of the role of reason in the determination of God's will and the understanding of the nature of God in Islamic philosophy and theology was undeniably tendentious and profoundly mistaken and did nothing whatsoever to further the ends of genuine interreligious dialogue.

While I think some Muslims may have taken parts of this speech out of context and misunderstood what the Pope was attempting to say, parts of the speech did contain claims from which one can properly conclude there is sufficient reason to be disappointed and disturbed by the Pope's understanding and characterization of fundamental Islamic philosophical and theological doctrines:

'But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, *even that of rationality.* Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry.'

It is the first two sentences that are revealing and troubling, as the Pope proceeds to imply that one might readily find extreme formulations of the meaning of such 'absolute transcendence' in Islam, in the work of Ibn Hazn, for example. Although he no where explicitly states he believes these other propositions necessarily follow from such a conception, it is clear that he finds this characterization to be representative, failing to mention or cite other formulations or propositions to the contrary. Benedict effectively claims that, for Muslims, God is 'absolutely transcendent,' a conception thereby attributable to Islam and not Christianity (it would be true for the Kabbalistic deity). If Benedict did not think this summation from the work of Khoury was an accurate description of the Muslim conception of God, he should have said so, for he invokes it by way of contrast with the claim that 'Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature.' Why invoke Islam here when all he need do is cite the development of theological voluntarism and Lutheran theology as alternative currents which dislodge or diminish the role of logos? Indeed, he might easily have used Islamic examples to reinforce his points about the compatibility between logos and faith (or revelation), but he did not do this. Instead, Islam is only a foil for the larger argument and a tendentious one at that. And he might have mentioned the debt of natural theology in the Christian tradition to Islamic philosophy and theology, for it's hard to imagine such theology ever gaining a foothold within Christianity were it not for the influence of Islam. Thus the Greek logos Benedict cherishes as compatible with Christian faith, has its origins in Islam, as the Christian tradition struggled mightly to distance itself from Hellenistic--pagan--philosophies.

Let me also note that thare are a variety of Islamist movements and parties and not all of them are authoritarian and anti-scientific in the broadest sense. For a brief but uncommonly fair and nuanced introduction here, I would recommend John L. Esposito, 'It's the Policy Stupid: Political Islam and U.S. Foreign Policy,' Harvard International Review, at HIR click on 'Middle East:'

Finally, should any reader want a bibliography for 'Islamic Studies,' I have an English language compilation that covers the full breadth and depth of Islamic traditions. I also have available a basic glossary guide for those relatively new to this religious tradition. I will send either or both items to anyone on request: libertyequalitysolidarity.psod 'at' [i.e., use @ symbol]

11/07/2006 12:24 AM  
Blogger la Rana said...


One quibble. The picture you used is of Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. It offers great views of the Red Fort (if La Rana's memory serves), but Delhi is decidedly not a "predominantly Muslim" city. Other than that, hammer away.

11/07/2006 2:48 PM  

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