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Taner Edis


Science and Religion in Islam

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Taner Edis is a physicist who was born in Turkey to a Turkish father and an American mother. He had a secular upbringing and describes himself as an atheist who adheres to the values of the Enlightenment. In this insightful book he examines how religion has shaped attitudes of Muslims to science. He focuses mainly though not exclusively on Turkey, probably the most 'Westernised' Islamic country.

Historically, Islamic countries were impressed by Western technology and sought to acquire its benefits for themselves. To a considerable extent they succeeded, but they did not adopt the secularising mindset that had led to these advances in the West. They wanted the improvements in living standards that science provides but they rejected the accompanying secularism. Hence pure science, as opposed to applied science, is still at a poor level in Islamic countries.

This is the core topic of the book and it is set out in Chapter 2, entitled A Usable Past. Here Edis explores the notion, often subscribed to by both Muslim and Western writers, that there was a Golden Age of science in mediaeval Islam followed by a progressive decline from about the fifteenth century. It is certainly true that during the Middle Ages Islamic science in medicine, pharmacology, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, and optics was in advance of anything existing in Europe at the time. After the Arab conquests in the years following the death of the Prophet the victors came into contact with vast amounts of knowledge derived from Indian and Greek sources, much of which they adopted and turned to their own use. Initially this prompted a lot of original work, notably in optics. Later, Edis believes, Islamic science entered a period of stability and consolidation, but it would be a mistake to think of this as a decline in quality.

Still, there was an inherent weakness in the way the Muslims thought about science, and this did produce a relative decline later, after the scientific revolution that began in the West from about the end of the sixteenth century. Although the reasons for this are complex an important element was the Islamic insistence on the primary place of revelation. Since the Quran expressed the ultimate truth about the world there was no reason to seek for fundamental explanations elsewhere. The concept of natural laws was suspect because it conflicted with the notion of divine omnipotence. God's freedom to act could not be constrained by causality. So Muslim science was mainly concerned with the collection of lists of facts about the world rather than with the attempt to understand it at a deep level.

It would be difficult for a Muslim Newton to arise in this intellectual climate. In the West, meanwhile, there was the beginnings of mechanistic philosophy with thinkers such as Descartes and Newton. And these new ways of thinking had other effects as well. The West was becoming dominant militarily, with better arms and superiority in organisation. This became evident when in 1683 the Ottomans, the dominant military power in the Muslim world, besieged Vienna for a second time and were soundly defeated. After this time there was a trend towards modernisation in Turkey but, once again, it was mainly on the level of technology and applied science rather than in scientific fundamentals.

The role of the Quran is of course central and unquestionable in Islam. A number of writers have sought to show that modern scientific discoveries are anticipated in the holy book. Edis has a chapter on such attempts, most of which have been pretty unsophisticated. In common with many Westerners, Muslims often wish to use the paradoxes of quantum mechanics to support mystical claims, such as the invisibility of angels being taken as evidence that they can move at infinite speed. Comparable attempts to find scientific ideas in sacred texts have been made by adherents of other religions such as Hinduism. As Edis makes clear, however, the enterprise is always highly selective and ultimately trivial; it also has the disadvantage for the religious that it accords primacy to science rather than religion.

Evolution has always been a difficult subject for Muslims. Attitudes to it are quite similar to those of Christians in the West, or at least in the USA. So fundamentalists reject evolution out of hand and cling to creationism in the face of abundant contradictory evidence, while more sophisticated thinkers accept the fact of evolution but maintain that the process must be guided by God. Darwinian natural selection does not require the existence of a Designer and has therefore been almost entirely ignored or rejected in Islam, often on the mistaken assumption that it makes evolution a purely random process.

Westerners who are sympathetic to Islam are often attracted to its Sufi element, Sufism has flourished at times in Turkey. The poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi has been particularly successful in this respect. But Edis regards Sufism with some disfavour as fostering superstition and magical thinking.

As for the future, Edis hopes for a compromise between science and religion, with the two coexisting much as they do in the USA. How this might work out depends largely on political developments; if fundamentalism is seen to have failed politically, the path to science - applied science anyway—may become easier.

In his final chapter Edis reflects on what the story of Islamic science can tell us about the relation between science and society in general. He wants to avoid falling into the trap of saying that everything in the Islamic world is second-rate intellectually and that the West presents an ideal state of affairs. In fact, the USA is hardly in a position to disparage Islamic countries on the grounds that they are too much influenced by religion or ancient scriptures, nor is religious fanaticism and obscurantism a uniquely Islamic phenomenon. But there is a deeper question to consider: is it, in any case, desirable to make the values of the Enlightenment universal?

My interests and my way of life are inseparable from a liberal democracy, secular government, and a high degree of intellectual autonomy for the scientific community and elite intellectual institutions in general. But I can no longer be confident that my position represents progress towards a universally acceptable goal. … … I have not abandoned my interests and I remain convinced that the scientific form of rationality is the best way of understanding our world. But | cannot claim that my Enlightenment rationalism is a universal way of life that should be the allegiance of every rational person.
Edis has previously written one of the best books on science and religion that I have come across (The Ghost In the Universe). In that he says that scientific thinking is unnatural for us and that learning to do without God is a difficult undertaking with no real benefit for most people. I am sure he is right about this. The present book explains clearly why there is no real prospect that these ways of thinking will take place in Islamic societies in the foreseeable future.

One final thought. The rise and fall of Islamic science finds a parallel in another culture, that of China. The two societies were, of course, different in many ways; the decline of Chinese science after the Middle Ages cannot be blamed on reliance on a sacred text. So evidently there is more than one way to reach the same end. Perhaps this supports Edis's view of the unnaturalness of critical scientific thinking. As T.S. Eliot said, humankind cannot bear very much reality.

1 May 2007; revised and expanded 19 June 2012

%T An Illusion of Harmony
%S Science and Religion in Islam
%A Edis, Taner
%I Prometheus Books
%C New York
%D 2007
%G ISBN 9781591024481
%P 265pp
%K religion
%O hardback, notes, index