(Draft Article) “Shouldn’t Muslims advance in Modern Science?”

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By a member of the MuslimAnswers.net Team

بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيم

A certain Muslim asked the question: “Look at the debased situation of Muslims right now. Would it not be better if Muslims advanced in the world through the rigorous study of modern science, so that we may outstrip the non-Muslims and further the cause of Islam?”

This question does raise the issue of the low status of Muslims nowadays. But I do not think that the study of “modern science” is in fact beneficial for the Muslims in the sense alluded to in the question, considering not only the material but also the level of belief of many Muslims in our day and age.

The reason is that, like all other disciplines, modern science makes certain assumptions about how things are and how things should be, and while such assumptions have very little to do with “hard science” in many cases, yet they are either explicitly or implicitly forwarded whenever modern science is taught. For example, one of the assumptions of modern science is that human knowledge is in a state of ever-expanding growth, and it cannot be “bogged down” in the narratives of “ancient texts” interpreted by “old men”. By this account alone, “modern science” adopts an antagonistic attitude towards Islam, since the truth of many matters are taken as absolute in Islam, while the paradigm of “modern science” is itself attuned to skepticism in many respects.

However, even more troublesome than the first assumption is the supposition that the Universe is a “closed system” which mechanically gives rise to the apparent order we see all around us – all of it without the need to invoke a Divine Creator. I would that this is fact a carry-over from Aristotelian metaphysics, through to Newtonian mechanics and modern evolution theory.

What all of these equations and postulates of “modern science” say is that whether we are talking about major galaxies or the smallest microorganisms, there is a formula, an equation, or a law which explains why things happen in the Universe the way they do. The (unspoken) corollary to this is that “God” was only necessary when people were at a primitive stage of cultural development, and did not have either the creativity nor the tools to find out what the mechanical reasons for events in this world and in the larger Universe reduced to – whether these were the laws of physics or those of evolutionary biology.

Even what would seem to contravene this mechanical world-view, such as the observations of quantum physics (with its underlying indeterminacy principle), is still not taken as evidence that anything exists other than the observable Universe. The only postulate derived from this is that while before mechanical causality was well established without the need for introducing “God”, now we are not even certain about the classical definition of causality, so there is even less need for introducing “God” into the picture. Or to rephrase it: In “classical physics”, there was certainty about mechanical order without the need for God. In “indeterminate physics”, we are not even sure about order, so how can “God” enter the picture?

Of course, the Muslim theologians have a lot to say about the above, whether it is related to the main premises of the assumptions [such as views on causality, time, and how events are originated] or about the secondary assumptions [such as the view that humanity itself is on an upward trajectory from ‘barbaric’ to ‘civilized’].

But for the majority of Muslims who are laymen, there is the danger that while striving to advance in the various fields of “modern science” they will also fully absorb its metaphysical assumptions that are totally at variance with Islam. Thus, they may become very good chemists, biologists, or physicists, but the cause of Islam which they used as a first reason for entering into such a field will not be served properly, since their faith in Islam itself will be severely weakened.

 We certainly do not want the situation of the Muslims to become analogous to that of the Jews after their “Haskalah” (or “Enlightenment”), when many Jews definitely did/have become very bright scientists, economists, and leaders in many fields of human endeavor, but as a consequence they became highly secularized and many of them basically threw religion out of their lives. This cannot be the case with the Muslim nation no matter what the material situation may become for us, simply because our faith cannot be bartered at any cost.

So am I advocating turning one’s back on the pursuit of modern science?

It depends. The first priority for the Muslim should be to attain strength in his practice of the religion. Afterwards he may, if he wishes, go to an in-depth study of Islamic belief sciences, with its associated study of Islamic epistemology and metaphysics. I have to say that such a study is in fact very challenging for most Muslims, due to the fact that today there are so many confused nominal Muslims, who cannot even understand the simple points presented about Allah the Exalted in a small work of classical Islamic beliefs.

They may follow the latest fashion in terms of calling Allah “the big guy up there” or any other invalid phrase that may be current in the land. It is obvious that for such types of people “pursuing modern science in order to further the cause of Islam” is a very far-off issue, since to begin with they do not even know who Allah is and what Islam stands for.  How does it occur to such people that their efforts will have any effect when they have such little true knowledge of their purported aim?   

So this is the case with many of the Muslims nowadays. We cannot fool ourselves into believing that pursuit of “modern science” with all of its associated philosophical pitfalls will simply cure everything. Rather, we must instead pursue the strengthening of our understanding of Islamic belief, of the principles upon which the systems of Islamic belief and jurisprudence are derived, and then if we have reached a solid background in such matters, then we can start to think about pursuing other fields of human endeavor.

However, without a thorough understanding of where Islamic metaphysics stands on a wide range of issues relevant to the pursuit of knowledge, it is very difficult for the Muslim to dive headlong into “modern science”, without risking potentially enormous losses for his faith and the Islamic cause he ostensibly seeks to promote.

Let me also say that the problems confronting a Muslim who wants to study modern science also appear in many other “modern” fields. For example, let us take “modern textual criticism”. If we see many of the “encyclopedias” written about Islam, we see that most of the editorial and writing team consists of non-Muslims.

“Why is this so?” Someone may ask. The reason is that “textual criticism” takes its cues from “Biblical textual criticism”, where it is assumed that the text of the Bible came together after a long period that included innumerable additions, deletions, editing, and corrections until the finalized product became visible. As Muslims we in fact say that such a view of the Bible does carry weight, even though the reason is that the fact of the distortion of the Bible occurs in the Qur’anic revelation, regardless of what the archeologists and textual critics may say.

But the problem is that this same assumption is directly transported to the Qur’an and other primary Islamic texts. Thus, the leaders of modern “textual criticism” assume as a starting point that the Qur’an and the narrations of the Prophet (Salla Allahu Alayhi Wa Sallam) are not actually depicting what the Muslims say was revealed and recorded in the Hijaz region more than 14 centuries ago, but that rather the Qur’an and the Ahadith are the collaborative work of the Muslim milieu as it developed and emerged decade by decade and century by century.

The Muslim can immediately see that a project with such underlying assumptions is doomed to fail in ascertaining the facts, since it considers the Muslim narratives about its own founder and its primary books to be of little value[1]. But it also shows that there are assumptions made in the “modern” fields of human inquiry that in many cases simply do not map onto the Islamic worldview. While in the case of “modern science” the dichotomy may go unnoticed, in the field of “modern Islamic textual criticism” the differences are immediately visible, and the disastrous consequences of such views are apparent to all Muslims.

So what can be gleaned from this discussion as a whole is that if the Muslim is strong in his practice of the religion, has studied Islamic belief sciences very deeply and has a very thorough understanding of the epistemological difference between Islam and other ideologies, then it may be of benefit for him to pursue studies in the “modern sciences”. Of course, even this step would need consultation with the elders of the society and other considerations, but it is a possibility for that person.  However, without having reached this stage, it is difficult to see how a Muslim can withstand all the ideological problems that arise whenever one undertakes study in the “modern” fields.

[1] It is obviously also a type of ethnocentric approach to Islam carried over from Christian missionaries, but there is no need to delve into this angle at the present moment.