In this book, renowned historian and scholar S. Irfan Habib takes it upon himself to trace the trajectory of 'mainstream' Islam's questioning of modern science.
Starting with the reformers of the nineteenth century and ending with present-day ideologues, Habib questions the controversial idea of 'Islamic science' as a category distinct from 'modern', 'Eurocentric' science. Through the lives of famous men like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Habib shows the reader that the modern-day promulgation of Islam and its followers as 'anti-modern' and 'anti-science' is a myth that leads, quite literally, to explosive consequences.
Here's an extract from the book:
In this book Irfan Habib traces the trajectory of \'mainstream\' Islam\'s questioning of modern science.
Heterogeneity and Early Science in Islam
I began thinking of and writing these essays almost ten years ago. They are imbued with my sense of discomfort at the growing fundamentalism in Islam and in the world generally. The mess in global politics can be held partially responsible for the emergence of this perversion called political Islam, which has successfully purged it of all humanitarian and pluralist values.
This caricatured Islam is reflected in the realm of the history of science as well, which prompted me to dwell upon the Islam and science debate. Some writings on the Islamization of science that I read were couched in scholarly phraseology and hence did not succinctly explain the methodology of this process called Islamization. Further readings1 revealed that there are several ways of arriving at this magical entity termed 'Islamic science'- something that can apparently relieve the Islamic world from the
grip of the monster called modern science. The fundamental premise of all the players in the game, despite their inner differences, is that modern science is not neutral: it is 'Western' in character and spirit, so it is bound to a certain culture. This opens up the possibility of creating an Islamic science. It may be possible to create an Islamic science if Muslim scientists produce some original work. However, this sort of symbolization is apocryphal.
Modern science is sometimes called Western science because it was developed by those living in the West. These included Christians, Jews, atheists and others. In our times, significant contributions have been made by Chinese, Japanese, Russian and
Indian scientists and a Pakistani one who was denigrated in his own country because he did not belong to 'mainstream' Islam. It is this pluralism that needs to be reinstated once Eurocentrism, which has held sway since colonization, is displaced. The crucial lesson to learn is from the rise and decline of the history of science in Islamic civilization itself.
It is difficult to find an Islamic scholar who will not vouch for Islam's seminal contribution to science and yet reiterate that Islam is not in conflict with science. They invariably hark back to the early centuries of Islam to establish the veracity of their claims and flaunt names from Islam's history of science such as Al-Khawarizmi, Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, al-Razi and Omar Khayyam. No one can dispute the fact that these
Scholars, along with several others, significantly contributed to scientific creativity in Islamic civilization and should be credited with helping the flowering of modern science in the West. It was through the Arab philosophers and scientists that the rich patrimony of Greek learning reached the leading lights of modern rationalism. The father of modern scientific research, Roger Bacon, was a disciple of the Arabs. By virtue of patronage at the highest level during the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, the foundations
of rational and natural sciences were laid when the House of Wisdom (Bait-ul-Hikmah), which welcomed scholars of all creeds, religions and beliefs, was established.
However, all those who make such claims-and rightly so- forget that this particular phase in Islamic history was marked predominantly by the Mu'tazilite school of philosophy, which was based on freethinking and rationalism. It was an ecumenical setting for science, where savants of nearly all creeds and origins worked towards a common purpose. And this was not something new, it was a long established pre-Islamic tradition in the Near East, where translation of scientific and philosophical texts from Greek to Syriac took place and then some scholars rendered it into Arabic as well. According to A.I. Sabra, 'the translation movement in the early Abbasid period was not a sideline affair conducted by a few individuals working in the dark under threat of being found out and thwarted.'6 He calls it a massive movement which took place in broad daylight under the protection and active patronage of the Abbasid rulers. Indeed, in terms of intensity, scope, concentration and concertedness, it had had no precedent in the history of the Middle East or of the world. Large libraries for books on 'philosophical sciences' (hikma, or al-ulum al-hikmiyya) were created, embassies were sent out in search of Greek manuscripts, and scholars (Christians and Sabians) were employed to perform the task of translation, all of this at the instigation and with the financial and moral support of the Abbasid caliphs. Commenting on the translation movement undertaken in Baghdad, Dimitri Gutas says 'On a broader and morefundamental level, its significance lies in that it demonstrated for the first time in history that scientific and philosophical thought are international, not bound to a specific language or culture.'
One more crucial aspect, which needs to be highlighted, is the role that should be assigned to Islam during this spurt of scientific efflorescence. Apparently because of the importance of that role in world intellectual history many scholars have been led to look
at the medieval Islamic period as a period of reception, preservation and transmission . . . Sabra points out that reception here may be used as an harmless and value-free category but it does not really describe the event adequately. 'Reception' might connote a passive receiving of something being pressed upon the receiver, and this might reinforce the image of Islamic civilization as a receptacle or repository of Greek learning. But this is not what happened; "the transmission of ancient science to Islam would be better characterized as an act of appropriation performed by the so-called receiver. Greek science was not thrust upon Muslim society any more than it was upon Renaissance Europe. What the Muslims of the eighth and ninth centuries did was to seek out, take hold of and finally make their own a legacy which appeared to them laden with a variety of practical and spiritual benefits . . . "Reception" is, at best, a pale description of that enormously creative act.'
George Sarton, the father of the modern history of science, also strongly felt that Muslim intervention was not just concerned with rehabilitating Greek texts, but, according to him 'they did not simply transmit ancient knowledge, they created a new one'. Going further and placing Islamic triumph in the context of his own time (early twentieth century), Sarton says: 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 the western barbarians almost in the same spirit as ours do of the 'Orientals'. If there had been some ferocious eugenists among the Muslims; they might have suggested some means of breeding out all the western Christians and the Greeks because of their hopeless backwardness.
Sarton imagines that those among his contemporaries who condemn the East and lionize the West lack an understanding of science, for it is in science that Islam reveals its strength. Given the present state of Islam, it is difficult to believe what Sarton wrote in the early twentieth century about Islam's accomplishments in science, and one even wonders at the appearance of freethinking so early in its history. One simple explanation is that when Islam expanded into foreign lands outside Arabia, Muslims came into contact with Egyptians, Syrians and Greeks living in these regions.
Greek philosophy and rational sciences existed in these lands and naturally influenced the early Muslims. Their blind faith in divine revelation was thus confronted by rational thought and many began to question the viability of the dogmas in the divine scriptures. Such an experience was quite new to the Muslims who were intellectually challenged to reconcile some of the implausible scriptural texts with reason. Most of the scientific accomplishments of Islamic civilization can be unquestionably located during this phase, when ijtihad or independent reasoning was the prerogative of the lay believer. This glorious era in the history of scientific accomplishments gradually came to a close from the eleventh century onwards, and ijtihad or freethinking became suspect and regarded as harmful to the future of Islam. The Quran as it was revealed to Prophet Mohammed is available to us, even today. But the religious leadership among Muslims, the hidden church or the invisible Vatican, does not allow us to engage with the revelation on our own terms. We are free to recite but not to interpret. There are some other reasons for the decline but this particular factor had an impact on the very spirit of Islam; taqlid (following established tradition) became the reigning paradigm and continues even today.
Book: Jihad or Ijtihad Religious Orthodoxy and Modern Science in Contemporary Islam; By: S. Irfan Habib; Price: Rs. 299; Format: Demy Paper Back; Extent: 200 pages; Category: Non-fiction