What is Missing at the Heart of the Islam and Science Nexus?

A Book Review of Islam, Science, Muslims and Technology: Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Conversation with Muzaffar Iqbal

What is the Islamic attitude toward modern science and technology?”

This centuries-old question may have crossed every Muslim’s mind from the late 19th century until recently. However, the answers offered by scholars and activists are varied and at times at odds with one another. This reflects a general lack of understanding of the issue by many parties, all adding to the confusion of an already contentious issue.

Some Islamic reformers equivocally equated the word “science” with “al-‘ilm” while quoting the renowned ḥadīth, “seeking knowledge (al-‘ilm) is an obligation upon every Muslim,” in an attempt to provide religious justification to the uncritical acquisition of modern science and technology. In line with this, some nationalists also hastily concluded that the Muslim world fell behind the West because of the former’s lack of modern science and technology. It is, and only after we have caught up with the West that we can stand on our own feet. However, Muslim nations have made no significant scientific jump despite their massive efforts to blindly acquire modern science and technology. Furthermore, this simplistic view is problematic when faced with the various challenges posed by modern science and technology to Islam, ranging from the theoretical aspects such as the question of the origin of life and the universe, to the practical ones such as the devastation of nature and morally questionable technologies like reproductive cloning.

Under this backdrop, Islam, Science, Muslims and Technology: Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Conversation with Muzaffar Iqbal provides new facets to the old Islam vis-à-vis the modern science and technology discourse. At the heart of this book are the four interview-style conversations between Iqbal and Nasr – two leading scholars of the field – originally published in the Islam & Science journal. It covers various discussions on Islam and modern science and technology: Islam, Science, and Muslims (ch.3); Islam, Muslims, and Modern Technology (ch.4); On the Environmental Crisis (ch.5); On the Biological Origins (ch.6).

The first two chapters serve as a background for the four wide-ranging conversations. In “The Context” (ch.1), Iqbal recalls his first personal encounter with Nasr at the International Conference on Science and Islamic Polity in the Twenty-First Century, organized by the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH) in Islamabad (Pakistan), March 1995. Nasr was the keynote speaker for the conference and Iqbal was the organizer of the event.

Nasr, who was known for his critical position towards modern science and technology, eloquently explained his critique. He also called on Muslims for the (re)invention of Islamic science deeply rooted in an Islamic worldview:

Let us hope that in these dark hours of human history, the Islamic world, as the bearer of the message of God’s last revelation, can rise to the occasion to create a veritable Islamic science which would not only resuscitate this civilization, but also act as a major support for all those over the whole globe who seek a science of nature and a technology that could help men and women to live at peace with themselves, with the natural environment and above all, with that Divine Reality Who is the ontological Source of both man and the cosmos.[1]

However, the President of Pakistan simply put aside Nasr’s great vision in his inaugural address as the chairman of COMSTECH. He said:

You have spelled out a great vision, but I am afraid we need a different approach to modern science…We have already missed the Scientific and the Industrial Revolutions; if the Muslim world misses the current revolution of science, then we are doomed. We need to take bold and active steps to train our young scientists. We cannot afford to sit back and indulge in theoretical discussions at this stage.[2]

The President’s position was a re-articulation of religious and nationalist reformers that see science as a mere utility to gain power.[3] This is complicated even further by Ziauddin Sardar’s view, which views science as value-laden but only focuses on the social and utilitarian aspects, neglecting the philosophical and metaphysical foundations.[4] However, Iqbal noted that after two centuries, it seemed “the reformers’ discourse on modern science and technology has apparently won over the hearts and minds of most Muslims.”[5] In this context, it is the book’s purpose, according to Iqbal, to deal with the theoretical issues at the heart of the Islam and science discourse and the transformation of Muslim societies by the impact of modern science and technology.[6]

Chapter 2, “The Question of Cosmogenesis – the Cosmos as a Subject of Scientific Study,” serves as a framework for the four conversations. Whereas cosmology in the Islamic perspective begins and ends with God, and the cosmos is studied as the sign (āyah) of God, modern cosmology cuts the ties between nature and its Creator. As a result, the cosmos is perceived as an independent reality. Nasr illustrated this by narrating an example: 

If most of modern science and its philosophy see the order and regularity of the phenomena of nature as proof that the cosmos does not need God to function, Islam sees this very regularity as the sign of His Wisdom and Will ruling over the universe and as proof of His existence.[7] 

In chapter 3, the two scholars discuss various topics on Islam and modern science such as Muslim attitudes toward modern science, the Islamic tradition of learning revival, the cause of scientific activity decline in the Muslim world, and the issue of origins; some are not featured here due to the space limitation.

While Nasr agrees that the penetration of modern science and technology within the Muslim world is impossible to avoid, one should keep a critical eye on the constraints of its applications. This also calls for the mastery of modern science that is combined with a critical perspective based on the Islamic intellectual tradition.[8] On the intellectual level, we must show the shortcomings of modern science and provide a new framework on the Islamic philosophy of nature and Islamic science.[9]

This is intimately related to the revival of the Islamic tradition of learning. Unfortunately, this has been neglected in the Muslim world. Nasr commented on the present state of the so-called ‘Islamic University’: 

You may teach the Sharī’ah on one side, and modern science, modern sociology, and modern economics on the other side, and then call this an Islamic university, but in reality this does not constitute an Islamic university. An Islamic university is a university in which all subjects are viewed in the perspective of Islam and in which spiritual and ethical training accompanies academic and intellectual training.[10] 

He also makes a remark on the fact that the Muslim world’s’ “understanding of its own intellectual tradition is dependent upon Western studies of Islamic philosophy and the sciences.”[11] 

Chapter 4 is a continuation of the previous chapter, albeit focused on technology rather than science. He notes that while traditional technology was connected with art and subservient to the soul, modern technology marked by the Industrial Revolution was made mainly for serving economic purposes and has gained control over the human being.[12] 

Modern technology also marks a transfer of human knowledge and art to the machine, and takes away the creativity of humans. According to Nasr, this is precisely why working in the modern factory has become so boring and tedious, followed by the need for long vacations and the increasing ‘I hate Monday’ or ‘thank God it’s Friday’ attitude. It only exists because work has come to be emptied of spiritual content, thanks to the machine.[13] This is also why Nasr insists that technology is not neutral.

In the next chapter Nasr argues that the environmental crisis has deep spiritual, philosophical, and religious roots and causes.[14] While he is in favor of immediate solutions such as greenhouse gas reduction or alternative non-intrusive technologies, he is also convinced that such solutions are not going to solve the crisis in the long run.[15] What we need instead is a deep transformation of our understanding of nature and of the human state, of who we are, of what our relationship is with God and the natural environment which is His creation.[16] (For more on Nasr’s thought on ecological disaster and human spirituality, see Waqas Haque’s book review)

The last conversation highlights the question of biological origin, especially on the theory of evolution. Nasr makes his position clear that evolution is not merely a theory – it is an ideology.[17] There are three problems that stem from such an ideology: 1) the destruction of forms (Aristotelian) in the ultimate sense; 2) the reduction of causality to the horizontal plane; 3) the horizontalization of the vertical chain of Being.[18] The first problem is the most profound one, since it reduces the human being to only molecular structures.[19] Nasr also disagrees with Muslims that developed the idea of ‘theistic evolution,’ labelling it to be “no longer even scientific”[20] and explaining that it “cuts the Hand of God from His creation in a theological sense while claiming to believe in God.”[21] However, he still acknowledges the possibility of ‘micro-evolution’ as shown in the physiological difference of several human races due to environmental factors.[22]

Finally, we find Nasr’s keynote speech delivered to the COMSTECH conference in the seventh chapter. It re-emphasizes Nasr’s view on various aspects of the Islam and science discourse that were already addressed in the previous four chapters.

The book successfully elucidates the present state of “what is going on” in the Islam and science discourse. It also offers many hints on “how it should be done.” In a nutshell, this book argues that the metaphysical and philosophical foundations of modern science and technology are often overlooked by Muslims, and it is high time to formulate a critical judgment from an Islamic perspective. This is our shared responsibility in order to produce an authentic Islamic science deeply rooted in the Islamic intellectual tradition and worldview.

The “Suggested Readings” section is also presented to invite curious readers for more explorations, referring to many authoritative sources – mostly being Nasr’s and Iqbal’s books. However, I argue that the list should be extended to include more books such as Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas’ various writings, especially Islām and Secularism (1978), The Concept of Education in Islam (1980), Islām and the Philosophy of Science (1989), and Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islām (1995) – not only Al-Attas’ The Positive Aspects of Taṣawwuf (1981) as listed in the book. The four-volume Islam and Science: Historic and Contemporary Perspectives edited by Iqbal that were not yet present at the time of this book’s publication are also a major resource.

A comprehensive review is impossible to be made in this limited space, since the book covers many aspects of the Islam and science discourse. Nevertheless, I hope I have summarized some of the most important ones. A certain degree of repetition is bound to be found in this book, as acknowledged by Iqbal. However, the repetition is not a shortcoming, but instead reinforces the firm stance of both Nasr and Iqbal on the issue.

Works Cited:

  1. Nasser, Seyyed Hossein. Islam, Science, Muslims and Technology: Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Conversation with Muzaffar Iqbal. Islamic Book Trust, January 2009, p. 6.
  2. Ibid., pp. 6-7.
  3. Ibid., pp. 13-18.
  4. Ibid., pp. 18-19.
  5. Ibid., p. 23.
  6. Ibid., p. 25.
  7. Ibid., p. 40.
  8. Ibid., pp. 50-51.
  9. Ibid., p. 56.
  10. Ibid., p. 60.
  11. Ibid., p. 67.
  12. Ibid., pp. 91-94.
  13. Ibid., pp. 94-95.
  14. Ibid., pp. 124-125.
  15. Ibid., pp. 127, 129.
  16. Ibid., p. 125.
  17. Ibid., p. 148.
  18. Ibid., p. 151.
  19. See Ibid., pp. 160-163.
  20. Ibid., p. 149.
  21. Ibid., p. 155.
  22. See Ibid., p. 152.

About the Author: Juris Arrozy is an Indonesian currently living in The Netherlands to pursue his doctoral degree in Electrical Engineering. While not too busy reading papers and doing experiments in the lab, he also spends considerable time in following and analyzing the discourse between Islam and the modern world, with on emphasis on modern science & technology. You can find him on Twitter here.

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