Science, History, and Atheism: Q&A with Asadullah Ali

Asadullah Ali Al-Andalusi is the founder of the Andalusian Project, an independent academic institute which seeks to revive Muslim intellectualism in the 21st century.  He is also a research fellow for Yaqeen Institute and a member of the Muslim Debate Initiative. He holds degrees in both Western and Islamic Philosophy and a Masters in Library and Information Science. He is an academic librarian by profession.

  1. In your article, The Structure of Scientific Productivity, you critique the myth of pinning blame in this narrative of the decline of Islamic civilization on Imam al-Ghazali as part of an erroneous notion that scientific successes were not – and still aren’t – bolstered by Islamic values. However, the question “where are the Muslim contributions to science if untrue?” still persists. Is it a matter of lost Islamic history, political socioeconomic circumstances, or something else?”

Thank you for your interests in this subject. Many people (especially Muslims) are not aware of our scientific and intellectual history, so I always appreciate the opportunity to discuss these matters.

Regarding your first question, the Orientalists’ narrative is not just about downplaying Islamic values, but conforming to a Western sentiment that religious values can never be responsible for any sort of progress or scientific/technological advancement — that religion can only contribute to stagnation or destruction. This sentiment is largely derived from European historical experiences of institutionalized religion and how, more specifically, the Catholic Church treated scientific ingenuity and individual autonomy as “heretical”.  Although this history is often exaggerated, this is where this sentiment is derived and ultimately projected on to how Muslims have normatively viewed the physical sciences, which was in total contrast to this narrative. 

That said, I think your question is interesting because it reveals just how erroneous this narrative is. How so? The idea that the Muslim world is “more religious” today and therefore “less productive” in scientific contributions betrays the historical record and also calls into question Western countries’ own scientific productivity. 

It was precisely because Muslims had shared religious identity goals that the Golden Age was possible. The Classical Narrative of the Orientalists assumes that the “rationalist” school of thought (i.e. the Mu’tazila) were the primary reason behind the rise of scientific productivity and the subsequent centuries of progress, but the reality is that the Golden Age began before they even came on the scene. And their flavor of theology only had administrative power for a measly 33 years. Now, I’m not a math genius by any means, but using a little bit of logic, it doesn’t seem likely that such a group had a great deal of influence on the Islamic scientific tradition that not only began before their existence, but lasted seven centuries after them. And it also seems highly implausible that just one man (Imam al-Ghazali) could destroy that influence, because it not only never existed, but much less did scientific productivity come to a dramatic end in the 12th century (in fact, it lasted for another four!).

As for the West, many anti-religious historians and lay people ignore the fact that the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods of Western civilization were largely spearheaded by religious individuals — many who actually despised atheists. These periods of intellectual and scientific productivity were mostly opposed to religious institutions that had become corrupted by politics. For example, the 16th century C.E. Protestant Reformation wasn’t about opposing Christianity, but the Catholic Church and its numerous corrupt policies. Even Luther himself was still staunchly Catholic in his beliefs and probably didn’t expect what would become of his protest against his superiors (i.e. thousands of sects later). This preceded and likely influenced the 18th century Enlightenment era, where staunchly religious figures, such as John Locke, developed the concept of social contract theory and the separation between Church and state, which underpin many secular democracies today. 

With all this in mind, we have to examine other, more realistic, possibilities behind the decline and the contemporary malaise in the Islamic scientific tradition. There are a number of factors which I believe are already well-established, but they mostly center around what I view as ‘external factors’ involving political, economic, and military systems. In other words, many historians have been able to point to a great deal of instability within Muslim socieites due to mismanagement of government as well as constant pressure from warring foreign nations. However, since the Orientalists’ narrative has been challenged within academia, there has been little discussion on what the ‘internal factors’ were behind the current lack of scientific productivity among Muslims. These ‘internal factors’ I regard as mostly intellectual and cultural influences that power and influence the ‘external factors’ — so, for me, these are the most important. 

According to my research, the decline of scientific productivity in the Muslim world really began around the 16th-17th century C.E. during the reign of the Ottoman Empire, when madrassa education was becoming more standardized and certain textbooks were being implemented into the curriculum. What’s most curious about this period was that there appeared to be a revival of Aristotelian natural philosophy among students and teachers — the very philosophy which scholars like Imam Ghazali opposed in his Tahafut. Not much is known as to why this philosophy came back into vogue, but what can be ascertained from historical records is that the Western world at the time was beginning to reject Aristotelianism (e.g. Descartes) and advancing in the empirical sciences. As a result of seeing the rise of this “new philosophy” in Western lands, Muslims reacted by readopting a tradition of philosophy they felt might prove as a competitor to the growing progress of their enemies. As a result, scientific productivity began to stagnate because Muslims were utilizing outmoded concepts of physics, biology, etc. inherited from the Greeks — systems and modes of thought they had already modified and advanced beyond a few centuries prior. This is why, well after the 16th century, we see Muslims borrowing more and more science and technology from the West in order to compete with them. And since then all we can do now is borrow, because we lost our tradition of ingenuity for technological and scientific expedience. 

This, combined with numerous external factors and contemporary issues, is why the Muslim world is where it is today, and it won’t see another Golden Age until it stops relying on traditions outside its own. 

  1. When did the conception of there being a dichotomy between religion and science, especially as opposites in conflict, emerge? Has the meaning of the term science changed over the centuries?

    This sentiment has always existed among atheists of the past, but it didn’t become a mainstream view until after the Enlightenment, when more modern thinkers started to fashion perverse myths about this time period (around the 19th-20th centuries). Again, most Enlightenment thinkers weren’t opposed to religion per se, but targeted specific religious beliefs and religious institutions. Even where you find “anti-religious” sentiments among some Enlightenment thinkers, they most refer to their own culture’s religious proclivities. For example, although Voltaire was regarded as staunchly opposed to Chrsitian doctrines and its establishment, he would often use Islamic beliefs and practices as more rational and positive alternatives (although he didn’t agree with Islam either). In other words, the sentiment of “science vs. religion” today is quite different from what it was a few centuries ago.

    That said, the term ‘science’ has had a number of revisions over the centuries. For most of human history, a ‘science’ was really any field of study, from philosophy to the physical sciences we know today. For example, the Greeks called biology and physics “natural philosophy.” Even the early Muslims viewed ‘science’ in this fashion, taking any systematic study of a subject matter as a ‘science’ (e.g. science of hadith, science of tafsir, etc.). It was only during the Enlightenment and after that the definition of ‘science’ began to be narrowly defined as the systematic study of the empirical.
  1. Is there such a thing as an objective scientific history? Who tells the story and what does it mean? 


That’s not an easy question to answer, especially given that the word ‘objective’ can be taken in two ways. If you mean ‘objective’ as in “factual”, then I can answer affirmatively, but if you’re using the word to mean “beyond the limited perspective of the individual”, then I’d have to answer in the negative. Everything is subjectively determined because we as the subject cannot go beyond our own perspective of these events — we are not omniscient. That said, I do believe we can determine historical events and their influences with a great deal of accuracy (given the information we have on hand). While there are always details we’ll have to speculate about, I think we can all agree on general narratives. For instance, I think we can easily reject the Orientalists’ narrative about Islamic scientific history, because it’s largely incoherent and doesn’t conform to other facts in history. 

And yes, I do agree that our biases can skew the data, but this doesn’t necessitate that there isn’t something factual or erroneous about that view. I think we’re too focussed on people’s biases these days that we don’t bother to examine just how fallacious that concern can be. Biases can only inform us of how people will perceive things, not about how wrong their perception is. In other words, everyone is biased, but some biases are correct, whereas others are wrong. And we can only determine that based on the data we have on hand and the tools of rational investigation (e.g. logic). Whether our biases are correct or not is entirely dependent on our ability to discern whether they’re coherent and conform to the evidence on hand. And sometimes, our biases are so strong that we dismiss things without good reason. However, in my view, this has more to do with psychology than philosophy. So yes, I believe we can have an ‘objective’ understanding of history, but how we arrive there can be difficult considering that human beings don’t always operate on purely rational grounds.

  1. What can and can’t science answer?

Going by the contemporary definition of the term, ‘science’ can only deal with physical phenomena and nothing more. Anything beyond the physical realm or at the level of the abstract cannot be tested or experimented on in any physical manner. For example, questions on God’s existence make no sense scientifically nor should they. Likewise, most of the things that we regard as ‘real’ and make us human, such as love, morality, freedom, purpose, beauty, etc. have no scientific basis nor can they be justified scientifically. In other words, science cannot determine all of mankind’s greatest concerns and questions, largely making it irrelevant for most things. 

This is not to say that science is irrelevant in totality, but I think too many people today (especially Muslims) put too much stock into something that doesn’t even reflect 90% of the human experience or our values. We should be concerned with science, but we’ve become so obsessed with it that we’ve misplaced our energy with it and not used it as it should be used. It seems to me that Muslims are more concerned with making sure the Qur’an and Sunnah conform with modern science than them actually doing science, and this is one of the reasons we’re so behind today, both with regard to our understanding of science and our religion. 

  1. Does science lead to naturalism and vice versa?

Contemporary science doesn’t necessitate philosophical Naturalism, no. I think that is an extreme view which has largely been adopted by philosophically illiterate scientists and their followers who think themselves more intelligent and special than they really are. 

That said, I do believe those who follow philosophical naturalism must adopt a purely scientific worldview, because that’s all science deals with. However, I’ve never seen a ‘pure Naturalist’ who thinks in strictly materialistic terms. It’s not possible, because human beings think, value, and communicate beyond these restrictions. So these individuals are actually quite hypocritical from a pragmatist perspective. Simply put, to be a ‘pure Naturalist’ is to not be human at all, and no human being is capable of that. 

  1. What is philosophy of science? Is an Islamic philosophy of science possible?

The philosophy of science is basically attempts at understanding science beyond its praxis — to understand the intellectual influences behind science, its history, the construction of theories, its limitations, etc. It is thinking about science to understand what science really is and how it operates.

And yes, there is an Islamic philosophy of science. Historically, Muslims have largely been instrumentalists (i.e. modern day pragmatism) in their approach towards science, utilizing it as a tool to fulfill certain values, contrary to Aristotelian philosophy which believed that the physical sciences could not be understood outside their own metaphysical assumptions.

That said, despite some differences I may have with certain thinkers, I believe that Islamic philosophy of science is still alive today. Philosophers such as Syed Naquib al-Attas, Osman Bakar, and Ziauddin Sardar are on the forefront of developing an authentic Islamic philosophy of science (among other things), but they are largely ignored by the ummah. Why? I can only conclude that most Muslims lack concern for intellectual pursuits as complex and nuanced as this. As far as I’m concerned, the fact that most Muslims don’t even know these names is a testament to the fact that our complaints about “decline” are largely superficial, which is part of the problem. 

  1. Is instrumentalism the right way to think about science?

Yes, because science is ultimately a tool for studying the natural world. As such, it can be nothing more than an instrument to fulfill human goals, which are predicated on our values. It cannot define our values, because it is what we value that defines the direction of our scientific pursuits. 

  1. As atheism is on the rise and religious orthodoxy is positioned as contrary to reason, how do you think Muslims should approach topics like evolution, Big Bang theory, etc.?

Well, first I think Muslims need to stop projecting modern science into scripture and stop projecting scripture onto modern science. They are both about two different things entirely. The Qur’an and Sunnah are about 90% of the human experience — our values, morals, and the hereafter. Science deals with the other 10% (the physical realm). Today we take extremes by trying to validate one with the other. It doesn’t work that way and I think this understanding is largely to blame for the rise of atheism and negative perceptions of religious orthodoxy (at least among Muslims). 

As for evolution, the big bang, etc. We need to understand that although these theories are not infallible and can change, they are still the best thing we have at the moment. That said, I don’t believe any contemporary theory “conflicts” with Islam. Maybe some details do (e.g. common descent vs. Adam and Eve), but overall these theories are pretty sound and should be utilized until new paradigms are found which work better for us. In the meantime, we need to adopt and modify these theories to better conform to our values and assist us in succeeding in this world and the hereafter. Muslims who eschew these theories because they are “Western” are actually acting in opposition to the early Muslim community, which adopted Greek scientific thought and modified it accordingly. This is how the Golden Age came into existence, because we didn’t allow science to define our religion and vice versa. On the contrary, we took what was beneficial and threw out what we viewed as unsound. Greek astronomy? Awesome, because it works well. Astrology? Complete nonsense, because it’s actually pseudoscience mixed with Greek metaphysics and conflicts with our beliefs as Muslims. So why can’t we do the same today? Instead, you have many Muslims rejecting theories wholesale because of one detail — because they cannot demarcate between the physical and the metaphysical, the useful and the useless.

It’s not that our ummah lacks intelligence, but that we lack effort and integrity. Most Muslims are more concerned with football matches, UFC, moon debates, tall buildings, and whether we have the latest mobile devices, so it’s no surprise to me that we’re having difficulty understanding these issues, because we’re not actually trying to think about them beyond the memes we see on social media. And it’s precisely these attitudes which are making “science vs. religion” an issue to begin with.

I could rant all day long, but until Muslims are willing to actually engage their intellectual tradition with sincerity, we will continue to have these problems. 

  1. What are the impacts of science on society today? How have these ethical questions opened up new opportunities for Islamic discourse and interdisciplinary research programs?

The impacts are numerous and very different than what the world has been used to. For example, today we live in what is called the ‘Information Age’, a time of unprecedented communication and access to information. Technology has advanced to such an extent that the physical realm can now be formally divided into two: the ‘apparent space’ and the ‘virtual space’. We literally occupy two separate spaces at once and even thrive in them with different identities. This is not only incredible, but confusing. As Muslims, we need to learn how to navigate this new age and use it to our advantage. In fact, we should be its pioneers, because it was Muslims who really developed the first true universities and libraries. Yet, today, we treat universities and libraries as secondary concerns or only means to getting a degree so we can work a high paying job (therefore showing that our values have shifted from producing knowledge to simply getting a paycheck). 

Today, the Internet functions as a space with little to no rules. Information is everywhere, but it’s not very well curated. Muslims should be at the forefront of influencing this space by developing databases, search engines, news sites, and other social media tools that are far more healthy and productive to engage with than the nonsense we are faced with on a daily basis. We should be developing new mediums and tools to live in this space and better it for everyone, because much of what’s on the Internet violates more than just ethics, but corrupts our understanding of the world in general. Conspiracy theories are believed more than ever. Everyone has become an “expert” by virtue of good marketing and sensationalism. Pornography and fake news are rampant. Abuse, deception, and ignorance are considered normal. Yet, instead of fixing these problems, Muslims choose to simply become a part of this chaos, utilizing the same flawed systems instead of developing alternatives. 

So, if we want to do better, I think Muslims on the whole need to learn basic information literacy and the information sciences. We need to then develop new ways forward for ourselves and humanity in general. Unfortunately, the reason we aren’t doing anything also has to do with our own cultural perspectives in the ‘apparent space’. You no longer see many Muslims entering academia or librarianship because the only “acceptable jobs” are those that conform to our current values — money and individualism. Many Muslims are more concerned with high paying jobs that grant them a “successful” status among their peers than they are with those values Islam obligates us to cherish most: the pursuit, comprehension, and preservation of knowledge. 

May Allah facilitate us towards a better future and wake this ummah from its self-induced slumber.

One thought on “Science, History, and Atheism: Q&A with Asadullah Ali

  1. “That said, I don’t believe any contemporary theory “conflicts” with Islam. Maybe some details do (e.g. common descent vs. Adam and Eve)”

    Common descent is a well established fact and the evidence for it is overwhelming. Perhaps Asadullah should learn some basic information literacy himself and then he would realize this and not think beyond a meme when it comes to common descent.

    Like

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