Islam and Science: A False Statement of the Problem

By Gutas, Dimitri | Islam & Science, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Islam and Science: A False Statement of the Problem


Gutas, Dimitri, Islam & Science


Stating the problem under discussion as "Islam and Science" is false because this formulation implies that there is such a thing as a reified and ahistorical and hence immutable "Islam" that is responsible for advancing or impeding scientific activity, both past and present. In fact, Islam, like all other religions, is the specific ideology of a particular, historically determined society (i.e., Islam in Baghdad in the 830s, in Damascus in 1300, in Cairo around 1000, etc.) and has itself no historical agency; what that particular society accomplishes in the way of science wholly depends on who is using that ideology (if it is being used) and to what ends. The analysis of scientific activity in Islamic societies, therefore, can proceed only from the investigation of the social and political factors at play in each particular case. Injecting the notion of "Islam" into these discussions merely obfuscates the issue and confuses students, distracting them from historical analysis and political action.

Keywords: Islam and Science; problem of formulation of relationship; Islamic tradition; normative practice; early history of Islam.

The problem that this journal is established to discuss with the hope that eventually some solutions may emerge, is stated in terms which themselves are part of the problem. The expression "Islam and Science" contains two terms, each of which, unless there are further qualifications--and there usually aren't--is taken to represent a self-contained and essential entity, and the implied question (made explicit in the editor's guideline statement to the author of these remarks) is that of their compatibility and mutual relation both now and in history. It is as if the problem were, to put it in plain terms, if Islam was responsible for the glory of medieval Islamic civilization and the emergence of hundreds of scientists who taught not only Muslims but also Europeans, then why is the same Islam not creating the same circumstances of scientific efflorescence today (or, to put the second question negatively, why is Islam responsible for the decay and scientific backwardness that one sees today in the Islamic world). This understanding and formulation of the problem are completely false. They are false because "Islam" was no more responsible for the achievements of the medieval scientists than it is responsible for the present decay. There are two basic reasons for this.

First, there is no such thing as a monolithic, essential "Islam" which can be seen as the historical agent of these developments both in history and the present. This notion of "Islam" as an irreducible entity that can be precisely defined and taken to be the agent of all change in Muslim societies is basically an idealist orientalist notion that has no historical validity either in representing historical reality or in explaining history. (1) At the same time, however, it also has its counterpart in the Muslim notion of an ideal "Islam" as existing at the time of the Prophet which is taken to be normative. A kind of Islam at the time of the Prophet certainly did exist, but it was neither monolithic nor normative: it was in constant flux as it was developing throughout the Prophet's career, something which was indirectly acknowledged by the early Muslim scholars who, first, categorized and discriminated the Qur'anic surahs into Makkan and Madinan periods, and second, established prior and posterior stages in the development of Qur'anic and hence Muslim dogma through their use of asbab al-nuzul criticism and especially that of al-jarh wa'l-ta[AA]dil. If, therefore, one wishes to adopt as normative an idealized "Islam" during the time of the Prophet one would have to decide which year's--or even months'--version in the life of the Prophet that "Islam". And if that is taken as normative, it would invalidate all later and positive developments in Islamic dogma which allowed it to adapt to changing circumstances. There is, then, no historical essential "Islam" either in the orientalist view or that of Muslims who would locate it in the time of the Prophet. …

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