Religious Leaders Need Basics of Scientific Thinking
BYLINE: Anwar Mall
The Urdu Literary Society of the Western Cape (Bazme Adab) has distributed a booklet, A Heritage of Inspiration, a collection of articles covering the developmental aspects of Indian culture, language, religion and history, against a background of Islamic history in South Africa and India.
One of the articles, "African history from the dawn of time to the end of the slave trade", was written by a group of authors that included Professor Ali Mazrui, the renowned and prolific African historian.
This in itself is nothing out of the ordinary because many such pieces abound in history books, journals, newspapers and magazines.
The opening paragraphs of this article described the origin of humankind and the birth of modern humans (Homo sapiens) from an evolutionary point of view, using evidence largely gathered by palaeontology, which traces the development of modern humans from their ancestral origins.
Again, this subject has been exhausted in textbooks of anthropology, palaeontology and genetics, together with thousands of articles on the topic annually in scientific journals worldwide, ever since Charles Darwin published his seminal work in 1859. Africa is now convincingly considered "the cradle of mankind" by those who subscribe to this theory. Unfortunately, Darwin's theory divided the world into two broad camps, those for and against Darwinian evolution, and the debate rages on.
So what is the shout about? Well, this is the first time in my experience that a journal linked to Muslim cultural and religious activities has published information on evolution in such a matter-of-fact way, and as a Muslim I am delighted by this.
My focus here is on Muslims and Islam in general, because I despair of the Islamophobia that has taken over the world, and the beleaguered state Muslims find themselves in generally, be it in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, or wherever.
How do Muslims, despite the ravages of colonialism and imperialism, regain a sense of dignity and move forward in the 21st century?
The fact that Mazrui, a practising Muslim, co-authored this article suggests to me that there may be more people in this seemingly unlikely quarter who are prepared to cross the boundaries defined by their faiths, and explore the many ideas created by scientific efforts without feeling compromised.
They have no fear that engaging with scientific findings would diminish their faith and belief. Happily, this seems to be a growing trend worldwide, with lively debates among thinking people of various backgrounds. It is perfectly rational and logical for human beings of whatever creed to be curious about the big questions of existence, our origins and the meaning of this "thing" we so glibly call "life".
It is extremely sad many do not engage with these issues because their curiosity was dampened at an early age by parents and teachers who, perhaps with good intentions, protected them from dabbling in what were considered dangerous ideas. But it is even sadder that many religious leaders, be they Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Jewish or of whichever persuasion, actively urge their followers to refrain from asking such questions, fearing the weakening of their faiths. This has given rise to the narrow-minded fundamentalism (and I do not use this term in the belittling way it is commonly used against Muslims) and ignorance we experience.
The consequences are there for all to see, with the Western world having made enormous strides in science, technology and the arts (much of the foundation for which, ironically, was laid by Muslim scholars), while the gap between the West and the rest of the world increasingly widens. Instead of withdrawing into a laager, Muslims should take on the cause of education, especially in science and technology, and not reject it as mere worldly knowledge, an attitude that has had dire consequences, as in Iraq, where a superpower, on a faked premise, invades a Muslim country, destroys it, steals its oil and leaves behind only misery for its people.
Science depends on empiricism, verifiable by observation, experience and experiment, rather than speculation or even pure logic. Scientific theories are consistently under scrutiny and have to stand the test of time.
The advances humanity has made, especially in the last century, are due to scientific endeavour. The universe slowly yields its secrets, and the knowledge gained in the last few decades has increased in leaps and bounds and, in most cases, has been of great benefit to humanity. Examples include the discovery of vaccines and the eradication of epidemics, the amazing advances of modern medical, surgical and engineering techniques, space travel, modes of transport, modern architecture, the internet revolution, forms of communication, the sequencing of the genome ... the list is endless and the quality of lives of modern human beings has undeniably improved phenomenally, compared to a century ago. People from all walks of life have benefited from these modern inventions which, in almost every case, have been the product of scientific thinking.
In 2006, Ehsan Masood, a commentator on science in developing countries, wrote in the journal Nature that today's Muslim states barely register on indices of scientific research, and indications are that the situation is set to get worse.
It was recently reported that the majority of PhD studies in Saudi Arabia are in theology, and that oil- rich countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait spend only 0.2% of their gross domestic product on science. This situation belies history and the basic teachings of Islam, considering that science thrived during the classical period of Islam, and Islamic inventors certainly changed the world. It is also at odds with the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed, who felt "an hour's study of nature is better than a year's prayer".
Some influential religious leaders have expressed concern about this. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi of Qatar said recently that he had three daughters with PhDs from British universities, and one was honoured for being one of the few nuclear physicists in the Muslim world.
"He is passionate in his belief that such educational opportunities should be available to all men and women in the Islamic world," wrote Madeleine Bunting of the Guardian.
Even the Pope has been quoted as saying faith alone could not explain the whole picture and youngsters should adopt "an interaction of various dimensions of reason". His predecessor remarked in 1996 that Darwin's theories were sound as long as they took into account that creation was the work of God.
Whether we agree with these sentiments or not, there is clearly a concern that huge advances in knowledge and rapid scientific advances, together with the increasing hunger of the younger generations to know, will put pressure on religions and religious leaders to offer deeper interpretations of existence.
My message is simple. Knowledge obtained by the application of sound scientific principles deserves serious consideration and is not to be scoffed at. It need not entirely be in contradiction with other belief systems.
Religious leaders need to at least equip themselves with the basics of scientific thinking to accommodate the need for guidance from the restless younger generations. We also need to celebrate the advances made through scientific thinking and encourage more of our younger people to pursue knowledge - to specialise in whatever field they choose and to keep abreast of developments in other areas of knowledge.
There should be no fear in critically exploring any aspect of knowledge. We live in the 21st century and we need to engage with it at all levels.
l Mall is associate professor in surgical research in the Department of Surgery, University of Cape Town. He writes in his personal capacity.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Religious Leaders Need Basics of Scientific Thinking. Contributors: Not available. Newspaper title: Cape Times (South Africa). Publication date: October 12, 2007. Page number: 11. © 2009 Independent News & Media PLC. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.