Religious Leaders Need Basics of Scientific Thinking

Article excerpt

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. …