Academic journal article Islam & Science

An Unfortunate Response: Iqbal on Gutas

Academic journal article Islam & Science

An Unfortunate Response: Iqbal on Gutas

Article excerpt

This rejoinder is a further contribution to the debate begun by M. Iqbal and D. Gutas on the differing perspectives and methodological assumptions of faith-based and secular approaches to the study of the history of science in religious cultures. While the arguments presented are to some degree ad hominem, they do aim to highlight certain logical inconsistencies in the conceptualization of the role of religion in the study of science and in the revisionist portrayal of Islam as a causal agent that functions independently of its adherents.

Keywords: Normative Islam; polemic; rationalism; history of religions; agency; Qur'an, revelation; exegesis; sociobiology.

Muzaffar Iqbal's rebuttal (Islam & Science, Vol. 1, 2003, No.2) of Dimitri Gutas' "Islam and Science: Responding to a False Approach" (ib.) is an emotional reaction to what he explicitly calls a "frontal attack" on Islam (221). It is also a regrettable one. It is regrettable that Iqbal chose the polemical terms he did for his published response. It is regrettable that Iqbal is not prepared to explore that "secular" approach to the study of the history of religions for which he condemns Gutas' contribution to the question. But perhaps most regrettable is that Iqbal's insistent and unyielding interpretation of Islam will be neither of particular interest to contemporary historians of Islamic societies nor profitable for its intended Muslim audience.

Gutas makes two rather simple points in identifying what he terms a "false" approach to the question of there being a relationship between Islam and the scientific endeavors of past Muslims: (i) there is no "normative" or "essential" definition of Islam good for all times and places, so to use the term "Islam" without qualification when identifying a reason for scientific endeavors in Islamic civilizations is not a useful approach to historical analysis; and (ii) "Islam", however construed, does not in itself have any historical agency: Since Islam is not a force of nature, there must necessarily be individuals who may employ rhetorical constructs drawn from their own religious beliefs or the beliefs of the majority of their contemporaries to effect change or, in this case, to encourage or discourage scientific investigation.

Gutas draws evidence for these postulates from two periods in Islamic history. The first period (and the one he knows most about) is the Graeco-Arabic translation movement, initiated and sustained by the 'Abbasid caliphate and scholarly circles of Baghdad in the ninth-eleventh centuries. Here, the primary agent of the translation movement is identified as the Caliph al-Ma'mun who employed religious rhetoric to secure legitimation as ruler of the Islamic empire after his fratricidal rise to power. The second period, less precisely defined by Gutas, but covering broadly the eleventh-fourteenth centuries, is represented by key intellectuals of the Western lands of the Islamic world who evince marked differences of opinion on the religious suitability of the employment of Aristotelian logic as an epistemological tool. In both of his examples, Gutas seeks to present the multiple interpretations of Islamic sensibilities that were espoused by scholars and rulers to the entirely antithetical ends of promoting or opposing scientific inquiry based on the Greek rationalistic model.

As part of his larger theory, Gutas notes that the development of Islamic doctrines and beliefs was recognized as a historical, evolutionary process by early generations of Muslim thinkers and that the diversity of opinions that were recognized, debated and codified by the representatives of the various legal (and we may add: theological) schools of early Islam is indicative of those multiple approaches to the interpretation of the religion.

None of this is spectacularly revolutionary in scope, methodology or conclusion. We must assume that Gutas' point lies in the very reiteration of this general scholarly approach to the history of Islamic intellectual trends and scientific developments. …

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