Tuesday February 12, 2013
Is it Islamic science or science that is Islamic?
CURRENTLY an impressive exhibition called “Sultans of Science” is being held at the Petrosains in Kuala Lumpur.
It showcases the achievements of science and technology in Islamic civilisation during the 8th to 15th centuries, manifested in the centres of knowledge of the Middle Ages in Cordoba, Baghdad and Samarkand among others.
To those interested in the debate concerning Islamic Science or potentially a science that does not separate knowledge about nature and the ethical values that attend the application of such knowledge, the exhibition beckons us to examine once again the current concerns voiced by leaders and scientists about the crisis of unsustainability most obvious and immediate in the environmental and economic context.
Those who may not be too familiar with the debate should be informed of the misunderstanding between the proponents of “Islamis science and those for whom the term “Islamic Science” is deemed oxymoronic.
While proponents of this find numerous recent scientific theories and technological inventions in the Quran, the opponents reduce the 800 years of Islamic scientific tradition/achievement to a mere depot that kept Greek Science intact until it was recovered by its rightful European heir.
Whatever their differences, both sides of the debate might be happy to note that it is now accepted universally (and this has already happened as shown by the success of exhibitions such as the Sultans of Science by Petroscience which by the way has travelled through several non-Islamic countries before coming to Malaysia).
That great men and women of the past – mathematicians, astronomers, chemists, physicians, architects, economists, sociologists, artists, artisans and educators did express their religiosity through beneficial contributions to society and humanity during the “Golden Age of Islam”.
The record shows that they did so positively, constructively and with open mindedness alongside Muslims and non-Muslims.
Similar exhibitions in Britain such as “The 1001 inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World” under the auspices of the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC) Britain, have received praise from the popular and specialist media, the public, the education community and academe as it has spurred thousands to re-evaluate their perception and understanding of the so called “Dark Ages” in the West and the role of Muslim Civilisation in laying the foundations of modern science and technology.
In Britain, there are some who even ask why the material is not in the British national curriculum.
Sir Roland Jackson, chief executive of the British Association for the Advancement of Science believes that such demonstrations as the 1001 Inventions Exhibition is a welcome and much needed reminder that Muslims had made many important and far reaching contributions to the development of our shared scientific knowledge and technologies.
Coming back to the here and now, even if there once existed a scientific tradition that can be described as Islamic, what is urgently needed is proof and demonstration (Burhan and Muzaharah) of its applicability and relevance in the contemporary situation.
Unless such a demonstration is produced, arguments for or against Islamic science will not have the impact or effect that it is supposed to have.
For Muslims especially, to move forward from mere historical nostalgia, a fundamental framework of thinking and action that needs to emerge is a scientific tradition that is based on the foundational principles of the study of nature anchored in the Quran and Sunnah whose content are actually meant for all of mankind.
Working on the concept of the last five decades, a small group of Muslim scholars describe Islamic science as science that sees the natural world as a sign (ayat) of God who created it in the first place and who is continuously sustaining it.
This science is the tool for the utilisation of the limitless bounties in nature given by him who is the merciful and the compassionate (Rahman/Rahim), for the benefit of humanity, who via an adab (manner/ethics) manifests the organic relationship of himself with nature as well as with the Creator.
As the thinking species/homosapiens, man is steward/khalifatullah. This is linked to another critical characteristic of science practiced through the Islamic Worldview, which is the relationship (ethical, just, non-wasting, caring) between scientific research and the real/true needs of humanity and nature.
If the Muslim position on science is quite clear, why is it that despite the existence of thousands of distinguished scientists who are Muslim, one cannot find Muslim scientists dedicated (or so it would seem) to the exploration of the natural world from within the Islamic Worldview, says Muzaffar Iqbal, a contemporary writer on science.
He goes on to ask whether Islamic science is possible in the contemporary world, then. A positive answer is not to write another thesis but to realise that science and its products today should not be just a hand maiden to greed-driven economy and destructive tools of those who possess them.
As an enterprise, modern science cannot and does not stand alone, it is a subset of a view that sees nature as being non-created, belonging to man alone to use any way he sees fit, and what is “fit” is at best (if he respects his fellow humans who have views different from himself) the outcome of a dialogue and at worst, upon that which is believed by the strongest.
By stating the above, we do not deny that science (once close to religion and values as attested to by the success of Islamic science during the Golden Age and its applications) has not given humanity critically important discoveries, techniques and products.
But when it removed the Creator from the Cosmos (order) it runs the danger of exceeding limits (hudud) and balances (mizan) making up that Cosmos and existing in that nature of which even our bodies and sensations are a part of.
It is an imperative that the scientific and its related communities cannot continue to dichotomise nor compartmentalise faith and science which must be harmonised to give rise to a unified moral/physical (Ilmu/amal) commitment.
In a small measure, perhaps the Sultans of Science Exhibition can show how such a proposition may not only be a rhetoric.
In Malaysia, we have fantastic potential given the scientific talents and institutions that abound, to realise such a commitment.