A review of: Pervez Hoodbhoy, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and Battle for Rationality
By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat
Date: Wed, 20 Apr 2005 01:37:44 -0400 (EDT)
From: "Pervez Hoodbhoy"
Subject: Islam and Science -- A View From The Other Side Of The Divide
THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST DETAILED CRITIQUES OF MY BOOK. PERHAPS THE MOST ARTICULATE ONE YET BY AN ORTHODOX BELIEVER.
Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy. 2/04/2006
In this book, Dr. Hoodbhoy, a nuclear physicist, eloquently and usefully draws attention to the plight of science and technology in the Muslim world and to the need to do something about it. The book also makes some other helpful insights here and there about why, after centuries of brilliant achievements, science suffered such a fate in the Muslim world. But the book also suffers from some very serious flaws in its view of Islam and analysis of Islamic history.
VILIFICATION OF “RELIGIOUS ORTHODOXY”
To begin with the book shows insufficient appreciation of the fact that rationality and irrationality are almost always found together in every culture or group or individual, from Nobel laureate scientists to man on the street and therefore rationality has to battle within each of them. Failing to do justice to this self-evident fact, the author makes a sharp, almost black-and-white distinction between two tendencies in Islamic history, one irrational and represented by the “religious orthodoxy” and the other rational and represented by philosophers and scientists.
The tone for this outlook is set first in the subtitle of
the book and then in the foreword, written by Prof. Abdus Salam, the renowned
physicist. The subtitle, “Religious Orthodoxy and the
When we move from the title to the foreword, we find Salam condemning the ‘ulama` without mercy and without any qualifications. Although this review is about Hoodbhoy’a book, yet because of the stature of Salam as a physicist and the weight that some people might give to his views, it seems worthwhile to examine the foreword in some detail.
Salam divides the ‘ulama` into two categories. “First, there are the lay preachers whose major task is to lead prayers in the rural mosques and who earn their living by performing such functions as officiating marriage, death, and circumcision ceremonies and looking after the upkeep of the mosques.” With undisguised disdain the Nobel laureate suggests the following way to deal with them: “This is a professional class who should have scant interest in fundamentalist persecution once their livelihood is secured. If this can be guaranteed them … they would not retard the progress of science and technology.” What a brilliant solution! Classes that retard progress should be guaranteed livelihood so that other classes may be encouraged to retard progress!
“The second class of ‘ulama` is the damaging one. These are
men (without spiritual pretensions) who claim to interpret the Holy Qur`an,
issue excommunication fatwas … and give their view on all subjects –
politics, economics, law – in their Friday sermons. … The arrogance, the
rapacity, and the low level of common sense displayed by this class, as well as
its tolerance, has been derided by all poets and writers of any consequence in
Salam makes takfir (which he translates as excommunication and means declaring someone a non-believer or outside the fold of Islam) as the starting point of his analysis of what is wrong with the Muslim world and what to do about the promotion of science and technology there. Like the ‘ulama`, he condemns takfir without any qualifications. “What is the remedy that takfir does not recur”? Takfir is viewed here as bad without any exceptions. Yet is this position rational? Does not a group, whether religious or secular have the right to define itself? Can we not form a group by setting a basis in belief and practice for membership. And can we then not expel those members who have radically departed from that basis? A negative answer to these questions is the presupposition of Salam’s comments, which is clearly irrational. Indeed, takfir is not too different from Salam’s decision not to write a foreword for Hoodboy’s book (p. ix) if it did not agree with his views. Nobody can object to the condition that Salam imposed for writing the foreword. Similarly, no body can object to the right of a group to impose certain conditions for membership in it.
The disgust with which Salam treats a whole class of people and his categorical and unqualified rejection of the very idea of takfir is not understandable on any rational grounds. But it begins to make sense once we keep in mind that Salam belongs to the Qadiyani sect which is one of the very few sects, if not the only one, that Muslims have, with a level of unanimity rarely achieved in Islamic history, declared outside the fold of Islam. This makes him lose sight of two very obvious facts: 1) groups do have the right to decide what they stand for and insist that people either subscribe to their foundational principles or leave; and 2) a whole class of people cannot be so uniformly disgusting as Salam makes the ‘ulama` to be.
The vilification of the ‘ulama` started in the foreword by Salam is continued in the book by Hoodbhoy, although while Salam demonizes the ‘ulama because they declared the Qadiyani sect to be outside the fold of Islam, Hoodbhoy’s motivation comes from a negative attitude towards religion itself.
Hoodboy presents as “heroes” (p. 107) some Muslim scientists and philosophers who supposedly held very unconventional views about Islam such as al-Kindi, al-Razi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Ibn Khaldun while he turns other brilliant leaders and thinkers such as ‘Umar bin al-Khattab and al-Ghazali into villains. This strict division between villains and heroes, as is often the case, proves to be mistaken under scrutiny. Thus one “orthodox villain” Ibn Taymiyyah considered another “orthodox villain” al-Ghazali as misguided. Similarly, Ibn Khaldun, one of Hoodbhoy’s heroes, condemns another of his heroes Ibn Sina as anti-religious. Furthermore, if “villains” like al-Ghazali seem to discourage the study of some sciences, then so do “heroes” like Ibn Khaldun who opposed the science of chemistry and Ibn Rushd who said: “books written by scholars should be forbidden to the ordinary person by the rulers.”
Likewise, there is no clear demarcation between the persecutors and the persecuted on the basis of ideology. Both the “orthodox” and the “rationalists” could be persecuted or be the persecutors if circumstances so conspired. Thus Hoodbhoy’s villains suffered some hardships as did his heroes. The rationalists Mu‘tazilites were in power when the “orthodox” Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal and others were tortured for their views on the nature of the Qur`an and eventually killed. Later, the “orthodox” were in power and they seized one Abd al-Sallam in whose house were found books on philosophy, witchcraft, astrology, cults of the stars, and prayers addressed to the planets. At least the orthodox did not physically torture him, much less kill him. They simply burnt the books in his possession and cursed in public those who wrote them or believed in them. What is most interesting is that Imam Ibn Hanbal was also cursed because Abd al-Sallam was his grandson and was regarded as one of his disciples. That Ahmad ibn Hanbal could be considered a teacher of a philosopher with books on witchcraft and worship of the stars and then could be cursed by the “orthodox” shows how blurred were the distinctions between the “orthodox” and the “rationalist heretics”. Also, without doubt many of Hoodbhoy’s heroic philosophers and scientists would have agreed with their “villainous orthodox” counterparts in rejecting astrology, witchcraft, worship of stars and planets.
But Hoodbhoy’s book has to sharpen the distinction between the “orthodox” and the “rationalists” to the point of making it black and white. Having no original approach in his analysis of Islamic history, he simply sees it in terms of the conflict in Western history between the Chruch and science and between the Chruch and the state. Since in Islam there is no central organized authority comparable to the Church establishment, something like the “religious orthodoxy” had to be given the place of the church in order to force the model of Christian history on to the Islamic history. Likewise, since over against this “religious orthodoxy” there were no scientists in clear opposition, he has to pick some Muslim philosophers and scientists as heroes comparable to Galileo and other European scientists. And since the diagnosis of the problem is imported from the West, then the solution also comes from there. As we shall see, the solution according to the author is secularism, separation of religion and state.
In order to paint a negative image of the “religious orthodoxy” Hoodbhoy lists a number of incidents that supposedly establish such an image (p. 95-107). We have already referred to one such incident, that involving Abd al-Sallam. As we have seen this incident only points to the difficulty of sharply distinguishing the orthodox from other Muslims. Another incident mentioned is about “the orthodox sultan, Khawarism Shah.” When a word was brought to him of a land of the midnight sun, the sultan regarded the report as pure heresy, for if such information were accurate it would put into question the prayer times. Later, the sultan accepted the report when the well-known Muslim scientist, Al-Biruni, who then lived at the court of the sultan, assured him of its accuracy. Now, we may ask: where, in this story, is that blind force of irrationality that the orthodox are supposed as a rule to manifest and which rationality has to battle? We can accuse the sultan of limited intelligence or of rushing to judgment -- by no means rare human qualities in any time, place, and group -- but there is no blind opposition to rationality here. The sultan keeps company with the likes of al-Biruni and when the great man of learning explains the matter to him, he listens to reason.
AN UNFOUNDED ACCUSATION AGAINST ‘UMAR THE GREAT
Another example of the blindness of the religious orthodoxy
is a tradition about ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, one of the towering figures of human
history. Hoodbhoy taints the name of ‘Umar by quoting the tradition that when
Hoodbhoy clearly does not know that this tradition is a
total fabrication and that it is known as such to scholars, both Muslims and
non-Muslims. The story is first mentioned by Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), that is,
seven centuries after the time of ‘Umar. We have an earlier story, but this one
is not about throwing in the water a large number of books in
SUPERFICIAL CRITIQUE OF IMAM AL-GHAZALI
If Hoodbhoy never suspected anything wrong in a report casting aspersion on a person like ‘Umar, although even a Christian writer in the 17th century wrote that the report does not ring true (Eusèbe Renaudot, History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria), then it is only to be expected that Hoodbhoy would jump on any words of lesser representatives of the “religious orthodoxy” if they would paint them as blind. For this crime of religious orthodoxy, Hoodbhoy singles out al-Ghazali as the worst culprit. In doing so he uses English translation of the German translation by Goldziher of the Arabic works, and possibly also that Orientalist’s analysis. It is well known that Goldziher at times misunderstood Arabic texts he used. A well known example is a text by al-Zuhri which Goldziher misinterpreted to mean that al-Zuhri admitted fabricating hadith in order to please the rulers.
More importantly, Hoodbhoy quotes only the passages where al-Ghazali seems to discourage the study of science and philosophy. Violating basic principle of rational scientific inquiry, he completely ignores a large number of other statements by al-Ghazali that point in the other direction, e.g.
1) Al-Ghazali rejected conformism or uncritical acceptance of any set of ideas including that of the Shari’ah. He went through an agonizing ordeal in search of truth. He critically examined the positions of both the religious and philosophical groups existing in his time. As he himself says: “In the bloom of my life, from the time I reached puberty before I was twenty until now, when I am over fifty, I have constantly been diving daringly into the depth of this profound sea and wading into its deep water like a bold man, not like a cautious coward. I would penetrate far into every mazy difficulty.”
2) Al-Ghazali in his Munqidh condemns those who rejected scientific propositions of the philosophers even when those propositions were true, simply because some of their other philosophical conclusions conflicted with religion.
3) In his famous
book, Ihya` ‘Ulum al-Din, he divides knowledge into `ulum shar‘iyyah (sciences
4) Al-Ghazali’s criticism of the philosophers is not a criticism of rationality, for he himself uses the rational method in the criticism. He wrote two books to refute the philosophers: Maqasid al-Falasifah (The Aims of the Philosophers) and Tahafut al-Falasifah (The Incoherence of the Philosophers). In the first book he objectively set down what Muslim philosophers were saying in his time. As he himself says: “I thought that I should introduce, prior to the Tahafut, a concise account that will include the story of their aims (maqasid) which will be derived from their logical, natural and metaphysical sciences, without distinguishing between what is right and what is wrong, without additions and along with what they believed as their proofs.” (Maqasid, p. 31) This conscious attempt to present an objective account of the thought of adversaries is more rational than Hoodbhoy’s biased and selective representation of al-Ghazali’s thought. It was followed by the Tahafut, which subject the views of the philosophers to logical criticism within a set of shared assumptions.
5) Al-Ghazali is aware that there are more sciences within reach of human beings than existed in his time. “It appeared to me through clear insight and beyond doubt, that man is capable of acquiring several sciences that are still latent and not existent” (Jawahir al-Qur’an).
Al-Ghazali gives reasons why certain type of pursuit of some sciences may not be desirable. These reasons are: a) what is true in some sciences may lead one to accept what is false in those or other related sciences; b) some sciences have no use; and c) pursuit of science is wrong if it is motivated by wrong intentions such as “attaining worldly ends, securing its vanities, acquiring its dignities, surpassing your contemporaries”.
Al-Ghazali’s views here, although not entirely unjustifiable are clearly in error. But we must keep in mind that science is not defined by its conclusions but by its methodology. There has never been a scientist who did not hold fundamentally erroneous ideas. Consequently, if we required that a thinker should hold only valid ideas before we can put him on the side of rationality and science, then no human will fit the bill. One can even be critical of science and rationality and yet be completely scientific and rational. It is also true that a person can make excellent contributions to a very specific area of science and yet may be very irrational and unscientific in his views generally. The way al-Ghazali debates the issues qualifies him as a rational and scientific man. He was certainly wrong in considering certain sciences useless, but it is possible to argue with him with evidence to the contrary and to change his opinion. He was also wrong in his estimation of the spiritual dangers of pursuing studies of some fields, but again it is possible to argue with him otherwise and change his positions. The tragedy for Muslims has not been that there arose men like al-Ghazali in the Muslim world but that ‘ulama in general did not continue to argue like them, so that when abundant evidence piled up in favor of the tremendous usefulness and even indispensability of many areas of science they did not encourage Muslims to pursue them as fard kifayah.
It is also interesting that one of the recent Islamic philosopher and thinker, Allamah Muhammad Iqbal has also frequently made negative statements about intellectual knowledge (‘ilm) which he contrasts with seeing (nazr) and about reason (‘aql) which he contrasts with heart (Urdu: dil). He has said that modern education brings with it disbelief (ilhad). Yet no reader of Iqbal thinks that he was against a vigorous pursuit of intellectual knowledge and the sciences. Al-Ghazali’s negative statements about philosophy, mathematics etc can probably be evaluated similarly.
Hoodbhoy does not at all mention Iqbal in his book. This
omission at first sight seems surprising, considering that Iqbal is such an
influential thinker, especially in
Al-Ghazali’s Views on Cause-Effect Relation and Free Will
One reason al-Ghazali is put squarely against rationality is Hoodbhoy’s understanding of the term. Following Nietzshe, Hoodbhoy defines “rationality” as “a matrix of connections which assigns cause to effect”. In this form, the definition can hardly exclude any one from rationality, since almost every human being, from the primitive man living in jungles to the most sophisticated researcher, in some way accepts the validity of cause and effect relationship. Even animals must at some level have a notion of this relationship, for otherwise they could not function as living organisms. The difference lies in the degree to which the relationship is viewed as deterministic or necessary. Hoodbhoy often seems to assume -- and make part of rationality -- a strictly deterministic connection, that is, every event (with the possible exception of the big bang?) can be assigned a set of causes that uniquely determine that event. The problem with this view of rationality is that it has identified rationality with a particular position on the cause-effect relationship. A satisfactory definition of rationality, however, should leave room for questioning all positions including a position on the cause-effect relationship. The irreducible minimum of such a definition should consist only of: a) a belief in the general intelligibility of the universal order, b) some rules of logic, and c) use of observations and experiments in validating all models of the universe.
If one must connect rationality and the acceptance of a cause and effect relation, the connection should be expressed in probabilistic terms. One could, for example, say: Rationality assigns probabilities to possible effects resulting from a given set of causes, consistent with whatever observations we do possess and whatever analysis of those observations we are able to conduct. We become irrational when we assign probabilities (including 0 and 1) to effects without regard to available observations.
To get back to our author, Hoodbhoy condemns al-Ghazali for denying that the cause-effect relationship is sufficient for explaining events in the universe and for accepting the belief in predestination. What Hoodbhoy fails to realize is that even if these positions are wrong, they are not irrational or against science, since logic and science cannot prove them false. Al-Ghazali said that “the conjunction (al-‘iqtiran) between what is conceived by way of habit (fi al-‘adah) as cause and effect is not necessary (laysa daruriyyan).” Many centuries later the philosopher David Hume will argue a similar position. This position can also be justifiably derived from modern quantum physics, which admits the possibility that a given state of the universe may lead in any future moment of time one of several possible states. If so, then just as al-Ghazali said, cause-effect relationship is not necessary.
As for al-Ghazali’s belief in predestination, it can be justified by the assumption, perfectly reasonable, that human thoughts and actions are events in the universe and are subject to laws according to which the universe functions. This leads to two possibilities.
First, we may assume a deterministic universe in the sense that there are laws, discoverable through science, according to which one state of the universe completely determines all future states. In particular, all human activities are completely predetermined by the past states of the universe. There is nothing inherently irrational about such a deterministic view of the universe. Indeed, it is a reasonable deduction from the cause-effect relationship, so important for Hoodbhoy, and has often been assumed by philosophers and scientists, especially in the 18th and 19th century. Buoyed by the initial successes of science to explain the data available at the time, some scientists believed that everything that happens in the universe, including human feelings, thoughts, choices, and actions can be explained, at least in theory, in terms of the motions of various particles in the human body and elsewhere in the universe and therefore can be predicted, at least in theory, using some boundary conditions and the mathematical equations of physics. There is no real difference between this view and the belief in predestination, except that the term “predestination” suggests that human actions are predetermined not by some boundary conditions and mathematical laws but by some intelligent agent or God.
Second, we may assume a non-deterministic universe of the type described by quantum physics. In this case, we can reasonably argue that while a given state is not completely determined by the past states according to the laws discoverable by science, it is nevertheless uniquely determined in the sense that “it will be what it will be, and could not be anything else”. This is again equivalent to predestination.
Hoodbhoy again and again stresses the importance of belief in the freedom of will and in a strict cause-effect relationship. But there is a contradiction between the two beliefs. For, if a free exercise of human will is an event within the observable universe, it cannot be assigned a sufficient cause, for otherwise it cannot be “free” in any reasonable sense. On the other hand, if free will operates somewhere outside the observable universe, then the actions resulting from this operation of will, which clearly take place within the observable universe, cannot be assigned a sufficient cause within that universe. In either case the belief in freedom of will implies that there are events in the observable universe that cannot be assigned sufficient causes within that universe, that is, we cannot at the same time affirm belief in the freedom of will and belief in a strict cause-effect relationship governing the observable universe.
In the light of above comments, one can conclude that Hoodbhoy’s pronouncements against al-Ghazali are somewhat superficial, since they do not proceed from a proper study of al-Ghazali and of the philosophical and scientific issues connected with predestination, free will, and cause-effect relationship.
RELIGION’S SIDE NOT TREATED ADEQUATELY
One would expect that a book on “Islam and Science” will treat the subject from both sides -- from the side of science and from the side of Islam. This means that the book should explain, on the one hand, what science is and what it aims to achieve and, on the other hand, explain what Islam is and what it aims to achieve. It should then discuss how far and in what ways the aims of the two can be achieved simultaneously. But while Hoodbhoy does explain the nature and aims of science, he provides no such treatment of Islam. He is content to make a few general statements, e.g., religion and science have different domains and therefore neither invalidates the other; neglect of science and technology by Muslims and their other failings do not prove or disprove Islam’s truth (p. 139); and a rather profound observation that religion “is a reasoned and reasonable abdication of reason with regard to those questions which lie outside the reach of science” (p. 137). Had he explored these ideas in some detail he could have done some justice to the topic from the side of religion.
Any writer’s interpretations of past or present events are cly connected with his world-view and other assumptions that he has accepted in his mind. In trying to evaluate this particular book, I therefore enquired about the world-view that lies behind Hoodbhoy’s analysis.
While reading the book, I got the impression that the author is reluctant to deal with “Islam and Science” from the point of view of Islam not only because he might not have sufficient knowledge and understanding of Islam but also because for that very reason he does not have a really positive view of religion. A few positive statements about Islam that he does make seem to be a concession to the reality that Islam is a fact of life in the Muslim world. This impression was confirmed when I came across the author’s article on “Muslims and the West after September 11” (downloaded from the Internet on July 1, 2002). In that article he states:
“Our collective survival lies in recognizing that religion is not the solution; neither is nationalism. Both are divisive, embedding within us false notions of superiority and arrogant pride that are difficult to erase. We have but one choice: the path of secular humanism, based upon the principles of logic and reason. This alone offers the hope of providing everybody on this globe with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The author formulates here in clear terms a position that was probably present in his mind in some form when he wrote the book under review, about a decade earlier (in 1991).
In the article he also repeats his attack against “religious orthodoxy” becoming somewhat harsher:
“Science flourished in the Golden Age of Islam because there was within Islam a strong rationalist tradition, carried on by a group of Muslim thinkers known as the Mutazilites. This tradition stressed human free will, strongly opposing the predestinarians who taught that everything was foreordained and that humans have no option but to surrender everything to Allah. While the Mutazilites held political power, knowledge grew. But in the twelfth century Muslim orthodoxy reawakened, spearheaded by the cleric Imam Al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali championed revelation over reason, predestination over free will. He refuted the possibility of relating cause to effect, teaching that man cannot know or predict what will happen; God alone can. He damned mathematics as against Islam, an intoxicant of the mind that weakened faith.” (Hoodbhoy, “Muslims and the West after September 11”).
Clearly, Hoodbhoy has not learnt very much over the past ten years, since his criticism of al-Ghazali and religious orthodoxy reflects the same lack of understanding of the writings of al-Ghazali and the complexity of the issues connected with predestination, free will, and cause-effect relationship that he manifested in his book.
As for the secularist position, Hoodbhoy seems to assert it on the strength of its present popularity and dominance rather than on the basis of any rational analysis. We find only the following sweeping generalizations:
“Islam—like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or any other religion—is not about peace. Nor is it about war. Every religion is about absolute belief in its own superiority and its divine right to impose itself upon others. In medieval times, both the Crusades and the Jihads were soaked in blood. Today, Christian fundamentalists attack abortion clinics in the US and kill doctors; Muslim fundamentalists wage their sectarian wars against each other; Jewish settlers holding the Old Testament in one hand and Uzis in the other burn olive orchards and drive Palestinians off their ancestral land; Hindus in India demolish ancient mosques and burn down churches; Sri Lankan Buddhists slaughter Tamil separatists”
Here the author fails to notice that his criticism of religions applies to his own secularist position. Notice the absolutist statements: “we have but one choice: the path of secular humanism …”; “this alone offers the hope …”. There is here the same “absolute belief” in the “superiority” of secular humanism that religions are criticized for. The author seems unable to admit the possibility that religion might be able to provide a better alternative to secular humanism. As for the list of the bloody battles in which followers of various religions have been involved, certainly secularism has not prevented people from similarly bloody wars. Hoodbhoy would have to claim that this is because the existing secularist countries like the USA and UK ceaselessly wage war because they are nationalistic and not sufficiently secularist-humanist and that if we can have a perfect humanist secular society, it will not engage in bloody wars. Well, many religious groups also claim that if a true form of their religion was in practice somewhere they will not do some of the wrong things that they now do.
There is no substantial difference between the mentality Hoodbhoy manifests and those of the religious people whom he criticizes. He has simply replaced religion with his favored ideology. It seems fair to say that Hoodbhoy has become or is in the process of becoming a fundamentalist secularist-humanist.
IN CONCLUSION, Hoodbhoy’s perspective on “Islam and Science” comes from a lost faith and from a somewhat immature rationality. For this reason he cannot see what some other thinkers such as Allamah Iqbal could see: Secular humanism or any other similar set of ideas is not the “only way”. Islamic civilization, after its present ruin, will once again vibrate with life as an authentically Islamic civilization, not only overcoming some of its deep problems but also guiding humanity to a vastly better alternative to the existing world order.
Please report any
broken links to
Copyright © 1988-2012 irfi.org. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer