Russell's Blog

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Science and Islam

Posted by Russell on August 24, 2007 at 4:58 p.m.
This month's Physics Today has a fascinating article by Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy about the fate of science in Islam. Dr. Hoodbhoy is a professor of nuclear physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. He covers a lot of ground, from the golden age of science in the Muslim world (the 9th-13th centuries), it's collapse with the rise of Asharite fundamentalism, to science in modern Muslim states.

Americans should look carefully at what happened in Baghdad in the 13th century. The Muslim world was resplendent civilization of intellectual tolerance, cultural pluralism, and political liberalism. This period came to an abrupt and bloody end with the overthrow of Mu'tazilah thinkers and leaders and their replacement with the stricter, inflexible, literalist Asharite thinkers. The bloody death of rationalist religious inquiry splashed across every aspect of civilization, dooming science, politics and culture to a prolonged dark age.

Americans would be well served by the study of this sad patch of history. It has many important parallels with our own inflexible, literalist religious doctrines.

Science finds every soil barren in which miracles are taken literally and seriously and revelation is considered to provide authentic knowledge of the physical world. If the scientific method is trashed, no amount of resources or loud declarations of intent to develop science can compensate. In those circumstances, scientific research becomes, at best, a kind of cataloging or "butterfly-collecting" activity. It cannot be a creative process of genuine inquiry in which bold hypotheses are made and checked.
Hoodbhoy's argument here is broadly applicable. It is just as true for Islam as for Christianity, or Judaism, or any other religion. It is even true for non-religious doctrines. The study of physics was able to flourish under Stalin, but evolutionary biology and genetics, which tended generate ideas embarrassing to the cause of Communism, were repressed and grossly distorted.

Could this happen in 21st century America? You bet.

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