ISLAMIC CONTRIBUTIONS TO MODERN SCIENTIFIC METHODS
a Lecture by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
delivered on March 20, 1999
at the Islamic Society of Boston, Wayland, MA
on the Tenth Anniversary of the Center for Faith and Science Exchange
the Center for Faith and Science Exchange
the Boston Theological Seminary
and the Islamic Society of Boston
I would like to thank the Center for Faith and Science Exchange and the Islamic community for inviting me. I believe this is a good project you are undertaking and I am most happy to see the Islamic community included in this dialog on the issues of faith and science.
The idea of a dialog between faith and science is viewed somewhat differently in the Islamic world than it is in the modern West. For Islamic society, especially during the classical Islamic era about which I shall primarily speak, the same word, `ilm was used for both religious and scientific knowledge. Indeed the pre-Islamic era was called the jâhiliyya, or "Age of Ignorance." In my book Signs in the Heavens: A Muslim Astronomer's Perspective on Religion and Science, the main theme is that the presumed tension between religion and science is a modern Western phenomenon, an anomaly in the history of the world, definitely not part of Islamic thought.
In today's talk I wish to address the Islamic contributions to the modern methods of science. Note that I will concentrate on the "methods" and not on the body of knowledge, although I will make some reference to that.
Most people are aware that there is a distinction between modern science and ancient science, but I doubt that most understand the precise nature of that distinction. I wish to identify those differences because it is my contention that it is the Islamic civilization that developed the elements that are the key positive differences between ancient science and modern science.
There is no doubt that there was an ancient science. You can look back in history at the names of the great ancient scientists. While many of their ideas have been discredited and much of their data has been superceded, that isn't a criticism of what they did, because modern science supercedes its own theories and data on a regular basis. Yet there is a fundamental difference between what they did and what we consider to be modern science. In particular, I think that the most important difference between ancient Greek and Roman science with what is called science today, is one of epistemology. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge, the answer to the question "How do you know what you know?" The stereotypical ancient scientist is Aristotle. Aristotle identified the essence of doing science as understanding why everything is as it is on the principle that it could be no other way. This concept is a reflection of an epistemology that I call rationalism. "Rationalism" is a word that gets used with many different meanings to different people. I want it to be very clear, therefore, that when I use the term "rationalistic science" I mean neither science that employs reason nor science that insists upon an adherence to reason. I mean a science in which reason is considered to be the dominant means for the acquisition of knowledge, in which reason overshadows if not completely replaces any other means of the acquisition of knowledge. What this meant to the ancient Greeks was that if you began with the correct axioms, the correct premises, the correct starting points, that, by reason alone, you could completely deduce the nature of the universe. Modern science doesn't work that way.
Modern science works by what some call "the Scientific Method" and others say should be called "the scientific methods." Some call it "inductive science" or "inductive reasoning." Any really intelligent high school student could explain to you that modern science involves not only reason, but also observations of experiments. The idea is that our reason must match our observation and our theories must be tested by our experiments, and that there is a great cycle in which theories inspired by observations are tested by experiments that lead to refined theories to be refined or overthrown by yet further experimentation or observation.
Yet, this is only two-thirds if the story. There is another element of modern science that never gets mentioned. Since the existence of this third element as a method of modern science is undeniable, I can't help but think that the reason that it never gets mentioned is that people want to contrast modern science against the way of thinking that dominated the Middle Ages–and here I mean the Western European Middle Ages–that was more authoritarian. What Western European moderns viewed Medieval thinking to be was parodied by Moliere who in the play La Malade Imaginaire (the Hypochondriac) with the character of a doctor who still had a medieval way of looking at things, and the doctor would begin every analysis with the introduction: "Aristotle dit" ("Aristotle says"), as if the fact that Aristotle said something constitutes a proof. Yet, referral to authority is an important element of the acquisition of scientific knowledge. Most of what any scientist knows about his discipline, he has read in the scientific literature. Scientists do not check every detail of every theory upon which their own work is based. Scientists do not attempt to reproduce every experiment on which their data is based, nor do they duplicate every observation upon which their work is based. Scientists resort to the scientific literature and they incorporate, adopt and build upon what they find there. Yet there is an important difference between the way the modern scientist uses the scientific literature and the treatment the medieval scholars approached the sacred or ancient scientific texts, the "ancient wisdom." Above all, the modern scientist approaches the literature critically. He does not take assume that it is beyond question. Secondly, he requires proper citation.
You can find, even in ancient times, individual scientists who seem very modern in their approach, (Archimedes, for example, has always impressed me in this way). Nonetheless, the first civilization to nurture and produce a modern approach to science in which all three of these elements (reason, experiment or observation, and critically approached and properly cited authority) was the classical Islamic civilization. It was there developed in a gradual way. Westerners tend to look at it as a "scientific revolution" that took place in Western Europe, was very abrupt, and very shocking in its effects on the culture. My understanding is that the West discovered it through their contact with Islam, and because it was thrust upon them so suddenly it did indeed have a shocking effect on Western society.
Let us return to Islamic science. In the popular mind there is doubt that there is no such thing as Islamic science nor of medieval science at all. The popular view is that there was an ancient science that got lost and was then rediscovered and transformed into modern science by the West. The most you can hope for in an American high school textbook is to find a statement along the lines of "the Arabs preserved the ancient science." It is as if we had done the West a favor to serve as curators of their science until they could get back to developing it.
The intellectual community, the historians of science are more sophisticated. They understand that there was scientific research done during the Muslim era, but even there they are divided on its significance. Some think that it was little more than care-taking. They know that knowledge was not simply preserved, but some of these intellectuals think that what was added was not of anything of great importance, just details and flourishes, a few data points and minor refinements to the theories of the ancients. There are others who will admit that there was some important major new work, even whole new sciences, like spherical geometry, and significant improvements to the old sciences. For example, consider the use of "zero." The Hindus had the concept of zero, but it was the Muslims who developed its use as a placeholder that made possible the powerful digital system upon our modern civilization is built. This computer in front of me has a memory filled with nothing but zeroes and ones. Were there no zero its memory would consist only of ones and would be utterly useless.
There are a few scholars who believe that what happened during the Islamic era was not just an increase in the sciences, however dynamic. It was rather a qualitative change in the way sciences were done, initiating or even completing the process of moving from the ancient way of doing science to the modern way of doing science. I have said that this was an epistemological transformation, going from a pure rationalism as I defined the term into a complex epistemology in which reason, observation and experiment, and authority play an interactive role, each one checking on the other.
Before I go into the details of how this was done, I want to justify my statement by pointing to the work of al-Ghazzali. Al-Ghazzali is a key figure because there are many who try to blame him for the downfall of the classical Islamic civilization and there are others who think that he is the example par excellence of an important Islamic thinker. To me the important thing about al-Ghazzali is what he said about epistemology and to consider how much of his view of the theory of knowledge in general matches the scientific approach to knowledge of the natural sciences.
To understand al-Ghazzali, one must first understand that in the Islamic civilization there was an important school of scholars deeply impressed by the Greek philosophers. In fact, they were themselves called the philosophers, the falâsafa (s. falasûf). They were so heavily influenced by the Greeks that some have tried to claim that they fell outside the mainstream of Islam, which is not true. They represented one side of Islamic thought. They were rationalistic in their approach, not as much as the ancient Greeks, for they were influenced by their own culture, but they did lean towards a worldview that came out of ancient Greece and conflicted with the Islamic view: Not in sciences, but in philosophy. For example, they believed that the matter is eternal, not an Islamic concept. They thought the physical universe has always been here, always will be here, and has never changed in any fundamental way. Al-Ghazzali criticized this viewpoint. He attacked this view fundamentally, on epistemological grounds. He said you could not learn about the reality of the universe by reason alone. He insisted that you also needed your experience and transmission from reliable sources.
Modern philosophers understand that logic is nothing more than a means of manipulating symbols. There can be no meaning assigned to the symbols by logic. The only reason we can make meaningful statements about the world using logic is that our experience has allowed us to associate meanings with the symbols. If we look around us we discover that there is much we know that we do not reason from first principles. There are things we can only know by transmission. For example, I know that Thule, Greenland exists. I do not know this by experience, for I have never been there, and I certainly could not derive its existence from first principles. No simple set of self-evident axioms will allow me to prove the existence of Thule, Greenland by some complex but rigorous chain of reason. What has happened is that honest and sane people known who have been there have told me of their experiences, and I have no reason to doubt them. On the contrary, maps by reliable mapmakers confirm their claims.
Similarly, we have to rely on reason as well as experience. Walking through the desert I may perceive a lake in front of me, but if the circumstances are those under which reason dictates that a mirage is possible, I am justified in doubting the evidence of my own eyes. Add to this the evidence of transmission from a reliable source–say a map that shows there is no lake in this place, then I may rely on that map to correct my erroneous sensory experience. When we become skilled at testing these three sources of knowledge against one another, then we know that we are getting close to the truth and we may rely upon it. This is the epistemology of al-Ghazzali and we can see its parallels with the methods of modern science.
Did this come about during the Islamic era, and if so, why? Let's look at how Islam treats each of these elements in contrast with the Greek model. The Qur'an's offers high praise of all three of these sources of knowledge. The Qur'an praises reason and repeatedly condemns the polytheists for their adherence to ideas that contradict their intellectual sense. At the same time it urges us to "look at God's signs in the heavens and in the earth." In contrast to Plato's view, for example, that the material world being a poor reflection of the true world of ideas, the Qur'an insists:
Do they not look at the sky above them?–How We have made it and adorned it, and there are no flaws in it? (50:6)
… No want of proportion wilt thou see in the creation of (God) Most Gracious. So turn thy vision again: Seest thou any flaw? (67:3)
Unlike the Platonic and neoplatonic disdain for the material world, the Qur'an says that the material world is as much as sign of God as the verses of the Qur'an. In fact the same word (ayat) is used to mean both the verses of the Qur'an and the phenomena of the natural world. The implication is that if you think you see a flaw in God's creation, you should go back and look again. The flaw is not in God's creation but in either your theory or your observation. God's creation is always in perfect accord with the natural laws by which He governs it.
Finally, the Qur'an speaks of the reliable sources, usually in terms of the prophets who have brought God's message to mankind. The development of the concept of care in the proper citation of sources seems to have taken place in Islamic scholarship. I do not find it earlier. The Islamic law is based not only on the Qur'an but also on the practice of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). But what was the practice of the Prophet? In the early days of Islam people would always say "Prophet did this" or "Prophet said that" but how would you know it was true? To avoid accepting unfounded rumors, Muslim scholars were confronted with the challenge of evaluating the reliability of these traditions, called hadîth. Early scholars, notably Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim, compilers of the most highly respected collections of prophetic traditions, set out to develop a scientific means of historical analysis to determine the accuracy of these traditions. They invented a science of proper citation. They would demand to know every link in the chain of transmission from the Prophet's lips to their own ears. Then they would develop biographies of those transmitters to determine their reliability. Did they have good memories? Were they honest? Did contiguous links in the chains of transmission actually ever meet one another? This is the precedent for modern standards of citation. I cannot publish a scientific paper containing the assertion "Einstein says such and such" unless I give the publication in which he said or plainly and plausibly claim that he said it to me directly in a private communication. This is the modern scientific approach to the argument from authority.
Unlike the commands of the capricious gods of polytheism, God's commands are fixed and eternal, reflecting His Unity in the unity of creation. The universe's conformity to divine law is a sign of the Creator's Unity. That the universe conforms to some objective law is an assumption that scientists must necessarily make in attempting to do their work. I must admit that today there is a school of thought that denies the existence of an ontological objective reality. For the purpose of creating the scientific models, however, even positivists must postulate operational principles as if such principles correspond to some hypothetical real world. They act as though there is a rule-based reality even if they do not believe in it.
In the Qur'an we're told that the prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) came to the conclusion that there must be only one God by looking objectively at the motions of the planets (9:75-79):
So also did We show Abraham the power and the laws of the heavens and the earth that he might (with understanding) have certitude.
When the night covered him over he saw a star: he said: "this is my Lord." But when it set he said: "I love not those that set."
When he saw the moon rising in splendor He said: "This is my Lord." but when the moon set he said: "Unless my Lord guide me I shall surely be among those who go astray."
When he saw the sun rising in splendor he said: "This is my Lord; this is the greatest (of all)." But when the sun set he said: "O my people! I am (now) free from your (guilt) of giving partners to God.
"For me I have set my face firmly and truly toward Him Who created the heavens and the earth, and never shall I give partners to God."
The apparent motions of the stars and planets make a good place to look at the differences between the modern and ancient methods of analyzing the natural world. Let's start with precession. If you closely watch a top spinning, you will notice that not only does the top spin about its axis, but also the axis itself moves in a slow circular motion. Like a top, the earth's axis precesses slowly and points at different places on the sky as the centuries pass. The North Pole of the earth now points in the general vicinity of the North Star, but will soon move slowly away in a wide circle that will bring it back again in about 26,000 years.
This wandering of the pole was known to the ancient Greeks. Hipparchos, in compiling his catalog of the positions of the stars in 179 B.C. noticed how much the stellar positions had changed from the time of the Babylonian's star catalogs and gave a value for the rate of precession. Three centuries later, Ptolemy, considered to be the greatest astronomer of antiquity, knew that the stars were no longer in the same place in the sky as they had been in Hipparchos day. Ptolemy knew about precession and knew that a new star atlas was needed. What Ptolemy claimed to have done is measure anew the positions of the stars in Hipparchos catalog and he issued a new catalog with revised positions. In fact, he did not measure their positions at all. What I'm going to tell you now will seem shocking, for we are speaking about the greatest astronomer of the ancient world. It so shocked the historian of science Robert Newton that, in his book The Crime of Claudius Ptolemeus, he labeled Ptolemy a criminal for what he did. I claim Ptolemy was not a criminal, but that he was working in that ancient Greek rationalistic paradigm in which what he did was not a crime, but was the obvious thing to do.
Ptolemy took Hipparchos catalog and calculated mathematically the corrections necessary to update the catalog for the precession given by Hipparchos (and adding some additional stars as well) and published it saying he observed the positions. Hipparchos' value for precession, however, was slightly off. Had Ptolemy actually observed the stars from Hipparchos' catalog, he would have seen that the value of precession was off and could have made a correction to it, giving the world an improved value for the rate of precession. He did not.
Now, come the days of the Muslims, they also know that the star positions have changed and that new catalogs are necessary. What do they do? They measure the positions of the stars. They find that they don't match the theory. The scratch their heads. What's going on here? Not understanding that ancients did their science differently, they incorrectly assume that the rate of precession has changed since Ptolemy's day and they say that the rate of precession must not be constant, that it must vary, and they invent a complex theory to account for the variation. Later, they find that the rate of precession is constant and they drop they ancients' old value and replace it with a new one, completely.
Obviously, to the Muslims this idea "If you see any flaw, look again" was taken very seriously, while for Ptolemy it didn't occur at all. Either that or Robert Newton is right and he was a criminal, which I don't believe. Like Aristotle he thought that everything is what it is because it must be that way and can be no other way.
Now, I give you another example relating to the detailed motions of the planets known as the Ptolemaic system. The essence of the Ptolemaic system is not just the belief that the earth is at the center of the universe–although that was an important element. In Ptolemy's system, an ingenious and complex system of cycles, epicycles, and offset centers of velocity account for the motions of the planets. I won't go into the details here; the point is that it was very complex. This system was criticized by the Muslims on a variety of grounds, the significance of which have not been fully appreciated by modern Westerners who are obsessed with the question of whether the sun or the earth is at the center of the planetary system. The Muslim objections have nothing to do with whether the sun or the earth is at the center. To make this clear, I shall concentrate on the orbit of the moon, because everyone agrees and always has agreed that the moon goes around the earth. In the 13th century there was a great Muslim scholar named Nasir ad-Din at-Tusi, who was the director of the marvelous observatory at Maragha. The equipment at Maragha was so precise that it was unmatched in Europe until Tycho Brahe's famous observatory in the 16th century. But at-Tusi was not only an excellent observer, as Tycho was, he was also an innovative theoretician. He was also a wonderful observatory director. The Maragha observatory was not just an observatory; it was science research institution with a library of 400,000 books. He attracted scientists from around the world to work with him, even including a Chinese scientist. He devised a new theory to substitute for Ptolemy's. At-Tusi's replaced Ptolemy's complicated model with the ingenious devise of picturing the planets as rolling within a series of concentric cylinders (or spheres). This powerful mathematical model (which scientists will readily see is equivalent to a series of linked vectors) is not only easier to understand, but is easier to adapt to the actual observations, whatever they may be.
At-Tusi himself only sought to show that his model could account for the same motions as Ptolemy's, but his student Ibn ash-Shatir used at-Tusi's powerful model to try to resolve observational problems with Ptolemy's system. Most Westerners have not appreciated the degree to which Muslims were concerned with observational issues. They object that it wasn't until Johannes Kepler's day that the minute differences between planetary positions in Kepler's models and Ptolemy's could be discerned. They miss the whole point. A correct theory must account for everything, not just the planetary positions. In the 14th century, Ibn ash-Shatir said that something is wrong with Ptolemy's theory of the moon. If the moon really moved in the big epicycle in Ptolemy's model, then it would move huge distances out and in, out and in. Every time it moves in, it gets closer to the earth and it should appear huge–twice the size of what we observe. He used at-Tusi's powerful theory to account for the moon's size as well as its position. Hundreds of years later Copernicus publishes his theory of the moon moving in circles on circles. He mentions at-Tusi, but he never mentions Ibn ash-Shatir, even though the so-called Copernican system is just Ibn ash-Shatir's system with the order of the circles changed. Despite this overwhelming circumstantial evidence, some Westerners refuse to admit of a link. They protest that Copernicus couldn't read Arabic and Ibn ash-Shatir was never translated into Latin. They forget that Copernicus learned astronomy at the University of Padua. Even though he spoke no Arabic, others on the faculty there knew of the work of Ibn ash-Shatir and, it would be expected, would have mentioned it to the promising young student.
This brings us to the question of why was this process, which was evolutionary in the Muslim world, a revolution in Europe? Why did it cause such a crisis that to this day people say that there is a conflict between religion and science? They say that it was because of a dispute as to whether the earth or the sun is at the center of the universe. Although the classical Muslim scholars all thought that the earth was at the center of the universe, they discussed the possibility that the earth might move and they never found it to a theologically threatening concept. Al-Biruni dealt with the matter in the eleventh century, and although his principle monograph on the matter is lost, in another book he says that this question that must be answered purely on grounds of physics. It is neither a question of theology nor astronomy. Why is it not a question of astronomy? Because if you take Ibn ash-Shatir's theory and switch the positions of the earth and the sun, it makes no difference to the astronomical observations, which are absolutely identical.
To Muslims it makes no difference whether the earth is at the center or the sun is at the center, while in Europe to claim that the sun is at the center was branded heresy. But why should the Europeans care? In fact, they should care either, but the Ptolemaic system had become married to a theological structure of the European church, a structure known as "The Great Chain of Being." The Great Chain of Being goes back to the influence of Platonic, or neoplatonic, philosophy on Church theology. They held God to be infinitely removed from mankind and our connection to Him is not direct, but is through this Great Chain of Being, and everything in the Chain has its place. God, the Father, is at the top, and beneath Him God the Son, and Spirit and the angels, and the Church, the Pope, the archbishops and so on down to the parish priest and the man in the street, and so on. If you want, you can believe this theological concept without identifying it with Ptolemy's science, but by this time in history, they had made this identification and thus the new science challenged the theology. To say that the earth is just circling about in space was to remove it from its place in the sacred Chain. It is a provocative thing to say. If the earth's place can be questioned, cannot the Church's place be questioned as well?
Galileo Galilee always tried to separate the theology from the science, but unfortunately for him he had a predecessor who did not. Gordian Bruno was an avid student of Islamic science and philosophy. Bruno argued not only is Copernicus right and the earth goes around the sun, but that there are many other planetary systems like ours. Infinite numbers in universes, all equally under the One God, removing the Church completely from the cosmological system. Unsurprisingly, Bruno was driven from Italy. He went to England, and the Germany, and then was invited back to Italy. In Italy, he was called up before the Inquisition, as found guilty of heresy and burned at the stake. So when Galileo was pressed on the point of his support for Copernicus, he recalled what happened to Bruno and he recanted. Ask anyone who writes on the tension between religion and science, regardless of whether they call for a reconciliation between them or deny its possibility, they will all point to the Galileo affair as the stereotypical example of the problem. But Galileo's case was a unique problem of his society, of its marriage of theology and physics, confronted by a tide of new scientific ideas from another culture, with another religion, and the Church's view that this science and this religion, must be kept out of Europe.
This accident of history provoked a crisis in Western Europe and they were forced to take sides. The question of whether one sided with the new science or the old science somehow became are with science or with religion? There were three different reactions to the question and those reactions can still be seen today. There is, to take a word out of the context of its time and place, the fundamentalist reaction that says we side with religion and against science. There is secularist response that says we side with science against religion. And there is the reconciliatory reaction that says: Let's see if we can reconcile religion and science. This leads to the Catholic Renewal, the Protestant Reformation, and to all the discussions we have today about reconciling religion and science. This last group believes there need not be a conflict, but that some effort is required to effect a reconciliation.
This over-reaction has had a negative effect on Western science. So far I have spoken about the positive contributions of Islamic science that Western science has adopted, but there was one element of Islamic science which Western science has not adopted, and that is the spiritual dimension of scientific study. The mainstream Muslim scientists, including even the Greek-inspired falâsafa, insist that their science leads them to faith. I think that in general in history science and monotheism go hand-in-hand fighting against paganism and superstition. That's the rule. What we see in the modern West is an exception where there is some tension between spirituality and science. I think that it is to the detriment of Western science that this spiritual element was not accepted, and I hope to get more deeply into this subject of materialism in tomorrow's talk on "Economy, Technology and Environment: The Islamic Middle Way."
My view is that the recovery of spirituality does not require accepting an outdated cosmology. In order to reconcile faith and science, if reconciliation is necessary, we don’t need to return to the Great Chain of Being. On the contrary, the Qur'anic cosmology is precisely what is needed to have comfort with modern science and with religious faith–at least faith in the One God. The idea is that the universe is an egalitarian universe. It is infinite numbers of suns and planets. Possibly even infinite systems of life. There may be life on other worlds, why not? All equally under the one God.
I am not urging us to marry our modern physics to our theology in the literalistic way that the Church once did and that some try to do today. Instead we should add our understanding of physics to the lexicon of symbols that aid in our understanding of the Divine Power. This is not something new, neither within nor outside of Islamic thought. Let me read to you from the closing of Isaac Newton's magnum opus, Principia Mathematica. Newton is blamed for being the initiator of this mechanistic, materialistic view of science so prominent in the West. It is said that he conceived of a clockwork universe that even if created by God, no longer required Him for its operation. Let's see what Newton had to say about this:
This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. And if the fixed stars are the centers of other like systems, these, being formed by the like wise counsel, must all be subject to the dominion of One....
This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God ... and Deity is dominion of God not over his own body, as those who fancy God to be the soul of the world, but over servants. The Supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect.... He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient; that is his duration reaches from eternity to eternity; his presence from infinity to infinity; he governs all things, and knows all things that are or can be done.... We adore him as his servants....
To the Muslim hearing these words, Newton sounds as if he were paraphrasing the Qur'an. We have no evidence that Newton ever read the Qur'an, but he did read the Book of Nature, God's other book, and so we should be not be surprised that the conclusions he draws are the same. I think that what we need today is to engage in more critical thinking, to eschew blind imitation. If we engage in critical thought, then I think we are on the road to, not simply reconciling faith and science, but to eliminating the myth that there should be in any conflict or tension between them. I say the words I have said, and I ask for God's forgiveness.
Dr. Rodney Peterson (Director of the Boston Theological Institute): I want to say Dr. Ahmad how much I appreciated your talk. You're a fellow classmate of mine from Harvard College. It's good to hear a classmate talk about items like these that you have shared with us that are very central to my heart as well. The way that you've talked about a number of individuals here, especially Isaac Newton, reminds me of how Newton saw his own attempt to approach science as a way to get around the corrupt theologies of his day. I think that many who go into the sciences whether from an Islamic background or other backgrounds, often do so with a deep spiritually and a desire to understand God in a more profound way. I'm also struck listening to your remarks–I've never quite thought of this in this way–how much perhaps the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Renewal was the result, in part, of the epistemological; revolution which we felt in Europe thanks, in many ways to the introduction of Islamic thinking. I think the kind of thing we heard today is a talk that can be very fruitful for future areas of inter-religious dialog and discussion as we proceed together. Let's see if there are some questions that I can help field at this point.
Dr. Callista Roy (Boston College): I appreciate your remarks very much. Recently, some Western scholars who also have a Christian background, with a common interest in epistemology, were talking about perhaps faith being another way of knowing. I somehow think that that's related to two of your main points, the idea of observation and citation of authority. Could you explore that thought? Maybe our terminology is different, but it is certainly a related idea.
Dr. Ahmad: That's an excellent question. To more easily answer it from an Islamic perspective, I have to change the terms slightly, but if you find the answer inadequate I'll go back to the terminology you introduced. I have to go back to the point that in Islamic thought `ilm, which means knowledge or science, refers to all knowledge, all sciences, we make no distinction between the sacred and the profane. That means that this attitude of critical thinking that I put forward is not limited to the physical sciences, but is to be used in the realm of religious thinking as well. I mentioned how the Qur'an criticized the pagans, asking "Don’t they think? Don't they look?" etc. In the classical Islamic period this critical approach to knowledge was used in considering religious ideas as well. The idea that our sources of knowledge are reason, experience, and transmission from reliable sources includes religious knowledge. This implies that the Qur'an itself is subject to critical analysis in two respects.
First, you don't have to accept the authenticity of the Qur'an if it contradicts your certain knowledge. To some Muslims today that sounds like a shocking statement. But why does the Hindu believe in the Vedas? Why does the Christian believe in the New Testament and the Jew in the Old Testament? They were raised with it. If the only reason you believe in the Qur'an is that you were raised with it, how do you distinguish yourself from these other people? For that matter, how do you distinguish yourself from the polytheist who believes whatever his priests told him, especially since many Muslims haven't read the Qur'an anyway. They have had it summarized for them by their imams or their teachers. How do you distinguish yourself? The answer is that you haven't. So go back and read the Qur'an and understand the Qur'an and convince yourself that it’s a reliable source–the reliable source. Then, convinced that it’s the reliable source go back to your other sources of knowledge and double check them and find out if you've been mislead.
The other respect is to take a critical approach in understanding the text of the Qur'an itself. I apologize to the Muslims here for bringing this up before an audience including non-Muslims, but the sincere question deserves an honest answer: Too many Muslims will say "Such and such is in the Qur'an" and when you say "Show me, where is it?" they brush aside the question. Of course it's not in the Qur'an. Sometimes its not even part of the religious canon. Some cultural tradition from their homeland has become so ingrained that they think it is a do or die dogma of the religion. This can only hurt religion. From the Islamic point of view it is very important to adopt critical thinking in matters of faith. Having adopted it, then revelation (and I have substituted the word revelation for faith) is a source of knowledge, but it is not one that you take unthinkingly.
Malik: You mentioned using physics in a symbolic sense. Could you explain?
Dr. Ahmad: I'll give you a very specific answer. Take for example, the work of Maurice Buccaille. Raised a non-Muslim, he is a physician who has studied the Qur'an in great depth. Her has come to the conclusion that the Qur'an has to have had a divine origin because there are in the Qur'an scientific allusions that, in his opinion, it is impossible for an Arab of the seventh century to have had knowledge about. How one takes Maurice Buccaille's assertion is an example of what I am talking about. If you read Buccaille's work and you say, "Aha! The Qur'an has scientific knowledge in it. There are scientific statement in the Qur'an. Then you are making the mistake of literalism that I am warning against. Take a statement like "Do they not see that God created the universe and is expanding it?" To say that Qur'an is requiring us to believe in the Hubble expansion of the universe is engaging in a literalism that is unwarranted and dangerous. Does this mean, because scientific theories change all the time, that if a hundred years from now it is established that the universe is contracting and the Hubble redshift is due to some other cause than expansion, that we have to reject the Qur'an. If that is what you are saying, I think it is a foolish thing to say. My approach is that my belief in the Qur'an is strengthened by the fact that the more scientific knowledge we have, the easier it is to understand metaphorical allusions in the Qur'an. There was a time when you would read that verse and you would say, "I don't get it. What does God mean when He says Do they not see that He is expanding the universe?" Now, with the advance of scientific knowledge we say, "Ah, now this metaphor has meaning to me and that is very impressive and it strengthens my faith in the authenticity of the Qur'an." But I do not therefore say that it is an article of Islamic faith that you believe in the expansion of the universe. That would be stupid. I am reminded of something Galileo said in his own defense when the Church tried to argue that certain biblical verses required Christians to believe that the earth is at the center of the universe. He said, "The Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go."
Zaki (Islamic Center): Do Western historians deliberately belittle the achievements of Muslim scientists? There are so many examples. We all believe that Columbus discovered America, but America really was discovered by Muslim navigators. If there is some kind of intellectual fraud going on, why don't we come out and say so?
Dr. Ahmad: I don't think there is intellectual fraud, I think it is more complicated than that. There are others who discovered America before Columbus including Muslims and Leif Ericson as well. The reason they're not given the same status in the history book s is that there was a direct consequence on the fate of the development of Western society out of Columbus' voyages that didn't follow from those other voyages. Also, as for whether the role of Islamic civilization is being downplayed, I don’t think it is a simple case of fraud although there is certainly bias involved. Look at it this way: Right now, the Muslims emerging coming out of their period as colonies who have forgotten the glory of the Islamic classical civilization, as Europe had forgotten the glory of its ancient past. Now they're beginning to discover that there was a time when the Muslim civilization was the premier civilization in the world and they are exaggerating the achievements of that civilization. It's not intellectually defensible, but it's understandable. I think that is what the Europeans did in the early days of their contact with Islam. What is happening is not a revisionist history where some 20th century Western historian says, "Let's erase all the traces of Islamic civilization from the history books." Rather, it was while the history was not history but current events, during Europe's early contact with Islamic civilization that there was a great hostility between them. Europe looked at the Muslims the way many people in the Muslim world today look at the West. You know how many Muslims say, "The Europeans are out to destroy us." That was how the Europeans looked at the Islamic civilization at a time that it overshadowed the West the way the West overshadows the Muslim world today. That was current events not history. A scholars like Thomas Aquinas who was open about acknowledging the Muslim scholars he studied was in a protected position, writing within the Church and not for the masses, was unthreatening and didn't have to look after his shoulder. Others who feared that the only safe way to introduce ideas imported from the Muslim world was to pretend that they were native born. We see the same phenomena among Muslims who take wholesome and beneficial ideas from the West, but will not admit to their origins, instead appealing to some Prophetic tradition to derive an idea that they certainly got from the West. I'm not saying that the idea is inconsistent with the hadîth. I'm not even saying that it doesn't follow from the hadîth. I'm only saying that they didn't get it from the hadîth, but they don't want to admit from where they got it. That's totally understandable.
Mary (Islamic Center): I recall a quote from a professor of mine at the Hartford Seminary who said that faith is really a kind of gratitude. My understanding of the Stoics is that they may have been the first responsible for the wedding of theology and science.
Dr. Ahmad: I have no expertise in the Stoics, but I do believe that throughout history monotheism and science were allies against paganism and superstition. If you believe in the One God, the Single Creator of all things, then you want to believe that the Universe follows a single set of laws that reflect the Unity of that Single Architect. If you believe that the Universe is governed by a number of capricious gods whose commands may conflict with one another, then you're going to believe in a universe where, as one atheist once said, your wife may turn into a frog at any moment; that is, a universe that is not governed by such laws. The Qur'an says this too: "Do they not see that if there were many gods the universe would be in disarray." I believe that what you see in the Stoics is the rule and the modern Western conception is the exception.
Dr. Paul Carr: I think you're eloquent in defending the empirical approach, but how about the post-modernist critique that this is all social conditioning and there really is no empirical reality.
Dr. Ahmad: I think this is that overreaction to the contact of the West and Islam that I spoke of before taken to a more extreme level. Some people have come to the conclusion that there is no objective reality at all. To me it hard to separate the concept of objective reality from the Islamic concept of tawhîd, the Oneness of God. It seems to me that if you deny God, the next step is to deny objective reality. The answer that a post-modernist might give Pilate's question "What is Truth?" is that Truth depends upon your point of view. If you believe in God, then the absolute Truth is Truth seen from God's point of view. Yes, we are limited creatures and so our understanding of Truth is limited, and we all should have the humility to admit that and to accord one another the respect that follows from that fact. That doesn't mean that there is no absolute Truth, it only means that Truth is known to God. If you don't believe in God then the question "Does a tree falling in the forest when there's no one around make a sound?" becomes an unnerving question. If you believe in God you are not bothered by this question, because it rests on a false premise. "God is always around, God hears every sound." For those who don't believe in God this question precipitates a philosophical crisis. You can see it in the modern debates over quantum mechanics. An article in Physics Today was entitled "Is the Moon There When No One Is Looking?" If you don't believe in God then maybe the moon is not there when no one is looking, and there is no objective reality. Some post-modernists have applied these doubts to deny even the meaning of words. I think the rejection of God has led to the post-modern crisis.