Belief in Dialogue: Science, Culture, and Modernity

June 30th, 2011 | by MuslimScience
Belief in Dialogue: Science, Culture, and Modernity

By: Ekmeludin Ihsanoglu, The Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC)

Excerpts from a Speech delivered American University of Sharjah

The subject of Science and the faith, particularly the Islamic faith, has been close to my own academic interests for many years. It has been a personal interest of mine to conduct and encourage scholarship on Islam and the History of Science and to explore the debates between science and faith in the context of modern life. I hope that this meeting will provide opportunities to explore these issues and many others over the coming days.

Perhaps unlike some other belief systems Islam and science have had a remarkably harmonious relationship over the centuries. Islam is a religion which is based on the Holy Book, the Quran. In fact the first command of the Quran is ‘iqra’, (read) and this emphasis on reading and acquiring knowledge is a fundamental part of Islamic teaching and has pervaded its culture throughout the past fourteen centuries. References are frequently made in the Quran to those who
think, those who reflect and those who contemplate. The words related to knowledge, learning, studying,  contemplating, using intellect, reason, and also to wisdom are the second most frequently mentioned words in the Quran after those referring to God. In this way the Islamic faith instilled in its adherents a quest for knowledge as a
means of serving the Divine, not only in religious subjects but across all realms.

Muslims were instructed to learn and teach others about the wonder of the universe, to obtain knowledge and to guide human life in tandem with the laws of nature. This was the spiritual incentive that prompted Muslim scientists to explore all avenues of knowledge and all branches of science. As a result of this premium placed on scientific endeavor and with the expansion of Muslim lands from Arabia into Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia, Central Asia and North Africa, a new tradition of science was established. Muslim scholars studied, absorbed and synthesized previous scientific knowledge into a new Islamic scientific tradition. Equipped with a common language—Arabic—scholars from different backgrounds and traditions of learning were able to communicate over vast distances.
Arabic became the lingua franca from Andalusia to the confines of China. This was the first universal scientific tradition because it transcended geographical borders. Muslims went on to make meritorious contributions to scientific and technological achievements. Muslim scholars developed new disciplines and enriched and enlightened Europe, Asia and Africa in various fields of scientific and intellectual pursuits including mathematics, astronomy, optics, medicine, chemistry, philosophy, theology, law and diplomacy etc. Muslim scientists added to the old knowledge, corrected many concepts and injected it with many innovative contributions developing a genuine scientific approach,
and introduced experimental methodology to the world through new sciences and technologies.
The turn of the 14th Century witnessed the advent of the Ottomans, who inherited the scientific legacy prevailing in the old cities of learning, Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and others. The Ottomans brought a new dynamism to cultural and scientific life in the Islamic world and enriched it. Besides the old centers of the Islamic civilization, new centers flourished, such as Bursa, Edirne, Istanbul, Skopje, and Sarajevo. The heritage, which developed in this period, constitutes the cultural identity and scientific legacy of present day Turkey as well as several Middle Eastern, North African, and Balkan countries.
The Ottoman Empire was also a European country and had common borders with other states in Europe, which helped make it the first country outside the Western world where modern science and technology was spread. Proximity provided the Ottomans with an awareness of the new explorations and inventions appearing in Europe, and led to a selective transfer process, which characterizes the nature of the Ottomans attitude vis-à-vis western science and technology. The early adoption of European innovations by the Ottomans differed from those of the Russians and the Japanese. Also, it does not conform to the theoretical categories of “central – peripheral” and “exploiter-exploited” in the spread of Western science outside its initial cultural environment. The position of the Ottomans toward Western science and technology was interpreted as a selective attitude adopted by a powerful empire in response to developments outside its own sphere of influence.
Ottoman scholars had the opportunity to become acquainted with Renaissance astronomy and medicine through Jewish scholars who had taken refuge in the Ottoman Empire. In spite of these early contacts the Ottomans considered themselves superior to the Europeans, both spiritually and culturally, while being confident of their economic and military power. Furthermore, their selective attitude in the transfer of science may be attributed to their self sufficiency in regard to their educational system and economy. Thus it is obvious that the Ottomans in their periods of strength did not feel the need to follow closely the intellectual and scientific activities— such as the “Renaissance” and the “Scientific Revolution”—emerging in the West. The interpretations of some modern historians implying that the Ottomans did not understand these developments would constitute a danger in the future are anachronistic. Like the peoples of other scientific traditions, the Ottomans became aware of the a advancement of the Europeans in science and technology only through the effects of the industrial revolution.
Studying the first translations from European scientific literature showed us that this new scientific knowledge did not did lead to any Muslim scholars questioning their Islamic faith. For instance the issues of the sun being the center of the universe and the earth being in motion, which were the basic components of the Copernican view that created major disputes in Europe, were considered technical details ( a change of vector) by the classical Ottoman astronomers, not a subject of polemics. The main reason is that the Ottoman astronomers did not know of any religious dogma opposed to this notion
It will be quite clear from these different examples that the Ottoman’s interest in the scientific knowledge of the Europeans— whom they considered “infidels” had nothing to do with their religious affiliations as was the case for Europeans. What really did matter was the urge to acquire what was needed from the other side.
Likewise, European scholars—who viewed Muslims as “holders of false religion”—were keen to acquire Muslims knowledge, which they deemed superior to their own and which they needed.

One early 16th Century example can be found in the work of Piri Reis who produced one of the greatest achievements in Ottoman cartography with a large scale world map that was presented to Sultan Selim I in 1513. This map not only showed coastlines of Western Europe but also Southeastern and Central America and it clearly was based on many Islamic sources as well as the voyages of Christopher Columbus and other Europeans around the world. A fine example of an early acquisition and synthesis of European discoveries into the Islamic scientific tradition.
When we come to the last decades of the 16th Century and we take a look at two contemporary scientists, from the Muslim world, and from Europe: Takiyaddin al-Ras’id the founder of the Istanbul observatory and Tycho Brahe who established the one of the first European observatories in Denmark. These two astronomers were living in the same time, in different parts of Europe, serving two different Monarchs belonging to different religions, one representing a tradition of science in its zenith and the other pioneering a new one.
They targeted the same celestial corps, observed them and made advances in the knowledge of astronomy. It was not a surprise that despite the similarity of the instruments they used, the ones by Taqiyadin were more sensitive and his measurements were more precise and accurate, and many of them more close to the ones established in our time. But Tycho Brahe was initiating a new tradition which developed into what we know as modern science and Taqiyadin was perhaps the last illustrious name in the Islamic tradition of science.
Until the 17th century, the Ottoman classical scientific tradition had produced its finest works in the scholarly milieu that developed around classic institutions of learning—in addition to medreses there were palace institutions (offices of the chief physician and he chief astronomer) and the short lived Istanbul observatory—but also through master-disciple relationships that transmitted scientific knowledge across generations. This classic tradition preserved the
basic features if Islamic science during the gradual modernization period of the eighteenth century, when translations from European languages introduced new elements of learning.
Detailed examination of the adaptation, translation and compilation of modern scientific books and tables (in the case of astronomy) during the 17th and 18th Century, and of the travelogues and reports of Ottoman ambassadors to Europe, shows clearly that the Ottomans went through two different stages in acquiring new science. In the first stage of awareness and familiarity they were capable of following the developments in Europe closely. However, being conscious of their own rich experience and scientific tradition, of which they were representative, they did not accept the superiority of the newly emerging tradition right away. They accepted it only after observing its compatibility with their own scientific tradition. In the following stage, in the second half of the 18th century, the proven validity of European science led to its widespread use and application.
Although no conflict was observed between science and religion in this period, one notices that the common people showed sensitivity to the new view owing to folk religious beliefs. However, this kind of sensitivity did not have any significant impeding role.
Our research indicates that in these two stages, the principal European sources and theoretical works that brought about fundamental changes in astronomy were not preferred candidates for translation; the Ottomans felt content with their own scientific outlook literature and were in greater need of the practical aspects of modern science. In the first half of the 19th Century modern astronomy was accepted to the extent that Muslim scholars remained in favor of it from the religious point of view.
A good example can be found with Ishak Efendi (d. 1836), who was Chief Instructor in the Imperial School of  Engineering and who played a leading role in the transfer of modern science. Among his thirteen books, which he wrote using Western and particularly French sources, Mecmua-i Ulum-i Riyaziye (Compendium of Mathematical Sciences, in four volumes) is of special importance, since it is the first attempt in any language of the Muslim world to present a
comprehensive textbook on different sciences such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, botany, and mineralogy in one compendium. Ishak Efendi’s efforts to find the equivalents of the new scientific terminology and his influence on the transfer of modern science spread in other Islamic countries beyond Ottoman Turkey.
Another example is a book called Asrar al-Malakut, written by the Azeri scholar Küdsi of Baku (d. 1848) and translated and presented to the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid in1846. Küdsi after presenting a short history of astronomy, maintained that the Copernican theory was the most successful and correct one for solving the current astronomical problems:
“Whether one prefers the Ptolomaic or Copernican system, no inconvenience would ensure from the viewpoint of our religion because these matters are related to reason not religion. Since the imitation (taqlid) would not be lawful in matters pertaining to the intellect, we accept what the intellect prefers. Some Muslim scholars of the new astronomy, who compared the Copernican view with the rules of reason and observation, defended its correctness on the basis
of the Quranic verses and traditions of the Prophet. They were surprised to see how the Ptolemaic view, which did not conform to the principles of science and observation, continued to be well known for such a long time. I realized that the Copernican view conforms to the clear and definite proofs deduced from geometry and moreover, to the Quranic verses and the traditions of the Prophet; as for the Ptolomaic view, it is the opposite.”
It was in the late 19th Century when the impact of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory could also be felt on Ottoman
intellectuals. This was partly because they were influenced by European scholars like Büchner who were seriously following Darwins theories, and partly because Ottoman scholars like Huseyinzade Ali were being educated in European institutions such as Peterburg University where pro-Darwin philosophers had great influence on faculty and students. Gradually the implications of natural selection were assimilated by classical arguments of design.
This was undertaken for example by Husayn al-Jisr al-Tarabulsi in his work “A Hamidian treatise on the truth of Islam and Muslim law” (risala hamidiyaa fi haqiqat al-diyana al-islamiyaa wa haqiqat alshari’a al-muhammadiyya) which was essentially a Muslim view of natural theology and which emphasized divine providence, wisdom, and design in nature. Al-Jisr even included a discussion of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and claimed this could be seen as compatible with Muslim cosmology and faith in the created world. He made reference to God’s work and wisdom evident in nature, thereby reconciling naturalist views with faith. Since al-Jisr’s work was dedicated to Ottoman Sultan Abd al Hamid II it was translated into Turkish and widely distributed with 20,000 copies published in Istanbul alone. While Darwinism was synthesized and accepted in certain parts of the Ottoman empire, in other parts, this was not the case. The Syrian Protestant College in Beirut for example witnessed a bitter controversy over Darwinism which involved teachers, students, missionary members and intellectuals as well as Catholic and Orthodox religious officials.
Thus it can be said that there were two distinct phases in the relationship between modern science and religion in the 19th Century. The first phase was characterized by a harmonious relationship; the second was marked by disputes and conflicts as was the case in the Western world. The main reasons behind this categoric change could be attributed to the establishment of modern educational institutions where training in foreign (European) languages enabled Muslim
intellectuals to form clear contacts with Western philosophy. In the second half of the 19th Century various trends of Western thought and disputes on the relation between religion and science were introduced to the world of Islam for the first time in Istanbul. Later in the last quarter of the 19th Century, these discussions were carried on among the Arabic-speaking intellectuals in Beirut, which was part of the province of Syria.
One example of European debates influencing Muslim intellectuals was the argument about the rift between science and faith that was advocated by John William Draper in his book Conflict between Religion and Science published in 1874. Draper was a staunch critic of Catholicism and suggested that there was an intrinsic intellectual conflict between religion and science. Draper’s work influenced not only European intellectuals but those in Ottoman circles as well.

Draper’s book was subsequently translated into Turkish by the Ottoman encylopedist and prolific writer Ahmet
Midhat in the late 1890’s. This translated work was published with a long supplement as a work of two thousand pages in four volumes in order to defend the Islamic position vis a vis science. Midhat feared that Draper’s arguments about the relationship between Christianity and Science would be taken and mistakenly applied to Islam. He  went to great lengths to emphasize that Islam encourages scientific endeavors and that the Muslims had made great contributions to
scientific learning and discovery.
We can see that the introduction of modern science to the Muslim world was an auxiliary to the study of medicine and
engineering that was taking place at different levels and institutions in different parts of the Muslim world. However, it was not until the 20th Century that the Muslim world witnessed a systematic introduction of modern science through the expansion of education and particularly the establishment of the first faculties of science (1900 in Istanbul and 1925 in Cairo universities). There was discord however, between Islam and modern philosophical currents like positivism, naturalism, and social Darwinism, which challenged religion and the belief in God (or at least attempted to take their place).
On the contrary, a new trend of scholarship started to emerge that aimed to prove the existence of a powerful  compatibility and harmony between science and religion. This effort was farther – reaching than the attempt by Küdsi of Baku in the mid-19th Century to accord the new astronomy with religious implications. The first important example of this new course was the work of the Ottoman grand vizier, commander, and astronomer Gazi Ahmed Muhtar Pasha
(d. 1919) His work titled Serâir al-Kur’an (Secrets of the Quran) was the precursor of a new trend in the Islamic world. An authority on astronomy, calendar making and timekeeping, Muhtar Pasha made an attempt to explain the related verses of the Quran with the findings, discoveries, and theories of modern science: in the first part he dealt with the creation of the universe and the beginning of life; the second part, with doomsday and the end of the world; and in the third, with the resurrection after death. One debate perhaps worth mentioning relates to the relationship between science and religion which was started in the last decades of the 20th Century by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who argues
that there is an Islamic alternative to Western science. Nasr maintains that while science is legitimate in itself, the role and functions of Western science and its applications have become illegitimate and highly dangerous because they are completely divorced from a higher form of knowledge. The alternative is to pursue science in a clearly defined framework of values. Islam provides both a system of enlightened, coherent values, and through its history of science and technology in Islamic civilization, it provides an example of how science can be pursued within the confines of values. Nasr explains that the Islamic science in history was deeply immersed in the worldview Islam and that it was able to synthesize and transform any idea coming from the outside, such as Greek scientific knowledge, and bring it in line with its own world view. This debate continues to be discussed primarily in Muslim intellectual circles.
With the advent of the 21st century, the position of Islam towards science has developed more in the direction of achieving advance knowledge and know-how in a rather pragmatic way. The importance of scientific enterprise became more prominent and the need for excellence in research is felt in more advanced Muslim countries.
I would now like move to the broader view of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as an inter- governmental Organization comprising 57 states with 5 non-Muslim observer countries, for the time being with Russia among them. The OIC encourages the development of science and technology based on the premise that “OIC member states are committed to become a community that values knowledge and is competent in utilizing and advancing science and technology to enhance socio-economic wellbeing of the Muslim world”.
The OIC General Secretariat and OIC institutions have made advances in the fields of Science and Technology and Higher Education in the last five years and have moved closer to the targets set by the OIC for the Vision 1441H for Science and Technology by the 10th Islamic Summit Conference in Malaysia in 2003 and the Ten Year Programme of Action(TYPOA) by the 3rd Extraordinary session of the Islamic Summit Conference in Makkah in 2005.
In the TYPOA Islamic countries were called upon to: “encourage research and development programmes, taking into
account that the global percentage of this activity is 2% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and request Member States to ensure that their individual contribution is not inferior to half of this percentage.”
In that regard I have personally proposed that the leading countries of the OIC should reach 1% of expenditure of GDP on research and development (R&D). As a result from an average expenditure of 0.2% of the GDP on R&D in 2005, the average spending of OIC Member States on R&D has now doubled to 0.41%. In Turkey for example, the Gross expenditure on R&D increased from 0.48% of GDP in 2003 to 0.73% of GDP in 2008 and now stands at 0.85% of the GDP. This indicates significant progress towards the target that the country has set itself to increase gross R&D  expenditure to 2% of the GDP by 2013. Pakistan also registered impressive increases in R&D expenditure which reached 0.68% of the GDP in 2008. I am confident that the continuation of similar trend will help us achieve the target of R&D expenditure of 1% of the GDP specified by the Ten Year Programme of Action by leading OIC countries.
In the case of scientific publications in OIC Member States the number has more than tripled from 18,391 publications in the year 2000 to 63,342 publications in 2009. Turkey alone produced more than 25,000 scientific publications in 2009 which represented a four fold increase for itself in the period 1998-2009. As a result Turkey moved up in world rankings for the number of scientific publications from 25th to 16th place. Meanwhile Iran moved up from 46th place to 21st place and Pakistan moved up from 56th to 45th place in the same period.
Moreover and in order to appraise the existing situation of Science, Technology and Innovation in the Muslim world, the OIC General Secretariat has launched a project called the Atlas of Science and Innovation in the Islamic World. This is a three year partnership between the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the Royal  Society, Nature, the British Council, and the Qatar Foundation. Its objective is to map key trends and trajectories in science and technology-based innovation across the OIC Member States and offer an objective and authoritative assessment of opportunities and barriers to their development and transition to an innovation-driven knowledge economy. Currently, country studies in respect of Malaysia, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan and Qatar are nearing completion.
Five other country studies for Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Iran, Senegal and Nigeria are planned to be completed by December 2012.

As it can be seen from the perspective of the OIC there is a need to reform the higher education sector and priority given to science and technology while emphasizing the tolerant and moderate understanding of the religion of Islam. We have urged member states to strive for quality education that promotes creativity and innovation and to increase their expenditure on research and development. Thus Debates about Islam and science in the future will be mainly about achieving these broad goals. The 19th Century conflict between science and religion, which was of Western descent, could not have deep roots in the Muslim world.

Dr. Ihsanoglu made these comments on at the Conference on Belief in Dialogue: Science, Culture, and Modernity held at American University of Sharjah (AUS), Sharjah on June 21-23, 2011.



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