Book Review: Islam and Science

Review of book by Pervez Hoodbhoy

[Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality by Pervez Hoodbhoy  (London: Zed Books, 1991)].


Muhammad Salim

The rise of fundamentalism characterizes many modern nation states, including Muslim majority countries. The particular countries also face the crucial issue of scientific regression or poverty of scientific thoughts. Given the ongoing yet unprecedented challenges of scientific and high-tech advancements, the problem of scientific impoverishment in the modern Muslim world not only provokes profound sense of urgency but also challenges our – Muslims across the globe – socio-religious belief systems.

In this book, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Pakistani physicist, discusses the dismal position of science and rationalism in the Islamic countries. In doing so, he attempts to describe the various causes which led to the destitution of scientific thoughts in the Muslim countries. In the preface, Abdus Salam (d.1996), Pakistani physicist and Nobel laureate, agrees with the author that “religious orthodoxy and the spirit of intolerance” are mainly responsible for the decline of science in the Islamic world. Likewise, Edward Said (d.2003) comments on the book: “Any reader, Muslim or non-Muslim, is bound to be affected by Dr. Hoodbhoy’s clear and persuasive arguments on the need for a reinstatement of scientific rationalism at a time of social crisis.”

However, close analysis of the book shows that the author not only presents reductionist as well as incomplete arguments but also sounds very reactionary. Moreover, it seems clear that Pervez Hoodbhoy implies Bertrand Russel’s criticism of Christianity, though he does not refer to the latter directly.

Pervez Hoodbhoy examines the question of compatibility between science and Islam. He contends that Islamic countries do not have the will to engage with science because they believe that science is a complete secular pursuit. He writes that it is due to such detachment from science that Muslim countries are left behind. Contrarily, he affirms, the Western countries embraced science through renaissance and subsequent socio-political changes. According to the author, science has nothing to do with religion because scientific truth does not depend on any spiritual validity or what he calls “science recognizes no laws outside its own”.

He argues that science is a separate paradigm with its specific qualities i.e. experimentation, quantification, predication and control. Based on such positivist understanding of the given topic, he describes how the West nurtured scientific culture while the Muslims countries remained ‘scientifically underdeveloped’. Although Dr. Hoodbhoy accepts that in-depth societal analysis is beyond his domain, it appears that he aims to provide answers to those questions that require profound philosophical engagement. In addition, by situating his perspective within the religion-secular binary, the author reduces Islam from a complex socio-epistemological system to an ordinary ritualistic conception associated with specific group of ignorant or religiously illiterate people. 

In discussing science’s nature and its origin, Hoodbhoy asserts that science liberated humanity through unfettering  power of human’s reason. In other words, as he says, “science freed us from the capricious forces of nature, and seemed to offer certainty.” He claims that science is the intellectual property of all civilizations as it encapsulates universal values – though he never questions the unequal socio-political contextualities within which scientific culture grows. From the same perspective, he argues that modern science is not Western science therefore it is neutral and holistic or vice versa. The author mentions that whenever there is a conflict between ‘rigidly orthodox faith’ and science, it is the latter that always remains triumphant and progressive. For example, he points out the hegemonic medieval Christianity tried hard to repress scientific thoughts but ended up being helpless loser. Here, Hoodbhoy uses – in a very superficial and simplistic way – the same kind of arguments that Bertrand Russel implies in his criticism of Christianity, especially in his books Why I am not Christian, and Religion and Science. Unlike the author of this book, who provides very limited historical scholarly references, Bertrand Russell presents very strong philosophical arguments against Christian’s theological worldview. Moreover, Hoodbhoy’s juxtaposition of scientific thoughts and religion is, to a certain extent, questionable because he focuses more on refutation of religious perceptions than providing clear explanation of the pertinent subtleties beyond orthodoxy and fundamentalism.

The book argues that Muslims’ scientific backwardness is inextricably linked with their rejection of human rational capabilities. The author states that Muslims’ anti-scientific attitude can be measured from the fact that the ruling elites of Islamic countries are always afraid of coherent thinkers as the latter are threat to political authority and encourage ‘Mutazilites’ tendencies. Hoodbhoy, through quantitative evidence, demonstrates that contemporary Muslim majority countries have very little scientific contributions in the international socio-economic system of production and exchange. He shows that Muslims are even behind, in terms of scientific achievements, than the average third world countries. Although the author provides quantitative data on the Muslim world’s scientific contributions, he hardly engages with the broader Islamic cultures – from Indonesia to North Africa – rather specifically concentrates on Pakistan. In doing so he criticizes General Ziaul Haq’s project of Islamization and associated epistemic violence. Nevertheless,the author unnecessarily focuses more on the rigid modern orthodox Ulema, which would be questionable, particularly for the learnt and knowledgeable members of Muslim societies.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, using Eqbal Ahmad’s (d.1999) pertinent conceptions, discusses the three main approaches of modern Muslims concerning the issue of underdevelopment.  Firstly, he mentions those Muslim intellectuals who want to restore their glorious past. The particular group, which he calls “Restorationist”, believe that Islamic countries are underdeveloped because of deviating from the true path of Islam. The restorationist movements, as the author points out, appear in the forms of religio-political organizations across Muslim world e.g., Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan and Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen in Arab countries. He argues that leaders of this extremist movement left no stone unturned in fighting against scientific thoughts. For example, Maulana Abul Ala Maudoodi (d.1979) – founder of   Jamaat-e-Islami – bitterly criticized science via equating it with Western science. Secondly, the reconstructionist Muslim thinkers: Hoodbhoy argues that the reconstructionist line is neither anti-science nor in support of orthodox anti-modernism. This school of thought, in Indian subcontinent, was represented by rationalist scholars such as Syed Ahmed Khan (d. 1898) and Syed Ameer Ali (d. 1924). He writes that reconstructionists hold the view that “Islam during the lifetime of the Prophet and Khilafat-i-Rashida (the four righteous Caliphs) was revolutionary, progressive, liberal, and rational”.Thirdly, the pragmatists Muslim thinkers:he contends that this group represents the  silent majority of Muslims’ population. The author exemplifies Syed Jamaluddin Afghani (d. 1897) as the prototypical Islamic intellectual of the pragmatist movement – mainly because of Afghani’s condemnation of British rule, unlike Syed Ahmed Khan who supported the colonizers. Although Hoodbhoy does not provide detailed account of what he meant by ‘pragmatism assilent representative of Muslim majority’, he persuasively debates the significance of pragmatic approach in solving the socio-political issues of Islamic world.

Dr. Hoodbhoy is immensely critical of those scholars who advocate the idea of alternative Islamic science. He credibly criticizes Maurice Bucaille(d. 1998) for associating the discoveries of modern science with Quran. In case of Ziauddin Sardar, the author argues that Sardar’s conception of the concern topic is too vague, abstract and lacks epistemic substance. As he writes , “for all his voluminous writings in favour of Islamic science, Sardar adds little which would make clear the meaning of this nebulous term (Islamic science)”.

Another related Muslim scholar, who Hoodbhoy strongly opposes, is Seyyed Hossein Nasr. The author asserts that Hossein Nasr’s works are theologically sound appealing but mean nothing when it comes to practicality of the connection between science and Islam. It seems that Hoodbhoy rejects Nasr’s theory of Islamic science without giving proper justification based on theological arguments. In other words, his criticism of Hossein Nasr’s works is quite unconvincing as well as anachronistic. As he states, Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s “words ring beautifully, and conjure up before us a magnificent vista of unblemished knowledge. Unfortunately, what the mean in real term is as clear as mud.” To put simply, it appears clear that Pervez Hoodbhoy’s criticism of the above-mentioned Muslim scholars exposes more of his own epistemic deficiency pertaining to Islam and philosophical history of science.

The book argues that there is nothing Islamic about Islamic science. The author reiterates the point that there cannot be Islamic science and “attempts to create one represent wasted efforts”.  To support his claim, he describes how General Zia tried to Islamize scientific knowledge but ended up destroying Pakistan’s educational system. According to Dr. Hoodbhoy, Muslims had witnessed scientific progress because of the individuals patronage of enlightened leaders such as Caliph’s al-Mamun’s translation movement. However, it is surprising that the author avoids engagement with the broader historic context within which earlier Muslim intellectuals pursued their scientific endeavours. It can be argued that classic Muslim thinkers did not prioritize pure reason but they used intellect as a means to explore the divine Truth therefore the categorization of Muslim intellectuals as secular is unreasonable.

Dr. Hoodbhoy affirms that the decline of science in the Islamic culture was primarily due to intense religiosity along with the absence of secular endeavours. He represents Mutazilites as rationalists and champions of free thought in the Islamic history – though he does not explain their religious philosophy. Contrarily, he argues that Ash’arites’ school of thought played pivotal role in discouraging scientific thoughts among Muslim community. The author mainly targets al-Ghazali (d.1111) for being anti-rational, especially his rejection of causality and the problem of induction. As per this book, al-Ghazali signifies the death of science in the Islamic world. However, putting the entire blame on al-Ghazali is not fair because al-Ghazali did not completely reject the concept of causation rather he replaced the idea of primary cause with divine power. If al-Ghazali’s work had stopped Islamic intellectual progress, why the same did not happen with David Hume’s work in the Western world? The notion that science died in Islamic world after al-Ghazali is nothing more than a myth because many influential contributions of Muslim scientists took place after al-Ghazalie’s theorization of blood circulation by Ibn al-Nafis, introduction of “Tusi Couple” by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, the contributions of Ibn al-Shatir to the field of astronomy etc.

To conclude, the book discusses the relationship between Islam and science through the lens of religio-secular binary. The author is more interested in denunciation of fundamentalists’ anti-scientific attitude, provided the ongoing socio-political crises across the Islamic world. Although scholars of Islamic studies and philosophical history of science might find Dr. Hoodbhoy’s mentioned account too narrow and simplistic, it is still a good read for those traditionalists who discourage scientific thinking e.g General Zia’s generation in Pakistan and anti-West populist forces across the Muslim world. The author’s humble acceptance of his inadequate command over the subject matter is really appreciative; and it shows his sincere effort in voicing against the inhumane fundamentalism throughout the wretched post-colonial societies, especially in South Asia, Middle East and North Africa.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *