"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Muslim Reformers vs. European Attitudes

Notes and reflections on Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence by Zachary Karabell

This chapter - The Age of Reform - begins with the expansion of Western influence into Muslim lands where "there were some who enthusiastically embraced the mores and manners of the West, and others who resisted at all costs."  Some Muslims traveled abroad to study "the fundamentals of Western science and philosophy, and returned home to lead a new wave of reform" while others "retreated more deeply into the comfortable lassitude of the past, clinging to dreams that the West would retreat as surely as the Crusaders had left Palestine centuries before."  (pg. 223)

The author discussed a couple Muslim reformers who thought Islam was compatible with science and reason and, therefore, no need existed to throw out religious beliefs in the name of progress such as was the trend in Europe.  Muhammad Abduh and his teacher Jamal al-Din al-Afghani were mentioned as two men who tried to reform Muslim society.  Afghani debated Western intellectuals such as Ernest Renan who "believed that all religions were antithetical to innovation, and that religion stood in the way of human progress."  (226)  A former seminary student, Renan was "fluent in Hebrew, versed in the Quran and had devoted years to the study of the Orient. He admired the Persians, but had little respect for what Arabs had wrought over the centuries." He thought Persians had done better than Arabs "because they were less in thrall to orthodox Islam."  Religion "resting on the infinite power of God the creator" did not nurture any scientific spirit which was based on "the limitless capacity of human reason and intellect."

What do you think? Is Renan correct in saying that religion and science were at odds?  Can one only have religion or science and not both? Does religion stand in the way of progress by default or perhaps only when it is abused?  Do you think religions have purpose in that they give standards of what is right and wrong or does even this naturally evolve from the innate goodness of people?

Afghani countered that Islam was "unique in its embrace of reason and its warmth toward science."  He gave examples of the great Islamic philosophers who were often mystics as well.  "They used reason, and they were also men of faith, who submitted to the mystery and power of God even as they employed logic to probe the meaning of his creation."  (pg. 227)

Muhammad Abduh agreed. He believed the first Muslims - the Salaf - "had prospered because they combined reason with faith."  They were "ecumenical and tolerant" just as Abduh sought to make Egyptian society. He saw how Muslims, Jews and Christians all benefited from their history of coexistence and he desired to make Egypt like those glorious days.   He would be appalled with how others disagreed and tried to emulate the Salaf as a "tight-knit community of believers whose strength lay in the rejection of the message given to the People of the Book and their willingness to silence any who challenged the word of the Quran and the hadith."  Abduh thought the Quran was opened to being interpreted in light of current issues rather than it being stuck with one interpretation good for all times no matter how societies progressed.

Abduh argued that ignorance was a greater threat than the West and he sought to take Egypt out of this "backwardness."  "He reserved his most stringent criticisms not for the conquerors but for the failings in his own society that made it unable to resist Western encroachment."  (pg. 230)



Sarah said...


Islam *was* historically quite friendly to science, but I think religious certainty will always put a cap on how far science can go. (For example there are books of the "Prophet's Medicine" that some Muslims still refer to, even though we have modern medicine which is actually proven to work. Trusting the Prophet's authority on truth to this degree has to mean doubting or disregarding objective evidence! :S)

Having said that, there are definitely rationalist believers who fully accept all the results of science. But presumably you can't be a rationalist and cling to faith as a dogmatic certainty, because to be rational you have to be open to changing your mind if new evidence shows up... even if it means concluding that some of the Prophet's "medicine" was just old wives' tales.

I think it's dogmatic certainty (orthodoxy) that stands in the way of human progress, not religious thinking per se. And it can exist in science as well as in religion (although it shouldn't!).

Susanne said...

Sarah, I always appreciate your POV especially on these posts that relate to both science and religion. You have very interesting things to share - thank you! :)