Monday, June 14, 2004

A Critique of 'Islamic Science' in EPW

In this week's Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), S Irfan Habib attacks the idea that there is an 'Islamic Science'.

It is a helpful complement to the arguments posed by Meera Nanda on 'Hindu Science,' in her recent book Prophets Facing Backwards as well as in many recent essays (I responded to one such here).

Critics of people like Nanda (and of myself) make much of the fact that we critics of Hindutva spend an inordinate amount of time 'Hindu bashing.' But articles like Habib's provide evidence that a similar kind of critique has been occurring for more than a century amongst secularized Muslims, especially in South Asia. In passages like the following, Habib sounds like a slightly less polished version of Nanda (which is to say, I approve):

All those who argue for a science based on religion begin with a critique of modern science questioning the value free nature of science, emphasising the destructive nature of certain of its products. The fact that the practice of modern science has created serious problems for human society was not a discovery of born again fundamentalists. There have been critiques of science from within the community of practising scientists as well as from Marxists and anarchists like Marcuse, Kuhn, Feyerabend and others. In the name of critical perspective, some of the current interlocutors are pushing for a sectarian agenda, making modern science look like a monolithic European product with a Christian ethic. In the name of indigenous knowledge traditions, the religious essentialists are attempting to foreground one dominant tradition and threatening in the process the very idea of cultural pluralism.

The last point is especially provocative -- in the discourse of religion-ized science, the call for 'cultural pluralism' is often a mask for more ethnic particularism. What is really desired is actually monocultural -- a strong civilizational alternative to Europe -- rather than true 'plurality'.

Habib cites 19th century reformers and thinkers who argued that the great tradition of scientific and philosophical synthesis under the Abbasid era (8th-13th centuries C.E. ) was essentially extinct by the era of European mercantile capitalism and colonialism. These writers felt strongly that the center of scientific advancement in the modern world was Europe, and European scientific methods were therefore to be studied and adopted by Muslim scholars. Habib is most convincing when he writes on people like Maulvi Obaidullah Ubedi and Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who argue that the dissemination of 'Europeanized' learning would directly benefit the Muslim world as a whole.

There are, however, some confusing passages in Habib's essay, including an account of the Kolkata/Calcutta based thinker Maulvi Karamat Ali that seems to accept a version of 'Islamic Science' after all ("The whole Koran is full of passages containing information on physical and mathematical sciences. If we would but spend a little reflection over it we should find wondrous meanings in every word it contains"). Habib nevertheless includes writers like Ali with the other 19th century Muslim modernizers without acknowledging the attendant tensions and contradictions. This seems strained; at times Habib seems to be arguing that the passages advocating what is clearly a version of 'Islamic Science' in Ali are less important than the passages in the same writer's work that dismiss it. Habib's argument would be better served by acknowledging that the texts he is working with are rife with contradictions. For instance, he would gain credibility among the pro-Islamic crowd if he explored the ideological implications of the fact that many of the writers he works with were loyal to the British.

Because of the fuzziness on points of interpretation and analysis, in my view Habib's essay is probably most useful for its strong polemical value rather than its scholarship. That polemical value is encapsulated in synthetic moments like this one:

Eurocentrism, a creation of an essentialist thinking process is being challenged by diverse essentialisms equally condemnable. "Civilisations don’t just clash", as pointed out by the well known historian of science A I Sabra, "they can learn from each other." Islam is a good example of that. The intellectual meeting of Arabia and Greece was one of the greatest events in history, he said, its scale and consequences are enormous, not just for Islam but for Europe and the world. Most of the Islamists repeatedly talk about modern science’s debt to Islamic civilisation but they seldom say a word about the Arab’s scientific debt to the pre-Islamic ancient civilisations from the so-called – 'jahiliya' phase. Can any Islamist tell us what was the source of Islamic science? Was it Quran or Hadiths or did it come straight through divine intervention of angels? It is certainly not true. Arab civilisation did not see the light of science till the middle of the eighth century. There was hardly any science during the Prophet’s time or even during the Khulafa-i-Rashedin’s (The Khalifas of The Right Way) period. It was during the liberal Muslim Abbasid and later Ottoman kings that science flowered in Islam. This was possible because the Abbasids welcomed Greek, Indian, Chinese and other sciences and got all these works translated into Arabic. Most of these scientists and translators who gathered in Baghdad were Arab Christians, Jews, Muslims and even Hindus from India and were sincere participants in the project called Islamic civilisation.

This is an interesting series of gestures. First Habib denies a major Eurocentric premise (i.e., Plato--> Leonardo was a non-stop flight) by insisting on the advanced status of medieval Islam. But he does so not in order to posit an Islam-centric concept of history; rather, he suggests that the Arab world in the medieval era was a hub of ideas and knowledge-production precisely because it was so tolerant and multicultural.

The lesson can be forward-projected to the west in our own era: one reason European and American universities continue to be so innovative is that they have been inviting to scholars and ideas from all over the world. [The seat of global learning may move entirely to Europe; with the Patriot Act, the openness of the U.S. is now in question.]

As for the question of the provenance of modern scientific thinking, that is just a pill that scholars with non-western cultural affiliations will have to swallow. But why worry about provenance? As Abdus Salem put it: 'There is only one universal science, its problems and modalities are international and there is no such thing as Islamic science just as there is no Hindu science, no Jewish science, no Confucian science nor Christian science' (quoted in Habib).


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