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Old Monday, December 10, 2007
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Post ijtihad and science

Ijtihad and science

By Prof Khwaja Masud

For three hundred years, the doors of the tavern have been closed.

— Allama Iqbal

WHY is it that for the last three hundred years, the Muslim world has been so deficient in producing scientists and philosophers? Why is it that even now when the Muslim world commands such immense resources, we lag so far behind the West in scholarship and technology?

The answer is clear: for three hundred years, the door of Ijtihad that is creative thinking has been closed. Almost one-ninth of the verses of the Quran stress ‘tafakkur’ and ‘tadabbur’. Yet, by and large, the Muslim world pays no heed to them, that is, they turn their back on critical thinking.

Instead, we are fond of platitudes. We love clichés. We bask in the glory of the past. We dread the new, the original, and the novel. We revel in interpretations, but we flinch from creativity. We are good at repeating moth-eaten, time worn thoughts, views and traditions. Using Toynbee’s terminology, we are in the stranglehold of the ‘nemesis of mimesis’. Intellectual stagnation and spiritual degeneration are our dismal lot.

It is ingrained in our psychology that correct answers already exist, and are to be found in books or from authorities, religious or secular. Teachers disperse truth, parents are always right and leaders are omniscient. They act like philosopher kings, often uttering unchallenged banalities. Questioning authority is disrespectful and un-Islamic.

It is time to deconstruct, following the true Quranic spirit of iconoclasm.

Scholars may differ about problems concerning science, but they are unanimous as regards the need for a particular weltanschauung (world view) for the birth, growth and blossoming of science. Science cannot develop in an atmosphere vitiated by obscurantism, dogmatism, fanaticism, intolerance and irrationalism. Science needs an intellectual environment whose keynote is enlightenment with rationalism, pluralism and humanism as its driving forces.

Historically it was the renaissance which prepared the ground for the emergence of modern science. The Dark Age which preceded the renaissance in Europe was dominated by scholasticism with philosophy as the handmaiden of theology. D’Alembert called scholasticism “the so called science of the centuries of ignorance”. The scholastics used to discuss such ‘profound’ problems as the number of angels who could dance on the tip of a needle. Bacon compared the scholastics to the spiders, content to weave cobwebs, ignoring the universe and what was happening around them.

Scholasticism suffered from (i) indifference to facts (ii) arguments from authority (iii) undue emphasis on verbal subtleties (iv) reasoning in matters which observation alone could decide (v) blind faith.

Modern science had to make way by routing scholasticism. It was Descartes (1596-1650) who performed this task. He was not only the founder of modern philosophy, but also, along with Galileo and Newton, one of the creators of modern science. He started off on his philosophical odyssey by the dictum: “In order to reach the truth, it is necessary, once in one’s life, to put everything in doubt.”

Modern science has flourished in an atmosphere marked by philosophical skepticism. It does not take anything for granted. It puts to doubt all dogmas, all certainties. The beliefs of a scientist are tentative, not final. They are not based on authority, but on evidence. Modern science is iconoclastic in dealing with convictions based on tradition or authority. As opposed to scholasticism which believed in order to understand, modern science understands in order to believe. As such there is no dichotomy between modern science and the Quranic spirit, with its constant appeal to reasoning, thinking, knowing and deliberating: afala takaloon, afala tadabburoon, afala tafakkaroon.

Science demands immense patience in observation and great boldness in framing hypotheses. The test of scientific truth is patient collection of facts combined with bold guessing as to the law binding facts together.

Science demands an inquisitive spirit, a pioneering zeal and an enterprising élan. Science advances when there is unity between theory and practice. Any dichotomy between theory and practice spells disaster for scientific progress. The Greek science withered away, because it wholly and solely depended on deduction. Though the Greeks scaled the most sublime heights of speculative thought, their aversion to experimentation and manual work, closed the door for further scientific advancement.

Induction was a great gift of Islam to humanity. “Neither Roger Bacon nor his later namesake has any title to be credited with having introduced the experimental method,” says Briffault in his book Making of Humanity, and adds, “The experimental method of Arabs was by Bacon’s time widespread and eagerly cultivated throughout Europe.”

According to Iqbal, “For purposes of knowledge, the Muslim culture fixes its gaze on the concrete and the finite.” He exalts the scientific spirit at the expense of speculative flights into metaphysics. By giving examples of Ibn-i-Khaldun’s view of history, Ibn-i-Maskwaih’s theory of life as evolutionary movement and Musa al-Khwarazmi’s shift from arithmetic to algebra, Iqbal concludes: “All lines of Muslim thought converge on a dynamic concept of the universe.”

Thus Islam rejects a static view of the universe and regards it as always changing and evolving. According to the Quran, change is one of the greatest signs of God, and is explicitly implied in the verse: “Every day has its own glory.”

The Islamic principle to keep pace with the changing world and an evolving universe is Ijtihad (exertion to form an independent opinion). Creativity is the essence of Ijtihad. The driving force of the scientific technological revolution (STR) is creativity, developing new ideas and sailing in uncharted seas.

Science must precede technology, because science is the tree and technology is the fruit. Today, as never before, the political stability of a country depends on its economic prowess, which is determined by the STR.

In order to usher in STR, we have to take the following steps:

Firstly, our educational system must be geared to strengthen mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology and computer science in our curriculum.

Secondly, our method of teaching must change, emphasising the intelligent grasp of the subject rather than memorising formulas and theorems.

Thirdly, our mass media must be mobilised to popularise science, and scientific thinking i.e. rational, critical and creative thinking.

Fourthly, our scientists must be made to feel that the country stands in need of their leadership.

Fifthly, there is an urgent need of structural change in our scientific institutions.

Every genuine scientist must be encouraged by rapid promotions and handsome rewards. Our scientists serving abroad must be brought back home by offering them handsome salaries. The rotten concept of ‘seniority’ must be done away with to be replaced by the contribution made by a scientist, which is universally acknowledged. Lastly, what is most needed is the political will on the part of the government to regard literacy, education (in particular) and research as its first priority, and involve all scientists, educationists and the entire intelligentsia in carrying out this urgent task.
~~We JuDgE OurseLves By What we feeL CapabLe Of doing,While OthErs JudGe Us By whaT we have already DonE~~
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