Faith and reason in the Islamic world

Last Updated: Wed, Dec 19, 2012 20:53 hrs

S Irfan Habib, a recognised authority on the history of science, bemoans the decline in scientific studies among Muslims over the last few hundred years. He contrasts this with the significant contributions made by the early Muslims in preserving Greek learning and then, with significant contributions of their own, making it available to Europeans emerging from the Dark Ages. Mr Habib believes that science flourished in early Islam, since that period encouraged the spirit of enquiry and the pursuit of knowledge in diverse areas. The era of independent reasoning (ijtihad) came to an end a few centuries ago, when the ulema closed the doors on ijtihad and enforced reference only to established knowledge, taqlid. Muslims across the world were, thus, doomed to live a life of stultifying mediocrity and sterility.

The success of colonial conquest over most of the Muslim world by the end of the 18th century traumatised the Muslim community since it constituted the first comprehensive defeat of Muslims, in sharp contrast to the military, political and cultural successes they had enjoyed over several centuries earlier. Their reaction to this calamity varied from person to person. Some argued that this defeat occurred because Muslims had turned away from the tenets and way of life of the early Muslims, and advocated a return to pristine Islam. In sharp contrast, a small but robust group demanded that Islam, in terms of its religious practices and the life that it enjoined upon its believers, be thoroughly reformed and modernised; in short, the traditional rulings of early scholars should be reinterpreted so that they are in tune with contemporary Western achievements, particularly in science and technology.

A larger group of intellectuals attempted to reconcile these two extreme positions, seeking a belief and lifestyle for Muslims founded on essential Islamic tenets but accommodative of the modern spirit of scientific enquiry and discovery. All these debates took place amid furious assertions of the ulema in favour of tradition, rejecting Western scientific achievement as unacceptable to Islam.

Mr Habib looks at the impact this had on the Muslim community in India. In line with Muslims in other parts of the world, Indian Muslims generally came to reject modern scientific learning as Western and, therefore, not acceptable to their tradition. A number of prominent Muslims of that period, led by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, did make valiant efforts to promote modern knowledge among Muslims in the face of persistent opposition from the ulema. Nearer our time, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad also advocated the importance of Western education. A Quranic scholar himself, he castigated the ulema for preaching against modern education and, thus, blocking the progress and reform of the community.

Mr Habib’s book is a collection of six essays, three of which have appeared earlier. Hence, there is some repetition with regard to the material in the book, hence a disjointed structure. It is, however, the substance of the arguments presented that poses bigger problems.

Although the achievements of the Arabs did flounder from the 13th century, there was an extraordinary flowering of Islamic culture in Spain, the Ottoman empire and Mughal India, which continued till the 18th century. Again, while it is true that the West came to dominate large parts of the world inhabited by Muslims, European conquests encompassed other communities as well in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The defeat and occupation of these peoples cannot be attributed to taqlid alone.

Regardless of the exhortations of the ulema, in the Muslim states it was the sultan who held sway and ensured that his realm had huge spaces that were outside religious control. These included the political order; domestic and foreign economic transactions; large areas of civil and criminal law; and military and foreign affairs. Art, architecture, music, literature and philosophy flourished throughout Muslim lands till just before the advent of the colonial enterprise. Even in modern times, a few misguided scholars may harp on so-called Islamic science, but the overwhelming majority of Muslims happily pursue modern education, including engineering, medicine and applied sciences. Remarkably, in traditional Gulf societies, women are in the vanguard of educational achievement.

Mr Habib’s fervent support for ijtihad is naive and simplistic. While a number of ulema from different Sunni schools did close the door on ijtihad, even in early times, this did not enjoy universal support. The austere advocate of Islamic reform of the 14th century, Ibn Taymiyya, expressed cautious support for itjihad, while his student, Al Jawziyya, advocated ijtihad by qualified scholars.

Modern-day Salafis, both quietist and jihadi who seek a return to pristine Islam, also support ijtihad. The jihadis have, in fact, used ijtihad to interpret Islamic tenets to justify their wanton violence, including suicide bombings and random killings of women and children in support of global jihad.

Mr Habib is an enthusiastic advocate of reason and science. This book is a useful contribution to the ongoing debate between faith and reason and the place of science in human progress.

The reviewer is former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE

S Irfan Habib
HarperCollins Publishers India
192 pages, Rs 299

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