Science and Questioning in Islam

Here is an article by Anwar Syed in Dawnthat addresses the topic that I have strong views on and on which I have ended up in debates with many recently. It is a nice read:

FROM time to time, statements of belief, and assertions allegedly of fact, gain widespread acceptance and begin to influence behaviour. Yet, on closer examination, they may turn out to be misinterpretations that in fact distort and disrupt societal interaction. I propose to examine a few of them below.

A few weeks ago I read an article in this newspaper in which the author, while rejecting the Taliban’s general orientation and programme, praised their “courage of convictions” and the firmness of their commitment to their mission. Then he went on to scold the “moderates,” whom he saw as lacking in commitment to any set of principles and ready to go with the highest bidder or the more menacing coercer.

That all moderates are “soft” on principles is simply not true, and it may be assumed that the author in question is aware of this fact. There is, then, something more in that article than meets the eye. It is possible that he meant to be polemical, and chose to employ sarcasm and poetic exaggeration to make his case.

I should first like to submit that not everything we say or do involves a principle. Much of human action springs from non-rational stimuli such as habit, prejudice, appetite and passion. The role of principles as guides to behaviour should not, therefore, be exaggerated. Second, in the actual conduct of affairs minor variance from principles, even on the part of those who take them seriously, is to be expected. Negotiation and bargaining, regarded as essential in both business and politics, would be impossible if absolutely strict adherence to principles were required.

Moderation has nothing to do with any specific degree of commitment to a given principle. It is an attitude of mind towards persons who profess principles different from, or even opposed to, those to which others subscribe. A moderate will not discriminate against them in the matter of access to the various amenities of life that public authorities and society offer on the ground that their principles are different. Nor will he decline to associate with them for that reason. Indeed, he may act to defend their right to have beliefs and principles of their choice.

In a society of moderates, beliefs and principles are not culpable; action is, and that only when it involves violence against another individual’s person or property. Let us suppose an anarchist tells me that he is for abolishing the state and all other coercive agencies, and that he wants a society in which all interaction, including the production and distribution of goods and services, is conducted on the basis of voluntary cooperation.

How will I, as a moderate, respond to him? I will probably tell him that he is entitled to his opinion even if, in my view, it calls for a utopia, a “never-never land.” I will want him restrained only if he uses force to overthrow established public authorities. I have no quarrel with the Taliban because of their convictions. My quarrel with them begins when they proceed to expel me from my land or, worse still, move to break my bones because I do not agree with them.

Let me now go on to a couple of related matters. A recent Pakistani TV talk show discussed whether the realm of belief (aqeedah) permitted investigative questioning and research (tahqeeq). The host implied that it did not, which made this realm stagnant. Some of the panelists disagreed, and rightly. Inquiry into the origins, nature, and implications of dogma has gone on, from time to time, in various belief systems, including Islam.

It is, for instance, open to anyone to examine the relevant texts and identify the main points of difference between the several schools of Islamic jurisprudence, or to discover the various senses in which a given word or term has been used in the Quran. This is called textual analysis and it belongs to the general category of archival research.

Questioning and research are done both in theology and the sciences. But the methodologies employed in these two areas are different. Before we go further, a distinction between belief and knowledge of worldly affairs may be useful. We can know, for instance, that hydrogen and oxygen, mixed in certain proportions, will produce water. We can test and validate this assertion in the laboratory. We can measure the rate at which a falling body picks up speed on its way down to the ground. In cases such as these knowledge comes from observation through one’s sensory perceptions.

But we have not seen, and we are not capable of seeing, God and it cannot therefore be said that we know He exists. That is why we say we believe that He does (eiman bil ghaib). Thus, belief relates to propositions whose validity cannot be verified through observation. The basic tenets of a belief system are not open to question; their validity is taken for granted, a priori, as the starting point of discourse.

Can the realm of belief (the spiritual or the metaphysical), and that of knowledge of the physical universe and worldly affairs, be kept apart? How likely is it that the modes of thinking about one will spill over into thinking about the other? If we have learned not to question the basic premises in our faith, will we carry the same disinclination to question to our study of biology? There are some who maintain that the two realms should mingle; they are the ones who would Christianize, Islamize, or Hinduize knowledge, including the sciences.

But there are plenty of others who prefer to keep them separate. Can they be? It can go either way. The questioning mind may find metaphysical beliefs to be untenable, and move towards a rejection of all religion. On the other hand, one can name any number of eminent scientists and philosophers who were, and are, deeply religious persons. But since spillover from one to the other is possible, it may be best to circumscribe the realm of belief to as few basic propositions as possible.

A few weeks ago I happened to get into a conversation with a gentleman who advised me that we could not really do well in life unless we had a correct understanding of the reason for the existence of this universe (nazriya-i-kayenat), and that of the reason for man’s being on this earth (nazriya-i-hayat). This is not an uncommon assertion, and I have heard it also from others. In my view, it is dysfunctional. I have known over the years a great many persons who neither know nor care to know the whys and wherefores of either the universe or man’s existence. Yet they have had peace of mind and productive and fulfilling lives.

We can start with the fact that the universe is here and then proceed to interact with it to make our lives as comfortable as possible. This approach need not exclude the idea of the Creator, but we do not have to wonder what His purpose in creating humans and the universe might have been. He has told us some of the things we must do and some that we should avoid, leaving the rest to our judgment and discretion with which He has endowed us. That should be good enough.

An intriguing issue came up in another television talk show. The host asked if a nation must have an ideology and if it could prosper without one. He and two of the discussants seemed inclined to think that, yes, it must. This too is a fashionable view; ideology is generally understood to be something good and virtuous, which may explain why so many Pakistanis persist in the erroneous assertion (inserted even in their Constitution) that theirs is an ideological state.

One of the discussants on this show (Mr Ghulam Mustafa Khar, former PPP notable and Punjab governor) maintained that Pakistan did not have any “real” leaders at this time, because those who claimed that status did not have any ideology, that the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been truly a great leader, and that he espoused a vital ideology. Another discussant suggested that Mr Bhutto lost power because somewhere along the way he had abandoned that ideology.

I do not wish to examine Mr Bhutto’s rise and fall at this time. But I should like to have two considerations. First, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan and a host of other nations appear to be doing quite well even though none of them subscribes to any particular ideology. Second, the two ideologies whose proponents came to power in our time — communism (Marxist-Leninist version) and fascism — turned into ghastly tyrannies and brought a great deal of misery, rather than comfort, to the people concerned.

One of the discussants recommended a course of action that I should like to commend. He said we could designate democracy as an ideology and adopt it. Instead of going to this or that theorist to get the portrayal of a good society, we could rely upon our own people to define one and name its specifics. Actually, they have done so often enough.

They have told us that a good society is that which honours its people’s right to be governed by their consent given through representatives whom they have chosen in free and fair elections. This society cultivates respect for the law, dispenses justice, encourages generosity of spirit and tolerance of the dissident, educates its members, provides health care, allows them equal access to the amenities of life and material means of well being, and creates an environment in which each one of them can maximize and actualise the potential for intellectual, moral, and material advancement that God may have placed in his or her person. Thus, it promotes human fulfilment and happiness.

How would this be as a ruling ideology for Pakistan? It does not have a catching name at this time but one could surely be devised if needed.

The writer is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, US

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