Islam and science.  Put an end to the settlements

Islam and science. Put an end to the settlements

How do we face the obscurantism that threatens our societies today? The task is delicate and complex. Certainly, many studies look at the various forms of religious extremism, their ability to seduce youth and the fatal perversions they can lead to. However, in order to have a coherent explanation of the development of Muslim societies, these explanations must be supplemented with analyzes based on history and avoiding the trap of essentialism as well as the trap of the reductionist approach.

Why is this process important? Because it is not just about political Islam here. It is also about the renewed vitality of the orthodox Islamic tradition and its control over our societies. There is no difference in theory and basis between the Islamic viewpoint on the one hand, and traditional and official Islam on the other. Both are related to the sacral sign and oppose the clear separation between the political and the religious. As a result, bridges are created between them that impede the departure from the normative system and, in the same vein, the rationalization of representations of the world in scientific matters and the secularization of science. The issue of the secularization of science, the separation of the religious field from the scientific field intersects with developments in my work. In fact, it is a requirement that knowledge be built and appropriated over the centuries in Islamic countries. Taking into account the political and social factors, the historical and geographical context, I propose to study the development of science in the countries of Islam, its rise and then its decline. I then studied how, during the nineteenth century, Muslim reformers conceived of leaving “darkness” to use the term Jamal al-Din al-Afghani.

To approach the development of science in the countries of Islam, it is important, first of all, to pay attention to its development, in the remarkable movement of translating ancient texts into Arabic that began since the eighth century at the hands of the newly founded Abbasid dynasty. The first Abbasid caliphs decided to settle in the heart of Mesopotamia and founded the new city of Baghdad. They position themselves as the successors of the ancient Sassanid kings and invent an imperial ideology to inspire Zoroastrianism by claiming to be universal. In the Zoroastrian tradition, the sacred texts, the Avesta, were considered the source of all sciences and therefore must be preserved. But these texts suffered from the consequences of Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia. Many of them spread around the world, and then were translated from Avestica – the language of the Avesta – into other languages, in particular Greek. Thereafter, the Sassanid emperors set out to recover and collect these Zoroastrian texts and translate them back into their language, making it possible, by promoting a culture of translation, to rediscover ancient Persian science. The continuation of this Zoroastrian tradition by the early Abbasid caliphs led to the adoption of the translation culture and the initiation of the massive project of translation into Arabic from the Greek, Persian and Indian heritage. This openness to ancient knowledge is in no way comparable to the defensive stance that led to the praise of the “Islamization of knowledge” advocated by some Muslim thinkers since the last quarter of the twentieth century.

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From the eighth century onwards, science was spread in large areas where Islam was predominantly with Arabic as the language of work and communication, which for centuries became an international scientific language. This justifies the naming of the Arab flag. It is marked by notable contributions, of importance to an intense activity not limited to the simple acceptance of Greek science. Great personalities at different times and in places far from each other made great advances in the ancient sciences, and wrote themselves down in the history of science. Je m’appuierai sur certaines d’entre elles, Ibn al Haytham, Biruni, Ibn Khaldoun, pour mettre en valeur le caractère universel de l’héritage scientifique qu’elles ont laissé dans les domaines de l’optique, de l’astronomie, date.

Important scholarly production ended with the Seljuk Turks seizing Baghdad in 1050, defeating the princes of the Shiite Buyid dynasty and imposing Sunni Islam. Then the period of change began for the transfer of knowledge in the Islamic countries. New educational institutions, madrasas, were created with the aim of training competent executives who would be in the service of the empire’s new masters, the Seljuk sultans. These executives are trained in the field of jurisprudence, i.e. Islamic law and jurisprudence, and Usul al-Fiqh, i.e. the science of jurisprudence and its foundations. Madrasas were founded at the expense of the Dar al-Ilm, the houses of knowledge established by the Shiite dynasties, which included libraries rich in scholarly works and also where scholars taught “rational” sciences to students. Among these institutions, let us quote the House of Science in Cairo established by the Fatimids and the House of Baghdad established by the Bouyids.

A second component of change is taking place. The sciences will be practiced more systematically in medical hospitals and in mosques for astronomy, with al-Muwqat, a professional astronomer specifically responsible for setting prayer times, being commissioned. These political choices lead to a kind of “diffusion” of places of knowledge associated with an instrumental conception of science at the expense of philosophy and theoretical studies of mathematics, physics, and astronomy. Finally, it is the triumph of jurisprudence, the “sovereign science,” which does not serve the mind but rather the text. The nature of religious schools and the circumstances and motives that led to their spread in the Seljuk era during the second half of the eleventh century are important factors that must be taken into account in understanding the development of Arabic science. The so-called “rational” science is in decline. Certainly, some scholars will continue to be produced, but their work will not generate much interest in Islamic lands. What will dominate is useful science.

This is the useful science that the Muslim reformers of the nineteenth century will promote to catch up. They were staunch supporters of modernization, and were firmly convinced that Islam was the “sister of science”. This is what the Egyptian Sheikh Muhammad Abdo will maintain in the twentieth century in the controversy that took place between him and the Syrian-Lebanese intellectual Farah Anton on the issue of the separation between temporal and spiritual forces, and the separation of science from religion. I dwell on this exchange which reveals the limits of Islamic reform. A note explaining reactions to Darwin’s theory, which some authors consider dangerous to Islam, and the beginnings of Qur’anic consensus while emphasizing the presence of all scientific discoveries in the Qur’anic text. To be sure, some intellectuals will be seduced by Spencer’s social Darwinism and others, such as Shebley Schmel, will go so far as to define themselves as materialists.

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In conclusion on the acceptance of the theory of biological evolution in Muslim countries, I will question the absence of scientific debates about Darwin’s theory – as was the case with the Copernican model – and the marked absence of the long eclipse of the scientific tradition in the world. Islamic countries. Pour conclure, je relève que les réformistes musulmans du XIXe siècle s’inscrivent dans la continuité de la conception de la science adoptée par la tradition à partir du IXe siècle, celle d’une mise à distance de la science question avec ses son fondements In the world. They chose the mediator, not the rupture between science and religion. This middle method established the beginnings of the Islamization of knowledge project, which leads to the most dangerous settlements described by the thinker Nasr Abu Zayd as a “great deception” in his remarkable book “A Critique of Religious Discourse.”

Islam and science. Put an end to the settlements
de Faouzia Charfi
Odile Jacob, September 2021

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