Modern Islam and science: an article by Seyyed Hossein Nasr

By Kristopher A. Nelson
in May 2010

900 words / 5 min.
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In “Islam and Science,” an article written for the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, Nasr attempts to give a broad overview of the relationship of Islam to modern science and technology. He makes some key points regarding to criticism of Western science from an Islamic point a view.

Please note that this post is from 2010. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr is an Iranian scholar of comparative religion and philosophy at George Washington University. He has a masters degree in geology and geophysics, with a Ph.D. in the history of science from Harvard. (He received his PhD at age 25.)

In “Islam and Science,” an article written for the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, Nasr attempts to give a broad overview of the relationship of Islam to modern science and technology.

First, he criticizes the approach of viewing Western science as a continuation of Islamic science, and therefore accepting it uncritically as fitting in well with Islamic thought. Nasr points out, however, that this perspective ignores the “agnostic science of nature” in the Western tradition, along with the “shift of paradigm” during the European Scientific Revolution that sharply distinguishes modern Western science from Islamic science.

Second, in a related manner, he criticizes the acceptance of Western science as “value-free,” as opposed to contemporary perspectives of science — even in the West — of science as based “on a particular value system and a specific world-view.” The implicit value system of Western science, he suggests, needs instead to be criticized “from the Islamic point of view.”

Importantly for Nasr is the question of the values and especially the ethics of science. He believes that “knowledge and its implications cannot evade ethical implications.” Modern science attempts to relegate alternative claims to knowledge, especially ethical claims and most especially knowledge based on religion, to “poetry, myth, or, even worse, superstition.”

He suggests that Islam needs to realize that modern science is but “a science of nature,” not the science of nature. He posits a “positive Islamic critique of modern science” that “maintain[s] the traditional Islamic intellectual space … to which Islamic ethics corresponds, withing denying the legitimacy of modern sciences within their own confines.”

Most importantly for Nasr, Muslims should not look to science to confirm metaphysical beliefs, but rather leave to science claims only about the natural world, not the supernatural one. He asks Muslims to be wary of “the prevalent view … from which God is simply absent, no matter how many modern scientists believe individually in him.” Modern Islamic scholars, he argues, unlike their traditional counterparts in the past, are “particularly bereft of responses” to the question of Transcendent Cause and the role of God. For him, older Islamic though had better answers to such questions, and this is why so many scholars are more interested in older relations between Islam and science than in contemporary ones.

So what should be done? First, he wants Muslims to stop seeing themselves as inferior to Western science and technology, and to instead approach it as at least an equal. Again, he especially suggests that Islam and its ethics has a powerful rejoinder to Western science, which while it may put a man on the Moon still cannot stop teenagers from killing each other.

Second, he recommends there be an in-depth study of traditional Islamic sources, from the Qur’an to the traditional works on the sciences and philosophy. The goal, he argues, is to create an “Islamic world-view and especially [an] Islamic concept of nature and the sciences of nature.” He wants scholars to do this within the framework of Islamic tradition, not through simple readings of decontextualized Qur’anic verses. Third, he suggests that more Muslim students should study “pure” sciences and not technology. He believes the Muslim world already has sufficient numbers of engineers, but that what it really needs are more scientists who can see beyond immediate utility.

Fundamentally, Nasr believes that “[o]nly a science that issues from the source of all knowledge, from the Knower … and cultivated in an intellectual universe in which the spiritual and the ethical are not mere subjectivisms but fundamental features … can save humanity.” He suggests that Islamic science has the potential to not only create a “veritable Islamic science” that would help the Muslim world, but also to create a science for “those all over the globe who seek a science of nature and a technology which could help men and women to live at peace with themselves, with the natural environment, and above all, with that Divine Reality Who is the ontological source of both man and the cosmos.”

A few questions to close up this synopsis of Nasr’s article:

  • Which Islam and whose Islamic ethics does Nasr mean? (It’s not like Islam is one thing to all people.) Who decides?
  • Does the distinction between “pure” science and technology hold up? Is it a useful distinction?
  • Is there a whiff in Nasr’s writing of the “inferiority complex” he wants Islamic science to rid itself of?
  • There is a certain resemblance in Nasr’s article to positions of some evangelical Christians — he is, for example, critical of Darwinian evolution (an “hypothesis parading as scientific fact”) and aligns himself with the Pope in regards to “protecting the unborn” — is this resemblance more than simply on the surface?

These are questions I may pursue further in future reading and research, but if anyone has any thoughts, please share them.