An Illusion of Intellectualism

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photoFor a book carrying the subtitle “Science and Religion in Islam,” one would reasonably expect the author to be well versed in three subjects: science, religion, and Islam. However, Taner Edis readily admits from the very beginning of “An Illusion of Harmony” that he’s no expert in Islam. He cites having grown in a Muslim land, Turkey, and how “Islamic” culture is part of his non-Muslim identity. This, in addition to his cursory reading of Islamic history as presented by the anti-Islam polemicists that he references are the bases upon which he relies for the validity of his arguments. His authority in science is derived from being a physicist, which similar to having grown in an “Islamic” culture cannot be accepted as a real form of authority in science as an enterprise. Indeed, one can be engaged in an activity without any substantial or real knowledge of what the activity is all about. The task Edis undertakes proves to be too much for him.

Not to be missed, Edis brings up Al-Ghazzali – a favorite figure pointed to as an explanation for “what happened” to the Islamic Golden Age.  Al-Ghazzali is consistently brought up for having written a “condemnation” of the “foreign sciences” such as “philosophy and mathematics.” Such a blanket statement of Al-Ghazzali’s work “The Incoherence of Philosophers” exposes the unfamiliarity of Edis with this work, as well as Al-Ghazzali’s work preceding it titled “The Objectives of Philosophers.” Al-Ghazzali was a Muslim theologian, but contrary to what Edis seems to imply by the term, Al-Ghazzali was also an academic and a philosopher in his own right. In the Islamic Tradition, being a theologian necessarily entails mastery of not just Scripture, but also of the so-called “foreign sciences.” Al-Ghazzali did not write a condemnation of philosophy and mathematics, subjects, which in his time encompassed the natural sciences, as we know them today. He wrote a treatise on where such sciences show consistency when applied in their proper realms, and incoherence when applied where they don’t belong – a fact about science, which modern science-worshipping atheists such as Edis don’t seem to comprehend or want to accept.

Edis’ misrepresentation of Al-Ghazzali, which can only be a result of his limited familiarity with him was not the only one. His knowledge of the theological positions different groups took within Islam is grossly inaccurate. For one, he presents the Mu’tazila as a rationalist sect that was subverted by an irrational popular Islamic theology. He caricatures the theological positions to an extent that renders this work of his academically unworthy of attention. Edis seems to have taken certain highlights he has come across in his cursory readings, decontextualized them from both theological and historical perspectives, and put them together in a few paragraphs to fill his pages.

Further evidence of Edis’ lack of familiarity with Islamic theology, disguised by a cursory familiarity with Islamic social history, is seen in his understanding of how medieval Muslims viewed knowledge in relation to religion. In short, Edis’ analysis is nothing more than a confabulation of science and mysticism, understood by Edis to have been interlinked, but acknowledged by Muslim theologians to be independent in their epistemology. Edis’ ignorance of this becomes clearer in his assertion that Muslims distrusted natural law and causality in favour of having everything in nature depend on an omnipotent God. This assertion is negated by a single Hadith from the Prophet Muhammad PBUH who preceded all the Muslim theologians Edis cites by hundreds of years. A man asked the Prophet Muhammad PBUH whether he should tie his camel when goes inside his home, or leave it untied and rely upon God believing it won’t flee. Prophet Muhammad PBUH’s response is one of the most famous Hadiths that Muslim children, let alone theologians, know: “tie it and rely upon God.” The Islamic belief is to acknowledge a universe where cause and effect are real. But at the same time realize that this belief in a sequence of cause and effect, which modern science can’t do without, are ultimately part of God’s omnipotence. Although Edis’ does mention, albeit passingly, the occasionalist solutions put forth by Al-Ghazzali and others, this mention doesn’t indicate more than his awareness of their presence in Islamic theology and his lack of understanding of their implications to how Muslims did science.

The Islamic conception of epistemology is an elaborate one. In his insolent remarks about Muslim scholars making all kinds of lists of classifications, Edis doesn’t realize their purpose: Muslims did not want to approach an area of knowledge with the wrong tools to acquire it. Doing so was recognized to result in confusion and never-ending mistakes in judgments. Regardless of the critiques against cause and effect, Muslims scholars dictated that the only way to know the workings of the natural world was by observation. To put it in modern terms, Muslim scholars have always recognized that the scientific method is how one can learn about the natural world. Edis misses this basic teaching that a beginner student of Islamic theology would receive because in his worldview there are no different categories of asking, “why?” For Edis, the “why?” question is always a mechanism-explanation seeking question. Hence, his understanding of Islamic theology continually proves to be problematic. Whether one accepts the validity of purpose-driven “why?” questions or not, it must be acknowledged and treated accordingly as such when reading the works of a religious tradition that categorizes “why?” questions, and puts purpose-driven “why?” questions as the ultimate ones to answer. Interestingly, Edis doesn’t completely miss this distinction. But he does dismiss it in his attempts to explain the ailments of Muslim thinking, ailments which for the most part were produced not from Muslims’ beliefs in Islam, but from Edis’ own incompetence in his dealing with Islamic theology.

In addition to Edis’ lack of academic rigour in theology, he also misrepresents history when he contrasts the Islamic civilization with Christendom. The blanket claim that Islamic Madrasas were purely dedicated to religious knowledge, whereas “sophisticated ideas” stemming from “foreign or rational” sciences were taught under an “ethos of secrecy,” that “depended on master-apprentice relationships” in Muslim lands is easily refuted by the standing structures of traditional Islamic Madrasas in Morocco and Egypt. Despite the misfortune of such places standing only as historical reminders of the past, the presence of observatories on the roof tops of mosques, and medical quarters where anatomy and surgery were taught next to the prayer areas, in addition to marked pillars where circles of philosophical discussions took place inside the prayer areas stands to completely refute Edis’ claims that Muslims have traditionally viewed extra-religious knowledge negatively. On the other hand, although philosophical discourses took place within monasteries in Christendom, it’s historically undeniable that these discussions had to be confined within the limits of what was acceptable to the Church. That’s not to say that Muslim history is void of intellectual persecution. Muslims did engage in such intellectual terrorism, but it’s non sequitur that such persecution stems from Islamic injunctions.

Edis attributes the progress of human thought to arrive at modern science was by undergoing a shift into a mechanistic thinking of the world. This way of thinking about nature gave rise to the scientific method. Nonsense. Humans have always had a mechanistic view of nature. The idea that we’ve only managed to see patterns in nature and use that knowledge for our benefit during the European Enlightenment is unsubstantiated. The “progress” we’ve experience from modern science is a result of how the tool of the scientific method is utilized today in combination with modern technological advancements. Although it was primitive in form during human history, the scientific method’s purpose was to understand nature. The shift humans have undergone that led to modern science was to use the scientific method to subject and manipulate nature as opposed to understand its workings.

Throughout the book, Edis continually scoffs at the Islamic, and generally religious, perspective of the world having a purpose, harmony, and overall design. A favourite target of Edis who he kept bringing up until near the very end of the book was Badiüzzaman Said Nursî and the movement that followed him. Whether it was Nursî or Seyyed Hossein Nasr or Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani or the numerous Turkish theologians and Muslim thinkers Edis cites throughout his book, there was not a single instance of him supporting his case against Islam by going directly to primary Islamic sources and then giving an academic breakdown of how different scholars have utilized them as evidence in support of their arguments. Edis gathered random decontexualized quotes of statements made by Muslims attempting to revive their co-religionists into doing science again under an Islamic vision that puts Creation under the Creator. He then ridiculed such a perspective assuming that the naturalistic materialism he subscribes to is the “rational” one, and in the fashion of New Atheists moved on to the next point he had to make.

In spite of the innumerable problems, logical fallacies, and even inaccuracies (such as the one about ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattāb burning books in Egypt after conquering it), Edis does come close to getting one thing right. Medieval Muslims did do a different kind of science. Contrary to Edis’ claims, medieval Muslim science was a science that relied upon use of the scientific method, fact collecting, and hypothesizing based on observation, then testing the validity of these hypotheses through experimentation in order to finally come up with coherent theories. Their concern was practicality and technological advancement, as well as understanding how things worked. The only difference was how they fit their findings into their theistic worldview. Their belief in cause and effect being part of God’s omnipotence meant that they never saw anything as random, and therefore they viewed everything in nature to have significance. Modern scientists such as Edis operate on the notion that nothing has purpose or meaning. Hence, if an unexpected result comes forth from an experiment, or the standard error bars never disappear, it’s always chalked up to meaninglessness anomalies. However, as Thomas Kuhn would put it, these so-called “anomalies” eventually pile up and force the scientific establishment to re-examine their theories, which eventually leads to a Scientific Revolution. This is usually talked about as a positive for modern science – it’s the scientific method prevailing. In reality, it’s a negative externality of the belief about the nature of the universe having no meaning, no purpose and no ultimate omnipotent Creator who brought it all into existence. It’s anti-progress and anti-scientific. Instead of wasting all that time until enough “anomalies” pile up to force the scientific community to re-examine its theories, science could’ve moved much farther ahead under an Islamic worldview. It’s a worldview where the physical universe is investigated using physical means in order to serve the metaphysical. The real problem modern Muslims have today is in their attempts at having the metaphysical serve the physical universe by using metaphysical explanations of what are ultimately physical mechanisms. Medieval Muslims never approached science this way. Hence, their harmony between religion and science and the illusion of such a harmony with the approach of modern Muslims.

Overall, “An Illusion of Harmony” was a very difficult read. The sheer number of basic mistakes Edis makes with regards to the Islamic Tradition was exhausting to keep track of. It is ironic that throughout the book he constantly accuses Muslims of being opportunists who collect random scientific facts and present them in support of their Islamic worldview without paying much attention to coherence. That might be the case of some Muslims who haven’t mastered their Tradition before delving into discussing science. However, that says nothing about Islam. “An Illusion of Harmony” is a striking example of superficial and opportunistic literature, sensationalized by decontextualizing Muslim history, supported by half quotes and soundbites from Muslim thinkers, and completely void of any solid understanding of science, religion, or Islam.