A Compatibility of Convenience? Science and Islam

There is a lot of talk about science and religion, in the particular, Islam and science’s so-called ability to “co-exist.” As to whether this is ultimately true is not my main concern here but rather I wish to highlight some important differences between the way Islam “processes reality” and that of science (in particular the scientific method).

In Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research (published in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, ed. Imre Lakatos, Alan Musgrave), Thomas Kuhn wrote on what he called the “revolutionary process by which an older [scientific] theory is rejected and replaced by an incompatible new one.” He continues by adding, “both [he and Sir Karl Popper’s theories] deeply underscore the role played in this process by the older theory’s occasional failure to meet challenges posed by logic, experiment, or observation.” The key word here I feel is “incompatible.” In this way, science, as it progresses (or perhaps better said here as “processes”), scrubs away past findings, abrogating all that proceeds current observations.

This manner of proceeding differs widely from Islam in that Islam (or perhaps better articulated as interpretive efforts of Muslims), while certainly being capable of producing judgments and attitudes that may differ from those produced before it, is capable of producing new possibilities (fatawa) without needing to entirely wipe the proverbial tablet clean. To be certain, scientific methodology and Islamic thought have had to mutually alter their courses as they have encountered various challenges in modernity, the main philosophical difference is that judgments of previous generations of Muslims are not rendered false, incompatible or irrelevant to current efforts or realities of Muslims living today. In fact, Muslims seem to constantly draw significance and guidance from their intellectual heritage, differing not in spirit even if new judgments part ways in substance.

I say all of this not to thwart those who seek to make connections of significance between Islam and what can be roughly dubbed as science but rather to complicate and challenge the convenience of those connections and to ask the question, can they be considered so easily compatible or perhaps the bonds that hold these presumptions together may not be as strong as previously thought.