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.

2 Replies to “A Compatibility of Convenience? Science and Islam”

  1. Thomas Kuhn describes the scientific process as one of revolution. Scientists engage in what he terms “normal science” – science inquiry that operates under a particular paradigmatic approach – until a “paradigm shift” occurs. Paradigm shifts occur because the old paradigm *can no longer satisfactorily explain* recent discoveries in that particular sub-discipline. Once a paradigm shift occurs, it is permanent.

    The Muslim tradition does not undergo “paradigm shifts” because the knowledge contained therein is much different from that contained in science. Judgments of previous Muslim generations can continue to provide significance because those judgments no longer “expire” and because of the multivalent meanings contained in a sacred text. Science, on the other hand, proceeds through an accumulation of data/information held together by a theory until that theory is longer relevant. Once a paradigm shift has occurred, there would be no point in “going back” since the old theory is inadequate…

    What are your thoughts on the compatibility of “interpretive efforts of Muslims” and the theory of evolution?

  2. Wa ‘alaykum salaam. I know there’s a lot of footwork being done with Muslims and evolution. That many assume or take the stance, in light of the latest “paradigm shift” that science has provided, the story of Adam and Eve, the story of human creation, must be understood metaphorically and thus evolution and pluck the metaphysical story from the heavens and plant it firmly on earth. I for one reject evolution, not because I’m against science, but because I do not believe the facts add up. I believe there’s more to the story of human creation, a portion of which we have and will never have knowledge of. You may want to take a look at Yasir Qadhi’s “theological debate” on evolution: http://youtu.be/dGdXKLipHfY.

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