International Conference on Islam and Science: Conflicting disciplines or manifestations of the same truth?
The Conference was held in the Wembley Grand Hall on Saturday, 29th April, 1995, from 9 in the morning to 7 in the evening. The occasion was formally opened by Dr A. F. Yusuf, who expressed the hope that the Conference would be a means (notably for the media) to see and hear about Islam in another context than that of violent struggle for political and cultural identity; and that it would demonstrate the possibility and scope that exist for mutual respect and tolerance between people of different intellectual and cultural traditions.
Throughout the day the Hall was more or less full. In all, some 3000 people, excluding speakers, organizers and press, attended. Among the audience were non-Muslims as well as Muslims, and many women as well as many men, both young and old. All the different colours of the human race were there, African, Asian and European. Several people remarked that the scene reminded them, agreeably, of the hajj which, among much else, celebrates the world-wide diversity and community that is Islam.
The aim of the Report is to inform those who could not be present.
It is not a transcript of the proceedings. An edited video recording of the Conference is being made available.
A number of points emerged from the papers read at the Conference and the discussion about them:
1. The pervasiveness of Western norms and values in the modern world has meant that it is very difficult to imagine a constructive engagement between science and religion.
2. The old physics led to a deterministic and reductive worldview. The new physics embraces uncertainty, even unknowability as a structural feature of reality, bat it too has metaphysical pretensions and claims, that there is no reality outside human constructions/observations of it.
3. The effort to establish the terms of such an engagement can succeed in a broadly Islamic context because the Qur'an (a) presents the universe to man as the intelligible, harmonious creation of One Merciful, Omnipotent and Transcendent God: (b) encourages observation and study and the use of reason as a mode of worship: and (c) contains many true and accurate statements about natural phenomena and their operative relationships, and no untrue statements.
4. The concept of knowledge in Islam links it to the concept of wisdom. The aim of science is understanding and explaining the attributes of God insofar as these are reflected in nature. Its aim is not to obtain power or leverage over the operative mechanisms in nature. The Muslim scientist therefore aims to be a worshipper, as well as an expert.
5. The achievements of Muslims in laying the foundations of many modern scientific disciplines, most particularly in their use of observation and experimental method, should encourage the conviction that being a good Muslim is compatible with being a good scientist.
6. The failure to acknowledge, in the past, the contributions of Muslims to modern science is probably owed to the European scientists' belief that the hostility they faced from the Church would have been even worse if their work were associated with Islam. Despite recent specialist studies which correct this neglect, ignorance about the achievements of Islamic science is general. This general ignorance effectively blocks discussion of a possible pattern of relationship between scientific inquiry and religious commitment on the Islamic model.
7. For the immediate future, scientific research will no doubt continue with its present assumption of the irrelevance of religion. This is inevitable given that the physical instruments as well as the intellectual concepts applied in the pursuit of scientific knowledge are Western. The structures of education and training, and subsequent career opportunities, are modelled on the Western pattern of very narrowly specialized expertise, with little opportunity for inter-specialist work even among researchers within the same discipline, let alone inter-disciplinary co-operation or cooperation between scientists and religious scholars. The mutual incomprehensibility of specialist dialects used by experts makes the situation even less susceptible of change.
8. The hurdles in the way of change are forbidding but not impossible. The old Islamic idea of a university as the gathering-place of different branches of knowledge will remain, for a while yet, just a cherished hope. But if it is sincerely cherished, specialists trained in the Western disciplines will work harder in their spare hours at qualifying themselves as Islamic scholars. Gradually, the definition of procedures and purposes in their field will evolve, through their own character as informed, practising Muslims, to give an Islamic shape to their specialist work. To begin with, only minor additions and modifications of existing curricula (both in schools and universities) will be possible.
9. To establish a truly Islamic curriculum in the sciences, but one that is practical from the point of view of training Muslims to be effective in the real world in which they find themselves, can only be a long- term goal. The first step towards that goal must be to provide Muslims with the relevant information and the means to exchange thoughts about it. Therefore:
a. We need case studies of past Islamic achievements which focus on the methods used, not the results. This will involve analyzing particular projects and comparing them with similar projects outside the Islamic tradition. Such studies need not be limited to comparing individual physics and chemistry experiments. They should also include skills and techniques applied in many areas, from town-planning and water management to lexicography and textual analysis. Any publisher(s) willing to undertake the task would need to plan a consistent series format aimed at the general reader.
b. We need an accessible account of how Muslim scholars and scientists maintained contact with each other, and how their work was funded and supported.
c. We need The Fountain or a magazine like it, preferably one that publishes monthly, to reserve a few pages for practising scientists to try and discuss the work they are currently doing from a Muslim perspective.
d. We need more focused (not necessarily smaller) conferences to discuss in detail particular issues that are debated widely but without much input from Muslims.
e. Beside the many essays we already have which associate modern scientific ideas and discoveries with the words of the Qur'an, we need studies that demonstrate a movement in the other direction, namely from the Qur'an to scientific knowledge. (The link between Qur'anic principles and injunctions and specific Muslim achievements in science and technology has been made in many books, but it has not been the central theme of any widely accessible study.)