The American Islamic Congress (AIC) and Project Nur (a Muslim student leadership organization) are engaged in a six part series addressing the interchange between science and Islam, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Their question is not How does Islam approach the claims of science but rather How do religion and science work together to produce a more complete worldview, enabling us to provide answers to real world problems?
In my conversations with staff at AIC and Project Nur, it became clear that this cooperative approach is necessary because Islam was founded in this sort of interchange. Historically, Muslim societies have contributed some of the best mathematicians and scientists the world has known, although the Western world has yet to give them their due. The most recent event, titled Science and Islam: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality, brought scientists, theologians, and philosophers to the interchange.
The audience was largely students, and this sets the AIC’s event apart from other events. AIC and Project Nur see conflict and differences as a site of creative and constructive activity. Rightly so; the most successful organizations have leaped on this fact. We see this in the developing field of Comparative Theology. More and more, an interfaith activist community is engaging in this sort of work. In this sense, Religions for Peace USA’s Collective Impact work on Islamaphobia stands out.
The evening of the conference began with a captivating presentation by Dr. Hoodbhoy, a professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam Univeristy in Islamabad. Dr. Hoodbhoy shared anecdotes from his life and the events he has personally observed in Pakistan and used these examples to touch on the tension in the developing world between one’s faith and one’s trust in scientific method. He stressed that for Muslim societies to move forward, they must not look to the ancient accomplishments of Muslim scientists but into the future, embracing a more modern approach to educating Muslim scientists.
The second presenter was historian Dr. Asad Q. Ahmed, of Berkeley University. Dr. Ahmed suggested that religion and science are not mutually exclusive. He has meticulously dissected ancient texts of famous Islamic scientists, such as Al-Ghazali, and found a compatibility between science and religion.
Dr. Omar Sultan, a psychologist, physician, and philosopher at Harvard University, brought a more conceptual stance and explored the notion of what he sees as a trend to “warfare” in the relationship between science and Islam. He proposed that extremes on both ends of the discussion, the opposing poles of religion-void-of-scientific-teachings versus science-void-of-religious-influence, are both flawed. He brought complex ideas such as morality, love, and sympathy into the conversation and used them to explore the commonality of the “unknown” in both disciplines.
Lastly the moderator, Dr. Faghfoory, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, brought another valuable perspective to the discussion. He speculated about the place both religion and science hold in Muslim history. He proposed that Muslim societies do not need to embrace the modernist approach to science but rather must look within to find a way to advance scientifically on their own terms.
This gets to the question of how cultures, traditions, peoples of varying histories struggle with the ever-more interconnected world, which seems to be pressing increasingly deeper into Western modes of thought and life. Is modernization an inevitable process necessitating acculturation to Western modes of life and society?
Young Muslims are asking these questions and have fascinating answers. One can only hope other traditions take up the conversation also.