Islam, Christianity and Science: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

One of the questions I am often asked at Faith and Wisdom in Science discussions is along the lines of, ‘What do other religions say about such a theology of science?’.  Even if I have persuaded the questioner that the ‘conflict narrative’ is inapplicable to christianity and science, except by construction, the thought behind the question is often that other religions must percieve science as a sort of threat.  The religion most commonly suggested at this point is Islam.

I have just returned, by coincedence, from Paris, in a week marked by thoughts of Islam and conflict.  I was there as an external advisor to a French science committee of the CNRS (the main French national science funding body), but had the opportunity of witnessing at first hand the solidarity of the Parisiens in their determination that the atrocious gunning down of satirical journalists, a police officer, and shoppers in a Jewish supermarket should not escalate into violent community divisions.  It was an impressive and moving experience.

The juxtaposition of science, conflict and a religious response of reconciliation reminded me of the ‘homework’ I had set myself and others in the final chapter of Faith and Wisdom when I look at its consequences.  We found that science has a theological human purpose of participating together in reconciling humanity to the material world – and that far from being in confict with religion, it is that outworking of the story of God and creation that speaks of the relationship between humankind and nature.  One of the consequences of the ‘new geometry’ of faith and science is the hope for a new strand of dialogue between faith traditions themselves.  I found that in Islam (and in Judaism and more) wherever thinking was not hidebound into doctrinal power-structures, there was the same theological embracing of science rather than a flight from it.  The Muslim philosopher Muhammad Iqbal has written of Koranic sayings that speak of human freedom to share in the task of creation – a very close idea to the participative relational theology of Biblical ‘Wisdom’ writings.

The 12th century Cordoban muslim philosopher Averroes

The 12th century Cordoban muslim philosopher Averroes

This should not surprise us if we reflect for a moment on the debt that the rise of medieval and early modern science owes to the scholarship and natural philosophy of the great Islamic thinkers Avicenna (Ibn-Sina, 980-1037), Averroes (Ibn-Rushd,1126-1198), Al-Kindi (801-873) and others, in the early medieval period.  The extraordinary early science advances made by the English 13th century polymath Robert Grosseteste, which we are uncovering in the Ordered Universe project at Durham, drew essentially on Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle’s Physics and other texts. Not only the Aristotelian emphasis on the observation of nature, but also the quest to deepen our understanding of nature beyond Aristotle, and a theological motivation for doing so, all re-energised European thinking via the Islamic tradition of Pesia, North Africa and Spain.  An instructive example occurs in the route from Aristotle’s linear, and physically unsupported, ordering of colours from black to white, and Grosseteste’s full three-dimensional colour space.  It was Averroes who, in his de sensu, motivated a theory of colour with a higher number of degrees of freedom by suggesting that colour arose from the double nature of material transparency and light itself.  In the 13th century we see Christian scholars reading Muslim commentators and scientists, themselves reflecting on Greek, pagan, authors – and making transformational progress in our  knowledge of nature and in the very direction of science.

A very influential thinker, transformational physicist and devout Muslim I might have referred to in the book is Nobel prizewinner

Abdus Salam, Nobel Laureate in Physics 1979
Abdus Salam, Nobel Laureate in Physics 1979

Abdus Salam.  He drew not only his motivation to do science from his muslim faith, but also descibed how his experience of doing theoretical physics shed light on his reading of the Koran.  At one point in his  Nobel Prize address, Salam quoted the Koranic verse:

arabtext2Thou seest not, in the creation of the All-merciful any imperfection, Return thy gaze, seest thou any fissure? Then Return thy gaze, again and again. Thy gaze, Comes back to thee dazzled, aweary.


He commented:

This, in effect, is the faith of all physicists; the deeper we seek, the more is our wonder excited, the more is the dazzlement for our gaze.

But he did not stop at that point.  He drew from this one of the other great lessons that also emerged in Faith and Wisdom:

I am saying this, not only to remind those here tonight of this, but also for those in the Third World, who feel they have lost out in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, for lack of opportunity and resource.

Alfred Nobel stipulated that no distinction of race or colour will determine who received of his generosity. On this occasion, let me say this to those, whom God has given His Bounty. Let us strive to provide equal opportunities to all so that they can engage in the creation of Physics and science for the benefit of all mankind. This would exactly be in the spirit of Alfred Nobel and the ideals which permeated his life. Bless You!

This is still a future hope – that the deeply human need to reconcile our understandind with the material world – the endeavour we now call science – can be opened up to everyone.  In developed countries exclusion arises from inequitable or uninspiring education, from a media and press that stigmatise and isolate science.  Elsewhere there are still economic exclusions.  Sadly there is also damage done to the enjoyment of science everywhere in the world from a failure to understand that science is a theological gift and mandate, rather than a threat.  Both Christianity and Islam suffer from containing some within their communities who sustain the severe and damaging error of literalistic misunderstanding of scriptures.  In both cases the perverse doctrine of ‘young earth creationism’ denigrates science as well as doing violence to their own holy writings.  Yet that, too, though unwelcome, is a shared challenge.

At a time when reconciliation is as starkly urgent as at any we can recall, rediscovering science as God’s gift looks like a project that people of Abrahamic faith and beyond should embark on urgently.

One thought on “Islam, Christianity and Science: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

  1. Pingback: Is Science Fatally Flawed? | Faith and Wisdom in Science

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