A trajectory of Islam’s questioning of modern science

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New Delhi: Historian-scholar S Irfan Habib finds the idea of Islamic science as a category distinct from modern Eurocentrism as problematic and questions it along with some other fundamentalist notions being peddled in Islam today in his new book.

“Jihad or Ijtihad” is a study in which Habib tries to trace the trajectory of mainstream Islam’s questioning of modern science.

“What prompted me to get into this subject was some essentialist formulations of scholars, who were attempting to articulate for ‘Islamic science’ as a valid science for the believers. For them it was a critique of Eurocentrism, which I found problematic and decided to question it through my 19th century Muslim modernists, who thought differently. This book is an attempt to question some of these fundamentalist notions being peddled in Islam today,” Habib told PTI.

Through the lives of famous men like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, he shows the reader that the modern-day promulgation of Islam and its followers as “anti- modern” and “anti-science” is a myth that leads, quite literally, to explosive consequences.

Habib, who holds the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Chair at the National University of Edu cational Planning and Administration here, feels Islam today is more self-righteous and closed in comparison to his own childhood days.

“Why is it so, though Quran and prophetic traditions have not changed? I feel it is Islamism more than Islam which needs to be blamed. Sadly, this change has come about in all religions,” he argues.

Science, according to him, has always been “central to Islam and pursuit of knowledge had always been emphasized by the Prophet himself, as reflected in this famous ‘hadis’ where the Prophet exhorts the believers ‘to go unto China to seek
knowledge'”.

He says scientific advancements cannot be linked with the tenets of Islam, which are divine and can’t be changed with the progress of science.

“As we know, science is notorious in rubbishing its own theories, as knowledge progresses.”  He also says that “Jihad or Ijtihad”, published by HarperCollins, emphasizes the fact that Quran should be kept separate from the fluctuating mundane discoveries.

“We should treat Quran as a source of inspiration to pursue knowledge and not as the only source of scientific knowledge as is being emphasised these days. All our modernist thinkers and reformers from Maulvi Karamat Ali and Syed Ahmad Khan to Jamaluddin Afghani and Maulana Azad stressed that Quran should not be treated as a book of science. Maulana Azad pointed out that the aim of the Quran is to invite theattention of man to His power and wisdom and not to make an exposition  of the creation of the universe.”

He feels that Azad was under the spell of Sir Syed’s modernism and shared his faith in modern science. “Azad surely did not believe in aping of the West, where he disagreed with Syed Ahmad Khan but Azad never believed that his Islam was ever in conflict with science at any level. He was disenchanted with the ulema of his times, like Syed Ahmad before him, and found them a hopeless lot.”

“Azad was of the view that to believe that a traditionalmind can still give way to regeneration is to believe against  the laws of nature, we have to give up rigid thinking and create a new mind. I feel this is in stark contrast with the current understanding of Islam being propagated by some sections all over the world,” says Habib.

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