Islam, science and the nature of grievance


Whether you want to or not, Turkey will make you think about east and west. Likely more than any other place in the world, it epitomizes a meeting of the two – historically, architecturally, culturally, religiously, economically, and geographically. It has been said that Europe was historically defined as “not Turkey”, making Turkey to some extent of “the East”, but the country still remains a part of the European continent (and of NATO). Istanbul, the country’s cultural and economic centre, officially straddles the line between Europe and Asia, but this is just the beginning of a split personality: Turkey is a proud and modern republic with a palpable nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire and the days of the Caliphate. It is secular, but religion invades politics at every turn; it is democratic but intensely nationalistic and cynical in regards to its large Kurdish minority. It is a land of opposites, but rarely do they attract.

Kat and I arrived in Turkey on an overnight bus from Sofia, Bulgaria (also a land of opposites, given that Bulgarians shake their heads for “yes” and nod for “no”). Istanbul was more expensive than I anticipated, but was otherwise incredible. The food and people and architecture are staggeringly good, and the nightlife of Taksim (though harmful to the ear drums) certainly holds its own. The Asian side of the Bosphorus (the strait that separates the two great continents) is much quieter than its European counterpart and has beautiful and peaceful waterfront. It is difficult to know where to start: the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the bazaars, the small side streets, and the restaurants all compete for tourist attention. Most of my wheel-turning in regards to this piece, however, came from the large but understated Museum of Islam and Science.

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Blue Mosque

When the subject of animosity toward the Western world is raised in the context of the Islamic one, one invariably hears about the effects of hundreds of years of “Muslim humiliation.” I would never deny that this idea has had a significant effect on people’s thinking (in the east and west), nor would I deny that the West has done things that would take ten lifetimes to make up for. But I think it is important to notice the terms in which such grievances are framed. For instance, a Museum of Islam and Science implies that the two are in some way mutually constructive or can, at the very least, coexist. But I don’t think it takes an historian to see that religion of all stripes has been a hindrance to, if not a vulgar antagonist of, science since the beginning of time (in many places science has overcome, but it has usually been in spite of religious resistance). Granted, the title could have been worse (at least there was no reference to Islamic Science) but if the museum had been called “Science in the Islamic World” or had the word “Islam” been left out altogether (imagine!), fewer alarms bells would have sounded from the beginning.

The interior of the museum could actually be a lot harder on the West than it is. It rather objectively traces the path, geographically and chronologically, of scientific knowledge through the centuries, from the invention of algebra to the exportation of ancient Greek scripts to Spain vis-a-vis the conquests of the Moors (which arguably set the stage for the Enlightenment). In positions of particular honour are the Orientalists who dedicated their lives to the study of “Islamic” culture and knowledge (the museum will make one think twice about Said’s homogenization of the Orientalist mindset). Given the valuable scientific knowledge that originated in the Islamic world (particularly in the Middle East), and the way in which that world was subsequently subjugated, I think it is clear that the West owes a debt of some magnitude. But it would be very hard to argue that it owes a debt to Islam itself. Interestingly, and I think tellingly, the museum doesn’t appear to lament the loss of the Islamic world’s scientific and intellectual heritage. Instead, it makes consistent reference to the greatness of Islam and the significant contribution it has made to the betterment of human civilization. As previously mentioned, it praises the Orientalists of old, but only insofar as they praised what the Islamic world at one time had to offer. Over and over again, one is seemingly encouraged to laud religion first and science second, and is led to believe that there exists no conflict between the two.

Just in case it sounds like I’m splitting hairs, I will offer one more (admittedly still anecdotal) example. It is important to remember that The Museum of Islam and Science is in Istanbul, the liberal heart of arguably the most liberal “Muslim country” on earth. And though Turkey appears to be getting less Republican and more theocratic by the day, it is still impolitic for the government to be outright sectarian about things.

Kat and I also visited the very impressive National Islamic Archives in the Iranian clerical capital of Qom. Even getting in is difficult. Qom is the most conservative city in the country (which is saying something) and the travellers that do make it to Iran rarely spend much time there, and for good reason. Never have I felt the scowl of theocracy so acutely (you can likely guess what it was like for Kat). In principle, Westerners cannot enter the archives, but thanks to the kindness and persuasiveness of an Iranian host (who was, admittedly, someone whose faith appeared to inspire generosity) we were able to get a guided tour. Much of the contents was priceless: 1000 year-old Korans, ancient cosmological “blueprints”, and elaborate depictions of the spiritual world. There were also a number of texts on mathematics and astronomy written by scientists who also happen to have been Islamic scholars. Given that atheists top most Islamic shit-lists, we were introduced as Christians (people of The Book, at any rate) and our tour guide wasted no time in telling me, first, that Islam is the truth and that I was going to hell (naturally); and, secondly, that the Christian world would be nothing without Islam. The latter of these pleasant assertions likely has some truth to it, but the point is that the guide was framing the disparate destinies of the West and (Islamic) East in strictly theological terms: in his mind, it was not that the thinkers of ancient Persia and Mesopotamia had been great scientists and, by some gross injustice, have not gotten enough credit for it. Rather, his ire stemmed from a belief that Islam should be a world player and yet, for the last 500 years, the followers of Muhammad have had to watch the heretics of the West pick up the ball and run with it (I would change my argument in a second if I thought that the Islamic world were merely distraught over the loss of its tradition of scientific inquiry).

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Ancient Korans being analyzed

A more historical title for Istanbul’s museum would perhaps have been, “The Museum of Islam OR Science.” The ancient Islamic world made a choice.  And by continuing to conflate religion and science in the present, it is choosing to deceive itself as to the root cause of its own scientific stagnation (as well as its stagnation on innumerable other fronts). Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once noted that citizens of the Islamic world have almost never been the recipients of a Nobel Prize (take a guess at the proportion of Jewish recipients), and that the spirit of “revelation over investigation” has been going strong for about 900 years. Somewhere along the line, in other words, Islam and science ceased to coexist, and the former devoured the latter. For my money, the lost productivity and squandering of Muslim talent by religious dogmatism should be of far greater concern (and seen as a far greater source of humiliation) than Western imperialism.

If it appears that I have an ill-advised level of certainty about these matters, please believe me when I say that I find these distinctions difficult to make. But I try not to let the associative guilt I carry for the deplorable aspects of Western colonial history (or current foreign policy) or the empathy I feel for the oppressed people of the world generally, blind me to what is really going on. The West indeed owes a debt to the Islamic world (and to many other worlds, including the “New” one). But we can begin to repay it by first acknowledging the truth: that the conditions that made the Islamic world a bastion of science and learning are long dead, and show no signs of being revived by further deference to any holy book.

Author: ZachKuehner

Zach Kuehner is a researcher and writer based in Toronto, Canada. After earning a Bachelor of Science from the University of Waterloo, Zach sought to integrate his studies in the health sciences with politics and international relations. He completed a collaborative master of science in health science and international relations at the University of Toronto and has since worked in health systems research, cancer research, and contributed to various magazines as a political commentator. Zach has travelled throughout South America, the United States, and Europe and is currently on a one-year trip with his partner that will take him from Lisbon to Auckland and everywhere in between.

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Islam, science and the nature of grievance