Overly diplomatic?

In some of my recent talks about science and religion in Islam some Muslims in the audience asked me whether I thought there were scientific mistakes in the Quran.

I’ve answered such questions very diplomatically so far. I usually point out that all this depends on how you interpret the text, that Muslims have a number of different interpretive approaches available to them, and that being a nonreligious person, it was none of my business to try and sort out what is the “correct” interpretation. There are many passages in the Quran that make the most sense if you read them as reflecting scientific and medical ideas of antiquity. Ideas derived from Greek medicine, physics, and astronomy were part of the common intellectual background in the Mediterranean region when the Quran was put together. And from the perspective of modern science, these are mostly mistaken. Nevertheless, a liberal Muslim can decide to read such passages metaphorically, emphasizing whatever “spiritual message” was being conveyed by references to archaic concepts of nature.

I wonder, though, if this may be overly diplomatic. In matters of science especially, I’d like to see more Muslims take a more liberal direction. So I’d like Muslims to listen to what I say. And there’s no quicker way of ensuring most Muslims are not going to hear what I say than stating that the Quran contains mistakes or other signs of human composition. But if I’m honest, I have to admit that yes, the Quran is full of what are mistakes if taken at face value, and that I’m not impressed by tortured reinterpretations that try to salvage arbitrary spiritual meanings. That’s an important part of the reason why I don’t think the Quran is a divine text.

So I’m not really sure what is an appropriate balance to strike here. I’d like to impress upon Muslims that especially conservative religious views are problematic if you want to improve the climate for science in Muslim lands. But its hard to do that without coming across as attacking their religion, which immediately makes most people defensive. Sigh.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13562135000111792590 RBH

    In this vein, I’d be very interested in your thoughts on Greg Laden’s remarks on Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy’s analysis of the relation between science and Islam.

    Thanks!
    RBH

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    rbh: “I’d be very interested in your thoughts on Greg Laden’s remarks on Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy’s analysis of the relation between science and Islam.”

    There isn’t much analysis there—mainly restating Hoodbhoy. And on Islam and science, Hoodbhoy and I largely see eye to eye, with some minor differences.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04327330113822656571 Salman Hameed

    This is a tricky issue. I have experienced the same problem when I have given astronomy talks in Pakistan. On most occasions there are questions about the verification of Quran through recent astronomical discoveries or something like that. I used to side-step the question by saying that Quran is permanent whereas modern science is always changing – so don’t mix the two as we may end-up misinterpreting both.

    Now, however, I focus more strongly on non-overlapping magestaria (yes, there are serious problems with it – but it is more effective with a predominantly Muslim audience). This way, it gives equal respect to religion (which is of immense importance to the audience) while at the same time we can remove religion from the discussion of science. I also add that historically, science has come ahead in clashes with religion – so non-overlapping magestaria is a pretty good deal (ok..I’m paraphrasing a bit here).

    What was the audience reaction in your recent talks? Were these public lectures or were these at specific academic departments?

    -Salman

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Salman Hameed: What was the audience reaction in your recent talks? Were these public lectures or were these at specific academic departments?

    Public lectures, with audiences including both secular types and Muslims. The Muslims, with the exception of a few liberal Muslims who I talked with afterwards, reacted somewhat negatively. Many left halfway through the talk; I guess with a title like “Science and Religion in Islam” they might have been expecting something more along the lines of a celebration of the incredible harmony between science and Islam. Others defended popular science-in-the-Quran apologetics or stood up for Islamic creationism. One hijab-wearing chemistry professor acted as if she was seriously offended, suggesting that I was not “objective” but offering no substantial objection. Nothing really obnoxious or stupid, however.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17827956018226620650 Stuart

    Someone could draw up a quiz on some “scientific facts” from the Quran and the Christian Bible and ignorance ask whether or not they are true and what the source is.

    There might also be an opportunity for a double blind test.

    Or something similar to Randi’s horoscope demo.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04327330113822656571 Salman Hameed

    In terms of models, we have Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris style and then we have Krauss/Sagan/Shermer approach. I don’t see how Dawkins etal approach can produce any useful dialogue or how it can prompt people to re-think their position.

    Sagan, I thought was very effective in walking the fine line of clearly and uncompromisingly stating scientific positions and at the same time effectively engaging theists in a useful dialogue.

    I think its great that people came and disagreed with you after your talks. At least they were willing to engage with you on the subject matter. Do you think a less diplomatic line would have been more effective? At least for those who are sitting on the fence?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Salman Hameed: “Do you think a less diplomatic line would have been more effective? At least for those who are sitting on the fence?”

    I don’t know. I couldn’t have taken a much more aggressive line anyway; that’s just not my style. Still, I’m curious about what may be the best approach…


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