Bound by scripture

Last week I gave one of my talks where about half the audience was Muslim. (This is what happens when the organizers use a bland title such as “Islam and Science.”)

These are always interesting. I don’t go out of my way to criticize Islam, but I forcefully point out the severe weakness of Muslim lands in basic science, and highlight the pseudoscientific nonsense a lot of Muslim talk about science and religion gets bogged down in. The result is invariably that the Muslim part of the audience starts feeling defensive. This is probably not a good thing, but I don’t see how to avoid it.

I often get the “you’re talking about Muslims, not about Islam” reaction. True Islam (whatever that might be) is supposed to flawless, after all. If I’m pointing out mistakes, that must be solely due to Muslims not understanding the divine message properly.

Along those lines, I also occasionally get challenged on whether I have the authority to say what I say. It’s easy to note that I don’t deal with what the Quran and hadith supposedly say; indeed, I make it clear that interpreting Muslim sacred sources is none of my business. I take Islam to be a human phenomenon, and address what Muslims say in the name of Islam. But the more typical Muslim attitude is that True Islam proceeds out of the sacred sources, and that any claim about Islam must therefore be backed up by proof texts and scholastic interpretations in the style of the traditional religious scholars. Since I don’t do this, have no training to do this, and show no interest in doing this, I clearly must have no standing.

I can’t respond to this sort of thing with more than a shrug, and maybe a suggestion that this sort of text-bound reasoning has something to do with stifling scientific accomplishment among Muslims. But I also can’t help but be impressed by the strength of the common Muslim commitment to the Quran, and secondarily the hadith. Their defense mechanism is well-nigh impenetrable. For some, it is as if sacred text-based reasoning is completely authoritative, almost something that defines rationality as they understand it. Stepping outside that way of thinking (never mind asking whether the Quran is all that trustworthy) is hardly conceivable. For others, the authoritative nature of the Quran is something so obvious, so fact-like, that questioning it is no more worthwhile than skepticism about the existence of the moon.

I guess that’s a long way of saying that “dialogue” with devout Muslims, like all True Believers, can be frustrating as well as fascinating. We clearly think very differently, perhaps so radically differently that there really is not much to say.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Gary Haran

    I had a Catholic upbringing and find it really easy to break the spell with a Christian. I however have nothing but similar problems with Muslims as you had.

    They always resort to “That’s not what the good Imams say.” or “Allah’s not from this realm so we can’t comprehend Him” or “That’s not Islam that’s politics”.

    They see the religion as untouchable and that human problems are the root of all that is truly evil. They can’t see the bad influence the religion can have on them for that very reason.

  • Keith Parsons

    In years past I encountered this same trick when arguing with academic Marxists (they have become scarce even in academe in recent years). I would point out that every society, without exception, that had tried to organize itself according to Marxist principles had become, to various degrees, totalitarian or at least authoritarian (maybe Chile under Allende might have been different, but Nixon and Kissenger gave us no chance to see). My Marxist interlocutors would always reply that these societies had not implemented “true” Marxism. For instance, the Soviet Union, they would say, had a system of “state capitalism,” not Marxism. Likewise, China, North Korea, Cuba, Poland, Bulgaria, etc. had all failed in one way or another to actualize “true,” Marxism. I would reply by quoting the bitter joke told by Poles suffering under General Jaruszelski’s communist regime: “Where does the true socialist society exist? On the moon.” The point is that “true” Marxism, like “true” Christianity and “true” Islam, never has and never will exist. Likewise, of course, “true” liberal democracy has never been achieved. But the attempts to implement liberal democracy, however imperfectly, have worked out far better than the attempts to implement Marxism–or Christianity or Islam. We can, of course, form pristine images of our pet ideologies and debate their idealized merits ad nauseam. At some point, though, when we are asked to actually live by these ideals and not just philosophize about them, we have to follow William James’ advice and demand to know their “cash value.”

  • Bradley Bowen

    Gary Haran and Keith Parsons both make good points.

    However, I would like to point out the possibility that the response of the Muslims, in some cases, might be correct.

    Having been a devout Evangelical Christian who carried a Bible to high school every day, and read it every day, I would sometimes hear objections to Christianity that would miss the mark in the same way.

    People who claim to be Christians often act in ways that are completely contrary to the teachings of Jesus. An objection to Christian behavior can often be valid while failing to have relevance to evaluating the teachings of Jesus or the Bible.

    Human beings tend to be irrational, egocentric, sociocentric, hypocritical, deluded, and immersed in bad faith. This is true of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and even Secular Humanists. Thus, any philosophy or worldview or ideology will always have a large number of irrational and hypocritical representatives.

    So, to evaluate a philosophy or worldview or ideology, one must work at distinguishing the merits and faults of the belief system in question from the imperfect people who claim to live according to that point of view.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Here is an example from politics rather than religion…

    It is tempting to object to conservatism by pointing to the failures of George W. Bush. But this temptation might be unfair to conservative ideology.

    One of the most striking things to me about George Bush is his contempt for the rule of law and for American political traditions. But the core values of conservatism are to preserve and to protect the rule of law and our national traditions.

    So, George Bush can be viewed as an anarchist, as the ENEMY of conservatism, in terms of the core values of conservative ideology.

    Thus, althought Bush is typically viewed as a representative of conservatism, this widespread belief is dubious, and to the extent that this belief is wrong, it is unfair to criticize conservative ideology by pointing to the failures of George Bush.

  • Ilkka Pyysiäinen

    That’s why I always say I am not criticizing “religion,” “Christianity,” or “Islam.” I am only criticizing silly and unfounded claims. If somewhere, beyond them, is a true Islam or Christianity, so be it. We just cannot talk about it because, once a human being opens her or his mouth, the possibility of error and respective criticism immediately open up. Let’s just take such claims one by one.

  • Mathurine

    // I would sometimes hear objections to Christianity that would miss the mark in the same way. //

    I wanted to mention a few things in relation to this idea and Muslims specifically. Muslims are so used to having non Muslims and Muslims alike make "authoritative" statements about "what Islam teaches and Muslims do" that have no connection whatsoever to reality that the default mode, esp. when listening to or reading a non Muslim, is to be very defensive.

    In addition, I wanted to point out that a lot of Muslims are aware of and embarassed by a lot of the "scientific" claims made by Muslim missionaries (daiyees) about the Quran & Islam, but it is not something they are ever going to admit to non Muslims. Many people do feel like admitting these shortcomings (and that a lot of the claims are totally baseless) to non Muslims would give further ammo to people who hate Muslims for the sake of hate; they also feel that it would be showing disloyalty to their fellow Muslims, as misguided as they may be.

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