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.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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