The resurgent interest in science and religion discourse was bound to cross boundaries of cultures and religions; after all, science today possesses a global dimension which no other human endeavor has ever reached. It is eagerly sought all over the world. This is certainly the case for those cultures where modern science has arrived as a transplant from the West; this means almost the entire human habitat except for Europe and North America.
But what are the new dimensions of the science-and-religion discourse that have emerged in the process of its globalization? Can one simply extend the questions debated in the science-and-Christianity discourse to other regions and claim globalization? Or does globalization imply inclusion of a Muslim or a Jew in the list of speakers? Does it mean to extrapolate comparative religion approach to comparative science?
No one really knows because so far no attempt has been made to define the methodologies for globalization of science-religion discourse. It is recognized that each faith tradition has encountered modern science in its own way, within its own religious, ethical and intellectual ethos. Yet, recent approaches to globalization of the discourse have generally ignored this peculiarity and have attempted to achieve globalization by merely extending the geographical boundaries of the discourse without laying the foundation of a scholarly and objective criteria for globalization. In the absence of a well-defined framework for globalization, no solid pedagogical tools have emerged to extend the discourse to all faith traditions. There are hardly any books which address science-and-religion discourse from a genuine multi-faith perspective. There are no works that define the methodologies and typologies that can be used in a global context and there have been no conferences on the parameters of globalization. As a result, recent efforts to globalize the science-and-religion discourse have actually inhibited the emergence of a genuine global conversation.
While seeking to globalize the contemporary discourse, it has been largely ignored that this discourse is not rooted in a neutral soil; rather its questions have emerged within a specific set of historical conditions which do not apply to other traditions. The groundbreaking work of Ian Barbour, whose typologies have been foundational, is built on a number of stated and unstated historical conditions which are not global but are specific to the Western Christian tradition; hence these typologies cannot be applied globally.
A second aspect of globalization that needs to be recognized is the necessity of establishing the discourse between modern science and each religion within the religious and intellectual framework of that religion. This is so because, although some religions share a certain degree of commonality, they remain differentiated from each other, each with its own worldview, technical terminology and framework for scholarly discourse. Thus, whereas in Christianity it is theology that is poised as a counterweight to science, the same cannot be true for all other traditions.
In Islam, for instance, no meaningful discourse between Islam and modern science can emerge if one posits “Islamic theology” as the counterpart in the discourse. In fact, it can be said with justification that just as there are no councils, synods, or ecclesiastical institutions in Islam, there is no theology as the term is understood in the Western religious tradition. The representatives of the Islamic tradition have another name for their “theology”: usul al-din, “the principles or foundations of religion”. In doing so, they also establish an analogy with the term usul al-fiqh, “the principles or foundations of jurisprudence.” It must be stressed that this difference is much more than semantic; these two terms insist that they, respectively, refer to a “theology” and a jurisprudence based on the sacred scripture of Islam, the Qur’an, and the Sunna (lit. the “Way”) of the Prophet of Islam. The term “Islamic theology” is sometimes used for kalam but kalam is recognized as a distinct branch of philosophy with its own subject matter and methodology and it cannot be said to be “theology” in the strict sense of the term as it is used in the Christian tradition.
Thus, in order to be truly Islamic, one needs to frame the Islamic discourse with modern science in the perspective of the Islamic concept of nature taken as a whole and within its own matrix which is based on the revealed text, the Qur’an, and supplemented by the Sunna of the Prophet of Islam. Now, this is not very well understood in the West because, as soon as one brings the revealed text into the discourse, one risks the closure of doors of understanding because the science-and-religion discourse in the West is construed in the framework of theology-and-science and not, usually, in terms of the Bible and science. This is further exacerbated by the presence of an academically marginalized strand in the West which posits the Bible as a counterweight to science. Hence, some Western scholars in the discourse are likely to draw an analogy with this marginalized strand and fail to understand the difference in the two traditions. But regardless of this danger, one cannot conceive a genuine Islam-and-science discourse not rooted in the Qur’an.
Likewise, an authentic Islam-and-science discourse must be rooted in the Islamic scientific tradition. What was Islamic in the Islamic scientific tradition? How was this tradition rooted in the Qur’anic worldview? How does modern science differ from the Islamic scientific tradition? These questions are integral to the Islam and science discourse and have no corresponding overlap with science and Christianity discourse. Equally important are epistemological considerations concerning the status of the Qur’an in relation to modern science and the meaning of the so-called scientific verses of the Qur’an. Similarly, the Islamic understanding of the physical cosmos, God’s relationship to created beings, and the Islamic concept of life and its purpose are central to the discourse.
Another issue in globalization is the very questions science raises. Is it sound to assume that modern science will raise the same questions in all faith traditions as it has raised in Christianity? Further, would it be logical to assume that those advances in modern science which have raised ethical and moral questions in Western Christianity can be transferred to other traditions? Would the question of surrogate motherhood, for instance, have the same relevance for Muslims as it has for the scholars and citizens of the contemporary urban West? If not, is it fair to insist on extending such questions to those parts of the world where they simply do not make any sense? This is not to say that there are no common questions. Rather, it is to indicate the difference in gradation and importance.
The globalization of the discourse is also associated with the question of how science, as an organized activity, is perceived in various religious and cultural perspectives. For most of the world, modern science is a transplant which arrived while those lands were occupied by European powers. This science served colonial interests and, as an instrument of empire, uprooted local traditions and institutions, causing untold suffering. On the Indian subcontinent, for instance, the arrival of modern western science was accompanied by a near collapse of all local institutions, including the educational system. The new institutions were forced upon the colonized people with a degree of violence that even now remains etched on the collective memory of those people. The disrespect shown by the colonizers toward the local scientific, educational and cultural traditions, the heavy-handedness with which the colonizers treated their subjects, and the kind of new scientific institutions that were planted are all inextricably linked to the science-and-religion discourse in these cultures. One cannot think of a discourse between science and Hinduism, for instance, without referring to the historical dimension of the arrival of modern science in India. Even apparently benevolent institutions, such as the Geographical Survey of India and the chain of Botanical Gardens, emerged to “extend [Britain’s] Commerce and Riches,” which caused a great deal of harm to the local scientific traditions.
As these non-Western traditions try to rebuild links with their historical past, they may find that the most important questions for them are not the same as those which are being debated in the science-and-Christianity discourse.
Then, there is the question of representation of non-Western traditions in the discourse. Who is a true representative of these traditions and how do we determine that? Unfortunately, no objective criteria has developed so far. In the case of Islam, for example, ironic as it may sound, it is a fact that most contemporary Muslim scientists as well as a vast majority of religious scholars lack the necessary overlapping domains of expertise to articulate Islamic perspectives on modern science. This is so because no institutions remain where one can receive formal training in Islamic sciences as well as modern science. Even at the risk of invoking strong passions, I venture to say that most contemporary Muslim scientists are not even equipped to formulate the questions in the discourse, let alone answer them. But this should not be construed as a derogatory remark; it is simply a fact. We have no institutional mechanism for the emergence of Ibn Sinas, al-Birunis and al-Tusis who can be equally competent to explore the intricacies of the Islamic worldview and scientific facts and theories; all such institutions have been destroyed during the colonization era.
Today, Muslims become scientists by going through western-style secular institutions where they receive no training in Islamic sciences. Unless they are fortunate to grow up in a home where Islam’s formidable tradition of learning is still intact, they are not likely to be benefit from this wonderful stream that nourished some of the best minds of any scientific tradition for more than eight centuries. On the other hand, a vast majority of contemporary religious scholars do not understand modern science. Thus, the mere inclusion of a Muslim scientist in a conference program does nothing for the emergence of a genuine Islamic dimension of the discourse. In order to have a genuine representation of Islam in the discourse, one must seek those who are trained in the Islamic sciences as well as understand modern science and, in addition, are grounded in the intellectual and spiritual soil of Islam. Such a combination is rare, but not impossible, to find. However, the painful reality is that contemporary efforts to globalize the discourse are not seeking to build the discourse on these lines.
It is true that a similar case can be made about the West where scientists also do not receive formal training in theology and theologians do not receive scientific training. But there are several fundamental differences in the two situations. First, the number of scientists and institutions is much larger. Second, there is a much broader base in terms of the range of education and finally, the science-religion discourse has emerged naturally in the historical process with a continuous stream of committed scholars. Hence, it is much easier to find Christian physicists and biologists who can also discuss Christain theology with a certain degree of competence than to find Muslim physicists and biologists who would know their Ibn Sina and al-Ghazali just as well as their Newton and Einstein.
One can object to this approach by saying that modern science is universal and there are no alternatives left, hence what is the need to seek such scholars who would bring into the discourse an Ibn Sina or a Razi whose science has been superceded by modern Western science. Such an objection is flawed because it ignores the fact that the science-and-religion discourse is rooted in certain fundamental philosophical undercurrents of science and many questions now being debated can be easily traced back to their historical roots: the questions related to the origin of life and cosmos, the modalities of God’s role in the universe, the nature of human conscious and the like. Thus, when al-Biruni (d. 1051) asked Ibn Sina (Avicenna in Latin, d. 1037) why water expands when it freezes, he was seeking a scientific answer. Ibn Sina, the Prince of Physicians whose influential Canon of Medicine had documented all known diseases of his time and their cures, gave an answer which did not satisfy al-Biruni, whose scientific work surpassed any other scientist of his time. The question remained unanswered until we understood the nature of hydrogen bonding—that unique characteristic of the hydrogen atom which is responsible for holding hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the ice crystals at a certain angle. This angle is responsible for the fact that ice is less dense than water, and hence lighter.
Al-Biruni could not see ice crystals under a microscope; today, we can. However, his questions were not only related to the structure of the ice crystal; in his correspondence with Ibn Sina, he was raising certain fundamental questions about the composition of matter and, ultimately, about the nature of Nature. Those questions are still valid and, in fact, we are discussing them in our contemporary science-religion discourse. The responses these marvelous crystals invoke in us may vary from individual to individual. For some, they will be just what the microscope shows them to be—molecules held at a certain angle due to hydrogen bonding. For others, they open up a vast ocean of spiritual reflection leading to the quantum paths of electrons around the nucleus of hydrogen, which are so organized that they serve a purpose: life would not survive without this peculiar property of the hydrogen atom. If ice was not less dense than water, oceans would freeze, killing all life. Some would read in this another version of the Design Argument; others would find new riches.
In conclusion, this short piece is a plea for a vigorous discussion on various dimensions and methodologies of the process of globalization of science-and-religion discourse. This will, I believe, be beneficial not only for the discourse but also for a greater understanding of the diverse human family that this planet hosts.
In March 2002, an unsolicited copy of an article by Abdul Karim Saroosh, the so-called “Iranian dissent voice”, landed on my desk; the letter which carried it came from the “office” of Dr. Charles Harper, Executive Director of the John Templeton Foundation. This was the short-lived and sudden entry of Saroosh into the arena of science and religion discourse. Within days of this event, Saroosh’s name was appearing in all publications funded by John Templeton Foundation. This love-affair with a man who had earlier told me (in an email) that science and religion is not really his area of expertise or interest, was indeed intriguing.
A little investigation in the matter led to the information that Saroosh was, in fact, at Harvard. As a visiting Professor, he was delivering lectures at one of the most prestigious universities in the United States. While he was being propped up as the greatest Muslim intellectual on earth by a number of dubious think tanks and institutes of policy studies, John Templeton Foundation was hard at work to join hands with the neo-conservatives in Washington DC to prompt Saroosh as a major voice in Islam and science discourse. This advertising blitz soon reached the key mouthpiece of the Foundation: Metanexus Institute. Within a few weeks of the arrival of that mail from Dr. Harper, it was announced by Metanexus Institute that Saroosh was to deliver a keynote address at its annual 2002 Conference. (Later, Metanexus changed its published program for the conference without giving any reasons, Saroosh did not come to that conference.)
Soon afterwards, began a sustained effort to develop an intellectual front against Iran. I was approached by the American Academy of Sciences to help them in making connections with Iranian scientists. This purely “scientific” exchange was for the “promotion” of science but as I dug deeper into the nature of the project, their motives became clear: it was a ploy to find an access to Iranian scientists who could be bought and hired into the service of the new empire. After these initial, loosely connected episodes, more firm and heinous connections began to emerge.
At that time, the occupation of Iraq was still in the future. But once President Bush made his infamous remarks about the axis of evil, it was anybody’s guess who would be the next target of US aggression: Iran, Iraq or North Korea. The axe fell on Iraq but Iran is still considered to be the next target. It is these subtle connections, that have led many Muslims to believe that John Templeton Foundation is, in fact, in league with the neocons in their aggression against Islam and Muslims. Here is short article from Iran about Saroosh.
The Expansion and Contraction of Abdolkarim Soroush
A Brief Chronicle of the Rise and Fall of the Luther of Islam
''It is only by going too far that you can find out how far you can go.'' T.S. Eliot
I still vividly remember that particular day a few months after the revolution on our university campus in Tehran. It was a blissful spring day with flowers ablaze with color and the small green leaves on the maple tress lining the narrow streets of the campus rustling in the breeze. Scattered around were small groups of students who, basking in the sun, were feverishly talking about politics. Just as with the rainbow of the colors of the flowers, one could see a spectrum of opinions among students. However, we, as the members of the Islamic Society, felt particularly excited because we were about to listen to a rising star, Abdolkarim Soroush, on the intellectual battleground of the post-revolutionary Iran who was reputed to be steeped in both philosophy and science. His lectures had gained quite a reputation because of their colorful imagery, often drawing on the works of Rumi and other great poets, and hard hitting arguments. Marxists and secular groups who were out to undermine the revolution particularly loathed him as they were the main targets and victims of his dialectical armor. As a bunch of young idealists, with our newly found Islamic identity, we could not but be enchanted by this man or resist emulating his manners in every way possible.
A few years later; and a different location (the Sadeghieh Mosque in north Tehran). We were once again listening to our hero who was commenting on Imam Ali's famous sermon 'The Pious'. Elaborating on such qualities as courage, honesty, piety and faith, he talked about Ali's perspective on life. I distinctly remember him quoting Ali to the effect that one should ''throw dust at the eyes of one's admirers', that the prime sign of piety is longing to meet with God and being oblivious to the world and all its trappings. He pleaded with us not to forsake our duties towards the people and went on to castigate those who, having earned their education at people's expense, had chosen to leave the country and live abroad. Leaving the mosque we all felt purified in our hearts and hopeful about the future. He was still our leading light.
Time however passed and with it we grew older. Those years were the times of great social and intellectual upheavals, disillusionment and despair. Things had not quite moved in the direction we had imagined. Noting the inadequacies in ourselves, many of us took the path of independent learning letting the wind carry us away. We saw great things, great men and new horizons, thereby, stretching our thoughts and imagination. Still, Janus-faced, we kept our eyes on our hero closely monitoring his intellectual development and yearning to return to his sanctuary. We thought we could still erect our intellectual home on the shores of Rumi's and other mystics' thoughts as seen through is gloss.
We grew still older and felt ever more disillusioned and isolated. What was happening was not what we expected. To make up for our failings, we sought to get closer to our hero who was also showing signs of discontent. As long as he is around, we thought, there is still hope for the future. We had now closely associated ourselves with him. But, having got close to him, we found out, to our great horror, that, like his name, there was a different person behind the mask. He, too, was a man who, like the rest, was driven by petty desires and urges. We could no longer recognize that soft-spoken, selfless man who preached about tolerance, love and self-criticism, and whom we took to be the embodiment of our ideals. Rather, we found an angry, bitter individual who, unlike what he had taught us about the Popperian principle linking the growth of knowledge and personality with severe criticism and self-scrutinization, frowned at the slightest criticism and disagreement. Driven by an unbounded yearning for fame and recognition, he was prepared to respect one as long as s/he could prove to be a docile and blind disciple. Being independent-minded had no place in his scheme of things.
We tried very hard to explain all those 'aberrations' away. But our efforts were all in vain and many of us chose to leave his circle. This, in turn, made us suspicious about the authenticity of his ideas and the quality of his work. However, being aware of the need to distinguish a man from his thoughts, we sought to reread his voluminous works in a dispassionate and objective manner. Alas, the shock of this reencounter was even greater than that of meeting the man behind his mask. Instead of expounding clear ideas and theses, his articles and books were filled with half-baked and ambiguous statements. In place of careful arguments there were only rhetorical maneuverings embellished by quotations from Rumi and other poets. Repetitious and poorly structured, the articles looked more like exercises in emulating the style of writing closely associated with the poet Sa'di. The running theme throughout his work was the possibility of reconciling Islam with the modern world. But the author’s grasp of the Western thought was painfully superficial and muddled--almost always leading to its gross misrepresentation. You got, for instance, (ethical) realists turned into subjectivists, or metaphysical issues confused with the epistemic ones, or the basic concepts of philosophy twisted beyond recognition. Even the one area Soroush claimed to be familiar with, viz., Popper's philosophy, turned in his hands into a caricature of the man and his thoughts. We shall say nothing about the rampant plagiarism so visible in his work. This was not, surely, the secure foundation upon which we were hoping to build our intellectual home.
Still more time elapsed. In the meantime Soroush had adopted a radically different political stance gradually transforming himself into a dissident within the system whose foundation he had himself, until recently, helped to secure. His newly found fame, however, came not through genuine political activism but, unwittingly, through the activities of a bunch of ignorant hooligans who used to disrupt his lectures. At the same time, he sought to project his work as the natural culmination of the revivalist movement in Islamic thought. But Soroush was not content with that. He wanted to go beyond the famous figures of that tradition like Iqbal and Shariati. He wished to be regarded as the Luther of Islam. This was not however an easy task for, regardless of the legitimacy of the idea itself, this required due familiarity with both Islam and the challenges of modernity that was conspicuously lacking in him.
To make up for such failings, he chose the easy path of making sensational and controversial statements about religion in general and Islam in particular. Some of these statements seemed so controversial as bordering on the denial of Islam itself. It would not be implausible to speculate that it was Soroush's pronouncements at this period that eventually reached their natural conclusions in the writings of some of his uncritical followers, like Akbar Ganji, who finally came to denounce the Quran as outdated and out of line with the modern world. Soroush's efforts to earn the title of the 'Luther of Islam' finally bore fruit. Crucially helped by his anti-establishment stance, he won recognition abroad. He was invited to give lectures at various Oriental studies conferences (in Edward Said's sense) in the West. The man who was once one of the main ideological associates of the Islamic Republic was gradually singled out to be the Islamic Luther that the West needed in order to undermine the clerical rule in the one Muslim country which, for whatever reasons, had refused to be bullied by it.
Then came the eye-opening events of 9/11 and its aftermath. For those of us who looked up to Western democracies for guidance, this was a wake-up call. Not being a witness to the Algerian revolution, the Vietnam conflict, the 9/11 of Chile and countless other covert destabilizing operations by the super powers, we suddenly woke up to such facts as Imperialism, Neo-colonialism, Globalization, etc., and saw our utopian models in their true color. A new world order was in the making drawing on the theoretical insights of such hard core conservative thinkers as Huntington and Fukuyama. This led to the subsequent emergence of the so-called neo-cons led by the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Daniel Pipes and his 'Campus Watch' antics. We are too familiar with the rest of the story: the occupation of Iraq, the overt attempt to annihilate what is left of the Palestinian identity, and now the sickening evidence of the torture and humiliation of the Iraqis in Abu Ghraib.
Amidst all this turmoil, however, Soroush's quest for the Lutheran title has reached new heights. Right now, just as Muslims are being systematically humiliated by the West (not just by its military machine but also by its intellectual and religious representatives like the former Archbishop of Canterbury), Soroush is being nominated for a number of awards by certain organizations which are, to put it mildly, highly suspect. He is being projected as the example that every Muslim should emulate if s/he is to be thought of as civilized by Western standards. After meeting with Bill Clinton, Salman Rushdi said that it was the pinnacle of his life. Soroush's career-peak is, I guess, not too far away. He is to deliver a ''keynote'' speech at a forthcoming conference on 'Islam and Democracy' in Washington where he will also be the recipient of the 'Muslim Democrat of the Year Award' (http://www.islamdemocracy.org/documents/word/2004_Annual_Conference_Program__Tentative.v4.doc). Other keynote speakers include the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and ambassadors of such repressive and undemocratic states as Egypt, Morocco and Turkey (whose Muslim female students have to wear wigs to bypass the ban on hijab in order to be able to attend their lectures).
This may not, of course, be the pinnacle of Soroush's career. His unended quest for the Lutheran title would presumably take him further down the corridors of power. He has shown he is prepared to go to any length to earn it. Those skeptical of these claims can pay a visit to his website which is filled with articles (written by his disciples) which are only meant to glorify him (http://www.drsoroush.com/English.htm). This is the same guy who used to invoke Imam Ali's admonitions about the perils of admirers. And this is all too ironic in view of Soroush's apparent endorsement of the Popperian principle, viz., that to show a theory's mettle one should not seek to garner its confirming instances but to subject it to severe criticism. It seems however that to solidify his entitlement to the Lutheran title he is even prepared to enlist the support of such conservative theorists as Fukuyama whose End of History was a catalyst in the current reshaping of the Middle East and the humiliation of the Muslim societies. His website includes, among other things, an irrelevant interview with Fukuyama (by Al Ahram). The only reason for such an inclusion seems to be a one-line statement in the interview where Fukuyama singles out Soroush as one of the possible candidates for the Lutheran title (http://www.drsoroush.com/English/News_Archive/E-NWS-20040429-Open-ended_history-An_Interview_with_Francis_Fukuyama.html).
It is now another spring day not in Tehran but in another part of the world where the flowers and the trees are still to bloom. There is also no longer any excitement in the air for we are now far older than we were 25 years ago feeling also humiliated and betrayed. However, as in those good old days, let us hazard asking Soroush one more favor. We are no longer going to bother him with a request for another talk. Rather, we would only like to implore him not to refer to the likes of Iqbal and Shariati when talking about the revivalist movements in Islam. He no longer needs to prove that he is their true heir to deserve the Lutheran title for that has already been bestowed on him by such authorities as Colin Powell and Fukuyama. He knows he is not in the same league as those individuals. Iqbal was a genuine scholar who was profoundly familiar with the modern thought and the challenges facing Islam in the modern world (as evidenced by his unrivalled The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam). He also fought for the independence of his homeland and lived and died as a sufi. Shariati, too, was a fighter to the end. Instead of rubbing shoulders with the Powells of his time, he was thrown into prison in Paris for collaborating with the Algerian resistance, and he died the way he lived and preached. All we are begging Soroush to do is to spare us, the wretched and betrayed of the Earth, their memories. For those untainted memories are now our sole reason to believe in our humanity.