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Islam, Science and the “Decline” Narrative


By Garibaldi

How ironic to witness Richard Dawkins pseudo-scientifically prattle on about Muslims and Nobel prizes: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge” he said, undoubtedly with his nose turned up high in the air and a snobbish English accent.

Dawkins confidence in issuing such declarations is strengthened by knowing that he can rely on his devotees to have his back, dutifully Dawkins’ Twitter hoard repeated his equally snobbish retort to critics: “A statement of simple fact is not bigotry.”

The atheist-informed bias and worldview of White Privilege is evident in Dawkins statements as are the flaws in his literalist approach. In Dawkins mind, he is only relating an effect: “fewer Muslim Nobel Prize winners than Trinity College, Cambridge” to a cause: Islam.

Indeed, Dawkins and his followers have yet to respond when it is pointed out to them that if you substituted “Muslims” with “women,” “Hindus,” “Blacks” and “Chinese” his statement would also be a simple “statement of fact”; inconveniently for the brave New Atheists “Islam” can’t be bashed or linked to the dearth of Nobel prizes awarded to these groups.

Dawkins statements were never really about asserting facts but were all about which group one can still safely bash.:

The same reasons why Muslims are underrepresented in the halls of Western scientific achievement are also applicable to essentially every other group in the world besides white males living in Western countries. If there’s nothing bigoted about saying it about Muslims, Dawkins and his defenders should come out and make the same unqualified and context-free statements about other groups in society whom they see as not stacking up. The fact that they refuse to do so signals that this has little to do with courageously speaking the truth and more about picking out which minorities it is still safe to bash.

N N Taleb, the world renowned statistician now uses Dawkins’ bigotry as a teaching opportunity, publishing a video about what we can learn from Dawkins’ errors and misuse of probability. Dawkins, who really should know better, also continues to masquerade as if he is blissfully oblivious to the scientific awakening across many Muslim majority nations.

The “Decline” Narrative and the Fetishization of “Mutazili” Rationalism

We tweeted several times at Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) following his comments and though Dawkins didn’t respond other Twitterati took his “point” further; propagating the populist narrative that there was a “decline” in Muslim science after the Mutazilite theological school was defeated by “traditionalists.” Specifically, after the renowned medieval Muslim scholar al-Ghazali’s blistering attack on philosophers in his famous Tahafut-al-Falasafa (popularly known as “The Incoherence/Destruction of Philosophers”).

This narrative is so powerful and ingrained in Western society that one regularly sees it posited as an explanation for the dismal contemporary record of science in Muslim majority lands, even science populizer Neil DeGrasse Tyson resorted to this crude narrative during a presentation to a group of scientists.

So it was good timing that allowed me to stumble upon an enlightening debate that took place between the Richard Dawkins of Pakistan, nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy and Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Asad Q. Ahmed. Dr. Hoodhboy presents the argument of decline and some anecdotes about silly Muftis and their fatwas and Prof. Ahmed responds by first acknowledging the dismal reality of contemporary rational sciences in the Muslim majority world and then immediately taking a Thor sized hammer to the rest of Hoodbhoy’s arguments.

I am familiar with much of the history that Prof. Asad Q. Ahmed presents through the seminal work of Dr. George Saliba, however I found Prof. Ahmed’s response to Hoodbhoy to be very instructive and a vital rejoinder to those still wallowing under the faulty “decline” narrative.

Prof. Ahmed’s presentation begins at 52:35:

Key points in Prof. Asad Q. Ahmed’s presentation:

The decline narrative:

In early Islam under enlightened Caliphs there was a translation movement, this movement leads to an appropriation of Greek, Persian, Indian and other sciences into the Islamic tradition and Arabic which absorbs and adds on to this work. Then there is a process of naturalization by Muslim scholars who are rationalists and philosophers until 1111 when the clash between rationalism and traditionalism reaches its climax in the figure of Ghazali who writes the Tahafut after which traditionalism, scriptualism and literalism overwhelms the Muslim world for centuries and we find ourselves in our present dismal state.

What did Ghazali actually write?:

Ghazali’s argument isn’t with science it is with the impossibility of logic proving metaphysics. He is arguing that when you use logical arguments to prove metaphysics you are going to fail. Your syllogisms are going to fail. Your premises aren’t going to lead to the syllogism and hence Tahafut is going to happen, i.e. the argument is going to buckle under the weight of its own contradictions and collapse.

“We have transmitted this story of the philosophers to let it be known that there is neither firm foundation nor perfection in the doctrine they hold. They judge in terms of surmise and supposition without verification or certainty, that they use the appearance of their mathematics and evidential sciences as proof for their metaphysical sciences, using this as a gradual enticement for the weak of mind.”

What he’s seeking issue with is the inability of the philosophers to prove metaphysical truths. He takes issue with the philosophers when they talk about the unity of God, His attributes, etc.

“Had the philosophers metaphysical sciences been as perfect in demonstration, free from conjecture as their mathematical they would not have disagreed about the former just as they have not disagreed in their mathematical sciences. The second part of their doctrine is one that doesn’t clash with any religious principle, it is not necessary for believing in the prophets and God’s messengers to dispute with philosophers, an example of the kinds of things philosophers say is the following: the lunar eclipse consists of the obliteration of the moon’s light due to the interposition of the earth between it and the sun, the earth being a sphere surrounded on all sides by the sky [he’s describing a lunar eclipse, this is what the philosophers say…he goes on to say,] This topic is also one to which we will not plunge since its refutation serves no purpose. Whoever thinks that to engage in a disputation for refuting such a theory is a religious duty harms religion and weakens it for these matters rest on demonstration (geometric and mathematical demonstrations) and they leave no room for doubt.”

He’s saying if you get into an argument with philosophers about eclipses you are harming religion.

On scripture and science, if they (appear to) clash:

“The greatest thing in which the atheists rejoice is for the defender of religion to proclaim that these astronomical demonstrations and their like are contrary to religion. The inquiry at issue with the world is whether it originated in time or is eternal. [He’s saying this is the metaphysical issue.]

Moreover once temporal origination is established it makes no difference whether it is a sphere, a simple body, an octagon or hexagon. It makes no difference what is the highest heaven whether it is 13 heavens, etc. metaphysics has nothing to do with these issues, they are investigated in other disciplines. As for metaphysics we will make it plain that what the philosophers set down as a truth for a condition of the syllogism is something they have not been able to fulfill in their metaphysical sciences.”

Ghazali is saying go out and do your sciences, make as many models of the universe as you like, this will do nothing to your religion. All you need to do when it comes to metaphysics is don’t try to prove matters related to metaphysics, what he is doing is creating a seperation between science and religion.

Ghazali is affirming the principles of logic, stating they are sound in and of themselves.

The failure of the philosophers is in metaphysics not in medicine, physics, mathematics, etc.

Demonstrations based on reason in all sciences except metaphysics must be accepted, in fact we see that when there are transmitted texts that clash with these demonstrations they must be rejected as unsound. Science has a higher authority than religion.

The failure of the rationalists is grounded in their inability to be true to their own rational principles.

What the other sciences deduce about the world doesn’t make a difference in the matters of religion.

Cause & Effect vs. Regularity:

Hoodbhoy’s theory of what science is and what the scientific method is, is also deeply problematic. Hoodbhoy’s idea that Muslim concepts regarding causality will destroy science is also problematic because while the Muslim Sunni tradition says there is no causality per se there is definitely something called secondary causality. In other words it’s a domino effect that you can accept.

The other thing that they say is that even though God is interfering in the world He does it according to a habit. All you need for science is regularity, the commitment that there is a cause and effect relationship does nothing for your scientific enterprise. As long as you assume that there is a regularity in nature, it may be God intervening or it may be something immediately effecting a change; a concomitance of events. It’s a metaphysical commitment to say something is a cause and effect.

Science through the centuries:

Muslim contribution to the sciences continued to prosper and advance in different fields throughout the centuries after Ghazali. One example: it is a near certainty amongst scholars today that the 14th century Muslim scholar Ibn al-Shatir directly influenced Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system.


[Update] On a tangential note, I want to point out that Richard Dawkins continues his parlay with Islamophobes. Just a few days ago he was propagating an article by the anti-Muslim “Counter-Jihad” rag Dispatch International:


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  • MichaelElwood

    “I included my last paragraph, starting with “One defining habit of a loon”, because I thought you might have been taking other people’s beliefs out of their context. A few months earlier I heard another Muslim man caricature the Christian faith in a similar way, so I thought this might be a common meme amongst Muslims. It’s easy to mistake the two types of distinctions and misapply math to it”

    My intention wasn’t to take Christian beliefs out of context or to caricature them. I was born into a Christian family, and I live in a country that is predominantly Christian, so their context is my context. Your take on the coherence of the trinity is interesting, but I don’t find it convincing (perhaps because I don’t accept formal distinctions). As I pointed out in my previous post, however, the point of my example(s) wasn’t just the coherence or incoherence of the trinity, but the problems and limitations of personal, subjective beliefs. Specifically, when those who don’t espouse those beliefs and find them unreasonable are forced to accept them (as in the past), or social pressure is exerted to accept them (as in the present).

  • The greenmantle

    This assumes that time is a constant but the therory of relativity does away with this constant because of the space time continum.
    IE before the big bang there was no time
    Sir David

  • Matt Faunce

    Michael, I said that the trinity isn’t *necessarily* a logical faux pas. Since you said that “split personalities” are “quite common these days”, my point is an important one if most Christians really believe the distinction in the Trinity is a ‘formal distinction’. I know you said “some Christians”, but since you said it was “quite common” I thought you meant for it to be taken more generally than it should so that Christianity looks incoherent.

    I’ve talked with many Christians to find out what they really believe rather than what they say they believe. A ‘real distinction’ can only have meaning if the things distinguished are separated by time or space, or there is any disharmony or inefficiency between them. No Christian I know believes that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are separated by time or space or work disharmoniously or inefficiently. That leaves a ‘formal distinction’. None of my Christian friends or family are nominalists, so they believe the forms distinguished in a ‘formal distinction’ are real––real means that if confronted with it it will have its effect on you regardless if you think it will or not, i.e., it’s not a mere thought-construction.

    I think Christians say they believe in the substantive difference (as opposed to formal difference) between members of the Trinity, and the literal transubstantiation of bread into the body of Jesus, for no other reason than so they feel the full weight of their meaning. When matching their belief to the explained definition of substance vs. form they go with form.

    As for the time Christians believe Jesus was forsaken by the Father, this is a fragmentation that might be explained by a separation by space or disharmony; so the distinction between the Father and Jesus at this time would be a ‘real distinction’, and if they, with Jesus in this state, were still considered as parts of the one God then it would be an affront to the axioms of math (since they also call Jesus “God” and the Holy Spirit “God”). I assume they believe the Trinity was only a Duo for those three days, but I’ve never asked anyone about this.

    I included my last paragraph, starting with “One defining habit of a loon”, because I thought you might have been taking other people’s beliefs out of their context. A few months earlier I heard another Muslim man caricature the Christian faith in a similar way, so I thought this might be a common meme amongst Muslims. It’s easy to mistake the two types of distinctions and misapply math to it.

  • MichaelElwood

    Thanks, I’ll look into it. My computer is still acting up, so it might take a while.

  • MichaelElwood

    “MichaelElwood quoted Imam Wang Jingzhai: ‘Some Christians, when they’re at church or among other Christians, believe that 1+1+1=1. But at school and in mixed company they accept that 1+1+1=3.'”

    That wasn’t Imam Wang Jingzhai’s words, they were mine.

    “The difference between thinking that God has three attributes and thinking that God is three separate beings is that the former counts ‘formal distinctions’ and the latter counts ‘real distinctions.'”

    The problem with your assertion is that “orthodox” Christians don’t claim that God has three distinct attributes, but three distinct persons(hypostases). ONE person can indeed have MANY different attributes and remain ONE person. For example, people would understand me if I told them that I as a single person have MANY attributes like son, brother, friend, etc. But they’d look askance (and justifiably so) if I told them that I, my father, and my friend are ONE in the same person.

    “An example of a formal distinction is a wet blue triangle. Even though the wet blue paint is in the shape of a triangle, i.e., it is one thing, we count the blueness as one, the triangleness as another, and the wetness as a third. You’re counting forms.

    “An example of a real distinction is when there are three triangles. Each one is counted.”

    There’s a couple of problems with this analogy. First, not all philosophers accept formal distinctions. Notably, William of Ockham rejected formal distinctions. Second, as I mentioned above, you make a false analogy between distinct ATTRIBUTES (wet, blue, triangular) and distinct PERSONS (God, Son, Holy Spirit).

    “One defining habit of a loon is that they isolate aspects of other people’s beliefs, plug them into their own philosophical system, see the incoherence, then mock them for it. So be careful.”

    Another defining habit of a loon is demanding that others accept their personal, subjective beliefs without a compelling reason. I should point out that, although I believe beliefs should be rational, I also believe that some personal, subjective beliefs and experiences can be, and are, valid (though I don’t believe the trinity is one of them). My point in giving the example(s) I gave was not to argue the coherence or incoherence of the trinity, but to show the problems and limitations of personal, subjective beliefs. If these beliefs remain personal and subjective, then it’s all gravy. But when these beliefs are made public, and others are compelled to accept them, it’s problematic. People can’t just demand that everyone else accept their personal, subjective beliefs. This especially true when there’s no compelling reason to accept those beliefs, and the person who espouses them won’t deign to give one. It’s unreasonable for these people to expect others to indulge them in this fashion.

    Unfortunately, throughout history some people have not only expected others to accept their personal, subjective beliefs, but have killed and persecuted those who didn’t. For example, individuals like Michael Servetus and Jacob Palaeologus were killed for not accepting personal, subjective beliefs like the trinity. And entire groups like Jews, Ebionites, Arians, Muslims, Socinians, and Unitarians were persecuted for not accepting personal, subjective beliefs like the trinity. For us, discussing the niceties of the trinity is a mere intellectual exercise. But for them it was a matter of life and death. So, whereas tolerance is a virtue, credulity is not (especially when credulity leads to intolerance and persecution).

  • MichaelElwood

    “Do you know why they “believe” this, Senor Elwood?”

    My guess is that it’s partially force of habit. Atheist materialists have always believed in the eternity of the universe. And modern atheist materialists are just following pre-modern atheist materialists in this regard. Another reason is that the big bang theory strikes them as being too similar to creation “ex nihilo” that some theists have propounded throughout history.

  • MichaelElwood

    “I see that we were actually saying the same thing.
    Maybe it would have been good for him to quote your words and show citation to your article, rather than simply using the title to your article.”

    Yes, we were in agreement. It was my fault for being ambiguous. My bad.

  • MichaelElwood

    “Nur and Michael, I think this is an unfortunate misunderstanding.”

    Sorry for the delayed response. My computer crashed. Anyway, thanks for clearing that up. 🙂 I should have been more clear in what I was trying to say.

  • The greenmantle

    I would like to listen to you playing 🙂
    Anything on you tube ?
    Sir David

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    I think you might be interested in this three part series on Ghazali that posits a case for Ghazali not being “the arsonist who incinerated philosophy in the East,” rather that “Ghazali played a major part in making it survive and remain relevant.”

  • George Carty

    I would say there are three main reasons why the Middle East is backward: oil, Zionism and arid climate.

  • George Carty

    How is he foolish (in your view)? Is he not correct in his identification of Islam as a remarkably tenacious meme-set?

  • Sam Bin Ismail

    looks like the Quran already forseen this kind of arguments Quran 19:73. When Our Clear Signs are rehearsed to them, the Unbelievers say to those who believe, “Which of the two sides is best in point of position? Which makes the best show in council?”

  • JS

    PS. I don’t think that the texts Ahmed uses can be classified as ancient. They come up to the late nineteenth century.

  • JS

    I think he had two main points in his lecture: 1. to show that, until the last century, the scientific tradition was robust (so no decline narrative) and 2. that the attitude towards science in that period was philosophically sophisticated. Clearly something is different today. For example, I doubt that it is true that contemporary scientists/rationalists in Muslims lands generally have such attitudes as he demonstrated in his lecture for the pre-contemporary period. Otherwise, we would have advances in fields like mathematics, logic, etc. Now I do not doubt that there are technologists, many of them, in Muslim lands. But technology is not science. I agree that factors other than religion have led to this condition. I think that was his main point.

  • JS

    All you say is correct. Ahmed was offering a critique of Hoodbhoy’s notions of science from the perspective of the philosophy of science (based on developments of western philosophy). You have presented what the scientific method is, as defined by the scientific disciplines themselves (and by Hoodbhoy). Ahmed offers a meta-critique of that method. His point has nothing to do with teleology, but about problems of induction and verification.

  • JS

    The point that Professor Ahmed was making about the authority of science vs. religion pertains to Ghazali’s position, based on a direct quote from the author’s work. It does not pertain to interpretation, but about the starting point of interpretation. He gives an example of what Ghazali says when a scientist shows the causes for the eclipse of the moon vs. what a tradition from the Prophet says. As for God’s habit, that actually does not appear to be different from what you are saying. I think you should watch the video to get a full sense of the arguments.

  • Tanveer Khan

    I don’t like hating on foolish people so I pity on them instead.

  • George Carty

    Why’s that exactly?

  • Nur Alia binti Ahmad

    ok, I played music for a living. I made, and live off the income I made as a working, productive individual.
    That is the way I look at it.

  • Nur Alia binti Ahmad

    I say, what makes a person a Muslim, is his or her willingness, and intention to do and obey the will of God in whatever capacity their skill, talent, intellect, or what ever, allows them to contribute to, progress, innovation, or social advancement of humanity.
    Some of us can do this in big ways, and some of us can do it on a one on one level, but each of us…if we are Muslim, are obligated to do it.
    Islam shows us some ways we can.
    I played for the Chinese Central Nationalities Orchestra for many years.
    This orchestra, and components is not the national orchestra of China, but is subsidized by the same entities.
    This orchestra, its many ensembles, and choir plays and sings traditional Chinese music using traditional Chinese instruments.

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    In general it is in a poor state due to Colonialism and other factors. Also Asad, someone who pours over ancient and non-contemporary texts may be unaware of the awakening in several countries that are excelling:

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