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Perish the Thought

Who killed the spirit of inquiry in Islam?

Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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One tragic consequence of this mode of thinking was the complete withering on the vine within Islam of the spirit of scientific inquiry. Reilly quotes a prominent Pakistani scientist, Pervez Hoodbhoy, on this subject:

Science in the Islamic world essentially collapsed. No major invention or discovery has emerged from the Muslim world for over seven centuries now. That arrested scientific development is one important element—although by no means the only one—that contributes to the present marginalization of Muslims and a growing sense of injustice and victimhood.

Another, of course, is the alternative universe in which many Muslims continue to live. Conspiracy theories about 9/11—it was all the Mossad’s doing, or Seventh Day Adventists, not to mention the CIA—are widely believed, even in “secularized” countries such as Turkey. Where is the evidence? It doesn’t matter. What has evidence got to do with cause and effect?

Reilly has mischievous fun in citing question-and-answer columns from the Egyptian media as recently as 2006. One reader’s question: “If a woman gets out of the bath naked and there is a dog in the apartment, has she done anything forbidden?” Answer from the expert on Islamic law: “It depends on the dog. If the dog is male, the woman has done something which is forbidden.” Another conundrum: “While I pray, a woman goes by. Is my prayer valid or not?” Answer: “If a donkey, a woman, or a black dog goes by, the prayer must be repeated. Why? The donkey is an impure animal, the black dog could be Satan in disguise; women are impure regardless.” But while such anecdotes can be amusing to outsiders, they illustrate a lunar landscape of the mind where rational thought itself is difficult, if not actually dangerous. The significance for political freedom of Islamic philosophy’s intellectual suicide is well stated by Reilly:

The primacy of reason, theologically and philosophically understood, is the prerequisite for democracy. Otherwise, what could serve as its legitimating source? .  .  . In such circumstances, man will not go about writing constitutions, for constitutions by their very posture imply a belief in a stable external order, in man’s rationality, and in his ability to formulate and establish a rational mode of government, founded in a rational creation.

The absence within Islam of any ontological basis for belief in the equality of human beings is what led to the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, signed in the Egyptian capital by 45 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1990. The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that such rights apply to the entire human race, without exception. The Cairo declaration added the chilling stipulation that all rights mentioned in the Universal Declaration were subject to Islamic sharia: In other words, they were null and void.

Islamism, or the transformation of the Islamic faith into a political ideology, is the end result of the refusal to apply reason to either scientific or political problems. Ed Husain, a young, onetime British Islamist who abandoned the quest for totalitarian political victory, recalls how his superiors at Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic organization seeking to reestablish a global Islamic caliphate, ruled that buying insurance polices was haram—Islamically unclean—because all natural events such as car wrecks were “acts of God.” That was the wake-up call for one Islamist; but what use is reason in the face of the Iranian education ministry official who claims that the Tom and Jerry cartoons were concocted in the United States to improve the image of mice because, during the 1930s in Europe, Jews were called “dirty mice”?

Ultimately, as Reilly demonstrates, the whole human race is in the same boat when it comes to issues like science or the equality of all human beings. “To say that there is an Islamic (or a Christian or Hindu) science is, of course, to deny that there is such a thing as science, as what stands scientifically must be the same everywhere for everyone. Is hydrogen Islamic? Is there an Islamic light bulb?”

No. But that didn’t stop some Muslims, in the 1980s, in their attempts to render science sufficiently Islamic, from trying to measure the temperature of hell or study the chemical composition of heavenly djinns. As Hoodbhoy (cited by Reilly) notes dryly, “None produced a new machine or instrument, conducted an experiment or even formulated a single testable hypothesis.” Or even observed that, to live in a politically temperate climate, you need to employ reason.

David Aikman is the author, most recently, of The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Never-Ending Conflict in the Middle East.

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