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Ijtihad and science


By   K H Masud


(The writer is a former principal of Gordon College, Rawalpindi. Email: )


For three hundred years, the doors of the tavern have been closed — Iqbal

Why is it that for the last three hundred years, the Muslim world has been so deficient in producing scientists and philosophers? Why is it that even now when the Muslim world commands such immense resources, we lag so far behind the West in science and technology?

The answer is clear: for three hundred years, the door of ijtihad (creative thinking) has been closed. Almost one-ninth of the verses of the Qur’an stress upon “tafakkur” and “tadabbur”, yet, by and large, the Muslim world pays no heed to them. They turn their backs on critical and creative thinking.

Instead, we are fond of platitudes. We love clichés. We bask in the glory of the past. We dread the new, the original, the novel. We are good at repeating moth-eaten, time-worn thoughts. We revel in interpretations, but we flinch from creativity. Using Toynbee’s terminology, we are in the stranglehold of the “nemesis of mimesis”. Intellectual stagnation and spiritual degeneration are our dismal lot.

It is ingrained in our psychology that correct already exists. Teachers dispense truth, parents are always right. Leaders are omniscient. They act like philosopher-kings, often uttering banalities which cannot be challenged.

Following the iconoclastic spirit of the Quran, it is time to think in a new way and to tread on untrodden path.

Scholars may differ about problems concerning science, but they are unanimous as regards the need for a particular weltanschauung (world-view) for the birth, growth and blossoming of science.

Science cannot develop in an atmosphere vitiated by obscurantism, dogmatism, fanaticism, irrationalism and intolerance. Science needs an intellectual environment whose keynote is enlightenment with rationalism, pluralism, and humanism as the driving force.

Historically, it was the Renaissance which prepared the ground for the emergence of modern science. The Dark Age, which preceded the Renaissance in Europe, was dominated by scholasticism with philosophy as the handmaiden of theology. D’Alembert called scholasticism the so-called science of the centuries of ignorance.

The scholastics used to discuss such “profound” problems as the number of angels who could dance in the eye of a needle. Bacon compared the scholastics to the spiders, content to weave cobwebs, ignoring the universe and what was happening around them.

Scholasticism suffered from: (i) indifference to facts; (ii) arguments from authority; (iii) undue emphasis on verbal subtleties; (iv) blind faith; (v) reasoning on matters which observation alone could decide.

Modern science had to make way by routing scholasticism. It was Descartes (1596-1650) who performed this task. He was not only the founder of modern philosophy but also, along with Galileo and Newton, one of the creators of modern science. He started off his intellectual odyssey by the dictum: “In order to reach the truth, it is necessary once in one’s life to put everything in doubt.”

Modern science has flourished in an atmosphere marked by philosophical scepticism. It does not take anything for granted. It puts to doubt all dogmas and certainties. The beliefs of a scientist are tentative not final. They are not based on authority but on evidence.

As opposed to scholasticism which believed in order to understand, modern science understands in order to believe. As such there is no difference between modern science and the Qur’anic spirit with its constant appeal to reasoning, thinking, knowing and deliberating.

Science demands immense patience in observation and great boldness in framing hypotheses. Science demands an inquisitive spirit, a pioneering zeal and an enterprising elan. Any dichotomy between theory and practice spells disaster for scientific progress.

The Greek science withered away because it wholly and solely depended on deduction. Though the Greek scaled the sublimest heights of speculative thought, their aversion to experimentation and manual work closed the door for further scientific advancement.

Induction was a great gift of Islam to humanity. “Neither Roger Bacon nor his later namesake has any title to be credited for having introduced the experimental method,” says Briffault in his book “The Making of Humanity.”

According to Iqbal, “For purposes of knowledge, the Muslim culture fixes its gaze on the concrete and the finite.” When Iqbal emphasized the concrete and the finite, he exalted the scientific spirit at the expense of speculative flights into meta-physics.

By giving examples of Ibn-i-Khaldun’s view of history, Ibn-i-Maskwaih’s theory of life as evolutionary movement and Musa al-Khwarizmi’s shift from arithmetic to algebra, Iqbal concludes: “All lines of Muslim thought converge on a dynamic concept of the universe.”

Thus Islam rejects a static view of the universe and regards it as always changing and evolving. According to the Qur’an, change is one of the greatest signs of God, and is explicitly implied in the verse: “Every day has its own glory.”

The Islamic principle to keep pace with the changing world and an evolving universe is ijtihad i.e. exertion to form an independent opinion. Creativity is the essence of ijtihad. The driving spirit of the scientific technological revolution is creativity, devolving new ideas and sailing in uncharted seas.

Science must precede technology, because science is the tree and technology is the fruit. Today, as never before, the political stability of a country depends on its economic prowess, which is determined by the scientific technological revolution, depending on ijtihad ie, creative thinking.

In order to usher in scientific technological revolution, we have to take the following steps:

Firstly, our educational system must be geared to strengthen mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and computer science.

Secondly, our method of teaching and examination must change, emphasising the intelligent grasp of the subjects rather than memorising formulas and theories.

Thirdly, our mass media must be mobilised to popularise science and scientific thinking.




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