Television Review: ‘Antenna’ on BBC2 (Wednesday, 31st January 1990)
The Muslim Thinker, April/May/June 1990 Issue (Issue 3, pp. 17–20)
This science programme carried a feature presented by Mr Zia-ud-Din Sardar, well known commentator on the subject of Islam and science, the main thrust of which was that Islam can provide an ethical and moral framework enabling scientific developments to be exploited for the benefit of mankind, not to its detriment. The Islamic concepts of tauhid, khilafa, istislah (“public interest”), and ijma were referred to as having the following implications:
- that all nature was one,
- that man was God’s trustee on earth to act as custodian of His creation and not its absolute master,
- that “public interest” must be the paramount consideration in putting the discoveries of science into practice, and
- that ijma or public consensus could be used to decide whether certain lines of research (such as embryo research) should be pursued.
Concern was expressed by Mr Sardar and the Muslim scientists he interviewed over the disturbing and disastrous consequences of an uncontrolled science, for example, animal experiments, global pollution, spread of nuclear weapons, and modern medical attitudes. A science tempered by the ethics of Islam would be free of dangers of this kind.
How original is this?
It must certainly have been valuable for viewers to learn that Islamic teachings have a bearing on what are considered to be advanced areas of life, and provide guidance on modern problems. But one is bound to notice that none of the points made could be considered as an exclusively Islamic contribution. Have not various organisations and individuals, who do not belong to Islam or even to any religion, been deeply perturbed about these issues for years? There have been protests, and even illegal acts, to stop animal experiments, spread of pollution, proliferation of nuclear weapons, etc. There has been discussion for over two decades about the need for “social responsibility” in science, and associations have been formed to promote this idea. Alternative medicine too has been so much in the news. Can it therefore be seriously suggested that it is Muslim scientists, much more so than anyone else, who are concerned about this abuse of nature because the principles of “Islamic science” lead them to recognise these evils?
As regards the various Islamic concepts, noted above, which could provide an ethical framework to govern science, again these values are widely advocated by those outside Islam, and so this report did not offer much which a non-Muslim would consider as novel or original. For instance, conservationists regard man as part of nature and say that he has no right to maltreat other living things, which is the same idea as man being the custodian and not the master of nature. Again, if Islam has ijma, then modern democracies have elected legislatures which represent public opinion.
The problem is not so much with modern science itself, nor is it that there is a lack of good principles to guide man in this sphere. It is that those who exploit the discoveries of science violate these principles because of being motivated by greed, for personal, business or national ends. The report should therefore have shown how Islam, besides providing the necessary teachings to use science beneficially, proposes to restrain these human weaknesses. It mentioned producing Muslim scientists who work “only for the pleasure of Allah”. But the exploitation of their work will depend on Muslim industrialists, businesspeople, bureaucrats and politicians. How is it proposed to produce people in these categories who work only for the pleasure of Allah?
It is not clear what was intended by this term, but a lecturer teaching this was shown comparing the theory of evolution with instantaneous creation. He told his class that, according to Islam, creation happened instantly because the Quran uses the expression kun, fa-yakun (God says “Be”, and it is) [کُنۡ فَیَکُوۡنُ]. This is not Islamic science but a naive, simplistic interpretation of the Quran. It may be noted that to God Almighty all time is one, and therefore even if two events are separated by millions of years on the human scale, in Divine terms there is no delay between them. Therefore, the Quranic expression, “God only says to it, Be, and it is”, does by no means indicate immediate creation. In another connection, the report made the point that a Muslim scientist would tend to prefer theories involving ‘oneness’ because this accords with the belief in Tauhid. On this basis one might argue that a theory which postulates that various life forms can be traced to a common origin is more acceptable in Islam than the belief that each living thing was a separate creation from the beginning.
The feature omitted to mention or make clear certain key points which show that Islam is the only religion which satisfies the needs and demands of the scientific age. Firstly, Islam accepts, indeed urges, the use of observation and reasoning as a means of advancing knowledge and discovering truth. It makes even religious doctrines subject to the test of reason, though they cannot be established by it. Secondly, Islam is the only religion whose teachings directly led its followers, at an early stage in its history, to study nature and develop science. When Muslim supremacy and civilisation was at its height, so was the Muslim contribution to science; and when their civilisation went into decline so did their research of science.
In discussing the early Islamic contribution to the sciences, it was rightly said that the Muslim scientists questioned everything freely and showed an independent spirit of enquiry; hence their success. We ask, however, whether the “Islamic science” of today is reviving that spirit, or rejecting it when its conclusions clash with traditionally received interpretations of religion?