[Paleopsych] NS: Interview: The Koran to quantum physics
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Fri Jul 1 01:33:15 UTC 2005
Interview: The Koran to quantum physics
[I don't think Mr. Mencken wrote enough about Islam to get into its fit with
science. He was certainly opposed to all attempts to fit Christianity with
* 25 June 2005
* Michael Bond
Iran is changing. A society once closed to the outside world has
acquired a hunger for knowledge and a thirst for cutting-edge ideas.
The number of publications by Iranian scientists in international
journals has quadrupled over the past decade. Young people in
particular want more Kuhn and less Khomeini. And they voted
overwhelmingly against hardline candidates in last week's elections.
But what about the clerics who have led Iran since 1979? How
comfortable are they with modern science and technology? Do they
oppose it? Can they learn to live with it? Do they believe it should
Western ways of thinking and doing have long held a fascination for
Iran's religious leaders, from before the Islamic revolution of 1979
that deposed the Shah. When the Shah banned Ayatollah Khomeini's
speeches, for example, his supporters distributed them on audio
cassettes in the hundreds of thousands. Similarly, desktop publishing
was eagerly adopted to produce glossy magazines extolling the virtues
of post-revolution Iran.
Unlike most other Muslim countries, Iran has several institutions
dedicated to enabling clerics to test their knowledge and ideas
against those developed in modern universities. Mofid University is
the best known. In just 10 years, it has developed a reputation in the
fields of philosophy and human rights, and organises exchanges with
universities abroad, including the US. Michael Bond travelled to Qom -
Iran's spiritual hub, birthplace of the Islamic revolution and home of
Mofid University - to ask Masoud Adib, Mofid's head of philosophy,
about Islam and the challenge of science.
Is there such a thing as Islamic science?
We cannot really talk of Islamic science. We can talk of Islamic
philosophy, political science, sociology, and maybe Islamic
psychology, but not Islamic physics or chemistry. Sciences like
physics and chemistry are neutral.
However, in science it is important to distinguish between discovery
and judgement - between collecting data or experimentation, and
evaluating and judging what has been collected. When researchers
evaluate data, they all use the same methodology, whether they are
Muslim or Christian, religious or secular.
But when a researcher is collecting data or conducting experiments,
things like religion, culture or even the attitude of the researcher
make a difference. There might be differences between the way a Muslim
collects data and someone else, just as there are differences in the
way women and men collect data, or people from different cultures. But
this does not mean the science produced is Islamic science.
How does an Islamic approach to experimenting and data collection
differ from other approaches?
In an Islamic culture, the reason a person seeks knowledge is to know
God, to seek a better understanding of God. That is the motivation.
Someone from another culture or religion may do it for another reason:
to seek particular technologies, for example, or just to know reality.
People who do science for different reasons will probably look at
different areas, or approach a problem from different sides.
What would a Muslim scientist seek?
In Islam, science or knowledge should not be sought solely for the
sake of curiosity. Research should always be targeted. In a world
where there is a lot of disease and many complex problems such as
poverty, famine, drought and lack of education, scientists should not
be allowed to just go after scientific curiosity for its own sake. It
is the duty of scientists to try to solve these problems. So a
scientist should not spend all his time in a laboratory working for
himself, satisfying his own curiosity. He needs to always consider
whether what he is doing is in line with what God wants.
If people are guided so much by religion, how can they do good,
Religion offers a framework for life. It helps you from the moment you
get up in the morning until you go to sleep at night. You have to live
within it. But that doesn't mean that in every moment of the day you
have to take your instructions from religion. Rather, it means that
you have to live for religious targets, and that the values from your
religion should govern everything you do. In this there is no
difference between Islam and other religions.
Within that religious framework, you have to learn how to secularise.
Day-to-day life has to be based on secular knowledge: for instance,
how to eat your breakfast or work in an office. So you can have
knowledge of a secular science within the framework of a religious
How does that work in practice? Where do you draw the line between the
People tend to make two mistakes. One is to try to derive the details
of life from religion - for example, looking to religion for the
answers to why everything happens, the answers to all the practical
things in life. This will not help us run a society. The other mistake
is to loosen the religious framework so much that you think you can
derive the ultimate aim of life from the empirical.
One of the major reasons a lot of Muslims do not do well in science is
that they make the first mistake. A lot of modern societies run into
difficulties and cannot adapt to problems in life because of the
How can Iran modernise and develop in science and technology without
sacrificing the values and traditions of Islam?
Iran has already modernised in some areas. One of the problems of this
modernising is that it is not a result of blossoming from the inside;
it has come from the outside. Over the past 150 years, a gap has
opened up in Iranian society, with one group going for modernity and
another for tradition. The revolution in Iran had roots in both
modernity and tradition, and I believe the gap between the two has
been gradually closing.
However, if modernity is not based on a nation's culture it can do
serious damage. This is what happened in the west. This does not mean
we have to escape from modernity. Rather we have to try to minimise
the damage that arises from the clash with tradition. This means that
in our individual lives, and as a society, we have to keep our eyes on
religious targets while at the same time making best use of modern
How would that work in science?
One of the duties of a scientist from any culture is to progress in
science and knowledge while preserving his moral values, not as a
religious person but as a human being. You have to produce knowledge,
but you may have to restrict yourself from certain areas. It is
delicate - you lose if you hold back from research, you lose if you
ignore your moral values.
Are there any modern technologies that you think are a particular
threat to Islam?
On one level, technology is simply a tool and people have to learn how
to use it. Of course it depends how you use it. The important thing is
that people use technology in the best way for a country and minimise
But there is another deeper level at which to look at technology. New
technologies are deeply tied up with spirituality and morality, for
they influence how we behave. For example, whether I choose to go to
work on horseback or in a car will affect how I behave during the
journey and the effect I have on others. Whenever a new technology
arises, such as the internet, it is essential to have a dialogue about
how it is going to affect us. We need time to contemplate such changes
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