Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), (965–1039) making the first study of the pin-hole camera.
© Joshua H. Shrode – Reprinted with Permission
Alhazen was one of the great Arabian lights during that time when the Qur’an was interpreted by those in power to encourage science…well, “science” is overly generous. There doesn’t seem to be a precisely equivalent word. More accurately, it was interpreted to encourage the pursuit of various knowledge(s), knowledge of nature, religion, math, etc.
To put this in historical context, the Caliph Harun al-Rashid (around 800 AD) mandated that scholars from around the world gather together in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad and translate the classical knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome into Arabic and thus enable the transmission of the gains of science into the Islamic world. Bootstrapping, if you will, a thousand years of research into the empire.
Scholars at an Abbasid library
It seems two passages have been cited which were interpreted at the time to enjoin followers to seek knowledge.
“Travel throughout the earth and see how He brings life into being” (Q.29:20)
“Behold in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for men of understanding …” (Q.3:190)
Contributions to the corpus of human understanding wasn’t simply an Arabic version of these surviving works, though this was a feat of epic proportions in its own right, but real original scholarship into refining the scientific method, mathematics, optics, medicine, mechanics, astronomy, etc. was a direct consequence of these imperial edicts and the divine and imperial protections granted to scientists.
Yet continued contributions from Islamic scientists did not persist beyond the 15th century. Today, sadly, it currently falls well below statistical expectations relative to the general population for…precisely the same reason that it flourished. Religious leaders interpreted the Qur’an to prohibit such heretic investigations into the regularity of nature as this would imply a limit upon God or some other rationale that defies reason but solidifies a grip on power.
This is one of innumerable, heartbreaking examples of the incalculable consequences of believing certain humans can infallibly interpret an infallible deity. That their pronouncements are Truth. And that whatever science or any other religion says, is false. Sound familiar? That God communicates to his creation via an inherently fallible medium — the written form of a dynamic, living, constantly evolving human language — necessarily creates subjective interpretations of the relationship between Islam and science.
Work in the observatorium of Taqi ad-Din
And so only a short time later, we see the demolition of Taqi al-Din’s great Constantinople observatory in Galata. An observatory which was “comparable in its technical equipment and its specialist personnel with that of his celebrated contemporary, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe.” But while Brahe’s observatory “opened the way to a vast new development of astronomical science,” Taqi al-Din’s was demolished by a squad of Janissaries, “by order of the sultan, on the recommendation of the Chief Mufti,” sometime after 1577 CE.
The good lord giveth and he taketh away…or maybe the learning is to not piss off the Chief Mufti or he’ll issue an interpretation that deprives humanity of untold discoveries of inestimable value for all eternity. The time lost can never be regained. That kind of evil can only be done in the name of God.
How odd that a compassionate God uses such a mode … a book … to communicate with his mostly illiterate creation. By odd, I mean ridiculous…not of God but of us to look at a book written in a real human language and think, “Perfect! Obviously God’s word!” A real human language is a constantly evolving thing. Meanings drift. Spellings change. Pronunciation shifts. Metaphors and even definitions lose their intelligibility or gain totally different ones.
Fortunately, the Qur’an says it will tell you when it is to be taken literally and when figuratively … and then doesn’t. Nor does it say when it should be taken historically or anecdotally or mystically or any of the ways in which a text can be read. Why would God choose such a terrible way to reveal himself?
A truly good God would just speak to us … all of us .. whenever we had a question. When someone was misrepresenting his intent, he’d correct them in real-time and discuss why he feels a certain way or gave such an injunction or command or allowed such evil to occur due to some greater good. If he did suffer himself to write a book it would be self-translating and modify itself to the belief system of the reader such that it could reveal itself with the clarity and distinctness of raw uninterpreted sense data. We could still chose to believe or not believe, worship or not worship, follow or not follow of our own free will but there would be no disagreement that God was real and this is what he says about himself and his creation. In fact, this is the only way a good God, a compassionate God, a God who did not revel in billions of blind men women and children stumbling in ignorance towards their eternal doom, would act.
We call this “informed consent”. When I have more information and more knowledge I can make better choices or at least make more informed choices. As I’m writing this now, I am being misinterpreted by every reader at some point in my argument. But anyone need only ask and I’ll clarify…personally. How is it that I, a being so much more limited than God, can do what God never does? I want people to interact with as accurate an interpretation of my ideas as is possible. To do that most effectively, I must know that misunderstandings will happen and I will try to correct them to the best of my ability. If I am unwilling to clarify even the grossest misunderstandings, I cannot hold someone responsible for failing to understand my intent or my belief.
The assumptions in the quote from the Qur’an above are manifold but I’ll only focus on two. The first is that it is God who defines whether the pursuit of knowledge is good or not. Second, is the bold claim that whatever we find … it either is God or is attributable to God.
To the first, I say, “In translating, Euthyphro, you seem to have forgotten to read it.” Divine Command Theory is either the height of irrationality or a dark Gestapo morality of which I want no part. Adoption of it as justification for your morality precludes any honest discussion. If this is the case, good luck to you Sir as you sally forth in your Quixotic quest to mix reason and unreason and come up with Truth.
Yet this is what we see in one religion after another. The pursuit of Knowledge should be done because it is an expression of an essential feature of humanity, not because God told us to go do it. What a wretched thought, a scientist forced to investigate something not out of curiosity or passion or desire to understand and possibly make the world better but because God commanded it and so I must obey. Yet another example of how religion poisons by usurping authentic motivations and inserting some divine autocratic command.
To the second assumption, that whatever we find is God, well then fine I say. God is the sum total of the product of scientific inquiry a.k.a. the universe. Great, what we haven’t found is some immaterial, timeless, spaceless, mind with limitless powers either generating or sustaining any part of reality, so until such evidence becomes available, we’ll hold off on those attributes. What we also found is that mankind creates God and gods as a result of an overactive yet evolutionarily useful propensity to assign agency where there is none.
Unfortunately, we decided at some point that our stories were Truth and that science was a threat because both make claims about the natural world and often these claims are in conflict. There is a battle for the future of humanity. If Science wins, we may actually have a future. We will at least face our problems in the here and now and tackle them in a manner up to the task and not colored by theological squeamishness. If Theism wins, then God help us all. My money, as much as it saddens me to say, is on theism stamping out progress. Theism has a long and glorious dalliance with fear and has cultivated its use to high art. And as science has shown, fear is the most motivating of forces.