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'Islam needs to engage more with spirit of science'

Sunday October 28, 2012 11:25:20 AM, Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS

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New Delhi: The space for rational science in Islam is shrinking in contemporary times as the faith becomes more inflexible, renowned historian S. Irfan Habib says, advocating a more pro-active approach to science in Islam.

"In developing economies like India, where most Muslims are part of the economy of the marginalised, thinking against science is encouraged, resulting in superstition," Habib said.

"Islam, which has become inflexible and rigid in contemporary times, needs to engage more with the spirit of science. Earlier, it could accommodate all knowledge systems," Habib told IANS in an interview at the launch of his new book, "Jihad, Itjihad: Religious Orthodoxy and Modern Science in Contemporary Islam".

"For me Islam, as it is now, is the problem. The idea of the book is to engage with people (Muslims) who define science differently in Islam," Habib said.

"They say modern science is Eurocentric... I have written five other books on science. We often see modern science as part of a colonial imperialistic project. Who can agree with an Islam-centric science?" the historian said.

"For me, there is no separate science for different religions. Islam should not look for a science compatible with Islam," Habib said.

He referred to former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam as an example, saying: "Abdul Kalam believes in Islam, but is open about science."

"I wanted to question this in the book," said the historian, who currently holds the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Chair at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration in the capital.

According to Habib, believers of Islam need not look at modern science as something alien but as part of Islamic civilisation.

"Strangely, Islam is rigid about science, but not in the area of technology. Islamists use technology, but they feel that science affects the mind. It brings democratisation of knowledge and they (custodians of faith) want to deny people access to knowledge," he said.

Habib said that "anti-government propaganda, global politics, the general outlook and anything associated with the West is the enemy of Islam have led to the gradual slide of a pragmatic scientific mindset within Islam".

"In mosques, the lectures (sermons) delivered by the imam after the Friday prayers have become political - more of covert propaganda. Earlier, the lectures used to be theological," he said.

Science often comes under criticism during these sermons, Habib observed.

He said that "there is a concerted campaign to widen the gap between Islam and its believers and modernity and its proponents".

"In the post-colonial context, the problem gets all the more complex as the decades of colonisation and its trauma comes in handy to foment antagonism. I think Islamic science is also an outcome of such skewered thinking among intellectuals and thinkers within South Asia and elsewhere," the historian said.

"I don't think we need to depend on the clergy at all. Barely 6 to 7 per cent of the Muslims in India send their children to a madrassa . I am not concerned about them. I am more concerned about the 94 per cent of Muslim children who are either in mainstream education or have no education at all," Habib said.

The book, published by Harper Collins-India, was released this week.

(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at




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