By Salman Hameed
October 21, 2017
In 1848, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan wrote an essay
that fervently argued against the motion of the earth around the sun. However,
within fifteen years he had abandoned this position and had started developing
a framework of reconciling findings of modern science with Islam. On October
17, 2017, the earth had gone around the sun 200 times since the birth of Syed
Ahmad Khan in Delhi — the capital of the then waning Mughal empire.
Sir Syed has a complicated legacy. We have
schools and colleges named after him and stamps commemorating him as one of the
pioneers of the Pakistan movement. India has also honoured him with stamps for
his education efforts. And yet, one of his most ambitious set of writings — his
Tafsir of the Quran — was not published in Pakistan until the 1970s. It is
still relatively hard to find in print and is rarely discussed beyond a few
clichéd sound bites.
The bicentennial of Sir Syed’s birth is
perhaps a good opportunity to look at his views on science and religion. We are
today living in a world that is shaped by modern science and its derivative
technologies. Some origin questions that were traditionally in the domains of
religion and philosophy now lie within mainstream science. We have good
evidence to believe that our universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old,
that the Sun and the Earth were formed in a gaseous nebula 4.5 billion years
ago and there are billions of solar systems in our own Galaxy alone, and that
all life on Earth is related to one another both in composition and through the
evolutionary processes that have shaped it.
Understandably, some of the origin
questions have also led to tensions and conflicts with traditional religious
interpretations. Many Evangelical Christians in the United States, for example,
reject much of modern astronomy because they believe in an earth that is only a
few thousand years old. Similarly, some Muslims and Christians are
uncomfortable with one of the central ideas of biology that deals with
evolution of life on earth. Of course, none of these are monolithic group rejections
and there are diverse interpretations within each religious group as well.
It is in this context that we can look at
Sir Syed’s approach to science and religion. One of the foundational principles
he laid out for his Tafsir stated that, “nothing in the Quran
contradicts the law of nature”. For him, the “Work of God” cannot contradict
the “Word of God” (Sir Syed used these English words in his Urdu Tafsir).
Any contradiction is apparent, according to him, and he provides a detailed
framework for interpreting the Quran in any such circumstances.
For example, he blamed the adoption of
Greek astronomy into the commentaries of the Quran for the resulting Islamic
opposition (and presumably his own earlier position) to the earth’s rotation
around the sun. For our purposes, what is important is not the specific case,
but the broader principle of incorporating established ideas of science.
In fact, for Sir Syed, the study of nature
in itself takes on a religious duty. For him, advances in science will get us closer
to reality, which in turn will get us closer to the real meaning of the Quran.
To critics who thought that the studying of modern science can lead to atheism,
his retort was clear: “It is an idiocy (Baywaqoofi) for people to think that
those who follow natural science…can lead to raising the flag of the kingdom of
atheism.” There can be atheists (Dahirya) and agnostics (la Idriya). But
“Naturebeen” are the ones who believe in the laws of nature and that a
Creator created those laws. For Sir Syed, these “naturebeen” are the real
Muslims (“thet Musalman”) and the followers of real (“thet”) Islam.
It is not just the questions about origins
that are important. Today we are facing a range of ethical issues stemming from
advances in gene editing to the impact of humans on the climate of our planet.
The next century is also going to see humans establish their presence on other
bodies of the solar system. These possibilities are both awesome and fearsome
at the same time. In order to form thoughtful responses, we need a good
understanding and appreciation of the sciences.
I can imagine that for some Sir Syed’s
emphasis on science in the matters of religion is not only misplaced, but also
misguided. His instance on the existence of natural explanation for religious
miracles was, and is, considered too controversial. For some, his unabashed
admiration for the British is the problem.
However, there are others who may find his
approach refreshing and a recipe for a successful engagement with some of the
challenges posed by contemporary science. While Sir Syed’s educational and
political legacies have been well appreciated, his principles of approaching
science and religion may leave him with a longer and a more global legacy.
Happy 200th birthday, Sir Syed!
Salman Hameed is director of the Centre for the Study of Science in
Muslim Societies and associate professor of Integrated Science and Humanities
at Hampshire College, USA