Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Islam and Christianity

As a comment to my earlier post on Islam and Christianity, I received a link to the following blog (though one might think of it more as a website than a blog, since there is no indication of regular posting): http://www.theradiantlight.blogspot.com/. The blog/site is explicitly apologetic in intent, trying to convince its visitors of the truth of Islam and answer misinformation about Islam.

Towards the bottom of the page, among the links, is one to an article about the Koran and modern science. I think I am fair in saying that what this article attempts is a reading of passages from the Koran in such a way that they are seen as literal expressions of modern scientific understanding. The Koran was written down in some 1400 years ago, before many of these modern discoveries. Ergo, the Koran must be of divine origin. A remark on page 8 suggests that the Koran is a book of "signs" rather than a book of science, but the interpretations in the later chapters are fairly literal.

I haven't read the whole booklet, but a quick read of the physics related sections suggests that the texts from the Koran are interpreted as fairly literal expressions of the science. At best, I think some of the presentations indicate a compatibility of the Koran and science but not any kind of effective prediction of that science; other among the presentations, though, seem quite stretched. One of my pupils recently lent me an Islamic catechetical text, a section of which presented arguments similar to those in this article. This attempt at understanding the text of the Koran as offering a literal understanding of scientific ideas stands in a sharp contrast to contemporary Christian approaches to interpretation of the Biblical texts, where the only parallel can be found among fundamentalist Christian communities.

A writer such as Stanley Jaki suggests that it is only from within a Christian matrix, particularly with regard to a Christian doctrine of creation, that it was possible for science to emerge as a self-sustaining enterprise. Outside of this matrix, as a matter of history, the attempts at developing science were not able to issue in science becoming an independent, and self-sustaining enterprise. This is reflected in the history of Christian interpretation of the Biblical texts, where, as science emerged in a self-sustaining way, the Biblical texts came no longer to be seen as sources of literal scientific knowledge. The result today is that it really would be rare to find a Christian scholar trying to read into selected Biblical texts literal understandings of modern science. The text offered by this blog/site suggests that at least one section of Islamic thought, rather than trying to develop a due autonomy of science from the authority of the religious text, is trying to develop a mutual dependence of science and the Koran. We could expect this to have a constraining and limiting effect on the development of science.

Commenting on the Koran's presentation of God's will, Stanley Jaki suggests that this might at times be a willfulness rather than a will. A similar thought was expressed in a conversation I had at the weekend: "Islam does not have any idea of analogy" (analogy here being intended in its philosophical sense). The creation of a world governed by its own unity, rationality and purpose - willed by God, in the sense in which a Christian would mean that - does not allow for a capricious exercise of a divine will that Jaki suggests is present in some places in the Koran and Islamic thought. It is such a unity and rational purpose that provides a philosophical underpinning to the idea of scientific study of the physical world; without it, science cannot become a self-sustaining enterprise.

This discussion raises two questions about Islam as compared to Christianity. The first is about the possibilities of human reason in the two religions. Both in terms of scientific endeavour and in terms of philosophical and theological study - reason can approach God through analogy - Christianity seems to offer the greater scope for the play of reason. The Islamic position seems to limit the scope and possibilities of reason. The second question is about the nature of God, and in particular about his accessibility to human knowledge and communion. Again, Christianity seems to offer this accessibility to and communion with God - par excellence through the Incarnation of the Word, but not just through that; and Islam seems to reduce that possibility. Does this make for a difference in the way in which different trends in Islam act in the world?

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