Dr Rafidah H Mokhtar made a distorted reading of Helen Ang, chiding the latter for 'making superficial research' on some events in Islamic history, specifically the one that led to the blindness of al-Razi (865-925), a most eminent Islamic scientist and man of medicine.
Ang stated one source credited this to al-Razi's detractors who beat his head with his books on the order of the emir of Bukhara while Rafidah claimed the blindness was due initially to cataracts.
While Ang had given examples of how scientists like al-Razi critically bucking orthodoxy had been persecuted, Rafidah deliberately and predictably chose to misinterpret Ang's article as an attack on Islam. Strangely enough Rafidah's own citation of the Wikipedia entry is itself contradictory to her arguments.
However, on the question of whether Islam is hostile or not to science, I agree with the worthy doctor to the extent that Muslims like everyone else are foremost in enjoying the fruits or 'products' of science, like flying on a Boeing 747, driving a car to work or taking a Panadol tablet to stave a fever. In our modern world, no one worth his salt would avoid and reject scientific products (especially those in the form of modern tools and technology) to ease his life.
But I disagree with her if both Islam and science are reduced to their fundamentals and seen as thinking processes. For, as thinking processes, Islamic and scientific thinking are poles apart, a situation I shall try to explain forthwith.
My contention is based on the crucially important assumption, firstly that knowledge is divisible into two categories, indefinite and definite knowledge. I have mentioned this point in a previous letter when I attempted to define dogma.
Indefinite knowledge is based on wisdom handed down from one generation to another without it being subjected to analysis and experimentation. 'Truth' in other words is defined as whatever wisdom 'handed down to me by my father and grandfather.' Mainly its acceptance is total. We can see this total acceptance when we see superstitions, taboo, folklore, doctrine, shamanism, myth and religion; these being some examples of indefinite knowledge. Indefinite knowledge is based on non-quantifiable and non-measurable assumptions.
Definite knowledge is more demanding. In this case, nothing is ever taken as the gospel truth until a case is observed, analysed, tested, experimented upon. Its wisdom is scrutinised and substantiated by the facts and evidence surrounding it. In this case, truth, no matter how sacred, is subjected to such scrutiny before being accepted as fact.
As an illustration the notion that the sun revolved around the earth was once upon a time accepted as the truth by the humankind, but this could not pass the subsequent stringent tests of evidence and data and explained by the inductive and deductive processes of scientific thinking, and has for long been demolished as totally erroneous. Definite knowledge is quantifiable and measurable and therefore appeals to human reason.
The second assumption is that Islam as a thinking process rests on several religious premises that must be accepted and agreed up-front by its adherents. The belief in the One God and that Mohammed is His prophet being the first, followed by other 'must believe' (but non-quantifiable and non-measurable) items like belief in the seen and the unseen, and the supremacy of the Quran. All these must be accepted and believed first of all in the Muslim mind.
These items are furthermore treated as sacrosanct, and must never ever be subjected to scientific probes. A person who nonetheless dares to question God and His prophet would be liable for punishment, specifically the ravaging fires of hell. Islamic thinking process is based on the very limiting, very speculative, tentative, indefinite knowledge. Its 'truth' is not universally accepted. These 'must believe' or 'given' items also invariably inject the element of coercion and compulsion in this Islamic thinking process.
These 'must believe' and 'given' elements are the spoilers in Islamic thinking for they create a boundary or limit to the human intellect that can work wonders only when given full leeway to roam.
Scientific thinking on the other hand does not have any limiting parameters to the human mind. It allows the mind to go to the furthest and widest horizons, it can think about anything and everything, go to the deepest ocean and to the furthest galaxy. It encourages the mind to explore the Unknown. It has no equivalent of starting at a certain prescribed parameter and having to stop there beyond which he may be punished.
In science there is no such thing as 'you have to accept that this planet is one of many billions in the Milky Way, beyond which you must not try to explore'. There is no 'must believe' item, no 'given' truth, of whatever version and persuasion.
Its truth is universally accepted. Its only insist for any 'Unknown' to be critically observed, tested, experimented upon, before they are accepted as fact or the 'Known'.
More. There is no element of compulsion and coercion in scientific thinking. You accept definite knowledge as fact if it appeals to your rational mind. Like the spherical earth, you can still live with the belief that the world is flat with no Jawi-style raid to make you change your mind. Or, on the theory of evolution, you accept it if it appeals to your reasoning capacity. The ghost of Darwin will not hound you if you don't.
I now touch on the point of Islamic policy towards science and research, and superimposing this with the Islamic thinking based on indefinite knowledge and its inherent limitations. Muslims today form one-fifth of the global population, Islam is not therefore a universally accepted body of truth. They somehow do not represent anywhere near 20 percent of the world's scientists.
An admittedly dated statistics (1976) revealed the number of scientific authors worldwide to be at 352,000, with 19,000 from Third World countries, 3,300 from Muslim countries and 6,100 from Israel. Selected authorship in a 1988 study put Muslim authors at 46 out of 4,168 for physics; 53 out of 5,050 for mathematics and 128 out of 5,375 for chemistry.
The number of publications quoted in Science Citation Index (1988) put the relative number of publication by Indonesians - the largest Muslim community in the world - at 2.5 and from Malaysians at 4. (Though these statistics are dated, any new equivalent sets would arguably produce only marginal improvements).
What could be the one reason for this poor Islamic participation in the advancement of scientific development? This is a complex question of course, and will take volumes to provide a good answer.
But I do think that the limiting thinking facility imposed by Islamic philosophy is a good starting point. The Islamic mind is just not allowed to roam about freely.
For this observation, I agree with Rafidah when she mentioned that many authors are now invoking hitherto taboo subjects which serve only to refresh our intellectual inquisitiveness.
Her bit remark 'and Shariah compliant too' somehow spoils any rationality on her part, and pushing her squarely back into the limiting realm of indefinite Islamic thinking process.