Liberating Muslims from alims’ hermetically-sealed religious, cultural capsules

By Moin Qazi*

Book review: “The Scientific Muslim: Understanding Islam in a New Light”, by Dr Mohammad Aslam Parvaiz, pp184, Rs 595, Konark Publishers

While a global pandemic has been a looming risk for decades, COVID-19 has sent shockwaves through societies, economies, health systems and governments around the world. The pandemic has revealed both the fragility of our systems and the need to come up with resilient, long-term solutions and more robust systems. It has exposed fundamental weaknesses in the current economic models, namely the fact that they do not benefit everyone equally. The idea of globalization has changed on its axis with some of the largest outward-looking economies now becoming inward-focused.

It is now widely surmised that much of the present day maladies are considered to be a direct consequence of man-made systems that actually run counter to the divine laws revealed by our scriptures. This interesting facet is the subject of a study by a well known botanist and evangelist of the Qur’an, Dr Mohammad Aslam Parvaiz. He is very well endowed with the credentials needed to speak and write on this subject. He is Director of Islamic Foundation for Science & Environment and has earlier served as Vice Chancellor of Maulana Azad National Urdu University and Principal of Zakir Husain Delhi College (Delhi University). Through his books, research papers and lectures Dr Parvaiz has consistently pleaded for a scientific approach among his co-religionists.

Where and how science and religion intersect is a debate that has dominated centuries; it’s also a regular part of contemporary discourse. It is now widely known that spiritual tenets and intellectual resources of Islam actually prompt Muslims to search for knowledge. The Quran provides many examples of Islam’s strong ties to knowledge. Dr Parvaiz marshals extensive evidence from the Qur’an to show that the scripture is both a rational and scientific book and it is the deviation of the followers from the divinely mandated laws that has put the community in a moral chaos. The book is a must read for all those who want to understand the Qur’an in the modern perspective.

The holy text provides Muslims with a way to celebrate God’s mystery as well as to approach his intelligibility. This intelligibility requires the use of reason. Many prophetic sayings strongly recommend the pursuit of knowledge as a religious duty incumbent to all Muslims. It can be assumed in the light of Qur’anic wisdom the insights gleaned in course of acquiring both scriptural and scientific knowledge that reason is God’s gift to the human being, and God warrants its efficacy.

The Islamic view is that religion and science are truly in need of each other. Islam’s spiritual and intellectual resources and its holistic vision of scientific enquiry can make a significant contribution to the creation of a new scientific and technological culture that is focused on serving the interests of the whole of humanity. As a botanist Dr Parvaiz can feel the pulse of nature. He strongly argues that the Qur’an helps and guides us to live a life in harmony with nature. Any deviation will naturally lead to unnatural consequences. He has devoted two full chapters on the Islamic perspective of biotechnological and environmental activism.

Dr Parvaiz calls for a moral and spiritual revolution to revive the pristine glory of Islam. It is the pettiness and meanness within our hearts — greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, lust and arrogance — that has to be vanquished. This is the essence of what the Prophet has taught us. To treat the weak and downtrodden with kindness, to stand up to the oppressor, to work for a more just and egalitarian society — these noble goals arguably lie at the heart of the Qur’an. There is a huge moral vacuum in our world, particularly in Muslim societies. There is an overdose of religiosity, but a large deficit of spirituality. The Messenger himself emphasized about his primary mission: “to perfect the morals”. Put plainly, we have to master the self and fight our inner demons to grasp the spiritual light of the Prophet.

Dr Parvaiz argues that we need to realize that our first identity is the vicegerent of the Almighty and our first allegiance is to the One God who is our Nourisher and Sustainer. Unlike the great scholars of the past, who valued criticism, traditionally educated alims — who are the imams of mosques around the world and judges in Shariah courts — lack the tools of contemporary critical scholarship and exposure to its various disciplines. They are used to valuing received outmoded opinion that exist in hermetically-sealed religious and cultural capsules, and convey little more than slogans that are dangerously obsolete. The great challenge of contemporary times is for Muslims to be liberated from their clutches.

The traditional scholars reduced the Qur’anic concept of ilm, which actually refers to all kinds of knowledge, only to religious knowledge; and then went on to suggest that those with religious knowledge are morally superior to those who do not have religious knowledge. It was these same ulama who reduced the Islamic concept of ijma, which means consensus of all people, to mean only the consensus of a few privileged religious scholars – the consequences of this for democracy in the Muslim world are all evident. Such techniques have been used to encourage Muslims to shut up rather than stand up and be counted.

Several medieval Muslim philosophers and scientists were themselves great authorities on religion. History suggests that the primary source of inspiration for their scientific voyage was the Qur’an. The ninth century Al Kindi is considered the founder of Islamic peripatetic philosophy. The tenth century philosopher al Farabi contributed significantly to the introduction of Greek and Roman philosophical works into Muslim philosophical discourse and established many of the themes that would occupy Islamic philosophy for the next centuries In the eleventh century, Ibn Sina, one of the greatest Muslim philosophers ever, developed his own unique school of philosophy known as Avicennism which had strong Aristotelian and Neoplatonist roots. Al Ghazali, a famous philosopher and theologian, took the approach to resolving apparent contradictions between reason and revelation.

The Quran grounds the nature of the universe in the nature of the God who created it. The divine attributes of Omniscience (alim) and Wisdom (hakim), scattered throughout the Quran, entail that God is a rational being. Although disputes on some issues have arisen between the various sects of Islam, there has been no disputing God’s rationality. The Quranic worldview maintains that the universe is comprehensible because it was created by a rational God. The idea of a rational universe makes possible observations and experiments with the aim of comprehending the structure of the universe.

If the universe is created by a rational God we should expect to find rational beings who can comprehend that universe as well: “In the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of night and day there are Signs for people of intelligence: those who remember God standing sitting and lying on their sides and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: “Our Lord You did not create this for nothing. Glory be to You! So guard us from the punishment of the Fire.” (Qur’an 3:191)
As we see in these verses, people of understanding see the signs of God and try to comprehend His eternal knowledge, power and art by remembering and reflecting on them, for God’s knowledge is limitless, and His act of creating flawless.

For men of understanding, everything around them is a sign of this creation.

*Development expert

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