Taner Edis – Science and Religion in Islam

April 27, 2007

Taner Edis, born and raised in Turkey, is associate professor of physics at Truman State University and the author of The Ghost in the Universe: God in Light of Modern Science and Science and Non-belief, among other publications. His latest book is An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Taner Edis explores whether the Koran anticipates the modern scientific understanding of the world, the intelligent design creationist movement within Islam, and whether science is even compatible with the Muslim faith. He also shares his views about the future of Islam, especially in relation to the secular, more scientific West.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, April 27, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show, the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood, Washington, D.C.. Toronto, Ontario, Canada. And now Indianapolis, Indiana. In addition to 14 other cities around the world, every week on this show, we look at big questions through the lens of science and reason, focusing mostly on three research areas pseudoscience in the paranormal, alternative medicine and secularism and religion. We do this by drawing on his relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. Before we get to this week’s guest, Tanner Ediz, about science and Islam. I want to invite you to get involved with our online discussion forums, an online community of people all over the world who like to thrash it out and talk about these interesting topics. So I invite you to get involved by going to w w w dot CFI dash forums, dot org. And now a word from this week sponsor before we get to Professor ETAs. 

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I’m pleased to be joined on point of inquiry this week by Tanner Ediz. He’s a professor of physics at Truman State University and author of The Ghost in the Universe God in the Light of Modern Science and also science and Nonbelief, among other books and articles. He was born and raised in Turkey, and he brings a unique perspective on the influence of science in the Muslim world and the relationship between science and Islam in general. He joins me on point of inquiry to discuss his new book, An Illusion of Harmony, Science and Religion in Islam. Welcome to point of inquiry, Tanner Ediz. 

Well, thanks for having me on. I first met you years ago when you attended kind of a closed door meeting here at the Center for Inquiry about secularizing Islam or at least addressing secularizing elements within the Muslim world. Let’s start off our conversation by treating a topic we touch on a lot on point of inquiry, the question of whether or not science and religion, whether or not they’re compatible. You grew up in Turkey. You’re of Muslim heritage. So more specifically, I want to ask you, do you think Islam is compatible with Western science? 

It depends very much on what version of Islam we’re talking about. Now, Islam is not one single entity. We’re talking about a world religion with about a billion or so adherents. And when we’re talking about science and religion, it also depends on what area of science specifically we’re talking about. So if you were to take some kind of very orthodox puritan version of Islam, then you’re going to find some very serious disagreements with modern science in the basic way that they are going to view the world. But there are also, even though they’re comparatively weaker, more liberal versions of Islam, and they are not necessarily going to interfere with the conduct of science any more than a more liberal version of Christianity. 

Judaism, might you hear from many quarters of the Muslim world that Islam is in fact a scientific religion, even from these more conservative or fundamentalist parts of Islam? You hear that Islam is scientific, that the Koran and the Hadith, the collected sayings of Muhammad, that they contain scientific, even medical knowledge that we know are true now because of science, but that the writers who put together the Koran or the Hadith could not have known in their day unless it had been revealed by a law. 

Yeah, well, that’s probably more of an intellectual embarrassment for the world of Islam than anything else than the whole notion that the religion of Islam is a scientific religion, that the Koran and the traditions contain miraculous for knowledge of modern science. These, unfortunately, have become very common belief in the Muslim world. They’re very popular. And anybody wants to find out more about that can do a quick Google on the Internet and they’ll find hundreds of sites devoted to this sort of stuff. You have to see this, though, as almost as an expression of a kind of a cultural defense, precisely because the Islamic world is very weak in science in the past couple of centuries. The Muslim world has been very aware of falling behind in comparison to Western Europe in particular. And they quickly identified and in the Muslim world that one of the reasons for this falling behind and a lack of success militarily and economically was that the Western Europeans had this sort of new way of understanding the world and very powerful technologies that were developing as a result of this. 

So it leads them to put science on a pedestal. They have a high regard for science. 

Well, more technology than science, really. 

I kind of see that as a paradox, that you have fundamentalist Islamists, you have religious political extremists to refute the findings of modern science, especially its implications, but use the effects of science technology to advance their aims here. Many of the hijackers in 9/11 had advanced scientific degrees. 

Well, well, they don’t so much have scientific theories. You’ll find a lot of Islamic fundamentalism, not so much among the basic sciences, but among the people who are into applied science. You’ll you’ll find lots of fundamentals among engineers, people in biomedical fields and so on. But you’ll fairly rarely find fundamentalists in, say, basic physics or evolutionary biology or anything like that. So, again, we should make a distinction here between technology and science. And you see much the same sort of thing among Christian fundamentalists as well. For example, the creationists, even young Earth creationists who are such a pain for American science education these days, they’re very much against the modern sciences way of perceiving the world, but they’re wildly pro technology, ran much of similar things through for the Islamic world. 

I want to talk about some of the specific facts. Evet Muslim apologists claim regarding science being revealed in the Koran. These include scientific facts about human embryonic developments, modern astronomy and cosmology, biology, geology, really the whole spectrum of modern scientific understanding about. Our world. It kind of seems to me that this is the exact opposite of what many Christian fundamentalists do when they actually deny science and believe the Bible word for word. They believe the Bible instead of science. These Muslim apologists accept science, have a high regard for science and reinterpret the Koran to be revealing modern science. Would you agree with that? 

Not entirely, because again, it depends on what version of fundamentalists we’re talking about. There is no single form of either Christian or Muslim fundamentalism, and it’s fairly easy to find Christian fundamentalists like the many creationists. I gave the example of who sort of create their pseudoscience precisely because they want to both accept the Bible. And they also cannot deny the power of science and technology in their lives. 

All right. Groups like Answers in Genesis. 

And many Muslims, particularly the kind of Muslims who like the kind of apologetic strategy of looking for science in the Koran are in much the same sort of situation. 

They are not people who are traditionalists. They are not your sort of stereotypical rural conservative. They are. They, in fact, come from some of the most modern and technology aware sectors of Muslim society. And that is precisely why they feel a need to distort science so much to make it agree with their with their version of religion. 

Let’s take human embryonic development. I mentioned it, many Muslim writers argue to the persuasion of many, many believers in the Muslim world that the Koran details embryology before the science of embryology even developed. That’s persuasive to many people. What would your response be to someone who’s showing you the Koran foreshadowing or revealing embryology? 

Well, honestly, I don’t see how this can be persuasive to anybody who doesn’t come to it with a very strong will to believe to begin with. I mean, what you have in the Koran that allegedly reveals embryology is a number of rather scattered, disorganized references, which are fairly vague and very much open to creative interpretation. There is no way anybody could look at these verses and construct anything that would be useful for science. In any case, and if you look at it more closely, it actually turns out like many of the references to science in nature and the Koran. 

They make much more sense in the context of a sometimes distorted understanding of ancient Greek science. Not so much modern science and a similar to our type of analysis goes for the so-called embryonic references as well. They make much more sense if you try and understand them as a gay linnik type of medical science rather than anything modern. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of an illusion of Harmony, Science and Religion in Islam and Tanner Edisons, other books through our Web site, Point of Inquiry dot org. 

Talk to me about the seven layers of sky in the Koran and how that’s interpreted in the light of modern science. They seem to argue that that reveals Meterology astronomy cosmology. 

Yeah. Again, you will find many references. The Seven Heavens or the seventh sky is scattered throughout the Koran. 

And if you’re the kind of apologist who is really enthusiastic about finding modern science in the Koran, you’re going to be trying to make sense of these seven heavens references in terms of modern understandings of cosmology. Nothing works. There is no such thing as a layered structure of skies or anything like that in any modern understanding of cosmology. However, again, if you look at ancient conceptions of the world, the seven planetary spheres is a fundamental feature of Ptolemaic astronomy, which was at the time the Koran was put together. If you like, the cutting edge of science of the day, which is Farb and superseded right now again. This this whole thing of trying to find science in the Koran is a bit of an intellectual embarrassment for the Muslim world. 

And in fact, there are many Muslims who would strongly disagree with this and consider it as ridiculous as you and I might. 

But come on, those Muslims who find it ridiculous are liberal. 

Muslims are not always liberal Muslims, actually. 

There are plenty of Muslims who practice them intellectual power, who are also doctrinally very conservative and so forth, say, for example, shabbier Orkestar, the British Muslim and philosopher, in many ways, he’s a very conservative, very literalist. Approaches to the Koran and so forth, but he’s also intellectually fairly sophisticated and really strongly denounces this whole movement of trying to find traces of faith in the ground. And one reason conservative Muslim intellectuals might object to this is that searching for science in the Koran sort of put the truths of modern science, if you like, a head of the revealed truths. And sometimes the really strong conservative would much prefer it to the other way around. 

So if the science and the Koran movement, if you’d call it a movement, if it in a sense is putting science above the revealed truth. If these apologists are appealing to their audiences high regard for science, do you see a chance here, maybe an opportunity for real science to make inroads into the Islamic world? There’s this high regard for science. I think more so than in some Christian populations. Is this an opportunity to modernize, even secularize Islam? 

Possibly. But if it leads in that direction at all, it will be very indirect, like social change very often is. 

So I wouldn’t say that this is an opportunity for people to go out there and just do a little bit of a better job of science education. And suddenly people will say, oh, OK. So modern science does this and not that, and maybe we should be more liberal in their attitudes. That is very unlikely to happen. But you also think, keep in mind that the Muslim world today is in a condition of very rapid change and very rapid religious change as well. 

So what’s going to happen in the future is very uncertain just because of that. 

And so it’s not inconceivable that certain impulses for a religious change that nowadays manifest itself in more fundamentalist directions may lead to an opening for more secular directions. But a precondition for that would be some fairly blatant fundamentalist failure. And that hasn’t quite happened yet. 

Are you saying that you don’t think widespread scientific education or fostering of the appreciation of science within the Muslim world? Are you saying it wouldn’t have a secularizing influence? 

It might. But again, I don’t know how realistic it is, because if you’re talking about widespread science education, this is very difficult. We don’t really have that say properly in Western European or countries or the United States either. 

That’s a guy in education is extraordinarily difficult. 

Tanner, I want to talk you about the intelligent design creationist movement within Islam. How is it different than it is here in the United States? 

Well, it is different, mainly in the sense that it has been much more successful in the Muslim world compared to the Western world. 

It’s been more successful in the Muslim world, much more less today. 

If you want the world populations that are the most hospitable to creationism, you have to go to the Muslim world. It’s not really an American thing, as is often perceived creation as a sometimes thought to be mainly a American Protestant fundamentalist preoccupation. But it has really taken off in the Muslim world right now, and it has been very successful on the one hand in getting into public education. This has never happened in the United States that we’ve ever had, say, a creationist paragraph, appear in public school textbooks. But in the Muslim world, this is not at all uncommon. 

I thought in many textbooks at least, there’s an implication or an open door that evolution isn’t the only answer. 

You’re saying it’s stronger than that in in Muslim textbooks, where we’re talking about expressions that would deny evolution and particularly the Darwinian understanding of evolution. 

This is actually fairly common. And perhaps more interestingly, this is creationism, not just successful at the official level, which happens, say, for example, in Islamist parties, take power. 

It’s also recently successful as a popular movement, especially in Turkey, where there was lots of popular creations available in the media and so forth. And by and large, it’s drowning out voices from that emanate from the scientific community in Turkey. In fact, many Turkish scientists are thinking that defending evolution in public is starting to look something like a lost cause. 

Well, that seems paradoxical because Turkey’s the shining example of a secular Muslim state. 

Well, that’s precisely why you have something like creationism arise in Turkey. You have to have considerable Western influence and considerable openness to science to have a popular reaction against in the first place. You won’t see much of that in Saudi Arabia, say, because you won’t see evolution at all in Saudi Arabia before we finish up. 

Talk to me a little about your views regarding the future of Islam. Do you think it’s going to liberalize? Do you think there are secular, rising trends that we can track? As I mentioned earlier, I first met you at this conference for those involved in throating secularism within the Muslim world. You’ve been, you know, involved in this for quite a while. Do you see things getting better? 

I see things changing a lot. And again, let me repeat what I said before. The Islamic world right now is in a period of fairly rapid and strong religious and cultural change, and it becomes very difficult to predict what’s going to happen in the future because of this. But when it comes to a more secular direction for Islam, I don’t think anybody has a right to be optimistic about this, particularly because the Islamic world has had some. Experience with political secularism. Within the past couple of centuries. And essentially it has been discredited, seculars in the Islamic world right now is associated with despotic governments who are under the Western thumb. And secularism right now is seen as an ideology that really is anti-democratic and does not fit aspirations of the people. 

Jim Underdown, Saddam Hussein was a secular despot. 

Sure. But this is for not just the case of very blatant dictatorships. Say, for example, the turkey, which I am most familiar with, you pointed out as this being a very sort of shining example of a secular state in Turkey right now. Secularism officials think there is and is under discussion and debate as never before. And it seems pretty clear that in Turkey, Islam is going to be taking a much more prominent role in public legitimation in the future. That official secularism, as we come to know it in Turkey is dying. And so, at least in the short term, I don’t see the Islamic world going in a secular direction at all. And in fact, just the opposite. What might happen is if the more, say moderate Islamists can take power and fail due to their Islamism, that might lead to a more secular rising effect. Something like that. We’re sort of seeing a little bit in Iran right now. But even then, I would not expect even Iran. If they get rid of their rigid theocracy to ever become secular in the sense that, say, France or another, then the secular, that is not in the cards at all. I don’t think in the Islamic world is unrealistic for a secular humanist to expect that the Muslim world is going to go in that direction. 

Tanner, I want to end by exploring your motivations a little. You’re obviously a secularist. You call yourself an enlightenment rationalist. But I know some people consider you to be an Islamophobic and anti-Muslim here. We’ve had a conversation about how you say science is incompatible with versions of Islam that take Islam literally. So is Islamophobia what’s getting you to write these books criticizing Islam? 

I don’t think so. And generally, my relations with with Muslims, even conservative Muslims have been quite cordial, including people who have been criticizing fairly severely, such as some Islamic creationists. Don’t underestimate the capacity of of Muslims to be able to engage in intellectual conversation. The stereotype tends to be that Muslims are very easily offended and start throwing bombs around. That is not quite correct. 

Just don’t do a cartoon of Muhammad. 

That’s probably asking for trouble. Yes. 

Thank you very much for joining me on point of inquiry, Tanner A.. 

OK, well, thanks for having me on. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of CFI nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Kurtz Point of Inquiry. Music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Sarah Jordan. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.