Science, Faith & Fairness

Dilwar Hussain is a Research Fellow at the Centre  for Trust, peace and Social Relations and the Chair of New Horizons in British Islam. Here in a post first published in ‘Science: Not Just for Scientists’ Dilwar explores the relationship between science, Islam and ideas about fairness and equality.

‘How do we square religious belief with modern notions of equality and fairness? And what on earth does this have to do with science?

The connection is the use of reason. Faith is often seen as the opposite of reason. Science requires the use of evidence, while religion can be based on untested ‘beliefs’, superstitions to some. But there are different approaches to religion, and while it is true that some devalue reason, others give it prominence. In fact, to me, it is only through the use of critical thinking and reason that we can truly allow traditionally religious teachings to be relevant to us today. Tensions can inevitably occur between pre-modern teachings and our contemporary notions of equality, human rights and freedom and it is through reasoned interpretation that we can escape such tensions in reading a religious text. In fact, the Qur’an itself argues that the mind is something we must constantly use and questions, “will they not then think?” It even declares, “Surely, the worst of all creatures in the sight of God are those that do not use their senses, those who do not reason.”

Yet Islam today doesn’t seem so open minded. The problem is that too many of us (Muslims) have forgotten what it was that made Islam into a major world religion in the first place. Earlier generations of Muslims were open to critical thinking, philosophy, reasoning and learning from all around them – Greek, Persian, Indian and other heritage – that they were able to create a profound legacy of art, philosophy, science and mathematics. So much so that our Western numerical digits are still called the ‘Arabic Numeral System’.

The Andalusian Muslim polymath, Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185), in his novel, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, tells the story of a boy who grew up on a remote island without human contact and how he came to know truth. The novel was translated into Latin by Edward Pococke in 1671 (titled, Philosophus autodidactus) and then into English by Simon Ockley in 1708 (as, The Improvement of Human Reason). The text had a major impact on people such as Locke (d. 1704) (who was a student of Pococke) and his idea of the tabula rasa as well as on theories of empiricism that developed in Western thought.

Our activities at New Horizons in British Islam aim to re-energise a spirit of inquiry, critical thinking and reason. For example our annual British Islam Conference, which had over 50 presenters and 250 participants this year, brings together diverse audiences including Imams, Muslim activists, academics, humanists and LGBT activists to confront and debate hard-hitting themes, however controversial. Our newly launched critical thinking seminars do that for small groups online.

Muslims urgently need to tap into their philosophical heritage so they can think and reason their way out of the predicaments they face; and more importantly, help to develop new visions of how people can live well together, how we can build a more equal, fair basis for society, in these hyper-diverse times.

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