When Galileo Meets Allah
FARIDA FAOUZIA CHARFI is one of North Africa's most
outspoken women scientists. She is professor at the Faculty of Sciences
and the Institut Preparatoire aux Etudes Scientifiques in Tunis. She writes
regularly in scientific journals on the optical and electronic properties
of semiconductors and electromagnetism. In this essay, she asks why Islam
fell into a civilizational slumber just as the West took off.
Tunis- Most Arab-Islamic countries are today passing
through a serious political and cultural crisis. After the failure of
Arab nationalism and the lost illusion of rapid economic and social development,
a certain fringe of the population is seeking refuge through a return
to the sacred.
For a traditional society to accept modernity is to accept the wrenching
dislocations caused by any deep-seated and radical change. This wrenching
experience may be bearable when it is the price to be paid for development.
But, if development proves beyond reach, the whole deal goes sour. Since
economic improvement has not arrived on time and as promised in the Arab-Islamic
world, conservative traditionalists took advantage of this perceived betrayal
to spread their fundamentalist ideology by force. The Iranian revolution
or the coup of the Islamists in Sudan came about according to this dynamic.
Elsewhere, the Islamists are also attempting to impose their religious
order by violence.
The assassinations of intellectuals and foreigners in Egypt or Algeria,
the numerous death sentences against writers-all stem from practices once
believed to have faded into the past. These acts reveal that the fundamentalists
are confined in a world that is foreign to modern man; they belie the
claim of the fundamentalists that they belong to modernity, an illusion
shared not only by their gullible supporters but also by some Western
observers who cherish what they regard as the rediscovered authenticity
of decolonized cultures.
In those countries where fundamentalism has taken hold among the youth
in the universities, it is striking to observe that the fundamentalist
students are in a majority in the scientific institutions. This situation
astonishes Western observers because they tend to believe that a scientific
mind is of necessity modern.
At first glance, one would expect to find the majority of fundamentalists
among jurists and men of letters since the humanities and social sciences,
unlike the physical sciences, can provide a thread of continuity with
This, however, is only an apparent paradox. The humanities, literature
and philosophy allow a global view of problems in time, through the history
of ideas, and in space, through the comparative study of different civilizations.
As such, these disciplines encourage a certain open-mindedness. The exact
sciences can, of course, ensure the same open-mindedness-but only if they
are correctly taught and if they are not cut off from their theoretical
content to the extent of being reduced to mere technique. It has been
observed, furthermore, that fundamentalists are even more numerous in
the engineering than the science faculties. They are, in other words,
more users of the results of science than creators.
Contrary, then, to what one would expect, a scientific education does
not equal modernization of the mind. And Islamists are not well adapted
Indeed, traditionalists and Islamists resist assimilation because their
aim is the opposite: to gain control of state power in order to "re-Islamicize"
a society corrupted by Western values.
As Oliver Roy has insightfully noted, the Islamists do not recommend a
"return" to what existed before, as do the fundamentalists in
the strict sense of the term; rather they seek "a political reappropriation
of society and modern technology." In short, Islamic fundamentalists
want to govern society with ideas of the past and the technical means
During a pre-election meeting in 1991, the Algerian fundamentalist leaders
did not hesitate to use laser technology to inscribe on a cloud in the
sky the sacred formula "Allah is Great" so as to let the crowd
believe that they were conversing directly with God.
GALILEO MEETS ALLAH | At root, the Islamic fundamentalists
do not accept the theoretical foundations of modern science. They reject
the modern scientific culture from its very origins-when the Earth was
first ejected from its central position in the cosmos.
Ptolemy's model, accepted for around 14 centuries in the entire Mediterranean
basin, was first cleansed of fixed celestial spheres where stars were
located, which, being obviously immutable, were a symbol of perfection
and divinity. Copernicus reduced the Earth to a planet, a roving body
with the same status as the other planets of the solar system. Around
1915, Shapley decentered the solar system by placing it toward the periphery
of our galaxy. The sun for him was only one among the billions of stars
that inhabit our galaxy, not the immutable face of God. Modern science
in these ways demolished the system of privileged reference posited by
Islamic society has not contributed to these conquests of knowledge. It
has remained outside the research work that has been the basis of scientific
One form of reaction by Islamists to their absence from the momentous
discoveries and redefinitions of modern science has been to over-emphasize
the contribution of Arabs in the field of the sciences while expressing
some reservations on the very real contribution of Westerners to scientific
advancement. Thus, it will be insistently affirmed that the laws of optics
stated by Descartes were entirely the fruit of the work done by Ibn al-Haytam.
It is certainly true that the mathematical sciences have progressed thanks
to the Arabic contribution, but their contribution in the field of astronomy
has been overestimated. They developed astronomical instruments and enriched
the repertoire of astronomical observations.
For a modern scientist, though this contribution is not insignificant,
it is not decisive. The fact is that Arabs have not put forward any new
representations of the world; they have not begun to challenge Ptolemy's
SELECTIVE MEMORY OF THE ISLAMISTS | What is extremely significant
in this connection is that the fundamentalists do not lay claim to the
whole of the Islamic heritage, in particular, the rationalist philosophy
propounded by Ibn Rochd (12th century), who was called Averroes by the
Latins. Ibn Rochd is known for his commentaries on the writings of Aristotle
and for his philosophical work which contributed to the separation of
faith and knowledge, religion and philosophy.
"Nothing proves better divine wisdom than the order of the cosmos,"
Ibn Rochd wrote. "The order of the cosmos can be proved by reason.
To deny causality is to deny divine wisdom, for causality is a necessary
relation. The only function of reason is to discover causality and that
which denies causality denies reason and does not grasp science and knowledge."
These words were set down in Ibn Rochd's famous work, "Self-destruction
of Self-destruction," a reply to Ghazali's work (11th century) "Self-destruction
By affirming that divine law requires the rational study of things and
that there is, therefore, no contradiction between divine law and philosophy,
Ibn Rochd offered an answer to the anti-rationalist views of Ghazali.
For Ghazali the world is not eternal. God has existed without the world
and then along with the world. His will is free and unbounded. God is
the exclusive cause of everything in this world.
In "Self-destruction of Philosophy," Ghazali rejects all submission
of nature to laws that would bind the will of God: "The cosmos is
voluntary. It is the permanent creation of God and does not obey any norm....The
first master is God and knowledge is transmitted by revelation in the
first instance and then through the prophets..."
For Ghazali, the only knowledge there can be is that which stems from
revelation: "...the principle of the natural sciences is to recognize
that nature is in the service of the Omnipotent: It does not act of its
own volition but is used in the service of its creator. It is in this
way that the sun, moon, stars and the elements are subject to the divine
order: nothing in them allows them to act spontaneously....Although unconnected
to religion, mathematics are the basis of the other sciences. Therefore,
he who studies them runs the risk of being infected by their vices. Few
can deal with these calculations without succumbing to the danger of losing
Ghazali's views are present in today's fundamentalist discourse. They
refuse to admit that man has formulated a representation of the universe
based in the discovery of fundamental physical laws. To confer such power
on men is unacceptable to them.
For the fundamentalist, all the mysteries of nature are explained in the
Qu'ran. God governs nature, which cannot therefore be beyond His control
by the autonomous functioning of physical laws. This view of Ghazali and
of fundamentalists today was opposed by Ibn Rochd's conception: "The
reason for their negation of natural causality arises from the fear of
knowing the world to be born of a natural cause and yet, if they only
knew that nature is created and that nothing better proves the existence
of the Maker than the presence of this perfectly organized object..."
Ibn Rochd was persecuted for his views. He was condemned to silence. Many
of his books were burned. Fortunately, his works were later rediscovered
and translated into Hebrew and Latin in the West.
For centuries in the Muslim world, Ghazali's thought prevailed. Fundamentalists
therefore prefer technology, which leaves little room for doubt, to science
that incites one to reflection. Paradoxically, then, the writings of someone
like Ibn Rochd that are more than 10 centuries old are more in conformity
with the rational spirit of our times than the views that are held currently
by our "scientific" Islamists.
At the end of the 20th century it is difficult not to
recognize the advances, for example, in physics or of biology. Islamists
admit that which does not risk challenging the explanations given in religious
texts. Out of the progress in biology, they are content to retain the
consequences of the development of medicine; but the theory of the evolution
of the species does not need to be taught. Out of the progress in physics,
the remarkable development of the means of communication is willingly
retained, but they are ill at ease with the finite value of the speed
To partially accept fundamental laws of physics is to render the whole
theory incoherent. The rational step is to propose another theory that
is logically coherent; this requires an analysis of the principles that
underlie theories and their relations and not a simple rejection of some
of them. In order to undertake such work, an open mind that is free of
all constraints is necessary.
To explore, understand, criticize, innovate, create without forbidding
any question, without banning any field and giving the imagination free
play-all this implies that one has freed oneself from all dogma. This
is unfortunately not the case in the Islamic world where reference to
the sacred is inevitable and where the most socially correct thing is
to be in conformity with Islam rather than to believe in God.
SACRED ACTS OF INTOLERANCE | It is in the name of this unavoidable
reference to the sacred that scientific knowledge is mutilated. But it
is also in the name of this unavoidable reference to the sacred that freedom
of expression and imagination is restricted to the extent of condemning
authors to death.
It is in the name of the sacred that in June 1992, Egyptian militants
assassinated Faraj Fouda, a writer whom they considered an apostate. It
was in the name of God that the fundamentalists launched the campaign
against a university professor, Nasr Hamed Abou Zeid, also accused of
apostasy, to force a separation from his wife. Such acts reveal for all
to see how fundamentalism lowers intelligence to the level of emotional
and visceral reflexes.
This irrational step constitutes an important curb on the cultural and
scientific development of Islamic countries where scientific thought is
in many ways less free than it was during certain periods of the Middle
Ages. It was in Christian Europe from the 13th century onward that modern
thought was developed. It allowed the passage from the holy text to the
text that is interpreted, evolved, thus leaving room for reason.
It has been pointed out in comparative studies of Islam and Christianity
that the point of arrival of the former was the point of departure for
the latter. The history of opening up in Christianity was the history
of closing down in Islam.
It is time again for the rehabilitation of Ibn Rochd in order to open
up Islam just as the rehabilitation of Galileo contributed in a significant
way to the development of modern scientific thought. If Islam cannot manage
in this era to separate knowledge from belief, it will find itself further
and further separated from the rest of the world racing by into the next