Faith and science at odds — in Pakistan

Michael Fitzgerald By Michael Fitzgerald

Scientists in a huff about religious approaches to teaching? Bitter debates about whether religion should influence science education? This isn’t Kansas, Toto – it’s Lahore, the intellectual center of Pakistan.

A Turkish Muslim girl readies a robot during the 6th RoboCup Iran in 2011. (Reuters/Raheb Homavandi)

Such a debate took place between the noted Pakistani physicist and intellectual Pervez Hoodbhoy and an Islamic educator named Hamza Tzortzis. You can watch the nearly two-hour debate here. At the end, about 1 hour and 47 minutes in, Hoodbhoy gets angry after Tzortzis remarks that Hoodbhoy hates Islam. He calls Tzortzis a liar, and storms out. (There’s also a separate video with a short interview with him justifying his action.)

Writing in Pakistan’s The Friday Times, Salem H. Ali, a professor at the University of Vermont, used the incident to explore science education in Islam. Too often, he notes, Muslims use science to validate the Quran. Instead, Ali says, “science should be taught as a critical enterprise to better understand the beauty and complexity of Creation. Through such an approach we will begin to see a natural appreciation for planetary processes in congruence with our Faith.”

In fact, a similar approach drove great scientists like Kepler, Newton, Maxwell and Faraday.

Muslims can point to the brilliance of Islamic science in the 10th century, when it was the best in the world. Ali says it’s great to have laurels, but “do we ask why more of such great scholars have not been seen for a thousand years in Islamic countries?”

While some Islamic countries today have excellent engineers and doctors, only two Muslims have won Nobel prizes in science. The first was a Pakistani, Abdus Salam, who won in Physics in 1979 (sharing the prize with Sheldon Glashow and public atheist Steven Weinberg). Ali says Salam was never accepted in his home country because of his nontraditional Muslim faith (he was an Ahmadi, putting him outside of mainstream Islam). The second is the Egyptian Ahmed Zemail, who took a Ph.D. in the U.S. and stayed.

Ali sees a void in Islam that would look familiar to Americans: accepted scientific truths, like evolution, are seen as incompatible with faith and thus untrue. It doesn’t have to be this way, says Ali. “Ample scholarship by Muslim scientists has been provided to show that evolution and Islamic theology are compatible but a vast majority of Muslims continue to disavow this because of ignorance on the part of our major clerics,” he writes.

His appeal to Pakistan: “Religion can be an admirable guide for personal morality but should not compete with science on matters of empirical inquiry. Let us keep these distinctions clearly in our minds and in our curricula to prevent epistemic conflicts and confusion for generations to come.”

Will it defuse the strong emotions around Islamic education? That remains to be seen.

Straight to the Source