Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The religious state of Islamic science

Salon Books: By Steve Paulson
Turkish-American physicist Taner Edis explains why science in Muslim lands remains stuck in the past -- and why the Golden Age of Mesopotamia wasn't so golden after all.
In October, Malaysia's first astronaut will join a Russian crew and blast off into space. The news of a Muslim astronaut was cause for celebration in the Islamic world, but then certain questions started popping up. How will he face Mecca during his five daily prayers while his space ship is whizzing around the Earth? How can he hold the prayer position in zero gravity? Such concerns may sound absurd to us, but the Malaysian space chief is taking them quite seriously. A team of Muslim scholars and scientists has spent more than a year drawing up an Islamic code of conduct for space travel.

This kicks off a long and interesting--and likely to be controversial--conversation on scientific thinking, past and present, in Islam. Taner Edis argues that the "science" of medieval Islam (especially mathematics and astronomy, to which Muslims made enormous contributions) bears little, if any, relationship to modern science (from which contemporary Muslims are largely absent, except as basic science transitions into applied technology, including engineering and medicine). Modern science, on this account, is much harder to reconcile with Islamic (and perhaps more generally religious) modes of thinking.

I should note, by the way, that there is a considerable Jewish literature on the religious/halachic issues posed by space travel. Here, as elsewhere, there are interesting occasions for productive conversation between adherents of these faiths. Well, maybe "productive" is not the best choice of adjective, but I already used "interesting".

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