Title: An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam
Author: Taner Edis
Publisher: Prometheus Books
• Relatively short despite being detailed and full of important information not available elsewhere
• Doesn't resort to bashing Islam or Muslims
• Analysis of the state of science in Muslim nations today
• Argues that contemporary Islam is hindering the development of both science and technology
• Identifies specific problems in Islam and Islamic culture which need to be corrected
A physicist who knows a lot about both Islam and science, Taner Edis understands what sorts of impulses are driving Muslims to try to harmonize their religion with modern science. Just as important, Edis understands the various ways in which their arguments fail. Islam, once associated with exceptional scientific and technological progress, has today fallen so far behind that it doesn't even register on the scientific map.
It's not the fault of Muslims, though, because those who emigrate and work in other parts of the world can be productive — Taner Edis is a good example of this. The problem lies in Muslim culture today and the ways in which Islam shapes culture when it is given free reign. This has created a lot of resentment and, for some, an active case of denial — but the reality is that Muslim nations don't produce any scientific or technological advancements worth mentioning.
Contrary to what some Muslims think, Islam is not a "scientific religion" and is not inherently friendly to science or scientific research. A chief problem lies in the book some Muslims keep claiming foreshadows modern science: the Qur'an.
For too many Muslims, the Qur'an contains all the truth a human being will ever need. With that attitude, what reason could there be for scientific institutions dedicated to learning more about how the world works or how to manipulate the world in order to improve the lot of humanity? Science and the scientific method are essentially founded on the belief that humans can learn more and improve, ideas which traditionalist Muslim clerics may reject as heresy. Muslims have tried to take advantage of modern developments while Islamicizing them, hoping to benefit from science without giving up what Islam provides. According to Tanis, this only creates an illusion of harmony.
Even in relatively secular Turkey, Edis' native country, the situation is deplorable. Turkey is the home for the largest creationist movement outside of America — it's an anti-religion movement that draws from Christian creationists and reworks the material to suit a Muslim audience. As bad as Turkey is, though, it gets worse as one travels elsewhere through the Islamic world. Any Muslim truly interested in science has to go abroad to study or do research, causing a brain-drain unlike any other.
The state of science in the Muslim world today is not an esoteric question that makes little difference in the lives of average Americans. It is arguable that some of the most important religious developments in the West can be traced, at least in part, to science: the growth of secularization and the decline of religious certitude. These changes have seriously weakened the power of religious institutions and leaders, preventing them from dominating society, politics, government, and culture.
Muslim hostility to science has helped prevent the same developments in the Muslim world. There is enthusiasm for technology, but not for basic science itself. The Muslim Brotherhood even went so far as to call for an end to science education in 1981. A thousand years ago science barely existed in Europe while cutting-edge scientific research was occurring in centers of Islamic learning; today, the situation is reversed. The consequences of little secularization coupled with extreme religious certitude are something everyone in the world must bear: religious terrorism.
If Muslims grew up with greater freedom to choose secular alternatives to what religion provides, and had less extreme religious certitude, would they really be so inclined to fly planes into buildings? We don't see Christians doing such things, and it's not because Christianity is inherently superior to or more peaceful than Islam. Instead, it's because Christianity in the West has so much secular competition and Christians themselves lack the absolute, unquestioning certainty that was once commonplace.
Edis' book is relatively short and light on anything like jargon. His prose is smooth and engaging, making for a book that is easy and enjoyable to read. Edis also doesn't fall to the temptation to attack Islam and Muslim leaders of anti-science efforts. He understands where they are coming from and why they are doing what they do — he's even a bit sympathetic at times. He would like to see science become more integrated into Muslim society like it is in the West, but it's difficult to see how that will happen.