The third Nordic conference on Middle Eastern Studies:
Ethnic encounter and culture change
Joensuu, Finland, 19-22 June 1995

The Islamization of science or the marginalization of Islam:

The positions of Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Ziauddin Sardar

Leif Stenberg
University of Lund

NB *This is the unedited paper as given at the Joensuu conference. An updated and edited version has been published in Social Epistemology, x, 3/4, 1996, 273-87. Please quote or refer only to the published article.*

In this paper, I will display the standpoints of two prominent Muslim personalities in the debate on the Islamization of science. They are the Persian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr and the British-Pakistani Muslim Ziauddin Sardar. Consequently, notable aims are to study statements, individuals behind statements, and presuppositions which forms their standpoints in general.

The intellectual side of the debate centers around the question: "What role can and should Islam play in science?" Another important question concerns the function of European Muslims in the debate. However, it is clear that a sub-text of the debate centers around the question: "What 'political' course should Muslims pursue - a form of modernism, Islamism, or any other possible alternative?".

In my thesis-project entitled "Four Muslim Voices. An analysis of a discourse concerning the Islamization of science" I make an analysis of a contemporary debate concerning the Islamization of science. Consequently, notable aims of the project in general are to study statements, individuals behind statements, and presuppositions which forms their standpoints. In order to follow the ritual of scientific work I consider it appropriate to display a foundation for my own outlook. Accordingly, one significant presuppositon for my outlook is linked to a secular tradition of studying religion. In general, it implies to view religion as a part of society and culture, i.e. religion as a social phenomenon, and not society as a part of a transcendent religion, i.e. society as a religious phenomenon.

In the European and North American Muslim context a group of Muslim intellectuals has developed. Some of them are able to be active in both a Muslim and a non-Muslim environment. One example is Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a University professor in Islamic studies at the George Washington University in Washington DC, and at the same time an active exponent of a specific interpretation of the Islamic tradition. Another example is the British-Pakistani Muslim Ziauddin Sardar who has a written extensively on the relation between Islam and science for a Muslim audience, but who also takes part in conferences concerning non-religious subjects. A general notion in the works of Nasr and Sardar is their understanding of Islam as a comprehensive order for the individual and society. Therefore, they strive to achieve a foundation for the establishment of an Islamic science.

In general, the debate can be apprehended as part of a discussion where the overall question concerns the function of the Islamic tradition encountering modernity. Prominent participants are mainly from countries not belonging to the Middle East. Muslims from Europe and North America play a crucial part. I have studied four voices. The already mentioned Ziauddin Sardar and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and Ismail Raji al-Faruqi and the French convert to Islam, Maurice Bucaille. There are of course other voices in the discourse, such as, for example, the 1979 Nobel laureate in physics Abdus Salam, the German Muslim Bassam Tibi and Fazlur Rahman.

It is possible to state that I make a strategic and, hopefully, representative choice when I prefer to display the ideas of these four voices. A reason to support my choices is that those chosen individuals, and their perspectives, are well represented in most Muslim bookshops in Europe. Many educated Muslims are familiar with the names of the four, especially if he or she has any interest in questions concerning the function of the Islamic tradition. They are also popular among educated Muslims on the Indian subcontinent and in a South Asian milieu, especially in Malaysia. A recent trend is also an increasing representation of ideas formulated by al-Faruqi, and the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), Sardar and Nasr in Muslim countries. Maurice Bucaille is an authority in the Muslim world already. Somewhat jokingly, the prominence of the persons I have chosen to investigate, have made them a Muslim 'jet-set' travelling world-wide from conference to conference discussing the interpretation, function and future of the Islamic tradition.

In my understanding they constitute a set of Muslim individuals who belong to a Muslim elite. That is to say that they are all well-to-do and they have extensive influence among other Muslim intellectuals. The four voices are all at the centre of, so to speak, new "schools". Today, it appears as their interpretations of the Islamic tradition can strike out new paths in the understanding of Islam among Muslims.

In the European context, well educated Muslim scholars have been a commodity in short supply. In such a vacant space men and women of education, such as engineers, teachers and medical doctors, have been the ones to fill the minbars of Europe. In opposition to traditionally educated Muslim scholars they often have a secular education. In capacity of education, social position in general, and as lay preachers with an experience of the so called western society they may also be able to answer the questions concerning how to live an Islamic life in Europe. It is sometimes presumed that to the category of people with a secular form of university training the traditional perception of Islam has become somewhat problematic. Yet, those who advocate an Islamization of science make use of Islamic models of categorization when they express their views on social predicaments in the society. In statements like "the Islamization of society will solve many of the problems in the Muslim community" it is implied that Islamization is a quest of ideology. In their perspective the concept of a specific 'Islamic' natural science is understood as a subsystem or subculture promoted by the all-embracing Islamic order of society.

If we take a closer look at two of the participants in the debate, Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Ziauddin Sardar, we will find that they dislike each other. On one hand, Nasr states that Sardar is uneducated. In his eyes Sardar does not have the ability to make correct interpretations of the Islamic tradition. He is, he says, a person who just add the word Islamic to various disciplines and think that this is enough.

On the other hand, the approach towards Islamic science held by Nasr faces a fierce criticism expressed by Sardar. In general, his 'attack' on the position of Nasr is founded on a critique of his Sufi affiliation. Despite the criticism of Nasr, many adherents to Sardar's position state that the works of Nasr have lead to an increase on the issue of the Islamization of science in general. In Explorations in Islamic science from 1989, Sardar describes the actors in the discourse by means of lines in, or titles of, songs from the world of pop and rock music. The headings of different sections are songtitles. In this way the opinions of Seyyed Hossein Nasr are placed under the Beatles-inspired heading 'Nowhere Man'. Nasr is, according to Sardar, taking us on a Magical Mystery Tour, and the part where Sardar summerizes Nasr's views is called 'Ground Control to Major Tom' after the first line in David Bowie's song 'Space Oddity' where Major Tom is an astronaut, lost in space in a technically defect rocket without power to take measures to change his situation.

The fact that Nasr and Sardar express a criticism of each others' positions does not mean that they do not share some presuppositions. Four of the shared presuppositions are:

1. The Crisis: A general theme in both Sardar's and Nasr's texts are the notion that science as it is performed in Europe is in a crisis. To underline such a statement they make references to authors who are expressing a critique of science and society like Illich and Schumacher. It appears as Sardar tries to legitimize himself by displaying a knowledge of contemporary debates within the fields of social science. In the case of Nasr he choses another perspective and frequently makes references to a philosophical tradition where personalities like Hegel, Heidegger and Kierkegaard are utilised.

2. The Neutrality of Science: Both Sardar and Nasr argue that science is not neutral and that it is western in its character. Sardar's conclusion is that science therefore is bound to a certain culture. Therfore, it is also possible to create an Islamic science. "Western" is in their rhetoric a stereotype for societies in Europe and North America. They are the opposite to a sound and righteous society. That is, the Islamic society. Sardar and Nasr make a comparison between the results of modern science and technology, like the pollution of the environment, with a non-existing form of Islamic science - an Islamic ideal, a utopia. In some sense the practice of science performed in Europe is placed in opposition towards the norm of the ideological ideal. One paradox is that statements of researchers from the scientific tradition they criticise are used to support their own statements.

In Nasr's and Sardar's standpoint science is subordinated to the claims of the Islamic tradition. Islam is an all-encompassing ideology, and, therefore, it must formulate ideas about an Islam science.

3. History: In the usage of history there are some differences in Nasr's and Sardar's apporach. In both perspectives the early Islamic history is seen as a sacred and normative history. Muhammad, and the so-called Medina state, are the models they return to in order to legitimate their ideas. The models chosen can vary, and the choice of historical reference appears to be determined by events in the present time.

Nasr's foundation in a Sufi, shi'a and Persian milieu makes him present a different set of historical prototypes than Sardar. To Nasr personalities to follow are Ibn 'Arabi and Suhrawardi, but also mystics of French origin like Frithjof Schoun and René Guénoun. In the case of Sardar he choses al-Ghazzali and unlike Nasr he does not discuss the history of ideas in his books at any length. According to Nasr that is because he does not know it. However, Sardar says, that it is not significant in his works.

However, significant in my presentation is that more or less legendary material is formed to construct a history, and that the history has a meaning, and that it is today's events that determines what moments in history which will be interpreted.

4. Terminology: Sardar bases his position on a set of terms picked out from the Islamic tradition. Terms from the Quran constitute the foundation for a moral and an ethics. The Formation of an Islamic moral and ethics is the basis for scientific work. Thus, Sardar never expresses any clear idea of an Islamic science. He stats that he formulates the premises. That is to conceptualise terms from the Islamic terminology. Nasr carries out a similar work. Although, his terms comes from the Sufi tradition. Discussions on the correct interpretations of various terms have a large space in the debate.


I see myself as a representative for a standpopint that can be designated as nominalistic. That is to say in my perspective 'Islam' does not "exists" as an objective ideal and there is no possibility to grasp a final knowledge of the phenomenon. The vocabulary of Islamic terminology has no given and eternal meaning, rather, the terms are given meanings by the interpretations of Muslims. Therefore, one siginificant foundation for my research rests on the idea of a provisional postulate of science. Consequently, scientists in social sciences and humanities cannot assume to find an ultimate truth about objects studied, only more or less developed and conflicting outlooks will appear, which will be replaced in time. My work is, therefore, to study meanings in life and not the meaning of life. Accordingly, for me epistemology is epistemology, and not ontology.

Such statements are in contrast to the ideas formulated by Nasr, Sardar Bucaille and al-Faruqi. In their approach, one important task is to establish the true interpretation of the word of Allah in order to live the perfect life in accordance with the Islamic tradition. Science must, therefore, be Islamic. In its correct shape it will reveal the true understanding of nature, and increase our comprehension of the creation. Science has a meaning. To be noted here is that science that is in opposition to the Quran will not be accepted. It is not a good science. Science becomes good almost automatically when it is in accordance with the Quranic text.

European Muslims play a significant role in the discourse. To a certain extent they influence the interpretation of the Islamic tradition among Muslims themselves. Hence, Muslims in Europe are at the core of the discourse concerning the Islamization of science. They can, hypothetically, be seen as Muslims in a secular context attempting to counteract the marginalization of the Islamic tradition.

In prolongation, their interpretations seem to influence discussions in Muslim countries. Books of Nasr, Sardar and Bucaille are referred to as authoritative expositions on Islam in various Muslim countries, for example, Malaysia and Turkey. Consequently, one question discussed is the influence of the 'Western' environment on interpretations of the Islamic tradition. The strategies - the questions and the answers - that participants in the discourse present appear to give a notion not only of their understanding of science, but also of how they want to place themselves as Muslims within a European and North American context. The statements of the exponents in the discourse also reveal that they belong to various branches of the Islamic tradition which influence their ideas.

A study of the discourse on the Islamization of science can appear as an attempt to display various possibilities in a specific situation - in the relationship with modern science - to interpret the Islamic tradition. One aim is also to emphasize the significance of European Muslims in the contemporary and ongoing discourse on future possibilities of the Islamic tradition, and the attempts formed by the believers to come to terms with modernity.

Finally, in an endeavour to sum it all up in one sentence, let me paraphrase the French scholar Gilles Kepel. At stake for the four voices in the discourse is not the modernization of Islam. To them, the question concerns the Islamization of modernity.

Leif Stenberg
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