Skip to content

Interview with Islamische Zeitung

Question: Dear Abdassamad Clarke, what is meant by Heidegger’s thesis “science does not think“?

Since I could not conceivably do justice to Heidegger’s thinking on this and I would dislike merely to be a ‘Heideggerian’ who turns Heidegger’s open-ended reflections into a new doctrine, perhaps you would permit me to tackle this from another direction.

Science pursues a ‘method’, another word for ‘technique’, and has done so ever since Galileo and, in particular, since Descartes and his Discours Sur La Methode. With method, technique and system, one builds but one does not think. Scientists have been building a model, or multiple models, which are not completely compatible with each other, of how things are, or, in another phrase of Heidegger’s, “a theory of the real”. I mention models that are not compatible with each other and the most prominent examples of that are general relativity and quantum theory.

The very first step in this method has been the definition of terms, which is vitally important for rigorous science, but which does arbitrary violence to language, shearing words of levels of meaning. It forces language, and thus thought, into a straitjacket. Thinking is a dimension of language, but when language has been reduced to rigorous terminology then thinking is no longer possible. Moreover, terminology is a subset of language, and quite a small one, so that a huge area of human experience, such as love, becomes unscientific.

The impetus for this was the desire for certainty, a desire bred out of the terrible European conflicts of the Reformation, which were as much intellectual and spiritual as military and civil. The scientists tried to block out the theological and indeed philosophical heritages and begin from very simple and primitive starting points, the motions of objects and particles and the heavenly bodies. Gradually they expanded this enterprise to encompass many more realms, including economics, until finally they felt brave enough to tackle consciousness and the ‘citadel’ of the self, the seemingly intractable last remaining point. This they did with the sciences of neuro-physiology. As Damasio pointed out, by means of the Cartesian project and by extending it to its limit, they showed that the Cartesian venture itself was fundamentally flawed. Cartesian philosophy is based on the objectivity of pure thought, whereas neuro-physiology shows that there are no thoughts without feelings and emotions. Indeed people whose emotional centres are damaged cannot think. Thought has never been objective. But at that point scientists had nothing left to fall back on. And yet this point is much more important than simple disillusionment.

The seemingly paradoxical result was that by providing a means of attaining rigour and certainty, even if in what is necessarily a very circumscribed domain, everything else outside of that domain, which necessarily involves the vast majority of human experience, fell into doubt and uncertainty and thus disbelief. Then the very sciences themselves fell into examining their own foundations, which also fell into doubt, so that no realm of knowledge and certainty remained and yet everything carried on as if nothing had happened.

Question: Can you imagine a science that would think holistically?

Goethe tried with all his being to find such an approach. When we are reminded of Goethe and his work, then we have to have some sympathy with scientists. Born in the melée of theological conflict born out of an irrational Judaeo-Christian theology, they strove to find unity and clarity. If we were forced to take part in that culture’s conflict between religion and science and had no other alternative, we would almost certainly take the side of science because it is based on a kind of knowledge rather than an elaborate Christian superstition that theology attempted to make consistent.

But even in Europe, without the benefit of Islam, there were alternatives. The poets, artists and musicians also tried to address the areas that theology denied and outlawed and which science could not tackle. Goethe is interesting in that he tries to bring these apparently disparate elements, poetry, literature and science if not music, together. Heidegger does not think that Goethe completely succeeds  in getting out of the technical approach. Nevertheless, today there is a flourishing branch of science that explores the work Goethe did and follows in his footsteps.

The problems faced by any such attempt would be: what is your aim; do you want the kind of power and benefit that come from scientific discoveries – not necessarily a bad aim – or do you want simply to understand something more about the cosmos? Are you doing that or are you constructing models of existent things? Is your work based on the idea that you are an observer watching existence from the outside? For that is no longer a tenable position.

Question: What are the consequences of the present-day “scientification” of Islam?

The Muslim Faculty of Advanced Stories, in its second term, ran two courses in parallel: Technique and Science, and the Madhhabs of Islam. What emerged from them, in my case, was that the “scientification of Islam” preceded the technical and scientific culture of the West and is arguably the cause of it. I am not merely talking about the philosophers. Nor am I talking pejoratively. When Abu Hanifah and his circle in Kufa worked rigorously through hypothetical cases of fiqh, looking at the underlying causes and examining the application of analogy, that was the beginning of the scientification and technification of Islam, a process that then was given a tremendous boost with the arrival of ash-Shafi‘i and his elaborate theoretical principles of fiqh. From that point on the culture of the ulama was quite outstandingly academic and scientific.

There were other threads, the Western culture of the school of Madina that held to the primal teaching as transmitted by Imam Malik but nevertheless at various periods succumbed to the same scientification, and I am not saying that is not valid or that it is even unnecessary.

Later there was the introduction of the tariqas of Islam, which tended to the very fabric of the deen among the Muslims, and here I refer to the tasawwuf of the Book and the Sunnah, such as that of Imam Junayd, Shaykh Abdalqadir al-Jilani and Shaykh ash-Shadhili, may Allah be merciful to them all. They were all valiant attempts to transmit the original deen among the vast numbers of the Muslims, when the scholars of hadith and fiqh had erected this incredible technical superstructure, a superstructure which is of course very necessary.

A sub-plot is the rise of the schools of ’aqida and philosophy which are the specific impulse which, when translated into Latin and Hebrew, ignited the Renaissance and the begin of the technique culture of the modern world.

So the scientification of Islam is an old issue that has taken on a new shape in our time.

Question: In your opinion, why are Muslims so bent on proving Islam “scientifically”?

This is because of the science of ‘aq?dah and its arguments and proofs and very rigorous argumentation of the scholars of fiqh and usul al-fiqh. Although ‘aq?dah was based on Aristotelian logic and had served well in its age and for quite a long time afterwards, it did not keep pace with developments in philosophy after Ibn Rushd and the Renaissance and the development of the physical sciences. So the Muslims are now trying to catch up. However, they are largely unaware of the position taken by Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger, amongst others, that is not merely a dismissal of technique but nevertheless calls into question the entire technification of knowledge and science, and renders it unnecessary for us to ‘catch up’. Rather we should get right to the cutting edge of knowledge that Heidegger’s and others’ work has opened up.

Question: The philosopher Nietzsche spoke about “The Gay Science.” What did he mean by it?

It is probably arrogant of me even to try and attempt an answer claiming to represent what Nietzsche meant, particularly since I have not read that book of his, but let me try something, since we are faced with many of the same issues that he faced and thus feel that we have a natural empathy with and understanding of him.

Nietzsche confronted the terrible power of technique, technology, method and system, although he somehow appeared to like and approve of science. However, he, like Kierkegaard and Heidegger, honoured the poet, artist and musician and was attempting to take philosophy in that direction. Kierkegaard saw the way through to what he called ‘the religious’, while recognising that he was almost alone in the Christendom of his time, an irony he as a master of irony experienced deeply. But he fatefully located his work within the Christian paradigm although distancing himself from Christendom and, indeed, launching a vigorous attack on it and on the established church of Denmark. It fell to Heidegger to place himself outside of the Christian paradigm. Like Nietzsche, he was increasingly drawn to the poets, Hölderlin and Rilke in particular. Clearly, for people with such a profound understanding of the world, history and philosophy, this is a much deeper issue than merely embracing one of C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” – science or the liberal arts and goes to the root of what language, technique, poetry really are, and what their roots are. So with the desire for the Gay Science, Nietzsche is showing that he wants a knowledge, and does not want merely to be poetic, and he sees that the poets, artists and musicians are custodians of that knowledge.

Question: Are modern sciences not a direct way to Islam?

Yes and no. For many people they are the most direct barrier. That is something intrinsic to the nature of scientific proof and verification, something that is also a peril in the scientific subjects of the d?n such as the science of kalam (‘aq?dah) and the legal judgements of fiqh. It is the secret of the scientific method of Descartes and all who have followed him: when you establish some small number of things by rigorous proof, everything else by necessity falls into doubt. Thus you see scientists contesting many matters that have simply not been investigated yet and declaring them absurd or false.

But the heart of nihilism is reached when the very process of argument and proof and the limited number of proved things fall into doubt themselves. Then there is nowhere to go. But to Allah. So in that sense, the sciences are direct routes to Islam if people are able to negotiate the difficult pass of nihilism. In that sense, Heisenberg was an example of someone who arguably did that arriving, at least to a vivid intuition of tawhid if not to Islam itself.

Certainly, whereas one has serious reservations about the infatuation with science that many Muslims have, whether affirmatively or in a combative and hostile way, it would be the worst possible mistake for us to become anti-scientific. Some much more profound grasp of the issues is called for.

Posted in Articles.

0 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

Some HTML is OK

or, reply to this post via trackback.