Monday, August 26, 2013

Flogging ...

... a Dead Horse? Revisiting the Question of Intellectual Decline in Muslim Societies.

I bet some who saw the headline thought that this would be a post about some kinky activities or primitive punishment exerted on criminals in days of yore. Sorry to disappoint you but that was the title of the talk I attended today at the IAIS, given by Prof. Syed Nomanul Haq, a Senior Visiting Professor at ISTAC.

Prof. Haq was a wonderfully engaging speaker who did not perpetrate the dreaded Death by Power Point by avoiding the use of multimedia altogether.

Speaking sans PowerPoint is an idiosyncrasy common among social scientists; those of the hard sciences persuasion would be appalled at the idea of crippling their delivery with a lack of figures, graphs and pictures of disemboweled laboratory animals. Nonetheless, Prof. Haq did a good job of engaging the audience with his ideas by sheer force of personality.

He exhorted the idea that intellectualism died with Al-Ghazali's pronouncement that the scientific approach is inadequate is a gross fallacy. According to Prof. Haq, Al Ghazali was actually an exponent of rationality, going so far as to say that scientific discovery trumps a hadith or scripture; that the hadith or scripture that contravenes science or maths to be interpreted allegorically. He also moaned about the lack of Muslim physicians in 11th century Persia. 

These are not the actions or thoughts of a thinker who denigrates science. Therefore he is unlikely to be responsible for Muslim intellectuals to stop sourcing new knowledge. However, Al-Ghazali may have been misinterpreted as his original writings may be inaccessible to modern readers who have to rely upon translations and interpretations of other scholars on his work.

Yes, those scholars have no ulterior motives to misinterpret him in such a way.

And yes, I'm being facetious.

Prof. Haq felt that the problems with the Muslim world could be laid at the feet of the systematic disenfranchisement due to lack of educational reform. When the society is hobbled with the inability to process, much less generate information to solve day-to-day problems, there is no wonder why many Muslim apologists are forever looking back at the so-called Islamic "Golden Age" with nostalgia. They reiterate that a civilisation that taught Galileo and Copernicus all that they know and debunking Galen's humors is a civilisation to be reckoned with.

Yup. About 800 years ago, mate. And we now have medical imaging and use quantum physics to compute dizzying array of numbers and take pictures of galaxies that died millions of years ago in space.

When you embrace theological perversion that shuts out half of the society from participating in nation building and socioeconomic progress (the burqa, the harem, the Taliban's campaign against Malala Yousefzai to name a few), then you should not wonder why the rest of the world is outpacing you. Blaming the Jews and the Illuminati can only go so far. But then again, if you reject the use of logic and rational thinking when evaluating situations and evidence, perhaps believing in an omnipresent organisation that is out to get you is not a big stretch of the imagination. 
 And you would believe this too.

The question and answer session was nice; Prof. Haq did not shy away from hard questions that challenged the views that he presented today. He countered the idea of Islamisation of knowledge: there are no secular and religious knowledge. ALL KNOWLEDGE is Islamic, so calculus, theoretical physics, biochemistry, political science etc are all 'ilm usul ad deen (normatively called usuluddin or knowledge of the way of life). 

Prof. Haq also expressed that there is no profit in discussing whether the Shiite are outpacing the Sunnis in terms of knowledge acquisition; we should accept that as Muslims, regardless of the school of thought you embrace, we should accept each other at face value. Yay to pluralism WITHIN Islam!

Sadly, I didn't quite get his response to the query regarding how the conditional denial of decline of the Islamic civilisation is a denial of the problems faced by the Muslim world. 

Basically, my take home message from the talk and discussion was that we must encourage OPPORTUNITIES TO LEARN. We should revolutionise the education system to give children an opportunity to learn everything that they could learn: from languages (beyond the national language and English) to maths, the various branches of science, as well as logic and articulation skills. We should also enrich our culture to encourage life long learning, not limiting ourselves because of age and how the new knowledge is not relevant to our work.

We must stop encouraging one field of knowledge at the expense of another. This is seen at the university level where many humanities departments are getting less funding in order to expand the technical and engineering laboratories. Soft and hard sciences have their place in this world and must be encouraged to grow and prosper.

It is only with educational opportunities that we can open minds to ideas that bring hearts to righteousness in order to fulfill our roles as the vicegerent of this Earth. However, this does not mean that you should stuff your kids' extra classes to the gills, but rather inculcate a love of learning so that they will create opportunities to learn beyond merely what is taught in school.

At least, you should hope to do so.

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