Heightened Senses

Hello. I'm Imraan. This is the only thing I own outright; and yes, I'm wearing a T-shirt.

Month: December, 2012

Seyyed Hossein Nasr – “Sunnism and Shi’ism: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”

Here is an awesome lecture delivered by a scholar that I admire a great deal – he is perhaps the most important Islamic philosopher (certainly the most prolific, as far as I know) of the last century.

This talk outlines the theological differences between the two schools of thought, and he goes out of his way – and rightly so – to demonstrate that in terms of jurisprudence and for a great deal, theology, the differences in the schools of thought are quite minimal. He clearly demonstrates how the major theme in Islamic Thought today (especially that which is promulgated by certain state with petrodollars) resembles far less traditional Sunni orthodoxy than we in the West might think.

The fact that more books exist today about the Shi’a than traditional ‘orthodox’ Islam (which comprises the largest majority as a percentage from within any major religion today) tells me, at the very least, that our faith is being highjacked in favour of a more ‘puritanical, rationalistic’ Islam. Moreover, his analysis of the modern state that is now Saudi Arabia is very astute – especially in his reference to the transfer of technology from the US to SA.

If you can take an hour out of your day to watch this lecture (and even take notes), I would certainly attest that it would be well-worth your time. We need more people like Dr Nasr who will try to highlight how similar the competing narratives of Islamic thought actually are, and that how historically we, as Muslims, lived in very congenial circumstances – and to a large degree still do. Predominantly, the great cause of this discord within the community is proliferated by the Islam that al-Qaeda tend to promote – not by those very minimal theological and jurisprudential differences orthodox (Sunni) Islam has hen compared to mainstream Shi’ism.

In fact, the major point of this talk is that we as Muslims can continue to coexist despite these differences, and despite the catastrophes and humanitarian disasters being created in the Middle East today; efforts are still ongoing today to build bridges and continue to acknowledge one-another – but I fear that to a large extent these efforts are being undermined by that new, puritanical form of Islam which underpins a tyrannical regime which is actively creating discord in the Muslim world.

As a Muslim who tends to fall closer to the Shi’i tradition, I still hurt when I read about the highjacking of the faith because no doubt do these people commit a great injustice to the Sunni tradition – I call on the Shi’a (though many already do this) to equally rise up to the challenge of defending the Sunni orthodoxy for all its beauty and contributions, as well as academic integrity and diversity. It is our duty as a community to not let the legacy of or beloved Prophet – the Mercy for all the worlds – to be desecrated in the name of these illegitimate ideologies; we ought not be divided at their hands and their colonial masters. Islam has so much good to contribute to our world – without unity and the acceptance of each other, we will fall short of creating the best possible world. The Shi’a tradition emphasises heavily our duty to the Mahdi – we cannot be fatalists and let our creed, and the dignity of our brothers, be destroyed from within.

Evolving Education….the Insidious Tyranny of Science?

I’m intrigued by this piece reported by the BBC; we’re living in a rapidly moving postmodern world where the likes of ‘scientists’ or ‘naturalists’ (or however else they style themselves) seem to be dominating the discourse in the area of pedagogy, science, natural history, politics…

So when you read that schools might lose their funding from the Government because those at the helm do not necessarily favour Evolution by Natural Selection as the sole model for determining how complex biological life came into being (obviously without invoking a higher power/God), is it just me or is this where science gets dangerous?

For the past couple of centuries the ‘secular’ model of governing a state seems to have been the preferred one, especially after the Enlightenment, as it was deemed then that religion would  and already had become rather tyrannical and be inept at governing various groups of people fairly and without prejudice.

Yet I find myself living in a world now where the theory of Evolution by Natural Selection seems to have become the basic currency with which any discourse might be exchanged; now I have no problem per se with the theory of Evolution as a process for explaining to some degree of coherence the explanation for how life came to ‘be’ in the world – what troubles me is that Creationism is now being deemed as part of myth – i.e. religion.

(I must add here, of course, that it makes no sense to deem Creationism a mere folly – at its most basic level this lens suggests that there is a cause beyond this universe that at the very least, set our universe in motion. It does not necessarily mean that the world is some six-thousand years old as the Young Earth Creationists believe. I am happy to say that I am a Creationist who thinks life emerged, at least on the physical plane, out of a process of Evolution – remember of course, the gene-centered theory is now a minority position – but does that mean that I think that this is a necessary contradiction? I like the term Intelligent Design to sum this position up – what assumptions you make about my beliefs without questioning them, or by consigning them to mere myth  shouldn’t be a fault in me – rather it is the judgemental nature of science that we should take issue with (which ironically prides itself on being objective – something which modern studies in hermeneutics suggests is incredibly fallacious).

Moreover, I firmly believe that what defines ‘us’ as sentient beings has roots in something inexplicable by science – our ability to reflect on our own existence rather than be merely dominated by essentialist biological assumptions to me indicates that exists what Islam has always deemed the ‘fitrah’, that innate sense of the sacred essentially.

Is it just me or is science, of Scientism going to be come the new tyranny? I don’t buy that Science can be necessarily a moral agent for world, nor necessarily the prioritised objective lens through which we view it; historically it was the view of science and scientists that the world was created by a God which drove further explorations into His Mystery (forget the whole Galileo episode for a little while). Religion, or a God-oriented view of nature, as Professor Steve Fuller of Warwick University says, has been an instrumental driver of science – I am convinced that the meaning we ascribe to science was hermeneutically born out of the belief in God (just look at the science that came out of the Islamic world or in Europe); if we forget where science actually came from, and to how much it owes to religion, then science fails to have any significant meaning, nay, purpose, which scientists and apologists for Scientism suggest is a necessary agent for their work.

But science – more specifically the theory of Evolution by Natural Selection – shouldn’t have to be the modern meta-narrative of our world – the fact that we one day might be able to explain the physical processes that constitute our existence and the world that we observe around us does nothing to help us actualise in the world. Our purpose to understand or to know, or to create (all things that are certainly valuable things  -and as yet science cannot explain the need for our aesthetic agency) did nothing to stop the catastrophes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example; except to tell us that those that are weak (and now I mean this in a sociological sense) are doomed to perish, either at the hands of the strong or out of the actions of the strong.

Proponents of science today that are trying to systematically reject the normative narrative that religions have to offer fail to see that their commitment to pure, objective science that might some day explain the world is becoming a force that can be just as tyrannical. It is because of philosophy and religion that we endeavour to feed and clothe and heal the hungry, the homeless that exist far enough outside of our communities to have no impact on our own worlds and our abilities to thrive in them; according to science, altruism is merely a biological function and not a end-good, moreover Evolution by Natural Selection has its own normative process and agency – that the strong survive and that the weak shall perish. Though we see it happen in the animal kingdom we do not see it as a moral problem – yet when we see injustices and such cruel realities in our own, we find them morally and normatively abhorrent. Why? As Dr Seyyed Hossein Nasr says – if indeed we are merely composed of atoms banging against one-another then our attempts at being ‘moral agents’ is pure ‘sentimentality’. So far I cannot think of an adequate argument against this.

Somehow it has come in vogue that invoking a deity seems to be something that is unscientific – as if to say that by invoking God one has just filled an empty space with an explanation, which in itself cannot be explained; yet the trouble is that within the philosophy of science, no-one can seriously claim that all explanations require further explanations for them to become true – in our cause and effect universe within which we find ourselves, that is tantamount to invoking an infinite regress.

Remember, Newton didn’t know what gravity actually was, rather, he was able to explain the effects of gravity were – does that mean that gravity itself doesn’t exist or is an inadequate explanation for what he observed? Of course not.

If indeed we emerged out of a slow process of biological evolution which by some miraculous chance allowed us to exist despite tremendous odds against that chance, does that mean that because we cannot explain the origins of the universe within which we are found, that same universe in which evolution could actually occur, does that mean necessarily that it is an unscientific explanation? Certainly not on this account too.

Now whether you favour a ‘naturalistic’ explanation to the cause of our universe, or whether you think that it is better explained by an uncaused cause – surely you should be allowed to offer both, or other explanations, as part of a scientific education. Moreover, surely educators should be allowed to express which of those theories they actually believe in.

In my experience it was those teachers that expressed their opinions in the classroom that had the most profound impact on my education, those who spoke out, who weren’t afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom (recall, this is constantly being redefined – not a hundred years ago were women considered cattle or the expendable commodities of men, not a few centuries was it certain that the world was flat, not a month ago was it believed that a supermassive black hole could ‘exist’ at the centre of a small galaxy etc). Today, science tells us that biological life for a given individual begins at the point when two gametes meet, yet that same science cannot tell us whether it is actually ethical to terminate that life, even though it increasingly provides us the means to do it.

As a student of history and politics at university, or as someone who has an interest in religion and philosophy – the theory of Evolution has done very little to change my approach to these disciplines; the notion of the survival of the fittest as a model for perpetuating life has very little to do with my studies of the past, or my ability to grasp theological positions. Moreover, having studied both the theories of Evolution and the case for ‘Creationism’ (argh I hate that term), I have come to a conclusion for myself. I do not think that scientists have the right to tell me what to believe  – knowledge has to come from a perspective of reflection. The obsession with purity or an arrogance of superiority is/are what were traditionally ascribed to organised religion; today as religion is increasingly dying in our society we see science filling that space. Nature does indeed abhor a vacuum, after all. But scientists cannot agree to it because they refuse to recognise their own fallacies.

We have thrived for millennia without understanding Evolution in the way science explains it –  I do not see it as the theory that will be our Saving Grace. For that, we need to look within ourselves, not merely at ourselves.


Finally – it’s worth watching Steve Fullers short interview on Intelligent Design – it’s about 7 minutes long and worth every second, in my humble opinion.

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