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Science and Islam by Ehsan Masood (Book Thoughts)

Science and Islam: A HistoryScience and Islam: A History by Ehsan Masood

In these times of insanity where those in power would destroy the edifices of those they dislike (looking at the Middle East as I say this), it is important to look back and see what those who came before us built for us. It is important to come to appreciate the debt that we owe to those who laboured and toiled so that we could be here today.

I am no expert, but it seems to me that a large part of the problem in the Middle East at the moment is an “us versus them” mentality which has bubbled over in recent years, and which probably has its more recent origins in the setting up of an “Arab” state and a “Jewish” state by the British empire in the twentieth century. Of course, the tensions in the Holy Land go back much farther than this, probably back to the moment Abraham first heard God’s voice calling to him all those many aeons ago. But, as the Lutheran bishop Munib Younan says, the Holy Land will only become a truly Holy Land when the three brothers – the Jew, the Christian and the Muslim – learn to live side-by-side. They don’t need to live in the same houses, but they need to learn to live on the same street.

It was never easy for siblings to get along. The sibling relationship is a uniquely confrontational relationship, one in which egos can too often get the upper hand of the friendship, trust and security that so often naturally builds up in the family during the early years of childhood. We have now come to the point where it has become a matter of life and death for these siblings, these children of Abraham, to learn to live together.

In reading this book, I sought to understand my Muslim brothers and sisters. I wanted to see what they have discovered that I do not know. I wanted to learn their language and to understand their way of thinking. Through reading this book, I came to develop an appreciation for Islamic culture as I saw how this particular way of thinking is so conducive to scientific discovery. As is so often repeated throughout this book, Islamic thought proposes a radical idea to the culture of its time. Namely that the world, and all within it, is made by God, and we humans are given an intellect in order that we can come to understand the world that He created, and become partners in the great work of creation – finishing the job, as it were. In this mode of thinking, scientific study rises to the heights of religious worship.

The danger in any moment of religious fervour is that it can so consume the individual, and even a culture, that this fire becomes something destructive. It seeks to encompass all that it encounters in its burning flame. I believe it was the late Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, who said that people of faith are “guardians of the flame”. And how right he is. And how desperately, how urgently, how tragically, we need the people in positions of authority in the Middle East to come to this realisation. That it is not theirs to light the flame – that is the work of the Lord – and it is not theirs to brandish the flame. It is rather theirs to protect, nurture, stoke and maintain the flame. To keep the fire going, but let it be a fire that warms rather than burns, and lights rather than blinds.

Throughout religious history, we see moments where the act of religious fervour reaches a fever pitch, and becomes a force of oppression. And then we see how, soon after, scientific progress is stifled and blotted out by the imposition of uniformity in thought, faith and culture. God created the human family, and he left it to us to learn how to live together. The most successful civilisations are those in which the brothers learn to live together. Where they can set aside their differences and sit around the table of friendship and share meals, share stories, shed tears together. And finally smile at one another in recognition. There are many such examples in Islamic history. But all too few in the Holy Land.

May we see such a table in the Holy Land. May it come soon. There is no higher level of sanctity than the breaking of bread together.

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