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Review of Taner Edis's _An Illusion of Harmony_


AN ILLUSION OF HARMONY:
SCIENCE AND RELIGION IN ISLAM.


by Sh. G. F. Haddad

Another Atheist Battle-Cry

AN ILLUSION OF HARMONY: SCIENCE AND RELIGION IN ISLAM. By Taner Edis. New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. "Islamic Studies." Pp. 265. ISBN 978-1-59102-449-1 (HB).

"You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth," wrote Einstein to a friend in 1949; "I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being."

Reminiscent of the all-but-humble Islamophobic V.S. Naipaul of _Among the Believers_ less the literary craft, associate professor of physics at Truman State University Taner Edis, author of _An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam_ is one such crusading professional. With an overreaching title doing its best to enliven a text peppered with self-congratulatory Westernism and cocktail-hour inferiority complex such as "The problem is that Muslims have not been able to become productive in basic science" (p. 202), Taner's _Illusion_, though a miss on relevance, makes for entertaining reading as a Kemalist settling of accounts with Turkish religiosity and "creationism."

This is one of the latest offerings by Prometheus Books, publishers of _God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist_ (in their "Popular Science" series) by a Victor J. Stenger, which the same Taner Edis hurrayed with the blurb, "Both casual readers interested in what science has to say about religion, and scholars looking to acquaint themselves with the latest science-based arguments against God will find much in this book worth their attention." What adjudication on earth or in heaven science has over religion is itself a classic fallacy Hamlet dispatched, as did Einstein when he said "My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality."

"My roots are in Turkish secularism," Taner says, "which tried to impose a version of the European Enlightenment on a deeply pious peasant population" (p. 22). In seven chapters of which the irritatingly solipsistic first (p. 14-32) and last (p. 239-251) respectively stand in for a missing introduction and conclusion, Taner's _Illusion_ begins with "Seek Knowledge in China," the _coup d'envoi_ of his crusade against youthful religious indoctrination. The chapter has a section entitled "Which Islam?" with profundities like "I agree that _Islam_ can be an impossibly broad term, serving as little more than a symbol for all that is good and proper as seen by someone identifying themselves as a Muslim" (p. 27). Such fantastic phrases in a book promoted as "Islamic studies" (!) are primarily a vista into the current standards of American publishing (_God: The Failed Hypothesis_ made the _NY Times_ bestseller list). They only accidentally show how proper Westernized Turks make it a point, ridicule be damned, to know less and less about the religion which propelled their forefathers from tribal mishmash to world superpower. Far from bizarre, in the parallel world of the author's "Turkish popular Islam" – read Kemalism – it is politically correct to be able to boast with a straight face that "many Turks enjoy their alcohol" but are "very careful not to eat pork" – and still seriously claim concern about not "misrepresent[ing] the current state of Islam" (p. 27).

Chapter 2, "A Usable Past," contains hilariously shallow assessments of the flourishing of science in the golden age: "Muslim rulers supported astronomers in order to obtain the best astrological advice" (p. 44), "medieval medicine did perfect the occasional useful technique" (p. 49). Such ill-tempered, reductive superficialities excuse Taner from having to reconcile his freely-dispensed awareness that "concepts like God, divine purpose, design, and morality were integral to the whole enterprise of acquiring and interpreting knowledge, whether it was in medicine or astronomy" (p. 47) with the fact that faith never impeded science, on the contrary.

Like a scientistic caricature out of Dickens pontificating about "FACTS, Sir, FACTS is what life's about," Tener cries "myth, myth" every chance he gets – up to four or five times in the space of ten lines (p. 46, 94) just so you won't miss the point. About 10 per cent of his pages bring up "The Enlightenment." All Middle Eastern atheists are fond of trumpeting their allegiance to "The Enlightenment."

Chapter 3, "Finding Science in the Quran," as misnamed as the book itself, discusses tourism in Turkey, Turkish cafés, Turkish rugs, Turkish TV, Turkish preachers (p. 81-86), proceeding to "the Nur movement" of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (p. 86-93), finally entering the subject 15 pages into the 25-page chapter with a three-page treatment of Maurice Bucaille (p. 95-97) then moving on to discuss Turkish MD vulgarizer Haluk Nurbaki (p. 98-100), finally lapsing into a paced diatribe against the religious abuse of quantum-physics terminology (p. 101-111) with references to the book of Job, more Turks including "political scientist" Muhammed Bozdag, whose writings "can be hard to take seriously" (p. 104) and some Americans, but nary a word about the chapter-title.

Taner's real target is not Islam but religion as a whole. In Chapter 4, "Created Nature," he takes potshots at the American "Intelligent Design" movement (p. 118-120), finding it relevant to mention their "ever-fruitless but always hopeful expeditions hunting for the remains of Noah's Ark" and how Protestant creationists envy Harun Yahya's bottomless budget and work in tandem with him and Mustafa Akyol, another self-promoting Turk and outright ally of the American Right (125-133) among other popular writers whose mention, again, hardly makes sense. An intellectual bully, he is careful to visit the bantam weight of his Associate Professorship in physics on easy targets, ignoring the more serious arguments for Intelligent Design forwarded by the likes of Fred Hoyle and his "Superintellect" or Sir John Archibald Wheeler and his anthropic principle.

As the book nears its end it finishes losing touch with its purported subject-matter and actually disproves its own thesis with its best-crafted chapter 5, "Redeeming the Human Sciences," which seems written at a different time and by a different person than the rest. After briefly engaging Recep Sentürk's _fiqh_ paradigm in classical Islam, Taner, closing the door opened by the Columbia-trained sociologist and Azhari-trained _faqih_, retreats to the safer territory of absolute Westernization:

Sentürk plausibly argues that the social and intellectual role that sociology plays in modern Western societies was filled by _fiqh_ in classical Islamic civilization. _Fiqh_ nevertheless concentrates heavily on moral and ritual prescriptions and does not really attempt to explain social dynamics.... Any sociology worth the name must have not just some overall framework and some ability to generate raw data about societies, it also must fill in the middle ground of modest explanations of limited social phenomena. And Islamic sociology has no success occupying this middle ground.
(p. 179-180)

Taner then launches into an apology for the skewed Western models of the sociology of religion and their tendentious reductionism and Christiano-centrism (180-183), then a critique of Islamic economics (p. 184-188) and historiography (189-194). He praises "the religious change and vigorous experimentation going on among ordinary Muslims" (one shudders to guess what he means in light of his winebibbing friends), but shows his exasperation with the moralism and traditionalism of Muslim social thought, which he is pleased to blame on "fearful conservatism" and "a failure of imagination" (p. 196).

In chapter 6, "A Liberal Faith?" Taner unveils his program for progress. After rejoicing that "most elite scientists such as the members of the US National Academy of Sciences reject traditional religious beliefs," he declares that "the best way to achieve Muslim harmony with science might be to promote liberal tendencies within Islam" (p. 203). This is the soul of Kemalism as the author himself defines it elsewhere, stemming from the post-Christian Western model of separation of church and state: "Kemalists ultimately wanted Islam to take on a role similar to that of Christianity in modern Europe. They wanted religion to become a matter of private conscience" (p. 67).

Taner's _Illusion_ reads like a petulant introduction to a serious, scientific refutation which never materializes (no pun intended) but is not missed. It will find its niche among Islamophobes (even their theists will gloat in the present climate), although rebarbative from the pure viewpoint of science, as it is big on formulas and small on argument. In yet another betrayal of the purpose of academe, the author forsakes the need to appeal to the wretched, under-scienced Muslims, opting instead, like the run of the mill in his genre, to preach to the choir. As a result he indulges in such massive under-representation of scientific Islam as to seem maliciously ignorant of its standing as easily the most science-friendly Abrahamic religion with a more than respectable share, if not the largest proportion of inventors, theorists and scientists in human history.

GF Haddad
May 2007

 

 

 

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