Tuesday, January 29, 2013

DEBATE: Backstage Interviews


In the mean time, here are the backstage 
interviews with debate participants :

DEBATE: The Economist magazine

Islam and science

The road to renewal

After centuries of stagnation science is making a comeback in the Islamic world

THE sleep has been long and deep. In 2005 Harvard University produced more scientific papers than 17 Arabic-speaking countries combined. The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims have produced only two Nobel laureates in chemistry and physics. Both moved to the West: the only living one, the chemist Ahmed Hassan Zewail, is at the California Institute of Technology. By contrast Jews, outnumbered 100 to one by Muslims, have won 79. The 57 countries in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference spend a puny 0.81% of GDP on research and development, about a third of the world average. America, which has the world’s biggest science budget, spends 2.9%; Israel lavishes 4.4%.
Many blame Islam’s supposed innate hostility to science. Some universities seem keener on prayer than study. Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, for example, has three mosques on campus, with a fourth planned, but no bookshop. Rote learning rather than critical thinking is the hallmark of higher education in many countries. The Saudi government supports books for Islamic schools such as “The Unchallengeable Miracles of the Qur’an: The Facts That Can’t Be Denied By Science” suggesting an inherent conflict between belief and reason.

Many universities are timid about courses that touch even tangentially on politics or look at religion from a non-devotional standpoint. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a renowned Pakistani nuclear scientist, introduced a course on science and world affairs, including Islam’s relationship with science, at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, one of the country’s most progressive universities. Students were keen, but Mr Hoodbhoy’s contract was not renewed when it ran out in December; for no proper reason, he says. (The university insists that the decision had nothing to do with the course content.)
But look more closely and two things are clear. A Muslim scientific awakening is under way. And the roots of scientific backwardness lie not with religious leaders, but with secular rulers, who are as stingy with cash as they are lavish with controls over independent thought.
The long view
The caricature of Islam’s endemic backwardness is easily dispelled. Between the eighth and the 13th centuries, while Europe stumbled through the dark ages, science thrived in Muslim lands. The Abbasid caliphs showered money on learning. The 11th century “Canon of Medicine” by Avicenna (pictured, with modern equipment he would have relished) was a standard medical text in Europe for hundreds of years. In the ninth century Muhammad al-Khwarizmi laid down the principles of algebra, a word derived from the name of his book, “Kitab al-Jabr”. Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham transformed the study of light and optics. Abu Raihan al-Biruni, a Persian, calculated the earth’s circumference to within 1%. And Muslim scholars did much to preserve the intellectual heritage of ancient Greece; centuries later it helped spark Europe’s scientific revolution.
Not only were science and Islam compatible, but religion could even spur scientific innovation. Accurately calculating the beginning of Ramadan (determined by the sighting of the new moon) motivated astronomers. The Hadith (the sayings of Muhammad) exhort believers to seek knowledge, “even as far as China”.
These scholars’ achievements are increasingly celebrated. Tens of thousands flocked to “1001 Inventions”, a touring exhibition about the golden age of Islamic science, in the Qatari capital, Doha, in the autumn. More importantly, however, rulers are realising the economic value of scientific research and have started to splurge accordingly. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which opened in 2009, has a $20 billion endowment that even rich American universities would envy.
Foreigners are already on their way there. Jean Fr├ęchet, who heads research, is a French chemist tipped to win a Nobel prize. The Saudi newcomer boasts research collaborations with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and with Imperial College, London. The rulers of neighbouring Qatar are bumping up research spending from 0.8% to a planned 2.8% of GDP: depending on growth, that could reach $5 billion a year. Research spending in Turkey increased by over 10% each year between 2005 and 2010, by which year its cash outlays were twice Norway’s.
The tide of money is bearing a fleet of results. In the 2000 to 2009 period Turkey’s output of scientific papers rose from barely 5,000 to 22,000; with less cash, Iran’s went up 1,300, to nearly 15,000. Quantity does not imply quality, but the papers are getting better, too. Scientific journals, and not just the few based in the Islamic world, are citing these papers more frequently. A study in 2011 by Thomson Reuters, an information firm, shows that in the early 1990s other publishers cited scientific papers from Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey (the most prolific Muslim countries) four times less often than the global average. By 2009 it was only half as often. In the category of best-regarded mathematics papers, Iran now performs well above average, with 1.7% of its papers among the most-cited 1%, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia also doing well. Turkey scores highly on engineering.
Science and technology-related subjects, with their clear practical benefits, do best. Engineering dominates, with agricultural sciences not far behind. Medicine and chemistry are also popular. Value for money matters. Fazeel Mehmood Khan, who recently returned to Pakistan after doing a PhD in Germany on astrophysics and now works at the Government College University in Lahore, was told by his university’s vice-chancellor to stop chasing wild ideas (black holes, in his case) and do something useful.
Science is even crossing the region’s deepest divide. In 2000 SESAME, an international physics laboratory with the Middle East’s first particle accelerator, was set up in Jordan. It is modelled on CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory, which was created to bring together scientists from wartime foes. At SESAME Israeli boffins work with colleagues from places such as Iran and the Palestinian territories.
By the book
Science of the kind practised at SESAME throws up few challenges to Muslim doctrine (and in many cases is so abstruse that religious censors would struggle to understand it). But biology—especially with an evolutionary angle—is different. Many Muslims are troubled by the notion that humans share a common ancestor with apes. Research published in 2008 by Salman Hameed of Hampshire College in Massachusetts, a Pakistani astronomer who now studies Muslim attitudes to science, found that fewer than 20% in Indonesia, Malaysia or Pakistan believed in Darwin’s theories. In Egypt it was just 8%.
Yasir Qadhi, an American chemical engineer turned cleric (who has studied in both the United States and Saudi Arabia), wrestled with this issue at a London conference on Islam and evolution this month. He had no objection to applying evolutionary theory to other lifeforms. But he insisted that Adam and Eve did not have parents and did not evolve from other species. Any alternative argument is “scripturally indefensible,” he said. Some, especially in the diaspora, conflate human evolution with atheism: rejecting it becomes a defining part of being a Muslim. (Some Christians take a similar approach to the Bible.)
Though such disbelief may be couched in religious terms, culture and politics play a bigger role, says Mr Hameed. Poor school education in many countries leaves minds open to misapprehension. A growing Islamic creationist movement is at work too. A controversial Turkish preacher who goes by the name of Harun Yahya is in the forefront. His website spews pamphlets and books decrying Darwin. Unlike his American counterparts, however, he concedes that the universe is billions of years old (not 6,000 years).
But the barrier is not insuperable. Plenty of Muslim biologists have managed to reconcile their faith and their work. Fatimah Jackson, a biological anthropologist who converted to Islam, quotes Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the founders of genetics, saying that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Science describes how things change; Islam, in a larger sense, explains why, she says.
Others take a similar line. “The Koran is not a science textbook,” says Rana Dajani, a Jordanian molecular biologist. “It provides people with guidelines as to how they should live their lives.” Interpretations of it, she argues, can evolve with new scientific discoveries. Koranic verses about the creation of man, for example, can now be read as providing support for evolution.
Other parts of the life sciences, often tricky for Christians, have proved unproblematic for Muslims. In America researchers wanting to use embryonic stem cells (which, as their name suggests, must be taken from human embryos, usually spares left over from fertility treatments) have had to battle pro-life Christian conservatives and a federal ban on funding for their field. But according to Islam, the soul does not enter the fetus until between 40 and 120 days after conception—so scientists at the Royan Institute in Iran are able to carry out stem-cell research without attracting censure.
But the kind of freedom that science demands is still rare in the Muslim world. With the rise of political Islam, including dogmatic Salafists who espouse a radical version of Islam, in such important countries as Egypt, some fear that it could be eroded further still. Others, however, remain hopeful. Muhammad Morsi, Egypt’s president, is a former professor of engineering at Zagazig University, near Cairo. He has a PhD in materials science from the University of Southern California (his dissertation was entitled “High-Temperature Electrical Conductivity and Defect Structure of Donor-Doped Al2O{-3}”). He has promised that his government will spend more on research.
Released from the restrictive control of the former regimes, scientists in Arab countries see a chance for progress. Scientists in Tunisia say they are already seeing promising reforms in the way university posts are filled. People are being elected, rather than appointed by the regime. The political storms shaking the Middle East could promote not only democracy, but revive scientific freethinking, too.

DEBATE: The London Times article

NEWS: Muslim leaders urge Islamic community to rethink evolution theory

My news story published in the Times
Muslim leaders from around the world have urged the Islamic community to rethink their stance on the theory of evolution. 
In the first debate of its kind in the UK, prominent Muslim scientists and theologians tried to reconcile Islam with evolution, at the Institute of Education, London, to an audience of around 850 people.  Saturday’s event, which had to be moved from its original location at Imperial College, London, following protests by Muslim students, was titled ‘Have Muslims misunderstood evolution’ and was organised by the Deen Institute, which aims to promote Islam and intellectuality.
“We must accept the truth [of evolution] to progress and move forward into the 21st century,” said Professor Ehab Abouheif, a Muslim Evolutionary Biologist at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. “Have Muslims misunderstood evolution? My answer is a resounding yes. Biological evolution is a fact,” he added.
evo1The message was echoed by Professor Fatimah Jackson, Professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of North Carolina who converted to Islam in the 1970s. “I’m a scientist, biologist and I believe in Allah. Evolution was no hindrance for me to become Muslim,” she said.
Professor Jackson emphasised that “the theory of evolution has been hijacked by atheists” and faith and evolution “complement” each other.
Many modern-day Islamic scholars believe evolution to be incompatible with Islam, unlike Christianity, which has largely embraced it.
Dr Usama Hasan, a scientist and former Imam at Masjid al-Tawhid in East London, received death threats in 2011 when he advocated Islam was compatible with evolution. Despite retracting his statements soon after, for fear of his life, he used the stage to clarify his position.
“Evolution is a Muslim theory. John William Draper, the 19th century scientist and contemporary of Darwin, called it the Mohammedan theory. I even once preached against evolution until I looked into it,” he said.
However, the pro-evolutionists clashed with Dr Oktar Babuna, a Turkish scientist and representative of Harun Yahya, a world-leading creationist.
“Darwinism is nonsense, evolution is not a fact and there is nothing in the Quran about it,” he said. “I will pay anyone £5m if you find me a transitional fossil,” he added.
Dr Babuna found little support from his fellow panelists, was accused of misunderstanding evolution and taking Muslims back to the 19th century.
Yasir Qadhi, an American Muslim scholar and theologian, the last of the five panelists, refused to ally himself with Dr Babuna but refused to budge on the evolution of Adam. “Islamically, it’s not problematic whatsoever to accept a universal common ancestor for all life on earth with one exception: and that is humans.”
Qadhi, a renowned rhetorician, accused Hasan of performing “fanciful, hermeneutical gymnastics” by trying to reinterpret the “vivid” creation story.
However, Hasan believes it’s important not to remain entrenched with Islamic orthodoxy, as it has been proven wrong in the past.  He also made a case for reinterpretation of scripture partly because “there are hundreds if not millions of young Muslims who have lost their faith because of science”.
Ishaq, a Muslim optometrist who attended the debate said: “There was a need for it. It was entertaining and intellectually stimulating. It was a good platform for Muslim thinkers to come together to deal with these issues.”

Monday, January 14, 2013

Friday, January 11, 2013

DEBATE: Photos from Deen Institute

DEBATE: another article in The Guardian

A high-quality debate of a sensitive topic did not disappoint, as all panellists bar one accepted the scientific consensus
Sensational fossil found in Germany
'Oktar Babuna unintentionally served as a comic relief, when the audience realised that almost all of his responses included the mention of fossils.' Photograph: Helmut Tischlinger/DPA
An imam of an east London mosque, Usama Hasan, received a death threat for arguing in support of human evolution two years ago. On Saturday, London played host to a riveting intrafaith dialogue on Islam's stance on the theory of evolution. The east London imam was one of the speakers – but this time there were others who shared his viewpoint.
The event, organised by the Deen Institute, was titled Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution? The speakers included an evolutionary biologist, a biological anthropologist, two theologians and a bona fide creationist.
It lasted seven hours, yet almost everyone stayed till the end. There were more than 850 people in the audience and even though the topic was sensitive and controversial, there was no heckling or disruption. At least from my limited interactions, it seemed that the audience was comprised mostly of young professionals. Most had no strong opinion, but their interest was evident as they were willing to spend their entire Saturday hearing about Muslim positions on evolution.
They were not disappointed.
Conversations at events such as these are often derailed by the unscientific rhetoric and common misconceptions of creationists. The success of this event related to the fact that all panellists, with the exception of a creationist, more or less accepted the scientific consensus on evolution. This allowed the discussion to centre on the question: can Muslims reconcile human evolution with their faith?
I think it is important for Muslims (and non-Muslims) to know that there are Muslim scientists who not only understand evolution, but have also thought about its implications for their own personal religious beliefs. Ehab Abouheif is an evolutionary biologist who holds the Canada research chair at McGill University and works on ant evolution. He laid out the scientific case for biological evolution and spoke about the need for Muslims to understand this bedrock principle of modern biology. He used the example of his own personal faith to counter the misconception that one cannot reconcile evolution with Islam.
Fatimah Jackson, an African American convert to Islam, is professor of biological anthropology at the University of North Carolina. Her research focuses on anthropological genetics and human biological and biocultural variability. She knew and taught evolution before her conversion to Islam in the 1970s and has never considered the two to be in conflict. She took the position that science only tells us "how" things happen, and not "why".
Both Abouheif and Jackson are outstanding researchers who accept the mainstream scientific view on evolution. They are excited about their work and unwavering in defence of their faith. They are role models for any budding Muslim scientist.
The London event also featured a theological debate between Usama Hasan and Shaykh Yasir Qadhi. Hasan is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and is the imam who was threatened two years ago for his support for human evolution. He reiterated his position and argued that there was indeed room in Islamic theology to accommodate human evolution.
Qadhi, on the other hand, accepted all of evolution except where it applies to humans. However, he conceded that the "maximum we can go" from an Islamic theological perspective is to say that God inserted Adam in the natural order. To explain his position, he used the example of dominos. He asserted that Adam was the last domino placed directly by God. From his perspective, believers would see this last domino as a miracle of God, whereas non-believers would see a causal connection from all the other dominos. This way, the miracle of Adam is preserved theologically.
The high quality of scientific and theological discussion exposed the shallowness of Islamic creationists, such as Harun Yahya. One of his acolytes, Oktar Babuna, presented his arguments from Istanbul, via the internet. He kept on pointing to fossils as evidence that species have never changed in history. He also discounted any historical changes in the DNA. Babuna's arguments were countered earlier on by both Abouheif and Jackson. But he unintentionally served as a comic relief, when the audience realised that after several hours of discussion, almost all of his responses included the mention of "fossils", irrespective of the topic of discussion.
Babuna aside, this was a serious debate on an important topic. The rejection of evolution in the face of scientific consensus stands as a Galileo moment for Islam. However, the tone of the debate and the quality of intellectual exchange at the London event is encouraging and it shows modern Muslims have the maturity to address a perceived challenge from a scientific idea.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

DEBATE: article in The Guardian

Notes & Theories science blog

Muslims engage in quest to understand evolution

British Muslims acknowledge a common misunderstanding of evolution but still differ about how to reconcile faith with science
Evolution illustration
Evolution … contested territory for Muslims. Photograph: Philipp Kammerer/Alamy
More than 850 delegates flocked to a seminal conference in London on Saturday about the compatibility of modern evolutionary theory and Islamic theology – despite scaremongering and the refusal of Islamic student societies to participate. Determined organisers had overcome pressure to cancel by changing the venue from Imperial College toLogan Hall at the University of London. The event was the brainchild of the Deen Institute, which runs courses to promote critical thinking among Muslim students and kindle rational dialogue within Islam. The need for dialogue is urgent, because to date there has been little open discussion within British Muslim communities on this divisive subject. Recent debates in the US suggest that evolution is not as much of a problem theologically to Muslims as it is to Christian creationists, but there is work to be done to clarify the situation.
One of the speakers was Professor Ehab Abouheif, an evolutionary biologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. "Muslims must revolutionise their perspective on evolution if they are to move forward in the 21st century," said Abouheif, who considers himself to be both a scientist and a sincere believer. He is a veteran of debates like this. "Biological evolution is a fact. The evidence is overwhelming and indisputable," he said.
Beamed into Logan Hall via satellite was Dr Oktar Babuna, a spokesperson for Harun Yahya – founder of the controversial Turkish creationist movement that has often been accused of obscuring clear scientific thinking.
Babuna's impenetrable polemic was relentless. "Evolution is not a scientific theory," he said, "as it has yet to be verified by scientific evidence. In fact, evolution has already been falsified."
He maintains that no evolutionary mechanism has been found. His logic is that if successive minor changes had accumulated into a big change during speciation, transitional forms would outnumber the original and transformed species in the fossil record. But, according to palaeontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, the record showed otherwise.
Much to the amusement of the audience, Babuna repeatedly offered a £5m cash prize to anyone who can find a transitional fossil.
Abouheif's swift rebuttal fell on deaf ears. He pointed out that the expectation of finding transitional fossils erroneously presumes a gradual and linear model of evolution (Gould and Eldredge proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium in 1972 to explain the absence of transitional species). He lamented that Babuna was dragging us back to Darwin's 1879 version of evolution before the discovery of DNA.
Fatima Jackson, a biological anthropologist at the University of Maryland, offered a compelling alternative narrative. Nothing in biology would make sense outside the evolution paradigm, which she defined as a "basic organising tool". She reconciled her faith with science by holding to the belief that the singularity of life is a manifestation of the unity of God. In her view, exploring natural phenomena helps to bring us closer to God. "Evolution doesn't replace faith, it complements it."
Each primate, she said, "has its own trajectory from a common ancestor which has diversified". Humans are a part of the natural world and not a unique creation. "You can't just push the fossils away," she cautioned, citing an article by Sheikh al-Turayri, who asserts that the question of evolution is purely a matter for scientific inquiry.
Dr Usama Hasan, a senior researcher in Islamic studies at the Quilliam Foundation and a part-time imam, said Yahya's creationist arguments were easily discredited (though he later confessed to previously teaching Yahya's fallacy, before deeper research into the subject). His current stance has provoked outrage and even death threats.
Hasan courageously presented evolution as a theory initially recorded by Muslim thinkers. For instance, he said, William Draper refers to the "Mohammedan theory of the evolution of man from lower forms, or his gradual development to his present condition in the long lapse of time." 
Unsung champions of evolution from the Muslim world included Al Jahiz and Ibn Maskawaih, a 10th century scholar. Ibn Khaldun's The Muqaddimah explicitly describes an animal hierarchy, said Hasan.
But these claims were vehemently refuted by Shaykh Yasir Qadhi, Islamic instructor for the Al-Maghrib Institute, who said the descriptions were meant in a different context and that these scholars were not experts in either theology or biology.
Hassan argued that his views on evolution were firmly within the limits of Islamic thought and that difference of opinion was permissible. Qadhi disagreed: "It is sacrilegious to have two different Islamic opinions on this issue."
But Qadhi distanced himself from Yahya's creationist camp. "It is a mistake for Muslims to say we don't believe in evolution." Most of the principles of evolution posed no problems for Islamic theology, he said.
It was fine for Muslims to believe there were dinosaurs, speciation among hominids and even a common ancestor for all animals on Earth – except for one exception – mankind. "We are an honoured species distinctive from animals in terms of meta-cognition, language, morals, creativity and religion."
He addressed the ultimate sticking point for the majority of Muslims: "God created Adam to fit into the grand scheme of things. Adam and Eve did not have parents – they did not evolve. Any other position is scripturally indefensible."
Hasan denied that belief in evolution inevitably leads to atheism. "Science tells us how we were created, revelation tells us why." Just as science could not measure the existence of souls there was no experiment that could validate or deny the existence of God, he said.
Qadhi pointed out that Muslims were not historically anti-science in the way Christianity had been. But he went on: "We need to put science in its proper place". In his view, "science is the study of understanding Allah's creation".
Hassan responded by suggesting that religious scholars who do not understand the sciences should not interfere. "It is not the job of theologians to dictate what scientists can and cannot do. Isn't your attitude holding back the Muslim ummah?"
Qadhi's reply provoked rapturous applause from the audience. "The Qur'an compels us to believe in the super rational; that which is beyond our comprehension."
The debate stimulated intense discussion and I found myself agreeing with different strands from different speakers, but to varying degrees. I am convinced that the scientific rationality of Abouheif and Jackson outweighs the droll scepticism of Babuna. But I was torn between the theological cerebral flexibility of Hasan and the unwavering categorical rhetoric of Qadhi.
As the event closed I was left restless and sensed that others felt similarly conflicted. I tried to envisage how to establish a consensus of Muslim opinion on this topic. Where was the call to action? Who would bring the necessary scholars and scientists together to form a legitimate committee?
The debate has lifted the lid on this Pandora's Box, but the next steps are uncertain. Without more structured engagement with Muslims, the concept of human evolution will continue to be both an intellectual and spiritual minefield.
Yasmin Khan is an independent cultural adviser. Follow her on Twitter @Ya5min_BL