Mental gymnastics and ‘scientific facts’ in religious text

Smokers’ Corner: The great caving in
By Nadeem F. Paracha
Sunday, 20 Sep, 2009 (Dawn)
‘Modern-day religious programming which claims to use scholarly insights to close the gap between religion and modernity, usually end up making religion seem anything but compatible with contemporary society.’

Only a few days ago, while channel surfing on a slow-moving evening, I came across a show where an ‘alim’ and his ‘scholar’ guest were discussing the Islamic edicts on the issue of wife-beating.

As the ‘scholar’ insisted that the husband could use whatever degree of violence on a ‘disrespectful wife,’ the host, who usually applauds the most reactionary notions about religion, was, this time, left gulping; perhaps conscious that his own wife might be watching this circus. He tried to soften the scholar’s blow by suggesting that ‘there’s a whole procedure to this,’ but the guest just kept at it.

It was a classic example of modern-day religious programming which claims to use scholarly insights to close the gap between religion and modernity, but usually ends up opening various Pandora’s boxes whose awkward and medieval contents make religion seem anything but compatible with contemporary society.

The question is, why discuss such topics? We know that many a divine revelation has passages that modernist Islamic scholars have been grappling with for years, arguing that these need to be understood allegorically and in the historical context in which they appeared instead of discussing them as if the dynamics of society were still ruled by medieval impulses.

These TV shows claim to be making faith and its edicts ‘easy to live by in the modern world,’ but the fact is they only manage to add another suffocating layer of social cumbersomeness that is found in societies (like Pakistan) that always seem busy shakily trying to balance religious literalism with modern materialism.

The results of such a balancing act are not exactly an enlightening synthesis, but rather, an intellectual exhaustion that leaves society collapsing inwards. Its habitants then emerge sounding either suspicious (giving vent to conspiracy theories about imagined attacks on their beliefs), or somewhat deluded (they start flaunting grandiose, even xenophobic, ideas about the perceived superiority of their faith.

Maybe the most obvious reason behind such an existentialist collapse is that in societies where religion is dragged in as an ever-present social, political and personal facet, the weight of such an act (especially in a modern setting) is that people simply cave in. In their lethargy, they are thus left thinking more about afterlife, rather than energetically engaging with what they have as life here and now.

Mine is an objective enquiry that gets even more urgent when I see TV programming also trying to insist that whatever major scientific discoveries took place in the 20th century were already present in the holy book. My friend Fasi Zaka is right to wish that people would stop saying this because, for example, no one has been able to find a cure for malaria or chickenpox so far even though, as an article of faith, many Muslims may believe that it is there.

As well-known Islamic scholars like Professor Ziauddin Sardar, Muhammad Arkoun and scientists such as Professor Pervez Hoodboy suggest, it requires considerable mental gymnastics and distortions to find ‘scientific facts’ in religious text.

Yet such tendencies have become a lucrative fad. Bookshops overflow with such literature; television preachers talk endlessly about how many different scientific theories can be found in the holy book, only after they have been touted by scientists! Numerous websites are devoted to explaining the phenomenon. Prof Sardar laments: ‘The underlying message of these theories is that all the science you need is in the holy text — no need to get your hands dirty in a lab or work within mainstream theories.’

The emergence of such fads and theories, too, is maybe a fallout of the existentialist caving in of Muslim societies. In their introversion, they have also become intellectually lazy, on the one hand, refusing to contextualise medieval laws based on 8th and 9th century man-made traditions, and on the other, using convoluted pseudo-sciences (based on imaginative whims rather than hard scientific facts) to match the West’s claim to modern scientific dominance.

What most cranks in this respect never tell their gullible audiences however is that long before Muslims started claiming ‘scientific truths in the holy book’, Hindus and Christians had already covered this tricky territory. For example, Hindu fundamentalists claimed that what progress science had achieved was already reflected in Hindu sacred texts. They were quoting examples like ‘Pushpakavimana’ mentioned in Ramayana, when Harun Yayah was most probably in his shorts.