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Nidhal Guessoum: "Islamic theology does not require the confessionality of the state".

It is not easy to find Muslim scientists capable of deep dialogue on philosophy, science and theology. Nidhal Guessoum is one such person. Omnes talks with him on the occasion of his visit to Madrid.

Javier Garcia-September 30, 2022-Reading time: 5 minutes
guessoum

Nidhal Guessoum. ©University CEU San Pablo

Nidhal Guessoum (b. 1960) is an Algerian astrophysicist with a PhD from the University of California at San Diego. He has taught at universities in Algeria and Kuwait, and currently is an Endowed-Chair Professor at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. In addition to his academic research, he writes and lectures on topics related to science, education, the Arab world and Islam. In 2010, he authored the well-received "Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science", which was translated into Arabic, French, Indonesian, and Urdu. He argues that modern science should be integrated into the Islamic worldview, including the theory of biological evolution, which, according to him, does not contradict Islamic theology. 

On September 19, he participated in a conference at the San Pablo CEU University, in collaboration with the Acton Institute, on the history, challenges and perspectives of relations between the Abrahamic faiths. His lecture at the conference dealt with the scientific collaboration of the three religions in Al-Andalus during the Middle Ages. 

How would you characterize that "scientific collaboration" between the Abrahamic faiths in Al-Andalus? Was there true understanding and appreciation or was it based on mere scientific interest? 

The collaboration was not of the same kind as we understand or practice today. Scholars did not get together in universities, centers of research, and libraries to work on given problems together for days and months. Rather, they received each other's works, read them and commented on them. They also often translated old and new works into various languages (typically, Greek into Arabic, then to Hebrew or to a vernacular language, e.g. Castilian, then to Latin). Indeed, translation was one of the most important and creative scientific functions that scholars undertook.

Secondly, a common worldview (divine creator, great chain of being, etc.) between the three religions/cultures and a common language of scholarship (Arabic) helped strengthen mutual interest in works that addressed questions of common concern: the (past) eternity of the world, causality, divine action, diseases, astrology, calendars, etc.

In Spain, the fruitful synergy of the three great religions in the city of Toledo is well known. Have there been other cities where there has been such an important cultural exchange between the three religions?

Toledo was a city where indeed the three communities lived in harmony and interacted in beneficial ways; Cordoba was another famous city of rich cross-cultural interaction. However, that was not the only model or mode of cultural exchange among scholars. More often, as I mentioned above, they received books and commentaries from one another, and they (the scholars) moved between cities (often seeking the patronage of emirs, kings, and princes), thus taking and spreading their knowledge and forming networks of scientific communication. 

In what areas has the relationship between the three great religions been particularly important: philosophy, theology, astronomy...?

Medicine, philosophy, and astronomy were probably the three fields that saw maximal cross-benefit. Medicine for obvious reasons: indeed one often found an important Jewish or Christian physician serving in the court of a Muslim ruler. Astronomy for both practical calendrical interests and astrological predictions (whether the practitioners knew those to be wrong and just sold them to the rulers who wanted them or believed them to carry some truths). I may mention the case of Al-Idrissi, the Cordoba-born geographer who traveled widely and then settled in Sicily, in the court of King Roger II, who commissioned him for the best up-to-date book of geography, which became known as The Book of Roger. And philosophy because it addressed important topics, such as I mentioned above, that carried heightened interest among the great medieval thinkers of all three religions.

How should Islam and the theory of evolution be interpreted in order to be compatible?

For compatibility, Islam (and other monotheistic religions) needs to first uphold the principle that the scriptures are books of spiritual and moral guidance and social organization, and not scientific treaties. Islam (and other religions) also needs to do away with literalist readings of the scriptures, so that when verses are found to (theologically) discuss the creation of Adam or that of Earth, or other topics of natural history, one must focus on the message or lesson being conveyed, not the "process"; indeed scriptures do not mean to explain phenomenon but rather to point to their meanings. And finally, the concept of "creation" itself needs to be understood as not necessarily instantaneous, for indeed the creation/formation of the Earth took millions if not billions of years, and Muslims never object to that, and there should thus not be an issue with the "creation" of humans having taken millions of years and a gradual multi-step process.

Is there any aspect of the relationship between the great religions that is not particularly well known?

I think it is important to stress the fact that the great religions share so much common ground and worldview of direct relevance to issues of worldly knowledge: human history, calendars, practices such as fasting, care for the environment, etc. There are some (important) theological differences, e.g. humanness vs. divinity of Jesus, the concept and nature of salvation, divine origin of the scriptures vs. composition by humans, etc. And this explains why some of us are Muslim, and others are Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or other. But even in the theological realm, we agree on several important matters, e.g. the Day of Judgment, spiritual life, heaven and hell, past prophets, revelations, etc. And with a clear-minded understanding of our theological commonalities and differences, we can and should collaborate on many issues for the benefit of humanity.

Why did the Islamic world cease to lead in science, medicine and philosophy? Is the rejection of philosophy and science mainly due to the consequences of Averroes' theory of the double truth?

The idea of "double truth" is often misunderstood in Averroes's philosophy. In his superb Definitive Discourse on the Harmony between Religion and Philosophy, he stated very clearly: "Truth (Revelation) cannot contradict 'wisdom' (philosophy); on the contrary, they must agree with each other and support (stand with) each other". He also referred to Religion and Philosophy as "bosom sisters". In other words, there is no contrast between religious and philosophical truth but rather harmony. So there was no reason for philosophy and science to be shunned. In fact, Averroes argued that for those who are capable, the pursuit of high (philosophical) knowledge was an obligation. 

The decline in science and philosophy in the Islamic civilization was due to several factors, some internal and some external. Internal factors included political instabilities, religious objections (Muslim scholars were not always fully embracing of all philosophical and scientific knowledge), lack of development of institutions and reliance on patronage instead, critical mass of scholars rarely achieved in a given location, etc. External factors included the economic rise of Europe (the discovery of America and subsequent prosperity), the emergence of universities in Europe, the invention of the printing press, etc.

Do you believe that science and philosophy are reconcilable with Muslim theology? What is the Muslim world's view of the relationship between faith and reason?

Yes, I believe faith and reason, and science/philosophy and Islamic theology are all reconcilable; indeed, the subtitle of my 2010 book (Islam's Quantum Question) was "reconciling Muslim tradition and modern science". I mentioned above that Averroes had already explained and shown with strong arguments from both Islam and Philosophy that the two are "bosom sisters". And on the most difficult topic, namely biological and human evolution, I have mentioned briefly how the two can be reconciled. (For a fuller and more detailed treatment of the subject, I invite the reader to consult my book, my other writings and lectures).

Many people fear the demographic growth of Muslims in Western countries, especially because Islamic theology sustains the need for the confessionality of the state, in the manner of a political theology. Do you agree with this interpretation of Islamic theology? Is it possible to be a true Muslim and accept democracy and tolerance in Western societies?

Muslims have for decades if not centuries now lived as minorities in "non-Muslim states", i.e. in states where the laws are not drawn from Islamic principles. Of course, it is easier for Muslims to live in states where the laws are totally consistent with their religious beliefs and practices, but that is not a must. Islamic theology does not require some "confessionality of the sate". As long as secular democracies respect people's personal life choices (why should a woman be forced to remove her headscarf at work or in public spaces?), I see no reason why Muslims cannot live peacefully and harmoniously with other communities (religious or secular) in various cities and countries, in mutually tolerant and respectful ways. 

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