Arshad Shaikh analyses the relationship between science and religion and ways to avoid any attack on the pristine nature of science by the forces of regression and irrationality
There is a verse in the Qur’ān that sets the foundation of the Islamic approach to science. Allah says, “Do not follow that of which you have no knowledge. Surely the hearing, the sight, the heart – each of these shall be called to account.” (The Qur’ān 17:36) The verse demands that both in individual and collective life, one should not follow mere guess work and presumption instead of knowledge. This attitude, also known as the ‘scientific temperament’, saves society from numerous evils emanating by following conjecture over solid facts. It suggests that no scientific law can be formulated without the backing of empirical data. Our approach towards the explanation of the cosmic reality should not be based on mere speculation, presumptions and irrational theories as they form the roots of superstition and obscurantism.
The word science is derived from the Latin word scire which means to know. The Oxford Dictionary defines science as “knowledge about the structure and behaviour of the natural and physical world, based on facts that you can prove, for example by experiments”. Thus the modern understanding of science has confined itself only to the physical world with information derived through sense data. In contrast, pseudoscience “consists of statements, beliefs, or practices that claim to be both scientific and factual but are incompatible with the scientific method”. After understanding the above, one can appreciate the reasons behind the growing concern regarding the systematic promotion of pseudoscience in our country under the name of “rich heritage of ancient and eternal Indian knowledge”.
The New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD), Government of India states that it “proposes the revision and revamping of all aspects of the education structure, including its regulation and governance, to create a new system that is aligned with the aspirational goals of 21st century education, including SDG4, while building upon India’s traditions and value systems. The rich heritage of ancient and eternal Indian knowledge and thought has been a guiding light for this Policy. The pursuit of knowledge (Jnan), wisdom (Pragyaa), and truth (Satya) was always considered in Indian thought and philosophy as the highest human goal.”
In pursuit of this objective the NEP 2020 declares: “Knowledge from ancient India… including tribal knowledge and indigenous and traditional ways of learning, will be covered and included in mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, yoga, architecture, medicine, agriculture, engineering, linguistics, literature, sports, games, as well as in governance, polity, conservation.”
Under Part III – “Other Areas of Focus”, the New Education Policy states: “Given that people exercise pluralistic choices in healthcare, our healthcare education system must be integrative meaning thereby that all students of allopathic medical education must have a basic understanding of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy (AYUSH), and vice versa.”
While these aspirations appears quite lofty and desirable, the impact it can have on the standard and standing of our education is yet to be deciphered.
YOGA AND SIDDHA
Yoga is touted as a symbol of universal aspiration for health and wellbeing and a health insurance in zero budget. It is claimed that besides being the best exercise for the body, yoga imparts ‘spiritual’ benefits. Yoga and Yoga-Gurus are being aggressively marketed and officially promoted on the government website – yoga.ayush.gov.in. Some of its practitioners claim that certain ‘asanas’ (poses) push toxin out to the extent that you can taste the toxins coming out in your mouth or that a particular asana will build up your blood pressure to such a degree that it will blast away the plaque building in your arteries. Along with these unscientific claims, there are also concerns regarding its safety. Take the case of Siddha, an important component of the AYUSH initiative. According to the official government site (nhp.gov.in/siddha_mty) – “Diagnosis by pulse reading is one of the chief aspects of diagnosis in siddha system of medicine. A skilled practitioner is expected to diagnose the abnormality present in the body by reading the pulse of the patient. Pulse reading in siddha system refers to the detection of the abnormalities in mukuttram (three humours), by feeling the pulse of the patient by the method prescribed in the siddha texts. A siddha physician feels the patterns of vibration that represent the metabolic processes going on in the body at a specific time. Based on the dominant pulse among the three and the direction in which the pulse motion is felt, a trained practitioner identifies over 350 different disease conditions.”
The above is a small glimpse of what is being officially promoted as legitimate cures for different ailments under the aegis of “Indian Knowledge Systems”. Unfortunately, all aspiring allopathic doctors will now have to study them under the new NEP.
THE MIDDLE PATH
Every nation has the right to be proud of its heritage and the accomplishments of their ancestors in the field of arts, architecture, science and technology. However, that national pride is being peddled to push jingoism with the help of unsubstantiated claims and forcible implementation through the system of education. Yoga as a form of exercise or a relaxation technique is fine but to claim spiritual and therapeutic benefits over all other forms of similar approaches is not correct. The same applies to Siddha, Ayurveda and Unani medicine.
Views expressed by ministers and vice-chancellors such as ancient India had advanced reproductive technologies resulting in a woman giving birth to 100 children as narrated in the Hindu epic Mahabharata and that India was conducting stem cell research thousands of years ago, results in these experts being ridiculed and labelled as regressive and promoters of a ‘religio-mythical culture’.
In the well-known book Faith versus Fact – Why Science and Religion are incompatible, Jerry Coyne writes: “My claim is this: science and religion are incompatible because they have different methods for getting knowledge about reality, have different ways of assessing the reliability of that knowledge and in the end arriving at different conclusions about the universe. ‘Knowledge’ acquired by religion is at odds not only with scientific knowledge but also with knowledge professed by other religions. In the end, religion’s methods unlike those of science are useless for understanding reality”.
In contrast, the Islamic view on science is more embracing. Scientific theories keep evolving and changing. Science offers a way to understand the natural world by way of modelling and spelling out theories. These theories are never absolute truth. They are a momentary understanding of the universe and it keeps changing. If we say that a particular verse in the Qur’ān attests a particular scientific theory and if that theory is proved wrong and is replaced by a new theory then this will create dissonance in our understanding about the Qur’ān. Hence, the Qur’ān is not a book of science, rather, it is pro-science. It motivates man to reflect on the creation and reach the right conclusion of the Creator. Studying ancient texts and sciences is not wrong. But imposing it as the panacea for all ills and diseases is being simpleminded. Definitely not the way for the ‘Indian Knowledge System” to be taken seriously.