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When Science Reads the Qur’an

It is called tafsīr ‘ilmī in Arabic and it breaks a centuries-old tradition dominated by a tendency to absolutize the interpretation established by the Forebears. Freeing itself from the traditional commentary, this type of exegesis favours readings that also borrow from other disciplines and seeks (with bizarre results) to demonstrate that the contents of the Revelation are in agreement with the discoveries of science

The year 1798 is considered to be a watershed in the Middle East’s history. Indeed, Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign and the European political, economic and cultural influence that followed it brought the Arab-Muslim peoples face to face with Europe’s surprising development, thereby sparking a still-ensuing debate about the causes for the Muslim world’s technological and scientific lag. The West was then in the full throes of the Industrial Revolution and its economic and military strength and cultural dynamism were to permit it gradually to impose its sway over a large part of the dār al-Islām, the Muslim territories.



Many Muslim intellectuals of the era identified precisely Europe’s scientific and technological superiority as the main reason for its supremacy. This conviction helped to fuel that sense of inadequacy that some have called the “catching up syndrome” i.e. the desire to get onto an equal footing with the West by taking possession of its forms of knowledge and technology. Taking possession of foreign forms of knowledge and institutions nevertheless pre-supposed some advance reflection on the nature of the acquisitions to be assimilated and whether they were in accordance with Islam. Indeed, not everyone viewed their adoption positively: there were those who maintained the need for it, without reservation; those who viewed modern science with diffidence on account of its Western origins and still others who abhorred it, considering it a source of Islam’s corruption. In fact, it was a question of establishing whether the European sciences were imbued with the values of their society of origin and were therefore exclusively the heritage of their culture or whether, conversely, they had a universal validity and could be imported without threatening Islam’s integrity.



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