4. In the Shadow of Modernity. Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History


11 Dec 2014

History of Science, Evolution

Ahmad Dallal

In this, the last of four lectures given at Yale University in 2008 as part of the Dwight H. Terry Lectureship, Ahmad Dallal discusses science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the Muslim world.  This lecture is the final chapter in Ahmad Dallal (2010) Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History, Terry Lecture Series. New Haven, CT / London: Yale University Press.

Dallal focuses his presentation on how the modern period is different from the relationships between science and religion he has outlined in the previous lectures, arguing that “The challenges of modern science had no parallel in premodern societies.”  Dallal frames his discussion within broader discussions of “decline” and how periodization needs to inform the accounts of science over the wide variety of regional contexts in which Muslims live.  He notes that there were many factors, from disease in the form of bubonic plague, to destabilization through war.  What decline occurred was uneven, and not irreversible.

Dallal argues that the modern Muslim world is not informed by a culture of science.  He suggests that even the wealthy countries were consuming imported technologies rather than developing their own, and that even specialists were not trained for tasks that were important for local needs.  Dallal dates his framing of culture and science from the mid 19th century, when Ernest Renan’s “Islam and Science” (1883) provoked a response from Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897).  Afghani also published works against “the naturalists”, or followers of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d. 1898).

In the Middle East, three journals, Dallal suggests, were particularly influential, two based in competing missionary schools and the third by a Christian Maronite intellectual.  All three attempted to promote “the values of modern science”.  The material they presented included both “new” (Copernican) astronomy and Darwinism.  Dallal contrasts the lack of an discussion of mathematical astronomy with the abundance of it in prior centuries (which he discussed in the prior lectures), including the influence it had on Copernicus himself.  Darwinism was an issue for Afghani not because of the science; Dallal characterizes Afghani’s arguments against evolution as “simplistic” and “sometimes ridiculous”.  But the real problem, Dallal argues, was political, as Khan argued for close cooperation with colonial Britain.

Dallal briefly mentions two more recent movements, creationism, and the so-called “scientific miracles”, iʿjāz ʿilmii.  Creationism he links to Harun Yahya, also known as Adnan Oktar, a Turk whose creationist materials Dallal says are merely translations “with a sprinkling of Islam on top” from American Christian creationists.  The scientific miracles material he traces to Muhammad Abduh and Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938).  He notes that this mixing of science and religion is completely against what scientists did in the classical period.

Dallal also mentions two schools of thought that he sees as being developed by Muslims in the West, one based on the ideas of Ziauddin Sardar (b. 1951) and the other by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (b. 1933).  He says that neither one systematically engages the Qurʾān or any other religious text, or any scientific text from the classical period.

Dallal closes by noting that “As an instrument of power, science is a tool that perpetuates the subjugation and dependency of Muslims, but it also embodies the hope for their future recovery.”

The additional lectures are:  Beginnings and Beyond”,“Science and Philosophy”, and “Science and Religion” .  They were given 19-28 February 2008.  Dallal is introduced by Harry Attridge, dean of the Divinity School at Yale University.


Islam:  The material on Islam is within the bounds of what Muslims have historically understood as acceptable.

Science:  There is relatively little here on actual science, but what is presented is accepted by contemporary scientists.

History:  The historical material is appropriately represents the material that Dallal argues with.

About Ahmad Dallal

Ahmad Dallal is currently (2018) the Dean of the Georgetown University in Qatar.He grew up in Lebanon, and after working for a time as an engineer, he decided to advance his studies in Islamic intellectual history.  Dallal has published extensively on the history of science in the Muslim world, and taught at a variety of institutions in both the United States and the Middle East.  His newest book, due out in June 2018, discusses eighteenth century intellectual history of the Muslim Middle East, pushing back against the “decline thesis” of Muslim intellectual production.

Dallal holds a PhD from Columbia University, New York (1990), and a B.E. in mechanical engineering from the American University of Beirut (1980).

He maintains a social media presence on Twitter.

Select Bibliography

“Ahmad Dallal”, Twitter, <https://twitter.com/guqdean>, accessed 30 April 2018.

“Ahmad Dallal”, World Economic Forum, <https://www.weforum.org/people/ahmad-dallal>, accessed 30 April 2018.

“Islamic Thought Expert To Become Georgetown University in Qatar’s New Dean” (2017) Georgetown University, <https://www.georgetown.edu/news/ahmad-dallal-new-GU-Q-dean>, accessed 30 April 2018.

Bassam Haddad and Ahmed Zuhairy, “Intellectual Journey: On Islamic Studies – A STATUS/الوضع Conversation with Ahmad Dallal” (2014) Jadaliyya, <http://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/32770/Intellectual-Journey-On-Islamic-Studies-A-STATUS%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%88%D8%B6%D8%B9-Conversation-with-Ahmad-Dallal>, accessed 30 April 2018.