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Common Knowledge 9.1 (2003) 50-77

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A Counternarrative of Shared Ambivalence
Some Muslim and Western Perspectives on Science and Reason

Roxanne L. Euben

The opposition of science to religion—like the correlative binaries of reason and revelation, rationality and irrationality—is central to the way in which the West has organized its intellectual history. 1 Such oppositions instantiate the claim that the advance of science and the scientific method at once presupposes and demonstrates the illegitimacy of metaphysical sources of knowledge about the natural and social worlds. Implicit in these developments is the promise of mastery—of control, not just over recalcitrant facts and things, but also over human suffering—through the application of scientific and technical solutions. The progress of science and the evolution of Western history toward an ever better quality of life are by this means rendered mutually constitutive. The culmination of this process is a modernity defined by what Bruno Latour terms a "double asymmetry": "It designates," he writes, "a break in the regular passage of time, [End Page 50] and designates a combat in which there are victors and vanquished." 2 The contours of modernity, in other words, congeal specifically in contrast to both the distant past of the ancients and the more immediate past of the Middle Ages in which a "great chain of being" issuing from God was said to hold sway.

This ordering of past and present is rooted in the worlds of the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, and most recently the nineteenth-century heyday of philosophical materialism—yet its presuppositions retain a powerful purchase in contemporary scholarship. Its assumptions and polarities—and the standards of knowledge and methods of explanation they establish—are sharpened in what is called scientism: the presumption of more recent provenance that the natural or hard sciences provide a model appropriate for the acquisition of all knowledge. 3 Bringing to bear the precision, systematicity, and abstractions of science on the understanding of human behavior represents a conscious rejection of the Aristotelian belief in the "impossibility of scientizing praxis"; and thus, the application of scientistic standards and methods to human action is a dimension of the modern victory over the past. 4 Under the impact of rational-choice theory, the most recent extension of this victory into social studies, political science departments in particular have been roiled by the attempt to transform the study of politics from a variety of soft qualitative work into an exact science comparable to the study of markets or protons. 5

The polarities on which the idea of modernity has depended are increasingly challenged in our day by religiopolitical movements whose membership and practices suggest that, far from eroding the purchase of religion, the deepening knowledge of science may quicken a sense of the divine hand in the world. After the events of September 11, 2001, this challenge is nowhere clearer than in the makeup of Al-Qaeda, the network of Islamic fundamentalists (or Islamists) linked to Osama bin Laden and tied not only to the attacks on the World Trade [End Page 51] Center and Pentagon in 2001, but also to the 1992 bombing of a Yemen hotel containing American soldiers, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, and the destruction of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. 6 Unlike the often impoverished and uneducated Afghan fighters of the Taliban, a significant part of Al-Qaeda comprises middle-class, somewhat cosmopolitan young men with advanced education, often in the hard or applied sciences. Several Al-Qaeda lieutenants pursued studies in, for example, psychology, medicine, and engineering; 7 Mohammed Saddiq Odeh, convicted in connection with the bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi, studied architecture and engineering in the Philippines; 8 Mohamed Atta, the alleged ringleader of the September 11 attack, had been a student at the Technical University of Hamburg, and his confederates included Ziad Jarrahi, who studied at Hamburg's University of Applied Sciences. 9 The apparent affinity of Muslim fundamentalists for...


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