Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Musings of Ahmad Scientist

Okay, so the title's weak. Sue me. During the Great St. Louis Blackout of 2006, I had the opportunity to catch up on some reading, including the second edition of a book written by a friend and sent to me by another friend.

Those of you who've been active in the Libertarian Party probably know, or know of, Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, who's been a tireless activist on behalf of freedom for many years. I've been privileged to serve on the LP's Judicial Committee with Dr. Ahmad and to have socialized with him a time or two at LP events.

Dr. Ahmad's "new" book (actually a revised and expanded second edition of a previous work) is Signs in the Heavens: A Muslim Astronomer's Perspective on Religion and Science. I'll begin by recommending it without reservation to anyone who's interested in Islam (or religion in general), in science, or in a rewarding read. Having done so, I'll try to justify my recommendation.

Even knowing Dr. Ahmad, I wasn't expecting to enjoy this book. Most attempts to square religion and science go in one of two directions: They either attempt to push religion into a small sentimental corner "while the adults talk," or they attempt to indict science wherever it conflicts with the author's (allegedly religion-grounded) prejudices. Signs in the Heavens is blessedly and remarkably free of either of these biases.

Make no mistake about it, of course: Dr. Ahmad is a Muslim. He does not make excuses for his belief, nor does he try to minimize its importance in his life.

Neither, however, does he fall into any of the shell games which seem so tempting to purveyors of "creation science" and other attempts on the Christian side of the religious divide to make scientific inquiry bow before religious dogma.

Instead, he soberly examines the progress of science in the early Islamic period, offering compelling arguments as to why Islam advanced while Christendom languished and why things then began their turn in the other direction.

When I say "compelling," of course, I mean "compelling" to a non-Muslim non-scientist like myself. I plan to drop the book off with a scientist friend of mine the next time I visit Springfield (Missouri), since I'd like a scientist's opinion of it, and I may purchase another copy and ask a Muslim friend or two to read it for their reactions.

Those reservations aside, Signs in the Heavens is simply fascinating from just about every angle I can think of: If you're interested in the history of science, you'll love it. If you're interested in the dynamics of medievalism leading into renaissance, you'll love it. If you're interested in comparative religion, you'll love it.

The reason you'll love it is not because Dr. Ahmad covers all those subjects (he does), but because he does so in an engaging style reminiscent of Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking when they wrote on similar topics. As a matter of fact, I'd give this book to a pious friend (of any religion) before I'd offer him Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World precisely because it's just as well-written and effective on many of the same lines without the built-in antagonism toward faith per se. Dr. Ahmad never "writes down" to his presumably lay audience, but neither does he sacrifice detail or extended argument where either is needed.

Five, um, stars, for this astronomer's offering.

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