The Twelfth General Conference:Islam and Mutations of the Epoch
Islamic Treatment for Negative Effects of Scientific and Technological Progress
Islamic Treatment for Negative Effects of Scientific and
Dr. Murad Wilifried Hofmann
Summary: One should distinguish between primary and secondary
effects of scientific and technological progress. The globalization (or
universalization) of modern science and technology (their primary effect) is an
old, normal, and unavoidable phenomenon. Alas, the latter is also true of the
proliferation of ABC weapons and gene manipulation.
However, the current globalization of science and technology is peculiar
in its speed. It therefore threatens to unsettle traditional societies. Its
(secondary) effects are particularly sweeping on education, sexual behavior,
life styles, and the family.
Given that modernization does not necessarily mean Westernization, the
Muslim world should not even try to reject technological modernization in toto
but use it selectively, trying to integrate it in such a way that the Islamic world-
view and Islamic priorities continue to prevail.
This presupposes that Muslims, instead of trying to shelter themselves
physically from the onslaught of Western technology, try to desensitize
themselves against its worst effects: moral immunization leading to
neutralization of the technological impact of the IT revolution.
While extremely difficult, this can be done provided that parents and
teachers live themselves by the Islamic priorities they preach, shun
consumerism, argue pro-actively, defend the cohesion of the Muslim family,
prefer quality to quantity, and demonstrate that to be is more valuable than to
Analysis: In dealing with the treatment for negative effects of scientific
and technological progress we must first distinguish between primary effects
which are unavoidable (and therefore not treatable) and secondary effects
amenable to intervention.
I. Primary Effects
a) A good deal of what makes up scientific and technological
globalization today is a natural and therefore necessary, virtually autonomous
development-neither planned nor steered by human in situations. It has always
been in the nature of scientific-technological progress that superior methods,
tools, plants, or products would gradually become universal. In this sense,
globalization has always been with us.
In fact, it was Indian numerals, including the zero, which-over a period
of some 800 years-became universal, pushing the cumbersome system of Latin
numerals out of use. So-called Greek fire could not be kept from
revolutionizing sea-warfare around the Mediterranean. Following importation
into Spain, in the beginning, all of Southern Europe, step by step, profited
from advanced Muslim technology-like windmills-and irrigation methods and
vegetation-like citrus and almond trees.
b) Today's globalization is of the same nature, even though it has
changed its course of direction, no longer moving from South to North but
from West to East. The only, out major, difference is the speed with which
modern globalization is spreading. Seen from a distance, what Muslim Spain
was for Europe Western civilization is today for the Orient. Not by
the command of Bill Gates but by its nature, superior technology and science
flows downhill like water.
Speed does not affect the nature of this process but makes it more
frightening. The rate of change today causes future shock, unsettles traditional
societies, and even changes the face of the West itself at an unparalleled pace.
This, however, does not imply that the general thrust of technological
innovation could be influenced, except marginally, through political or
economic decisions. Once the spirit of a new communications technology is out
of the bottle, there is no way to force it back. The history of the development of
electricity, the telephone, television, the computer, and mobile phones are
examples in point.
Currently, the INTERNET is a prime example for the argument I want
to make: Most of mankind combine in order to create an information universe
and a fascinating new, while virtual, world in cyber-space. No government, no
international organization, and of course no individual can counteract this
development. It is not the re suit of a policy or conspiracy. Rather, it is in the
nature of science and technology itself to impose itself.
2. What I am saying should make us pessimistic as far as nuclear and
genetic developments are concerned, even though in these two fields
international efforts are made to reduce the damage already done.
In contrast to this I classify these fields with those primary effects of
universalization which are beyond control.
a) (i) True, with its Non-Proliferation Treaty the United Nations have
made an effort to prevent the spreading of nuclear capability beyond the five
veto powers in its Security Council; in addition, these powers- the United
States of North America, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China-promised
their own nuclear disarmament, a promise nobody believes to be serious.
The reality is different. The Treaty could not prevent Israel, India, and
Pakistan-in this order-to become nuclear powers. Israel was even helped by
some of them to achieve nuclear status. Other threshold countries could
relatively easily "go nuclear" if they so wished. Ever since Otto Hahn, at his
simple workbank in G?ttingen, in 1938 discovered how to achieve nuclear
fission, nuclear armament was bound to follow, no matter what, according to
the veracity that "whatever can go wrong, will go wrong". That the
"primitive" fission bombs of 1945 with low yield (like the 20 KT devices
dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima), based on uranium, would be followed in
1952 by Edward Teller's fusion bombs (with unimaginable megaton power),
based on oxygen, was only a matter of time.
My father, a professor of mathematics and physics, after a scientific
consultation in Berlin told us enigmatically: "I cannot tell you what we are
working on. But please pray that we will not succeed in what we are doing"
He was right. Today, any gifted high school major in physics knows how
to construct a small nuclear explosive.
Proliferation is therefore not impeded cognitively (and hardly
economically but only in terms of access to delivery means. It is the
transportation problem, which hedges nuclear armament in, not the Non-
(ii) The same is true for chemical and biological weapons. Here, too,
while most nations promised total disarmament and while the destruction of
chemical stockpiles has progressed both in the United States and Russia, there
simply is no way of preventing somebody from concocting a chemical or
The spread of these weapons in only contained to some extent because
delivery of them is difficult and extremely risky even for the aggressor, and
because of fear of retaliation in kind.
But retaliation only works between States. If terrorists are bound and
determined to use small-sized nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, there
is nothing to prevent them than their own conscience.
3. With genetic engineering the story is no different. Scientists are busy
decoding the human genetic code. Cloning has started at the animal level.
Individual DNA sequences are manipulated for the development of drugs. Bits
and pieces of the genetic make-up of man have been patented like a gadget.
Is it not realistic to assume that-as a result of these explosive scientific
achievements in biophysics-this potentially evil spirit also has left the bottle for
good? Can one really expect to force it back through ethical codes drawn up
by medical associations or through inter national treaties?
These are rhetorical questions. Once human cloning is possible, it will
happen, sooner or later, even though it is the worst conceivable tampering with
Therefore, my realistic (and therefore pessimistic) assessment is that
there is no certain way of eliminating the primary effects of scientific
The story is different with the secondary negative effects of this
development. These are mainly caused by the information / communication
revolution and can be identified in the areas of (a) education, (b) sexual
behavior (c) life style and (d) family cohesion.
In all of these fields, it is useless to try eliminating the immediate impact
of modern technology. But Muslim countries and families can try, with
justified hope of success, to neutralize this impact. Muslim societies are bound
to change. Many Third World traditions are bound to disintegrate. But it is
possible to save the core of Islam, and to live it, even in a modern environment,
because Modernization does not necessarily equal Westernization.
(a) Before today's virulent globalization it was possible to raise a Muslim
personality by exposing it exclusively to Muslim sources: the Qur'an, Sunnah,
fiqh, Islamic history and philosophy, Islamic literature.
This is no longer so. Via radio, television, and the Internet, and re-
enforced by the ease of traveling abroad and by receiving millions of Western
tourists, the exclusive Islamic worldview is constantly penetrated.
This enormous challenge to education cannot be met the old way: by
sheltering pupils physically against harmful foreign influences. Rather,
modern educators have to resort to a process of immunization. They must be
prepared to handle and interpret foreign data. In the last resort, this is what
ought to be meant with "Islamization of Knowledge". It would be unrealistic
to expect that Muslim students to master both the entire body of Islamic
science and the tremendous body of modern science as well. Rather, we can
only try realistically to ground Muslim students in an Islamic worldview which
will enable them to confront Western science with the right questions and
b) The same is true for sexual behavior. The damage done in this field is
obvious, with far-reaching negative consequences. Not only are sexual mores in
rapid decline; even the normativity of the shari'a is challenged and more and
However, as in case of education in general, proper sexual behavior can
no longer be ensured physically, as symbolized by the hijab. Here, too we have
to resort to a process of immunization. In other words: if we do not succeed in
convincing our daughters that it is detrimental for them, in more than one
respect, to expose themselves (literally and figuratively) shutting them up at
home will not do the trick. The responsibility of the family and of school in this
respect is tremendous because if they fail peer pressure will decide the issue,
(c) Under Life Style I understand the entire physical and moral
environment that comes with technological modernity, including drugs,
alcohol, cigarettes, discos, metal music, hip-hop dancing, mobile telephone,
cars, and consumerism as a whole. It is only too obvious that this life style-
basically the American Way of Life-has been spreading like bush fire. It is,
after all, only normal that the leading military, economic, and scientific power
of the world acts as a global model.
The changes provoked by each individual technical gadget are in deed so
drastic that some Muslims, like Maryam Jameela in Lahore, believe that you
cannot give a finger to technology without being seized by the hand. But is it
really true that all technology is of the devil?
Certainly not. Technology, medical and agricultural, has helped to feed
more people than ever, to increase life expectancy enormously, to reduce much
pain and suffering. Just compare the success rate of modern, eyesight saving
cataract technology with the fail rate in the 19th century.
The issue is not how to reject, but how to master modern technology.
This, again, is a learning process leading to immunization. We must
teach our children through our own behaviour how to handle, how to live
within, a consumerist, liberitarian society.
If we drastically explain to our children the likely effects of drugs, and do
not smoke and drink ourselves, chances are that they will learn how to cope.
I told my own son, for instance, when he was 11 years of age: "In High
School, I bet some boys will come up to you one day saying: "Why don't you
try this joint. We all do. That is cool!" In that case, you should answer: "I am
not like everybody else, and proud of it. That is cool. Why should I fall into a
trap simply because you did ?" "Thus, we rehearsed an emergency situation
before it arose, and this was more effective than moving my son to another,
supposedly drug- free school. Moral inoculation before the event is the only
way, I submit.
d) The family is bearing the brunt of the cultural assault under which we
all live. Whether it is educational attitudes or sexual behavior or life style: it is
the family, which decides the course of events, provided it does not collapse,
too, under the onslaught of Western civilization. It goes without saying,
therefore, that the defence of the family serves the defence of society as a
Family cohesion and solidarity and maintaining a Muslim environment
within the family are the very keys for the treatment of negative effects of
globalization. Conversely, any action harmful to the family like the acceptance
of gay marriages, the promotion of abortion and of single living, and the
seclusion of grandparents in old-age homes-are poison for the defense of a
To analyze is one thing. How to act?
I submit that there is no other way for defending Muslim society against
the negative effects of technological globalization than model counter-behavior
by Muslim parents. They must demonstrate themselves that submission to
Allah ta'ala has absolute priority in a Muslim's life, that the Qur'an is God's
Own instruction to us, that to be is more important than to have and
that quality of life is not in function of the quantity of available
Parents must make clear that any dependency on something other than
Allah amounts to shirk (and that this would not only be wrong but highly
unfair to our Provider). Thus we must not tolerate that a TV-set totally
dominates our living space and our conversation at home. To shut it off, and
radio mobile phones as well while the family eats its meals is a liberating act
The family must also counteract the tendency inherent in the
INTERNET to isolate individual family members from each other, like playing
solitaire before. To be on-line and a-lone is only too typical of today's
Parents must also quietly demonstrate through their consumption
behavior that they are not victims of consumerism. They must not be seen
competing with their neighbor or, as American sociologists put it, "to live up
to the Joneses".
Given the IT revolution, it is equally important for Muslim parents and
teachers to interrelate bits and pieces of information, thus teaching their
children to analyze and qualify information rather than just to consume it.
To sum it all up: It is much more difficult today to defend the Muslim
world view and to raise a new generation of Muslims, which are immune
against the worst temptations of the modern age. But it can be done, provided
that Muslim families remain intact and that Muslim educators proceed pro-
actively, neutralizing the new methods and gad gets rather than trying, in vain,
to reject them.
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