Science as a discourse of truth has acquired an authority that religion cannot ignore. It must keep pace to be relevant. The past century has seen a scramble among many religions, as they tried to appropriate science within their folds in order to present themselves as ‘scientific religions’. The question that I pursue in this paper is on the nature of ‘faith’ in such an enterprise of scientific religion. The scientific revolution of 17th Century Europe is said to have caused an epistemic shift in the understanding of the world, where reason replaced faith as the basis of truth. Religion, by such a logic, was aligned to faith and science to reason. What happens in the case of a scientific religion? I use the example of a popular 21st Century Islamic preacher from India, Dr. Zakir Naik, who uses science to reaffirm a weakening faith in Islamic religion. This affirmation, it must be noted, is not against or in competition with science, but as a response to the larger ‘West’ and its ‘Islamophobia’, as Muslims perceive it. Non-western religions have been facing different anxieties and pressures of science than Christianity did, because the accusation of irrationality gets indistinguishably blended with orientalism and colonialism.
Zakir Naik’s project is to prepare a response. He is ‘arming’ ordinary Muslims with answers to reply to the Western other. His explanations about common misconceptions and accusations towards Muslims are to be memorized by the ordinary Muslim and recalled and repeated at an hour of need. The ‘response’ is not necessarily to another physical ‘western’ person, but more importantly, to their own selves, which are under the influence of modern western concepts of the ‘good’ and the ‘true’. The awareness of threat to one’s faith is central to this endeavor.
Remarkably, it is through science, ‘scientific facts’ and ‘logical explanations’ that religion’s response is prepared. A medical doctor, Zakir Naik would make his case for Islam being the best religion and the word of god not by any traditional authority but by using the domain and tools of public sphere and democracy. He opens religion to debate, he ‘uses’ logic, encourages personal involvement, questions and skepticism. Moreover, it is only on the basis of the arms of the modern state and science – i.e. statistics, scientific facts, and examples of logical systems – that the claim to Islam as the perfect religion, can be made. It is science that will give definitiveness to the claims of religion, a definitiveness that it cannot obtain by itself.
In the 7 minute video of Zakir Naik’s talk that we saw, a Hindu woman from the audience asks Naik about the ‘logic’ of polygamy. Zakir Naik does not affirm the practice of polygamy as a right deed by itself. Instead, he cites excerpts from all major religious scriptures, to show that they all allow polygamy, and then goes on to mention ‘scientific facts’. The female, he says, is biologically stronger than the male at birth, and is more likely to survive, which is why there are at present considerably more females in the world than males. He continues: the practice of polygamy is there to even out this anomaly and save women from becoming ‘public properties’. Naik thus uses conditions created by provable ‘scientific’ observations to justify the validity of God’s dictum, which otherwise is questionable and questioned in this age of equal rights for women. But here one crucial question emerges: what is the nature of this god who is operating within the constraints of scientific principles, such as the alleged relation of strength at birth with women? Can god be constrained by natural principles?
In the same vein, is the believer supposed to have ‘faith’ in the righteousness of polygamy after being convinced of the ‘scientific logic’ of it? If one sees that all the maxims of their religion can be scientifically proven, what happens to faith? Does it get reaffirmed? Or is the idea of faith itself lost when put to question? If science becomes the basis of faith, what is the human’s relationship to God?