The Rise and Decline of Science in Islam

The Rise and Decline of Science in Islam

For the non-believer it is not easy to understand evolution of science in Islam without the context in which it developed, i.e., the world civilization created by the religion of Islam. An overwhelming release of energy, Islamic culture exploded as it were, onto the pages of human history starting in the 40th year of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, an illiterate but respected trader in Arabia who received the Divine revelation at the turn of the 7th century of the Christian Era. (1 )

The form in which the Islamic sciences were produced was not, to use the phrase of Jacques Monod, (2) a matter of mere “chance and necessity.” It was the direct consequence of the unique transformation of human minds by Islam and secondarily the social conditions resulting from the radical change in a tribal culture interacting with more advanced societies. :The cultural changes which followed developed rapidly, first in the heartilands of the Middle East and adjacent nations, but ultimately spreading the venture into China and Indonesia in the east and to Europe in the West. Accompanying these dramatic changes in the social and ethicalof a large variety of nationalities, there was also a remarkable ingathering and synthesis of existing human knowledge. The Muslims brought together what was known about science and learning in all its from Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian, Creek, Iranian, Sabaen and Chinese sources (Fig. 1). This was an immense encyclopedic effort which laid the foundations for new developments in experimental method, theory and applications. These developments, however, in the sense of that word as we know it today was part and parcel of the essential doctrine of Islam, which regarded reflecting upon the works of god primary function of any sensible human being. The tone and style of Islamic civilization and the Muslim mind was determined by the Book of Allah which repeatedly emphasized the necessity of reflecting on the laws of nature:

“Verily in the creation of the heavens and of the Earth and in the alternation of the night and the day are signs for men of understanding. They who standing, sitting or reclining bear Allah in mind and reflect on the creation of the Heavens and of the Earth, saying. . ‘0 our Lord! Thou hast not created this in vain.”‘ (Qur’an 3:191)

“Are those who know equal with those who know not? But only men of understanding will pay heed.” (Qur’an 39:9)

“We shall show them our portents on the horizons and within themselves until it will be manifest unto them that it is the Truth.”(Qur’an 41:53)

There are “750 verses of the Qur’an (almost one eighth of the Book) -which exhort believers to study Nature, to reflect, to make the best use of the reason in their search for the ultimate and to make the acquiring of knowledge and scientific comprehension part of the community’s life.” Similarly in the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) we find similar emphasis on knowledge, and its close relationship with moral and spiritual excellence.

“Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave”
“Verily the men of knowledge are the inheritors of the prophets”

The message of Islam is most of all concerned with what a human being is, or more precisely put, how can humans fully become what he or she really is in their primordial nature (fitrah), i.e., a theomorphic being created to reflect the Divine in all its Beauty and Majesty. This metaphysical doctrine is the supreme “science of the sacred” contained within the inner dimensions ofthe Qur’an and has two aspects: the fundamental Unity of the Principle (AI-tawhid) and the interrelatedness of all the diversity in nature brought into being by the creative act (the “kun” of the Qur’anic statement “Be and it is”. The other aspect is the human complement of this principle as in the doctrine of the Universal human (al-insan al-kamil) in whom the true fulness of the human state is realized and through whom multiplicity and the apparent diversity of nature returns to Unity. This unifying perspective of Islam requires that whatever forms of knowledge be developed, they must be interpreted in such a way as to reflect the true structure of Reality which is God. Another way to put this would be to say that because Islam aims at a total harmony of belief and action, intellectual compartmentalization of science, art and religion and the creation of subjective-objective dichotomies in our understanding of who we are, our place in nature and how God fits into our conception of reality, should be viewed as inadequacies of knowledge and as such, they are stumbling blocks to be overcome in the evolution of universal human beings.

Bearing this in mind we may legitimately ask what are the factors which led to the paradox of an Islamic civilization which led the world in science for almost 400 years and then entered a long period of scientific and technological decline in which it has become seriously depleted of the very power it once so brilliantly shaped and used’ This decline shows no sign of being overcome in spite of the continuing and growing strength of exoteric Islam. How is it that what was once a unified way of believing and acting in this world that produced world class leaders in science and set the stage for the Renaissance fell so low?

Having placed our subject securely in the context of Islam, I will now briefly review some facts about the Muslim contributions to science. As heirs to the intellectual heritage of all the major civilizations of that time (excepting that of China and the Far East), Islam was able to create the first science of a truly international nature in human history. This was the direct – consequence of the universal nature of Islam as well as the geographical spread of Islamic culture. The primary sources were of Greek, Indian and persian origins with Chinese scientific works being integrated after the Mongol invasion. The actual process by which these source materials were translated from such diverse languages as Greek, Syriac, Sanskrit and into Arabic is probably one of the unique examples of accelerated cultural transmission. In both quantitative and qualitative terms this effort all similar efforts e.g., the translation of the Buddhist texts into Chinese and of Arabic works into Latin in medieval Europe. (4,6)

How significantly did Islamic culture and the work of Muslims affect the course of scientific history? An approximate measure of this contribution is given by George Sarton in his three volume history of science. (7)

Sarton divides his account of the highest achievement in science into Ages, each Age lasting about 50 years and one central person is associated with each age. Thus 500-450 B.C. is the Age of Plate, followed by the Ages Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes and so forth. From 750 A.D. (c.e. to 1100 (c.e.) we find an unbroken succession of Islamic scientists, the Ages of Jabir, Khwarizmi, Razi, Masudi, Abu’l – Wafa, Biruni and Omar Khayam. Strikingly, for 350 years there are no names outside the world of Islam, Arabs, Turks, Afghans, Persians and converts from Judaism and Christianity dominated the world stage of science in the fields of chemistry, mathematics, medicine, geography, physics and astronomy. According to Sarton, it was only after 1100 A.D. (c.e.) that Western names begin to appear but even then and for 250 years more they share the Ages of scien tific honor with Muslims like ibn Rushd, Nasir-ud-din Tusi, and Ibn Nafis.

An important aspect of the Islamic Age of scientific prominence was the reverence in which learning and science was held. This patronage of science by the dominant elites was of course the major and perhaps only source of funding in the absence of Institutional arrangement. Quite logical ly when the socio-political domination of the world by [slam began to fade in the middle ages, patronage also began to dissipate.

In this brief account, I cannot do justice to all scientific achievements of Islamic science and accordingly will mention only a few centered around what Abdus Salam has called The Golden Age of Science in Islam which laid the foundations of the expenmental method.(3) This period straddles the year 1000 A.D. (c.e.) between Ibn-i-Sina (Avicenna) the last of the medievalists and his contempories, the first of the moderns, Ibn-al-Haitham and Al-Biruni.

Ibn-al-Haitham known as Alhazen in the West was one of the greatest physicists of all time and an experimentalist of the first order in the science of optics. When he claimed that “a ray oflight in passing through a medi um takes the path which is easier and quicker” he anticipated Fermat’s Principle of Least Time by many centuries. He described the law of inertia, later to become Newton’s Ist Law of Motion. Refraction was described in mechanical terms by considering the movement of “particles of light” as they passed through the surface of separation between two media, in accor dance with the rectangle law offorce – an approach later rediscovered and elaborated by Newton. Roger Bacon’s Opus Majus Part V is essentially a copy ofIbn-al-Haitham’s Optics. It is not surprising therefore that we hear of Bacon’s admonition to his own contemporaries in the West that he “never wearied of declaring that a knowledge of Arabic and of. Arabic science was the only way to true knowledge.”

Al-Biruni (973-1048 A.D. (c.e.)) was an empirical scientist like Ibn-alHaitham who worked in Afghanistan. He anticipated Galileo by six centuries in his discovery of the so-called Galilean invariance of the laws of nature — perhaps the most liberating statement in science “that the same Laws of Physics apply here on earth as they do the stars and planets in the heavens.”

Unquestionably Western Science is a Greco-Islamic legacy. Those Western scholars who allege that Islamic science simply followed Greek theoretical traditions blindly without adding to the scientific method are simply ignorant of the historical evidence to the contrary. Islamic scientists demonstrated what we knownow to be the only way to do intense scientific work. First learn and build your knowledge on what is available (“reading the literature”), then examine your doubts about what you have learned (“developing hypotheses”) and finally the critical step of new observations and experiments of your own. This critical step in the history of science came early in Islamic science and its dearest exponents were Ibn-alHaitham and Al-Biruni. (3)

Here is Al-Biruni on Aristotle:

“The trouble with most people is their extravagance in respect of Aristotle’s opinions; they believe that there is no possibility of mistakes in his views, though they know that he was only theorizing to the best of his capacity and never claimed to be God’s protected and never said he was immune from mistakes.”

And here is Al-Biruni denouncing medieval superstition:

“People say that on the 6th of January there is an hour during which all salt water of the earth gets sweet. Since all the qualities occurring in the water depend exclusively upon the nature of the soil… . These qualities are of stable nature… . Therefore this statement entirely unfounded. Continual and leisurely experimentation will show to anyone the futility of this assertion. “

And finally, Al-Biruni on geology and his insistence on ohservation and logical deduction.

“…But if you see the soil of India with your own eyes and meditate on nature, if you consider the rounded stones found in earth however deeply you dig, stones that are huge near the mountains and where the rivers have violent currents, stones that are of smaller size at a greater distance from the mountains and where the streams flow more slowly, stones that appear pulverized in the shape of sand where the streams begin to stagmate near the mouths and near the sea — if you consider all this you can scarcely help thinking that India was once a sea, which by degrees has been fiiled up by the alluvium of the streams.”

In the words of the French scholar Briffault, “The Greeks systematized generalized and theorized, but the patient ways of investigation, the accumulation of positive knowledge, the minute methods of science, detailed and prolonged observation and experimental enquiry were altogether to the Greek temperament…. What we call science arose in Europe as a result of a new spirit of enquiry. of new methods of investigation, of the method of experimentation, observation, measurement and of the development of Mathematics in form unknown to the Creeks. That spirit and those methods were introduced into the European mold by the Arabs…. Modern Science is the most momentous contribution of Islamic civilization.” (8)

George Sarton puts these thoughts of Briffault in another way, “the main, as well as the least obvious, achievement of the middle ages was the creation of the experimental spirit and this was primarily due to the Muslims down the 12th Century.” (7)

The Golden Age of medical science in the Islamic world began somewhat earlier. The first translator and writer of independent medical works in Arabic was a Christian Ibn Masawayh (known as Mesue Senior in the West) and after him his student Hunayn ibn Ishay. Hunayn translated not only the works of Hippocrates and Galen into Arabic but also an entire medical curriculum, the Alexandrian summaries. He also wrote the first systematic treatises on Diseases of the Eye. These Christian Arab pioneers were followed by the first notable Muslim physician in the first half of the 3rd/9th century, Al-Tabari, an Iranian convert to Islam. He wrote the first systematic Islamic work on medicine, the FIRDA WS AL-HIKMAH; this included discussion of all branches of medicine as well as anatomy and a special section on Indian medicine. On this foundation built by Al-Tabari and Hunayn, the golden age of Islamic medicine began with the work of the person we honor today in this lecture; Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi, probably the greatest of Muslim physicians. His experimental and clinical contributions were catalogued by al- Biruni who listed 184 works, the most important of which was the encyclopedic al-Hawi (Liber Continens) much prized in the West. His most famous work known in the West was on smallpox and measles (Kitab al-jadari wa’l-hasbah). Following Al-Razi, another Iranian dominated internal medicine in the Eastern part of the Islamic world: Al-Majusi known in the west as Haly Abbas. His contemporary in Muslim Spain was al-Zahrawi (Albucasis) probably the greatest surgeon of the Golden age of Islamic Medical Science, whose Kitab-al-Tasrif or Concessio in Latin contained a section on surgical instrumentation and techniques. His works were widely disseminated in the West due to the Latin translation by Gerard of Cremona and interest in this work survived into the modern period with a 1778 Oxford edition of the Arabic text with Latin translation.(6)

Space does not allow further discussion of other notable medical scientists such as the “prince of physicians” Abu Ali ibn Sina (Avicenna) who was born in Bukhara and did most of his work in Persia; ibn Nafis, the discoverer of the pulmonary circulation and the real predecessor of William Har/ey; al-Afkani, the Egyptian who wrote the first book on first aid, “The Refuge of the Intelligent during the Absence of the Physician” and ibn Rushd (Averroes) the most celebrated philosopher and physician of Andalusia who wrote the Kitab-al-Kulliyat (the book of General Principles – Colliget in Latin).

The Jewish physician and philosopher Abu Imran Musa ibn Maymun (Maimonides) was a student of both ibn Rushd and Ibn Tufayl. Accomplished in both medicine and philosophy, he became physician to Salah-al-Din Ayubi (SALADIN) and his family; his medical works include “The Book of Aphorisms” (Kitab al-fusul) and the “Regimen of Health”, a book on Hygiene dedicated to the son of Saladin.

The causes of the decline and interruption of the modern spirit of science which first dawned within the Islamic civilization remains unknown. The works of al-Biruni and Ibn-al- Haitham, of al-Razi and ibn-Sina did not directly lead to a continuous and permanent change in the direction of human sciences. Within a century or so after these men lived and worked, creation of first class science petered out and virtually came to a halt. About five centuries had to pass before the torch lit by scientists working in the Islamic world was rekindled and carried forward by Galileo, Copemicus, William Harvey, Leeuwenhook, Isaac Newton (who was born in the same year in which Galileo died – 1642) and their contemporaries. It is tragic indeed that it has taken almost another 500 years for the Islamic world to realize that without modern science there is no possibility of survival in the modern world.


There have been many studies and books written on the “Glory that was Islam” but very little on why that glorious civilization did not succeed in establishing what it first developed, a mature system for doing creative science and educating new scientists. A few Western scholars haveattempted to address this problem, notably Marshall Hodgson in his magisterial work, “The Venture of Islam” (I)and Bernard Lewis in his book, “The Muslim Discovery of Europe”. (9) (I have not been able to find any definitive book by a Muslim on this subject, but my interest was aroused in this matter by an excellent analysis by Professor Abdus Salam; the first and only Nobel laureate (in Physics) in the Muslim world. He asks the question: “why did creative science die out in Islam?”) Salam’s analysis leads him to attribute the demise of living science within the Islamic commonwealth which began around 1100 A.D. (c.e) and essentially completed by 1350 A.D.(c.e ) to internal rather than external causes. We will examine the latter first. By external causes we usually understand such factors as the Mondol invasion, the Crusades and the unfortunate and too frequent recurrences tribal and internecine warfare amongst Muslims themselves who tribal and national loyalties above belief in Islam. This unfortunate continues to this day. More recently we can add the long succession of military political defeats for Dar-al-Islam symbolized by such episodes as the conquest of Egypt by Napoleon, of the Mughal Empire by the British, the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent Balkanisation of the Arabian heartlands and the Middle East by the European powers. The latter set of events are particularly intriguing in helping us examine the paradox of the decline of Science in the Muslim world, occurring almost at the same time as the gee-political power of Muslim states was becoming more significant.

During the sixteenth century in spite of the decline of creative science, geo-politically, the Muslim world constituted the most rapidly expanding force in world affairs. Not only were the Ottoman Turks pushing westward into Europe, but the Persians were enjoying a resurgence of power and high culture under Ismail (1500-1624) and Abbas I (1587-1629). A chain of strong Muslim Khanates controlled the fabled Silk Road via Kashgar and Turfan to China very much in the way that African Islamic states such as Bornu, Sokoto, and Timbuktu controlled the northern and central African trade. Hindu empires in Indonesia and India were overthrown by Muslim forces early in the sixteenth century. Under Akbar the Great (1556-1605), the Mughal Empire stretched from Baluchistan in the west to Bengal in the east. People converted to Islam in Africa and Asia in large numbers, Tar outstripping the proselytizing efforts of Christian missions in the same areas. The Ottoman Empire had conquered Hungary in the west, besieged iicnna repeatedly and established a unity of official faith, culture and language over an area greater than the Roman Empire. Its cities were large, well illuminated and with extensive sewage systems. In spite of continuing dominance in the early sixteenth century in mathematics, cartography, medicine and the technologies of mills, gun casting, lighthouses and horse breeding, by the second half of that century, the Ottoman Turks began to falter, turn inward and lose their hold on power. In a superb historical account, Paul Kennedy has placed this collapse in the context of how all great powers have risen and fallen since 1500 to the present day. His emphasizes is placed on the gee-political, economic, and military factors, particularly the latter. He blames strategic over-extension or “imperial overstretch,” comparing the collapse of the Turkish, Spanish and British empires to a similar situation in the U.S.A. today, wherein the sum total of an empire’s global interests and obligations exceeds its capacity to defend them simultaneously. (10)

The titular Caliph of all Islam was the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, who was also titled “Defender of the Holy Places” (Mecca, Medina and Jerusalcm), In the west his forces maintained a large army in central Europe, an expensive navy in the mediterranean, troops in North Africa, the Aegean, Cyprus and The Red Sea, with constant reinforcements needed to retain the Crimea against the rising Russian power. The official Sunni practice and teaching of the Ottoman Empire was now challenged by a disastrous religious split between the Shia branch oflslam based in Iraq and later in Persia under Abbas the Great. Just as France had collaborated with the “infidel Turk” against the Holy Roman Empire, the Persians now allied themselves with the “infidel” Europeans against the largest Muslim power in the world. The fact that after 1566 a series of thirteen thoroughly incompetent Sultans ruled the Empire was certainly an aggravating factor. Kennedy suggests an Important point which applies very well to the thesis I am developing. He says, “External enemies and personal failings do not however provide the full explanation.” He then goes on to cite the defects ofbeing too highly centralized, despotic and severely orthodox towards any initiative and dissent. The fierce repression of the Shia religious challenge (instead of any attempt at discussion and consensus building) “reflected and anticipated a hardening of official attitudes toward all forms of free thought.” Printing presses were forbidden so that “dangerous” opinions would not spread. Imports of western goods were desired but exports were forbidden. Trade guilds received official support to check innovation and prevent the rise of “capitalist” producers. Contemptous of European ideas and practices, the Turks refused to adopt newer methods to control plagues — consequently, the people suffered more severe epidemics. “In one truly amazing fit of obscurantism, a force of the elite Jannisaries destroyed a state observatory in 1580 alleging that it had caused a plague!”

Exactly analogous attitudes and practices were developing’ in that other center of Muslim power, the Mughal Empire. A conquering Muslim elite controlled a mass of poverty – stricken peasants, mostly Hindus. In spite of a sophisticated banking and credit system and the availability of a commercial community in Hindu business families, the Mughal rulers (with exception of perhaps Akbar the Great) could not overcome certain indigenous retarding factors. The Hindu cast system, their religious taboos against modernization and the influence of obscurantitist Brahmin priests over local Hindu Rulers was coupled with marked distortions in the nature of Mughal rule. “The brilliant courts were centers of conspicuous consumption on a scale which the Sun King of Versailles might have thought excessive. Thousands of servants and courtiers, extravagant clothes, jewels, harems and menageries, vast arrays of body guards could bepaid for only by the creation of a systematic plunder machine. Tax collectors, required to produce fixed sums for their masters preyed mercilessly upon peasant and merchant alike; whatever the state of the harvest or trade the money had to come in. There being no constitutional or other checks – apart from rebellion – upon such depredations, it was not surprising that taxation was known as ‘eating’. For this collosal annual tribute, the population next to nothing. There was little improvement in communications machinery for assistance in the event of famine, flood and plague which were of course fairly regular occurrences.” (10)

Thus the decline of the Mughal Empire which is technically attributed to the loss of control of the the Afghanis in the North, the Marathas in the South and finally the East India Company of Great Britain, was much more due to internal factors than external threats. Ironically the greatest expansion of Mughal power in the Indian sub-continent under Aurangzeb was also coupled with a significant hardening of rigid orthodoxy and intolerance for deviations in the official interpretation of Islamic Law and teaching. It is no wonder that the collapse of the Mughal empire developed most rapidly after the death of Aurangzeb. Apart from ordering wholesale destruction of Hindu temples, Aurangzeb by his own confession, had neglected that side of the Shariah that called for protection and justice for the peasantry.(l0,ll)

Let us now examine more closely some of the internal factors which facilitated the decline of science in Islam. The turn of the eleventh to twelfth century was a time of intense politically motivated sectarian religious strife. Imam Ghazali in his “The Revival of Religious Learning,” insisted that certain sciences were necessary (FAD-AL-KIFAYA) for the preservation of Islamic society, e.g. mathematics and medical science. In another of his books, Al-Munqidh min ad-Dalal, he could not have been clearer “A grievous crime indeed against religion has been committed by a man who imagines that Islam is defended by the denial ofthe mathematical sciences. seeing that there is nothing in the revealed truth opposed to these sciences by way either of negation or affirmation, or nothing in these sciences opposed to the truth of religion.” As Abdus Salam has said “Imam Ghazali was fighting a losing battle.” What appeared to develop from the 12th Century onward was an increasing lack of tolerance (taqlid) for innovation (ijtihu~. Although technically ijtihad stands for individual enquiry to establish the ruling of the Shari’ah upon a given point by a qualified person (mujtahia3, I am using this term in a wider sense ofinnovative interpretation. It should also be noted that the Sunni branch of Islam had considered ijtihad permissible only on points not already decided by recognized authorities such as Abu Hanifah (699-767 A.D. (c.e.) and Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855 A.D. (c.e.). On points already so decided, they required taqlid i.e., adherence to the orthodox view. It is in this sense of demanding adherence and preventing innovation that this term (taqlid) is being used. It should also be noted that the Shia branch of Islam permitted full ijtihad, but only to their great scholars and not the ordinary Muslim.

Perhaps the most telling example of the depressing combination of apathy towards the continuation of creative science and a smug complacency towards the rigid orthodox religious view is found in a quotation from a surprising source. Ibn Khaldun (1372-1406 A.D. (c.e.), was one of the greatest of social historians as well as one of the brightest intellects for any time and yet he writes in his famous Muqaddimah:

“We have heard, of late, that in the land of the Franks, and on the northern shores of the Mediterranean, there is a great cultivation of philosophical sciences. They are said to be studied there again, and to be taught in numerous classes. Existing systematic expositions of them are said to be comprehensive, the people who know them numerous, and the students of them very many…. Allah knows better what exists there…. But it is clear that the problems of physics are of no importance for us in our religious affairs. Therefore, we must leave them alone.” (12)

As Abdus Salam has emphasized in referring to this example “isolation in the sciences and the veneration of authority it engenders, spells intellectual death.”(3)

Unfortunately, this lack of toleration for innovation and confusion of scientific work with religious practice continued right through the history of the great Islamic empires. The Osmanli Turks, the Iranian Safavis and Indian Mughals, with a few notable exceptions continued the scientific decline even while importing European technology. William Eaten, British Consul to Istanbul in the year 1800 writes concerning the Turks as follows: “The man of general science is unknown. No one has the least idea of navi~ation and the use of the magnet… . They like to trade with those who bring to them useful and valuable articles, without the labor of manufacturing.” (13) This indolent attitude towards science and technology is not fully Overcome even today. When one examines the utilization ofthe G.N.P. of Islamic nations today and tries to ascertain how much is devoted to estabof scientific institutions wherein science transfer from the West is emphasized as well as technology transfer, one finds only few examples of which to be proud. The number of scientists from Islamic countries is very small , 1 /100 to 1 /10 in size, in scientific resources and in scientific creativity, compared to international norms. (14)

Abdus Salam has noted in the paper referenced above that the confusion in Muslim thought about science and its relation to religion today may well a legacy of the battles of yesteryear “when the so called ‘rational philosophers’ with their irrational and dogmatic faith in cosmological doctrines from Aristotle found difficulties in reconciling these with their faith “(14)

Unfortunately this confusion continues unabated to this day. At a recent conference on “Scientific Miracles of Qur’an and Sunnah” held in Islamabad many papers were read purporting to establish that every scientific phenomenon now known was anticipated 1400 years ago. The conclusions drawn were remarkable, e.g. Dr. Muhammad Muttalib of Al-Azhar University stated that mountains have pegs which root them into the earth, in the absence of which the earth rotation would cause the mountains to disintegrate; an opinion which obviously is innocent of any knowledge of gravity and the fact that it is considerably stronger than centrifugal force. An earlier conference of this sort contained a report by Dr. M. Arshad Ali Beg of the PCSIR laboratories entitled “Qur’an and Scientific Interpretation of Munafaqat.” In this Dr. Beg develops an equation analogous to that describing the force between electrical changes by which he can calculate the degree of munafaqat in any society. On a scale of 0-100, his estimate for munafaqat for Western Society equalled 22 and for Spain and Portugal equalled 14. Disappointingly, no figures were given for munafaqat in societies closer to Dr. Beg’s own country. (15)

The confusion exists because such person do not have a clear idea of what science is and how religion relates to it. Modern science seeks rational understanding of the physical universe by observation, inference and constructs knowledge on the objective basis of sense experience and is essentially quantitative knowledge. Scientific theories on the other hand are never perfect and no theory is acceptable unless it makes a sufficient number of predictions which if proven wrong will falsify that theory! This effort is completely secular and does not appeal to divine authority for verification of scientific facts but the existence of such authority is neither affirmed nor denied by science. Some scientists are atheists or agnostics; others are deeply religious and continually in wonder at the order, precision and beauty of the universe and all things within it. Abdus Salam, a devout Muslim quoted the Qur’an repeatedly when he accepted the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979, a prize he shared with Steven Weinberg who is an avowed atheist.

We may now understand how it is possible for a deeply religious Muslim, who does not do scientific work or realize what modern science is all about, to indeed become confused and try to create a new “Islamic Science.” He may be genuinely concerned that practitioners of modern science inevitably become “rationalists” (Modern Mutazalites) which in turn will lead to shirk and apostasy. On the other hand there may well be some who are truly obscurantists and see the new “Islamic Science” as a proper reaction to modern science thus creating a false dichotomy of a religious science and an irreligious science. In truth they are encouraging the development of a pseudoscience. How else can one assess the contribution to Islam of Sheikh Ibn-el Bat, rector of Mecca University, who threatens with the fatwa of takfir all who disagree with his belief that the earth is statiunary and the sun moves around it? How is Islam served by that well known Pakistani scientist who (apparently seriously) advocates using fiery jinns as fuel and hence solving Pakistan’s energy crisis?

Such confusions of thought, well described in analytic philosophy as “category mistakes” are not only i-ecent and certainly not unique to Muslims. The Christian theologians of the middle ages had similar arguments with bitter denunciations and persecutions amongst themselves. Their questions were of the type: Does God note the primum mobile directly as an efficient cause or only as a final or ultimate cause? Do angels expenence fatigue? Does celestial matter have inherent qualities like terrestrial matter? When Galileo first tried to classify such questions into those that properly belonged in Physics and then sought to find answers only to those questions by physical experiments, he was persecuted by the Catholic Church. Three hundred and fifty years later, however, we read that at a special ceremony for Nobel Prize Winners at the Vatican on May 9th, 1983, His Holiness the Pope declared “The Church’s experience in the Galileo affair and after it, has led to a more mature attitude. The Church itself learns by experience and reflection and she now understands better the meaning that must be given to freedom of research… ….it is through research that one attains to Truth…. This is why the Church is convinced that there can be no real contradiction between science and faith. However, it is only through humble and assiduous study that the Church learns to dissociate the essential of the faith from the scientific systems of a given age, especially when culturally influenced reading of the Bible seemed to be linked to an obligatory cosmogony.”(3)

Evolution of scientific understanding in relation to religious thought in Eslam, analogous to that described above in Catholic Christianity, is certaintY ongoing now and possible for all educated Muslims. The greatest potential asset of Islam is the frank sense of history that from the start has been a dominant fact in its discussions (even though some modernizing Muslims displayed a romantic disregard of historical facts). Al-Shafi continued in his own work the example set by the Holy Prophet’s life when he insisted on understanding the Qur’an quite concretely in its historical interaction the life of the Prophet and his community. Although historical accura not always been maintained, no Islamic scholar has ever denied the principles that historical accuracy was the foundation of all religious knowledge Hodgson has suggested that it may be that Muslims “dare not admit that the historical Islam which is at the focus of their loyalties may be less perfect than the God with whom, in practice, they tend to identify. But if there are Muslims whose confidence in God Himself is strong enough so that they dare risk everything, even community prestige or solidarity, for the sake of truth, then for such Muslims, facing historical realities and coming to term with even the most painful of them is encouraged by the Islamic tradition itself.”

This sincere effort is needed if we are to reconcile within ourselves as Muslims the ability to work as scientists and continue to feel that our effort’ are an essential part of a cosmic plan. The key element here is thesubjective point of view either reconciled with, or in creative tension with, an objective point of view, what Thomas Nagel has called “the view from nowhere” (16)

The moral crisis of the modern world is that preventable ignorance, hunger, disease and rampant human misery in an exploding world population coexists with highly sophisticated scientific tcchniclues and knowledge which can ameliorate these problems. Thoughtful and well meaning scientists such as Roger Speny and Jacque Monod hope to develop a value system for the modern world based on the ethics of science itself. This “scientific” fallacy is in a sense the opposite of the “religious” fallacy of an “Islamic” science, I.e., an analogous category mistake. In a fascinating review of modern physics, Paul Davis has shown how recent findings in science suggest that a predisposition to selforganization and increasing complexity is inherent within the laws ofnature and that, in principle, science can explain the existence of complexity and organization at all levels including human consciousness, though only by embracing “higher level” laws. Davis admits that one view of these findings would be to deny a God or purpose in this creative universe; but “he does not see it that way” he sees the same facts and finds “powerful evidence that” something is going on” behind it all, i.e., that there is a purpose and meaning to the universe. (17) This is exactly the stance orany scientist who also believes in God. In my own work in the field of neuroscience 1 have developed a theory for the role of emotions in mental processes which explains how our need to know and to order information is regulated by our deeply felt beliefs. This fundamental mechanism ofthe mind (which is partly reducible to the physics and chemistry of the brain) is unique on earth for human brains and very much a function of how we are desi gned (our genetic inheritance) as modulated and developed by environmental interaction. The theory shows how subjectivity is prior to and regulatory of objectivity with the latter’s feedback expanding the range of subjectivity. (Is) Thus, when we understand the inner dimensions of the message of Islam as well as ourselves, we begin to understand that it is indeed possible to comprehend how all our actions can be, to a great extent self determined and yet in the service of God. Albert Einstein once said, “Science is a continual flight from wonder.” I define the process in more detail as a movement from subjective wonder, through rational objective understanding and back again to wonder at the beauty and complexity of it all. The more we know the more we seek to know. “Inna’ Llaha jamilu, yuhibbu ‘I-jamal” (Verily God is beautiful and He loves beauty). Thus when we say “la illah ha il’lallah” (There is no God but God) we are affirmin8 our faith in Al-Tawhid and when we say “Muhammadun Rusul Allah” (Muhammad is the messenger of God) we are affirming our belief in Muhammad as al-insan-al-kamil and our desire to grow in this direction. A desire which can only be fulfilled with greater knowledge. We should help science grow in the Islamic world, help the institutions grow and young scientists develop and discover for themselves the power and limitations of Science. Fear not for their spiritual values. The deeper one’s knowledge of science grows, the more one realizes how narrow a path it treads in the vast mysteries of space and time. The need to know more is never satisfied and spiritual growth inevitably follows with greater knowledge once the seeker realizes the limits of objectivity. There is a wonderful story about Al Biruni told by a contemporary: —

“I had heard Al-Biruni was dying. I hurried to his house for a last look: one could see that he would not survive long. When they told him of my coming, he opened his eyes and said: Are you so and so’ I said: yes. He said: I am told you know the resolution of a knotty problem in the laws of inheritance of Islam. And he alluded to a well known puzzle. said: Abu Raihan, at this time” And Al- Biruni replied: “Don’t you think it is better that I should die knowing rather than Ignorant?” With sorrow in my head I told him what I knew. Taking my leave I had not yet crossed the portals of his house when the cry arose from inside: Al Biruni is dead.”

In conclusion I would like to quote a verse from the Qur’an which best captures the sense of wonder which is so fundamental in both science and religion as well as suggests their relation to each other.

“Though all the trees on earth were pens
And the Sea was ink.
Seven Seas, after, to replenish it,
Yet would the words of my Lord
be never spent,
Thy Lord is Mighty and All Wise.” (Qur’an 31:27)

“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His is as a niche wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as it were a shining star. This lamp is kindled from a blessed tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil would almost glow forth of itself thought no fire reached it. Light upon Light. Allah guideth unto His light whom He will. And Allah speaketh to man in allegories for Allah is Knower of all things.” (Qur’an 24:35).


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  2. Chance and Necessity, Jaques Monod., Collins, 1972.
  3. Islam and Science. Concordance or CorlflictY Invited Address delivered by Abdus Salam to a meeting on “Islam and the West”, UNESCO House Paris. April 27, 1984.
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  13. A Survey of the Turkish Empire, William Eaten., 4th Edition, London, 1809.
  14. The Gulf Universitv and the Arab-lslamic Commonwealth, Paper presented by Professor Abdus Salam at the Symposium on “Future Outlook of the Arabian Gulf University”., May 11, 1983, Bahrain.
  15. The Scientific Mirucles Conference, Perrer Amjrali Hoodbhop, Professor of Physics., Quaid i-Azam University, Islamabad. VIEWPOINT., Novemberl2, 1987.pp.9-10.
  16. The Vieu·fr·om Nowhere, Thomas Nagel., Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986.
  17. The Cosmic Blueprint. New Discoveries in Nature’s Creative Ability to Order the Universe, Paul Davies., Simon & Schuster, N.Y., 1988.
  18. The Role of Emotions in the Processing of Information by the Brain, Ayub K. Ommaya, M.D., Keynote Paper presented at the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program on”Art, Science & Religion”, Washington, D.C., 1987.

By  Ayub K. Ommaya, M.D.

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