Islamic Attitudes Towards Science

Muslim scholars have developed a spectrum of viewpoints on science within the context of Islam. The Quran and Islam allows for much interpretation when it comes to science. Scientists of medieval Muslim civilization (e.g. Ibn al-Haytham) contributed to the new discoveries of science. From the eighth to fifteenth century, Muslim mathematicians and astronomers furthered the development of almost all areas of mathematics. At the same time, concerns have been raised about the lack of scientific literacy in parts of the modern Muslim world.

Some Muslim writers have claimed that the Quran made prescient statements about scientific phenomena that were later confirmed by scientific research for instance as regards to the structure of the embryo, our solar system, and the creation of the universe. However, much of science in Islam relies on the Quran as a basis of evidence and Islamic scientists often use one another as sources. Unlike early Christians who used science to explain scripture, Muslims pursued science with an underlying assumption of confirming the Quran.

Istambul observatory in 1577 . 1577. Anonymous Ottoman artist 1577 677

Terminology

Science is often defined as the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence. It is a system of acquiring knowledge based on empiricism, experimentation and methodological naturalism, as well as to the organized body of knowledge human beings have gained by such research. Scientists maintain that scientific investigation needs to adhere to the scientific method, a process for evaluating empirical knowledge that explains observable events without recourse to supernatural notions.

According to Toby Huff, there is no true word for science in Arabic (the language of Islam) as commonly defined in English and other languages. In Arabic, “science” can simply mean different forms of knowledge. For example, physics is more literally translated from arabic as “the science of nature”, علم الطبيعة ‘ilm aṭ-ṭabī‘a; arithmetic as the “science of accounts” علم الحساب ilm al-hisab. Religious study of Islam (Tasfir, musnad, etc.) is called الديني العلم “science of religion” (ad-dinniya al-ilm), using the same word for science as “the science of nature”. According to the Hans Wehr Dictionary of Arabic, While علم’ ilm is defined as “knowledge, learning, lore,” etc. the word for “science” is the plural form علوم’ ulūm. (So, for example, كلية العلوم kullīyat al-‘ulūm, the Faculty of Science of the Egyptian University, is literally “the Faculty of Sciences …”)

Perspectives on Islam and science

Whether Islamic culture has promoted or hindered scientific advancement is disputed.

Many Muslims agree that doing science is an act of religious merit, even a collective duty of the Muslim community. According to M. Shamsher Ali, there are around 750 verses in the Quran dealing with natural phenomena. Many verses of the Quran ask mankind to study nature, and this has been interpreted to mean an encouragement for scientific inquiry, and the investigation of the truth. Some include,

“Travel throughout the earth and see how He brings life into being” (Q.29:20),

“Behold in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for men of understanding …” (Q.3:190)

Historical Islamic scientists like Al-Biruni and Al-Battani derived their inspiration from verses of the Quran. Mohammad Hashim Kamali has stated that “scientific observation, experimental knowledge and rationality” are the primary tools with which humanity can achieve the goals laid out for it in the Quran. Ziauddin Sardar argues that Muslims developed the foundations of modern science, by “highlighting the repeated calls of the Quran to observe and reflect upon natural phenomenon”. “The ‘scientific method,’ as it is understood today, was first developed by Muslim scientists” like Ibn al-Haytham and Al-Biruni, along with numerous other Muslim scientists.

The physicist Abdus Salam believed there is no contradiction between Islam and the discoveries that science allows humanity to make about nature and the universe; and that the Quran and the Islamic spirit of study and rational reflection was the source of extraordinary civilizational development. Salam highlights, in particular, the work of Ibn al-Haytham and Al-Biruni as the pioneers of empiricism who introduced the experimental approach, breaking way from Aristotle’s influence, and thus giving birth to modern science. Salam differentiated between metaphysics and physics, and advised against empirically probing certain matters on which “physics is silent and will remain so,” such as the doctrine of “creation from nothing” which in Salam’s view is outside the limits of science and thus “gives way” to religious considerations.

Islam has its own world view system including beliefs about “ultimate reality, epistemology, ontology, ethics, purpose, etc.” according to Mehdi Golshani.

Toshihiko Izutsu writes that in Islam, nature is not seen as something separate but as an integral part of a holistic outlook on God, humanity, the world and the cosmos. These links imply a sacred aspect to Muslims’ pursuit of scientific knowledge, as nature itself is viewed in the Quran as a compilation of signs pointing to the Divine. It was with this understanding that the pursuit of science, especially prior to the colonization of the Muslim world, was respected in Islamic civilizations.

The astrophysicist Nidhal Guessoum argues that the Quran has developed “the concept of knowledge” that encourages scientific discovery. He writes:

“The Qur’an draws attention to the danger of conjecturing without evidence (And follow not that of which you have not the (certain) knowledge of… 17:36) and in several different verses asks Muslims to require proofs (Say: Bring your proof if you are truthful 2:111), both in matters of theological belief and in natural science.”

Guessoum cites Ghaleb Hasan on the definition of “proof” according the Quran being “clear and strong… convincing evidence or argument.” Also, such a proof cannot rely on an argument from authority, citing verse 5:104. Lastly, both assertions and rejections require a proof, according to verse 4:174. Ismail al-Faruqi and Taha Jabir Alalwani are of the view that any reawakening of the Muslim civilization must start with the Quran; however, the biggest obstacle on this route is the “centuries old heritage of tafseer (exegesis) and other classical disciplines” which inhibit a “universal, epistemiological and systematic conception” of the Quran’s message. The philosopher Muhammad Iqbal considered the Quran’s methodology and epistemology to be empirical and rational.

Islamists such as Sayyid Qutb argue that since “Islam appointed” Muslims “as representatives of God and made them responsible for learning all the sciences,” science cannot but prosper in a society of true Muslims. (However, Qutb states, in Muslim majority countries governments have failed to follow the sharia law in its completeness, which he believes explains the failure of science and many other things in the Muslim world.)

Others claim traditional interpretations of Islam are not compatible with the development of science. Author Rodney Stark argues that Islam’s lag behind the West in scientific advancement after (roughly) 1500 AD was due to opposition by traditional ulema to efforts to formulate systematic explanation of natural phenomenon with “natural laws.” He claims that they believed such laws were blasphemous because they limit “God’s freedom to act” as He wishes, a principle enshired in aya 14:4:

“God sendeth whom He will astray, and guideth whom He will,” which (they believed) applied to all of creation not just humanity.

Taner Edis wrote An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam. Edis worries that secularism in Turkey, one of the most westernized Muslim nations, is on its way out; he points out that Turkey rejects evolution by a large majority. To Edis, many Muslims appreciate technology and respect the role that science plays in its creation. As a result, he says there is a great deal of Islamic pseudoscience attempting to reconcile this respect with other respected religious beliefs. Edis maintains that the motivation to read modern scientific truths into holy books is also stronger for Muslims than Christians. This is because, according to Edis, true criticism of the Quran is almost non-existent in the Muslim world. While Christianity is less prone to see its Holy Book as the direct word of God, fewer Muslims will compromise on this idea – causing them to believe that scientific truths simply must appear in the Quran. However, Edis argues that there are endless examples of scientific discoveries that could be read into the Bible or Quran if one would like to. Edis qualifies that Muslim thought certainly cannot be understood by looking at the Quran alone; cultural and political factors play large roles.

Alleged scientific miracles in the Quran

See also: The Qur’an’s Wisdom and Modern Scientific Thought, Islamic View of MiraclesQuran and Miracles

History

Starting in the 1970s and 80s a “popular literature known as ijaz” (miracle) and often called “Scientific miracles in the Quran” developed and spread to Muslim bookstores, websites, and on television programs of Islamic preachers.According to author Ziauddin Sardar, the movement has created a “global craze in Muslim societies”. The ijaz movement/industry is “widespread and well-funded” with “millions” from Saudi Arabia.

Claims

Enthusiasts of the movement argue that the Quran abounds with “scientific facts” centuries before their discovery by science and thus demonstrating that the Quran must be of divine origin. Among these miracles alleged to be found in the Quran are “everything, from relativity, quantum mechanics, Big Bang theory, black holes and pulsars, genetics, embryology, modern geology, thermodynamics, even the laser and hydrogen fuel cells”.

Zafar Ishaq Ansari describes the idea that “the Quran (and the Sunna)” contain “a substantially large number of scientific truths that were discovered only in modern times” as one of the “new themes and emphases” of “scientific exegesis of the Quran”.

Some examples are the verse

“So verily I swear by the stars that run and hide …” (Q.81:15-16)

or

“And I swear by the stars’ positions-and that is a mighty oath if you only knew”. (Qur’an, 56:75-76) 

which demonstrate (to proponents) the Quran’s knowledge of black holes;

“[I swear by] the Moon in her fullness; that ye shall journey on from stage to stage” (Q.84:18-19)

refers to human flight into outer space.

The Quran contains many verses describing creation of the universe; Muslims believe God created the heavens and earth in six days; the earth was created in two days, and in two other days (into a total of four) God furnished the creation of the earth with mountains, rivers and fruit-gardens. The heavens and earth formed from one mass which had to be split, the heavens used to be smoke, and form layers, one above the other. The angels inhabit the Seven heavens. The lowest heaven is adorned with lights the sun and the moon (which follow a regular path), the stars and the constellations of the Zodiac

Criticism

See also: Criticism of the Quran

As of 2008, both (some) Muslims and non-Muslims have disputed whether there actually are “scientific miracles” in the Quran. Critics argue that while it is generally agreed the Quran contains many verses proclaiming the wonders of nature,

  • it requires “considerable mental gymnastics and distortions to find scientific facts or theories in these verses” (Ziauddin Sardar);
  • that the Quran is the source of guidance in right faith (imam) and righteous action (alladhina amanu wa amilu l-salihat) but the idea that it contained “all knowledge, including scientific” knowledge has not been a mainstream view among Muslim scholarship (Zafar Ishaq Ansari); and
  • “Science is ever-changing … the Copernican revolution overturning polemic models of the universe to Einstein’s general relativity overshadowing Newtonian mechanisms”. So while “Science is probabilistic in nature” the Quran deals in “absolute certainty”. (Ali Talib);
  • Nidhal Guessoum has also been highly critical of “pseudo-scientific claims” made about the Quran.

An example of where earlier beliefs founded on interpretations of the Quran changed following the introduction of modern technology/science to the Muslim world, is knowledge of the gender of an unborn baby, made possible by ultrasound technology. According to Nidhal Guessoum, “for a long time Muslims believed, on the basis on their literal understanding of some Quranic verses, that the gender of an unborn baby is only known to God”, i.e. ghayb. Ultrasound technology, “led many Muslims to realize that first-degree readings of the Quran can lead to contradictions and predicaments”.

History

Classical science in the Muslim world

Work in the observatory of Taqi al-Din

Science and religious practice

Scientific methods have been historically applied to find solutions to the technical exigencies of Islamic religious rituals, which is a characteristic of Islam that sets it apart from other religions. These ritual considerations include a lunar calendar, definition of prayer times based on the position of the sun, and a direction of prayer set at a specific location. Scientific methods have also been applied to Islamic laws governing the distribution of inheritances and to Islamic decorative arts. Some of these problems were tackled by both medieval scientists of the Islamic world and scholars of Islamic law. Though these two groups generally used different methods, there is little evidence of serious controversy between them on these subjects, with the exception of the criticism leveled by religious scholars at the methods of astronomy due to its association with astrology.

Arrival of modern science in the Muslim world

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, modern science arrived in the Muslim world but it was not the science itself that affected Muslim scholars. Rather, it “was the transfer of various philosophical currents entangled with science that had a profound effect on the minds of Muslim scientists and intellectuals. Schools like Positivism and Darwinism penetrated the Muslim world and dominated its academic circles and had a noticeable impact on some Islamic theological doctrines.” There were different responses to this among the Muslim scholars: These reactions, in words of Professor Mehdi Golshani, were the following:

  1. Some rejected modern science as corrupt foreign thought, considering it incompatible with Islamic teachings, and in their view, the only remedy for the stagnancy of Islamic societies would be the strict following of Islamic teachings.
  2. Other thinkers in the Muslim world saw science as the only source of real enlightenment and advocated the complete adoption of modern science. In their view, the only remedy for the stagnation of Muslim societies would be the mastery of modern science and the replacement of the religious worldview by the scientific worldview.
  3. The majority of faithful Muslim scientists tried to adapt Islam to the findings of modern science; they can be categorized in the following subgroups: (a) Some Muslim thinkers attempted to justify modern science on religious grounds. Their motivation was to encourage Muslim societies to acquire modern knowledge and to safeguard their societies from the criticism of Orientalists and Muslim intellectuals. (b) Others tried to show that all important scientific discoveries had been predicted in the Quran and Islamic tradition and appealed to modern science to explain various aspects of faith. (c) Yet other scholars advocated a re-interpretation of Islam. In their view, one must try to construct a new theology that can establish a viable relation between Islam and modern science. The Indian scholar, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, sought a theology of nature through which one could re-interpret the basic principles of Islam in the light of modern science. (d) Then there were some Muslim scholars who believed that empirical science had reached the same conclusions that prophets had been advocating several thousand years ago. The revelation had only the privilege of prophecy.
  4. Finally, some Muslim philosophers separated the findings of modern science from its philosophical attachments. Thus, while they praised the attempts of Western scientists for the discovery of the secrets of nature, they warned against various empiricist and materialistic interpretations of scientific findings. Scientific knowledge can reveal certain aspects of the physical world, but it should not be identified with the alpha and omega of knowledge. Rather, it has to be integrated into a metaphysical framework—consistent with the Muslim worldview—in which higher levels of knowledge are recognized and the role of science in bringing us closer to God is fulfilled.

During the twentieth century, the Islamic world was introduced to modern science. This was able to occur due to the expansion of educational systems, for example, 1900 in Istanbul and 1925 Cairo opened universities. Unlike some of the discords between science and Islam in the past, the concerns for some of the modern students were different. This discord for Islam was naturalism and social Darwinism, which challenged some beliefs. On the other hand, there was a new light into thinking of the harmony between science and Islam. An example is the study of Kudsî of Baku, looking at astronomy with religious implications, this occurred in the mid-nineteenth century. This allowed him to connect he discovers from what he knew from the Qur’an. These included “the creation of the universe and the beginning of like; in the second part, with doomsday and the end of the world; and the third was the resurrection after death” here is a passage in the Qur’an that is made by God about modern science, that they should be congruent with the truth attained by modern science, “hence they should be both in agreement and concordant with the findings of modern science”. This passage however, was used more often during the time where ‘modern science’ was full of different discoveries. However, many scientist thinkers through the Islamic word still take this passage to heart when it come to their work. However, many scientist thinkers through the Islamic word still take this passage to heart when it come to their work. However, there are also some strong believers that with modern viewpoints such as social Darwinism challenged all medieval world views, including that of Islam. Some didn’t even want to be affiliated with modern science, and thought it was just an outside look into Islam. Many followers who tend to see the problems with the integration of Islam and science, there are many that still stand by the view points of Ibn Hanbal (855). That the meaning of science is also knowledge, that of many different aspects. There is a sense of wonder, an open mind that allows for people to have both religious values and scientific thought. Along with positive outlooks on modern science is the Islamic world, there are many negative ones as well. It has become the idea for some that the practice of modern science, is that of studying Western science. A large issue that concerns those who don’t believe in the study of Western science, is where the knowledge originated. For Muslims the knowledge comes from God, not from human definition of forms of knowledge. An example of this in the Islamic world is that of modern physics. modern physics is considered to be Western instead of an international study.Islam values claim “knowledge of reality based not on reason alone, but also on revelation and inspiration”. The ideals of modern science contradict these views and many criticisms of modern science come from the value systems that some modern scientists up hold.

Decline

In the early twentieth century, Shia ulema forbade the learning of foreign languages and dissection of human bodies in the medical school in Iran.

In recent years, the lagging of the Muslim world in science is manifest in the disproportionately small amount of scientific output as measured by citations of articles published in internationally circulating science journals, annual expenditures on research and development, and numbers of research scientists and engineers. Concern has been raised that the contemporary Muslim world suffers from scientific illiteracy. Skepticism of science among some Muslims is reflected in issues such as resistance in Muslim northern Nigeria to polio inoculation, which some believe is “an imaginary thing created in the West or it is a ploy to get us to submit to this evil agenda.” Also, in Pakistan, a small number of post-graduate physics students have been known to blame earthquakes on “sinfulness, moral laxity, deviation from the Islamic true path,” while “only a couple of muffled voices supported the scientific view that earthquakes are a natural phenomenon unaffected by human activity.”

Muslim scientists and scholars have subsequently developed a spectrum of viewpoints on the place of scientific learning within the context of Islam.

The conflicts between these two ideas can become quite complicated. It has been argued that “Muslims must be able to maintain the traditional Islamic intellectual space for the legitimate continuation of the Islamic view of the nature of reality to which Islamic ethics corresponds, without denying the legitimacy of modern science within their own confines”. With the large conflicting ideas coming into the light, that helped to continue the decline of Islam and science. While science in the modern Islamic world, is quite popular there are still many Western values that are associated with it. Engineering is one of the most popular career choices of Middle Eastern students. With this huge popularity with engineering, which could be argued as one science that would work in conjunction to religion, the Natural sciences have not been fully institutionalized in predominately Islamic countries.

Muslim Nobel laureates

As of 2018, three Muslim scientists have won a Nobel Prize for science (Abdus Salam from Pakistan in physics, Ahmed Zewail from Egypt and Aziz Sancar from Turkey in Chemistry). According to Mustafa Akyol, the relative lack of Muslim Nobel laureates in sciences per capita can be attributed to more insular interpretations of the religion than in the golden age of Islamic discovery and development, when society was more open to foreign ideas.

Abdus Salam, who won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his electroweak theory, is among those who argue that the quest for reflecting upon and studying nature is a duty upon Muslims.

Biological evolution

Main article: Islamic views on evolution

A faction of Muslims are at odds with current scientific theories about biological evolution and the origin of man. A recent Pew study reveals that in only four of the 22 countries surveyed that at least 50% of the people surveyed rejected evolution. For instance, a relatively large fraction of people accept human evolution in Kazakhstan (79%) and Lebanon (78%), but relatively few in Afghanistan (26%), Iraq (27%), and Pakistan (30%); a total of 13 of the countries surveyed had at least 50% of the population surveyed who agreed with the statement that humans evolved over time. The late Ottoman intellectual Ismail Fennî, while personally rejecting Darwinism, insisted that it should be taught in schools as even false theories contributed to the improvement of science. He held that interpretations of the Quran might require amendment should Darwinism eventually be shown to be true.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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