What makes Science Islamic?

What makes Science Islamic?

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I know I have wandered into difficult terrain.  What makes science Islamic, or in other words, what adds a religious dimension to science is a problematic question because the answer depends on certain definitions which are not universally recognized.  But let us try to look at the question from the perspective of Islamic tradition which has at its very heart the concept of Tawhid, the Unicity of God.

This concept is embodied in the first part of Shahadah, the testimony of faith:

“There is no god but God.”  Everything in Islamic civilization, including the sciences, has sprung forth from this fundamental statement which is anexpression of the transcendence of divine unity.

This consciousness of Oneness of God is placed at the centre of the Islamic worldview so as to act as a directing force which draws to itself all levels of manifest reality in the cosmic plane.  To proclaim that there is no god but God is to testify that there is an essential unifying principle behind the apparent multiplicity of the universe which, in Islam, is not restricted to merely the observable and perceptible reality but goes beyond to the realm of the Unseen.

The Shahadah, which is recited in the ear of every newborn child in the Muslim family, is a statement of Knowledge and all aspects of the Islamic worldview are encompassed by this simple expression as if this proclamation was like a ray of focused and penetrating light which impregnates everything in the universe.  The most eloquent explanation of this single statement is contained in God’s own words: the Qur’an.  Revealed to Prophet Muhammad, over a period of twenty-three years (610-632), the Qur’an is the supreme source of all knowledge–the spring and the fountain head at the very heart of the Islamic civilization from which everything has emerged.

Now for over fourteen hundred years, Muslims as well as some non-Muslims have drawn inspiration from this Book which is the actual Word of God, revealed to the Prophet by the archangel Gabriel.  For Muslims, the Qur’an not only establishes what is lawful and what is not, it also defines the scope of human activity–from conception to death and beyond the physical death to resurrection and life after death.

Because developments in sciences, like any other discipline, largely depend on the particular worldview of its practitioners, growth of various branches of science in the Islamic civilization can be related to the Islamic worldview and then this relationship can be studied in a variety of ways.  Since science is a discipline with a well-defined subject matter, methodology, theories and an accumulated body of scientific knowledge, the scientific process is both a social and an epistemological phenomenon dependent on the worldview of its practitioners.

The Islamic worldview is based on the Revealed Book, the Qur’an, which accepts as solved the basic enigmas of life–birth, death, resurrection and life after death.  Its basic goal is to guide human activity within its legal limits.  It grants Man the basic right of a moral choice between the right and the wrong and calls him to reflect on the consequences of his choices.  In addition to a large number of historical examples, the Qur’an presents the whole of the manifest universe, including the distant galaxies, to Man as his field of reflection.

According to the Qur’an, Man is created by God, the best of creators (ahsanul Khaliqeen); He is also the one who provides Man provisions (arzaq) for his earthly journey and Who creates all events which shape the particular existence of an individual life.  God has also established a mechanism to record each and every act of an individual which will be laid bare on the Day of Judgment.  God, lastly, is also the One Who causes one to live and die; He fixes a beginning and an end for each soul, a precise limit (ajal lul-Musamma) which death completes and sums up.  On the day of judgment, the deeds of each individual will be weighed in a balance according to a Law.

In sum, the Islamic worldview–centered around the single concept of Tawhid–clearly elucidates the hierarchy of the created beings, establishes their legal limits, puts Man in the centre of the created universe and the human heart at the centre of the human existence.  It is the heart from which flow all actions and thoughts, all discoveries and all sciences.  God is continuously present in the Universe through His essential act as the Sovereign Creator (Khaliq), through his judicial Omnipotence and through His inexhaustible knowledge.  He is not only the Creator of all events, He also knows all that is in the universe and in the hearts of people.

By accepting the covenant offered to Man after it had been declined by other created things as being too heavy a burden and becoming God’s vice-regent (Khalifah), Man has entered into a special and unique relationship with God which distinguishes him from other creatures.  At the very foundation of this relationship is the communicated word, the intelligible speech, which issues forth from the tongue which only acts as an instrument of the spirit’s inner state.

An attentive reader of the Qur’an discovers, over and over, the inner dimensions of certain acts of worship–like fasting, prayers and hajj–which prepare the body to receive the divine grace by being watchful, receptive and in a state of peace with the Divine writ (amr-e Rabbi).  These acts of obligatory or voluntary rituals also act as purifying agents and prepare the human heart for the reception of that intuitive spark which illuminates the path at certain key moments in one’s arc of life.  In Islam, this purification of the heart through vigorous application of a discipline is considered to be an integral part of the methodology of acquiring knowledge.  Thus, it is not unusual to find examples of scientists of great stature (an Ibn-e Sina, a Razi) who prayed fervently to God and sought help to solve their scientific and philosophical problems.

Right from the very beginning, Islam provided Muslims a rich repository of technical terminology which soon paved the way for the development of a conceptual framework from which various branches of science emerged in due course of time.  This terminology is essentially based on and revolves around the Qur’anic concepts of life, death, resurrection, prophethood and Man’s moral response to the whole scheme of a purposeful creation of the universe.

Relationship between Science and Islamic Concepts of Knowledge and Nature

It is noteworthy that the testimony of faith itself is a statement of knowledge.  The Arabic word for knowledge, ‘ilm, appears over and over in the Qur’an which implores the believers to seek knowledge.  It says: “Surely, only the learned have God consciousness”; also, “Only the learned understand these parables,” and elsewhere, it says: “Say: [O Prophet] Are they equal: those who know and those who don’t?”  God has called himself, al-Alim (The One Who Knows everything).  The very first revelation to the Prophet of Islam was a command:  “Read!”

“When a man dies,” the Prophet of Islam is reported to have said, “his work also stops, except for three [things]: acts of charity, which are continued, knowledge by which [all] profit, and a righteous child who prays for him.”  He also said: “Whoso walks in the path seeking knowledge thereby, God will make him walk in the paths of paradise; and verily, the angels spread out their wings out of pleasure for the seeker after knowledge; and verily those who are in the heavens and the earth and fish also in the midst of water, all ask pardon for him; and, verily, the excellence of a learned man over a mere worshipper is as the excellence of full moon over the stars.  And, verily, the learned men are the inheritors of the prophets; for verily, the prophets’ heritage is not dinar, nor dirhams, but the heritage of knowledge; Whoso then receives this, he has received ample good fortune.”

The Qur’anic verse, “my Lord, increase my knowledge” was one of the constant prayers of the Prophet of Islam who also asked God to show him “things as they really are”.  This prayer of the Prophet has echoed throughout the history of Islam in many forms but perhaps its most eloquent expression is by the tenth/sixteenth century Persian Sufi poet and scholar, ‘Abd al-Rahman Jami (d. 1492) who thus prayed to God:

“O God, deliver us from the preoccupation with worldly vanities, and ‘show us the nature of things as they really are’.  Remove from our eyes the veil of ignorance, and show us things as they really are.  Show us not non-existence as existent, nor cast the veil of non-existence over the beauty of existence.  Make this phenomenal world the mirror to reflect the manifestation of Thy beauty, not a veil to separate and repel us from Thee.  Cause these unreal phenomena of the Universe to be for us the source of knowledge and insight, not the causes of ignorance and blindness.  Our alienation and severance from Thy beauty all proceed from ourselves.  Deliver us from ourselves, and accord to us intimate knowledge of Thee.”

Thus from the very moment of birth to the last breath, a Muslim is required to seek knowledge.  This extraordinary emphasis on acquisition of knowledge is not surprising for a religion which is based on a Book.

“The highest form of knowledge is the knowledge of God (may He be exalted!),” declared al-Ghazzali (d. 1111), “because all other forms of knowledge are sought for the sake of it and it is not sought for anything else.”

The emergence of sciences in Islamic civilization was also viewed in the same religious perspective because Nature as a whole is considered to be a work of God–as one of His Signs–and the knowledge concerning nature is sought in order to know God.  “Among the works of God (may He be exalted!)  which [for their vastness can be called] the sea of His works are, for instance, recovery and disease, as He (may He exalted!), narrating the words of Abraham, said:  ‘When I fall ill, it is He Who restores me to health.’  This single work can only be known by him who knows the science of medicine completely….”  (al-Ghazzali)

Likewise, the planetary system is considered in Islam to be a Sign of God and over and over Man’s attention is drawn to the fact that there is an order in the cosmos, the sun and the moon move according to a fixed reckoning; God has ordained stages for the moon so that Man may learn the method of calculating years and determining time.  Moreover, God is the One Who merges the night into the day and merges the day into the night; and neither the sun can overtake the moon, nor the night can outstrip the day; they float, each in an orbit.  “The real meaning of the movements of the sun and the moon according to a fixed reckoning,” says al-Ghazzali, “and of the eclipse of both, of the merging of the night into the day and the manner of the wrapping of one of them about the other, can only be known to him who knows the manner of the composition of the heavens and the earth, and this itself is a science [i.e. astronomy].”

In Islam, the highest source of knowledge is Revelation.  According to the revealed knowledge, the whole of the cosmos is open for Man’s reflection.  Nature, in Islam, consists of two levels of reality: the material or corporeal (nasut) and psychic or animistic (malakut); the third and the highest state in the manifest world is the spiritual or the angelic level (jabrut) which governs the other two.

Islamic cosmos, therefore, can be envisaged in this tripartite structure representing the objective pole of Islamic epistemology.  This is viewed in relation to its ontological principle–the Divine Intellect or Pure Being.  True science, according to Ibn Sina (980-1037) is that science which seeks the knowledge of the essence of things in relation to their Divine Origin.  The traditional human microcosm, represented by body (corpus), soul (anima, psyche) and spirit (spiritus) corresponds to the tripartite structure (the corporeal, the subtle and the spiritual worlds) of the cosmos.

In Islamic terminology, body is called jism, soul nafs and spirit ‘aql.  Of these three, the last one, ‘aql, reason, active intellect, is the one which directly concerns us here for it is through ‘aql that human beings are capable of knowing and the metaphysical aspects of ‘aql have profound implications for the whole tradition of scientific enterprise in Islam.  It is also the term which has received a great deal of attention by all schools of Islamic thought.  For the Asharites, for example, it means certain innate knowledge in man, representing an adventitious attribute without duration (‘ard), without antecedents or natural consequences; the Hanbalites formulated it in terms of a certain innate knowledge; neither attribute nor substance: permanent grace, not acquired, distributed in different quantities occurring to individuals; it is by taking account of this proportion that their works will be judged by God.  It is the tool, according to Ibn ‘Ata, of obedience to the Law; it cannot reach divinity; for the Imamites, it is the comprehension (ma’rifa) accorded by God, varying according to acquired knowledge, it is ‘aql which shows to human beings what is useful and what is damaging.  Al-Hallaj (858-922) was to coin another term, fahm, for the same.

Human intellect, according to Islamic worldview, is merely a tool which can only be used in the light of the revealed knowledge, the Qur’an.  It remains dormant, un-utilized as long as it is not touched by the light of revelation.  Reaching to its highest potential, the active intellect can grasp certain levels of manifest reality.  It is this active intellect, illumined and brought to full potential through submission to Divine command, which is operative behind the whole scheme of scientific methodology in Islam.  In order to know, the knower must be guided from beyond.

This is how science in Islam is rooted in a transcendental realm.  This spiritual element is what makes science Islamic.  In addition, there is the Islamic ethical framework which defines the nature of inquiry and imparts a characteristic Islamic element to the study of Nature and life.  Science in Islam is merely a means to reach the higher truths.  It is not an end in itself.  It is one of the branches of knowledge and the Qur’an clearly explains the purpose of gaining knowledge.  When the purpose is absent, knowledge becomes sterile and its pursuit a mere futile exercise which does not benefit and the one who is engaged in such a pursuit is just like a donkey carrying loads of books.  The spirit of this essential aspect of knowledge was beautifully captured by the celebrated mystic Mansur al-Hallaj in his elegant Qasida Li’l-‘ilmi ahlun:

“For knowledge, there are vocations,–for faith, there is a progression.  And for sciences as well as scientists, there are experiments.  Knowledge is of two kinds: one sterile, the other that bears fruit.  The ocean is two oceans: one that allows passage, the other dangerous.  And time is two days: blamed and the praised.  And the human race is two races: one endowed and the other deprived.  So listen with your heart, what a sage says.  And ponder in your understanding, for discernment is a gift.”