Swayed by Western domination of their lands, a domination attributed to superior science and technology, some Muslim intellectuals began to view Islam as the cause of the Muslim world's backwardness. Ignoring the eleven centuries or more of Islamic supremacy, they thought and wrote as if the history of Islam had begun only in the eighteenth century. Furthermore, they mistakenly identified the relationship between science and religion in general in the specific terms of the relationship between science and Christianity. They did not bother to make even a superficial study of Islam and its long relationship with science.
Other contemporary Muslim intellectuals, after seeing such things as atomic bombs, mass murder, environmental pollution, and loss of moral and spiritual values, blamed these disasters on science and technology. They proclaimed the shortcomings and mistakes of the purely scientific approach in seeking the truth, as well as the failure of science and technology to bring happiness. Following the lead of their Western counterparts, they condemned science and technology outright and adopted an almost purely idealistic attitude.
However, Islam is the middle way. While it does not reject or condemn the modern scientific approach, neither does it deify it.
Science has been the most revered fetish or idol of humanity for nearly two centuries. Scientists once believed that they could explain every phenomenon with the findings of science and the law of causality. However, modern physics destroyed the theoretic foundations of mechanical physics by revealing that the universe is not a clockwork of certain parts working according to the strict, unchanging laws of causality and absolute determinism. Rather, despite its dazzling harmony and magnificent order, it is so complex and indeterminate that when we unveil one of its mysteries, more appear. In other words, the more we learn about the universe, the greater becomes our ignorance of how it functions.
Experts in atomic physics say that no one can be sure that the universe will be in the same state as it is now a moment from now. Although the universe functions according to certain laws, these laws are not absolute and, more interestingly, have no real or material existence. Rather, their existence is deduced from observing natural events and phenomena. Also, it is highly questionable whether they have a part in the creation and working of things.
For example, scientists say that a seed, soil, air, and water bring a free into existence. However, these are only causes for a free to come into existence, for the existence of a tree requires exact calculations and ratios, as well as pre-established relations among the seed, soil, air, and water. Science should also explain the beginning of this process and the diversification of seeds into different kinds. However, all it can really explain is how things take place. It thinks it has "explained" the origin of existence by attributing it to "nature," "self-origination," "necessity," or "chance."
Nature is, evidently, a design and not the designer, a recipient and not the agent, a composition and not the composer, an order and not the orderer, something printed and not the printer. It is a collection of laws established by the Divine Will, laws that humanity can grasp but which, in themselves, have no power or material reality. Attributing existence to self-origination, necessity, or chance is incorrect, for we can see that existence reflects absolute knowledge, wisdom, will, and power. Self-origination, necessity, and chance are concepts without material reality, so how can we attribute knowledge, wisdom, will, and power to them?
Despite the disasters science and technology have brought, the mistakes of the purely scientific approach in seeking the truth, and the failure of science and technology to bring happiness, one cannot condemn them outright and adopt an almost purely idealistic attitude. Although humanity has been reduced, human feelings have been diminished, and certain human virtues together with health and the ability to think have been harmed, it is wrong to ascribe all of this to science and technology. Rather, the fault lies with scientists who avoid their responsibilities, and with sciences that have been developed mainly in a materialistic and almost purely "scientific" atmosphere and then exploited by an irresponsible minority. Many worrying conditions probably would not have existed if scientists had been aware of their social responsibility, and if science had not been developed, due to Christianity's shortcomings, as largely hostile to religion.
Nature is like a book offered to humanity to study, an exhibition to behold, and a trust from which to benefit. By studying its meaning and content, humanity is to use nature to benefit future as well as present generations. If we wish, we can call this relation between humanity and the world "science."
Science can also be described as comprehending what things and events tell us, and what the Divine laws controlling the universe reveal to us. It means striving to understand the Creator's purpose. Humanity, created to rule over all things, must observe, read, discern, and learn about its surroundings. Then, it must seek ways to exert influence over events and subject them to itself. When this has been done, by the decree of the Creator everything will submit to humanity, who will submit to God.
There is no reason for people to fear science. The danger does not lie with science itself and the founding of a new world in accordance with it, but rather with ignorance and the irresponsibility of scientists and others who exploit science for their own selfish interests.
If true science consists of directing one's intelligence toward eternity without expecting material gain, making a tireless and detailed study of existence to discover the absolute truth underlying it, and following the methods required to teach this aim, then science must possess these essential points to meet our expectations. Although usually presented as a conflict between Christianity and science, the conflicts during the Renaissance were mainly between scientists and the Church. Copernicus, Galileo, and Bacon were not against religious. In fact, it may even be said that it was their religious commitment that ignited their love and thought of finding the truth.
Before Christianity it was Islam, the religious thought springing from the idea of eternity and the love and zeal arising from that thought, accompanied by the feeling of poverty and impotence before the Eternal, All-Powerful and All-Wealthy Creator, that lay behind the great scientific advance in the Muslim world for five hundred years until the close of the twelfth century. The concept of science as based on the Divine Revelation, which drove scientific studies in the Muslim world, was represented almost perfectly by illustrious figures of the time who, devoted to the thought of eternity, studied existence tirelessly with the aim of attaining eternity.
Their commitment to the Divine Revelation engendered a new concept of science in human souls. If that concept of science, approved and appropriated by the community as if it were a part of the Divine Message and pursued as an act of worship, had not been exposed to the destructive Mongol invasions and Crusades, the world would surely be more enlightened than it is at present. Its intellectual life would be richer, and its technology more wholesome. In addition, its sciences would be more promising, for sciences based on Islam have embedded in their core the aspiration for eternity, and the ideals of being useful to humanity and responsible in handling things to earn His pleasure.
The love of truth, defined as approaching existence without considering material advantage and worldly gain and as observing and recognizing truth as it really is, gives true direction to scientific studies. Those equipped with such love can reach the final destination in their studies. Those driven by worldly passion, material aspiration, and ideological prejudice and fanaticism, who cannot develop any love of truth, will not succeed. Even worse, they might divert scientific studies and make science a weapon of destruction and death.
Therefore, if intellectuals, educational institutions, and the mass media have a vital task to undertake for the good of humanity, it is this: to deliver modern scientific studies from the lethally polluted atmosphere of materialistic aspiration and ideological fanaticism, and to direct scientists toward higher human values. The first condition of achieving these goals is to free minds from ideological superstition and fanaticism, and to purify souls of desire for worldly gain and advantage. This is also the first condition of securing true freedom of thought and engaging in good science. Having fought the clergy and corrupt conceptions formed in the name of religion, and having blamed them for being backward, narrow-minded, and fanatical, scientists should not set themselves up as targets comparable accusations.
There is no difference between intellectual and scientific despotism arising from self- interest and power-seeking, ideological and "scientific" fanaticism, and restrictive reasoning due to corrupt and distorted religious conceptions and clerical domination. In numerous Qur'anic verses, Islam urges the study of nature, which is presented as a display of Divine works. It urges humanity to reflect upon the creation and the created, and to approach it responsibly. Studied without prejudice and preconceptions, one sees that the Qur'an promotes the love of science and humanity, justice and order. In the Islamic context, knowledge and the quest for it are based on the intention of discovering the meaning of existence in order to reach the Creator. They also are based on the desire to benefit humanity, indeed all creation, by joining with belief, love, and altruism. This is what we learn from the Qur'an, from the life of Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, and the conduct of many who have represented it perfectly in thought and action.
Again, there is no reason to fear science. Some planned acts based on knowledge may give bad results, but ignorance and disorganization always give bad results. Thus, instead of opposing the products of science and technology, we must use them to bring happiness to humanity. Herein lies the essence of humanity's greatest problem: One cannot take measures against the Space Age or remove thoughts of making atomic or hydrogen bombs from the minds of some people.
Although science can be a deadly weapon in the hands of an irresponsible minority, we should adopt its products to establish a civilization in which people can achieve happiness in this world and the next. It is vain to curse machines and factories, for machines will continue to run and factories to operate. Science and its products will not cease to be potentially harmful until individuals of truth and belief direct things and events.
The Relationship Of Islam And Science And The Concept Of Science
- By M. Fethullah Gulen
- Category: Issue 28 (October - December 1999)
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