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Islam and Science

Dr. Riffat Hassan

1995-01-04 00:00:00

Some Muslims accept the widespread view that modern science is a 'secular' enterprise. However, this attitude conflicts with the approach to seeking knowledge evident in the Qur'an. Belief in tawhid, the core of the Qur'an's teaching, certainly rejects any division of human life, including the quest for knowledge, into 'sacred' and 'secular'.

The Unity of God implies the wholeness and interconnectedness of all creation. Normative Islam, the Islam of Qur'an and Sunna regards the seeking of knowledge ('ilm) as an imperative: knowledge makes possible the actualization of what Muhammad Iqbal, an outstanding modern Muslim thinker, describes as 'the main purpose' of the Qur'an: 'to awaken in man the higher consciousness of his manifold relations with God and the universe' (1962, pp.8-9). Scientific knowledge has been particularly valued in Islam because it focuses on the search for rational foundations - a search which began, as Iqbal points out, with the Prophet himself, upon him be peace, who continually prayed: 'God! Grant me knowledge of the ultimate nature of things'. However, all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is, in the Islamic perspective, only a means to the end of establishing a just, compassionate order in the world.

The early Muslims established a civilization which made significant advances in all fields of knowledge, including science and technology. They were undoubtedly influenced by the Qur'an's emphasis upon knowledge. The Divine Name 'alim, the Knower, the All-Knowing, occurs 140 times; the very first verse to he revealed links man to Divine Bounty in the gift of being able to recite or read, to know what the Knower has taught (96.l).

While 'the high positive value that the Quran explicitly and repeatedly attaches to all knowledge' (Fazlur Rahman, 1982, p.148) made the early Muslims seekers of all kinds of knowledge, the Qur'an's stress on the study of the natural world, encouraged pioneering work in observation and experimentation. In his Making of Humanity, Briffault pointed out:

…although there is not a single aspect of European growth in which the decisive influence of Islamic culture is not traceable, nowhere is not so clear and momentous as in the genesis of that power which constitutes the permanent distinctive force of the modern world...natural science and the scientific spirit.

The debt of our science to that of the Arabs does not consist in startling discoveries of revolutionary theories; science owes a great deal more to Arab culture, it owes its existence....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 inquiry were altogether alien to the Greek temperament.... What we call science arose in Europe as a result of a new spirit of inquiry, of new methods of investigation, of the method of experiment, observation, measurement, of the development of Mathematics in a form unknown to the Greeks. The spirit and those methods were introduced into the European world by the Arabs.

Science is the most momentous contribution of the Arab (Islamic) civilization to the modern world. (quoted in Iqbal, 1960, pp.130-2)

For the thinkers of classical Greece, 'the proper study of man was man and not the world of plants, insects, and stars, How unlike the spirit of the Qur'an, which sees in the humble bee a recipient of Divine inspiration and constantly calls upon the reader to observe the perpetual change of the winds, the alternation of day and night, the clouds, the starry heavens, and the planets swimming through infinite space!' (Iqbal, 1962, pp.3-4).

The Greeks had elevated human beings above animals on account of their ability to reason. The Qur'an elevates man above even mala ika (the celestial creatures) because, favoured by God, he has the unique ability to 'name' things, i.e. to form concepts (al-Baqara, 2.28-31). This conceptual skill, enabled by a reasoning faculty, needs, according to the Qur'anic perspective, to he supplemented by knowledge of the perceptible world. Some of its most memorable passages point to the insight and wisdom to be gained by reflecting on the myriad manifestations of God's creative activity all around us. Certainly, the use of observation and reason together - upon which all science is founded - is enjoined again and again by the Qur'an:

Verily, in the creation of the heavens and of the earth. and the succession of night and day: and in the ships that speed through the sea with what is useful to man; and in the waters which God sends down from the sky, giving life thereby to the earth after it has been lifeless, and causing all manner of living creatures to multiply thereon; and in the change of the winds; and the clouds that run their appointed courses between sky and earth; (in all this) there are messages indeed for people who use their reason. (al-Baqara, 2.164).

(The passage above is quoted from Asad's 1980 translation. For other passages that join observation of the world with the command to think, see 6.96-9; 10.5-6; 24.44; 25.45. 63; 30.22; 31.29; 39.5; 88.17-20)

Numerous such passages indicate that the Islamic attitude toward modern science which employs a rational and empirical method of studying natural phenomena - called in the Qur'an the 'signs' (ayat) of God - is very positive.

However, while the Qur'an exhorts human beings to make use ol their reason (aql) to understand God's creation, it strongly condemns the absolutizing of anything human. In this regard, the attitude of Islam toward modern science differs significantly from attitudes which have prevailed in the modern West, that is since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Modern science has been mystified, even deified, accorded a nearly limitless power and potential to change nature through human technology. This (mainly Western) attitude, of course, finds no support in normative Islam which insists that only God is God, and human knowledge is necessarily (severely) limited. While also admiring the dedication and achievements of Western scientists, some modern Muslim thinkers have also pointed forcefully to the limitations of Western science. Iqbal (1962).

There is no doubt that the theories of science constitute trustworthy knowledge, because they are verifiable and enable us to predict and control the events of Nature. But we must not forget that what is called science is not a single systematic view of Reality. It is a mass of sectional views of Reality - fragments of a total experience which do not seem to fit together. Natural Science deals with matter, with life, and with mind; but the moment you ask the question how matter life, and mind are mutually related, you begin to see.... the inability of these sciences, taken singly, to furnish a complete answer to your question. In fact, the various natural sciences are like so many vultures falling on the dead body of Nature, and each running away with a piece of its flesh. Nature as the subject of science is a highly artificial affair, and the artificiality is the result of the selective process to which science must subject her in the interests of precision. The moment you put the subject of science in the totality of human experience it begins to disclose a different character.. Natural Science is by nature sectional; it cannot, if it is true to its own nature and function, set up its theory as a complete view of Reality. The concepts we use in the organization of knowledge are, therefore, sectional in character and their application is relative to the level of experience to which they are applied. The concept of 'cause' for instance, the essential feature of which is priority to the effect, is relative to the subject- matter of physical science which studies one special kind of activity to the exclusion of other forms of activity observed by others. When we rise to the level of life and mind, the concept of 'cause' fails us, and we stand in need of concepts of a different order of thought. The action of living organisms, initiated and planned in view of an end, is totally different from causal action. The subject matter of our inquiry, therefore, demands that the concepts or 'ends' and 'purpose' which act from within unlike the concept of 'cause' which is external to the effect and acts from without.

Certain mechanical concepts, perhaps useful for the purposes of scientific inquiry, are not appropriate for a comprehensive understanding of life. Iqbal quotes the well- known biologist, J.S. Haldane, who explains how mechanical causality cannot explain, for instance, self-maintenance and reproduction in a living organism. When an event is explained in mechanical terms it is stated as the necessary result of certain simple properties of separate parts interacting in that event. For a mechanical explanation the reacting parts must first be given. The idea of a 'mechanism' which constantly maintains or reproduces its own structure is self- contradictory, for such a mechanism would be a mechanism without parts and, therefore, not a mechanism. It is, thus, not possible to apply static concepts to vital processes.

Like such great thinkers of Islam as al-Ghazali and al-Rumi, Iqbal believed 'that Reality is inexpressible purely in terms of reason and science. This is not to deny the import of the latter. Whatever view of man, universe and God we ultimately arrive at, it must, Iqbal thinks, be one in which the data of science are accounted for, one in which the demands of reason for coherence are met. Yet below and above the level of science there is that which man knows simply because he feels it and intuits it' (Whitemore, 1962, p16). The seat of the intuitive faculty, according to Iqbal, is the 'heart' (qalb) which 'sees' and its reports, if interpreted, are never false' (Iqbal, 1962, p.16): there is support for this in the Qur'an (see al-Sajdah, 32.7-9).

From the perspective of Islam, modem sciences, theoretical or applied, 'natural' or 'social', must be pursued and developed within the framework of Qur'anic teachings about the purpose of creation and life. What God has created has been created, not in sport or in vain, but for a serious purpose upon which humankind should reflect:

Verily in the creation of the heavens and of the earth, and in the succession of the night and the day are signs for men of understanding, who, standing and sitting and reclining, bear God in mind and reflect on the creation of the heavens and of the earth, and say: 'O our Lord! Thou hast not created this it in vain' (Al 'Imran, 3.191-2; see also al-Dukhan, 44.38-9).

To man, created in 'the best of moulds' (95.4), God has given, as well as his senses and faculties, reason and intuition, guidance in the form of the Revelation, so that he can discharge his responsibility as God's vicegerent upon the earth. By means of their gifts, human beings enjoy a qualified dominion over the world, as the following verses of the Qur'an indicate:

Are you not aware that God has made subservient to you all that is in the heavens and all that is on earth, and has lavished upon you His blessings, both outward and inward? (Luqman, 31.20)

And He has subjected to you the night and the day the sun and the moon, and the stars too are subject to you by His behest; verily in this are signs for those who understand. (al-Nahl, 16.12)

However, this power bestowed by God must be regarded as a sacred trust from God and exercised with humility and justice. While the Qur'an holds before man the glorious hope of 'Towards God is thy limit' (al-Najm, 53.42), it also recognizes the human propensity toward self-centredness and arrogance and reminds human beings of their lowly origin and their vulnerability to becoming the 'lowest of the low'.

So long as human beings remain subservient to God and faithful to God's purpose in creating the universe, they will not succumb to the temptation of deifying themselves or their achievements. We have seen how the uncritical adulation of the march of science in the last two centuries has given way, in our times, to an awareness of the deep moral problems within its 'progress'. While human beings have learnt much of value from the modern scientists, recent history has shown that when the modern sciences have developed within a non-holistic 'secular' framework, they have led to devastation of the earth and selfish exploitation or enslavement of God's creatures.

There is no question that science and technology are necessary for Muslim societies to meet the formidable challenges of the massive poverty and illiteracy which they face. That there is support for scientific inquiry and technological progress in the sources of Islam has been amply demonstrated. What needs to be stressed, in conclusion, is that it is possible for Muslims to overcome the dichotomies of Western thought which separate science and religion, or reason and faith, by grounding their lives, and the knowledge they seek and acquire, in the holistic vision of the Qur'an. In the history of Islam, most outstanding scientists have been persons of deep faith whose scientific quest was sustained by their belief that the effort to understand God's creation, and to participate in creating a better world, was a form of worship ('ibadat). Both Islam's text and its revered traditions encourage present-day Muslim men and women to seek scientific knowledge, for the material betterment of their societies and also for the fulfillment of God's larger purpose for creation.

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