We believe it is not emphasized today as much as it should be that traditional conceptualizations of sciences, whether Islamic or not, were very different from the way modern sciences are currently conceptualized. Most of us assume that humankind is continually improving in its knowledge of existence and thinking so as to understand reality as the ages pass. This may be true, especially when the detailed information of physical reality gathered and the level of technology reached with the help of the modern scientific method are considered. However, it is usually missed by modern minds that there is a crucial difference between the modern and traditional conceptualization of sciences which veils the significance of traditional sciences in the contemplation of the Absolute Reality. In this article, we would like to try to cast some light on this difference from the Islamic point of view, which is the last manifestation of all the traditional ones.
Starting with the following classification of the sciences laid out in Shams al-Din Muhammed al-Amuli’s Nafa’is al-Funun (Precious Elements of the Sciences), a treatise written during the fifteenth century, may be helpful to reveal this point1:
The theoretical aspects of what we call positive sciences today (physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, geology, astronomy, cosmology, etc.) were all called natural philosophy not only by Islamic scholars but also by the scientists, philosophers, and theologians of other traditions up to the Age of Enlightenment, and that type of science was considered a lower science in the hierarchy of existence. The intermediate science was mathematics, which included music, while metaphysics occupied the place of the highest science. Not only philosophy, ethics, economics, and politics but also intellectual and transmitted religious studies are covered by the Islamic conceptualization of sciences. The classification of sciences was always considered to be important in Islamic tradition and many Muslim scholars have provided different classifications.2 The essential point here is that all the Islamic classifications of sciences, as in this specific one, were based on the Islamic doctrine that there is a hierarchy of existence (and therefore knowledge) from Unity to multiplicity, from the Divine Names and Qualities to each creature on a particular level of existence, and from the Meta-cosmic Reality to the cosmos consisting of the seven heavens and the earth which is nothing but the manifestation of the Meta-cosmic Reality. Therefore, all sciences, in the Islamic conceptualization, were means of gaining this kind of knowledge.
In contrast, the modern conceptualization of the sciences is subservient to the idea that reality can only be examined by its highly specific and restricted experimental method. Thus, the modern conceptualization implies, due to this method, that theories, doctrines, and principles concerning non-observable realities cannot be scientific. A natural consequence of this way of thinking is to be skeptical about metaphysical realities in the belief that the absolute reality is the physical one. From this point of view, therefore, neither religion nor metaphysics are accepted as scientific disciplines. Although there are some departments such as politics, economics, and ethics under the umbrella of humanities and arts, the traditional occult sciences such as astrology, alchemy, magic, and the interpretation of dreams cannot find a place in modern universities, in spite of the fact that their derivatives are still alive in both traditional and modern societies. At this point it may be illustrative to remind the reader of the following verses of the Qur’an: “Thus, did We establish Joseph in the land (Egypt), that We would impart to him knowledge and understanding of the inner meaning of events, including dreams” (Yusuf 12:21), “Solomon never disbelieved. Rather, the satans disbelieved, teaching people sorcery and the (distorted form of the) knowledge that was sent down on Harut and Marut, the two angels in Babylon. And they (these two angels charged with teaching people some occult sciences such as breaking a spell and protection against sorcery) never taught them to anyone without first warning, ‘We are a trial, so do not disbelieve’” (Al-Baqarah 2:102), which can be interpreted as evidence of the existence of such sciences, although the Qur’an itself condemns those
And (yet) they learned from them (the two angels) that by which they might divide a man and his wife. But (though they wrongly attributed creative power to sorcery, in fact) they could not harm anyone thereby save by the leave of God. And they learned what would harm them, not what would profit them. Assuredly, they knew well that he who bought it (in exchange for God’s Book) will have no share in the Hereafter. How evil was that for which they sold their selves; and if only they had known. (2:102)
In the Islamic conceptualization of sciences, the natural sciences possessed a place in the hierarchy of knowledge so that there were no contradictions between them and religion. The whole worldview was religious and this perspective provided sufficient space for the cultivation of positive sciences yet in the guidance of metaphysical principles from a higher level of knowledge. The history of Islamic sciences is full of striking examples of success, from the modern scientific perspective, in cosmology, geology, mineralogy, botany, zoology, mathematics, astronomy, physics, medicine, pharmacology, agriculture, and irrigation, any of which could be the topic of a future article. This is why, as people learn even more natural sciences, they believe more in those times. That is why most of the greatest Muslim scientists were distinguished philosophers and theologians at the same time. They are those who the Qur’an identifies in the phrase, “Of all His servants, only those possessed of true knowledge stand in awe of God” (Fatir 35:28).
It is because of the modern conceptualization of sciences that religion and science are separated from each other and have become strangers on the assumption that they have their own realms to speak about.3 The roots of this way of thinking goes back to Descartes (1596–1650): “Descartes, who appeared with the thesis that ‘metaphysics cannot be a science,’ said that knowledge can only be obtained by the investigation of measurable and divisible things and he limited the question of science to only matter; since that time the followers of Cartesian philosophy have always talked in a similar way.”4 Yet, both religion and science try to find answers to the questions of who we are, what the meaning of life is, where we come from, and where we are going to. We cannot imagine any technological advancement which satisfies these eternal concerns of humanity which reflect its relation to eternity.
By definition, the modern sciences have bound themselves to the existence of a finite and relative reality. Their methodology is very effective and there is nothing wrong with it unless it is utilized for abusing natural sources or any other form of corruption. Those sciences may even provide some clues about the higher level of existence as in the case of quantum mechanics which has destroyed the deterministic worldview of classical (Newtonian) physics. However, to our mind, there is a problem with the modern conceptualization of sciences which does not accept any notion of the hierarchy of existence nor any means of studying and investigating those levels of reality.
Dr. Ali Sebetci is an Assistant Professor of Computational Chemical Physics, Zirve University Gaziantep, Turkey.