The naive view of religion and science sees them in direct opposition to one another, and given the chequered history of religion and science this is perhaps understandable. Examples such as the incarceration of Galileo, the Scopes Trial and more recently the issue of creationism are at the forefront of the social consciousness, so undoubtedly there is some history of confrontation between religion and science. Islam, on the other hand, has historically seemed to have fewer difficulties with science, and indeed often has been conducive to it.
There are many possible explanations for this, not least of which is the presentation of science and the use of reason in Islamic texts, but also sociological factors, such as different economic situations during the Middle Ages, and internal political structures. There is also the fact that the Qur’an simply doesn’t contradict scientific findings .
The Middle Ages (or the Dark Ages as they used to be known) of European civilisation extended between the 5th and 16th centuries, encapsulating the Islamic Golden Age spanning the 7th to 16th centuries. It was once thought that Islamic science during this time was little more than a translation of Greek conclusions, however there is now sufficient evidence to suggest that this was a scientific revolution in its own right, and it contributed greatly to the basis of modern scientific thought. Part of the reason science played such a key role in the Golden Age of Islam is surely because of the importance placed on it in Islamic texts. There are hundreds of references in the Qur’an related to human knowledge and contemplation, including the first command of God, instructing humanity to “read.” The hadith also contains hundreds of references the Prophet made to seek knowledge, including one instance of the him saying, “Seek for science, even in China” ; the significance of China being that it is the furthest known country to the Muslim Empire. There is a moral obligation for Muslims to seek knowledge; in fact, learning is often seen as a form of worship and a quest for spiritual perfection through knowledge. This surely acted as an incentive that enabled them to become the great scientific civilization they were during the Golden Age. The Renaissance, which followed the Middle Ages, could be described as the Western equivalent
There is nothing in the Bible to discredit specific scientific discoveries, though it also doesn’t encourage the scientific pursuit in the same manner as the Qur’an. The Bible does convey an ordered world in which science is not only possible but should tend towards the truth, but any such scientific commendation can also be levelled at the Qur’an.
What’s unique about the Qur’an, however, is that it is not as susceptible to the human fallibility excuse, in that it was written immediately after the Archangel Gabriel imparted the Revelation to Muhammad, it was arranged by Muhammad himself, and has remained unchanged since, at least when speaking of the original Arabic and not a translation. The areas of science explored in the Qur’an range greatly from astronomy to physics to biology, and all seem to be in well keeping with modern scientific findings.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Qur’an does not contain any hardline indisputable science, however. The meanings of many of the Arabic words are subtle and open to interpretation, and different interpretations of the same passages have been used to support different scientific enquiries at different times.
The rapid expansion of the Muslim empire beginning in the 7th century brought great wealth and security, and this naturally led to great advancements in science and technology, similar to the Greek and Roman empires before them. Once an empire establishes itself and can comfortably support its population in terms of food and security, it can turn sights on its lesser problems, and attempt to solve them using its ingenuity, thus making great strides in science and technology. The West had, as already noted, become stagnant in these fields following the collapse of the Roman Empire. Europe was unified once more under the Catholic Church, but there was much animosity between the destitute working class and the self-interested ruling class. It was a time of prosperity for few, and the Muslim empire attracted great minds and became the hub of scientific achievement. Viewed in this context, the Islamic Golden Age is not so much a religious achievement as it is a cultural achievement of a burgeoning civilisation.
The contrast with the Western Renaissance is clear. Galileo, a friend of the pope and of the church, is the most famous example. Upon expressing his approval of Copernican theories, he was incarcerated for heresy. The pope famously rebutted Galileo’s arguments by stating that Galileo could not assert a scientific theory that contradicted the scripture unless it could be shown that God, in his infinite power, could not have brought it about that all the evidence in support of the theory existed and the theory itself not be true. This is of course an impossibly high standard of truth for science to achieve, and furthermore put in jeopardy all scientific knowledge. Galileo was, however, purposefully antagonistic towards the church, and may have done more harm, especially for the relationship between religion and science, than he is usually given credit for. Rene Descartes was on the verge of publishing a similar paper in support of Copernicus, but suppressed it upon seeing the treatment that Galileo received. During this time, it was required that all work be approved by representatives of the church before it was published in order to avoid the publication of any heretical material. This was catastrophic for any scientific theory that may have contradicted the interpretation of the scripture as advocated by the Church. Islamic science avoided this problem. While the Church, as a figure of authority, advocated a particular interpretation of the scriptures and had in the past exercised this authority with punitive measures such as excommunication and incarceration, Islam had no centralised authority with the same level of control. The closest analogous administration is the caliphate, whose role has changed over time, but never gained the overarching power of the Christian church. This could well be due to the Muslim Empire being founded by many small tribes with Bedouin roots, and city states, who had no history of being subject to a greater authority. Also, due to their disparate nature, both culturally and geographically, such an overarching authority was a logistical impossibility. Furthermore, the legitimacy of any one caliph was always controversial; the most divisive split of course being between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, the former believing Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law, was his rightful successor, while the latter preferring his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib. Such disagreement continued and constantly threatened the supreme power of the caliphate, despite Muhammad’s assertion that Muslims should fulfil oath of allegiance to only one caliph. This disagreement in turn led to a lack of a single ruling authority, and a lack of one single interpretation being enforced across the empire. Often, the interpretation of the Islamic texts varied from community to community. Further supporting a lack of enforcement was the Qur’an. “There is no compulsion in religion” can be interpreted both as a decree of tolerance to other religions, and also a decree of tolerance within Islam itself. This aspect of religious tolerance must surely have played some part in the ability of Muslims to abide alternate interpretations of their text, and also rationalise discrepancies between the text and the constantly evolving hypotheses of science. Without an authority to push an anti-scientific agenda, the Muslim Empire became a hub of scientific enquiry which, along with an unusual tolerance for religion, attracted scientific minds from across the entire region.
There is another hypothesis that should be noted, which is that the view of Christianity and science being in direct opposition to each other is unwarranted. After all, modern scientific prosperity grew out of the Christian West, and it can also be argued that without the fundamental view that nature is uniform and has an observable order and organisation, provided initially only by religion, science would never have even had a grounding on which to start. Perhaps religion and science are not as diametrically opposed as they seem, and their previous confrontations have been due to misunderstandings that are not fundamental to their positions. While it is undoubtedly true that Christianity and science have in the past had a tolerant, if not a symbiotic, relationship, it is nevertheless the case that for quite some time the two held hostile policies in regard to each other, and these policies have resulted in animosity that exists even to this day. This animosity is not a necessity, however, as demonstrated by Islam.
It seems it can then be concluded that the roots of the Islamic propensity for science are a product of both Islamic texts and sociological factors, such as a lack of a centralised authority pushing a particular interpretation of the text. The search for knowledge which the Qur’an advocates must surely have helped initiate this scientific resurgence, but it was also the ability of the Muslim population to interpret the findings of the scientific community (and it should be noted that Muslim and scientific groups were by no means mutually exclusive) in a way that didn’t conflict with their theological beliefs which allowed science to flourish. The Golden Age of the Muslim Empire should stand as an example to all cultures that science and religion can coexist, and not just tenuously, but harmoniously.
Stephen Pant is a freelance writer in Australia. He has a degree in philosophy and history from Monash University, Melbourne.
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6. Syed. 2003. p. 116.
7. Syed. 2003. p. 115.
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12. Qur’an 2:256.
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