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Islamic Philosophy of Science
May 1, 2013

Attempting to answer questions of agency, causality and universality from an Islamic perspective is called the “Islamic philosophy of science.” In answering these questions from an Islamic perspective, there are hundreds of verses in the Qur’an talking about the world, about computing, and observing the universe that can be referred to.

In the case of Islam, the Qur’an does not separate between the physical and the spiritual, or between matter and meaning. They are all on one continuum. Matter is the vehicle conveying meaning, like the material of a book for instance, the paper, ink and shapes of the letters etc., all mean something; they convey meaning and there cannot be meaning without the matter. From the Qur’anic perspective, that is what nature is about. Everything is seen as a sign or a symbol pointing to a transcendent reality, i.e. something that transcends the material, transcends what is here. There is an ontological continuity with the world to the very concept of God.

This connection between the spiritual and the physical, the Divine and the Creator, imparts a certain degree of sanctity to the world of nature. Just as the scripture is sacred, so is the world in the Islamic interpretation. In fact, just as the Qur’an presents the world of nature as a sign, it also calls its own verses signs, using the same word. The verses in the Qur’an that talk about natural phenomena includes both the verse itself and what the verse relates to in the outside world. This semantic connection is further strengthened through various Qur’anic descriptions.

According to the Qur’an, God communicates by “sending” His signs. There is basically no essential difference between linguistic and non-linguistic (phenomenological) signs; both types are equally Divine signs. All that we usually call natural phenomena—such as rain, wind, the structure of the heaven and the earth, alternation of day and night, the turning about of the winds, etc.—would be understood not as simple natural phenomena but as the many “signs” or “symbols” pointing to the Divine intervention in human affairs, as evidences of the Divine Providence, care and wisdom displayed by God for the good of human beings on this earth.

God speaks through words in the scriptures and through actions in the world; both of these are seen as modes of communication. That is why nature is also referred to as the “cosmic Qur’an” in the Islamic tradition. God speaks through verbal speech and through creative activity. Both of them are signs and one does not exist without the other because the Qur’an always refers to the outer world. God speaks as He creates, and in order to understand His verbal speech, one needs to observe the creational activity in the world. The reverse is also true: in order to understand what is going on in the world, one needs to listen to the scripture (verbal speech). Like a movie and its script, if the movie is in another language or there is no sound, how are you to understand? That would be the same as looking at nature without scripture. Inversely, if we were to hear the sound of the movie but the screen was blank, that would be like listening to the scripture but not being involved in the world. As nature is viewed as the cosmic Qur’an, the two must be read together. It is viewed less as a book and more as a speech; there’s the idea that everything is dynamic and constantly in creation.

The Qur’an has a very clear view of nature and a coherent view of causality. It tells of the causal relationship of science that is assigned to the Divine Attributes. For instance, the difference between seeing an inanimate egg versus seeing a living, flying bird that has come from something apparently lifeless, makes one wonder. Because of the polarity between the two i.e. the cause being very simple yet the outcome is dynamic, the relationship and the connection is seen to exist.

The Qur’anic text mentions the heavens 310 times, the earth 451 times, the process of rain, the clouds and water more than 50 times. It also talks about the seas, trees, vegetation, the formation of the human embryo, etc.

In the heavens and on the earth there are indeed (clear) signs for the believers (pointing to God’s Existence, Oneness, and Lordship); And in your creation and His scattering (innumerable kinds of) living creatures (through the earth) there are (clear) signs for a people who seek certainty of faith (in His existence, Oneness, and Lordship). And in the alternation of night and day (with their periods shortening and lengthening), and in the provision (rain) God sends down from the sky and reviving thereby the earth after its death, and in His turning about of the winds — (in all this) there are (clear) signs for a people who are able to reason and understand. Those are the Revelations of God that We recite to you (through Gabriel) with truth. In what other statement, if not in God and His Revelations, will they, then, believe? (Al-Jathiyah, 45:3−6)

God it is Who has made the sea to be of service to you by making it subservient (to His command) so that the ships may run through it by His command, and that you may seek of His bounty, and that (in return) you may give thanks. He has also made of service to you whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth, all is from Him (a gift of His Grace). Surely in this there are (clear) signs for a people who reflect. (45:12−13)

Surely in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of night and day there are signs for the people of discernment. They remember and mention God (with their tongues and hearts), standing and sitting and lying down on their sides (whether during the Prayer or not), and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: “Our Lord, You have not created this (the universe) without meaning and purpose. All-Glorified You are. (3:190−191)

We have set up firm mountains on the earth lest it should shake them with its movement, and We have made thereon broad paths, so that they might find their way. And We have established the heaven as a canopy well-secured (against collapse and the ascension of devils). Yet they turn away from all such signs (of truth manifested) in the universe. It is He Who has created the night and the day and the sun and the moon. Every one (of such celestial bodies) floats in its orbit. (21:31−33)

O humankind! If you are in doubt about the Resurrection, (consider that) We created you from earth (in the beginning while there was nothing of your existence as humankind, and the material origin of every one of you is also earth). Then (We have created you) from a drop of seminal fluid, then from a clot clinging (to the womb wall), then from a lump in part shaped and in part not shaped, and differentiated and undifferentiated, and so do We clarify for you (the reality of the Resurrection). And We cause what We will (to come into the world) to rest in the wombs for an appointed term, then We bring you out as (dependent) infants, then (We provide what is necessary and appropriate) so that you may attain your age of full strength. Among you some are caused to die (during this period of growth and afterwards), and some are kept back to the most miserable state of old age, ceasing to know anything after once having known some things. (As another proof for the Resurrection and a sign to comprehend it,) you see earth dry and lifeless, and suddenly, when We send down the (known, blessed) water on it, it stirs and swells and grows every pleasant pair of vegetation. And so, God is He Who is the Absolute Truth and Ever-Constant, and He gives life to the dead, and He has full power over everything. (22:5−6)

It also makes ample use of phrases like, “So look at...,” “Do they not see...?” “Do they not think...?” calling repeatedly on its audience to look at the world.

Say: “Go about on the earth and see how God originated creation. Then God will bring forth the other (second) creation (in the form of the Hereafter). Surely God has full power over everything” (29:20)

Then, let human consider his food (and so reflect on his Lord’s Mercy and the truth of Resurrection), That We pour down the water in abundance; Then We split the earth in clefts; And so We enable grain to grow therein, And grapes, and edible plants, And olive-trees and date-palms, And gardens dense with foliage, And (diverse other) fruits and herbage, As a means of livelihood for you and your animals. (80:24−32)

Do they not consider the camels – how they are created? And the heaven, how it has been raised high? And the mountains, how they have been set firm? And at the earth, how it has been spread out? (88:17−20)

There is less interest in the “why” but rather in the “how.” Thus science, as a systematic study of nature that developed in Islamic civilization, could not treat nature and its study as an entity separate from the Islamic worldview; this includes the sciences that were inspired by the very worldview of Islam—the concept of time, space, functions (everything is relational). Many scientific findings including functions like sine, cosine, all have a background to a particular worldview. The regularities, the laws of nature are actually mirroring the laws of the Divine Names.

In this Qur’anic view, nature is a dynamic system rather than an inert body. Nature accepts and acts upon Divine Commands, like all else between the heavens and the earth. This view of nature grants it distinct metaphysical qualities. Rather than being self-subsisting, autonomous or random, nature is described by the Qur’an as a sophisticated system of interconnected, consistent, uniform, and highly active entities, all of which are ontologically dependent on the Creator and exalt Him in their own specific ways. As the Qur’an often repeats “The seven heavens and the earth and whatever is between them sing the glories of God.”

This dependence and subservience of nature to God however does not occur haphazardly, since God’s ways and laws are unchanging (33:62). Actually, that is how the Muslim is supposed to reach belief in the Divine i.e., through observing the uniformity of nature, which is a sign of Divine activity. Thus the entire world of nature operates through immutable laws that can be discovered through the investigation of nature. Since these laws are both uniform and knowable, and since nature points to something higher than itself—indeed, to the Creator Himself—it follows that the study of nature leads to an understanding of God, and is in fact a form of worship.

Science historian Professor Briffault wrote about the scientific enterprise as it was carried out centuries ago in the Muslim civilization as follows:

The method of continuous observation was systematically carried out—some observations extending over twelve years—at the observatories of Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo. So much importance did they attach to accuracy in their records that those of special interest were formally signed on oath in legal form. (Briffault, 143)

He also wrote:

Not only did the Arabs create those mathematics which were to be the indispensable instrument of scientific analysis, they laid the foundation of those methods of experimental research which in conjunction with mathematical analysis gave birth to modern science (Briffault, 144-145)

In fact, the emergence of science within the Islamic civilization is interconnected to the phenomenon of the Qur’an which provides a clear conception of nature, the laws of nature and causality, thus giving a coherent view of the subject of scientific investigation (i.e. nature). Sciences that emerged in Islamic civilization can be shown to have intrinsic links with the Islamic worldview including Islamic rituals such as the five daily canonical prayers and the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Many branches of science were directly related to Islamic practices and emerged from a specific view of nature anchored in Islam: astronomy used to determine the distance and direction toward Mecca (the direction Muslims face for their obligatory prayers five times a day); geography; cartography, and more. At the time, when the earth was generally thought to be flat, Idrisi (12th century) drew it as spherical.

Muslim scientists were concerned more with the infinite than the finite. Time and space were no longer static concepts (Greeks), but dynamic. Since God reveals himself in this world at every moment of existence, and this world is continuously coming into existence, they regarded the universe not as finite or as being, but as becoming. They expressed this conviction by elevating numbers to the status of functions that imply movement, dynamism, and relational connections rather than separate, static entities.

The Qur’an continuously states in the clearest terms that nothing at all other than God possesses the attributes of Divinity, and that under whatever name, no cause has attributes like maker, creator, giver of sustenance, bringer down of rain from the skies, and raiser of plants from the earth.

Say: “Who is it that provides for you from heaven and earth, or Who is it that possesses full power over (your) hearing and eyes, or Who is it that brings forth the living from the dead and brings forth the dead from the living, and Who directs the whole affair (the universe)?” They will say, “It is God.” Then, say: “Will you not then keep your duty to him in reverence for Him and in fear of His punishment?”

The universe exists in order to make the Creator known. By considering the manner in which beings are created, those who think may find attributes which pertain to their Creator. These Divine attributes are known in the Islamic traditions as the “Beautiful Names.” As such, Muslims are supposed to study the universe in order to get to know their Sustainer through it. Both causes and effects, and particularly their orderly relationships, mirror the Divine Names. The Qur’an points out the numerous and significant benefits in the effects so that it will be understood that unconscious causes are infinitely distant from intending the effects. It may also be understood that causes are only veils and these wise aims are the work of the One Who is All-Knowing, Wise, and Powerful, possessing infinite knowledge, wisdom and power etc. In this way, the Qur’an dismisses causes from owning their effects. A Muslim scholar explains this point with a metaphor: when seen from afar, mountain peaks on the horizon appear to be adjacent to the sky. But as one approaches, it is understood that there is an infinite distance between the earth and the sky. Similarly, when seen from afar, that is, when seen superficially without questioning, causes and effects appear to be adjacent. But on drawing close, and scrutinizing the relationship intentionally, it may be realized that there is a great distance between the cause and the effect. That is, it is understood that even an apparently powerful cause such as the sun has not the slightest influence on a most simple effect. The so-called cause of the effect does not possess the knowledge and will not be necessary for the occurrence of the effect. Cause and effect occur together but they have no relationship by which they affect each other. In fact their purposeful arrangement is a sign from the Creator that has created them side by side. The Qur’an says that should all causes unite, they would be powerless to create even the least significant being, like a mosquito.

The general logic of the Qur’an concerning causality is that:

  1. Since causes are extremely commonplace and powerless and the effects attributed to them are significant and full of art, this dismisses causes.
  2. And the aims and benefits of effects also discharge ignorant and lifeless causes, and hand them over to an All-Wise Maker.
  3. Also, the adornment and skill on the face of effects indicates a Wise Maker Who wants to make His power known to conscious beings and desires to make Himself loved.

This conception of the world by no means denies the uniformity of the world. It is actually quite the opposite; order is itself a proof of unity. Each relation between cause and effect is itself considered to be a sign pointing to the Maker and ascribing all the rest of creation to Him. The crucial point is that these relations are vertical and directly connected to the Maker. The remarkable ordering of the universe is understood to proceed from God’s Wisdom. The rules and ordinances of creation proceed from Divine Attributes. The uniformity of sequence of cause and effect is also a sign (aya) pointing to God and making Him known with His Names and Attributes.

Given the inherent relationships between God, humanity, and nature, it is impossible in Islam to conceive of nature as an independent, self-subsisting entity. Likewise, science—as an organized enterprise that studies and explores the natural world—is conceived as an entity integral to Islam. In fact, the lack of separation of state and religion in Islamic polity is applicable to all other domains, as Muslims believe that Islam is not merely a set of commandments and rituals but a complete way of life, encompassing all domains of knowledge and human activity. This worldview is based on the principle of Tawhid, the Oneness of God, a concept that lies at the heart of the Islamic tradition. Oneness or Tawhid unifies all realms of being and of knowledge, making them branches of the same tree. Everything is interconnected and stems from One Unique source. It may be difficult for the modern materialist mind—accustomed to regarding religion solely as a set of personal beliefs—to understand this aspect of Islam.

Meaning of phenomena and regularity is intentional and there is mercy in this. Order is not a given but is a gift and a sign of care and love. When a baby is delivered out of the womb, the mother’s milk is ready for feeding. There is always the same arrangement for all babies—it is a given. This is where philosophy and science begin to “touch” one another, and where Islam provides a philosophy to what science observes.

Dr. Yamina Mermer is a member of the Scriptural Reasoning Group based at the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge, UK.
Dr. Eren Tatari is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Rollins College, Florida.