Is Islam Against Science And Is It Cause For Decline?

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It is chic nowadays to berate Islam not only as the source of problems faced by Muslims, but also of ALL problems. According to the proponents of this Islamophobic absurdity, Islam must be abandoned and replaced by secular humanism in order for Muslims to survive. In a recent posting in an e-forum one such Islamophobe remarked: “Muslims saw the light of science and glory exactly when they were living under liberal and progressive rulers like those Abbasid kings, i.e. when Muslims were away from the Islamic bondage and were allowed to think freely. Likewise, Christian Europe saw the light of science and modernity when they came out of the bondage of orthodox Christianity (through renaissance) and were allowed to think freely. And Muslims lost its science and glory when Muslims entered again in the bondage of religion Islam and lost the power of free thinking.”

How accurate are such assertions? Is Islam against science? Is it responsible for the current sad state of affairs prevalent in many Muslim nation-states?

Before answering these questions, let me state at the outset that science, as the totality of human knowledge regarding natural phenomena, is as old as human civilization. However, as an organized body of systematic knowledge, based consciously on certain principles, it is a recent phenomenon. Modern science is based on the assumptions that (i) Nature is a self-contained system for whose working the principle of Godhead is not to be invoked (Nietzsche even proclaimed ‘God is dead’), and that (ii) natural process exhibits universal laws of uniform behavior. Without going into a detailed discussion about the philosophy of science and the divergent opinions around its building blocks, let me state that the underlying hypothesis of modern science had been the belief in universal causation, viz., the belief that there is a cause and effect relationship, that certain phenomena are the effects of certain other phenomena that are the causes of the former, and that the same cause produces the same effect. Philosophers, in general, and philosophers of science, in particular, have been busy explaining the notion of ’cause.’

Let me also state that the Muslim Scripture – the Qur’an – is not a book of science, and this, in spite of so many verses that incite people to think, to observe, to rationalize, to use sound mind. Nor is it a book of philosophy. It does not propound the Theory of Relativity or Quantum Mechanics, or other scientific facts that are recently discovered. To look for scientific treatises in the Qur’an, or indeed in any Scripture, is futile. As rightly pointed out by Prof. Shamsi in his lecture at the International Conference on Science in Islamic Polity in Islamabad (1983), Qur’an is not even a book in the ordinary sense of the word, for it is not meant to be read as one would read al-Bairouni’s Qanun al-Masudi or Newton’s Principia, nor is it meant to adorn the bookshelves. [1]

The Qur’an embodies an open talk between man and his creator. It suggests a cause and effect relationship, that a law of requital is at work at every sphere of life, and that he has only to keep it in view if he has to avoid the pitfalls of life, and live in peace with his own self and at peace with his world of external relations.[2] In other words, the Qur’an’s main purpose is to tell us about the relationships between: God and man, man and man, and man and his subconscious. It is a Book that guides us to conduct our lives in this world. Its ideology instills the spirit of humanism into man and protects him from every form of exclusiveness, as is summed up in the directive, ‘Believe and act righteously.’

The Qur’an provides a basis for the development of philosophy of nature, and thus a perspective to the philosophy of science. It awakens human curiosity and instills a spirit of inquiry in all those who adopt Islam as their way of life (see, e.g., the verses 2:164, 6:99, 10:101, 3:190, 21:22). Deductively, then, the Qur’an encourages mankind to engage in the pursuit of science. It inculcates a scientific mind-set, plainly indicating that false beliefs must be abandoned if facts and/or valid arguments lead to contrary conclusions. The Qur’an contrasts the perceptible with the imperceptible, and tells us that mankind’s knowledge is limited to the perceptible but God’s knowledge extends to what for mankind is imperceptible and as such incomprehensible (see, e.g., the verses 27:65, 59:22 and 36:6). The Qur’an says very categorically that Allah (God) is the sole cause of whatever has happened in the past or will happen in the future, in the sense that His will is the underlying cause of everything, including the apparent causal worth of the phenomenal things.

Having said that, let me now comment on the statement made by the Islamophobic writer. It is true, liberal and progressive Muslim rulers helped to provide an atmosphere for independent thinking, education, research and development that fostered growth and prosperity of their respective societies.

1. Galileo was persecuted by the Papal church for his scientific finding that the earth moves, which was against the commonly held Christian belief that the earth was immovably fixed. The learned Filippo Bruno was burnt at a slow fire by the Inquisition for upholding the Copernican theory of revolution of the earth. Columbus was forced by persecution to recant that the earth was round. Christians destroyed the learning of the ancients in the name of Christ. They murdered many philosophers including Hypatia. Learning, in those days, was for them a devil’s snare. These are horrid images of religion. However, religion does not necessarily have to be against independent thinking and pursuit of knowledge. It can be a boon for such activities. From the very first word (Iqra meaning read) revealed to Muhammad (S) to the many Prophetic Traditions, and statements by Followers and Successors there are sufficient proofs to show that Muslims were encouraged to seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.

Here below are some Prophetic Traditions regarding the importance of learning [3]:

To seek knowledge is a religious duty for every Muslim man and woman.

The best treasure is the pursuit of knowledge, the prayers of worthy men, and the friendship of agreeable brothers.

Knowledge of God is my capital. Reason is the root of my faith.

Knowledge is a treasure house whose keys are queries.

One who treads a path in search of knowledge has his path to Paradise made easy by Allah thereby.

A person who goes (out of his house) in search of knowledge, he is on Allah’s way and he remains so till he returns.

To seek knowledge for one hour at night is better than keeping it (night) awake.

A Muslim is never satiated in his quest for good (knowledge) till it ends in paradise.

A learned person is superior to a worshipper as the full moon is superior to all the stars. The scholars are heirs of the prophets and the prophets do not leave any inheritance in the shape of dirhams and dinars (wealth), but they do leave knowledge as their legacy. As such a person who acquires knowledge acquires his full share.

A scholar who is asked about something (about the religion) and he conceals it, such a person will be bridled on the Day of Judgment with a bridle of fire

The word of wisdom is [like] the lost property of a wise man. So wherever he finds it, he is entitled to it.

When the prophetic mission of Muhammad (S) started, there were only a handful of Arabs who could read and write. But within a short period of time, following the Prophetic encouragement, many Arabs became literate. Universal education for men and women thus became the Sacred Law of Islam thirteen centuries before it was adopted by the civilization of the West. [4] (The educated prisoners of wars from the opposing camp could buy their freedom from imprisonment by educating Muslim children.) The caliphs that followed were all literate men, some even literary men of distinction, who were munificent patrons of education. The process did not stop there, it continued even during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods and then to those who came later, ending with the Ottomans. Without state sponsorship, Muslim scientists and philosophers probably could not have succeeded to the level they did. To believe otherwise would only reflect one’s prejudice or ignorance.

2. Wherever the pursuit of knowledge or education was discouraged, it had more to do with authoritarian regimes than to the ideologies they seemed to espouse or propound. The case of Soviet Union under the Bolsheviks in the early days of the October Revolution and that of China during the Cultural Revolution can be cited as two glaring examples from the last century. In these two (anti-religious) countries, hundreds of thousands of intellectuals were imprisoned and killed, or forced into doing manual labor in factories and fields. Note that these regimes were highly secular who adopted the principle of ‘religion being an opiate for the masses.’ Organized religion was banned and replaced by secular ideals of Marxism and Leninism. Anyone with a comfortable level of education was considered a villain, an obnoxious bourgeois. So, in this regard, a close resemblance can be seen in the experience of people in (erstwhile) USSR and China with that in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, while the determining factor, i.e., the authoritarian regimes that ruled those territories, was different – Marxist/Leninist and religious Talibans (lit. students, not scholars). What the Taliban did in discouraging education, especially, of the women, is offensive and repugnant to the spirit of Islam and is highly deplorable.

3. In the life of a nation, social or national priorities often shift. There are periods when education takes precedence over defense, and then there are periods when defense is more important than education. In the early days of Islam, e.g., defending the community of believers from the marauding attacks of Makkan idolaters was of highest importance. Yet, the pursuit of knowledge or its encouragement was never abandoned. Within a short period of time, Makkah, Madinah, Kufa, Basra, Damascus (not to mention the conquered cities) became major centers of learning. It was because of such a positive attitude towards education that Islamic civilization was unrivalled for several centuries. The Muslim universities of those days led the world in learning and research where students came from far and beyond.

We see a similar pattern of advancement in many areas of learning (except religious sciences) within the USSR and China shortly after their revolutionary days. The Soviets even outperformed the Brits and Americans in aerospace engineering by being able to send their rockets first into the outer space. And with enough governmental funding and right resources, the US was later able to land the first man on to moon.

4. Although it may seem very strange to many of our so-called rationalist friends, most founders of many disciplines of learning, including modern science, were believing people, i.e., belonged to one religion or another. Yes, Charles Darwin himself had faith in the supernatural. Contrary to assertions in some ‘rationalist’ quarters, Abu Rayhan al-Bairouni, who could be called the father of unified field theory, never became a murtad. The same is also true for Abul Walid Muhammad ibn Rushd al-Qurtubi (popularly known in the West as Averroes) and Bu Ali Sina (Avicenna) and many others.

5. To think that, of all the Muslim rulers who had ruled the Islamic empire in the early centuries, only the Abbasids encouraged independent-thinking and material progress or national/social prosperity is wrong. It is equally wrong to think that the Abbasids had abandoned (or to use the cliche ‘bondage of religion’) Islam. All the Abbasids (including Caliph al-Mamun) were Muslims, none had abandoned Islam (i.e., none became murtad). The development of the science of Kalam, like many other branches of religion, may take a long time to mature (look at how many centuries it took for mainstream Christianity), and it was no different for Islam, either. Among the Muslim scholars of the first few centuries, deliberation was not limited to theology alone, but such discourses encompassed every branch of learning. Islam has proved that faith in God is compatible with independent thinking. [4]

Truly, reason and insight were never tabooed in Islam. Were it so, all study of the Qur’anic thought would seem futile, for the Qur’an openly invites its readers to express reason in their approach to it, and ponder on what it states (see, e.g., the verse 47:24). It is because of such an open-ended invitation from the Qur’an that during the first few centuries of Islamic empire, philosophical discussion became a favorite pastime in many Muslim quarters. (It is even argued that preponderance of such discourses was responsible for the downfall of the last Abbasid monarch when the Mongols invaded Baghdad.)

It is because of such an open embrace of independent-thinking that so many schools of jurisprudence and religious thoughts emerged in Islam and that these days Tafsir-bir-rai (commentary of the Qur’an, which lets the text to be subservient to one’s own personal opinion on any subject) has been pushed forth by zealous followers to explain away more recent scientific discoveries. So, truly the door of independent thinking in Islam was never closed. As is common anywhere in the world, however, sometimes the rulers preferred one set of ideas or views to others. Thus, we find that during Caliph Mamun’s time, the Mutazilite thoughts were preferred over more traditional orthodoxy.

(Nominally the Abbasid Khilafat of Baghdad lasted for full five hundred years, but for the last three hundred and fifty years of its nominal duration, the real sovereign power had passed on to others é Seljuks, Zanghis, Ayyubis and Fatimids.) There was change of rulers, but Islamic civilization remained the same. Indeed it hardly, if at all, deteriorated, and the condition of the common people throughout the Muslim Empire remained superior to that of any other people in the world in education, general liberty, public security and sanitation. Its material prosperity was the envy of the West, whose merchant corporations competed with one another for the privilege of trading with it. No man in the cities of the Muslim Empire ever died of hunger or exposure at his neighbor’s gate. [4]

The glory of Islamic civilization did not begin and end with the Abbasid. The Muslim creative power continued beyond the sack of Baghdad by Halagu Khan as can be verified through many brilliant works in arts, science, architecture, engineering and philosophy. The beginning of the process of decline must be sought not within but outside Islam. To quote Professor Alam, “It wasn’t Islam that stumbled. Rather, Europe gathered speed and moved ahead, in gunnery and shipping, starting in the sixteenth century. Europe employed its maritime strength to plunder the gold and silver of the Americas, create an Atlantic economy, and dominate the commerce of the Indian Ocean. This deepened Europe’s commercial and financial capital, while squeezing the trading profits of the major Islamic empires as well as the smaller trading states in the Indian Ocean. Over time, Europe’s military advantage became decisive. And by the beginning of the nineteenth century é in India even before that é Europe started its project of dismantling the Islamic polities in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.” [5]

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The Qur’an, as we submitted above, offered a great impetus to learning, especially in the field of natural science; and if, as some scholars have declared, the inductive method, to which all the practical modern discoveries primarily owe, can be traced to it, then it may be called the foundation of modern scientific and material progress. The Prophet of Islam, to whom the Qur’an was revealed, was a great patron of learning and so were those Muslims who ruled later the vast territories of Islam.

Islam is neither against science nor against progress. As much as ecclesiastical Christianity cannot be praised for the present material progress of Christendom, Islam cannot be blamed for the current pitiable state of Muslim nation-states. The causes for decline lie elsewhere.

Notes:

[1] F. A. Shamsi, Philosophy of Science in the Perspective of the Qur’an, presented at the Intl. Conf. on Science in Islamic Polity, Nov. 1983, Islamabad, Pakistan.

[2] Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, The Tarjuman al-Qur’an, Kitab Bhavan, New Delhi, India.

[3] H. Siddiqui, Islamic Wisdom, pub., Barry, Ontario, Canada (2000).

[4] Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, The Cultural Side of Islam, Kitab Bhavan, New Delhi, India (1927).

[5] Prof. M. Shahid Alam, Is There An Islamic Problem? (Pub. www.islamicity.com Article Ref. IN0201-391, dt. 1/4/2002)

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