Islam versus Science or Scientism?
Posted: 16 Rabi-u-Thani 1432, 21 March 2011
Islam was built upon a foundation of learning and knowledge. Numerous verses in the Qur’an emphasized the importance of knowledge and critical thinking, as did the Prophetic traditions (1). The doctrine of Tawheed, of oneness and unity, symbolized the spirit of the universal Islamic scholar – seeking to further investigate the Divine Laws that encompassed the universe, and realizing that eventually everything in the universe pointed to God (2). Indeed, science blossomed in Islam, reaching unprecedented levels of activity, ingenuity, and interfaith (and inter-ethnic) academic cooperation never before witnessed in history. Throughout Islamic history, a peculiar brand of scholars emerged, known as hakeems, who embraced all the sciences with a complete sense of unity, realizing that all knowledge simply represented “branches” from the same “trunk,” and while Divine knowledge was inherently superior and absolute, scientific knowledge also formed a vital branch of this tree of knowledge - to place all focus and weight on one branch at the expense of the other would destroy the balance of the tree (3). Thus, when carefully followed, this tree would extend in all directions, and Muslims would produce achievements in all fields of knowledge. The equilibrium achieved by this hierarchy was carefully guarded throughout Islamic history, and tensions mainly occurred whenever one branch would begin upsetting the balance of the entire tree, as does the modern scientism of today.
As early as the 8th century, scholars functioning inside the Islamic world had begun embarking upon the path of scientific knowledge (or non-religious knowledge). By this time, the Islamic realm reached from Spain to India, and was witness to the flowering of cities like Cordoba, Baghdad, Damascus, and Jaundishapur. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in his Science and Civilization in Islam, includes chapters briefly surveying Muslim activities in the fields of cosmography, geography, cartography, natural history, sociology, physics, optometry, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy, theology, and philosophy. Thus we learn that Jabir bin Hayyan (721-815) was the founder of Islamic alchemy, practicing at the court of Harun al-Rashid. Hunain ibn Ishaq (810-877), a Christian scholar, would play an important role in translating Greek and Syriac texts into Arabic. Al-Kindi (801-873) would write dozens of treatises on mathematics, logic, and philosophy, becoming the founder of the Islamic Peripatetic school of philosophy. Al-Khwarazmi (d. 863) would write al-Jabr wa’l-muqablah (or Algebra) from which Algebra would get its name. He would also greatly refine and improve upon the Ptolemaic geographical maps, as well as make one of the best Muslim astronomical tables. Al-Razi (865-923) would write 184 works mostly on medicine, with masterpieces on smallpox and measles. Likewise, Nasr mentions the accomplishments of dozens of other scholars, clearly establishing that science bloomed under Islam (4).
In fact, many of the inherent rituals of the Islamic faith encouraged and necessitated the learning of science. For example, to complete the pillar of Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Makkah, pilgrims needed to know the geography of the lands they would cross, as well as possess the technology to guide themselves with on their journey (5). Thus, al-Kindi would write the Description of the Inhabited Parts of the Earth. Al-Yaqubi, another geographer of the 9th century, would write the Book of Countries, which would include topographical studies. In the 14th century, the famous traveler ibn-Battuta would also begin his long travels first by heading to Makkah for the pilgrimage (6). The necessity of finding the direction to Makkah for prayer, as well as determining prayer times, would also spur astronomical activity (7). Thus, work on perfecting the astrolabe would increase, and Abu Sai’d al-Sijzi, another astronomer of the 10th century, would even construct an astrolabe “based on the motion of the earth around the sun” (8). Al-Biruni in the 11th century would work on determining longitudes and latitudes. Others would go onto criticize Ptolemy’s epicyclic theory, including Ibn Tufail and Jabir bin Aflah in the 12th century (9). Al-Biruni would even debate the possibility of a heliocentric model (10,) while Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (13th century) and his students would make several criticisms of the Ptolemaic model and try to explain planetary motions in what is now known as the Tusi Couple model. Nasr goes as far to say that “all that is astronomically new in Copernicus can be found essentially in the school of al-Tusi and his students” (11). The Islamic laws of inheritance also spurred mathematical activity, as the calculations could get quite complex. Thus, we see in al-Khwarzami’s landmark book Algebra an entire chapter entitled “On Legacies,” where he discusses how to mathematically solve complex inheritance scenarios (12). In essence, not only did Islam condone scientific activity, but it also required it to some extent, to carry out its injunctions as the Islamic empire expanded.
What makes this entire period of scientific activity unique was that Muslims still operated in a framework that actively acknowledged and depended upon the Divine. Al-Khwarazmi’s Algebra, for example, begins its preface with a long paragraph devoted to praising God and sending salutations upon the Prophet Muhammad, as would any other religious book of the time. In medicine, we also see this phenomenon especially prevalent. In fact, the term hakeem would come to denote both the sage and the physician, because usually both were embodied in the same person (13). Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, for example, were both philosophers, but made their living as physicians. In fact, physicians would be expected by society to combine “scientific acumen with moral qualities,” to have an intellect “that was never divorced from deep religious faith and the power of God” (14). Nizami-i’Arudi, a physician and a poet of the 12th century, describes in his Four Discourses the qualities of a physician: how “no physician can be of tender disposition if he fails to recognize the nobility of the human soul; nor of wise nature if he unless he is acquainted with Logic; nor can he excel in acumen unless he be strengthened by God’s aid . . .” (15). Thus in one sentence, he unwittingly unites both rationality and spirituality in one harmonious worldview, symbolizing the traditional Muslim attitude.
Fast forwarding to today, we see a quite different world. To begin with, the conflict thesis proposed by the likes of John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White in the 19th century resonates deeply in the subconscious of the masses, even if it does not among historians anymore. Even so, science has unhinged itself from the service of religion, and now purports to serve itself, expanding to constitute a new “scientism” where rationality and empiricism both form the most absolute basis for belief, and revelation is demoted into the scientifically unnecessary but ultimately personal and subjective realm. The belief in progress lies at the center of scientific activity, and modern civilization looks forward to an eternal growth, boosted by the engines of objectivity and reason. Under a world of scientism, religion is left behind to wallow in its own unempirical realm, and is forced to slowly follow behind the path science blazes far ahead to maintain any legitimacy. Instead, scientism desperately wishes science itself to become the absolute source of understanding age-old questions on the purposes of existence as well as morality (16). Thus, from the Muslim believer’s point of view, unbelief forms the basis of modern civilization (17).
It is thus no surprise that Islam actively opposes the underpinnings of modern science, even if many Muslims are not too aware of the fact. In fact, the believer’s critique of modern science can be nothing short of “radical” (18). Full scale attacks have thus been launched against this brand of science, “which has shown itself unable to coexist with anything” (19). In the criticisms of many scholars, many common themes can be found revolving around the proper position of science, reason, and man in the worldwide scheme of things. They also focus on the evils of a godless science which demurs not to the Divine, but to the vicious desires of godless men. They ultimately call for a return to traditional science, pressing exceedingly urgently for the East to not follow in the same path as the West, and thus bring about the same catastrophes as the West did, especially at a time when the West itself is slowly beginning to realize its excesses.
At a time when science’s authority and scope seems limitless, the renowned authority on world religions Huston Smith sets out to mark down many of its limits, exploring when and how we place too much pressure on one branch of the tree. To begin with, the scope of reason itself is limited, as “Reason is not itself a light. It is more like a transformer that does useful things but on condition that it is hitched to a generator” (20). Reason is thus just one of the many tools of man, but to reduce man to reason would be extremely inaccurate and incomplete, like “someone who supposes he can absorb and digest knowledge through his belly” (21). Thus, with its pillars being limited, science itself is limited. Science cannot deal with “normative” values – questions on how people should do things. For instance, it can tell whether smoking harms the lungs, but it cannot adjudicate over whether you should smoke or not. Science also fails to provide answers to global questions, such as “what is the meaning of it all?” And even though one could make new discoveries, in science one still has the option “to shrug” it away and find no meaning in it. Science also cannot deal with qualities – for example, it cannot measure happiness or sadness in numerical and accurate terms, because “quality is unmeasurable” (22). Although some may counter these criticisms by saying that science is still in its infancy, the truth is that for science to be capable of answering such questions, it would have to necessarily compromise the strict empiricist method it prides itself on, which would then weaken the whole foundation of science itself as being based upon empirical data. Thus, with these limits in mind, Smith ventures as far as to declare a “scientific worldview” a “contradiction in terms” because “‘world’ implies whole and science deals with ‘part.’” Indeed, “to hope for a worldview from science is like hoping that increasingly detailed maps from Illinois will eventually produce the ultimate map of the United States” (23). In essence, science represents just one aspect of man’s existence, not all of it.
However, in the modern world, neither science nor reason is hitched to the Divine. Instead, it is usually hitched to the service of modern man, who in turn, has unhitched himself from the Divine in his zeal to gain mastery and power over the natural world. Such a conception is not harmonious with the Islamic view of man as the viceroy of God on earth, where he has to live harmoniously, obeying His every command and recognizing that God Alone directly controls all the affairs of the universe. In Islamic epistemology, man possesses no rights, save that which God gives him. Especially important is how the Muslim believes only a soul devoted to the Divine (itself a natural act) can remain in peace and safe from the unrestricted flames of desire and power– otherwise, he will fall into the depths of discord and chaos (24). And since modern man has disconnected himself from the Divine, Muslims find it unsurprising that he has destroyed the harmony of life. The current environmental disaster is a prime example of this, where “the rapidity of change . . . follow[s] the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature” (25). Thus, this disconnection from the Divine has led to the “contamination of man’s total environment,” which is actually the “the central problem of our age” (26). However, those who refuse to acknowledge that their science is responsible for committing these acts, and instead blame “wicked politicians and rapacious businessmen,” fail to realize the folly in them having (supposedly innocently) “taken it for granted that none but angels would make use of the knowledge” (27). In reality, the “pollution of the environment is no more than the after-effect of the pollution of the human soul,” which only occurred after the “Western man decided to play the role of the Divinity upon the surface of the earth”(28). Thus, he has “burned his hands in the fire which he himself kindled when he allowed himself to forget who he is” (29). In essence, the current environmental disaster is a very real disaster, and is a direct consequence of rejecting God’s authority and relevance over mankind, as well as man’s submission and humility before Him.
But perhaps because of the ostentatious and totalitarian manner the West presents its science to the world, claiming to have gained freedom from the shackles of narrowness and rigidity (as symbolized by religion) which has allowed it to produce the highest levels of scientific achievements ever in the history of man, Muslims are extremely vulnerable to fall under the spell of its dazzling feats. Yet, this cannot happen under any circumstances, for it would bring about the complete destruction of the Earth and its resources: “The earth cannot support additional mistakes of the kind committed by Western Civilization” (30). Already, the Western man is on track for depleting in 400 years the petroleum built by nature in 400 million years (31), and if the Eastern world would imitate Western patterns of consumption, there would undeniably be complete chaos. Thus, Muslims cannot continue with a sense of inferiority vis-à-vis Western science. In reality, they must transcend the “arrogance of the West in relation to other cultures” (32), and develop a new framework and response to modern scientism, one that will most importantly retain the traditional view of man being the vicegerent of God and recognize the limitations of scientific thought. In the meantime, Westerners must also revisit the conflict thesis of religion and science from the perspective of all religions, because Christianity is only one in a diverse field of religions, and to paint all religions with the color of Christianity would not be an accurate depiction. In any case, the Islamic view maintains that a return to traditional science is required for building equilibrium and harmony on the Earth, so that all the branches can blossom harmoniously and extend in all directions, through innovation yet submission to the Everlasting Will of God.
1. See Qur’an: 2:121, 13:19-24, 20:114, 22:46, 39:9, 39:18, and 96:1-5.
2. Seyyed Nasr, Science and Civilization in Islam (1968; repr., Lahore: Suhail Academy, 1999), 23.
5. Ibid., 98.
6. Ibid., 237.
7. Ibid., 147.
8. Ibid., 170.
9. Ibid., 172.
10. Ibid., 174.
12. Al-Khwarazmi, Algebra, trans. Frederic Rosen, ed. Melek Dosay (Islamabad: Pakistan Hijra Council, 1989), 106-123.
13. Nasr, Science and Civilisation, 184.
14. Ibid., 185.
15. Nizami-I ‘Arudi, Chahar Maqala, translated by E.G. Browne (E. J. W. Gibb Memorial Series, Vol. XI, 2. London: Luzac and Co., 1921), pp. 76-77, quoted in Nasr, Science and Civilization, 185.
16. Neil Postman, “Scientism,” in Technopoly (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 162.
17. Charles Eaton, King of the Castle: Choice and Responsibility in the Modern World (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2007), 18.
19. Huston Smith, The Way Things Are: Conversations on Religion, Science, and Spirituality, ed. Phil Cousineau (Lahore: Suhail Academy, 2005), 12.
20. Huston Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern Mind (Lahore: Suhail Academy, 2001), 137.
21. Eaton, King of the Castle, 154.
22. Smith, Beyond the Post-Modern, 148.
23. Ibid., 144.
24. Seyyed Nasr, Islam and the Plight of Modern Man (1988, repr., Lahore: Suhail Academy, 1999), 19.
25. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 7.
26. Ibid., 8.
27. Eaton, King of the Castle, 150.
28. Nasr, Islam and the Plight, 12.
29. Ibid., 4.
30. Ibid., 13.
31. Seyyed Nasr, The Need for a Sacred Science (Lahore: Suhail Academy, 2001), 79.
32. Eaton, King of the Castle, 165.