How to take Islam back to reason
Science and Islam are intimately linked. This sounds odd. First, because we normally think of religion as harmfully hostile to science. Wasn’t there a long and protracted war between science and Christianity? Did the Church not prosecute Galileo? But this “war” between science and religion was purely a western affair. There is no counterpart in Islam of such mutual hostilities. Second, science and technology are conspicuous in Muslim societies largely by their absence. It is this state of affairs that has led many – including at a recent seminar in Rome, George Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury – to conclude that Islam is anti-science.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Islam not only places a high premium on science, but positively encourages its pursuit. Indeed, Islam considers it as essential for human survival.
The Koran devotes almost one-third of its contents to singing the praises of scientific knowledge, objective inquiry and serious study of the material world. The first Koranic word revealed to the Prophet Muhammad is: “Read.” It refers to reading the “signs of God” or the systematic study of nature. It is a basic tenet of Muslim belief that the material world is full of signs of God; and these signs can be deciphered only through rational and objective inquiry. “Acquire the knowledge of all things,” the Koran advises its readers; “. . . say: ‘O my Lord! increase me in knowledge”. One of the most frequently cited verses of the Koran reads:
Surely in the heavens and earth, there are signs for the believers;
And in your creation, and the crawling things He has scattered abroad, there are signs for a people having sure faith;
And in the alternation of night and day, and the provision God sends down from heaven, and therewith revives the earth after it is dead, and the turning about of the winds, there are signs for a people who understand. (45:3-5)
The sayings of the Prophet Muhammad reinforce these teachings. Islamic culture, he insisted, was a knowledge-based culture. He valued science over extensive worship and declared: “An hour’s study of nature is better than a year’s prayer.” This is why he directed his followers to “listen to the words of the scientist and instil unto others the lessons of science”.
The religious impulse propelled science in Muslim civilisation during the classical period, from the eighth to the 15th centuries. The need to determine accurate times for daily prayers and the direction of Mecca from anywhere in the Muslim world, and to establish the correct date for the start of the fasting month of Ramadan as well as the demands of the lunar Islamic calendar (which required seeing the new moon clearly), led to intense interest in celestial mechanics, optical and atmospheric physics, and spherical trigonometry. Muslim inheritance laws led to the development of algebra. The religious requirement of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca generated intense interest in geography, map-making and navigational tools.
Given the special emphasis that Islam placed on learning and inquiry, and the great responsibility that Muslim states took on themselves to assist in this endeavour, it was natural for Muslims to master ancient knowledge. At the instigation of powerful patrons, teams of translators lovingly translated Greek thought and learning into Arabic. But Muslims were not content with slavishly copying Greek knowledge; they tried to assimilate Greek teachings and applied Greek principles to their own problems, discovering new principles and methods. Scholars such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Rushd subjected Greek philosophy to detailed critical scrutiny.
At the same time, serious attention was given to the empirical study of nature. Experimental science, as we understand it today, began in the Muslim civilisation. “Scientific method” evolved out of the work of such scientists as Jabir Ibn Hayyan, who laid the foundations of chemistry in the late eighth century, and Ibn al-Haytham, who established optics as an experimental science in the tenth century. Medicine and surgery, as we know them today, evolved in the Muslim civilisation. Ibn Sina’s Canons of Medicine was a standard text in Europe until the 19th century. Many surgical instruments, such as scalpels, midwifery hooks for pulling out foetuses and instruments for eye surgery, were first developed by Muslims. From astronomy to zoology, there was hardly a field of study that Muslim scientists did not pursue vigorously or make an original contribution to.
The nature and extent of this scientific enterprise can be illustrated with four institutions considered typical of “the Golden Age of Islam”: scientific libraries, universities, hospitals and instruments for scientific observation (particularly astronomical instruments such as celestial globes, astrolabes, sundials and observatories). The most famous library was the “House of Science”, founded in Baghdad by the Abbasid ruler Caliph al-Mamun, which played a decisive role in spreading scientific knowledge throughout the Islamic empire. In Spain, the library of Caliph Hakam II of Cordoba had a stock of 400,000 volumes. Similar libraries existed from Cairo and Damascus to places as far off as Samarkand and Bukhara.
The first university in the world was established at al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo in 970. It was followed by a host of other universities in such cities as Fez and Timbuktu. Like universities, hospitals – where treatment was mostly provided free of charge – were institutions for training and for theoretical and empirical research. The Abodi hospital in Baghdad and the al-Kabir al-Nuri hospital in Damascus acquired worldwide reputations for their research output.
Similarly, there was a string of observatories dotted throughout the Muslim world; the most influential one was established by the celebrated astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, who developed the “Tusi couple”- a mathematical device that helped Copernicus to formulate his theory that the earth moved around the sun – at Maragha in Azerbaijan.
All this is, sadly, in stark contrast to the standing of science and technology in the Muslim world today. Apart from the notable exceptions of Abdus Salam, the Pakistani Nobel laureate, and Ahmed Zewail, the Egyptian scientist who won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1999, modern Muslim societies have produced hardly any scientists of international repute. Scientific research has a very low priority in most Muslim states. The little that is undertaken is usually associated with defence and confined to developing nuclear or other weapons. Not a single university of international renown can be found in any Muslim country.
But things are about to change. A new movement is emerging dedicated to bringing science back to Islam. And these efforts begin with a frank admission: we cannot blame everything on colonialism and the west. As Building a Knowledge Society, the UN’s 2003 Arab Human Development Report, makes clear, a great deal of responsibility for the lack of science and technology in contemporary Islamic societies lies with Muslims themselves. The ground-breaking report blames authoritarian thinking, lack of autonomy in universities, the sorry state of libraries and laboratories, and underfunding in the Arab world. “The time has come,” it declares, “to proclaim those positive religious texts that cope with current realities.” In particular, the report calls for “reviving ijtihad and the protection of the right to differ”.
Ijtihad, or systematic original thinking, is a fundamental concept of Islam. It was the driving force behind the scientific spirit of Muslim civilisation. But the religious scholars, a dominant class in Muslim society, feared that continuous and perpetual ijtihad would undermine their power. They were also concerned that scientists and philosophers enjoyed a higher prestige in society than religious scholars. So they banded together – around the 14th and 15th centuries – and closed “the gates of ijtihad“. The way forward, they suggested, was taqlid, or imitation of the thought and work of earlier generations of scholars. Ostensibly, this was a religious move. But given that, in Islam, everything is connected to everything else, it had a hugely damaging impact on all forms of inquiry. The religious scholars thus buried scientific inquiry to preserve their hold on society.
It is now widely thought that science itself can play an important role in reopening the gates of ijtihad. So the revival of science in Muslim societies and the reform of Islam itself can proceed hand in hand. Similar thoughts are being echoed by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference’s standing commission on scientific and technological co-operation. The commission has argued that substantial increases in scientific expenditure and original work would not only improve Muslim societies, but would have a catalytic effect on Islamic thought. “Science played a key role in transforming Muslim societies in history; it can play the same role in transforming Islamic thought today,” says Dr Anwar Nasim, an adviser to the commission.
Dr Gamal Serour, professor and consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology at al-Azhar University in Cairo, agrees. “It was the neglect of science that plunged the contemporary Muslim world into poverty and underdevelopment,” he says.
During a recent visit to al-Azhar to make a Radio 4 documentary, I spoke to several scientists who expressed similar sentiments. Traditionally, the university concentrated on religious subjects. But now science is emphasised as much as religion. And the atmosphere of scientific inquiry and criticism in its classes and laboratories is bound to find its way into religious discourse.
Muslim societies have an emotional attachment to Islamic history. But their grasp of the true achievements of Muslim scientists is rather limited. Efforts are now under way in Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan, as well as in some Arab countries, to introduce the history of Islamic science into school and university textbooks. In Britain, similar efforts are being made by the recently formed Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation. The foundation, which aims to popularise, disseminate and promote an accurate account of Islamic scientific heritage, has generated tremendous interest in the subject among Muslim students. Based in Manchester, and managed by a volunteer force of young Muslims, it maintains the popular website www.muslimheritage.com. The website, which claims to present a thousand years of missing history of science and technology, has become an invaluable educational forum for the Muslim community.
The wide-ranging Science and Religion in Schools Project (www.srsp.net), based at the Ian Ramsey Centre at Oxford University, aims to produce educational materials on Islam and science for GCSE and A-level students. The initial output of the project, which is led by John Hedley Brooke, professor of science and religion at Oxford, is being tested in a number of schools in Britain. Once its initial phase is over, the project will spread to other countries.
To be faithful to their scientific heritage, Muslims need to do much more than simply preserve the ashes of its fire; they need to transmit its flame. “The best way to appreciate the scientific heritage of Islam,” says Nasim, “is by building the scientific capacity of Muslim societies.” Muslims are now moving in the right direction. “We are beginning to realise that conscious efforts to reopen the gates of ijtihad and return to systematic, original thinking mean placing science where it belongs: at the very centre of Islamic culture,” Nasim declares.
By Ziauddin Sardar, published in NewStatesman, April 5th 2004.