The Relationship between Science and Islam: Islamic Perspectives and Frameworks

By Mohd Hazim Shah; Member of Muslim-Science.Com’s Task Force on Science and Islam

1.0          Introduction

In this paper I will deal with the question of science and religion, with reference to Islamic perspectives and frameworks.  The paper will be divided into five sections:

  • introduction

  • a critique of the Barbour(Barbour, 2000) typology

  • a review of the discourse on science and Islam as presented by selected Muslim thinkers, and a characterization of their approaches

  • the relevance and use of history in the discourse on science and Islam

  • concluding remarks.

I will begin by briefly looking at the discourse on science and religion in the West, using the typology proposed by Ian Barbour, and suggesting that although it might serve as a useful starting point, its application to the issue of science and religion in the Islamic world is problematic, thus necessitating a different framework.

In section two of the paper, I will review the discourse on science and religion/Islam as presented by several selected Muslim thinkers, namely Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Syed Naguib al-Attas, Ziauddin Sardar, Pervez Hoodbhoy and Ismail Faruqi. Although no systematic framework has been developed in the discourse on science and religion in Islam, contemporary Muslim thinkers have developed their own intellectual responses to the issue of science and Islam which can serve as a useful point of reference.  I will classify their responses into three categories, viz.:

  • the metaphysical approach: Nasr and Naguib

  • the value-ethics approach: Ziauddin Sardar

  • the scientific autonomy approach: Hoodbhoy and Abdus Salam

In section three, I will take up the question of the relevance and use of history (of science) in dealing with the question of science and religion in Islam.  The relationship between science and religion in the Muslim world cannot be understood outside of its historical and cultural context, and therefore reference to history is essential in dealing with the issue. Some of the issues dealt with here are:

  • misconceptions in the use of history of science in dealing with the question of science and religion

  • the historical sociology of science in Islam

  • the influence of colonialism on science in the Muslim world

  • lessons to be drawn from history, and its relevance to the contemporary world of science in Islam

Finally, I will end the paper with concluding remarks on the following:

  • the epistemology of science and religion

  • the use of science and technology for development in Islam

  • the relevance and use of history

Since the issue is multidimensional, the various salient dimensions as outlined above have to be dealt with, with a view to getting a good grasp of the issues involved in the relationship between science and religion in Islam, and suggesting the way forward.

2.0          Is Ian Barbour’s Typology of the Relationship between Science and Religion Applicable to the Islamic World?

Barbour’s typology, being more sociological rather than historical, cannot be straightforwardly applied to the analysis of the relationship between science and religion in the Islamic world. This is because of the different historical and cultural contexts that existed between science in the western world as compared to science in the Islamic world.  For example, in Barbour’s typology conflict appears as a rather dominant theme; given the history of conflict between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church in the 17th century, and between Christian theologians and Darwinists in the 19th century, this makes sense. Thus the metaphor of “warfare” and “battle” used to describe the relationship between science and religion in the west, seems appropriate, given such a background.  Also the victory of the scientists over the theologians/religionists in those two episodes, seemed to seal the fate of religion in its battle with science in the West. This, coupled with the history of increasing secularisation of western society, therefore prompted at least two of the categories postulated by Barbour, namely: (i) conflict and (ii) independence.  The victory of science over religion, and the autonomy of science from religious authority, seems to imply ‘conflict’ and ‘independence’.  However, in Islam no such drastic episodes took place in the relationship between Islam and science in its history.  Although this does not necessarily suggest the total compatibility between Islam and science, with there being no conflict at all, either potentially or in actuality, the ‘disagreement’ or ‘incompatibility’ between the two is of a different nature, and should be approached with a more nuanced analysis that is sensitive to the subtleties of Islamic history.  For instance, instead of a direct conflict between science and Islam, it was suggested that science was ‘marginal’ in medieval Islamic culture and education, i.e. the so-called ‘marginality thesis’ put forward by Von Grunebaum (Lindberg, 1992, p. 173).  This marginality did not entail conflict, but only reflects the priorities in Islamic culture, where religious sciences prevail over the natural sciences.  Also, the rise of science in Islamic civilisation was partly attributed to the Muta’zilite Caliphs such as al-Ma’mun, with their rationalist tendencies. Although it is tempting to draw parallels with the influence of Protestantism on science in the west, such a comparison is flawed in view of the fact that the Muta’zilah was not really a separate religious sect in Islam, unlike Protestantism in Christianity.  What this suggests is that “Patronage” was an important factor in the development, rise and fall of science in Islamic culture, where this patronage is connected to ‘religious ideology’.  This ‘power factor’ in determining the fate of science in Islamic society is something which cannot be analysed using Barbour’s typology.  Also, Barbour’s typology, like Merton’s norms, assumes the distinct identity of science as an autonomous form of knowledge which is not ‘socially constructed’.  Recent literature in the history and sociology of science, however, have shown how the development of science was shaped and influenced by its social and cultural contexts.  Thus, my suggestion is that we work from the historical ground upwards, rather than impose neat sociological categories and impose on the (‘mismatched’?) historical realities.

3.0          Existing Views on the Relationship between Science and Islam by Muslim Writers

The relationship between science and religion has been discussed by both Muslim and non-Muslim writers.  Western scholars have discussed the issue mainly through Ian Barbour’s four-fold typology, and drawing on the works of historians, philosophers and sociologists of science.  In the Islamic world, the discourse on science and Islam have been influenced and dominated by the works of a few Muslim intellectuals namely Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Syed Muhammad Naguib al-Attas, Ziauddin Sardar, Pervez Hoodbhoy, and more generally the late Ismail Faruqi (Shah, 2001).  Any attempt to formulate an Islamic approach to the relationship between science and Islam must therefore begin by acknowledging and discussing the contributions made by these thinkers to the question of the relationship between science and Islam. I have selected the thinkers above because apart from their influence in shaping the discourse, they can also be regarded as representing the major positions in contemporary Islamic thought on science and Islam. I will begin by briefly outlining their respective positions, giving brief commentaries on each one of them, and suggesting how the discourse as a whole can be carried further or whether any policy implications can be drawn from them.

3.1          The Metaphysical/Traditionalist Approach: Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Syed Naguib al-Attas

Both Nasr (Nasr, 1981) and Naguib (al-Attas, 1989) priviledge Islamic philosophy and metaphysics when dealing with knowledge, including scientific knowledge.  Nasr is more familiar with modern science compared to Naguib, having been educated in physics and geophysics at Harvard in the 1950s.

However, the epistemological position they took when discussing scientific knowledge, is almost similar. This is because of their commitment to Islamic metaphysics and cosmology, through which they view scientific knowledge. They can be considered as ‘globalists’ in their approach to scientific knowledge because they conduct their analysis mainly at the general epistemological level rather than dealing with specific issues in science, or with any specific scientific theory. Even when Nasr deals with the biological theory of evolution, the arguments made are philosophical rather than scientific, unlike the approach taken by someone like Harun Yahya for instance.  Thus both of them consider science as a ‘lower form of knowledge’ based on rational and empirical sources only, in contrast to the ‘higher forms of knowledge’ accessible through religious intuition, gnosis or Irfan. Therefore, the knowledge of the Prophets and the Saints would be of a higher order compared to that of scientists.

Nasr calls himself a ‘Traditionalist’ on this account because he would not accede to the claim that modern science has advanced beyond religion in giving us ultimate truths about the world, including the natural world. Instead, Nasr sticks to his guns and preserve the authority of the Qur’an and the Hadith (as he interprets them) even in the face of modern challenges from science and technology. His uncompromising and unapologetic position against the theory of evolution in the face of scientific orthodoxy can be understood against this background.  The upshot of their metaphysical approach to knowledge is that they are able to preserve traditional beliefs in the ‘supernatural’ or Unseen worlds such as the world of angels and jinn, which modern science has written off or suspended belief in.  Instead, they returned to traditional sources and traditional interpretations of reality as understood by earlier Muslim thinkers especially the Sufis, instead of ‘going with the times’.  Unlike the approach taken by some writers such as Frithoj Capra (Capra, 1976), who attempted to engage with both modern science (quantum physics) and traditional cosmologies such as Taoism, and in a sense ‘updating’ the traditional cosmology through a modern scientific interpretation, Nasr chose to opt for a ‘Traditionalist’ (Jahanbegloo & Nasr, 2010) approach and avoided such engagements. His own autobiography revealed the conscious decision he took in this matter, when he was a physics student at Harvard.  Now, the question is: is there an unbridgeable gulf between the two or is a rapprochement possible?  For Nasr a rapprochement does not seem possible because science and religion are based on different premises regarding the nature of reality.  In science reality is ultimately physical, and that the only sources of valid knowledge are the rational and the empirical. In western thought, this issue has been more or less clinched by Immanuel Kant in the 18th century, when he rejected the possibility of metaphysical knowledge in his Critique of Pure Reason.  Since then, western thought has imposed boundaries on genuine or valid knowledge, more or less along the lines set out by Kant and later revised by the Logical Positivists.  Even when Wittgenstein in his later work, tried to rescue non-scientific discourse from being consigned to the flames and the realm of the ‘meaningless’, he ended up by giving a secular humanistic account in terms of ‘language games’.  In other words, the west has not been able to re-assign the realm of the spiritual back into mainstream intellectual discourse (note the writings of Rorty (1999) for instance), while in the Islamic world following Al-Ghazali, the spiritual and metaphysical realm has remained cognitively respectable even today.

3.2          The Ethical Approach by Ziauddin Sardar

Unlike Nasr and Naguib, who chose to view science through Islamic metaphysics, Sardar (Sardar, 1977) instead looks at science through Islamic ethics.  Familiar with western critiques of science, Sardar adds to the growing dissenting voices against science in the west, but by bringing in his own Islamic background and perspective into the picture.  In the 1970s, critics of science—apart from philosophical critiques by Kuhn, Feyerabend and the Edinburgh School—point to the damage caused by science and technology to the environment though industrial pollution, to human security through the nuclear arms race, and the dangers of a ‘brave new world’ brought about by advances such as ‘human cloning’.

Sardar’s diagnosis is that the ills of modern science results from the fact that it is a by- product of a secular western civilisation that has abandoned religion and religious values in the transition from medievalism to modernity.  The solution therefore, is not to reject science but to envelop it within an Islamic value-system, so that science can be practised according to Islamic values and hence be of benefit to humanity.  Sardar begins by criticising the notion that science and technology are ‘value-free’.  To him, science and technology are not value-free but are infused by values adopted throughout western history and civilisation such as the Enlightenment, Capitalism etc.  These values which are ‘man-made’, in contrast to a divinely-inspired value-system, could not deliver men out of his ills.  Thus despite the promise heralded in the Baconian vison of the 17th century of human salvation on earth through advances in science and technology, and the Enlightenment ideal of a rational approach to life and thought, we have not seen a better world despite advances in scientific knowledge and modern technology.  Sardar’s argument and solution is that since science is not value-free (both in a descriptive and a normative sense), it is best if science is practised according to Islamic ethics which is universal since Islam is a universal religion for the whole of mankind. He outlined several of these ethical principles such as justice, conservation, balance, avoidance of wastage etc, which could act as guiding ethical principles in the practice of science and technology.  The advantage of Sardar’s approach for Muslims is that he does not advocate turning away from modern science and technology, which the metaphysical approach indirectly does.  Although critical of science like his other western colleague, Jerome Ravetz, Sardar still entertains the hope that science re-directed can be harnessed for a better world.

In so doing, his approach also helps Muslims to cope with modernity by accommodating science within the Islamic value-system.  Although Sardar’s approach remains programmatic and lacking in details (eg. ‘what does an Islamic science policy look like?’), it is hopeful in that it allows for the retention of an Islamic identity in the attempt made by Muslim societies to modernise through science and technology. In fact he was quite critical of Nasr’s approach to modern science and technology, which he regarded as not quite useful in practical terms given the backwardness of Muslim countries in science and technology in relation to the West, and how this has hampered the Muslim Ummah and was partly responsible for its history of being colonised.

3.3          The Scientific Autonomy Approach: Pervez Hoodbhoy and Abdus Salam

If Zia Sardar was considered a radical by some, it is more so with Pervez Hoodbhoy (Hoodbhoy, 1992), who in his book Science and Islam, advocated for autonomy of science from control by Islamic religious authority.  Hoodbhoy drew his inspiration from the history of science in western civilisation, although he was equally aware of the history of science in Islamic civilisation.

In the west, science and scientists had to go through a long history of struggle against religious authority, before it finally became independent from religious control. This was symbolised and epitomised by the conflict between Galileo and the Roman Catholic Church in the 17th century. Although this was not the whole story, since religion was also a factor in the rise of modern science in the west as shown in the Merton thesis and in the institutionalisation of science in religiously-controlled medieval European universities, it cannot be denied that the advancement of science took place amidst a secularising European society, where the support from the secular state enabled science to operate quite freely, though now under the control of a secular state authority. In Islam, because of its all-encompassing nature, secularisation has never really taken root in Islamic society.  Thus no sphere of modern life, be it political, economic, legal, educational, or even cultural, can be totally free of religious injunction or authority.

Hoodbhoy himself when writing his book, personally experienced this when there was an attempt to revive “Islamic Science” and to “Islamise” science, when Pakistan was ruled by the Islamist General Zia ul-Haq.  Hoodbhoy regarded any attempt at what he considered as ‘religious interference’ in the development of science, as unwarranted and even detrimental to the Muslim cause.  To him the problem is not that science is “un-Islamic”, or at odds with Islam in certain respects. The problem rather, is contemporary Muslim backwardness in science and technology in relation to the west and other advanced countries such as Japan and South Korea.  This sentiment is shared by his mentor, ironically the rather religious Abdus Salam (Salam, 1984), and I believe most aspiring modern Muslim governments today.  But Hoodbhoy does not want to cut himself off totally from his Islamic roots, citing the pre-eminence of Muslim science in the past in support of the argument that science and Islam are not necessarily incompatible.  However, he was aware of the rationalist ideology of the Mu’tazilah, whom he credited for the support they gave to science in Islamic civilisation that led to its pre-eminence. That same spirit, he believed, should be exercised in our age.

Thus it is not Islam per se that is to be blamed for the decline of science in Islam, but instead the attitude adopted by certain Muslim thinkers and leaders, that have been responsible for the current malaise. What is needed therefore, is an ‘enlightened’ Islamic approach to modernity, including science and technology. It smacks of a ‘missed Protestantism’ in Islamic history, and suggests remedial action along those lines.

4.0          Science and Islam and the Challenge of History: The Social and Cultural Context of Science in Islam

The relationship between science and Islam cannot be properly understood outside of its historical and cultural context (Dallal, 2010).  Even then, the history of science in Islam needs to be properly interpreted in order to draw the right lessons, thus making history relevant for contemporary science policy in the Muslim world.  Science and technology policy in the contemporary world is heavily influenced by western models, such as the OECD models, namely the so-called Oslo and Frascati Manuals, which in turn is based on a different historical experience, and tied to a certain view of economic growth. It is more relevant to western countries that have achieved a high level of economic growth based on the K-Economy with substantial inputs from R&D.  Muslim countries would do well to reflect on their own historical experience in the relation between science and Islam, instead of slavishly imitating the west.

Even if Muslim countries succeed in achieving similar success by adopting those models, it might be at the expense of cultural stability and authenticity based on Islamic values.  Thus it is important for Muslims to understand the historical challenge in charting their own paths towards modernity, through the incorporation or assimilation of science and technology.  In this regard, we cannot strictly separate the thematic from the historical/chronological, the synchronic from the diachronic, because the past is still very much with us. We carry a greater historical and cultural baggage as compared to the west, which has discarded much of that baggage throughout its history.

In trying to draw positive lessons from history, I will first begin by discussing what I construe as the ‘misinterpretations’ of history, or the ‘wrong’ lessons that have sometimes been drawn from history, in thinking about the role of science in contemporary Muslim society.

1)            Firstly, there is the tendency to ‘glorify’ past Muslim achievements in science and technology, perhaps as a reminder of what Muslims were capable of in the past, and thereby act as a psychological motivator in the attempt to revive science and technology in today’s Muslim world.  However, despite its nobility, it conceals more than it reveals.  It conceals the actual status of science in medieval Islam (marginality thesis), and the role played by rationalist Muta’zilah caliphs such as al-Ma’mun in the propagation of science in Muslim society.  Are contemporary Muslims willing to abandon or change some of its conservatism, to promote science and technology?

2)            Secondly, the glory of Islamic science was achieved through the works of individual scientists such as Ibn Sina, Ibn Haytham, Al-Khwarizmi and others (Nasr, 1968).  Science was not institutionalised in Islam, and thus there was no continuity in the development of science after them.  Also, the ‘great individual scientist’ model is no longer appropriate in today’s “Big Science” which is capital-intensive and based on teamwork.  So what works for science in the Muslim world in the past is not necessarily what works today.

3)            Thirdly, the role of colonialism in Islamic history has not been adequately and properly factored in, when considering the relationship between science and Islam.  The effects of colonization are so deep in the Muslim world so that institutions and scientific activities carried out in the Islamic world today is the extension of the colonial heritage rather than the Islamic.  Scientific institutions in most of the developing world today is a legacy of the colonialists. Although in terms of history, we are proud of the glorious days of science in Islamic civilization, but the fact is that scientific institutions as well as various other institutions that we have inherited after independence are a legacy of colonial rule. Although we cannot turn the clock back and resume from where we had left before colonial rule, it does present a challenge if want to rethink the science-Islam relationship.  Colonial influence is not necessarily intrinsically bad, especially since if we realise that western science owes to Islamic civilization in its revival in the 12th century through translation works from Arabic to Latin, via Spain and Sicily.  Science in today’s Muslim world has been subjected more to nationalistic concerns, rather than the Islamic, as a result of post-colonialism.  Therefore in order to relate Islam to science in the present Muslim world in practical terms, this has to be done in the context of nation-states rather than in terms of some abstract “Islamic or Muslim world”.  The OIC can perhaps act as a bridge or starting point in this respect, since it is an organization of nation-states with Muslim majorities.

Thus history has to be properly understood and interpreted in order for it to serve as a guiding light in articulating a genuine and authentic Islamic response and science policy for the contemporary Muslim world.  The social and cultural conditions existing then, and how it contributed to past success in Islamic science, must not be assumed as equally valid in today’s world.  The historical colonial experience and its effect on the Muslim world also has to be understood.  Thus while history might serve as an encouragement for Muslims trying to develop their own science and technology in today’s world, they must also learn to draw the right lessons from history if that success were not to remain purely historical.

5.0          Concluding Remarks

My concluding remarks will refer to the following three major points, namely:

  • the epistemology of science and religion

  • the use of science and technology for development, and

  • the relevance and use of history.

The epistemology of science and religion.  Broadly speaking, as forms of knowledge, they are based on different assumptions, methodologies, scope, and purpose.  Their overlap, if any, is partial and may or may not result in conflicting claims.  In areas where they do not overlap, for example in the realm of morals and ethics that is mostly the province of religion rather than science, one turns to religion for guidance rather than science.  However, there are cases where the application of religious principles and moral codes would require an understanding of science if it involves technical issues such as reproductive technology (bioethics).  Claims made by religion with respect to the spiritual realm and the Unseen world, are ontological claims, which cannot be verified by or through science.  However, it is belief in these realities that underwrite the moral and social codes of Islamic societies.  To me, it is best to keep an ‘open dialogue’ regarding these issues, rather than make any dogmatic pronouncements. It could be more enlightening as it could open up more vistas of understanding that is hitherto unknown.  In any case, science is ‘fallible knowledge’ (Popper, 1972) and makes no claim to absolute truth.  The history of science has shown that our scientific understanding of the world has changed over the centuries, with there being no ‘ontological convergence’.  In any case, with regard to knowledge regarding the metaphysical world, science can best be looked at as being ‘agnostic’ rather than ‘antagonistic’ regarding such metaphysical knowledge.  One is therefore entitled to believe in both science and religion without there necessarily being any deep or irreconcilable conflict.  The belief in the reality of the spiritual world however, should not be used as an excuse for rejecting the pursuit of scientific knowledge, given that we have delimited the boundaries of science in relation to religion.  Furthermore, Islam encourages its followers to seek knowledge of the world, conceived as God’s creation.  Here one can draw upon the examples of past Muslim scientists who were at home in both science and Islam.

The Use of Science and Technology for Development.  Muslim thinkers such as Zia Sardar (Sardar, Explorations in Islamic Science, 1988), or even government policy makers in Muslim countries, have correctly pointed out that weaknesses in science and technology have been partly responsible for the current ‘backwardness’ of the Muslim Ummah.  In so agreeing, I am not thereby adopting a totally ‘modernist’ perspective with respect to religion and development, but acknowledging contemporary realities.  Islam was successful and respected in the past because of its political, economic, scientific, and military strength, not weakness.  That strength enabled Islam to flourish throughout the world.  Present-day Muslims therefore, cannot afford to ignore modern science and technology, for its own survival as a Muslim Ummah.  The spiritual strength of the Muslim must be supported and accompanied by its material strength acquired through science and technology.  However, the pursuit of modern science and technology must be guided by Islamic values and ethics to ensure that in the long run, science and technology will serve humanity and the Muslim Ummah, and not lead to its eventual destruction, which is a real possibility looking at the way the west is using its science and technology within the framework of Capitalism.  In fact even the capitalistic world had to resort to ‘regulatory measures’ based ultimately on some moral or ethical values, in order to ensure sustainability.

The Relevance and Use of History.  The question of the relationship between science and Islam should not be viewed in an ahistorical manner, because the relationship has been shaped by history which would therefore require a historical understanding in order to suggest the way forward.  History is also important because it gives a sense of Islamic identity in our attempt to relate science and Islam. Otherwise we would be caught up in existing frameworks of analysis, largely emanating from the west who has managed to universalise their own history, and provincialise the rest.  However, in our attempt to utilise history in order to achieve an accurate understanding of the relationship between science and Islam, we must be cautious not to fall into the trap of nostalgia and jingoism.  We should approach history with a sense of realism, and not as a means of psychological cover for our present weakness and inadequacies.  Knowing where we came from (through historical understanding), we would be in a better position to understand the situation we are currently in, which would then make us better informed when thinking of strategies on how to move ahead.  History is also important for another reason; that the past is still very much in our present—even in a modified form—and dealing with history is in a way dealing with an aspect of contemporary reality.  However, we also have to learn how to move on from the past and chart a new future which is somehow reconciled with its past, and for that we need a new creativity and a new energy. The challenge is therefore for us, contemporary Muslim thinkers, to help chart out that new future for the Islamic world.


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By Mohd Hazim Shah, Task Force Essay on Islam’s Response to Science’s Big Questions.

Prof. Mohd Hazim Shah began his career as a tutor in History and Philosohy of Science, under the Dean’s Office of the Faculty of Science, University of Malaya in 1977. He is currently the Deputy President of the Malaysian Social Science Association.


We gratefully acknowledge Dr. Osama Athar, Founding Editor and Publisher of Muslim-Science.Com for permitting us to reproduce this very much valuable essay emanating from the Task Force on Islam’s Response to Science’s Big Questions

This task force initiative, launched by Muslim-Science.Com (an online platform and portal dedicated to a revival of science and scientific culture in the Islamic World), seeks to jumpstart dialogue, discourse, and debate on critical issues and big questions at the intersection of science and religion within the Islamic world.

The list of the Task Force members with their credentials can be found here