Nowadays, every opportunity is taken to denounce Allah’s deen (religion). One recent allegation is that Islam/Muslims are backwards or primitive, since they have lagged extremely far behind in the world’s scientific development for the past 300 years. Just visit Richard Dawkins’ Twitter feed to know what I’m talking about.
Most Muslims respond to this criticism by pointing out that there were thousands of Muslim intellectuals throughout history that contributed greatly to the world’s scientific knowledge. This is 100% correct. But I think we’re missing a key point here: the “science” practiced by Muslims during their Golden Age was NOT the (secular) science people like Stephen Hawking are a part of today. There were fundamental differences, which I hope to bring to light in this article In Sha Allah (God willing). The main differences are:
- Islamic science and secular science view the natural world in radically different ways.
- Muslim scientists and modern-day secular scientists have completely different reasons for studying science and nature in the first place.
The first point: the way Muslim scientists view nature. According to the Holy Qur’an, all of nature is the sacred creation of Allah (God), and belongs to Him alone. Consider the following quotations (Sahih International translation):
- “To Allah belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is* in the earth.” [2.284, 4.131, 4.170, 10.55, 24.64, 31.26, 34.1, 53.31]
- “To Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth.” [42.49]
- “Say, ‘To whom belongs whatever is in the heavens and earth?’ Say, ‘To Allah .'” [6.12]
- “To Him belongs what is in the heavens and what is on the earth and what is between them and what is under the soil.” [20.6]
- “The seven heavens and the earth and whatever is in them exalt Him. And there is not a thing except that it exalts (Allah) by His praise, but you do not understand their way of exalting. Indeed, He is ever Forbearing and Forgiving.” [17.44]
- “Do you not see that Allah is exalted by whomever is within the heavens and the earth and by the birds with wings spread (in flight)? Each of them has known its means of prayer and exalting, and Allah is Knowing of what they do. And to Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth, and to Allah is the final destination.” [24.41-42]
- “Whatever is in the heavens and whatever is* on the earth exalts Allah.” [59.1, 61.1, 62.1, 64.1]
(*Note: some of these read “… heavens and the earth,” with the second “whatever is” omitted.)
In these ayaat (verses), Allah has given a spiritual dimension to the natural world, while making it clear that this spiritual element is beyond our understanding or capability. In addition, Allah has repeatedly reminded us that the universe we live in belongs to Him, not us. Hence, our discovery of natural phenomena leads us to a greater appreciation for their Creator, rather than a (rather paradoxical) rejection of his very existence. This spiritual dimension of nature also leads to a more humane approach in dealing with nature. There are many sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) that encourage Muslims to treat all living things with kindness and respect, one particular manifestation of this viewpoint.
As for the secular scientists: according to their materialist worldview, everything in the universe is just particles bouncing around. There is no rhyme or reason to existence, and nature is seen as an abstract object of study rather than something we are a part of. This does not lead to any appreciation or respect for nature; rather, a reductionist viewpoint does exactly the opposite of that.
The second point is that Muslim scientists had different reasons from secular scientists for studying science. They saw themselves as servants of the public good; they tried to investigate knowledge in order to invent things which were useful for the public (Muslim and non-Muslim alike). An example of this is al-Jazari’s “The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices,” published in 1206 CE, which contains many useful tools and inventions. Additionally, Muslim mathematicians advanced the science while trying to figure out inheritance and taxation laws by developing algebra. In fact, al-Khawirzmi’s “Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing” contains countless “real-world” examples that occur in these types of situations. Also, Muslim astronomers made many discoveries in navigation because they were trying to help people locate the direction of the qiblah better.
Furthermore, Muslim scientists were actually participating in ibadah (worship) of Allah by studying his creation. In the Qur’an, Allah has ordered us to observe and learn about the natural world as to get closer to Him. See the following:
- “Then do they not look at the camels – how they are created? And at the sky – how it is raised?And at the mountains – how they are erected? And at the earth – how it is spread out?” [88.17]
- “You do not see in the creation of the Most Merciful any inconsistency. So return your vision (to the sky); do you see any breaks? Then return your vision twice again. Your vision will return to you humbled while it is fatigued.” [67.3-4]
- “Do they not look into the realm of the heavens and the earth and everything that Allah has created?” [7.185]
- “Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding; (those) who remember Allah while standing or sitting or lying on their sides. And they give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, saying, “Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You (above such a thing); then protect us from the punishment of the Fire.” [3.190-191]
- “Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and earth, and the alternation of the night and the day, and the ships which sail through the sea with that which benefits people, and what Allah has sent down from the heavens of rain, giving life thereby to the earth after its lifelessness and dispersing therein every kind of moving creature, and His directing of the winds and the clouds controlled between the heaven and the earth are signs for a people who use reason.” [2.164]
By studying science, people like ibn al-Haytham became closer to God. In fact, ibn al-Haytham once wrote, “I constantly sought knowledge and truth, and it became my belief that for gaining access to the effulgence and closeness to God, there is no better way than that of searching for truth and knowledge” (source).
In the secular scientist worldview, science is the ends rather than a means. There is no real “point” to figuring out how the universe works, it is done merely for… figuring out how the universe works. I.e. for it’s sake itself. I would argue that this is inherently irrational, because doing something without an over-arching purpose or reason makes no sense at all.
There are several manifestations of the secular scientific worldview. One of these is the closeness of the scientific “community” and the military-industrial complex. A researcher named Stanley Aronowitz stated, “It does not matter that the scientific community ritualistically denies its alliance with economic/industrial and military power. The evidence is overwhelming that such is the case. Thus, every major power has a national science policy; the United States Military appropriates billions each year for ‘basic’ as well as ‘applied’ research” (source, emphasis mine).
Whereas Muslim scientists tried to improve peoples’ lives with their inventions and discoveries, the first thing secular scientists think of when a discovery is made is: “How can we turn this into a weapon?” Because of this, we got nuclear bombs, chemical weapons, tanks, machine guns, flamethrowers, etc all from secular science. By comparison, weapons technology did not advance much during the Muslim science Golden Age. I might be wrong about this and correct me if I am, but none of al-Jazari’s “ingenious mechanical devices” were weapons or meant to be used as weapons.
As we can see, Islamic science differs from secular science in its fundamental principles. Instead of “bowing down” to secular science and accepting it as the yardstick by which to measure civilizations, Muslims should criticize it for the reasons I listed above.
وصل اللهم على نبينا محمد وعلى آله وصحبه وسلم
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