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Science and Islam

Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, considered to be the inventor of Algebra (780-850AD)

The title of this write-up may seem a little incongruous as common perception presents science and religion as essentially two distinct and incompatible disciplines. That may be true, but there was a time, some centuries ago, when Islam and science were intermingled ushering in what is now graciously called the “Golden Age” of Islam. Sometimes this Golden Age is flashed around to claim credit for Islam and subliminally proclaim that Islam can attain once again the same greatness in this modern world. The die hard Islamists insist that to achieve greatness once more one has to go back to the period when this was achieved and hence they hark back to the 7th century conditions including the reintroduction of Sharia laws.

So, what is this “Golden Age”? In essence, the Islamic kingdom from the beginning of 8th century to the middle of 13th century is assigned as the glorious period when science and technology, art and culture, music and medicine and so forth all flourished under the patronage of the state. The Arab kingdom, under the Umayyad Caliphate from 661AD to 750AD having Damascus as the capital and then the Abbasid Caliphate from 751AD to 1258AD having Baghdad as the capital, was the melting pot of all human knowledge. The reason for such an epoch rise in human culture and knowledge within just a few decades of the establishment of Islam was that the kingdom that encompassed Persia on the East to Lebanon on the West, Egypt and North Africa on the South to the steeps of Asia Minor on the North brought together the talents from all corners of the kingdom and beyond. Greek science and technology, arts and literature were all translated into Arabic and ilm or knowledge was actively encouraged by the state. All great minds of the kingdom were offered the collective knowledge of other cultures – translated from Greek, Latin etc. – and encouraged to pursue knowledge unencumbered by theological constraints. “Go even unto China to seek knowledge” was the guiding philosophy of that period.

Unprecedented progress was made in many scientific fields, many new disciplines had been invented. Algebra was invented by Muhammad al-Khwarizmi (780 – 850AD) – a Khorasani (which included Persia, part of Afghanistan and part of Central Asia) working in Baghdad, who not only introduced Indian decimal concept and numeral system but also put forward logical thinking in a form which came to be known as Algorithm. This algorithm is used even now as the starting point of computer programming. Another Khorasani, Muhammad al-Farabi (872 – 950AD) was the most prominent scientist and philosopher of the day and wrote on physics, cosmology, psychology, philosophy and on many more. Yet another Persian scholar Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973 – 1048AD) was regarded as one of the greatest scholars of the medieval Islamic era and was well versed in physics, mathematics and other natural sciences. He was a prolific scientific writer and wrote 146 treatises. His major accomplishment was that he estimated the circumference of the earth using his trigonometric methods and that estimation came within 200 miles of the actual circumference of 24,900 miles! He was a great linguist too – he could converse in Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit, and knew Greek, Hebrew and Syriac. Muhammad Zakariya al-Razi (854 – 925AD) of Persia was the pioneer in medical sciences who invented distillation of alcohol and its use in medicine, identified measles and small pox and wrote a treatise on them which remained the guiding light for centuries. He was the author of the encyclopaedia of medicine spanning over twenty three volumes. Abu al-Husayn ibn-Sina was a philosopher and the most authoritative physician of the day (980 -1037 AD) and produced multi-volume medical survey which was translated into Latin. The initial transfer of knowledge from Latin to Arabic had by now reversed its direction and knowledge started to flow from Arabic to Latin.  

Another physicist by the name Ibn al-Haytham (965 – 1040AD) from Basra may be considered to be the father of modern optics, centuries before Newton, he had figured out that objects were seen because they reflected light which was then received by the retina of human eyes, not the previously misconceived notion that eyes emitted light which then hit the objects. He was credited with the development of scientific methods such as the experiment, hypothesis, modification, theory etc. He wrote a “Book of Optics” (kitab al-Manazir) that is still admired by historians of physics. There were many more physicists, mathematicians, astronomers and medical professionals who contributed to the great achievements of that “Golden Age”.

Now, how did that great assimilation of knowledge in the “Golden Age” disappear almost overnight following the collapse of Abbasid Caliphate as a result of Mongol invasion in 1258? Could an empire as well as the human achievement and intellectual progress disappear so suddenly? Admittedly, other civilisations of the past such as the Greek Civilisation, Indian Civilisation, Chinese Civilisation etc. all came and gone, but none did disappear without a trace of intellectual heritage for future generations to pursue as in the case of Islamic “Golden Age”.

To seek out the answer one has to look back at what was happening at the dying days or years of the Abbasid Caliphate. Like any great empire in decline, Abbasid Caliphate was disintegrating for quite some time. In Spain, Christians reconquered Cordoba in 1236 and then Seville in 1248. But the last nail in the coffin was the siege and occupation of Baghdad by Mongols in 1258, thereby bringing an end to the dying empire. For decades or even a century or over, there were internal tension and conflict between the Mu’tazilites who embraced rational thinking and inquisitiveness and the Ash’arités who were anti rationalists. This Ash’arités movement was dogmatic Sunni Muslim movement which held the view that rationalist view was anti-Islamic. Things do happen as God wishes to happen, not as a priori or a posteriori.

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058 – 1111AD) argued that rationalism was incompatible with Islamic teaching. As God’s will is completely free and unencumbered, His wishes are supreme and cannot be compromised by human rationalisation of causes and effects. A storm takes place because God wishes it that way to punish the sinners for their misdeeds, not as a result of any meteorological condition. Rain falls not as a result of precipitation and condensation of moisture, but due to God’s will. By his dogmatic interpretation of Islam he gave a philosophical underpinning of religion, far removed from scientific explanation, and brought Sunni Islam very close to Sufi philosophy.

Following the collapse of Abbasid Caliphate, Ash’arités movement supported by Ghazalites took hold in the Islamic world. From that time on, Islam had been going in the reverse direction to the Western civilisation and Christianity which embraced Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment. Admittedly, Christianity had its turbulent periods when different theological strands vied against each other and did everything to eliminate each other, but eventually rationality prevailed over darkness. Christianity came out of the dark ages bruised and battered, but with its theology intact as long as its boundary is properly demarcated and ring fenced. In other words, in Christianity theology is numinous undertaking segregated from the workings of the nation state.

Islam does not want to accept such segregation of duties and responsibilities. It wants to encroach on the state responsibilities covering politics, economics, education and every other facet of human endeavour. How could a state function when religion tells that there is no rationality, no cause and effect; everything moves as God desires? How could state advance economically or intellectually when faith based religion puts an overarching umbrella over its development plan? A simple practical incident will exemplify this dysfunctional relationship.

Some years ago, when I went from Britain to Saudi Arabia as a Consultant on Radiological Protection, I was invited to present a paper on ‘Effects of radiation on human beings’ at an international conference in Riyadh. The conference was very well attended with many British, American, German, Swedish and Finnish experts. There were high level Saudi presence too including the Saudi Interior Minister, Health Minister and Saudi Atomic Energy Commission’s chairman and so forth. As I presented my paper in English, it had to be translated into Arabic as I spoke. During the presentation, I said that there was a contemporary scientific view that radiation might have caused mutation in human genes that helped the process of evolution. My translator, an intelligent Egyptian man, stopped translating at that point and then came over to me and said, “Sir, I cannot translate this line. If I do, not only I but also you would be arrested for blasphemy.” Then it dawned on me that this was a fundamentalist state where there was no evolution, God made everything. We proceeded without this sentence and any other reference to Darwinism.

In most of the fundamentalist Muslim countries, education at schools, colleges and universities proceed without any reference to evolution, natural selection etc. Islamic teaching takes precedence over scientific developments – God created earth, sun, moon and everything else some 10,000 years ago; everything happens as God wishes; human beings must pray to God to please Him and He will give things as He pleases. With such mental blocks, it is no wonder that science and technology have taken leave from the Islamic world.

Physics Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg (who shared the prize with Abdus Salam and Sheldon Glashow in 1979) said, “Though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West, for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or an astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading.”

Prof. Abdus Salam, First Muslim Nobel Laureate in Physics 1979

Even Prof Abdus Salam, a Muslim of Pakistani origin, who carried out his ground-breaking research in the UK, had to suffer the ignominy of being declared non-Muslim by the Pakistani authorities as he was from the Ahmadi sect. Before his death in 1996, he wished to be buried at his home country, Pakistan. On his burial, his graveyard was desecrated by Muslim zealots, as the headstone at his burial site had the inscription ‘Prof Abdus Salam – First Muslim Nobel Laureate’. As he was declared non-Muslim, the word ‘Muslim’ had been covered-up by an order of the Lahore Court. But then, as he could not claim ‘First Nobel Laureate’; so the whole inscription was covered-up.  

From time to time, Western leaders patronisingly speak of Muslim heritage and scientific and intellectual contributions to civilisations by Islam, but the fact remains that those contributions were nearly 1,000 or more years ago and mostly by people (Shias) who are now considered either non-Muslims or renegade Muslims by Wahhabi Sunnis.

Now, going back to the fundamental question, what caused the catastrophic collapse of “Golden Age” of Islam after the fall of Abbasid Caliphate? Why it could not have been revived in any of the 56 Muslim majority states of the world? The answer is quite simple. Islam, or its fundamental version of it, is not compatible with science and technology. Prof. Steven Weinberg claimed that after Ghazali there was no more science worth mentioning in Islamic countries. Only way Islamic countries can revive the culture of scientific studies is to relegate Islam to back burners, far away from the state functions. The religion of Islam should be totally segregated from all branches of science. Otherwise, Islam will keep creeping back to damage scientific disciplines.

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.  (This article was published in bdnews24.com in 2014)

2 thoughts on “Science and Islam”

  1. Great and informative article. I also read about the Golden Age of Islam. The flourishing of Mutazila, a rationalist school of Islamic theology between 8th and 10th centuries, gave an impetus to that Islamic Golden Age. However, many great scientists (of different fields) of that age were labeled as apostates from Islam. Some suffered physical harm too. Today’s Islamists demanding for return of Golden Age have to leave Islamism behind.

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  2. Was there really a ‘golden age of Islam’? Did Islam ever promote science? May be, ‘golden age of Muslims’ would be a better phrase.

    I am actually reluctant to call anyone Muslim, Hindu or in terms of any other religion. I prefer saying like people think they are Muslims, Hindus, etc. All humans are humans, religious identities are nothing but erroneous brainwashes.

    Having said that, it is quite possible for people to call themselves Muslims and still be great scientists, provided that they keep enough room in their brain to think science after spoiling some with Islam.

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