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What Makes Islamic Science Islamic?

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
What Makes Islamic Science Islamic?
Author(s): 
Muzaffar Iqbal
Volume: 
19
Issue: 
6
Year: 
1999
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
38–39
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
I know that I have wandered into difficult terrain. What makes science Islamic, or in other words, what adds a religious dimension to science, is a problematic question because the answer depends on certain definitions that are not universally recognized. But let us try to look at the question from the perspective of Islamic tradition, which has at its very heart the concept of Tawhid, the Unicity of God.

This concept is embodied in the first part of Shahadah, the testimony of faith: "There is no god but God." Everything in Islamic civilization, including the sciences, has sprung forth from this fundamental statement, which is an expression of the transcendence of divine unity. This consciousness of the Oneness of God is placed at the center of the Islamic worldview so as to act as a directing force that draws to itself all levels of manifest reality in the cosmic plane. To proclaim that there is no god but God is to testify that there is an essential unifying principle behind the apparent multiplicity of the universe which, in Islam, is not restricted merely to observable and perceptible reality but goes beyond to the realm of the Unseen.

For over 1400 years, Muslims, as well as some non-Muslims, have drawn inspiration from the Qu'ran, which they consider to be the actual Word of God, revealed to the Prophet Mohammed by the archangel Gabriel. For Muslims, the Qur'an not only establishes what is lawful and what is not, but also defines the scope of human activity — from conception to death, and beyond physical death to resurrection and life after death.

Because developments in the sciences, as in any discipline, largely depend on the particular worldview of their practitioners, the growth of various branches of science in the Islamic civilization can be related to the Islamic worldview, and this relationship can be studied in a variety of ways. Since science is a discipline with a well-defined subject matter, methodology, theories, and accumulated body of knowledge, the scientific process is both a social and an epistemological phenomenon dependent on the worldview of its practitioners.

The Islamic worldview is based on the Revealed Book, the Qur'an, which accepts as solved the basic enigmas of life — birth, death, resurrection and life after death. Its basic goal is to guide human activity within legal limits. It grants humans the basic right to make moral choices between right and wrong and calls upon us to reflect on the consequences of our choices. In addition to a large number of historical examples, the Qur'an presents the whole of the manifest universe to humans as our field of reflection. In sum, the Islamic worldview — centered on the single concept of Tawhid — clearly elucidates the hierarchy of the created beings, establishes their legal limits, and puts humans in the center of the created universe and the human heart at the center of human existence. It is the heart from which flow all actions and thoughts, all discoveries and all sciences.

By accepting this covenant offered to us, humans have entered into a special and unique relationship with God, which distinguishes us from other creatures. At the very foundation of this relationship is the communicated word — intelligible speech — which issues forth from the tongue as an instrument of the spirit's inner state. An attentive reader of the Qur'an discovers, over and over, that the inner dimensions of certain acts of worship — like fasting, prayers, and hajj — prepare the body to receive the divine grace by being watchful, receptive, and in a state of peace with the Divine writ (amr-e Rabbi). In Islam, this purification of the heart through vigorous application to a discipline is considered to be an integral part of the methodology of acquiring knowledge. Thus, it is not unusual to find examples of scientists of great stature (for example, Ibn Sina and Al-Biruni) who prayed fervently to God and sought divine help to solve their scientific and philosophical problems.

From the very beginning, Islam provided Muslims with a rich repository of technical terminology that soon paved the way for the development of a conceptual framework from which various branches of science emerged in due course. This terminology is essentially based on the Qur'anic concepts of life, death, resurrection, prophethood, and our moral response to the whole scheme of a purposeful creation of the universe.

Islamic Concepts of Knowledge and Nature

It is noteworthy that the testimony of faith itself is a statement of knowledge. "When a man dies", the Prophet of Islam is reported to have said, "his work also stops, except for 3 [things]: acts of charity, which are continued, knowledge by which [all] profit, and a righteous child who prays for him." He also said:
Whoso walks in the path seeking knowledge thereby, God will make him walk in the paths of paradise; and verily, the angels spread out their wings out of pleasure for the seeker after knowledge; and verily those who are in the heavens and the earth and fish also in the midst of water, all ask pardon for him; and, verily, the excellence of a learned man over a mere worshipper is as the excellence of full moon over the stars. And, verily, the learned men are the inheritors of the prophets; for verily, the prophets' heritage is not [riches], but the heritage of knowledge; whoso then receives this, he has received ample good fortune.
The Qur'anic verse "my Lord, increase my knowledge" was one of the constant prayers of the Prophet of Islam, who also asked God to show him "things as they really are". This prayer of the Prophet has echoed throughout the history of Islam in many forms, but perhaps its most eloquent expression is by the 16th-century Persian Sufi poet and scholar, 'Abd al-Rahman Jami (d 1492) who prayed to God thus:
O God, deliver us from the preoccupation with worldly vanities, and "show us the nature of things as they really are". Remove from our eyes the veil of ignorance, and show us things as they really are. Show us not non-existence as existent, nor cast the veil of non-existence over the beauty of existence. Make this phenomenal world the mirror to reflect the manifestation of Thy beauty, not a veil to separate and repel us from Thee. Cause these unreal phenomena of the Universe to be for us the source of knowledge and insight, not the causes of ignorance and blindness. Our alienation and severance from Thy beauty all proceed from ourselves. Deliver us from ourselves, and accord to us intimate knowledge of Thee.
Thus from the very moment of birth to the last breath, a Muslim is required to seek knowledge. This extraordinary emphasis on acquisition of knowledge is not surprising for a religion that is based on a book.

The emergence of sciences in Islamic civilization was also viewed in the same religious perspective because Nature as a whole is considered to be a work of God — as one of His Signs — and knowledge concerning nature is sought in order to know God. Likewise, the planetary system is considered in Islam to be a sign of God. Over and over our attention is drawn to the fact that there is an order in the cosmos, and that the sun and the moon move according to a fixed reckoning.

In Islam, the highest source of knowledge is revelation. According to revealed knowledge, the whole of the cosmos is open to our reflection. Nature, in Islam, consists of 2 levels of reality: the material or corporeal (nasut) and psychic or animistic (malakut). The third and the highest state in the manifest world is the spiritual or the angelic level (jabrut), which governs the other two.

The Islamic cosmos, therefore, can be envisaged in this tripartite structure. True science, according to Ibn Sina (980-1037) is science that seeks knowledge of the essence of things in relation to their divine origin. The traditional human microcosm, represented by body, soul, and spirit, corresponds to the tripartite structure (the corporeal, the psychic, and the spiritual worlds) of the cosmos.

In Islamic terminology, body is called jism, soul nafs and spirit 'aql. Of these 3, the last one, 'aql — reason, active intellect — is the one that directly concerns us here, for it is through 'aql that human beings are capable of knowing, and the metaphysical aspects of 'aql have profound implications for the whole tradition of the scientific enterprise in Islam. It is also the concept that has received a great deal of attention from all schools of Islamic thought. Human intellect, according to the Islamic worldview, is merely a tool, which can be used only in the light of the revealed knowledge, the Qur'an. It remains dormant, unutilized, as long as it is not touched by the light of revelation. Reaching to its highest potential, the active intellect can grasp certain levels of manifest reality. It is the active intellect, illumined and brought to its full potential through submission to divine command, which is operative behind the whole scheme of scientific methodology in Islam. In order to know, the knower must be guided from beyond.

The Islamic Roots of Science

This is how science in Islam is rooted in a transcendental realm. This spiritual element is what makes science Islamic. In addition, there is the Islamic ethical framework, which defines the nature of inquiry and imparts a characteristic Islamic element to the study of Nature and life. Science in Islam is merely a means to reach the higher truths. It is not an end in itself. It is one of the branches of knowledge, and the Qur'an clearly explains the purpose of gaining knowledge. When the purpose is absent, knowledge becomes sterile. Its pursuit then becomes a mere futile exercise without benefit: one who is engaged in such a pursuit is just like a donkey carrying a load of books. The spirit of this essential aspect of knowledge was beautifully captured by the celebrated mystic Mansur al-Hallaj in his elegant Qasida Li'l-'ilmi ahlun:
For knowledge, there are vocations; for faith, there is a progression. And for sciences as well as scientists, there are experiments. Knowledge is of two kinds: one sterile, the other that bears fruit. The ocean is two oceans: one that allows passage, the other dangerous. And time is two days: blamed and the praised. And the human race is two races: one endowed and the other deprived. So listen with your heart to what a sage says. And ponder in your understanding, for discernment is a gift.
[This item is an edited version of a longer article that originally ran on the listserver Meta as posting 112 on June 18, 1999. It was the first of several columns by Iqbal on different aspects of science from an Islamic perspective. Meta is an edited and moderated listserver and news service dedicated to promoting the constructive engagement of science and religion. Subscriptions are free. For more information, including subscriptions, archives and submission guidelines, go to .]

About the Author(s): 
Muzaffar Iqbal is Regional Director for the Muslim World, Science-Religion Program of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS), Berkeley. He is the former Director for Scientific and Technological Cooperation, Pakistan Academy of Sciences, and also former Director of Scientific Information for the Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH) in the Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC). From 1991 to 1996, he was the editor of Islamic Thought and Scientific Creativity, an international quarterly journal of Islamic thought. Iqbal is the author of Science in Islamic Polity in the Twenty-First Century. Many of his published research papers have focused on the history of the philosophy of science, the history of Islamic science, and the relationship between Islam and science.