Islam Does Not Inhibit Science

By T. O. Shanavas, author of the 2002.11.17 Metanexus: Views column Inshah Allah (Allah So Willing)-The Metaphysics of the Future, is a pediatrician in Adrian, Michigan. He serves as the vice president of Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc, in Louisville, KY. His science and religion interests include “creation and evolution” within the context of the Qur’an and Pre-Darwin Muslims. Most of today’s article is taken from the upcoming book “Creation AND/OR Evolution: An Islamic View”. And a version of the following article was published in “Reports of National Center for Science Education [NCSE]” (Vol 19, No.6).

A well-known scientist wrote in the National Center For Science Education Report (NCSE): ‘The progress in learning achieved by Arab astronomers and mathematicians ground to a halt when necessary ability to seek where the data led conflicted with the strictures of Islam that anything important was already available in the Qur’an.’

I believe that it is the lack of familiarity with Islamic culture that preserves this mistaken impression in the Western world. It is not Islam, but some Muslims’ interpretations of Islam, that is responsible for the supposed conflict. In many ways, this confrontation of science and religion in Muslim countries is not very different from Christian countries of the west. Although in both religions there are those who seem to think that no reconciliation or constructive dialogue is possible, neither religion prevents or inhibits science per se. The evidence for Islamic culture shows that it does not inhibit or prevent the science and its growth. It is a historical fact that Islamic culture has produced many first-rate scientists who were also devout in their religious observances.

The Qur’an instructs Muslims to engage in science with expectation that ‘signs in the earth and heavens and in your own self’ will be comprehensible to them.

“There are signs in the earth for those who are firm in their faith, and within yourselves. Can you perceive? (Qur’an 51:20-21).”[1]

“Say Muhammad: ‘Travel in the earth and see how God originates creation; so will God produce a later creation: For God has power over all things (Qur’an 29:20).”[2]

These verses from the Qur’an guided early Muslims to investigate Nature and the creation of human and other life. Moreover, according to the tradition of the Prophet (pbuh) (Hadith):

When a judge gives a decision, having tried his best to decide correctly and is right, there are two rewards for him; and if he gave a judgment after having tried his best (to arrive at the correct decision) but erred, there is one reward for him.)[3]

Therefore, Muslim scientists are allowed to ‘take chances, make mistakes, and get messy’ in the investigation of nature as long as the intention and efforts are to arrive at the correct meaning and the fair judgment in any matter.

On specific issues, the Qur’an is consistent with the current scientific hypotheses and models. For example, the Qur’an anticipates the contemporary Big Bang Theory:

“Do not these unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were an integrated mass, then We split them and made every living thing from water (Qur’an 21:30).”[4]

It also refers to the expanding universe:

“And it is We who built the universe With [Our creative power]; and, verily, it is We who are steadily expanding it (Qur’an 51:47).”[5]

Creation/Evolution:

The Qur’an states that man as a species was created through a gradual process. It states:

“Seeing that He (Allah) created you in successive stages’ (Qur’an 71:14)[6]

Centuries before Darwin, when the West was in the Dark Ages, the Muslims believed that the appearance of humans was not an instantaneous event but a gradual process in which humans were derived from earlier forms. Ibn Khaldun, a Muslim scholar, wrote 500 years before Darwin that man belongs to the animal kingdom:

…[M]an belongs to the genus of animals and that God distinguished from them by ability to think, which He (Allah) gave man and through which man is able to arrange his actions in an orderly manner.[7]

He further states:

One should look at the world of creation. It started out from the minerals and progressed, in an ingenious, gradual manner to plants and animals…The animal world then widens, its species become numerous, and, in a gradual process of creation, it finally leads to man, who is able to think and reflect. The higher stage of man is reached from the world of monkeys, in which both sagacity and perception are found, but which has not reached the stage of actual reflection and thinking. At this point we come to the first stage of man after the world of monkeys. This is as far as our physical observation extends.[8]

The last sentence of the above quote shows that Muslims reached these conclusions by observations.

Creation/Evolution of Adam and Eve

Ibn Arabi, who lived about 800 years before Darwin is one of the most respected exegetes of the Qur’an. His views on the origin of life and man can be summarized in his own words from the “Uqlatu’l-Mustawfiz:

“On they rolled to perfection: Thus the meaner world was born. Mineral passed to vegetable life, out of which animal life was born.”

“Then creation continued on earth, minerals, then vegetation, then animals, and then man. God made the last of every one of these kinds. The last of the minerals and the first of the vegetations is the truffle. The last of the vegetation and the first of the animals is the date palm. The last of the animals and the first of mankind is the monkey.”

“Since the perfect man is in the perfect form, he deserves the vicegerentship and deputyship of God in the Universe. Here we shall explain the evolution of this vicegerent, his position and form as they are. We do not mean Man only as animal, but on the other hand, as Man and vicegerent . . . This is the intended Perfect Man. The others are animal men. The relation of the animal man to the Perfect Man is that of the ape to the animal man.”

“As for the animal man, he is not a man essentially. His case is like that of animals. But he is distinguished from another through differentiae peculiar to every one of the animals.”

“The goal of all this was man coming in perfect form. When the field was thus prepared, Man came in the nicest form.”

“When God desired the perfection of human evolution, He collected and bestowed on Man all realities of the Universe and illuminated him with all His names.”

“When this comprehensive name became capable of two aspects by itself, it became fit for vicegerentship and organization and gradation of the Universe. If Man does not reach the stage of perfection, he is an animal whose appearance resembles the external appearance of man. Here we are concerned with Perfect Man. The first of human species whom God made was the Perfect Man. He was Adam (may peace be on him). Thus God demonstrated the stages of perfection for the species. He who attains to it is the man who attains perfection, and he who goes down from that stage is one who possesses the human quality in proportion to where he is.”[9]

Ibn Arabi wrote in Futuhat al-Makkiyyah Vol.3:607: ‘I recollected the saying of Holy Prophet to the effect that God has created hundred and thousands of Adams and between each Adam there is a period of seventeen hundred years.'[10]

Active Nature

The secular as well as religious West have the notion that nature’s actions within itself violate the Jewish, Christian and Muslim tenets. I will not comment on the Judeo-Christian perspective on nature’s actions. The Muslims in their classical period (500-1200 AD) had no problem with nature changing anything on the earth. Those Muslims who lived before the dawn of science in the West believed that active nature was an office of the God with delegated duties and tasks. For example, Al-Biruni (800 years before Darwin) wrote:

“…when Nature, whose task it is to preserve the species as they are, finds some superfluous substance, which she forms into some shape instead of throwing it away; like wise, animals with imperfect limbs, when Nature does not find the substance by which to complete the form of the animal in conformity with the structure of the species to which it belongs”[11]

In this matter of active nature, Ibn Khaldun wrote:

“…soil becomes plants and plants become animals. This can come about only with the help of living spirit and active nature which has the ability to generate substances and change essences.”[12]

Age of the Universe

The West also assumes that Muslims believe in the Judeo-Christian 6,000-year-old earth. For example, Stephen W. Hawking states in his History of Time: “…according to a number of early cosmologies and the Jewish/Christian/Muslim tradition, the Universe started at a finite time and not very distant time in the past.”[13] In contrast, Al-Biruni (800 years before Darwin) rejected the young earth doctrine. He wrote:

…Again, those with a book of divine revelation, like the Jews, the Christians, and others like the Sabians and Magians, have all agreed about dating events by the Era of the Creation of Mankind, but they differ greatly in their estimation of the duration of era. They have not referred to the Era of the Creation of the World, except in the opening two verses of the Torah, which have the following content but not the exact wording: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and the spirit of God was moving upon the surface of the waters’ (Genesis I: 1, 2). They considered that to be the first day of the week in which the world was created, but that was a period of time which cannot be measured by a day and night, for the cause of these periods is the sun with its rising and setting, and both the sun and the moon were created on the fourth day of the week. How is it possible to imagine that these days are like the days of our reckoning! The Qur’an says: ‘A day in the sight of thy Lord is like a thousand years of your reckoning’ (Koran 22: 47). In another verse God says: ‘In a day the measure of whereof is as fifty thousand years’ (Koran 70: 4). Thus it is obvious that we cannot estimate that period with our method of reckoning, and that it is unverifiable since the beginning of creation.”[14]

Moreover, Al-Biruni states that God initially scattered the celestial bodies and the time between creation and present could be billions of years. He states: ‘For it is quite possible that these (celestial) bodies were scattered’when the Creator designed and created them. If you then ask the mathematician as to the length of time, after which they would meet each other in a certain point, or before which they had met each other in that identical point, no blame attaches to him, it he speaks of billions of year.'[15]

Muslims and the ‘Deluge’

The Universal Flood of Judeo-Christian faith is not a Muslim doctrine. Muslims, on the other hand, believe it was a localized flood. For example, al Biruni (800 years before Darwin) wrote:

“Persians, and great mass of the Magians, deny the Deluge altogether;…In denying the Deluge, the Indians, Chinese, and various nations of the east, concur with them. Some, however, of the Persians admit the fact of the Deluge, but they describe it in a different way from what is described in the books of Prophets. They say partial Deluge occurred in Syria…but did not extend over the whole of then civilized world, and only few nations were drowned in it.”[16]

Al-Biruni also said that the water level marks on the pyramids suggest that the flood did not reach enough to cover the whole pyramids.

In summary, Islam compels no major conflict between the results of science and the Qur’an. From the time of the Prophet (pbuh), early Muslim scholars believed: (a) nature is an office of God with delegated duties and tasks, and it can make changes within nature itself; (b) the earth is not very young; and, (c) in the evolution of life from minerals to plants, plants to animals and finally the Homo Sapiens emerged from the world of monkeys.

Islam and Advancement of Science

If the assertion that the Qur’an inhibited science is correct, science should have been dead soon after the advent of Islam and the Qur’an. On the contrary, we see science flourished during the first centuries of Islam. Instead of drowning themselves in ignorance with advent of the Qur’an and Islam, Muslims became masters of Science for centuries. The defining event that provided the foundation for this mastery was Islam and the revelation of the Qur’an. Therefore, I would argue that the Qur’an promoted science. Moreover, Islam was not at the uplifting service for Muslims alone. Islam helped to create the Golden Age of Jews who lived under Muslim rule. Jewish thinker Max I. Dimont states:

‘The improbable but true tale of a camel driver’s establishment of a world empire in the name of Allah, wherein the Jews rose to their Golden Age of creativity, only to be plunged into a Dark Age with the eclipse of the Crescent and the ascent of the Cross.'[17]

In contrast to the sentiment echoed by Scott in her review, George Sarton, Will Durant, and Bronowski among others found that the Qur’an promoted science and learning in Islamic societies.

George Sarton, Professor of History at Harvard, wrote:

“The Creation of a new civilization, of international and encyclopedic magnitude within less than two centuries something that we can describe but not explain.”[18]

I do not see any difficulty to explain ‘the creation of a new civilization.’ We use the following method in biology to explain evolution. If we cannot see many explanations for a phenomenon, then we take the event before the occurrence of the phenomenon to explain it. The only event that happened before the rise of the “new civilization” of Muslims was Islam and the revelation of the Qur’an and creation of Muslim community under guidance of Prophet Muhammad. Therefore, the Qur’an and early Islam promoted science.

Furthermore, Will Durant wrote:

“…Muhammad, unlike most religious reformers, admired and urged the pursuit of knowledge: ‘He who leaves his home in search of knowledge walks in the path of God…and ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr’;”[19]

Similarly, J. Bronowski wrote:

“Muhammad had been firm that Islam was not to be a religion of miracles; it became in intellectual content a pattern of contemplation and analysis.”[20]

So it is clear that Historians, scholars, and the text of the Qur’an itself concur that there is nothing intrinsically inimical to science in its pages. On the contrary, much of the Qur’anic scholarship and scripture seems to support the endeavor that we recognize today under the rubric of science.

REFERENCES

1. Ali, Ahmed. Al-Qur’an. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. (1977)

2. Ali, Yusuf. The Holy Qur’an, Translation and Commentary. Indianapolis: American Trust Publication, 1977.

3. Al-Bukhari, Adherence to Holy Qur’an and Sunnah. Hadith No.6805.

4. Ali, Ahmed. Al-Qur’an.

5. Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Qur’an. Gibraltar: Dar Al-Andalus, 1980.

6. Ibid.

7. Khaldun, Ibn. The Muqaddimah. Trans. by Franz Rosenthal. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967.

8. Ibid.

9. Hussani, S.A.Q. The Pantheistic Monism of Ibn Arabi. Lahore, Pakistan: SH. Muhammad Ashraf, 1979.

10. The Holy Qur’an (Transilation by Allama Nooruddin). Hockessin, DE: Noor Foundation International Inc, Glossary page 3-B.

11. Biruni, al.(1000 A.D) The Athar-Ul-Bakiya (The Chronology of Ancient Nations). Translated by Dr. C. Edward Sachu. London: W.H.Allen, 1879.

12. Ibn Khaldun. Muqaddimah.

13. Hawking, Stephen W. A Brief History of Time. New York: Bantam Books, p.7.

14. Biruni, Al.(1000 A.D.) Kitab Tahdid al-Amakin Listashiah Masafat al- Masakin (The Determination of the Coordinates of Positions for Correction of Distances between Cities). Translated by Jamil Ali. Beirut: The American University of Beirut, 1967. p. 14-16

15. Al-Biruni, Abu Raihan.1000AD. Athar-ul-Bakiya (The Chronology of Ancient Nations), trans. Edward C. Sachu . p. 30

16. Al-Biruni. Fi Tahqiq Ma Li’l-Hind (Alberuni’s India), Vol.I, pp. 378-379.

17. Dimont, Max I. Jews, God, And History. Penguin Books USA, 1962.

18. Sarton, George. The History of Science and the New Humanism. George Braziller, Inc. New York. (1956)

19. Durant, Will. The Story of Civilization. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1950. Vol.4.

20. Brownoski.J. The Ascent of Man. London, U.K: The British Broadcasting Corporation, 1981.

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