Science and Monotheism


In the absence of the concept of a divine being who acted to legislate what went on in the natural world, whose decrees formed inviolate ‘laws’ of Nature, and who underwrote scientific enterprise, Chinese science was condemned to a ‘curious stillbirth!’

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

“If there had been in the heavens and the earth other gods besides Allah, then surely both would have gone to ruin. Glorified then be Allah, the Lord of the Throne, far above what they attribute to Him.” (Al Quran 21:22/23)

One of the interpretations of the above verse:

If there had been in the heavens and the earth other gods besides Allah, then there would have been chaos in the Universe. An organized study of nature would not have been possible. I propose that scientific development occurred because of Judeo-Christian-Muslim paradigm of Monotheism. To demonstrate what monotheism had to do for the scientific progress, here, I quote from Paul Davies from his book ‘the Mind of God.’ He writes:

“Much of this early thinking was based on the assumption that the properties of physical things were intrinsic qualities belonging to those things. The great diversity of forms and substances found in the physical world thus reflected the limitless variety of intrinsic properties. Set against this way of looking at the world were the monotheistic religions. The Jews conceived of God as the Lawgiver. This God, being independent of and separate from his creation, imposed laws upon the physical universe from without. Nature was supposed to be subject to laws by divine decree. One could still assign causes to phenomena, but the connection between cause and effect was now constrained by the laws. John Barrow has studied the historical origins of the concept of physical laws. He contrasts the Greek pantheon with the One monarchical God of Judaism: ‘When we look at the relatively sophisticated society of Greek gods, we do not find the notion of an all, powerful cosmic lawgiver very evident. Events are decided by negotiation, deception, or argument rather than by omnipotent decree. Creation proceeds by committee rather than fiat.’

The view that laws are imposed upon, rather than inherent in, nature was eventually adopted by Christianity and Islam too, though not without a struggle. Barrow relates how Saint Thomas Aquinas ‘viewed the innate Aristotelian tendencies as aspects of the natural world which were providentially employed by God. However, in this cooperative enterprise their basic character was inviolate. According to this view, God’s relationship with Nature is that of a partner rather than that of a sovereign.’ But such Aristotelian ideas were condemned by the Bishop of Paris in 1277, to be replaced in later doctrine by the notion of God the Lawmaker.

In Renaissance Europe, the justification for what we today call the scientific approach to inquiry was the belief in a rational God whose created order could be discerned from a careful study of nature. And, Newton notwithstanding, part of this belief came to be that God’s laws were immutable. ‘The scientific culture that arose in Western Europe,’ writes Barrow, ‘of which we are the inheritors, was dominated by adherence to the absolute invariance of laws of Nature, which thereby underwrote the meaningfulness of the scientific enterprise and assured its success.’

For the modern scientist, it is sufficient only that nature simply have the observed regularities we still call laws. The question of their origin does not usually arise. Yet it is interesting to ponder whether science would have flourished in medieval and Renaissance Europe were it not for Western theology. China, for example, had a complex and highly developed culture at that time, which produced some technological innovations that were in advance of Europe’s. The Japanese scholar Kowa Seki, who lived at the time of Newton, is credited with the independent invention of the differential calculus and a procedure for computing pi, but he chose to keep these formulations secret. In his study of early Chinese thought, Joseph Needham writes: ‘There was no confidence that the code of Nature’s laws could ever be unveiled and read, because there was no assurance that a divine being, even more rational than ourselves, had ever formulated such a code capable of being read.’ Barrow argues that, in the absence of “the concept of a divine being who acted to legislate what went on in the natural world, whose decrees formed inviolate ‘laws’ of Nature, and who underwrote scientific enterprise,” Chinese science was condemned to a ‘curious stillbirth.’”[1]

The contributions of the Jews and Christians are well known to the world but those of Muslims are lost in history because of political reasons. Here is a collection of articles to brush up that information, Al Islam eGazette Jan 2010 – Europe’s debt to the Muslim Empire?

Al-Khwarizmi’s book Al-kitab al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wa’l-muqabala was translated into Latin in the 12th century, from which the term Algebra is derived. The tradition that had been started in Baghdad and Cordoba was picked up in Europe at the time of Renaissance.

Before the Arabs the Roman numbers were used in Europe.  There used to be experts like modern day accountants for simple additions and subtractions.  Now these are taught in the second grade.

Try adding Roman numbers:

See if you get the answer

Now add Arab numerals:


Precise and quick quantification was the first step in the development of nascent science.  No wonder, Carly Firoina, Ex CEO of Hewlett-Packard said, “Although we are often unaware of our indebtedness to Islamic civilization, its gifts are very much a part of our heritage. The technology industry would not exist without the contributions of Arab mathematicians.”

In contrast to a concise and clear paradigm of Monotheism, polytheism did not provide the clarity of thought, which could jump start a detailed scientific enterprise.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, as it defines polytheism:

The belief in many gods. Polytheism characterizes virtually all religions other than Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which share a common tradition of monotheism, the belief in one God. Polytheism identified natural forces and objects as divinities:
Surya, the sun god.
Indra associated with storms, rain, and battles.
Agni the fire god.
Zeus use of lightning as his thunderbolt.

Galileo Galilei noted, “Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.” Fifty years later, Sir Isaac Newton saw that there is no changing of the laws of nature and that the Universe follows the rules of mathematics. He published his Principia in 1687. According to Karen Armstrong polytheism was not conducive to development of science. Science is a process of reduction so that phenomena can be studied. It is based on the assumption that natural laws are not ever changing.


1. Paul Davies. The Mind of God. A Touchstone Book, 1992. Pages 75-77.

Suggested reading

How Islam has Influenced the Christian understanding of God

Is Isaac Newton a Part of the Muslim Heritage: His Religious Views?

How can Hindus think like a Muslim or a Jew, despite the mention of 330 million gods?

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