Islamic attitudes towards science

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This article is about the relationship between Islam and science. For the historical development of science in the Islamic world, see Science in medieval Islam. For the belief that scriptures such as the Qur'an prophesied scientific theories and discoveries, see Scientific foreknowledge in sacred texts.

In the Muslim world today, most of the focus on the relation between Islam and science involves scientific interpretations of the Quran (and sometimes the Sunna) that claim to show that the sources make prescient statements about the nature of the universe, biological development and other phenomena later confirmed by scientific research, thus demonstrating proof of the divine origin of the Qur'an (and sometimes the Sunna). Although this issue received widespread support by some, it has been criticized by certain scientists as containing logical fallacies,[1] being unscientific, likely to be contradicted by evolving scientific theories.[2][3]

In the Muslim world, many believe that modern science was first developed in the Muslim world rather than in Europe and Western countries, that "all the wealth of knowledge in the world has actually emanated from Muslim civilization," and what people call "the scientific method", is actually "the Islamic method."[4] Muslims often cite verse 239 from Surah Al-Baqara —- He has taught you what you did not know. [5] —- in support of their view that the Qur'an promotes the acquisition of new knowledge. The modern scientific method was pioneered by Ibn al-Haytham (known in the Western world as "Alhazen").[6][7][8][9][10][11] Robert Briffault, in The Making of Humanity, asserts that the very existence of science, as it is understood in the modern sense, is rooted in the scientific thought and knowledge that emerged in Islamic civilizations during this time.[12]

In contrast, some people worry that the contemporary Muslim world suffers from a "profound lack of scientific understanding," and lament that, for example, in countries like Pakistan post-graduate physics students have been known to blame earthquakes on "sinfulness, moral laxity, deviation from the Islamic true path," while "only a couple of muffled voices supported the scientific view that earthquakes are a natural phenomenon unaffected by human activity."[13]

As with all other branches of human knowledge, science, from an Islamic standpoint, is the study of nature as stemming from Tawhid, the Islamic conception of the "Oneness" of God.[14][page needed]

Muslim scientists and scholars have subsequently developed a spectrum of viewpoints on the place of scientific learning within the context of Islam, none of which are universally accepted.[15]


The astrophysicist Nidhal Guessoum while being highly critical of pseudo-scientific claims made about the Quran, has highlighted the encouragement for sciences that the Quran provides by developing "the concept of knowledge.".[16] He writes: "The Qur'an draws attention to the danger of conjecturing without evidence (And follow not that of which you have not the (certain) knowledge of... 17:36) and in several different verses asks Muslims to require proofs (Say: Bring your proof if you are truthful 2:111), both in matters of theological belief and in natural science." Guessoum cites Ghaleb Hasan on the definition of "proof" according the Quran being "clear and strong... convincing evidence or argument." Also, such a proof cannot rely on an argument from authority, citing verse 5:104. Lastly, both assertions and rejections require a proof, according to verse 4:174.[17] Ismail al-Faruqi and Taha Jabir Alalwani are of the view that any reawakening of the Muslim civilization must start with the Quran; however, the biggest obstacle on this route is the "centuries old heritage of tafseer (exegesis) and other classical disciplines" which inhibit a "universal, epistemiological and systematic conception" of the Quran's message.[18] The philosopher Muhammad Iqbal considered the Quran's methodology and epistemology to be empirical and rational.[19]

It's generally accepted that there are around 750 verses in the Quran dealing with natural phenomena. In many of these verses the study of nature is "encouraged and highly recommended," and historical Islamic scientists like Al-Biruni and Al-Battani derived their inspiration from verses of the Quran. Mohammad Hashim Kamali has stated that "scientific observation, experimental knowledge and rationality" are the primary tools with which humanity can achieve the goals laid out for it in the Quran.[20] Ziauddin Sardar built a case for Muslims having developed the foundations of modern science, by highlighting the repeated calls of the Quran to observe and reflect upon natural phenomenon.[21] "The 'scientific method,' as it is understood today, was first developed by Muslim scientists" like Ibn al-Haytham and Al-Biruni, along with numerous other Muslim scientists.

The physicist Abdus Salam, in his Nobel Prize banquet address, quoted a well known verse from the Quran (67:3-4) and then stated: "This in effect is the faith of all physicists: the deeper we seek, the more is our wonder excited, the more is the dazzlement of our gaze"[22] One of Salam's core beliefs was that there is no contradiction between Islam and the discoveries that science allows humanity to make about nature and the universe. Salam also held the opinion that the Quran and the Islamic spirit of study and rational reflection was the source of extraordinary civilizational development.[23] Salam highlights, in particular, the work of Ibn al-Haytham and Al-Biruni as the pioneers of empiricism who introduced the experimental approach, breaking way from Aristotle's influence, and thus giving birth to modern science. Salam was also careful to differentiate between metaphysics and physics, and advised against empirically probing certain matters on which "physics is silent and will remain so," such as the doctrine of "creation from nothing" which in Salam's view is outside the limits of science and thus "gives way" to religious considerations.[24]

The religion Islam has its own world view system including beliefs about "ultimate reality, epistemology, ontology, ethics, purpose, etc."[25] Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the final revelation of God for the guidance of humankind. Science is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.[26] It is a system of acquiring knowledge based on empiricism, experimentation and methodological naturalism, as well as to the organized body of knowledge human beings have gained by such research. Scientists maintain that scientific investigation needs to adhere to the scientific method, a process for evaluating empirical knowledge that explains observable events without recourse to supernatural notions.


Classical science in the Muslim world[edit]

In the history of science, science in the Muslim world refers to the science developed under Islamic civilization between the 8th and 16th centuries,[27] during what is known as the Islamic Golden Age.[28] It is also known as Arabic science since the majority of texts during this period were written in Arabic, the lingua franca of Islamic civilization. Despite these terms, not all scientists during this period were Muslim or Arab, as there were a number of notable non-Arab scientists (most notably Persians), as well as some non-Muslim scientists, who contributed to scientific studies in the Muslim world.

A number of modern scholars such as Fielding H. Garrison,[29] Abdus Salam, Sultan Bashir Mahmood, Hossein Nasr consider modern science and the scientific method to have been greatly inspired by Muslim scientists who introduced a modern empirical, experimental and quantitative approach to scientific inquiry. Some scholars, notably Donald Routledge Hill, Ahmad Y Hassan,[30] Abdus Salam,[31] and George Saliba,[32] have referred to their achievements as a Muslim scientific revolution,[33] though this does not contradict the traditional view of the Scientific Revolution which is still supported by most scholars.[34][35][36] Certain advances made by medieval Muslim astronomers, geographers and mathematicians were motivated by problems presented in Islamic scripture, such as Al-Khwarizmi's (c. 780-850) development of algebra in order to solve the Islamic inheritance laws,[37] and developments in astronomy, geography, spherical geometry and spherical trigonometry in order to determine the direction of the Qibla, the times of Salah prayers, and the dates of the Islamic calendar.[38]

The increased use of dissection in Islamic medicine during the 12th and 13th centuries was influenced by the writings of the Islamic theologian, Al-Ghazali, who encouraged the study of anatomy and use of dissections as a method of gaining knowledge of God's creation.[39] In al-Bukhari's and Muslim's collection of sahih hadith it is said: "There is no disease that Allah has created, except that He also has created its treatment." (Bukhari 7-71:582). This culminated in the work of Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288), who discovered the pulmonary circulation in 1242 and used his discovery as evidence for the orthodox Islamic doctrine of bodily resurrection.[40] Ibn al-Nafis also used Islamic scripture as justification for his rejection of wine as self-medication.[41] Criticisms against alchemy and astrology were also motivated by religion, as orthodox Islamic theologians viewed the beliefs of alchemists and astrologers as being superstitious.[42]

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (1149–1209), in dealing with his conception of physics and the physical world in his Matalib, discusses Islamic cosmology, criticizes the Aristotelian notion of the Earth's centrality within the universe, and "explores the notion of the existence of a multiverse in the context of his commentary," based on the Qur'anic verse, "All praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds." He raises the question of whether the term "worlds" in this verse refers to "multiple worlds within this single universe or cosmos, or to many other universes or a multiverse beyond this known universe." On the basis of this verse, he argues that God has created more than "a thousand thousand worlds (alfa alfi 'awalim) beyond this world such that each one of those worlds be bigger and more massive than this world as well as having the like of what this world has."[43][dead link] Ali Kuşçu's (1403–1474) support for the Earth's rotation and his rejection of Aristotelian cosmology (which advocates a stationary Earth) was motivated by religious opposition to Aristotle by orthodox Islamic theologians, such as Al-Ghazali.[44][45]

According to many historians, science in the Muslim civilization flourished during the Middle Ages, but began declining at some time around the 14th[46] to 16th[27] centuries. At least some scholars blame this on the "rise of a clerical faction which froze this same science and withered its progress."[47] Examples of conflicts with prevailing interpretations of Islam and science - or at least the fruits of science - thereafter include the demolition of Taqi al-Din's great Istanbul observatory of Taqi al-Din in Galata, "comparable in its technical equipment and its specialist personnel with that of his celebrated contemporary, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe." But while Brahe's observatory "opened the way to a vast new development of astronomical science," Taqi al-Din's was demolished by a squad of Janissaries, "by order of the sultan, on the recommendation of the Chief Mufti," sometime after 1577 AD.[47][48]

Arrival of modern science in the Muslim world[edit]

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, modern science arrived in the Muslim world but it was not the science itself that affected Muslim scholars. Rather, it "was the transfer of various philosophical currents entangled with science that had a profound effect on the minds of Muslim scientists and intellectuals. Schools like Positivism and Darwinism penetrated the Muslim world and dominated its academic circles and had a noticeable impact on some Islamic theological doctrines." There were different responses to this among the Muslim scholars:[49] These reactions, in words of Professor Mehdi Golshani, were the following:


In the early twentieth century, Shia ulema forbade the learning of foreign languages and dissection of human bodies in the medical school in Iran.[50]

In recent years, the lagging of the Muslim world in science is manifest in the disproportionately small amount of scientific output as measured by citations of articles published in internationally circulating science journals, annual expenditures on research and development, and numbers of research scientists and engineers.[51] Skepticism of science among some Muslims is reflected in issues such as resistance in Muslim northern Nigeria to polio inoculation, which some believe is "an imaginary thing created in the West or it is a ploy to get us to submit to this evil agenda."[52]

Muslim Nobel laureates[edit]

The relative lack of Muslim Nobel laureates in sciences in comparison to their population has been attributed to more insular modern interpretations of the religion, in comparison to how in the Middle Ages it was open to foreign ideas.[53] However, six predominantly Muslim countries had more Nobel laureates per capita than e.g. Brazil, India and China (excl. Hong Kong). India is 68th out of 72 countries in Nobel laureates per capita, China is 69th, and Brazil is 72nd. The 70th and 71st places are occupied by predominantly Muslim countries.

The relative lack of high-ranking universities can be observed in most non-western or newly industrialised countries with exceptions in Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong.[54]

Modern attitudes[edit]

Whether Islamic culture has promoted or hindered scientific advancement is disputed. Islamists such as Sayyid Qutb argue that since "Islam appointed" Muslims "as representatives of God and made them responsible for learning all the sciences,"[55] science cannot but prosper in a society of true Muslims. Some scientific instruments produced in classical times in the Islamic world were inscribed with Qur'anic citations.

Others claim traditional interpretations of Islam are not compatible with the development of science. Author Rodney Stark argues that Islam's lag behind the West in scientific advancement after (roughly) 1500 AD was due to opposition by traditional ulema to efforts to formulate systematic explanation of natural phenomenon with "natural laws." He claims that they believed such laws were blasphemous because they limit "Allah's freedom to act" as He wishes, a principle enshired in aya 14:4: "Allah sendeth whom He will astray, and guideth whom He will," which (they believed) applied to all of creation not just humanity.[56]

Abdus Salam, who won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his electroweak theory, is among those who argue that the quest for reflecting upon and studying nature is a duty upon Muslims, stating that 750 verses[which?] of the Quran (almost one-eighth of the book) exhort believers to do so.[57]

Science in the Qur'an and Hadith[edit]

The belief that the Qur'an had prophesied scientific theories and discoveries has become a strong and widespread belief in the contemporary Islamic world; these prophecies are often offered as evidence of the divine origin of the Qur'an;[58] see scientific foreknowledge in sacred texts for further discussion of this issue.


See also: Bucailleism

In 1976 Maurice Bucaille published his book, The Bible, The Qur'an and Science, which argued that the Quran contains no statements contradicting established scientific facts. Bucaille argued that the Quran is in agreement with scientific facts, while the Bible is not. He states that in Islam, science and religion have always been "twin sisters" (vii). According to Bucaille, there are monumental errors of science in the Bible and not a single error in the Quran. Bucaille's belief is that the Quran's descriptions of natural phenomena make it compatible with modern science. According to The Wall Street Journal, Bucailleism is "in some ways the Muslim counterpart to Christian creationism" although "while creationism rejects much of modern science, Bucailleism embraces it". It described Bucailleism as being "disdained by most mainstream scholars" but said it has fostered pride in Muslim heritage and played an important role in attracting converts.[59]

Taner Edis[edit]

Taner Edis wrote An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam.[60] Edis worries that secularism in Turkey, one of the most westernized Muslim nations, is on its way out; he points out that Turkey rejects evolution by a large majority. To Edis, many Muslims appreciate technology and respect the role that science plays in its creation. As a result, he says there is a great deal of Islamic pseudoscience attempting to reconcile this respect with other respected religious beliefs. Edis maintains that the motivation to read modern scientific truths into holy books is also stronger for Muslims than Christians.[61] This is because, according to Edis, true criticism of the Qur'an is almost non-existent in the Muslim world. While Christianity is less prone to see its Holy Book as the direct word of God, fewer Muslims will compromise on this idea - causing them to believe that scientific truths simply must appear in the Qur'an. However, Edis opines that there are endless examples of scientific discoveries that could be read into the Bible or Qur'an if one would like to.[61] Edis qualifies that 'Muslim thought' certainly cannot be understood by looking at the Qur'an alone - cultural and political factors play large roles.[61]

Conception and inherited characteristics[edit]

Islamic sources like the Qur'an and Hadith emphasize the role of God as a creator, and thus frequently refer to the creation of new individuals. Medieval Muslims relied heavily on their own scientific tradition to interpret these statements, which vary in explicitness and clarity.[62] The most prominent of the ancient Greek thinkers who wrote on medicine were Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen. Hippocrates and Galen, in contrast with Aristotle, wrote that the contribution of females to children is equal to that of males, and the vehicle for it is a substance similar to the semen of males.[62] Basim Musallam writes that the ideas of these men were widespread through the pre-modern Middle East: "Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen were as much a part of Middle Eastern Arabic culture as anything else in it."[62] The sayings in the Qur'an and those attributed to Muhammad in the Hadith influenced generations of Muslim scientists by siding with Galen and Hippocrates.

Basim Musallam writes: "... the statements about parental contribution to generation in the hadith paralleled the Hippocratic writings, and the view of fetal development in the Qur'an agreed in detail with Galen's scientific writings."[62] He reports that the highly influential medieval Hanbali scholar Ibn Qayyim, in his book Kitab al-tibyan fi aqsam al-qur'an, cites the following statement of the prophet (found in Musnad Ahmad),[63] when asked the question "from what is man created,":

Modern hadith scholars and some early ones consider the chain of transmission of this hadith to be weak.[65]

Biological evolution[edit]

The Quran contains many verses describing creation of the universe; Muslims believe God created the heavens and earth in six days;[7:54] the earth was created in two days,[41:9] and in two other days (into a total of four) God furnished the creation of the earth with mountains, rivers and fruit-gardens[41:10]. The heavens and earth formed from one mass which had to be split[21:30], the heavens used to be smoke[41:11], and form layers, one above the other[67:3]. The angels inhabit the seventh heavens. The lowest heaven is adorned with lights[41:12], the sun and the moon (which follow a regular path)[71:16][14:33], the stars[37:6] and the constellations of the Zodiac[15:16].[66]

A faction of Muslims are at odds with current scientific theories about biological evolution and the origin of man. A recent Pew study[67] reveals that in only four of the 22 countries surveyed that at least 50% of the people surveyed rejected evolution. For instance, a relatively large fraction of people accept human evolution in Kazakhstan (79%) and Lebanon (78%), but relatively few in Afghanistan (26%), Iraq (27%), and Pakistan (30%); a total of 13 of the countries surveyed had at least 50% of the population surveyed who agreed with the statement that humans evolved over time. The late Ottoman intellectual Ismail Fennî, while personally rejecting Darwinism, insisted that it should be taught in schools as even false theories contributed to the improvement of science. He held that interpretations of the Quran might require amendment should Darwinism eventually be shown to be true.[68]

See also[edit]


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