Islam and Science – The Troubled Relationship

By: Ziauddin Sardar

Lecture at the Royal Society, 2007

At the end of the tenth century, a brilliant scientist left his home town of Basra to pursue an ambitious project in Egypt. He’d noticed how, seasonally, the river Nile flooded large parts of the delta. But in winter water levels fell so low cultivation was almost impossible. What, he thought, if the surplus flood water could be stored and used when most needed? He devised a scheme – to regulate the Nile, so that the people could derive benefit at its ebb and flow.’ His plan required building a three-way embankment dam near Aswan. He sent the proposal to the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim in Cairo. The Caliph was impressed; and issued a royal commission: come to Cairo and build the dam. The young scientist spent several months examining the site, working out the details of how to implement his plans, and it has to be said, spending the generous largesse of the Caliph. But there was a problem: the technology at his disposal was just not up to the task. He came to a sad conclusion: if it were possible to dam the Nile the ancient Egyptians would already have done so. Now, he faced a new problem: how to tell the Caliph? He devised his most cunning plan – he pretended to be mad. The Caliph retired him to a small office near Al-Ahzar University.

The young scientist was ibn al-Haitham, known to the West as Alhazen. This pretend madman spent the next two decades in his laboratory in Cairo where he developed and refined the technique of experimental method; worked on spherical and parabolic mirrors, spherical aberration, the magnifying power of lenses and atmospheric refraction. He noted how rays of light originate in the object seen and not in the eye – as commonly believed by the Greeks – and correctly explained the apparent increase in size of the sun and the moon when near the horizon. He formulated the laws of reflection and refraction and proclaimed experiment and empirical investigation the foundation of all scientific work. According to George Sarton, Ibn Haitham is one of the greatest students of optics of all times’. He wrote over 200 books on astronomy, mathematics, physics and philosophy. His greatest achievement, Kitab al-Manazir, translated into Latin in the late thirteenth century as the Book of Optics, was the first comprehensive treatment of the subject: it influenced Roger Bacon and Kepler and had a major impact on western science.

Over a thousand years later, when technology finally made an Aswan Dam possible, another brilliant scientist left his native city, Lahore, to implement his scientific plans. Already, he had a PhD from Cambridge, now he wanted to establish a research group in theoretical physics at Punjab University where he was professor of mathematics. But his dreams were frustrated: no official support, no tradition of postgraduate work, no colleagues to consult with, no journals, no funds to attend conferences. The nearest physicist was in Bombay- by now a city in another country. The head of his institution advised forget about physics’ and offered him a choice of jobs: bursar, warden of a hall of residence, or president of the football club. He chose the football club! Later, he wrote movingly of the tragic dilemma he faced: physics or Pakistan. Unhappily, he left Pakistan and returned to Cambridge.

His name was Abdus Salam. His passion for physics led him to work on particle symmetries, gauge theories and the two component theory of the neutrino. For his work on the theory of the unified weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles he shared the 1979 Noble Prize for Physics with Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow.

The eras of Salam and al-Haitham could not be more different. Al-Haitham flourished in a civilisation which valued scientific enterprise, Salam the product of a society where science was conspicuously absent. What happened in the thousand years separating these two Muslim physicists is a subject of intense study, conjecture and controversy. My purpose tonight is to explore these issues and suggest why conventional explanations are both unsatisfactory and totally fail to indicate potential remedies, the kind that would restore the enterprise of science in Muslim societies.

Two things can be stated with some certainty. One, science thrived during the classical period of Islam; two, science in Muslim society has suffered a drastic decline. The difficulties arise in trying to ascertain when the decline began and what the causes were. Historians of science offer different dates and varied reasons.

The most common stance is simply to blame Islam itself. There is something in the teachings of Islam, the argument goes, which does not allow science to take root in Muslim societies. This suggestion not only belies history but also the basic teachings of Islam which proclaims itself as an intrinsically rational worldview.

Both Salam and al-Haitham were inspired by the spirit of the Qur’an. Al-Haitham, wrote not only philosophical but also religious treatises. He made two Qur’anic verses, one stating believers should urge one another to truth’ (103: 1) the other that truth claims should be tested (33: 8), the basis of his scientific work. He wrote: Truth is sought for its own sake& (But) finding the truth is difficult, and the road to it is rough’. Science, he suggested, should be based on severe criticism’; and the claims of scientists themselves should be put to critical tests. He continued:

God has not preserved the scientist from error and has not safeguarded science from shortcomings and faults… A person, who studies scientific books with a view of knowing the truth, ought to turn himself into a hostile critic of everything that he studies . . . He should criticize it from every point of view and in all its aspects.  And while thus engaged in criticism he should also be suspicious of himself and not allow himself to be easy-going and indulgent with regard to (the object of his criticism). If he takes this course, the truth will be revealed to him and the flaws . . . in the writings of his predecessors will stand out clearly’.

Salam too repeatedly emphasised his work took its inspiration from the Qur’an. In his banquet speech at the Noble Prize ceremony, Salam quoted the verse: Do you see in the creation of the All-merciful any imperfection, Return your gaze, you see any fissure. Then Return your gaze, again and again. Your gaze, comes back to you dazzled, aweary’. This, he suggested described the faith of all physicists; the deeper we seek, the more is our wonder excited, the more is the dazzlement for our gaze’.

Salam selected just one of around 800 verses in the Qur’an that invite the reader to think, reflect, examine and study the material world and use reason as a sign’ to understand nature. The most quoted reads:

There are sings in the heavens and earth for those who believe: in the creation of you, in the creatures God scattered on earth, there are signs for the believers; there are signs for people of sure faith, in the alternation of night and day, in the rain God provides, sending it down from the sky and reviving the dead earth with it, and in the shifting of winds, there are signs for those who use their reason. (45:3-5).

The sayings of the Prophet Muhammad reinforce these teachings, emphasising understanding comes through scientific endeavour. An hours study of nature is better than a year’s prayer’, the Prophet declared. He directed his followers to listen to the words of the scientist and instil unto others the lessons of science’. In his time, China was considered a far off but scientifically advanced civilisation. So he urged his followers to go in quest of knowledge even to China’. And the Prophet made the essential distinction: the revealed Book, as well as his own teachings, were exhortations, an invitation to reason and study what exists and can be discovered not scientific pronouncements in and of themselves.

The teachings of Islam are the same now as they were a thousand years ago. Islam was not a problem’ then. It is not the problem’ now. Islam was there when science flourished. Islam remained while science, learning, knowledge and creativity declined to their present parlous state. So what happened? Perhaps if we fixed a date, identified the tipping point, we could pinpoint what provoked the downward spiral.

But dating the decline has become controversial. J D Bernal argues the decline began in the eleventh century’, after which the best days of Islamic science were over’. So, for Bernal, the story of Islamic science is short and sharp. Colin Ronan is a bit more generous. He places the final stages’ of Islamic science as beginning in the twelfth century. George Sarton shifts the boundary even further to the second half of the fourteenth century.

In his monumental survey of the history of science, Sarton assigns each half century to a dominant intellectual personality. So, in Sarton’s reckoning, Islamic science begins in the second half of the eighth century, the time of Jabir ibn Hayan’ the father of chemistry. Before al-Haitham’s arrival, there was the time of al-Khwarizmi, the inventor of algebra; al-Razi, who infused medicine with clinical precision; al-Masudi, the geographer who produced a map of the world towards the end of the tenth century; and Abul Wafa, the astronomer and mathematician who produced accurate trigonometric tables.

Al-Haitham flourished during the tenth century, the time of al-Biruni, the polymath who measured the latitude and longitude of notable cities and wrote a detailed account of the cultures of India. He was followed by Omar Khayyam, the mathematician who solved equations of third degree and wrote poetry in his spare time.

From here on Western science begins its incursion – accolades have to be shared; three giants dominate each half century only one of whom represents Muslim civilisation. (Though one might add the Jewish representatives were scientists born and educated and engaged in Muslim societies, which enabled them to be a major conduit for the transmission of knowledge to Christendom) The first half of the twelfth century belongs to ibn Zuhr, who perfected surgical and post mortem techniques, he shares the spotlight with William of Conches and Abraham ibn Ezra. They are followed by the celebrated rationalist philosopher Ibn Rushd, Gerard of Cremona and Maimonides. The botanist ibn al-Baitar, whose encyclopaedia of medicinal plants is regarded as one of the greatest botanical compilations, shares the first half of the thirteenth century with Robert Grossetesta and Jacob Anatol.

The age of Roger Bacon and Jacob ibn Tabbon is also the age of Qutb al-Din Shirazi, the Sufi astronomer who continued the work of al-Haitham and gave the first correct explanation of the formation of the rainbow. Next comes the age of Abu al-Fida, the astronomer and chronicler of human history who gave his name to a crater on the moon and shares his half-century with Levi ben Gerson and William of Occam. Finally we have the age of the historian and father of sociology, ibn Khaludun, second half of the fourteenth century, shared with Geoffrey Chaucer and Hasdai Crscus. (Criscus). For Sarton, the enterprise of Islamic science ends here.

Not so, sys George Saliba, the historian of Islamic astronomy. He sees the fourteenth century not as an age of decline but a Golden Age’. Saliba regards the time from Nasir al-Din Tusi (d.1274) to Ibn al-Shatir (d.1375), astronomers who worked at the Maraghah Observatory in northwest Iran as one of the most productive periods for theoretical astronomy. Indeed, Saliba suggests the Copernican revolution would have been impossible without the work carried out at Maraghah where the basic mathematical models of the heliocentric solar system, including the Tusi couple, were first developed. He shows in painstaking detail how Copernicus’ models are not only identical to those of the Maraghah astronomers but they also replicate exactly the same notational mistakes.

And the boundaries of decline keep getting pushed further forward in time. A collection of new research by Jan Hogendijk and Abdelhamid Sabra, published in 2003 shows scientific activity in Muslim societies very much alive right to the end of the seventeenth century. Even the Ottoman Empire, most historians candidate for the era of endemic decline of Muslim civilisation, turns out to be a rather fruitful period. The massive project on the scientific literature in the Ottoman period’, carried out under Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu in Istanbul suggests science was alive right up to the eighteenth century –  when the emphasis shifted to learning and assimilating European sciences through translations and adaptations.

Exactly when the decline of Islamic science began is no abstruse academic question. It carries major implications. Placing it squarely in the early middle ages, historians of science, effectively, have sought to de-link Islamic science from modern science. If Islamic science was dead and gone by the fourteenth century, and, as David C Lindberg puts it little was left by the fifteenth century’, lack of any connection to the emergence of modern science becomes a self-evident truth. Modern science emerges as an autonomous, self-propelling enterprise of Western civilisation.

But the facts, as recent research has shown, are otherwise: there is a continuum between Islamic science and western science. Science in Islam is not just a forerunner’, something strangely distinct and distant, from science today but an integral part of modern science. If science progresses by accumulation, by building on the works of previous generations, standing on the shoulders of the giants, then modern science would be inconceivable without Islamic science.

Locating the decline firmly before the fifteenth century serves another purpose: it denies any connection to colonialism – a thorny issue thus safely ignored. Look as much as you like and indeed, I have diligently for years and discussion of colonialism is conspicuously absent from this discourse. Yet, colonialism more than any other factor, played a major part in the suppression and eventual disappearance of science and learning from Muslim societies. Quite simply, the colonial encounter began with eager, veracious interest by western nations in the science and technology of Muslim civilisation; and a simultaneous insistence that all they found was decay and superstition. Once Islamic science was appropriated, colonial powers closed colleges and universities, banned research and outlawed the practice of indigenous science and medicine.
In the Maghrib, for example, the French not only banned the practice of Islamic medicine but made practitioners liable for capital punishment! In Indonesia, the Dutch closed Muslim institutions and prohibited Muslims enrolling in centres of higher learning right up to 1952.

Historians of science pre-empt such considerations. Bernal suggests the eleventh century saw a general political and economic decay of Islam in its original form’ which led to the absence of a widely based and living environment’ for science. Matters were further aggravated by the Mongol invasion and the sacking of Baghdad in 1258. But the Mongol invasion compares poorly with what happened under colonialism. If you take all agency from a society, define and describe its science and learning as insignificant, irrelevant, and pre-modern, and deny all access to any form of intellectual endeavour, except that which produces servants of colonial administration, it is not surprising indigenous science disappears from that society.

The other form of pre-emption is the marginality thesis of Islamic science. It has been used by numerous colonial and Orientalist historians to suggest scientific activity in Muslim civilisation, to quote Abdelhamid Sabra,
had no significant impact on the social, economic, educational and religious institutions; that this activity remained itself unaffected by these institutions, except when it was finally crushed by their antagonism or indifference; and that those who kept the Greek legacy alive in Islamic lands constituted a small group of scholars who had little to do with the spiritual life of the majority of Muslims, who made no important contributions to the main currents of Islamic intellectual life, and whose work and interests were marginal to the central concerns of Islamic society’.

A natural product of this thesis is the implication most Muslim scientists, such as al-Haitham and al-Biruni, were in fact secularists. For example, Toby Huff suggests their work did not have an Islamic subscript attached to it, for it represented transcendent, transnational, transculutrral accomplishments’.  Indeed, in as far as their work was hard science it naturally represented universal knowledge applicable to all cultures. The same is invariably said of the work of Isaac Newton – so long as one ignores the years of effort and study he spent obsessed with Biblical chronology.
When we speak of Muslim scientists in the classical era we are talking about men who lived before the age of secularism; the separation of the sacred and the profane was beyond their wildest imagination. They were all, even the most unorthodox, Muslims first and anything else second. The basis of their education was common to the doctors of science and the doctors of law and theology, and many, contributed in all these disciplines. The point is, by virtue of their education those who became scientists were grounded in the conceptual framework of Islamic ideas; it gave a distinctive character to their way of thinking, understanding, how they conceived of and presented the results of their study. There is a characteristic temper to their scholarship; we find it most often in the conclusions of their works. It is far more than mere convention that the normal way to conclude any argument is the phrase God Alone knows all.’ The phrase defines an approach to knowledge imbued with humility and a horror of arrogance. It betokens a healthy respect for the other side of the equation of learning ignorance. It is a hallmark of the Islamic worldview, and a perpetual engine of the critical scientific outlook.

Not only were scientists of the classical era not hiding behind the mask of a value-free pursuit of knowledge, but like al-Haitham and Salam, insisted their inspiration came from Islam. And like al-Haitham and Salam, many were also humanists. As George Makdisi demonstrates so powerfully, humanism as we understand it began in Islam. Indeed, their humanism was a product of their Islamic commitment. The Islamic subscript is everywhere: the pursuit of science for them is a form of worship, a religious injunction. To suggest Muslim scientists were social aberrations, covert secularists, is to project modernist obsessions onto history: a sort of post-defacto rationalisation.

A more elaborate theory of the decline of Islamic science focuses on internal disputes between rational and conservatives schools of thought, a dispute which took shape at the end of the 8th century, when seat of the Caliphate moved from Damascus to Baghdad – and when most of the greatest names in Islamic science were as yet unborn. Lindberg, for example, suggests Islamic science began to decline when

conservative religious forces made themselves increasingly felt. Sometimes it took the form of outright opposition (to science). More often, the effect was subtler not the extinction of scientific activity but the alternation of its character, by the imposition of a very narrow definition of utility’.

The conservative forces were led by a group of scholastic philosophers known as the Asharites. Pitted against them, goes the theory, was a group of rationalist philosophers known as the Mutazalites. The fate of Islamic science was sealed with the victory of Asharites over the Mutazalites. Here’s how Ronan presents their encounter:

Islam extols the value of revelation above all else. That is not to say that reason is discredited, far from it; the use of human intellect is prized as one of God’s gifts, but it must be forever under the control of revelation. The Mutazalites, who emerged about 700, were aware of this; indeed, they set such store by reason that they said it could fathom even the deepest profundities of religious belief. On the other hand, the Asharites, whose views first appeared a couple of centuries later, condemned the over-zealous use of reason and its “adulteration” of religious dogma, and for nearly two centuries the rival schools wrangled with each other until during the twelfth century the Asharite arguments carried the day. There then developed the attitude of passive acceptance. This attitude was inevitably inimical to independent scientific thinking, as intellectual traditionalism won the day. Islam never separated religion and science into watertight compartments as we do now, and the torch of science had to be carried by others.’

Some scholars go so far as pointing to one individual Asharite as the sole cause of the decline of Islamic science: the twelfth century writer and theologian, al-Ghazzali.

There are numerous problems with this flawed, simplistic analysis. If the division between rational and conservative were clear cut, then we’d expect an exact scientist of al-Haitham’s calibre to be a Mutazalite. In fact, he was an Asharite, as were many other scientists. The truth is the Asharites were just as rationalist as the Mutazalites; the Mutazalites were just as religious, or if you like conservative, as the Asharites; and both used philosophic methods, reason and logic, to argue their case.

The religious nature of Mutazalite thought is clear from Ibn Sina’s (d. 1037) theory of human knowledge which, following al-Farabi (d. 950), transfers the Qur’anic scheme of revelation to Greek philosophy. In the Qur’an, the Creator addresses one man – the Prophet – through the agency of the archangel Gabriel; in ibn Sina’s neo-Platonic scheme, the divine word is transmitted through reason and understanding to any, and every, person who cares to listen. The result is an amalgam of rationalism and Islamic ethics.
For Muslim scholars and scientists, who like ibn Sina, subscribed to the philosophy of  Mutazalism, values are objective and good and evil are descriptive characteristics of  reality no less there’ in things than their other qualities such as shape and size. In this framework, all knowledge, including the knowledge of God, can be acquired by reason alone. Humanity has power to know as well as to act and is thus responsible for its just and unjust actions. What this philosophy entailed both in terms of the study of nature and shaping human behaviour was illustrated by ibn Tufayl (d. 1185) in his intellectual novel, Life of Hayy, published in the twelfth century. Hayy is a spontaneously generated human isolated on an island. Through his power of observation and the use of his intellect, he discovers general and particular facts about the structure of the material and spiritual universe, deduces the existence of God and develops a rationally satisfying theological system.

Contrary to the common misunderstanding, both schools agreed on the rational study of nature. They had to the Qur’an dictated that it should be so. In his al-Tamhid, Abu Bakr al-Baqillani (d. 1013), the theologian credited with producing the first systematic statement of Asharite doctrine, defines science as the knowledge of the object, as it really is’. While reacting to the Mutazilite position on Greek philosophy, the Asharites conceded the need for objective and systematic study of nature. Indeed, this is why some of the greatest scientists in Islam, such as al-Biruni (d. 1048) and Fakhr al-Din Razi (d.1209), were supporters of Asharite theology.

The concern of both sides was the delineation of truth. As the Asharite al-Baruni  declared, do not shun the truth from whatever source it comes’. Al-Ghazzali went even further. He told his students: if scientific discourse

consisted of only that kind of material which cause you to have doubt about the beliefs instilled into you since childhood, so that you are stimulated towards study and research, then that would be a very satisfactory result. For doubt leads to truth. Whosoever has no doubts of any kind does not reflect, and who does not reflect cannot see clearly, and he who cannot see clearly remains in a state of blindness and in error’.

So what constituted the dispute? It had two aspects. First, they disagreed on the best way to attain rational truth. For the Mutazalites general and universal questions came first and lead to experimental work. This is why Ibn Sina starts his Cannons of Medicine, which remained a standard text in the West till the eighteenth century, with a general discussion on the theory of drugs. But for the Asharites, universals came out of practical, experimental work; theories are formulated after discoveries. Al-Biruni begins his Determination of the Coordinates of the Cities by describing his experiments before drawing general theoretical conclusions.

Second, what are the limits to rational inquiry? For the Mutazalites there were no limits. The Asharites were concerned about instrumental rationality. When al-Ghazali talks about blameworthy’ knowledge, he is raising issues of a classical version of the Precautionary Principle. Should we make poisons simply because we can? Is a system of thought that has all the paraphernalia of a discipline necessarily good for society the example he gave was astrology. Now, these issues are still with us today and they have been debated by scientists and philosophers for centuries. Such discussion never thwarted the development of modern science. Why should we assume it did in the classical period of Islam civilization?

The victory of Asharite thought had nothing to do with the decline of Islamic science on the contrary, both sides were eager to promote science and learning.

It is also worth noting neither the Mutazalites nor the Asharites regarded scientific method as the only means of rational inquiry. Most Muslim scientists tended to be polymaths – it seemed to be the general rule in the classical period. This is testimony to the homogeneity of the Islamic philosophy of science and its emphasis on synthesis, interdisciplinary investigations and multiplicity of methods. Even a strong believer in mathematical realism such as al-Biruni argued the method of inquiry was a function of the specific nature of investigation: different methods, all equally valid, were required to answer different types of questions. Al-Biruni himself had used several methods. In his treatise on mineralogy, he is the most exact of experimental scientists. But in the introduction to his ground-breaking study of India he declares to execute our project, it has not been possible to follow the geometric method’; he therefore resorts to comparative sociology. In his Treatise Devoted to the Question of Shadows, he differentiates between mathematical and philosophical methods. Methodological differences often generated debates and controversies. But to suggest such disputes, or the victory of one over another, led to the decline of Islamic science is naïve.

We have to look elsewhere for the genuine causes of decline. Both as a faith and culture, Islam is a conceptual world view. Muslims are fond of describing Islam as a total way of life’. What they mean is that the holistic worldview of Islam integrates all aspects of reality through a moral perspective. This perspective is provided by a framework of conceptual values within which Muslims endeavour to answer human problems. Concepts such as ilm (knowledge), ijma (consensus) and istislah (public interest) are the driving force of Muslim society. Ilm, the urge to know, or ijtihad, the quest for sustained reasoning, for example, were the central driving forces of classical Islam and produced a culture with science and rationality at its core.

The problem we seek to explain is how this central driving force sputtered to a halt. I would argue the decline of science in Muslim societies is a product of the systematic reduction in the meaning of the basic concepts of Islam. This process not only reduced Islam from a holistic worldview to a one-dimensional faith but also truncated the creativity of Muslim societies. If Muslim society is like a human body, an analogy once used by the Prophet Muhammad, then this process of reduction has taken the mind from the body. What is left is living and functioning but without the brain. As a consequence, science and rationality have almost evaporated in contemporary Islamic culture.

Again there is a conventional explanation for this process. Studies endlessly refer to the point in time when the gates of ijtihad’ were closed. But the use of ijtihad, or sustained reasoning, was never actually banned: as recent research has shown, the gates were never firmly closed the shutters came down only slowly. And the process was more complex than simply the pronouncement of a few religious scholars; their dictate was always disputed; the very idea was taken to task by every Muslim reform movement to emerge from that day to this.

So what is missing from the analysis? What prevents us detecting how and why the enterprise of Islamic science deserted Muslim society? I have argued for the intimate and constructive connection between Islam and science. But Islamic science did not only have a conceptual religious context, it also had a social context. Islamic science operated within a social, political, economic and institutional matrix. Science begat technology, and technology served a thriving economy. Wealth creation provided the resources to invest in the infrastructure of educational and research institutions the universities, libraries, teaching hospitals, observatories and the like – that produced yet more scientists. And as every working scientist today knows, when the economy suffers, when economic enterprise declines, research and development budgets are cut, grants disappear, even whole departments are axed, standards drop and the brains drain away to the new centres of economic power, if they can. History is not such a foreign country, after all.

In history, as now, science was integral to the development of society. In Muslim history it fed the growth of industries studies of mineralogy, advances in chemistry, study of botany and hydraulics all had applications relevant to the productive capacity of society. An agricultural revolution, supported by the study of agronomy, hydrology and geological studies, raised living standards and created wealth. The legacy of these developments is still benefiting Spain today. The study of astronomy, development of compasses and observational instruments, the study of geography and map making all promoted and facilitated long distance trade. Muslim civilization wherever it spread was a city building culture; architecture, city planning and land management, provision of clean water and sewage disposal all benefited from the application of science.

The great scientists of the classical era all contributed, directly or indirectly, to this social context. It was a context shaped by the institutions of Islam which ensured that science prospered and served society. One of the pillars of Islam is zakat, the annual payment required of all Muslims and dedicated to social purposes such as education, health provision and the eradication of poverty. Giving in charity is a religious injunction that created a social institution, called waqf, perpetual charitable endowments which again funded projects such as hospitals, universities and research establishments. And, of course, the state was a major sponsor, patron and consumer of science for a multitude of purposes from city building to the technology of warfare. Science never emerges in a vacuum; it always has a cultural context; it is fed and shaped by the conditions of its time and place.

If the Muslim World had not been such a vibrant, dominant, going concern in the fifteenth century, Europe would have had no need to subvert its power. What is termed the age of exploration was a deliberate strategy, diligently pursued by various European nations. It was designed to circumvent what they regarded as a Muslim stranglehold on their economy, a stranglehold that was maintained by Islamic science. Investment in exploration gave a new impetus to the development of science in Europe. And it generated the process termed colonialism.

Colonialism produced two outcomes in Muslim civilisation. First, it suppressed and displaced the scientific culture of Muslim society. It did this by introducing new systems of administration, law, education and economy all of which were designed to instil dependence, compliance and subservience to the colonial powers. The decline of Islamic science is one aspect of the general economic and political decay and deterioration of Muslim society that resulted.

Islam as a holistic way of life became mere rhetoric. Islamic education became a cul de sac, a one way ticket to marginality. What relevance could such education have when its concepts and principles had no practical meaning for how society operated? Nor was the modern’ education offered by the colonial powers a path to success. The function of this education was to ensure that colonial subjects served the needs and vested interests of the colonial order. Western education ruled; but it taught the colonised to accept a distorted version of their own history as backward, their own science as irrelevant, their own medicine as nothing but mumbo jumbo. The colonised were pre-modern, their society, beliefs and ideas deficient and incapable of generating their own modernity and progress. The dismissal of Islamic science as real’ science went hand in hand with the dismissal of the entire conceptual order of Islam as religion, culture and civilization.

Second, colonialism generated a further impulse for the conceptual reduction of Muslim civilization. Islam was reduced to a defensive enclave of resistance stubbornly holding on to the few remnants of authority left to indigenous control. Colonialism turned the problem of authenticity and authority, a problem of conceptual meaning, into the central debate for Muslims.

The debate started with the question: who is a scholar? Whose thought, research and opinion were worthy of social and cultural attention? Just who is an alim (scholar) and what makes him an authority? In classical Islam, an alim was anyone who acquired ilm, or knowledge, which was itself described in a broad sense. We can see this in the early classifications of knowledge by such scholars as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, ibn Sina, al-Ghazzali and ibn Khauldun. Indeed, both the definition of knowledge and its classification was a major intellectual activity in classical Islam. Knowledge meant everything from science and philosophy to art, literature and theology. So all learned men, scientists as well as philosophers, scholars as well as theologians, constituted the ulama. But as ijtihad became increasingly irrelevant, ilm was increasingly reduced to religious knowledge and the ulama came to constitute only religious scholars. So, from an Islamic point of view, only the pursuit of religious knowledge came to be seen as important.

Similarly, the idea of ijma, the central notion of communal life in Islam, has been reduced to the consensus of a select few. Ijma literally means consensus of the people. The concept dates back to the practice of Prophet Muhammad leader of the original polity of Muslims. When the Prophet Muhammad wanted to reach a decision, he would call the whole Muslim community then, admittedly not very large to the mosque. A discussion would ensue; arguments for and against would be presented. Finally, the entire gathering would reach a consensus. Thus, a democratic spirit was central to communal and political life in early Islam. But the notion of ijma also performed another function. It located authority in argument. If ilm was intended to spread all varieties of knowledge throughout society then the majority of citizens would be members of a learned community. The consensus of the community would therefore be a learned consensus arrived on the basis of argument. But the process of reduction removed knowledgeable citizens from the equation ijma was truncated to the consensus of religious scholars’. Thus both democracy and the pursuit of knowledge as a whole were rendered irrelevant to Muslim culture.

Other key elements of the conceptual framework of Islam were similarly reduced. Jihad ceased to be intellectual struggle and cultural development and was abridged to warfare. Istislah, normally rendered as public interest’ and a major source of Islamic law and an important impulse for science in the classical period, all but disappeared from Muslim consciousness. And ijtihad came to mean little more than a pious desire.

Thus, the question how Muslim societies can rediscover the spirit of scientific inquiry is not just a question of policy, or funding, or building prestigious institutions in the name of progress. Most importantly, it is about how the enterprise of science is made relevant and meaningful, internalised within the ethos and conceptual framework of Muslim societies. The decline of Islamic science was a product of combined forces that engineered a conceptual reduction in Muslim civilization. My proposition is clear: the decline can only be reversed by effecting a conceptual shift. Science will only take root in Muslim societies if they can reorient themselves: re-conceptualise Islam itself as a holistic enterprise. Science will flourish, paradoxical as this may seem to many of you, when Islam re-emerges as an integrative way of knowing, being and doing; when it reconstructs the open intellectual climate and cultural paradigms it once sustained.

When in 1980, I initiated the contemporary debate on Islamic science, first in the pages of Nature and then New Scientist, I was not fully aware of the power of the reductive concepts on Muslim societies. By science’ I meant and understood an objective and systematic endeavour, much like the work of al-Haitham and Salam, which was motivated by Islamic injunctions on the virtues of reason and the pursuit of knowledge. I turned out to be totally wrong. The debate itself was reduced to two components.

The first derives from the fundamentalist idea all knowledge, including scientific knowledge, can be found in the Qur’an. This is another step in reduction of the concept of ilm to not just religious knowledge but only that which can be found in the pages of the Qur’an. Backed by a lavishly funded Saudi project – Scientific Miracles in the Qur’an’ – this tendency has sprouted a whole genre of apologetic literature (books, papers, journals) looking at the scientific content of the Qur’an. From relativity, quantum mechanics, big bang theory to the entire field of embryology and much of modern geology has been discovered’ in the Qur’an.

Meanwhile, scientific’ experiments have been devised to discover what is mentioned in the Qur’an but not known to science – for example, the programme to harness the energy of the jinns enjoyed much support in the mid-nineties in Pakistan! This reductive fundamentalism now embraces Creationism and is generating a growing movement for Intelligent Design’ in the Muslim world.

There is a profound irony here. Classical Muslims scientists, such as ibn Tufayl, whom I have already mentioned and ibn Nafis, who discovered the circulation of blood, leaned heavily towards evolution. The Qur’an insists Adam was the first Prophet and not the first man, it invites the reader to discover a rational explanation of how humanity came to be on this planet. Unfortunately, the fundamentalist version of science’ is the most popular notion of Islamic science’ in the Muslim world today.

The second component is best described as mystical fundamentalism. In this version, the consensus, the ijma of a knowledgeable community, is further reduced to a group of mystics with secret and sacred scientific knowledge. In this perspective, Islamic science becomes an ontological study of the nature of things. The material universe is studied as an integral and subordinate part of higher levels of existence, consciousness and modes of knowing. Thus, science is not a problem solving enterprise and socially objective inquiry; it is a mystical quest for understanding of the Absolute. In this universe, conjecture and hypothesis have no place; all inquiry must be subordinate to mystical experience. Even the history of Islamic science has been rewritten. Proponents of this position emphasise the occult, alchemy and astrology – at the expense of the vast amount of work in exact sciences – in an attempt to show Islamic science was largely sacred science’. In many academic circles, this mystical tendency has acquired a strong presence.

These two trends, the fundamentalist and the mystical, suggest that real science has almost evaporated from Muslim consciousness. In a recent survey Nature noted, today’s Muslim states barely register on indices of research spending, patents and publications’. And it concludes the situation is not just bad; it is set to get worse.

However, I think we need not be so pessimistic.

The solution to any problem begins with a diagnosis. My optimism is based on the fact that diagnosis has already begun. Increasingly, the realisation is growing that science is important not just for the prosperity of Muslim societies, not just for the purpose of economic development, or for misplaced political vanity or notions of defence based on acquiring nuclear weapons but that science matters because it is vital for the recovery and survival of Islam itself. Just as the spirit of Islam in history was defined by its scientific enterprise, so the future of Muslim societies will depend on their relationship to science and learning. This is the main message of the Arab Human Development Report of 2003. This ground-breaking report on Building a Knowledge Society’ frankly admits Muslims cannot merely continue to blame everything on colonialism and the West. Muslim states have failed, by their own Islamic standards, the challenge of independence. The report blames authoritarian thought, lack of autonomy in universities, the sorry state of libraries and laboratories, and under-funding in the Arab world.

Moreover, the report recognises the conceptual problems of interpretation and declares time has come to proclaim those positive religious texts that cope with current realities’. In particular, it calls for reviving ijtihad’ as the driving force for change. Indeed, it is now widely argued science can play an important role not just in re-establishing ijtihad but in making Islam whole again, reuniting reason once again with revelation. Thus, the revival of science and a reform agenda for Islam in Muslim society need to proceed hand in hand.

This is the course the Organization of Islamic Conference has set itself. It helps that the 57-member intergovernmental organization of Muslim states, recently elected Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, former President of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science, as its Secretary General. Ihsanoglu has initiated a process aiming to secure greater expenditure on R&D in Muslim countries over the coming decade.

In Atta ur Rahman, Pakistan’s minister of higher education, Ihsanoglu has a like-minded soul for whom the status quo simply will not do. It is to be hoped they can make a formidable partnership, using not merely their key institutional positions but their conceptual insight on the nature of the problem to stimulate, nurture and promote genuine change, the kind that will initiate wide ranging reform.

Other signs of change can be detected in religious institutions. The Al-Azhar University in Cairo, one of the most influential institutions of the Muslim world, for example, has now opened up to science. Its history reflects the reductive course of Muslim society, abandoning science as it became merely a religious institution concentrating on theology. Now it is rebalancing its curricula, emphasising science as much as religion. Religious classes are making way for laboratories and courses on science.

No one should be in any doubt – Muslims have a deep emotional attachment to their scientific heritage. But contemporary Muslim society needs more than nostalgic pride in a long departed Golden Age. Instead of cherishing the ashes of a burnt out fire they need to transmit its flame. Re-kindling the flame must mean more then simply eulogising a list of achievements. It has to focus on instilling the way of thinking, the critical consciousness and methodologies that made Islamic science possible; and it must make this way of thinking and knowing relevant to contemporary times.

As both al-Haitham and Salam discovered and knew so well – there are no quick fixes in science. There is no substitute for hard labour in the laboratory. Yet, they were sure of the source of their inspiration, used it to persist in their work, and never lost sight of how it encouraged them to be critical and innovative scientists. There is every reason to hope that re-making such connections can reignite science in Muslim societies as a going concern for the future.
© Royal Society copyright 2007

(Transcript of the lecture is available at: Audio is available at:


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