Concept of science

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What is the western concept of Science and the Qur'anic approach to it?

Science regards as ‘scientific’ the facts established through empirical methods. Therefore, the assertions which have not yet been established through observation and experiment can only be theories or hypotheses.

Science cannot be sure about the future, it does not make definite predictions. Doubt is the basis of scientific investigations. However, taught by God, the All-Knowing, the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, made decisive predictions, most of which have already proven true, the rest waiting for their time to come true. It is possible to find many verses in the Qur’an which point to certain established facts which science has recently ‘discovered’. The Qur’an mentions many important issues of creation and a great number of ‘natural’ phenomena which let alone an unlettered one, even the greatest scientist could not have talked about fourteen centuries ago. Furthermore, as will be explained below, through the miracles of the Prophets, the Qur’an has alluded to the farthest reach of sciences. This is because it originated in the Knowledge of the All-Knowing One.

What kind of a civilization did Islam create?

The conflict of science and religion in the West dates back as far as the thirteenth century. Due to the essential character of the corrupted Christianity represented by the Catholic Church, which condemns nature as a veil separating man from God and curses the knowledge of nature, scientific advances were not seen in the West during the Middle Ages, which are called dark ages in European history. However, during the same period a magnificent civilization was flourishing in the Muslim East. Muslims, obeying the injunctions of the holy Qur’an, studied both the Book of Divine Revelation, that is, the Qur’an, and the Book of Creation, that is, the universe, and founded the most magnificent civilization of human history. Scholars from all over the old world benefited from the centers of higher learning at Damascus, Bukhara, Baghdad, Cairo, Fez, Qairawan, Zeitona, Cordoba, Sicily, Isfahan, Delhi, and other great centres throughout the Muslim world. Historians liken the Muslim world of the Middle Ages, dark for the West but bright for Muslims, to a beehive. Roads were full of students, scientists and scholars travelling from one center of learning to another. Many world-renowned figures such as al-Kindi, al-Khwarizmi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, al-Mas’udi, Ibn al-Haytham, al-Biruni, al-Ghazzali, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, al-Razi and many others shone like stars in the firmament of the sciences. In his multi-volume Introduction to the History of Science (1927–48), George Sarton divided his work into fifty-year periods, naming each chapter after the most eminent scientist of the period in question. For the years from the middle of the eighth century (second century after Hijra) to the twelfth century, each of seven fifty-year periods carries the name of a Muslim scientist. Thus we have ‘the Time of al-Khwarizmi, the Time of al-Biruni’, etc. Within these chapters Sarton lists one hundred important Muslim scientists and their principal works.

John Davenport, a leading scientist, observed:

It must be owned that all the knowledge whether of Physics, Astronomy, Philosophy or Mathematics, which flourished in Europe from the 10th century was originally derived from the Arabian schools, and the Spanish Saracen may be looked upon as the father of European philosophy (Quoted by A. Karim in Islam’s Contribution to Science and Civilization).

Bertrand Russell, the famous British philosopher, wrote (Pakistan Quarterly, Vol.4, No.3):

The supremacy of the East was not only military. Science, philosophy, poetry, and the arts, all flourished in the Muhammadan world at a time when Europe was sunk in barbarism. Europeans, with unpardonable insularity, call this period ‘the Dark Ages’: but it was only in Europe that it was dark—indeed only in Christian Europe, for Spain, which was Mohammedan, had a brilliant culture.

Robert Briffault, the renowned historian, acknowledges in his book The Making of Humanity:

It is highly probable that but for the Arabs, modern European civilization would have never assumed that character which has enabled it to transcend all previous phases of evolution. For although there is not a single aspect of human growth in which the decisive influence of Islamic culture is not traceable, nowhere is it so clear and momentous as in the genesis of that power which constitutes the paramount distinctive force of the modern world and the supreme course of its victory—natural sciences and the scientific spirit... What we call sciences arose in Europe as a result of a new spirit of inquiry; of new methods of investigation, of the method of experiment, observation, measurement, of the development of Mathematics in a form unknown to the Greeks. That spirit and those methods were introduced into the European world by the Arabs. (For the quotations above, see, Abul A’la al-Mawdudi (1970), Towards Understanding Islam, I.I.F.S.O. pp. 69-70, footnote 1.)

L. Stoddard acknowledges that for the first five centuries of its existence, the realm of Islam was the most civilized and progressive portion of the world. Studded with splendid cities, gracious mosques and quiet universities, the Muslim East offered a striking contrast to the Christian West, which was sunk in the night of the Dark Ages. (Abul-Fazl Ezzati (1978), An Introduction to the History of the Spread of Islam, London, p. 378)

This bright civilization progressed until it suffered the terrible disasters which came like huge overlapping waves, from the West and Far East one after the other in the form of the Crusades and Mongol invasion. The disasters lasted centuries until the Muslim government in Baghdad collapsed and the history of Islam entered, from the beginning of the fourteenth century, a new phase with the Ottoman Turks. Islamic civilization was still vigorous and remained far ahead of the Christian West in economic and military fields until the eighteenth century, despite (from the sixteenth century onwards) losing ground to it in the sciences.

Cordoba in the tenth century under Muslim rule was the most civilized city in Europe, the wonder and admiration of the world. Travelers from the north heard with something like fear of the city which contained 70 libraries with hundreds of thousands of volumes, and 900 public baths, yet whenever the rulers of Leon Navarre of Barcelona needed a surgeon, an architect, a dressmaker or a musician, it was to Cordoba that they applied (T. Arnold, The Legacy of Islam, p.9). Muslim literary prestige was so great that in Spain, for example, it was found necessary to translate the Bible and liturgy into Arabic for the use of the Christian community. The account given by Alvaro, the Christian zealot and writer, shows vividly how even the non-Muslim Spaniards were attracted to Arab/Muslim literature:

My fellow-Christians delight in the poems and romances of the Arabs. They study the works of Muhammadan theologians and philosophers, not in order to refute them, but to acquire a correct and elegant Arabic style. Where today can a layman be found who reads the Latin commentaries on holy Scriptures? Who is there that studies the Gospels, the Prophets, the Apostles? Alas, the young Christians who are the most conspicuous for their talents have no knowledge of any literature or language save the Arabic; they read and study with avidity Arabian books; they amass whole libraries of them at a vast cost, and they everywhere sing the praises of the Arabian world (Indiculus Luminosus, translated by Dozy, quoted by Ezzati, ibid., pp. 98–9).

If the purpose of education and worth of civilization is to raise the sense of pride, dignity, honor in individuals so that they improve their state and consequently the state of society, Islamic civilization is proven to have been a worthy one. There is ample evidence quoted by various writers showing how Islam has succeeded in doing this to various peoples of various regions, e.g. Isaac Taylor, in his speech delivered at the Church Congress of England about the effects and influence of Islam on people, said:

When Muhammadanism is embraced, paganism, fetishism, infanticide and witchcraft disappear. Filth is replaced by cleanliness and the new convert acquires personal dignity and self-respect. Immodest dances and promiscuous intercourse of the sexes cease; female chastity is rewarded as a virtue; industry replaces idleness; license gives place to law; order and sobriety prevail; blood feuds, cruelty to animals and slaves are eradicated. Islam swept away corruption and superstitions. Islam was a revolt against empty polemics. It gave hope to the slave, brotherhood to mankind, and recognition to the fundamental facts of human nature. The virtues which Islam inculcates are temperance, cleanliness, chastity, justice, fortitude, courage, benevolence, hospitality, veracity and resignation.. Islam preaches a practical brotherhood, the social equality of all Muslims. Slavery is not part of the creed of Islam. Polygamy is a more difficult question. Moses did not prohibit it. It was practiced by David and it is not directly forbidden in the New Testament. Muhammad limited the unbounded license of polygamy. It is the exception rather than the rule... In resignation to God’s Will, temperance, chastity, veracity and in brotherhood of believers they (the Muslims) set us a pattern which we should do well to follow. Islam has abolished drunkenness, gambling and prostitution, the three curses of the Christian lands. Islam has done more for civilization than Christianity. The conquest of one-third of the earth to his (Muhammad’s) creed was a miracle. (quoted by Ezzati, ibid., pp. 235–7)

How can science and the modern scientific approach be evaluated especially from Islamic viewpoint?

By way of explaining why I have given such a lengthy introduction to the subject, let me note here the conflicting attitudes prevalent in the Muslim world about the relationship of Islam and science. For many years, swayed by Western dominion over their lands, a dominion attributed to superior science and technology, some Muslim intellectuals accused Islam itself as the cause of the backwardness of Muslim peoples. Having forgotten the eleven centuries or more of Islamic supremacy, they thought and wrote as if the history of Islam had only begun in the eighteenth century. Further, they made the deplorable mistake of identifying the relationship between science and religion in general in the specific terms of the relationship between science and Christianity. They did not bother to make even a superficial study of Islam and its long history. In contrast to this, some other contemporary Muslim intellectuals who, after seeing the disasters—atomic bombs, mass murders, environmental pollution, loss of all moral and spiritual values, the ‘delirium’ which modern man suffers, and so on—science and technology have brought to mankind and the shortcomings and mistakes of the purely scientific approach in seeking the truth, as well as the failure of science and technology to bring man happiness, follow some of their Western counterparts in condemning science and technology outright, and adopting an almost purely idealistic attitude. However, Islam is the middle way. It neither rejects nor condemns the modern scientific approach, nor does it ‘deify’ it.

It is true that science has been the most revered ‘fetish’ or ‘idol’ of modern man for nearly two hundred years. Scientists once believed that they could explain every phenomenon with the findings of science and the law of causality. However, modern physics destroyed the ‘theoretical’ foundations of mechanical physics and revealed that the universe is not a clockwork of certain parts working according to strict, unchanging laws of causality and absolute determinism. Rather, despite its dazzling harmony and magnificent order, it is so complex and indeterminate that when we unveil one of its mysteries, as many more appear before us. In other words, the more we learn about the universe, the more we grow in ignorance of it. Experts in atomic physics say that no one can be sure that the universe will be in the same state a moment later that it is in now. Although the universe works according to certain laws, these laws are not absolute and, more interestingly, they do not have real or material existence. Rather, their existence is nominal, that is, we deduce them from observation of natural events and phenomena. Also, it is highly questionable to what extent they have a part in the creation and working of things. For example, scientists say that a seed, earth, air and water bring a tree into existence. However, these are only causes for a tree to come into existence. The existence of a tree requires exact calculations and ratios and the pre-established relations of the seed, earth, air and water. Science should also explain the beginning of this process and the diversification of seeds into different kinds. What science does is only to explain how things take place; it thinks it has got out of the difficulty of explaining the origin of existence by attributing it to ‘nature’ or ‘self-origination’ or ‘necessity’ and ‘chance’.

‘Nature is, evidently, a design, not the designer; a recipient, not the agent; a composition, not the composer; an order, not the orderer; something printed, not the printer. It is a collection of laws established by the Divine Will, laws which our minds can grasp but which in themselves have no power or material reality.’ Attribution of existence to self-origination or necessity and chance is sheer delusion. For we evidently see that existence displays absolute knowledge, absolute wisdom, absolute will, and absolute power. Chance, self-origination and necessity are only concepts without such material reality that we could attribute to them knowledge, wisdom, will and power.

The modern scientific approach

The modern scientific approach is very far from finding out the truth behind existence and explaining it. Truth is unchanging and beyond the visible world. Its relationship with the visible, changing world is like that of the spirit and the body or the Divine laws of nature and natural things and events. For example, the force of growth, which is a universal Divine law, is innate in living things. While this law is unchanging, a tree or a man undergoes incessant changes. Likewise, human beings, no matter how their dress or dwellings or means of transport have changed during the course of history, remain unchanged in respect of the essential purposes they serve and the impact of those purposes on their lives and environment. As human beings, we all share certain general conditions of life and value: we are all born, mature, marry, have children and face death; we all possess some degree of will and common desires, we share also certain values—we all know the meaning of honesty, kindness, justice, courage, and so on.

Despite this fact, the modern scientific approach searches for truth in changing nature, and in its search it bases itself on the impressions of the senses. However, these impressions are relative, changing from person to person, and deceptive. Also, people differ in respect of their capacity of reasoning. So, it is impossible to arrive at one certain conclusion by deductive or inductive or analytical reasoning of the data received by the senses. It is because of this that the modern scientific approach resorts to experiment to arrive at facts. However, without pre-established axioms or ‘premises’, it is not possible to establish a fact through experiments. Since David Hume, it has been generally accepted that it is not inevitable that, because an event has happened twice or a million times in two or a million different places, it must happen again. For this reason, since the collapse of classical physics, Western epistemologists speak not of seeking the truth itself but only of seeking approximations to it. Karl Raymond Popper says that we consider the theories of both Newton and Einstein as science. . . both of them cannot be true at the same time; rather, both may be false.

Through empirical methods, science will not be able to find the truth which concerns the essence of existence. Therefore, as Guenon puts it (Orient et Occident, Turkish translation by F. Arslan, Istanbul 1980, p. 57), science or scientists have two alternatives before them: either they will acknowledge that the findings of science are of no value other than as suppositions about truth and therefore not recognize any certainty higher than sense-perception, or they will blindly believe as true whatever is taught in the name of science. Doubting the findings of science, modern scientists try to find a way out in agnosticism or pragmatism, thus confessing the inability of science to find truth.

Science should recognize its limits and concede that truth is unchanging and lies in the realm above the visible world. When it can do that, it will find its real value. Evidently, without the absolute, it is impossible for the relative to exist; what is changing can be possible through the existence of the unchanging, and multiplicity is impossible without the existence of unity. It is only when any knowledge reaches the point of immutability that it acquires permanence and stability. What is unchangeable and permanent is above the human realm. Truth is not something the human mind produces. Truth exists independently of man and man’s task is to seek it.

 

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