Responsibilities of religion and science

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Do religion and science have separate responsibilities?

Human affairs, directly or indirectly, are affected by science in many ways. Firstly, by the technological aids enabled by science which have transformed the way people live all over the world so completely that it is difficult to imagine any other way of arranging our lives. Secondly, human life has been affected by the influence of science on the mind of man. We no longer believe in those superstitions that, from time to time in the long history of mankind, darkened the world.

What is the goal of science?

The goal of science is to discover rules which explain the relationship between particular events and aspects of events in the natural world which we usually refer to as ‘facts’. More specifically, the goal is to find the simplest rules, and thereby to understand the mastermind behind the wonderfully subtle design of our universe. Because understanding those rules enables a degree of predictive power, science can give us power over the forces of nature operative in the relationships we study. Unfortunately, science can teach us nothing else beyond how the facts are related and conditioned by each other. The aspiration towards such objective knowledge belongs to the highest of which human reason is capable. Yet it is very clear that knowledge of what ‘is’ does not open the door directly to what ‘should be’ (Einstein, p.26). We can have the clearest and most complete knowledge of what ‘is’, yet we are not able to deduce from that what the goal of our human aspiration should be. Objective knowledge provides us with very powerful instruments for the achievements of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source. No doubt, our existence and activities acquire meaning only by the setting up of such a goal and corresponding values. ‘The knowledge of truth itself is very little capable of acting as a guide and it cannot prove even the justification and the value of aspiration towards that very knowledge of truth. Here we face, therefore, the limit of the purely rational concept of our existence’ (ibid., p.22).

Science without religion, religion without science

Throughout history, great scientists have puzzled over questions like—where the ethics of using science will come from, how we can decide what should be our goal or what way, ultimately, is the best way for all human beings to be. Great philosophers as well as great scientific geniuses have been bewildered by these questions. In the long search to answer them, some great scientists like Einstein have expressed their understanding memorably: ‘Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.’

On the basis of his own very rich experience, Einstein claimed that science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration towards truth and understanding. He clearly stated that the source of such feelings lies within the sphere of religion. He also advocated that kind of faith which says that the rules valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. Einstein could never conceive of a true scientist without this profound belief. On the other hand, in his famous essay Atomic War or Peace, Einstein captures the helplessness of the scientist to influence moral judgments:

The atomic scientists, I think, have become convinced that they cannot arouse the American people to the truth of the atomic era by logic alone. There must be added the deep power of emotion which is the basic ingredient of religion. (Einstein, p.22)

For more than three centuries, the world has gradually come to be dominated by Western culture, lifestyle and modes of thinking. At the present time, the world is, directly or indirectly, influenced so much by the West that the contribution of other cultures to the mainstream of world life is relatively negligible. So, when we talk about the modern approach to science we can, without hesitation, discuss the Western approach as the sole representative.

Does scientific knowledge need religion?

There is no doubt that scientific knowledge needs religion in order to become a blessing for mankind. Many times in history a number of scientists came to realize this but some of them were at a loss when they encountered a serious conflict between their faith and the results of their scientific investigations. The universal moral idea of a quest for objective knowledge owed its original psychological potency to the link with religion. Yet in another sense this close link was extremely fatal for moral ideas. The enormous growth of natural science had a great influence on the thought and practical life of man. Looking at what happened in the Western world, we see that the gradual increase in the cultivation of science resulted in a gradual decrease in the moral sentiment of people, in their attachment to religion. As a general phenomenon, this happened uniquely in the West although there had been a few, comparable individual incidents in the Islamic civilization also.

When Copernicus and Kepler had to face the moment of truth, they chose a road which apparently was not that of their religion. They felt that they had to state what appeared to be the real case, and that, on the whole, it would be more respectful of the Divine wisdom to act thus. By doing so, they served the intellectual integrity of mankind. Their standing against religion—at a time when the modern scientific spirit was still in its infancy in the West—in order to save the truth was a great blow to the dignity of Western religion. Since then, there has been an apparently irreconcilable conflict between knowledge and belief, and most of the advanced minds were increasingly of the opinion that belief should be replaced by knowledge. Belief that did not itself rest on knowledge was considered superstitious. This mentality, no doubt, gave birth to a negative way of thinking about religion. But the problem was older than the rise of science. The root of Western belief was Judeo-Christianity and, long before the birth of science in the modern Western world, because of corruptions and interpolations in its Scriptures, the basic principles of Judeo-Christian belief had become so far removed from, so irrelevant to, the realities of nature and human affairs, that the religion lost the right to claim any authority over knowledge.

Barbarization of political and collective life

As there is, traditionally, a correlation between religion and morals, in the last few hundred years or so a serious weakening of moral thought and sentiment occurred. This has been the main cause of the barbarization of political and collective life in recent times. The barbarization, together with the terrifying efficiency of new technological means, has posed a fearful threat for human well-being.

In the beginning of the seventeenth century when the West started to study nature independently, religion started to lose its influence on society. There was some effort to separate off, to secularize, the whole domain of science, but in the long run, knowingly or unknowingly, science became an enemy of religion which lost its esteem among enlightened people. In time, great scientific geniuses arose without any knowledge of religion or moral values. Owing to the great many contradictions in the religious reasoning in the West, the subtle influence of religious sentiments started to dry up in the mind of great scientists. Too many contradictory theories tried to explain the world. This is how science became (in Einstein’s sense of the term) ‘blind’ in the West: all means prove but a blunt instrument if they have not behind them a living spirit.

The Western world has for long concentrated its intellectual energies upon the study of the quantitative aspect of things and thus developed a science of physical nature. The very obvious fruits of this study in the physical domain have won the greatest respect for it among people everywhere.

Most Western people identified science with technology and its application. They acquired the power of technology and used it to make life more comfortable and secure, to liberate themselves from the forces of nature, but science contributed hardly anything at all to the moral or spiritual improvement of Western people. But, as the very success of this science had helped people to dismiss religion as incapable of guiding rational thought, no authoritative source remained to guide people towards noble actions or aspirations. Thus, in the West, science and technology became tools with which to dominate the rest of mankind, to uproot the people of many lands, to humiliate or destroy local cultures and beliefs, to altogether replace long-established social and economic structures, with the result that many indigenous peoples were deprived of dignity, self-confidence and direction. The effects of these policies are visible everywhere.

Exploitation of humankind by a scientifically well-equipped minority

This century has witnessed the exploitation of the majority of human beings in the world by a scientifically well-equipped minority who believed that it is their hereditary right to control the whole world. This powerful minority was not without discord among its own members whose conflicts have caused unparalleled sufferings for all of the world’s inhabitants. Two world wars, aided by the most brilliant technological advances, not only destroyed millions of human lives, they also deepened cynicism and hastened the disappearance of traditional moral values in many parts of the world, not only in the West. It cannot be denied that the power of Western science is (whatever any individual scientist may think or wish) very definitely on the side of a monstrously uneven distribution of world assets. Scientists say that three times as many people as are living today could easily be fed if technology were generously distributed and used properly everywhere. But the real scene is frustratingly different—millions die of hunger, malnutrition or very simple diseases; millions remain uneducated and live in miserable poverty with very little reason to hope for or expect improvement.

People thought that boundless material prosperity is sure to bring heavenly ease on earth, but in fact it caused endless complexities and painful degradation of human life. Science gave us power to communicate over long distances, to see the once unseen, to go where no human being could ever go before. But it took away our ease of mind and heart, serenity, damaged the aesthetic sense, turning us more or less into trivialized emotionless, mechanized creatures embarrassed to aspire to more than transient worldly pleasure or glory.

Too many theories about life are around in modern times, many of them so contradictory that people no longer believe that there can be any stable or consistent account of what is good and true, upon which to base a code of conduct. Man questions everything related to life. But he does not know, from within his own finite abilities, what he can find out about and what he cannot. There are some questions that arise in the human mind in response to which nothing absolutely true can be said using only human reasoning. Only religion can tell us something, give us some guidance, on such questions.

Science can (and should) ascertain only what ‘is’ but not what ‘should be’

In the West, even those people who think that religion should be given a very esteemed position in society, are not ready to allow it to dominate all aspects of life. They think that science can (and should) ascertain only what ‘is’ but not what ‘should be’. Religion, on the other hand, can (and should) deal only with the moral evaluation of human thoughts and action: it cannot justifiably speak of facts or relationships between facts. They suppose conflict to arise when a religious community insists on the literal or whole truthfulness of statements recorded in its Scriptures—in this case, the Bible. This is where the struggle of the Church against the doctrine of Galileo and Darwin belongs. On the other hand, representatives of science have often attempted to arrive at fundamental judgments with respect to values and ends on the basis of scientific methods and they too made themselves severe opponents of formal religion (Einstein, p.22).

Islamic approach to science

We turn now to discuss the Islamic approach to science, to its understanding of the relationship between natural laws (the truths that modern science believes itself competent to inquire into) and the truths of religion which, in Islam, while mediated by Revelation, are nonetheless accessible to reason, intelligible.

In order to understand the essential spirit of Islam, an understanding of some of its fundamental principles, of its uniqueness, of the strong influence it has over Muslim hearts and minds, of its vision of the ultimate goals of human life in this world and the Hereafter, is extremely necessary. However, it must be admitted at the outset that it is difficult to express these ideas, strange to readers who are used to another way of thinking, in modern terms. To grasp the essential spirit of Islam, it is enough to recognize that God is One and that the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, the recipient and means of Revelation and a symbol of all creation, was sent by Him.

Islam may be said to have three levels of meaning. All beings in the universe are Muslim in the broadest sense, that is, they are surrendered (subject) to the Divine Will. Secondly, all men who will to accept the Revelation of the Qur’an and follow the teaching and example of the Prophet (Sunna) are Muslim in the formal sense that they surrender their will to the sacred law (Qur’an and Sunna). Then, thirdly, there is Islam of the level of pure knowledge and understanding. This is the contemplative level which has been recognized throughout Islamic history as the highest, most inclusive level of submission, when a Muslim completely surrenders to God and ‘reflects’ the Divine Intellect according to his or her own degree. Thus, it should be clear, in Islam, ‘knowledge’ and ‘science’ are conceived in a way basically different from the contemporary Western concept of outward curiosity about the outer world and analytical speculation to satisfy that curiosity.

The arts and sciences in Islam are based on the Unity which is at the heart of the Revelation

The arts and sciences in Islam are based on the Unity which is at the heart of the Revelation. Just as the great works of Islamic arts like the Alhambra or the mosques of Istanbul provide the patterns through which one can contemplate the Divine Unity manifesting itself in multiplicity, so do all Islamic sciences reveal the unity of nature (Nasr, 1964, p.35).

The aim of Islamic science as a whole, and more generally speaking of all the medieval and ancient cosmological sciences, is to show the unity and interrelatedness of all that exists, so that, in contemplating the unity of the cosmos man may be led to the Divine principle, of which that unity is the image.

The aim of Islamic science

Unlike Western science, Islamic science seeks ultimately to attain such knowledge as will contribute towards the spiritual perfection and deliverance of anyone capable of studying it, so its fruits are inward and hidden, its values are more difficult to discern. To understand it one is required to place oneself within its perspective and accept that it has different means from those of modern science. Although Islamic science did not bring about the degree (or, happily, the kind) of material prosperity and insatiable desire in society which modern science has brought about, its contributions in mathematics, physics, medicine, geology, geography, architecture, irrigation, medicine, or chemistry, are by no means negligible—more important, all were ultimately aiming to relate the corporeal world to its basic spiritual principles through knowledge.

The fundamental principles of Islamic science are also at variance with those of Western science in many other respects. Islam says that nature itself is a fabric of symbols which must be read and realized according to their meaning. The Qur’an is the counterpart of that text (nature) in human language. Both nature and Qur’an speak about the Power of the Almighty and Divine Unity. Understanding of His Power is very closely related with the profound understanding of His creation.

Unlike other religious Scriptures, the Qur’an encourages all Muslims to read and understand nature

Unlike other religious Scriptures, the Qur’an encourages all Muslims to read and understand nature. The Qur’an provides hints, discusses some basic concepts of science and claims all its verses to be absolutely true. The well-known writer, Maurice Bucaille, acknowledged that the Qur’an did not contain a single statement that was assailable from a modern scientific point of view. He declared: ‘The relationship between the Qur’an and science is a priori a surprise, especially as it turns out to be one of harmony and not of discord’ (Bucaille, 1975, p.110). In fact, this is the reason why no Muslim scientist ever faced, on account of his science, the kind of ‘crisis of faith’ or ‘moment of truth’ as Copernicus or Galileo did.

‘Believe in order to understand’

Islamic principles also say that science, human knowledge in general, is to be regarded as legitimate and noble only so long as it is subordinated to Divine Wisdom. Islamic scientists would agree with Saint Bonaventure’s axiom: ‘Believe in order to understand’. Like him, they insisted that science can truly exist only in conjunction with Divine Wisdom. So an independent and purely rationalist approach was never able to dominate the mainstream of Islamic scientific opinion. By contrast, the Western world, under the influence of increasing rationalism, went through a series of actions and reactions—the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation—such as never occurred in the Islamic world. Being free of any normative or spiritual value and cut off from Divine Wisdom, the West saw the rise of a new type philosophy and science profoundly different from their medieval antecedents. Europe in that period began to develop a science of nature that concerned itself only with the quantitative and material aspects of things.

We discussed the principles and general approach of Islam towards science, we turn now to the major sources of inspiration for the cultivation of science in the mind of a Muslim scientist. Dr Muhammad Aijazul Khalid of Damascus University says that, ‘In contrast to 250 verses which are legislative, some 750 verses of Holy Qur’an—almost one-eighth of the whole— exhort the believers to study nature, to reflect, to make the best use of reason and to make the scientific enterprise an integral part of the community’s life’. Here is one representative example of such verses:

You do not see in the creation of the All-Merciful any imperfection; return your gaze, do you see any flaw? Then return your gaze again and again. Your gaze comes back to you dazzled and weary. (67.3-4)

This in a sense is the faith of all scientists, the faith which most strongly inspires them. The deeper a man seeks, the more is his wonder excited, the more his gaze (perceptive and comprehending faculties) returns to him dazzled. Everywhere in the Qur’an we feel an obligation towards knowledge and science when we read verses like these:

Behold! in the creation of the heavens and earth and the alternation of night and day—there are indeed signs for men of understanding (3.190)

We created not the heavens, the earth and all between them merely in idle sport (44.38)

In his book New Researches into Composition and Exegesis of the Qur’an, Dr Hartwig Hirschfeld says:

We must not be surprised to find the Qur’an the fountainhead of sciences. Every subject connected with heaven or earth, human life, commerce and various trades is occasionally touched upon and this gave rise to the production of numerous monographs forming commentaries on parts of the Holy Book. In this way the Qur’an was responsible for great discussions, and to it was indirectly due the marvelous development of all branches of science in the Muslim world. This again not only affected the Arabs, but also induced Jewish philosophers to treat metaphysical and religious questions after Arab methods. (Hirschfeld, 1902)

Spiritual activity once aroused within Islamic bounds was not confined to theological speculations alone. Acquaintance with the philosophical, astronomical and medical writings of the Greeks led to the pursuance of these studies. In the descriptive revelations Muhammad [salla-llahu ’alayhi wa sallam] repeatedly calls attention to the movement of the heavenly bodies, as parts of the miracle of God forced into the service of man and therefore not to be worshipped. (ibid.)

Muslim minds tried to find the physical principles that govern the universe because to do so is a part of their obligatory worship. This is so clearly stated in the Holy Book that when Islam was in its golden age the practice of science was very common in the society. Brian Stock has remarked in his perceptive review Science and Technology and Economic Progress in the Early Middle Ages: ‘The most remarkable feature is . . . that science in one form or another was the part-time or full-time occupation of so a large a number of intellectuals—most of these men were not scientists, they were universalists, physicians, astronomers, lexicographers, poets and even theologians at the same time.’

In what way did Islam contribute to the Renaissance?

In the West, after the establishment of Christianity, the Christian-dominated West was sunk in barbarism. Yet two centuries after the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, the Islamic world under the Caliph Harun al-Rashid was far more active culturally than the contemporaneous world of Charlemagne—although the latter started earlier. At the time when restrictions on scientific development were in force in the Christian world, a very large number of studies and discoveries were being made at Islamic universities. George Sarton, a professor in the history of science at Harvard University, stated in his book The Life of Science that the foundations of science were laid for us by the Mesopotamian civilization (present-day Iraq) whose scholars and scientists were their priests. The second development in science came through the Greeks. The third stage of development, however, is to be credited to the meteoric rise of Islam. For nearly four hundred years Islam led the scientific world as, from Spain to India, the great body of past knowledge was exchanged between Muslim scholars and carried forward with new discoveries and new ideas. Scholars in Christendom, from about the eleventh century, were mainly occupied for over two hundred years in translating from Arabic into Latin. Thus Islam paved the way for the European Renaissance, which in turn led to science’s fourth great development in the modern world (Sarton, 1971, pp.146–66).

For the very first time science took on an international character in the Islamic universities of the Middle Ages. At that time Muslims were more steeped in the religious spirit than they are today; but that did not inhibit, still less prevent, the best minds of the age from being both believers and scientists. Scientific knowledge was the twin of religious knowledge and it should never have ceased to be so.

In this century, most of the reformers of the Muslim world tried to preach the full message of the Qur’an, they did not exhort the Muslims to only religious knowledge. They understood that because of serious neglect of science, the Muslims had ceased to occupy the intellectual mainstream and thus gradually lost their ideological, social and political superiority. The great Turkish scholar Bediuzzaman Said Nursi asserted that the success of the contemporary Muslims in exalting God’s Word will be proportional to their advances in science, technology and civilization. He indicated the importance of science by saying: ‘For the Muslims it is a great adventure that the West has acquired science and knowledge, and Islam can therefore appeal to them more easily than at any time before’ (Nursi, 1960, p.78). In fact, Bebiuzzaman Said Nursi can be offered as an example of a true, devout Muslim whose love for science is stated in his beautiful expression: ‘There is a tendency in the cosmos towards perfection. Thus the creation of the cosmos follows the law of perfection’ (Nursi, 1977, p.13).

Mentality of world-dominating powers: ‘What is yours is ours and what is ours is ours’

Developed countries in the world are now playing a great monopoly game over the resources and riches of the earth. Newton, Maxwell or other geniuses are being used as the private intellectual property, the cultural heritage of the West. ‘Even though the developing countries need the help of industrialized countries to overcome the economic and ecological problems they face, the latter do not intend to share with the third world ‘their’ intellectual resources; in other words they refuse to transfer technology and know-how, however great the need for it . . . Their mentality is—what is yours is ours and what is ours is ours’ (Sayar, 1992).

By contrast, when, in Cordova the Arab built the first university in Europe, knowledge spread throughout Europe from Muslim sources. In the prestigious scientific journal, Nature, of 24th March 1983, Francis Ghiles raised the question: ‘What is wrong with Muslim science? . . . At its peak about one thousand years ago the Muslim world made a remarkable contribution to science, notably mathematics and medicine. Baghdad in its heyday and southern Spain built universities to which thousand flocked: rulers surrounded themselves with scientists and artists. A spirit of freedom allowed Jews, Christians and Muslims to work side by side.’

Scientific enterprise in Islam was of an international character. Muslim society was very tolerant of men from outside it, and of their ideas. Al-Kindi wrote: ‘It is fitting then for us not to be ashamed to acknowledge truth and to assimilate it from whatever source it comes to us. For him who scales the truth there is nothing of higher value than truth itself; it never cheapens or abases him who seeks’. So the goal of Muslim scientists was revealing the truth, not exploiting mankind by the use of it, as has been done by Western nations in recent centuries. The Muslims thought it to be a common heritage of mankind.

In this century, many influential Western scientists understood that the approach of their civilization towards science is sure to lead the world to a catastrophe. Many tried to find a solution and, just in trying to do so, came closer to the Islamic approach. Now many of them think that religion should be given a chance to make its impact on norms and aspirations, while science and technology are an evil instrument in the hands of cynical Western commercial-political interests.

In the dark years of the Cold War, Einstein said: ‘We, scientists, believe that what we and our fellow-men do or fail to do within the next few years will determine the fate of our civilisation. And we consider it our task untiringly to explain this truth, to help people realize all that is at stake, and to work, not for appeasement, but for understanding and ultimate agreement between peoples and nations of different views’. In 1990, at the Moscow meeting of a global forum of spiritual and political leaders, Carl Sagan (1990) urged: ‘Mindful of our common responsibility, we scientists, many of us long engaged in combating the environmental crisis, urgently appeal to the world religious community to [co-operate] in words and deeds, and as boldly as required, to preserve the environment of the earth.’

‘United Field Theory’

This religion-oriented approach is increasingly referred to in the West. For example, merely to understand how nature works we do not need to unify the fundamental forces—gravitational, electromagnetic and strong nuclear. But for the last thirty years of his life Einstein tried to find a theory that would do just that, called the ‘United Field Theory’, though he did not succeed. He had a deep faith that these forces are different manifestations of one and same entity. Again what Stephen Hawking has sought for a lifetime is a united and consistent theory that encompasses all the mysteries of the universe in a single set of equations. He says: ‘Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God’ (Hawking, 1988, p.175).

Understanding (or as Hawking puts it, reading) the ‘mind’ of God was one of the aims of the glorious centuries of Islamic science. That aim was the easier to pursue as it was supported by the Qur’anic revelation. And in future, God willing, scientific curiosity will be wholly motivated and guided by the Message of God and the resulting science truly be a blessing for mankind.

REFERENCES

Bucaille, Maurice (1975) The Bible, The Qur’an and Science, North American Trust Publications, Indianapolis.

Einstein, A. Out of My Later Years, Greenwood Press Publishers, Westport, CT.

Hawking , Stephen W. (1988) A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes, Bantam Press, London.

Nasr, Sayyed Hossein (1964) Science and Civilisation in Islam, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Nursi, Bediuzzaman Said (1960) Hutbe-i Şamiye, Sinan Matbaasi, Istanbul.

—, (1977) Muhakemat, Sozler Yayinevi, Istanbul.

Sagan, Carl (1990) American Journal of Physics, 58 (7) July, pp.15–19.

Sayar, M.A. (1990) ’Is Technology a Common Heritage of Mankind’, The Fountain, 1(2), pp.4-7.

Sarton, G. (1971) The Life of Science: Essays in the History of Civilization, Books for Libraries Press, Free Port, NY.

 

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