Islam and science

Did Islamic scholars impede the development of science? A questionable meme

Scholar by Ludwig Deutsch (1895)

Ali Paya (an Iranian professor of philosophy) writes in a 2016 article regarding al-Ghazali’s saying that Islamic jurisprudence is a science that is superior to the non-religious sciences:

Such an attitude, which can be seen both among fuqahā’ and mystics (Ghazzali belonged to both groups) has had a continuous and seriously negative impact upon the healthy development of science and technology in Islamic culture’s ecosystem.1

Is it really surprising that religious scholars should think that their field is more important than other fields? And where is the evidence that their attitude “has had a continuous and seriously negative impact upon the healthy development of science and technology in Islamic culture’s ecosystem”?

Imagine if there had been no religious scholars at all in the Islamic areas. Would their absence have removed this supposed negative influence on the development of science? I would say the opposite is much more likely. Their activities could encouraged intellectual exploration in the following ways:

  • Since the works of Islamic scholars were by far the largest genre of literary production in the Islamic world, their activities may have been essential for the establishment of a book production culture. This culture, in turn, may have enabled non-religious scholars, philosophers and naturalists to get involved in literary production since, thanks to the Islamic scholars, a market had been established that could help them produce and sell their books.
  • Islamic scholars had a need for linguistic knowledge, helping encourage the creation of the most advanced linguistic literature ever written until Europe caught up in the past few centuries. By helping create an independent, non-religious field of knowledge that gained wide acceptance and respect, Islamic scholars helped make secular knowledge respectable and even desirable.
  • Certain Islamic scholars had a strong interest in logic and philosophy, helping maintain interest in these topics and spreading them through their books. Al-Ghazali himself helped popularize the use of Greek logic in Islamic legal theory and theology.

As far as I can tell, the theory that Islamic scholars held back scientific development is nothing but armchair theorizing. It is obvious to certain type of thinker that religious scholars should have a negative influence in this regard. But without strong empirical evidence, this should be treated as groundless hypothesizing; Islamic scholars may have been essential to all intellectual developments the Middle East enjoyed until recently.

It is true that Islamic scholars have at times opposed philosophy and science. But even more scholars have embraced these things and even promoted them. Without a statistical analysis of the number of scholars who tried to impede intellectual progress versus the number who tried to encourage, we know nothing more than the fact that some scholars tried to impede intellectual progress and some scholars tried to encourage it.

For propaganda reasons, there are many (not speaking of Paya) who like to focus on the rare Islamic clerics who espouse anti-modern attitudes while ignoring the far greater number of clerics who fully embrace modern science and knowledge.

When it comes to history, blaming the presence of a certain influence is always a dangerous business because there is no way to conduct experiments to find out whether the blame is really justified. Unless someone goes back in history, removes all or most of the Islamic scholars, then looks to see if centuries later scientific progress happens earlier or later, they should not presume to voice strong opinions on this matter (unless they find another way of empirically testing their hypothesis). For all that we know, the Islamic world may have been far more undeveloped by 1800 had it not been for the influence of Islamic scholars. And there is good reason to believe this, because there are no sustainable civilizations that lack a strong religious basis. Once the religious influence is removed, the civilization enters a phase of slow-motion collapse (low fertility rates being a very good indicator of the civilization’s unsustainbility, as is the case in all modern secularized nations). The presence and activity of Islamic scholars helped maintain Islam’s relevance through time, helping maintain its power over the Islamic world. Had they not done that, Islam could have fallen into irrelevance as happened to Greco-Roman religion.

Of course, Islamic scholars could have done more to promote science. But we can say the same regarding just about anyone.

Why is seeking knowledge important in Islam?

Why is seeking knowledge important in Islam and how does seeking knowledge not only religiously brings us closer to Allah swt?

The Quran says:

25. If they disbelieve you, those before them also disbelieved. Their messengers came to them with the clear proofs, with the Psalms, and with the Enlightening Scripture. 26. Then I seized those who disbelieved—so how was My rejection? 27. Have you not seen that God sends down water from the sky? With it We produce fruits of various colors. And in the mountains are streaks of white and red—varying in their hue—and pitch-black. 28. Likewise, human beings, animals, and livestock come in various colors. From among His servants, it is the learned who (truly) fear God. God is Almighty, Oft-Forgiving. 29. Those who recite the Book of God, and perform the prayer, and spend of what We have provided for them, secretly and publicly, expect a trade that will not fail.1

Exalted is God, the True King. Do not be hasty with the Quran before its inspiration to you is concluded, and say, “My Lord, increase me in knowledge.”2

In fact, it is clear signs in the hearts of those given knowledge. No one renounce Our signs except the unjust.3

And in another place it says, regarding the uneducated Bedouins:

The Desert-Arabs are the most steeped in disbelief and hypocrisy, and the most likely to ignore the limits that God revealed to His Messenger. God is Knowing and Wise.4

The Desert-Arabs say, “We have believed.” Say, “You have not believed; but say, ‘We have submitted,’ for faith has not yet entered into your hearts. But if you obey God and His Messenger, He will not diminish any of your deeds. God is Forgiving and Merciful.”5

The picture that the Quran draws is that those who lack knowledge are more likely to fall into error and sinful behaviors, and that increased knowledge helps a person become better and more pious.

As for non-religious knowledge, it helps us appreciate the Creator’s greatness to know more about His creations.

190. In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, are signs for people of understanding. 191. Those who remember God while standing, and sitting, and on their sides; and they reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth: “Our Lord, You did not create this in vain, glory to You, so protect us from the punishment of the Fire.”6

Do they not consider that God, Who created the heavens and the earth, is Able to create the likes of them? He has assigned for them a term, in which there is no doubt. But the wrongdoers persist in denying the truth.7

In verse 21:30, the Quran refers to two facts of the physical world, one from physics, the other from biology:

Do the disbelievers not see that the heavens and the earth were one mass, and We tore them apart? And that We made from water every living thing? Will they then not believe?

For a person who believes in God, the above verse seems to refer to the Big Bang hypothesis, which is the accepted theory for how the universe started. The Quran even refers to the expansion of the universe that was discovered in the last century:

We constructed the universe with power, and We are expanding it.8

While these facts of physics, biology, etc. are not sufficient to constitute proof, they are sufficient to constitute āyāt (“signs”, “pointers”). They are not proofs of God’s existence and greatness, by the point to Him and His power, they suggest it, and for the person who humbles his or her heart to God, they act as strengtheners for their faith and their appreciation of God’s presence and greatness.

The Egyptian scholar Muhammad al-Ghazali (1917-1996) says:

The Quran, in pointing to God's existence, is a universe that speaks, the same way that this universe is a silent Quran.

For those of us who have submitted to God and love Him, the more we learn about the universe the closer we feel to Him, because we know it is all His creation, and that He is in charge of it.

Secular knowledge helps us know God better and also helps improve our lives in various ways (you can read a scientific book about food and in this way make better diet choices). It is quite obvious that more knowledge is better than less knowledge.

And as for religious knowledge, it helps us avoid errors and know the best ways of pleasing God, which is the purpose of our lives.

For a discussion of Islam and science see my essay: God, Evolution and Abiogenesis: The Topological Theory for the Origin of Life and Species