By Sabieh Anwar
Over the years, there has been considerable hype about Islam and science in our academic and public circles; and several books, journal and newspaper articles have been in the limelight. Fortunately, there is consensus on three facts. First, Muslims enjoyed a remarkable ascendancy in science for about five centuries, an ascendancy that was unrivalled by any contemporary civilization. Second, science has now dwindled to frighteningly low standards in the Muslim world and there is a critical need to rescue the Muslim culture from complete intellectual atrophy. Third, there exists the appreciation, at least in the Islamic intelligentsia, that science and Islam are compatible, but over and above these fundamental agreements, there is considerable dispute.
The Beaten Track
According to most traditional accounts of the historiography of science, Muslim scientists transcended in all major fields of scientific inquiry but their role remained, at best, one of an intelligent postman. They took the classic Greek sources and engaged in a massive translation and commentary enterprise, mostly under the patronage of the Abbasid Caliph Māmūn Ibn Hārūn al-Rashīd in his Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) around 830 C.E. After this translation movement, the end product was bequeathed to the West at the time of the so-called first Renaissance, around the 12th century. Science in the Islamic world then became irrelevant.
There are, however, serious problems with this approach. First, this assumes that Muslims by themselves were incapable of originating any new scientific ideas. The first Muslims were the desert-dwelling Arabs, incapable of any scientific mode of thinking.
The second misgiving is the supposition that the Muslim scientific consciousness somehow woke up from the dark languishing slumber in the early Abbasid period (750-900 C.E.), all by itself, but there was nothing inherent in the Islamic belief system or in the uniquely Muslim culture that could instigate this reawakening. The impetus was all foreign. In his recent book1, George Saliba presents ample historical evidence indicating that the unique administrative and political requirements of the growing Islamic empire provided thrust to the development of the exact sciences. One major impetus also came from the juridical requirements of the Islamic Fiqh. For example, the complicated inheritance laws of Islam gave birth to the discipline of algebra; advanced computations of the obligatory taxes, the Zakah and the Jizyah resulted in the maturing of the numerical and fractional sciences; and the requirements for prayer direction and timings laid the foundations for theoretical and observational astronomy, an endeavour that radically changed the theoretical models proposed by Ptolemy and eventually, paved the way for Copernicus’s revolutionary works. One could note that this model of religion enriching science works not only in the Islamic, but also in contexts of other religions. Of note, are the Babylonians who in needing to predict the appearance of different celestial phenomena as omens, started developing mathematical astronomy around 2000 B.C. and devised accurate tables around 500 B.C.
The Spectre of Ghazālī
The third most objectionable premise of the classical narrative is that the Muslim ascendancy in science was the exception, rather than the rule. The scientists were outcasts living at the fringes of a society that was under the grip of the clergy who shunned and resisted scientific thought, openly derided human reason, logic, deductive proof systems and philosophy, and were against all forms of art and music and the subtler delicacies of free inquiry. This line of thought has now become a fashionable premise in circles who squarely blame the Islamic orthodoxy for the major cause behind the current state of intellectual and scientific atrophy in the Muslim world.
A central figure in all of these debates is the theologian and philosopher, Imām Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī (1058-1111). His over-arching stature in the Islamic religious tradition aside, he is also considered to be one bitter enemy of the sciences. Several notable writers would have us believe that Ghazālī strangulated human reason and made it slavishly subservient to revealed knowledge. Furthermore, we are still reeling from the devastating blow inflicted by Ghazālī on human reason!
Not surprisingly, these acquisitions gain more credence when they come from the world’s leading scientists. For example, the Nobel Laureate and physicist, Steven Weinberg published his review2 on Richard Dawkin’s book where he comfortably pronounced: “Alas, Islam turned against science in the twelfth century. The most influential figure was the philosopher Ghazālī, who argued in The Incoherence of the Philosophers against the very idea of laws of nature, on the ground that any such laws would put God’s hands in chains. According to Ghazālī, a cotton piece placed in a flame does not darken and smoulder because of the heat, but because God wants it to darken and smoulder. After Ghazālī, there was no more science worth mentioning in Islamic countries [emphasis added].”
Another well respected and widely read figure in the subcontinent is the physicist, University Professor and social activist, Pervez Hoodbhoy, who very strongly claims “The most articulate and effective opponent of physical causality was Ghazālī. According to Ghazālī, it is futile to believe that the world runs according to physics laws [emphasis added]. 3
Recently, Jamīl Ragep presented a detailed overview4 of the illustrious tradition in the sciences that flourished well nigh after Ghazālī, discrediting claims that this great theologian of Islam stultified the progress of rational thought. In the present article, I would highlight excerpts from of Ghazālī’s own writings. While researching on this subject, I have come to realize that far from strangulating the spirit of free, scientific inquiry, this great theologian, in fact, promoted the scientific tradition.
As a major public theologian, arguably the most influential of all Muslim theologians, Ghazālī performed the task of placing Greek and Islamic thought in what he perceived to be their proper contexts. For example, in numerous places sprinkled throughout his numerous texts, he makes it very clear that his task is not to question the established truths in the natural order. Disputing these facts of nature, far from being a disservice to the scientific method, will be a disservice to religion itself. An instructive example is provided in the second introduction to his monumental Tahāfat al-Falāsifah (Incoherence of the Philosophers), where Ghazālī discusses the solar and lunar eclipses. After stating the “scientific” facts that the solar eclipse results from the moon intervening the sun and the earth and the lunar eclipse from the earth coming in between the sun and the moon, he writes:
Whosoever thinks that to engage in a disputation for refuting such a theory is a religious duty harms religion and weakens it. For these matters rest on demonstrations, geometrical and arithmetical, that leaves no room for doubt. 5
Ghazālī on Mathematics
Let’s now see what Ghazālī’s position is on the subjects of mathematics and arithmetic. Hoodbhoy believes that Ghazālī condemns mathematics, rejecting the notion that anything good can be contained in it.
However, if one just reads through the texts one realizes that according to Ghazālī these are “exact” sciences with no connection with metaphysical or religious principles. Therefore, using mathematics to prove religious beliefs is, at best, absurd. These sciences are based on demonstrative proofs and their implications cannot be denied or affirmed in any religious connotation. In his autobiography, the Deliverance from Error, Ghazālī writes:
A grievous crime indeed against religion has been committed by the man who imagines that Islam is defended by the denial of the mathematical sciences, seeing that there is nothing in revealed truth opposed to these sciences by way of either negation or affirmation, and nothing in these sciences opposed to the truth of religion. 6
Furthermore, Ghazālī claims that metaphysics and religion are not in need of mathematics, just as poetry is not in need of mathematics, or philology or grammar can be mastered by anyone who is totally ignorant of the mathematical sciences.
Ghazālī warns his readers that every discipline of study has its experts, an expert in mathematics may not be an expert in grammar and an expert in geometry may fail miserably when it comes to matters of religion. In short, Ghazālī’s truck is not with mathematics, but with philosophers who could potentially lead people astray in matters of pure religion. Ghazālī makes this very clear in the introduction to the Tahāfat al-Falāsifa: he is not contradicting philosophers on points of semantics and definitions, nor does he disagree with them on issues that have no religious significance (such as eclipses). His major disagreements pertain to questions with three fundamental theological implications: (a) has the universe existed forever? (b) Does God know all particulars? And (c) is bodily resurrection possible? It is in this topic and its likes, not any other, that one must show the falsity of their doctrine.7