By Sohaib Baig
15 December 2017
Islam was built upon a foundation of learning and knowledge. Numerous verses in the Quran emphasise the importance of knowledge and critical thinking, as did the Prophetic traditions (1) The doctrine of Tauheed, of oneness and unity, symbolised the spirit of the universal Islamic scholar – seeking to further investigate the Divine Laws that encompassed the universe, and realising that eventually everything in the universe pointed to God (2) Indeed, science blossomed in Islam, reaching unprecedented levels of activity, ingenuity, and interfaith (and inter-ethnic) academic cooperation never before witnessed in history.
Throughout Islamic history, a peculiar brand of scholars emerged, known as Hakeems, who embraced all the sciences with a complete sense of unity, realising that all knowledge simply represented “branches” from the same “trunk,” and while Divine knowledge was inherently superior and absolute, scientific knowledge also formed a vital branch of this tree of knowledge – to place all focus and weight on one branch at the expense of the other would destroy the balance of the tree (3) Thus, when carefully followed, this tree would extend in all directions, and Muslims would produce achievements in all fields of knowledge. The equilibrium achieved by this hierarchy was carefully guarded throughout Islamic history, and tensions mainly occurred whenever one branch would begin upsetting the balance of the entire tree, as does the modern science of today.
As early as the 8th century, scholars functioning inside the Islamic world had begun embarking upon the path of scientific knowledge. By this time, the Islamic realm reached from Spain to India, and was witness to the flowering of cities like Cordoba, Baghdad, Damascus, and Jaundishapur. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in his Science and Civilisation in Islam, includes chapters briefly surveying Muslim activities in the fields of cosmography, geography, cartography, natural history, sociology, physics, optometry, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy, theology, and philosophy.
Thus we learn that Jabir bin Hayyan (721-815) was the founder of Islamic alchemy, practicing at the court of Haroon al-Rasheed. Hunain ibn Ishaq (810-877), a Christian scholar, would play an important role in translating Greek and Syriac texts into Arabic. Al-Kindi (801-873) would write dozens of treatises on mathematics, logic, and philosophy, becoming the founder of the Islamic Peripatetic school of philosophy. Al-Khwarazmi (d. 863) would write al-Jabr wa’l-Muqablah (or Algebra) from which Algebra would get its name. He would also greatly refine and improve upon the Ptolemaic geographical maps, as well as make one of the best Muslim astronomical tables. Al-Razi (865-923) would write 184 works mostly on medicine, with masterpieces on smallpox and measles. Likewise, Nasr mentions the accomplishments of dozens of other scholars, clearly establishing that science bloomed under Islam. In fact, many of the inherent rituals of the Islamic faith encouraged and necessitated the learning of science.
What makes this entire period of scientific activity unique was that Muslims still operated in a framework that actively acknowledged and depended upon the Divine. Al-Khwarazmi’s Algebra, for example, begins its preface with a long paragraph devoted to praising God and sending salutations upon the Holy Prophet (PBUH), as would any other religious book of the time. In medicine, we also see this phenomenon especially prevalent. In fact, the term Hakeem would come to denote both the sage and the physician, because usually both were embodied in the same person. Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, for example, were both philosophers, but made their living as physicians. In fact, physicians would be expected by society to combine “scientific acumen with moral qualities,” to have an intellect “that was never divorced from deep religious faith and the power of God”. Nizami-i’Arudi, a physician and a poet of the 12th century, describes in his Four Discourses the qualities of a physician: how “no physician can be of tender disposition if he fails to recognise the nobility of the human soul; nor of wise nature if he unless he is acquainted with Logic; nor can he excel in acumen unless he be strengthened by God’s aid . . .”. Thus in one sentence, he unwittingly unites both rationality and spirituality in one harmonious worldview, symbolising the traditional Muslim attitude.
Fast-forwarding to today, we see a quite different world. Under a world of scientism, religion is left behind to wallow in its own unempirical realm, and is forced to slowly follow behind the path science blazes far ahead to maintain any legitimacy. Instead, scientism desperately wishes science itself to become the absolute source of understanding age-old questions on the purposes of existence as well as morality. Thus, from the Muslim believer’s point of view, unbelief forms the basis of modern civilisation.
It is thus no surprise that Islam actively opposes the underpinnings of modern science, even if many Muslims are not too aware of the fact. In fact, the believer’s critique of modern science can be nothing short of “radical”. Full scale attacks have thus been launched against this brand of science, “which has shown itself unable to coexist with anything”. In the criticisms of many scholars, many common themes can be found revolving around the proper position of science, reason, and man in the worldwide scheme of things. They also focus on the evils of a godless science that demurs not to the Divine, but to the vicious desires of godless men. They ultimately call for a return to traditional science, pressing exceedingly urgently for the East to not follow in the same path as the West, and thus bring about the same catastrophes as the West did, especially at a time when the West itself is slowly beginning to realise its excesses.