Science and Islam

By Dallas M. Roark, Ph.D.

One interesting contrast involves the Nobel peace prizes in various disciplines such as Physics, Medicine, Economics, Chemistry, literature and world peace. There were 182 awards to Jewish scientists and only 9 of them were awarded to Muslims. Why the big difference?

The answer is in education and the kind of education that exists in the Muslim world and the different educational outlook in the non-Muslim world.

The type of educational system has to be traced from the beginning of Islam as well as the rise of science in Europe. Islam inherited a great cultural achievement and had advantages over the West until the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It made scientific progress in astronomy, medicine, and mathematics.

What makes science possible? Robert Merton has suggested some norms for science to develop. First, universalism. This involves the idea that knowledge should be judged without regard to the person advocating it. It is knowledge that stands on its on. It also involves the fact that everyone should be admitted to the world of science. Second, communalism means that knowledge is to be shared with the community at large. It is not to be kept secret by the discoverer. Third, disinterestedness, the quality of seeking knowledge for knowledge sake, not personal profit or gain. Fourth, organized skepticism. All claims are to be open to criticism and evaluation. A problem arises immediately in considering the fact that Muslims will not allow the views of Mohammed to be questioned. I have been told that if I were a Muslim I would not ask doubting questions about Mohammed, the Qur’an, and Islamic practices. To obey is better than to question. This is also one of the problems why early Chinese science did not develop further than it did because one should not question one’s father who is always right.

While there have been conflicts between science and religion in the West it is precisely the philosophical and theological ideas of Christianity that have made science possible.

The idea that the world is rational and orderly, the world is like a machine, the world was created by a divine being – all were themes of Christian clerics, philosophers, and theologians. Moreover, the idea that man had a sense of conscience was related to man’s sense of rationality. More on this later. Moreover, the dissemination of knowledge made possible by the printing press did not happen in the Muslim world. The printing press was banned in the Muslim world until the 19th century.

To repeat, Arabic science was the most advanced in the world from the 8th to the 14th centuries. The Arabs had access to the Greek scientific heritage which was lost to the West after the fall of the Roman empire. The great works of Greece and other cultures were translated into Arabic. Along with this the Arabs borrowed the Hindu numeral system

What happened to Muslim science?

A division was made between Islamic sciences and "foreign" science. Islamic sciences related to the Quran, the traditions of the Prophets (hadith), legal knowledge (fiqh), theology (kalam), poetry, and the Arabic language. Arithmetic was useful for dividing inheritances, astronomy was useful for prayer time computations, and there was a purpose for medicine. But beyond these areas Arabic science did not break through to the modern era of science.

Toby Huff declared,

"This means that the modern scientific world view rests on certain assumptions about the regularity and lawfulness of the natural world and the presumption that man is capable of grasping this underlying structure. In addition to subscribing to the notion of laws of nature, modern science is a metaphysical system which asserts that man, unaided by spiritual agencies or divine guidance, is single-handedly capable of understanding and grasping the laws that govern man and the universe."[1]

In the Arabic-Islamic world in the late 800's and early 900's there were a number of philosophers who were very liberal in their thinking, so much so that they can be described as "free-thinkers" suggesting that philosophical knowledge was the most noble and some suggested that religion was "little more than superstition."[2] By the 12th and 13th centuries a change had taken place and thinkers were criticized for religious arguments that might lead ordinary believers astray.

Ibn Qadama wrote "no one is ever seen who has studied speculative theology, but there is a corrupt quality of his mind."[3] He had some severe words of punishment to be meted out to those who took up speculative theology. Departing from the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the Islamic sources was regarded as a tainting enterprise. Consequently, philosophy and natural science went underground. One would not like to acquire the reputation of being an impious person which could threaten your life.

In the midst of these ideological developments came the educational system of the Islamic world. The madrasas began to have influence in the 11th century and dominated intellectual life. A major feature of the madrasas was its curriculum. Instruction was centered around the religious sciences exclusively, while philosophy and the natural sciences were ignored.

Some teachers did consider the natural sciences and gave private instruction in their own homes.

After a student had mastered the subjects in the madrasa he was given an ijaza, a certification to teach others. The student might collect ijazas from a number of teachers. These were individual teachers, not a joined faculty as in a college. This was a very personalistic approach without regard to a certifying body. In learning about the natural sciences one had to travel from city to city to find scholars outside of the madrasas. Since the natural sciences were excluded from the madrasas this naturally gave a negative view toward the natural sciences. The lack of a joint effort in teaching the natural sciences prevented "the efficient cumulation of knowledge by bringing scholars versed in the ancient sciences together in one place."[4]

A further complication for intellectual life in medieval Islamic life was the division between the learned and the ignorant. While there were various reasons among different thinkers for doing so, they all shared "the sentiment that ordinary citizens (the masses) are not capable of grasping the higher truths of philosophy" or the scripture. "In some cases it was simply asserted that if a person were ‘a believer’ he will know that to discuss those (philosophical) questions openly is forbidden by the Holy Law."[5] This doctrine of concealment ran against the whole ethos of scientific development in terms of universalism and communalism.

In contrast, the Reformation in Christianity stressed the priesthood of the believer in which the common man was open to all knowledge. Moreover, the Reformation made use of the printing press to bring the Bible into the language of the people.

Consequently, the exclusion of the natural sciences from the curriculum of the madrasa leaves the conclusion that they were marginally significant. "Thus within the Muslim world of the late Middle ages, the utility and usefulness of knowledge is narrowly construed to mean knowledge useful in a strictly religious context."[6]

There are several inferences to be drawn here. Where science was practiced as in astronomy there was little advance beyond what was religiously useful. The Muslim scientists did not make a break through to modern science even though they were close to it.

There was also an absence "of the rationalistic view of man and nature, most thoroughly exemplified in Plato’s Timaeus, which played such an important role in the philosophical thought of the European Middle Ages. Instead, the view that stressed the need to confine intellectual inquiry to those spheres that coincided with and aided the religious regulation of life carried with it the important theological view often referred to as Islamic occasionalism, a view which denied that the natural order was a rational order governed solely by laws of nature. The orthodox Ash’arite position was rather than the world was a continuous flux of moments, recreated each instant, but with a habitual pattern of continuity, knowledge of which was implanted in the believers’ mind by God. For anyone to declare otherwise would be foolhardy at best and life-endangering at worst."[7]

Another impediment to science was the "dominance of the extended kin family which worked against the formation of guilds and associations of disinterested non-kin professionals."[8] Knowledge was passed on individually and there was no meeting of the minds to debate the truth of what a teacher taught. A student gained the ijaza which empowered one to teach the same subject, not necessarily advance knowledge. Without the guilds and associations there was no protection for people who could propound new and innovative ideas and theories.

In the West a different ethos developed. The Greek had a great faith in reason and the rational understanding of the world. The recovery of the Roman legal tradition along with the recovery of the Greek traditions in philosophy and science brought about a renaissance in Europe. Philosophy, theology, law and scientific inquiry were affected by the influence of the Greek literature. Moreover, colleges and universities were founded to bring about a new era of learning. The Christian elite were at the forefront of this movement.

Timaeus, by Plato, gave the movement its rationalist strength. Huff wrote,

"What most impressed the European thinkers of the early modern period about the Timaeus was the image of nature as an orderly, integrated whole. The natural world was portrayed as a rational order of causes and effects, while man, as part of the rational order of things, was elevated by virtue of his reason."[9]

Nature could be studied apart from theology and exhibited orderliness and lawfulness. Eventually the world was described in terms of a machine, running in a cause and effect manner according to laws.

Man was a part of this rational order and his rationality was taken seriously. His rationality was reflected in viewing the world as a rational place. Huff explained,

"Accordingly, Christian philosophy and theology in the twelfth and thirteen centuries unequivocally declared man to be the possessor of reason, and this capability enabled him to decipher the most mysterious puzzles of God’s creation. It also enabled man to decipher the mysteries of the divine word itself unaided by revelation and without the need for prevarication."[10]

Alfred North Whitehead in his Science and the Modern World describes one of the ingredients of science being "the inexpugnable belief that every details occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles."[11] What is the source of this belief? "... there seems but one source for its origin. It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah and with the rationality of a Greek philosopher. Every detail was supervised and ordered: the search into nature could only result in the vindication of the faith in rationality."[12]

In contrast, in the Muslim world thinkers did not embrace the well-ordered universe concept. Instead, the Ash’arite view of man and nature was based on Islamic atomism (known as occasionalism). Occasionalism rejected cause and effect in the cosmos and "believed that there were a continuous flux of moments, recreated each instant, but with a habitual pattern of continuity, knowledge of which was planted in the believer’s mind by God."[13]

God holds the world together moment by moment by his personal will. What God has willed is then acquired by the mind of man.[14]

Again, in contrast to Islamic law which sought to limit reason and illuminate reason as a source of law, the European and Western law developed in another direction. Given the belief that the world is rationally understood and man is a rational creature with intelligence they drew from the Greeks as well as the New Testament the concept of conscience (Greek: synderesis).

The book of Romans says, "For whenever gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written in their hearts, a fact to which their own consciences testify, and their thoughts will either accuse or excuse them on that day when God, through Jesus Christ, will judge people's secrets according to my gospel." (Rom. 2:14-16)

Conscience was not viewed merely as a moral feeling when one has done something wrong, there was also the idea knowing what is right or wrong regardless of action. Somewhere Plato spoke of the eye of the soul in which a person weighs an idea and knows that it is true or false.

The Christian medievalists "ascribed to man a conscience that implied the existence of an inner cognitive agency which allowed the individual to arrive at moral and ethical truths and to judge moral states of affairs."[15] "The Greek and Christian idea of conscience (synderesis) was unknown to the orthodox Islamic legists as well as to philosophers."[16]

Rather, "the greatest philosophical thinkers in Arabic-Islamic civilization after al-Ghazali never failed to cast doubt on the powers of human reason and to disparage the virtues of demonstrative logic; they insisted instead on the priority of faith (fideism) or on the unsurpassed authority of tradition (the Shari’a and the Sunna). Reason for the orthodox was little more than common sense, and there was no acknowledgment of the idea that reason could reach new truths unaided by revelation. Innovation, in matters of religion, was equivalent to heresy."[17]

The practical application of the difference is that the Muslim was to obey. Lacking the concept of conscience to question the Qur’an, the Shari’a , and the Sunna one needed only to obey. This may explain some of the contemporary news stories of fathers who killed their daughters in so-called honor killings and appear before the judges – when caught – and say, "I have done nothing wrong." Seemingly, there is no sense of conscience alive in the person.

There is one more ingredient that was necessary to bring about the scientific revolution in the West which did not arrive in the Muslim cultures. Muslim astronomy was on the verge of the break through to the Copernican theory but failed to arrive there. In reality Muslim science went into a state of decline.

The ingredient was the university. The university and the Madrasas are quite different.

The legal system of the West developed the concept of a corporation which stands alone in society, has certain protections, and is free from outside control. Madrasas were controlled by the religious authorities and most often the natural sciences were rejected as part of the curriculum. Moreover, there was no standard curriculum in the Madrasas as there came to be in the university where a faculty existed, common curriculum was developed, disputations were held and tests were given. The universities were "centered on the values of universalisms, communalism, organized skepticism, and disinterestedness."[18]

The lack of success in science in the Islamic culture "hinged on the problem of institution building. If in the long run scientific thought and intellectual creativity in general are to keep themselves alive and advance into new domains of conquest and creativity, multiple spheres of freedom – what we may call neutral zones – must exist within which large groups of people can pursue their genius free from the censure of political and religious authorities. In addition, certain metaphysical and philosophical assumptions must accompany this freedom. Insofar as science is concerned, individuals must be conceived to be endowed with reason, the world must be thought to be a rational and consistent whole, and various levels of universal representation, participation, and discourse must be available. It is precisely here that one finds the greatest weaknesses of Arabic-Islamic civilization as an incubator of modern science."[19]

Science demanded the freedom to pursue truth wherever it led, and Islamic culture shut down this freedom.

There are some practical questions that arise here. First, the Islamic drive to secure an atomic bomb is to admit that western science is right and that the Islamic view of reality is false.

Western physics can build a bomb, but occasionalism as a view of physics did not. It is sad that the desire to build the bomb is the goal of what have been called rogue states. What is threatening about this attempt to build nuclear bombs relates to the Qur’an’s command to kill the infidel.

Second, the quest to obey the Qur’an, the Hadiths, and the Sunna rather than question them is equally a problem in moral issues, as well as science. There are a number of practices in Islamic cultures that are morally wrong. The circumcision of women, forced marriages, marriage of young girls to old men, and honor killings are issues in which the conscience of parents should be greatly concerned. The claim is made on some of these that the Qur’an does not support them, and where this is true Muslim men should rise up in rebellion against such destructive practices and eradicate these evils. One other fact is that modern medical science has shown conclusively the sperm, from only the father, bears either the X or Y chromosome, which is the sole factor determining the sex of the child.. People around the globe have blamed the mother for not having a male child. Many in Muslim cultures still blame the mother if a boy is not born. Muslim imams, teachers, preachers need to correct this grave error so that women will not be blamed.

Third, the madrasas need to be overhauled to rid the curriculum of hate of the infidel.

If Islam were a religion of peace, its people would regard as abrogated all the commands to hate and kill the infidels.

Dallas M. Roark, Ph.D.


1. Toby Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science, Cambridge U. Press, 1993, p. 65.

2. Ibid., p. 67.

3. Ibid., p. 68.

4. Ibid., p.77.

5. Ibid., p.82.

6. Ibid., p.87.

7. Ibid., p. 88.

8. Ibid., p. 88-89.

9. Ibid., p.100.

10. Ibid., p.105.

11. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, New York: Macmillan Co., 1925, p. 19.

12. Ibid.

13. Huff., op.cit., p.88.

14. Ibid., p. 113.

15. Ibid., p. 109.

16. Ibid., p. 111.

17. Ibid., p. 117.

18. Ibid., p. 202.

19. Ibid., p. 212-213.

Articles by Dallas M. Roark
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