Shariah, Fiqh and the Natural Sciences -
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed
(Dr. Nazeer Ahmed,
educated at Cornell University and other institutions. He is author of
several books and innumerable research papers. He has also been featured
as an invited speaker in many countries. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed was a Chief
Engineer for the Hubble Space Telescope and several Star War projects.
He was Institute Scholar at Caltech, and Adjunct Professor to University
of New Mexico. He has also been Consultant to numerous other
institutions of high training and research here and abroad. He is
currently President of WORDE, a non-profit NGO based on Washington, D.C.
He is also Executive Director of American Institute of Islamic History
and Culture and Consulting Dean to HMS Institute of technology,
Stem cell research is very much in the news today. It is not just the
Congress in Washington, DC that is discussing it. Such discussions are
taking place in Cairo, Istanbul and Lahore as well. Those who oppose it
cite the possible abuse of this science. In the hands of godless secular
man, so the argument goes, stem cell research could become the devil’s
workshop. And who knows what it may beget?
Such objections may or may not be valid. But on the other side of the
fence, Muslims have not offered an ethical foundation for science based
on the Shariah so that science and civilization thrive inside the
Shariah, not outside of it. This is a failure of Islamic scholarship.
Unable to accommodate science within a body of religious thought, many a
mullah just condemns it and opposes it out of ignorance.
Nature is a reflector of Divine signs. It is the magnificent canvas on
which Divine presence exhibits its beauty and its grandeur. The natural
revelation is mult ifold, limitless, unceasing. (The Qur’an: “Whatever
is between the Heavens and the earth asks of Him; at every moment of
time, He (obliges them and reveals His signs) in full grandeur, 55:29).
The panorama of nature beckons man to reflect and gain insights into
Divine laws. It is the package of Divine mercy. Were this mercy to be
withheld even for a fraction of a moment, all existence will cease to
Yes, there is a Shariah of nature. Divine laws govern all existence,
from the movement of stars to the motion of electrons. Nature obeys
these laws in total surrender (The Qur’an: The stars and the trees bow
down to Him in total surrender, 55: 6). It is only man, drunk as he is
with his own free will, who stands as an open adversary to Divine laws
and dares to disobey them. In the process, he suffers and destroys
himself. (Nay, but man does transgress all bounds, in that he looks upon
himself as self-sufficient…Let him beware! If he desists not, We will
drag him by the forelock, a lying, sinful forelock, 96:6-15).
The divestment of natural science from the Shariah is a consequence of
Islamic historical experience. The Mu’tazalites made their appearance on
the canvas of Islamic history in the eighth century. They were
rationalists, much like the rationalists of today. They applied rational
techniques to understand nature. But then they overextended themselves.
Without an appreciation of the limitations of their techniques, they
applied them to the Qur’an and the Divine Essence. In their view human
reasons had a reach farther than that of revelation. In the process,
they fell flat on their faces, were discredited and expelled from the
body politic of Islam.
What followed was a truer _expression of Islam. The empiricists emerged
from the convulsions of the Mu’tazalite period. They observed nature,
measured what they saw, came up with the empirical scientific method,
and created the edifice of science and civilization in Islam which stood
the test of time f rom the ninth through the twelfth centuries. It was
during this period that we see the appearance of mathematicians like Al
Khwarizmi, geographers like al Masudi, opticians like al Kindi,
physicians like al Razi, historians like al Baruni and scientists like
Ibn Sina. It was this empirical scientific method that was transmitted
to Europe through Spain.
The evolution of science was interrupted with the Mongol devastations
and the Maghribi Crusades (1219-1258 CE). The study of nature was
dropped from the curricula of Islamic schools. The study of Shariah was
narrowed to fiqh as it applied to specific societies. Science and
A fresh effort must be made in modern times to incorporate natural
science within a framework of the Shariah. The issue is one of
constructing a hierarchy of knowledge wherein the transcendence of
revelation is preserved, but wherein reason and the free will of man are
accorded honor and respect. The Mu’tazalites were right in claiming that
man was the architect of his own fortunes but they erred in asserting
that human reason has a larger reach than the Divine Word. Humankind is
not autonomous. The outcome of human effort is a moment of Divine Grace.
No person can predict with certainty the outcome of his action.
Man is first spirit. The physical is contained in the spiritual, not the
other way around. It is the destiny of man to experience the physical
within its spiritual context. This requires an understanding of the
physical domain as much as an experience of the spiritual domain.
Humankind must study and learn from nature so as to contemplate Divine
signs and realize Divine presence in their own midst.
The classical Islamic civilization thrived, and made contributions to
science and civilization, because it sought its inspiration not just
from the schools of jurisprudence, but also from the Shariah of nature
and the Shariah of human history. While societal balance and societal
stability were achiev ed through an application of fiqh, a natural
balance with nature was achieved through an understanding and
application of the Shariah of nature (the “laws of nature”), and
historical lessons were applied to keep a just balance in the matrix of
human affairs. This balance was lost with the passage of time until
Shariah was marginalized into a set of rules for marriage, inheritance,
rituals and monetary transactions.
What then is the Shariah of nature? What Divine commandments govern
natural science? In the answers to these questions lie the foundation of
science within the framework of the Shariah. Human civilization cannot
achieve its full potential without an understanding, appreciation and
mastery of the laws of nature.
Here, we summarize the broad outlines of Shariah as it envelops and
develops the sciences of nature in the hope that these basics will be
picked up and built upon in the future so that Muslim children will not
shun natural science but will study it with the awe and wonder that
characterizes young, nascent minds.
Principle 1. There are Divine signs in nature, and signs within the soul
of man, so that man may know the Truth.
“We shall show them our Signs on the horizon and within their souls
until it is manifest unto them that it is the Truth”… (Qur’an, 41:53).
Principle 2: Man is a knower. He has been taught the names and nature of
“And he taught Adam the names (and attributes) (of all things)….” Qur’an
Principle 3. Man is not self-sufficient. His knowledge is a gift so that
through it he may know and serve his Creator.
“Nay! But man does transgress all bounds, in that he looks upon himself
as self-sufficient”… Qur’an (96: 6-7)
Principle 4. Man and nature are not antagonists. They are bound together
through creation. Man and nature are reflections each of the other.
“The sun and the moon (rotate) as prescribed. The stars and trees submit
(as ordered). And (I have established) justice in all creation, so that
you may not yourself violate justice”… Qur’an (55:5).
Principle 5. Man learns through observation, reason, intuition and
“Have we not bestowed upon thee a pair of eyes and a tongue?”… Qur’an
“Here indeed are Signs for a people who reflect and ponder”… Qur’an
Principle 6. Man is endowed with speech (and intelligence) with which he
integrates what he has learned through his senses, reason, intuition and
“God most Gracious, (bestowed) knowledge (of) the Qur’an, Created
humankind, endowed it with the faculty of bayan (speech and
intelligence).”… Qur’an (55: 1-4)
Principle 7. The Shariah of nature prescribes
the laws of nature. Mankind is commanded to study nature, to understand
its laws and contemplate the perfection of God’s creation.
“…Turn thy vision again
(towards God’s creation). Do you see any flaw in it? Again, turn thy
vision a second time. Your vision will come back to you, tired, worn out
and discomfited” … Qur’an (67: 3-4).
“… Travel through the
earth and see how He did originate creation, so will Allah produce a
later creation”… Qur’an (29: 20).
Based on this summary
outline, we can surmise how the world of Islam drifted away from the
natural sciences. The Qur’an prescribes a just balance between history,
natural science and spirituality. In my previous writings, I have termed
it the H-N-S tripod. In the classical period of Islamic science
(800-1258 CE), this balance was preserved. The syllabus of the era
required a study of mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, chemistry,
physics, medicine, g rammar, fiqh and tasawwuf. The product of these
studies was the Al Hakim, a person of wisdom, imbued with the knowledge
of the Qur’an, the Sunnah of the Prophet, human spirituality,
mathematics, astronomy, physics, medicine and the historical sciences.
After the destruction of
the Mongols (1219-1258 CE), there was an overemphasis on the spiritual
sciences. Then, in the seventeenth century (1600 CE onwards),
spirituality gave way to an overemphasis on jurisprudence and the
sciences of fiqh. Gone was the balance between natural science, history
As the Muslims lost their initiative in
global affairs to the West (1757-1812 CE), even the sciences of fiqh
shrank in their scope, and what was a complete code for human affairs
shriveled into “personal law” largely confined to monetary transactions,
inheritance, marriage and divorce.
In the modern global
context, when humankind dares to experiment with its own genetic makeup,
it is essential to reestablish that s ublime balance between history,
natural science and spirituality, and emphasis all three disciplines in
our studies, so that among the children of tomorrow, there may be more
men and women of wisdom, the al-Hakims, like al Kindi, Al Khwarizmi, Ibn
Sina and Ibn Khaldun. (To be continued)