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Dr Sakir Kocabas
Thursday, August 30, 2007

1. Introduction

The contribution of Islamic civilization to scientific development has been a subject of debate both by Muslim and non-Muslim writers since the 19th century. The controversial position of Muslims in such debates is due to the fact that they have lost their effectiveness in science and in other fields of life after a certain stage in history.

When we look at the "Islam and Science" debates in the last two centuries, we see several approaches in general. The first one, which was developed by European historians of philosophy and science in the last century and lasted until World War II, claims that Muslims have not contributed to civilization in the fields of science and philosophy anything significant beyond being the "commentators" of Ancient Greek philosophy. We see such eminent philosophers as Bertrand Russell1 among the proponents of this view.

The second approach is the one developed by some Muslim writers in need of intellectual defense for Islamic civilization against the views of European historians of science and philosophy. According to this approach, science and philosophy are not only not needed for human happiness and well being in any case, but even harmful activities. Consequently, there is nothing to worry about the fact that Muslims are lagging behind in science and technology.

The third approach, which is also developed by some Muslim scholars, claims that Muslims have conducted pioneering studies in science and philosophy in the Classical Era of Islamic civilization, but were held back in scientific activity by devastating external influences such as the Crusades and the Moghul invasions.

The fourth approach, which was adopted by some western historians of science such as Sarton2, and more recently by Huff3, recognizes that Muslims made major contributions to science in the early period of the Islamic civilization, and attempts to explain the decline of scientific activity in terms of social, cultural, economic and legal issues.

The fifth approach which is being advocated by some Muslim writers4, claims that the Muslims' earlier contributions to science have nothing to do with Islam, as these studies were conducted in a non-Islamic, secular spirit, and if at all, Muslims will only be successful in the same way. The proponents of this approach also want to extend the separation of "science” and “religion" which took effect after the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe. They carry the related arguments about Christianity over Islam without a detailed conceptual analysis, and try to establish an "Islam and science" division in the Muslim mind.

Our approach will be a different one bringing a detailed analysis and a new synthesis to the subject, although carrying elements from some of the above stated approaches. We will try to describe our approach in some detail below, but before that, let us take a closer look at the other five approaches.

The first approach has lost its credibility today among people who are acquainted with history of science, but nevertheless is still being argued by some short sighted writers. We will show below with examples why this approach is based on mistaken views. The second approach is being defended by naive Muslims in good will, without being aware of what they advocate seriously contradicts the concept of knowledge (=‘ilm) and a series of other related concepts in the Qur'an. The third approach on the other hand, is in the error of exaggerating the relationships between scientific motivation and social, political and economic conditions. In this study, we will start from the point reached by the fourth approach. We will attempt to unearth the basis of the problem, namely, what have happened after a period of intensive learning, investigation leading to the development of a scientific research tradition in the Classical Era of Islamic civilization, i.e. the 8-11th centuries. But before we do that, let us try to explicate why the fifth approach starts from mistaken premises.

In order to decide about how much of the historical reality is reflected by the claim that Islam had nothing to do with the Muslims' contribution to science during the Classical Era (roughly 8-11th centuries), we have to bear in mind a few historical facs. It is well known that the Europe of the Middle Ages turned to scientific investigation as it turned away from the views of the Church about the world and nature. Whereas, we observe that the Arabic and Turkic populations who did not have any noticeable scientific activity before Islam, began to produce their scientific and philosophical works after they accepted Islam. Therefore, the Muslims in that era conducted their scientific and philosophical studies with the motivation and within the intellectual framework that they acquired largely from Islam.

To see that it was Islam that gave the Muslims of the Classical Era such great motivation in science and philosophy compared to their contemporaries, we have to understand what sort of conceptual transformation that Islam had made in their minds. What were their concepts of the world and reality before their acceptance of Islam? And how did their concepts of kmowledge and reality transformed by their acceptance of Islam? We can ask similar questions for the christian peoples in Europe in the Middle Ages: What sort of conceptual transformation took place in Europe after the 12th century? What sort of conceptual changes lay behind the scientific development that took place after the 16th century?

Some contraversial european historians, before answering such questions kept claiming that scientific thought in Europe was developed from ancient Greeks, in an attempt to blur the effects of Islam on the Renaissance, the Reformation and the subsequent scientific endavour. This opinion has long lost its historical credibility, but there may still be some who would like to defend it. A simple question should be sufficient to bring this claim into perspective: Why had the Europeans not been able to start the Renaissance and develop their scientific thinking much earlier, as they had the works of the ancient Greek philosophy and science in their hands for over a thousand years? Why had Europe waited another 1200 years for the development of scientific thought in Europe? The answers to these questions can be: Either the Europeans were unable to understand the works of the ancient Greeks during that period, and began to understand them only after reading the works of the Muslim thinkers such as Ibn Rushd, or the ancient Greek thought by itself did not provide the concepts and motivation good enough to initiate such a scientific enterprise, or both. (Despite their controversial nature we can say that all these possibilities are worthy of a detailed investigation.)

When we study the history of Islamic thought, we see that the Muslims have been in a large scale and multi-dimensional research activity in science and philosophy until the 12th century, lasting as sporadic and isolated activities until the 15th century. During this period, on the one hand they studied the works of ancient Greek and Indian scholars5, and on the other they developed completely novel approaches and methods of systematic investigation of nature. We will explain this with examples below.

The development of these different approaches and methods require a certain creative intellectual capacity. Scientific creativity and its relation to motivation and conceptual structures is a subject which we have been studying recently6. In order to have an insight to the nature and extent of the conceptual transformation that Islam has brought to the Muslims in the Classical Era let us now take a look at certain concepts and their interrelations in Islam, particularly in the Qur'an.

2. The Concept of Knowledge in The Qur’an

Throughout the history of Islam, a great many things have been said about the concept of knowledge (= ilm) by Muslim and non-Muslim writers7. These will be outside of the scope of our present concern. We have conducted a 6-month study over the concept of knowledge (= ilm) in the Qur'an in 1986. A summary remarks on the grammar of the concept "ilm" in the verses8 of the Qur'an in which the word takes place in its root form and derivatives can be given as follows:

1) First of all, the concept of knowledge (= ilm) in the Qur'an is an indivisible, holistic concept. (In this respect, there is a certain important difference between the concept of "ilm" in the Qur'an and that of today's Muslims. We shall return to this point below.)

2) The Qur'anic concept of knowledge covers all knowledge, without making any distinction between sciences as such.

3) The concept of knowledge in the Qur'an does not allow the qualification of true/false knowledge, because the word is always used in certain relation to reality. On the other hand it can be used in indicating as someone having or not having the knowledge of something, as in "... has the knowledge of" or "... has not the knowledge". (See verses: 006.108, 006.119, 030.029)

4) The Qur'anic concept of knowledge indicates that reality is grasped with knowledge, and the limits of knowledge determines the extent of the awareness of reality and consciousness. (027.084)

5) In the Qur'an, it is stated that Allah has encircled (= wasia) everything with knowledge. This might mean that knowledge extends through space. (006.080)

6) Also, the expression "a knowledge from Allah’s presence" (= min ladunna ‘ilma) takes place in verses as a particularly different kind of knowledge, in contrast to the knowledge that extends through space. (018.065)

7) The fact that Allah has power over everything, can be known by man. (065.012)

8) The verb "to know" (= alima) is applicable to both individual human beings and to a nation (= qawm) as in the expression "a nation that knows". (002.230,006.097, 007.032)

9) "Those who know and those who do not, cannot be the same". (039.009)

The conceptual grammar of "knowledge" which we have summarized here, constitutes a part of a wider conceptual network in the Qur'an. The importance and necessity of knowledge in Islam, emerges as a prerequisite for being human. Only through knowledge man wants to know how far his abilities and responsibilities extend.

3. The Importance and Necessity of Knowledge

What is it that makes man important, while he occupies such a small space-time region on a small planet compared with the astronomical dimensions of the heavens that emcompass hundred billions of galaxies? An answer can be given to this question in Islamic thought is: What makes us important is the fact that Allah has given us some superior qualities among His creation, notably our superior ability of learning and thinking, by which we can increase our contact with reality and consciousness.

For a man believing in Allah, the most important question of science is this: "How does Allah administer or rule the heavens and the earth?" Another question that follows this is: "Can human mind comprehend how Allah rules the heavens and the earth?" This may come as a surprise to some readers, but both questions have answers, and the answer to the second question within the Quranic framework, is a definite "yes". The answers are given in the Qur'an as follows:

"Have they not studied the Administration of the heavens and the earth, and what things that Allah has created? (= awa lam yanzuru fi malakut as samawati wal ardi wa ma khalaqallahu min shay)" (007.185)

"Allah is He, who created the seven heavens and of the earth the like of them. The instruction (= amr) is sent down through them, so that you know that Allah has power over everything, and that Allah has encompassed everything with a knowledge." (065.012)

As can be seen, in the first verse above, man is motivated to a systematic study of the Administration of the heavens and the earth, or in other words, over the “laws” and “principles” of the interactions which take place in them. The word "study" (= yanzuru fi) in this verse indicates reference to both observation and thinking, and the term “nazariya” (= theory) has been derived from this word in the classical era of Islamic thought. Accordingly “nazara fi”, can be understood as “systematic observational and theoretical study”.

In the second verse, we see how the concept of instruction (= amr) that emerges as a key concept in the "Administration of the heavens and the earth" is closely related to the concept of knowledge (= ‘ilm). In this verse, the expression "so that you should know", clearly indicates that man can know how Allah keeps the events happening in the heavens and the earth under His knowledge and His control. The knowledge of this should indeed be the most important gain for mankind.

Notice that the question: "How does Allah direct the heavens and the earth?" is, in a narrower sense, also the fundamental question of physical science: How do various phenomena take place in nature in an ordered way? How did the order that we see in the universe come about? We shall return to this below.

It is with these motivations that the Muslims in the classical era turned towards understanding themselves and the space that they lived in. This was the motivation behind their occupation with such sciences as mathematics, logic, physics, chemistry, botany and astronomy. The prominence given to knowledge, learning and thinking in Islam, is a pointer to the importance that is given to man. The Prophet (s.a.) had taught Muslims through the Qur'an, the importance of knowledge, learning, and thinking. And the Muslims, through their books between 8-12th centuries, taught Christians and Jews in al-Andalus how to correctly reason about nature. Regretfully, due to serious changes in their concept system, which started to take place in the 11th century, Muslims began to loose motivation to science, and as a result, their influence in science gradually dwindled and died out in the subsequent centuries. The present state of the Muslims regarding scientific activity constitutes a complete contrast with that of the Islamic civilization in the classical era. The concept of knowledge has now lost its significance, while some secondary or obscure concepts have acquired prominence in the Muslim's mind today.

4. The Concept of Knowledge and Motivation in Islamic Civilization

The concept of knowledge (= ‘ilm) had such a central role in the Islamic civilization during the Classical Era, that this made the famous orientalist Franz Rosenthal9 to coin his observation that there had been no other civilization in history, in which the concept of knowledge had played such a central role as in the Islamic civilization in the classical era, including the Western civilization.

It can be said that, correct thinking develops over correct premises, a correct concept system, and correct observation and inference methods. Correct thinking affects motivation to research positively, as it leads to a better understanding of the world, and to useful discoveries and inventions. Systematic knowledge rests on a correct concept system. For this reason, in the process of the improvement and increase of systematic knowledge, the concept system on which it stands, plays an important role. In our own study on scientific creativity, we are convinced that the concept system has a critical role over scientific motivation and scientific creativity.

With the birth of Islam, the development of tendencies towards learning, quickly turned into a campaign, and within a short span in historical terms, it caused the formation of scientific motivation among Muslims. The campaign for learning had already started in the Medina period, when the Prophet (s.a.) introduced a policy of releasing the prisoners of war (who were then treated as slaves) on the condition of teaching Muslim children reading and writing.10 In the same years, it is also known that Muslims opened a school in Medina. Such an educational policy could not even be dreamt of in those ages. In this era, Muslims considered learning and acquisition of knowledge as a paramount duty of being human.

The conceptual change, and the learning campaign that developed in parallel, started giving its results in scientific development within less than a century, during the time of the Umayyads. This was followed on in an even stronger form during the Abbasids (750-1254), particularly by the establishment of Bayt al Hikma (= the House of Wisdom) by the Abbasid ruler Harun al Rashid. This royal institute, being unique in its kind in the history of science, had started as a center for translation for all the works of ancient cultures, from poetry to medicine, astronomy and philosophy, but soon turned into a center for original scientific work.

With their pioneering work in chemistry, the Umayyad prince Khalid bin Yazid (665-704), Ja’far al Sadiq (700-765), Jabir bin Hayyan (approx. 721-805), Zunnun al-Misri (d. 860), Al Razi (= Alrhazes, 860-925), Ibni Sina (= Avicenna, 980-1037) and Al Matruji (? - 1007) laid the foundations of modern chemistry as an experimental science. In physics, we see Al Kindi (= Alkindus, a 796-872) and again in physics with his research in optics Ibn Haytham (a. 965-1051); in mathematics Al Khawarizmi (a. 780-850) and Thabit bin Qurra (a. 834-901); in zoology Jahiz (a. 776-869); in astronomy Bayruni (a. 973-1051), al Zarqali (1029-1087), and Ibn Shatir (d. 1375); in medicine Al Razi (= Alrhazes a 864-925) and Ibn Sina (= Avicenna, y 980-1037), and in medicine, physics and philosophy Ibn Rushd (=Averroes, 1126-1198) among the prominent Muslim pioneers of science and philosophy.11 We can now take a brief look at the important contributions of Muslims to chemistry, physics and mathematics in this period.

The Muslims' contribution to the development of chemistry as an experimental science has been crucial in several respects. First, as can be seen in Jabir bin Hayyan's collection, contrary to the ancient Greek tradition, Muslims thought that chemical substances are composed of a set of basic properties combined in certain proportions, and that these properties could be separated and recombined to yield new substances12. Notice that this idea introduces the concepts of analysis and synthesis and an accompanying methodology for research into chemistry for the first time in its history. Secondly, their claim that these basic properties are held together in balance (= mizan) in chemical substances, introduces the notions of stability and equillibrium13. Third, but not the least important, they have described their chemical experiments in such a way that it is possible to see all the parameters of a modern chemical experiment. For example, we see everything in the description of an oxidation experiment of mercury conducted and described by Al Matruji14, that the description of a modern chemical experiment should include: a) reaction materials, b) their quantities, c) reaction equipment used, d) reaction conditions, e) reaction products, and f) their quantities. The same approach can be seen in the experiments of other early Muslim alchemists. It can hardly be denied that these are very important contributions to the development of chemistry as an experimental and theoretical science. Using this methodology, Muslim scientists had isolated inorganic substances such as alkalis and hydrochloric, nitric, and sulphuric acids and ammonia. They conducted distillation experiments on organic substances and separated several basic organic substances.

In the field of physics, Ibn Haytham's work on parabolic and spherical mirrors, and glass magnifiers, and his work on the refraction of light in general formed the basis of optics. Ibn Haytham studied the behavior of light when passing from a less dense medium to a denser medium, and led the way for the discovery of the famous sinusoidal law of refraction of light15. This was the second law discovered in physics after Archimedes' well-known discovery.

Perhaps the most important contribution of Muslims to the development of classical physics has been an indirect one; by the invention of algebra. Al Khawarizmi's (780-850) introduction of the concept of equation and the use of variables in place of numbers in mathematical problem solving, is regarded as one of the most important abstractions in the history of mathematics. The first abstraction in mathematics was the invention of decimal numbers and the introduction of zero. The second important abstraction was transforming geometry into an axiom system by Thales (640-546 B.C.) and Euclid (4th century B.C.) After Khawarizmi’s invention of algebra, the next important abstraction in mathematics took place nine centuries later, with the introduction of the concept of function by Newton and Leibniz in the 17th century. With their invention of algebra, the Muslims had shown how complex arithmetical problems could be easily solved by symbolic equations. This was a serious departure from the geometrical techniques used by ancient Greeks. The development of algebra, coupled with geometry, has led to the development of analytical geometry and trigonometry, whose foundations were also laid by Muslim mathematicians. Without algebra, there could be no analytic geometry, calculus and classical physics, and consequently no industrial revolution. In astronomy, we know that the Muslims had not only discovered that the earth was spherical, but also measured the distance between the longitudes during the Abbasids. They had also considered the heliocentric system of planets several centuries before Galileo and Copernicus. In fact, Copernicus’ book contains astronomical drawings identical to those drawn by Tusi several centuries earlier. 16

When we compare the studies that the Muslims conducted in science between 8-11th centuries to the scientific developments in Europe since the 16th century, of course they might look minimal. However, for a correct evaluation, the Muslims' success in several fields of science in these centuries, must be viewed in comparison and contrast with the happenings in the other parts of the world during the same centuries. Then the Muslims would stand out as unrivalled in scientific activity and motivation among their contemporaries. The methodological error that is frequently fallen into in the so called "Islam and Science" debates is the result of an illicit evaluation.

The important point that must be noted is: The Muslims' studies in this period had led to the development of a "research tradition" based on experimentation and observation for the first time in the world history as we know it today.17 Right here we are faced with the central questions of our analysis: Why did the Muslims not continue their activities in science after such a successful start. Why did not they develop a systematic and multi-dimensional research that formed the basis of sciences such as physics, chemistry and astronomy? What had happened in the history of Islam that scientific and philosophical studies gradually slipped out of the field of interest of Muslim scholars? What kinds of psychological, social, economic and political factors caused Muslims to leave research in the fields of science? These are the questions that must be asked in the "Islam and Science" debates until the correct answers and explanations are found.

The decline of Muslim scientific activity after a brilliant and successful start has attracted the attention of a number of Muslim writers and historians since the 17th. century with the Ottoman scholar Katip Chelebi, down today. Katip Chelebi's insightful observations had related the decline to a conceptual problem, but his warnings did not start a serious movement in the Ottoman administration. Until recently most of the proposed explanations, were directed to explain the decline with political causes such as the Crusades in the 12th. Century and the destruction (especially of libraries and men of knowledge) by the Moghul invasions in the 13th. Century; and to economic causes such as the decline of the importance of the Silk Road, and the accompanying shift of economic power from Islamic countries towards Europe as a result of the geographic discoveries that took place in the 15th and 16th Centuries. All these explanations may have some truth in it, but they do not explain the loss of motivation in science in Muslim societies as a whole.

Huff,18 a leading figure in the field of comparative historical study of science, states that Muslims had made a brilliant start in the middle age, and quickly gained and established a clear superiority over China, India and Europe in almost all the fields of scientific activity, but that their activity started to decline after the 12th century. He examines the causes of decline through several interrelated issues which can be summarized in three categories: 1) the role of the scientist in the society, 2) the basic beliefs of the scientist about nature, and 3) the existence of the social and legal institutions that support the development of science.

When he examines the role of the scientist, Huff classifies the intellectuals in the Islamic society of the Middle Age into three classes: fuqaha (= jurists), mutakallimun (= theologians), and philosphers. He recounts al-Kindi, al-Farabi, al-Razi (Alrazes), Ibn Sina (Avicenna), al-Biruni, and Ibn Rushd among the Muslim philosophers who have contributed the development of early modern science. He states that the philosophers could not maintain influence on their societies after some their ideas became the target of the theologians, causing the former to lose support for their activities from the Muslim population. In this period, the theologians used the opinions of al Ghazali and Ibn Taymiya to attack philosophers. Huff also states that the fuqaha (=jurists) from time to time severely criticized the theologians themselves. According to Huff, the Muslim philosophers did not have clearly defined and valid social roles in their society. Those who studied philosophy and science mostly had an additional duty accepted by their societies. For example, Ibn Rushd was also a jurist, and Ibn Shatir was a muwaqqit preparing prayer timetables for the daily prayers of Muslims.

From the viewpoint of the basic beliefs of the scientist about the nature, Huff relates several principles for scientific inquiry, some of which can be listed as: 1) a rational and objective investigation of nature in order to understand it operations is possible and desirable, 2) such an investigation makes use of empirical methods, 3) might make use of mathematics and deductive reasoning, 4) the scientist should eschew all voices of authority, tradition and popular opinion in question of how nature functions, except to the extent that the information is rationally verifiable, and 5) the scientist must practice systematic doubt, and sometimes endure a prolonged uncertainty in his disciplined search for an understanding of natural phenomena. Most of these principles were practiced by the Muslim scientists, as they had developed and applied empirical and methods, particularly in chemistry and optics, and they were the first to use mathematics in a field of science, namely in astronomy.

Huff also notes the negative role of the doctrines developed by the theologians, which rendered systematic studies of nature a meaningless activity. Lastly, he states that in the Medieval Muslim world, the legal and social institutions were not developed to support the activities of Muslim scientists. The colleges (= madrasa) that were developed by Muslim foundations focused on teaching classical Arabic, Qur’anic interpretation (= tafsir), prophetic tradition (= hadith), logic (= mantiq) and theology (= kalam), and limited teaching of mathematics and medicine. Later, college education became confined to “religious sciences”. Study of astronomy and mathematics were the subjects of observatories, while medical studies were carried out in hospitals. The educational system of the Madrasa were based on mastering the subject of individual teachers, rather than being organized in faculties. The curricula of these colleges were determined by the foundation (= waqf) who provided its finances, and as they did not give much respect for sciences other than the “religious sciences”, studies in experimental sciences and philosophy were left to individual efforts. In contrast, the European universities founded several centuries after their Muslim counterparts obtained their legal and educational independence soon after.

In summary, Huff tries to explain the decline of science in Islamic civilization primarily by the failure of Muslims in developing the necessary institutions and in providing legal autonomy to scientific activities. These are important insights into the nature of this historical phenomenon, and we agree with Huff on these accounts to a certain extent, but we have to go deeper below the social and legal causes. Social and legal order in a society is continuously shaped and reshaped by the beliefs and motivations and the order of concepts of the society. For this reason we claim that the deeper causes of the decline has to be searched for in the conceptual changes that began to take place in the language and minds of the Muslims around 11th century.

For a historical change in such proportions, we never found satisfactory the explanations that rested only on political and economic causes. We were considering since the early 1970s that there had to be more convincing explanations for such a grand scale decline, but were not able to figure out the real causes. Years later, after a debate when doing a PhD in London in 1986, a question began to emerge as to whether the Muslims used certain Qur'anic concepts such as "aql" (= using intellect) and "ilm" (= knowledge) correctly, i.e. in the same grammar as in the Book. Then, following a three-month study on the concept of "aql", we had realized that this word was used quite differently from its native grammar in the Qur'an.

Our later studies on several concepts which we called "The AMR Constellation of Words", revealed an important conceptual network which was directly related to the cosmic order. These concepts were completely ignored by today's Muslims, while they had at least partially constituted the basis of the ideas of many Muslim scholars about reality in one form or another, between 8-12th centuries, from Al Kindi to Ibn Rushd.
This study was indicating that there had been a serious conceptual break in the history of Islamic thought. It began to look clear that this conceptual break gradually diminished the motivation for scientific research among Muslims, and as a result of this had they failed to develop the necessary social institutions and legal support, but not the other way round. In the next section we discuss this conceptual degeneration in some detail.

5. The Conceptual Disintegration in the 11th Century: The Division of the Concept of Knowledge

We can say that the most important conceptual change in the history of Islamic thought had taken place on the concept of "ilm" (= knowledge). This concept is used by today's Muslims as divided into two broad and disjunctive categories as "ilm ad-din" (= religious knowledge) and "ilm ad-dunya" (= worldly knowledge). In a study conducted on this concept both in the Qur'an and the six hadith books which compile the sayings and actions of the Prophet (s.a.), we noticed that there was no trace of such a division in these sources. On the contrary, the concept appears in these sources as an indivisible whole. This indicated that such a conceptual division on knowledge as "religious knowledge - worldly knowledge" had been introduced in the latter half of the 10th century, about a century later from when the hadith were compiled. We can now say that the conceptual division of "knowledge" began to take serious effect in the Muslim thought in the 11th century, and before the end of the 12th century with the exile of Ibn Rushd, it became an accepted norm in the Muslim world from Cordova to Baghdad. In this way, the integral concept of knowledge (= ‘ilm) with its close relation to the concept of reality (= haqq), left its place to a divided concept of knowledge and reality.

At this point some might argue that the qualification of knowledge as "religious knowledge - worldly knowledge" had resulted from a necessity due to the increase in the amount and variety of knowledge. We maintain that this conceptual division was introduced by the 10th century Muslim theologians (particularly by the Ash’arites) for certain other purposes. These purposes primarily included the "protection of Muslims from certain heretical beliefs and ideas". Whatever their aims were, the conceptual changes introduced by the theologians can hardly be taken as a mere manifestation of goodwill, considering the drastic results that they entailed. They introduced both a simplistic and a contradictory set of concepts in place of a rich and complex, but a consistent conceptual structure in the Qur'an. Simplistic, because it overlooked the fact that the Qur’anic concept of knowledge includes all expressions which reflect reality; and contradictory because it ended up denying reality itself.

The division of knowledge as "religious knowledge - worldly knowledge" in the 11th century resulted in questioning the status of physics, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics and logic, which were now regarded as "worldly knowledge". In the beginning it had been stated that these sciences "had, positively or negatively, nothing to do with the religion"19, then the idea that knowledge of these sciences are superfluous, began to creep in the minds of Muslims. Quite often, these sciences were considered as "useless knowledge" as opposed to the "religious knowledge" which was regarded as "useful" by definition. Muslims who were engaged in such sciences, while previously being supported by the public and rulers alike, began to lose support, or even became isolated from society.

As an example, we can cite the case of Ibn Rushd (= Averroes) who was the chief justice in Cordova and the doctor of the Caliph during the Andalusian Umayyads in the 12th century. Ibn Rushd was persecuted by the theologians for his ideas about science and philosophy, when the latter had established their political power in the Umayyid administration. The theologians publicly burned Ibn Rushd's books and wanted to him to be sentenced to death, but he was narrowly saved by the Caliph owing to his earlier services to the state, and was exiled to North Africa instead. Reactions to men of science to the extent of the Inquisition, are in general not observed in the history of Islam. But, as we can now see more clearly, the dismissal of philosophy as heresy, and science as a useless enterprise, has deeply influenced the motivation of the Muslims away from such activities conceptually, psychologically and politically.

On the other hand, many early Muslim philosophers also had based some of their ideas about reality on several concepts adopted from ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. Such controversial concepts as existence (= wujud), infinite past (= qidam), and intellect (= ‘aql), and the logical concepts such as universal (= kulli) and particular (= juz’i) were being used in philosophical and theological discussions instead of the rich network of Qur’anic concepts about the whole reality. Unending debates were taking place between the philosophers and the theologians where the latter were also using the same concepts as their opponents, in addition to the evasive dialectic methods. This led to the gradual isolation of the philosophers from their society, as they could not defend their position effectively in a concept system detached from the Qur’an. It is no surprise that the most original contribution of Muslims have been in the fields of chemistry and algebra, where they relied on the Qur’anic concepts of “balance” (= mizan), and “shay”.

The most interesting outcome of this conceptual break was yet to come. The division of the concept of knowledge, which appears as a unified concept in the Qur'an, as "religious knowledge - worldly knowledge", and the almost unanimous acceptance of this division by the Muslims after the 11-12th century meant the acceptance of secularism by the Muslims in thought as a doctrine. In other words, by accepting such a conceptual division, Muslims would have effectively accepted the separation of their "religion" from their "world". Despite this, when they were faced with the situation of forcefully accepting secularism as a legal principle after nine centuries, they reacted strongly. The rationality of this reaction needs to be evaluated in the same framework with the quiet acceptance of the division of the concept of knowledge in the 11th century.

The conceptual change that took place during the 11th century did not confine to the concept of knowledge, but also spilled over a series of other concepts related with "creation". Abandoning the understanding of a cosmic order based on the concepts of “haqq” (= reality) and "amr" (= instruction) and a set of related concepts in the Qur'an, the theologians adopted a view of physical space based on the hypothesis of continuous creation-annihilation. This hypothesis was developed from a simplistic concept of "creation" which resulted from the reduction of a dozen concepts in the Qur'an related with "creation". In this process, the theologians reduced such concepts in the Qur'an as khalaqa, jaala, baththa, nabata, fatara, banaa, sawwara, sawwa, etc., that mean designing, making, evolving, giving form, bringing into existence, constructing, growing, etc., into a single concept "creating" (= khalaqa) and in this way, turned a rich, complex and consistent concept system into a single concept which swallowed all the details of the original set of tightly related concepts.

As a result of this conceptual reductionism, many Muslims soon found themselves in a position to deny that substances had any essential properties, and by denying the principle of causality in any form, they had locked their minds in a concept system that made scientific explanations quite impossible. (Imagine the development of empirical sciences such as physics, chemistry and astronomy, without accepting the principle of causality or that the substances have characteristic properties.) Yet it is clear from the verses related with the word "amr" (= instruction) and a set of other related concepts in the Qur'an, that the properties of substances are manifestations of a set of instructions that make the substances themselves.

There are about 250 verses (= ayah) in the Qur'an in which the word "amr" (= instruction) and its derivatives take place. Some of these verses state that Allah rules the heavens and the earth with His "amr" (= instructions). Indeed, it is clearly stated in the verses that mention the movements of celestial objects, that they move in accordance with the instructions that had been revealed to (or loaded in) the heavens during their formation:

"... Then He decreed it (the heaven) as the seven heavens, and revealed in (or loaded in) each heaven its instruction." (041.012)

"The sun, the moon and the stars are subjected [to remain in their courses] (= musakharat) by His instruction." (007.054, 014.033, 016.012, 022.065)

From the grammar of the word "amr" that occurs in these verses, a conceptual framework emerges, which indicates that a set of instructions that are distributed in space, where they can be joined or dispersed. In this framework, it is understood that physical events take place in an order determined by the complex interactions, unifications and distributions of the instructions in the physical space. However, the cosmic order is not totally unchangeable and free from divine intervention. As can be seen from the verses related with the word "izn", Allah may intervene to any space-time regions with new instructions and can alter its physical properties according to His will. In this way He can bring about changes that would otherwise be impossible with the existing instructions in that space-time region. Similarly, He can also prevent the happenings that would have resulted from the existing instructions otherwise. Indeed, from the verses related with "amr" and "izn", it is clear that Allah intervenes with some events by means of new instructions which He "sends down" periodically. What we call "miracles" are also partly explainable in this framework. We say "partly", because we do not exactly know what can and cannot be materialized within the interactions of the existing instructions in a space-time region.

On the other hand, in verses related to the word "sakhara" (= make subject to / give under use or control) in the Qur'an, Allah states that He has "made subject to mankind whatever is in the heavens and the earth":

"Do you not see that Allah has made subject to you whatever in the heavens and the earth (= sakhara la kum)?" (031.020)

“He has made subject to you whatever is in the heavens and the earth, all from Him (= wa sakhara la kum ma fi-s samawati wa-l ‘ardi jami’an minhu); in this there are indeed signs for a nation who reflect (= qawmin yatafakkarun).” (045.013)

The words "amr", "izn", "sakhara", "sultan", "qadr" and "qada" constitute an extremely remarkable conceptual network in the Qur’an. We have made a detailed study on this subject, and we intend to publish this work soon in a book titled "Foundations of Scientific Thought in Islam".

The denial of the essential properties of substances and causal relationships between physical events by the theologians and Al Ghazali (1058-1111) in the 11th century, was criticized in detail by Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) in the 12th century 20. Ibn Rushd also took seriously the erroneous division of the concept of knowledge by the theologians, and wrote a book titled Fasl al Maqal. 21 In this book he tried to demonstrate the indivisibility of science and religion, both in logico-philosophical and legal terms (as he was both a philosopher and the chief justice of Cordova.) Despite his serious warnings on this matter in both of his books Fasl al Maqal and Tahafut al Tahafut, his work did not receive sufficient attention and understanding by Muslims of his times and of later centuries.

The continuation of conceptual disintegration in subsequent centuries resulted in the abandonment of the research tradition developed until the 12th century. (It would be impossible to do research in experimental sciences such as physics and chemistry, in an intellectual framework where causality and the essential properties of substances were denied.) The philosophical disagreement between Al Ghazali and Ibn Rushd was debated until the 15th century when the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II decided to resolve it by an academic debate. The sultan asked a committee to be set up from scholars to discuss the issue in a free spirit. This is related by Osman Turan, a 20th century Turkish historian as:

"Sultan Mehmed had gathered the scholars of the age around him. He wanted to resolve the disagreement between Al Ghazali and Ibn Rushd. For this reason, he formed a commission under the chair of Hodja-Zadeh who had publications in philosophy. However, because of the complexity of the matter for the scholars of that age, the problem remained unresolved, and the controversy between philosophy and religion continued." 22

However, after Sultan Selim I (1512-1520), the official educational policy in the Ottoman Madrasas gradually shifted towards the Ash’arites’ views from that of the Ma’turidi theologians who give more prominence to reason and rationality. As a result, interest in experimental sciences further declined in the Ottoman institutions.

The reasons for the failure of the Ottoman universities (= the Madrasa) in competing with the European universities in the field of mathematical and physical sciences, can be found in its mistaken views about philosophy and science. But at the root of this failure was the gradual abandonment of the research tradition developed by the early Muslim scientists. However, in contrast to their failure in physical sciences, sporadic technological achievements by the Ottomans continued until the 17th century, particularly in the military technology. The real Ottoman success was in political science and administration which can partly be explained by the effect of the Enderun (= the Royal College) which was independent of the Madrasa system. Additionally, the Ottomans followed the original political concepts of Islam to a certain extent, rather than that of the 14th century theologian Ibn Taymiyyah. This is another topic that needs a careful and detailed study in itself.

Despite their earlier technological successes, the poor performance of the Ottomans in science and philosophy in comparison to the developments in Europe, was noticed early enough by some Ottoman scholars. For example, Katip Celebi (1609-1657) in his Mizan ul-Hak, had alerted the Ottoman administration about the complete failure of the Madrasa in the study of physical sciences and mathematics by its dismissal of such sciences as "of philosophy", despite the clear advancements made in European universities in these sciences. But such warnings were bound to fail to produce real concern within the distorted concept system that had started to settle in the Muslims' minds a few centuries earlier.

6. Ottoman Initiatives for Renewal and Muslims in the 20th Century

By the turn of the century, the Ottomans started to feel deeply the decline in the structure of the state from economy to defence as a result of their failure in the fields of philosophy and science, and consequently in technology. However, the Ottoman administrators and intellectuals (with a few exceptions like Katip Celebi, Koci Bey and Ahmed Cevdet Pasha) tried to reverse the decline only by a series of social and political measures such as in the reforms of Islahat (= recovery), Tanzimat (= reorganisation) and Meshrutiyet (= constitutional reform). They could not see that their problems would not be resolved by mere political and social measures, as they were rooted much deeper in the conceptual plane, and were affecting the Muslims' motivation to science in an extremely negative way. The failure in science in turn, was deeply affecting, in an indirect way, the social and political structure and its institutions.

Finally, the educational campaign started by Sultan Abdulhamid II towards the end of the 19th century, which at times met serious opposition from Muslims themselves, proved to be insufficient. In the end, the Ottoman state left the stage of history following a decisive defeat by European states who commanded scientific and technological superiority in World War I.

The attempts to solve conceptual problems by political and social measures continued in the Turkish Republican Era. The political measures such as the cultural reforms like changing the alphabet and enforcing new outfits; the social reforms like the adoption of constitution and legal codes from the French, Swiss and Italian laws in the early period of the Republic (1923-1933); the industrialization campaign in the second stage (1950-1960); the heavy-industrialization phase in the third stage (1970-1975); and finally, the policies of liberalization and market economy (1980-1990), can be regarded as the continuation of the efforts in the same direction as started in the last century.

As the conceptual structure that was inherited from the Ottomans could not be changed by forceful social, legal and pseudo-cultural measures, the Republican policies of development, which themselves were infected with the same conceptual diseases albeit in the opposite end, have failed to yield real success. The positivist policies that were introduced in the Republican era, were aimed at suppressing Muslims in effect, if not in form, extinguishing the social motivation still further by straining the illicit "religion - science" division even further, instead of trying to resolve it.

The Republican governments failed to develop an effective "science policy" despite the illustrious slogans they produced about science. Until recent years, there was even no academy of sciences in Turkey, and the one that exists now looks at cultural affiliations rather than academic achievements as criteria for nominations. The reasons why there is still no proper academy of sciences, no ministry of science and technology, and no policy of science and technology in this country must be seriously investigated by the thinking people in this country.

7. Other Recent Attempts

About two decades ago some Muslim writers in the UK and Pakistan had initiated a programme which they called “Islamization of Knowledge”. These writers had proposed that the scientific theories developed by "Western" scientists be examined carefully and modified in accordance with the “Islamic viewpoint” (inevitably this will be their own viewpoint based on a concept system adopted from some relativist "Western" philosophers), and thus be "Islamized". Whatever underlying goodwill their proponents may have had in mind, we considered such attempts as spurious as they did not reflect any serious consideration of the conceptual problems involved. As could be expected, this project had ended in failure within a few years from its inceptions.

Another attempt came from the distinguished Muslim historian of science Nasr, who proposed mystical foundations for motivation in scientific research for the Muslim scientists of the future 23. Nasr claimed that the early Muslim scientists, particularly the alchemists were motivated by the prospect of gaining the knowledge of the hidden.

Both programs were bound to fail because of the errors they precluded. The proponents did not see that the decline of the Islamic civilization in the field of science, and consequently in many other fields of life, was the result of the Muslims' abandonment of their own research tradition, and deeper below, their loss of motivation for learning and research. No program can succeed before Muslims regain their motivation to science, which in turn, can happen only when the Muslims abandon the disintegrated concept system and reclaim the rich and consistent concept system in the Qur'an. Then only, will they begin to see reality as it is, and free themselves from the need of any slogans and the evasiveness of the shallow policies of change.

As to Pervez Hoodbhoy's24 comments: We have to take seriously his criticisms on the ill-formed notion of science of today's Muslims. However, we have also to consider the serious errors in his analyses, and will show how his analyses are based on a series of mistaken premises.

One of the serious errors of Hoodbhoy is his claim that science is a secular activity25. His claim is based on his mistaken views about the scientific motivation of Muslims during the 8-11th centuries. He seems to forget that the Muslims in that era conducted their studies and research within a certain concept system and the related understanding of "being human" that they learned from Islam. Early Muslims had great respect for truth (= haqq) and knowledge (= ‘ilm), and would stand all kinds of hardships for truth and knowledge.

If Hoodboy were correct in his claims that the Muslims scientists and philosophers in that era owed their success to a secular view of the world, why had other more secular societies not been able to demonstrate such a remarkable scientific activity around the same centuries? The fact is that Muslims in those centuries had an unrivalled position in terms of scientific activity, despite that they had never obstructed the activities of other cultures that lived with them.

Hoodbhoy correctly identifies that the "Islamic" countries are in a "crisis of science" down from popular to the administrative levels, and that this crisis has been causing them a complete destruction in many fields of life. However, he continues to state that, when examined carefully, it would be seen that this crisis is of political nature in its essence26.

We have only to remember that this diagnosis had already been given by the Ottoman and the Turkish Republican intellectuals and administrators much earlier, and that the political measures taken to that effect had until today, produced nothing but failure. We can see that deep in the heart of this crisis, there lies problems of conceptual nature, rather than political or economic problems.

Finally, after having described the tragic situation of today's Muslims as regards to science, Hoodbhoy finds the only solution for Muslims to initiate a scientific revival in a secular approach, with the acceptance of "science - religion" duality. We have just described how a similar approach fails in Turkey since the early days of the Republic. The reasons for the failure was first of all, that this approach was obstructing the Muslims' motivation to learning and to research in general, let alone their scientific motivation. Secondly and more importantly, the conceptual division entailed by such a secular approach, contradicts the unifying concept of knowledge and a host of related concepts in the Qur'an.

It would be naive to expect Muslims to have any sustainable motivation for scientific activity within such a contradictory and secular conceptual framework. Besides, any other motivation would be indistinguishable from anything within the existing framework of modern scientific culture which itself cannot offer any new solutions to the existing problems of modern science. Fame or the feeling of superiority, are the main motivations for science in the contemporary secular culture, but not any love for truth and reality. More scientists with the same motivations would not earn mankind any better world than this unjust world that we live in.

It should be noted that the conditions of contemporary world do not support isolated scientific activities, except in some extreme cases. This means that scientists are in much closer contact with each other than they were in the earlier centuries. Therefore Muslim scientists would do better if they focused on more basic problems of modern science, rather than on the particular problems of modern science, but only through a concept system which has perfect contacts with reality. This is because, at the roots of the illnesses of the contemporary culture, there lies a complex conceptual network inherited from the distant past, which has already begun to hinder further progress in science.

8. Back to the Future

We insist that, the Muslims' scientific revival in the future can be realized neither by Hoodbhoy's programme, nor with that of the other Muslim writers that he criticizes. Because none of them seem to be aware of the conceptual disintegration behind the problems, and how it obstructs the scientific motivation of the Muslims of today. These writers find the solution only in the changes of external factors with new additions to a disintegrated concept system. What drives men/women to learning is their motivation, which can only develop in a concept system that feeds it. We have seen a live historical example that it is possible to extinguish cognitive motivation in a concept system and the related cultural environment by introducing changes to that concept system, as that has happened to the Islamic civilization. The question now lingers is: How can we revive a disintegrated concept system which was in perfect order when it started? Is there any easy way of reconstructing a degenerated concept system?

We are not going to answer these questions in this study. This subject will be dealt with in detail in a book that we intend to publish soon. What we can say here is that, before Muslims realize the necessity for such a conceptual restructuring, they cannot give much hope for the future of Islamic civilization. Unless and until they regain the rich concept structure that they abandoned around the 11th century, the Muslims will not possess the cognitive motivation by which they can make real progress in science and other fields of civilization. Finally, we can also say that, if Muslims, in an effort which we can call going "back to the future", succeed in regaining the concept system that they began to abandon around the 11th. Century, then the history of mankind shall once again witness surprising scientific developments from the hands of Muslims, surprising even in the standards of the fast changing scientific and technological conditions of our time.


1. Russell, B. (1969). History of Western Philosophy. George Allen & Unwin, London, p. 420.

2. Sarton, G. (1927-48). Introduction to History of Science. Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore, Vol. 3, Chapter 5.

3. Huff, T.E. (1993). The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West. Cambridge U.P.

4. Hoodbhoy, P. (1992). Islam ve Bilim. (Turkish Tr.), Cep Kitaplari, Istanbul.

5. Scientific activity was institutionalized in the famous Bayt al-Hikma (= House of Wisdom) established by Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad in the 9th century, from where it quickly spread throughout the then Islamic world from Spain to Central Asia.

6. Kocabas, S. (1993). Elements of Scientific Creativity. Working Notes: AAAI Spring Symposium Series, 23-25 March 1993, Stanford, USA, pp. 39-46.

7) See: Rosenthal, F. (1970). Knowledge Triumphant. E.J. Brill, Leiden.

8) The figures in the parantheses indicate the numbers of the chapters and verses of the Qur'an. E.g. (006.108) means the 6th chapter, 108th verse.

9) Rosenthal, F. (1970). Knowledge Triumphant. E.J. Brill, Leiden.

10) See, Hamidullah, M. (1966). The Prophet of Islam. Tr. into Turkish by M.Said Mutlu. Irfan Yayinevi, Istanbul, p. 14. (The author relates this information from classical Islamic sources, Ibn Sa’d, Suhaili, and Ibn Hanbal.)

11. The reader is referred to the following sources for the Muslim contribution to early modern science:
- Sarton, G. (1927-48). Introduction to History of Science. Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore.
- Nasr, S.H. (1989). Islamic Science. Insan Yayinlari, Istanbul.
- Huff, T.E. (1993). The Rise of Early Modern Science. Cambridge U.P., Cambridge.
- Demirci, M. (1996). Beyt-ul Hikme. (In Turkish). Insan Yayinlari, Istanbul.
- Akin, O. and Desay, M. (1993). Five Great Scholars of Algebra. (In Turkish). MEB Yayinlari, Ankara.
- Leicester, H.M. (1971). The Historical Background of Chemistry. Dover, N.Y.

12. See: Leicester, H.M. (1971). The Historical Background of Chemistry. Dover, New York. p. 66.

13. Ibid, p. 66.

14. Ibid, p. 71.

15. Topdemir, H.G. (1991). Ibnul Heysem'in Optik Arastirmalari (= The Optical Studies of Ibn Haytham). Bilim, Felsefe, Tarih. No. 1, pp 187-190.

16. See, Huff, T.E. (1993). The Rise of Early Modern Science. Cambridge U.P, Cambridge. p. 56 and 58.

17. This view is also supported by Huff (1993).

18. See, Huff, T.E. (1993).

19. Al Ghazali in his book Al Munkiz min ad-Dalal states that logic and mathematics which are counted as philosophical sciences, have nothing to do, positively or negatively, with the religion. We do not argue about his intentions about this qualification, but observe that it is quite open to misunderstandings.

20) See, Averroes (1978, pp. 316-321). Tahafut al-Tahafut. Tr. by Simon van Den Bergh. Luzac, London.

21) Averroes (1976). Kitab Fasl al-Maqal (On the Harmony Between Religion and Philosophy). Tr. by G. F. Hourani. Luzac, London.

22) Turan, O. Turk Cihan Hakimiyeti Mefkuresi Tarihi. Vol I-II, p. 542.

23) Nasr, S.H. (1991). Islamic Science. Insan Yayinlari, Istanbul.

24) Hoodbhoy, P. (1992). Islam ve Bilim. (Turkish Tr.) Cep Kitaplari, Istanbul.

25) Ibid, p. 17.

26) Ibid, p. 21.



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