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ARTICLE: An Ongoing Debate


By Dr Sabieh Anwar


August 31, 2008

Over the years, there has been considerable hype about Islam and science in our academic and public circles and several books have come out in the limelight. Fortunately, there is consensus on three facts. First, Muslims enjoyed a remarkable ascendancy in science for about five centuries, an ascendancy that was unrivalled by any contemporary civilisation. Second, science has now dwindled to frighteningly low standards in the Muslim world and there is a critical need to rescue the Muslim culture from complete intellectual annihilation. Third, there exists the appreciation that science and Islam are compatible. Over and above these fundamental agreements, there is considerable dispute.

One of the more influential articulations on the subject of science and Islam, and the ongoing debate between the religious orthodoxy and the rational intelligentsia has come from the camp of the modern secularists, especially from the physicist, University professor and social activist, Pervez Hoodbhoy in his book Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality (Zed Books, London 1991).

The book is written in clear and effective language and sets the tone for the more reasoned debate on this subject within Pakistan. It performs the much-needed task of exposing Islam-inspired pseudo-scientists whose only claim to fame is giving scientific explanations for miracles, lending credence to superstitions, proving that all science is imbedded in the Quran and of course, reject the theory of evolution.

The Beaten Track

Hoodbhoy’s gripping narrative is a classic example of the ‘classical narrative’. According to the classical picture, Muslim scientists transcended in all major fields of scientific inquiry but there role remained, at best, one of an intelligent postman. They took the classic Greek sources and engaged in a massive translation and commentary enterprise, mostly under the patronage of the Abbasid Caliph Mamun-ur-Rashid in his bait-ul-hikmah (House of Wisdom) around 830 C.E. The greatest translator of all times was Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, not a Muslim but a Christian. After this translation movement, the end product was bequeathed to the West at the time of the so-called first Renaissance, around the 12th century. Science in the Islamic world then became irrelevant.

There are, however, serious problems with this approach. First, the narrative assumes that Muslims by themselves were incapable of originating any new scientific ideas. The first Muslims were the desert-dwelling Arabs, incapable of any scientific mode of thinking, and only when they came in contact with the neighbouring Sasanian (Iranian) and Byzantine (Roman) civilisations, were they exposed to the majestic works of the Greek intellectuals including Prolemy, Plotinus and Aristotle

The second misgiving is the supposition that the Muslim scientific consciousness somehow triggered woke up from dark languishing slumber in the early Abbasid period (750 to 900 CE), but there was nothing inherent in the Islamic belief system or in the uniquely Muslim culture that could instigate such a complete reawakening. In other words, the impetus was all foreign. Allama Iqbal in his lecture ‘The Spirit of Muslim Culture’ included in the ‘Reconstruction’ has also briefly addressed the naturalization of ancient and Greek sciences into the Muslim scientific spirit and the kind of value-addition they performed. According to the poet-philosopher, science flourishing in the Islamic civilization marked an all-out revolt against Greek thought. In the book Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance (reviewed in Books and Authors, Jan 13, 2008), George Saliba also shows with several historical evidences that the unique juridical requirements of the Islamic fiqh provided the main thrust to the development of the exact sciences. For example, the complicated inheritance laws gave birth to the discipline of algebra; advanced computations of zakat and the jizya resulted in the maturing of the numerical and fractional sciences; and the requirements for prayer directions and timings laid the foundations for theoretical and observational astronomy, radically changing the theoretical models proposed by Ptolemy. One could note that this model of religion enriching science works not only in the Islamic, but also in other contexts. For example, Babylonians, in a need to predict the appearance of different celestial phenomena as omens started developing mathematical astronomy around 2000 BCE and devised accurate tables around 500 BCE.


‘The most influential figure was the philosopher Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, who argued in The Incoherence of the Philosophers against the very idea of laws of nature, on the ground that any such laws would put God’s hands in chains. According to Al-Ghazali, a piece of cotton placed in a flame does not darken and smoulder because of the heat, but because God wants it to darken and smoulder. After Al-Ghazali, there was no more science worth mentioning in Islamic countries.’


The Spectre of Al-Ghazali

The third most objectional premise of the classical narrative, championed by Hoodbhoy’s approach is that the Muslim ascendancy in science was the exception, rather than the rule. The scientists were outcasts living at the fringes of a society that was under the grip of the mullahs who shunned and resisted scientific thought, openly calumniated human reason, logic, deductive proof systems and philosophy and were against all forms of art and music and the subtler delicacies of free inquiry.

A ubiquitous figure in all of these debates is the theologian and philosopher, Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111). His over-arching stature in the Islamic religious tradition aside, he is also considered to be one bitter enemy of the sciences. Several writers would have us believe that Al-Ghazali strangulated human reason and made it slavishly subservient to revealed knowledge and in the present times, we are still reeling in the devastating blow inflicted by Al-Ghazali on human reason.

Not surprisingly, these acquisitions gain more credence when they come from accomplished scientists. For example, the Nobel Laurea-te and physicist, Steven Weinberg published a review on Richard Dawkin’s book The God Delusion (Ban-tam, 2006) in the Times Literary Supplement (Jan-uary 17, 2007).

In his review, Weinberg comfortably pronounced, ‘Alas, Islam turned against science in the 12th century. The most influential figure was the philosopher Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, who argued in The Incoherence of the Philosophers against the very idea of laws of nature, on the ground that any such laws would put God’s hands in chains. According to Al-Ghazali, a piece of cotton placed in a flame does not darken and smoulder because of the heat, but because God wants it to darken and smoulder. After Al-Ghazali, there was no more science worth mentioning in Islamic countries [emphasis added].’

Furthermore Hoodbhoy very strongly claims, ‘The most articulate and effective opponent of physical causality was Al-Ghazali. According to Al-Ghazali, it is futile to believe that the world runs according to physics laws.’

This simplistic bifurcation into the reasoned and the unreasoned; the rationalist group of the ‘great heretics’ typified by the iconoclast, Ibn-e-Rushd and the camp of the orthodox, with Al-Ghazali being its most articulate representative, serves Hoodbhoy et al very well in their nifty compartmentalisation schemes, but the division seriously challenges the more serious and deep scholarship in this field.

In numerous places throughout his vast numbers of texts, Al-Ghazali makes it very clear that his task is not to question the established truths in the natural order. Disputing these facts of nature, far from being a disservice to the scientific method, will be a disservice to religion itself. An instructive example is provided in the second introduction to the Tahafat-ul-Falasifa (Incoherence of the Philosophers), where Al-Ghazali discusses the solar and lunar eclipses. After stating the ‘scientific’ facts that the solar eclipse results from the moon intervening the sun and the earth and the lunar eclipse from the earth coming in between the sun and the moon, he writes,

‘Whosoever thinks that to engage in a disputation for refuting such a theory is a religious duty harms religion and weakens it. For these matters rest on demonstrations, geometrical and arithmetical, that leave no room for doubt.’

Al-Ghazali on Scientific knowledge

Similarly, mathematics and arithmetic, in Al-Ghazali’s view, are ‘exact’ sciences with no connection with metaphysical or religious principles. Therefore using mathematics to prove religious beliefs is, at best, absurd. These sciences are based on demonstrative proofs and their implications cannot be denied or affirmed in any religious connotation. In Deliverance from Error, Al-Ghazali writes,

‘A grievous crime indeed against religion has been committed by the man who imagines that Islam is defended by the denial of the mathematical sciences, seeing that there is nothing in revealed truth opposed to these sciences by way of either negation or affirmation, and nothing in these sciences opposed to the truth of religion.’

Furthermore, Al-Ghazali claims that metaphysics and religion are not in need of mathematics, just as poetry is not in need of mathematics, or philology or grammar can be mastered by anyone who is totally ignorant of the mathematical sciences. Why did Ghazzali then, at least apparently, discourage the learning of mathematics? In fact, Hoodbhoy uses this argument quite skilfully and alas, only erroneously in the section of his book titled ‘Al-Ghazali routs the rationalists’.

A careful analysis of this argument asks for a holistic picture of Al-Ghazali’s Weltanschauung. Al-Ghazali was not only a theologian or a scholar in the ordinary sense of the word, rather he was a ‘public scholar’. His main purpose was to safeguard the purely religious beliefs of the believers from straying from the ‘straight path’. The average believers, who were the addressees of Al-Ghazali’s Deliverance could not master mathematics or logic or geometry, and mainly followed what they were instructed in matters of religious opinion or the otherwise. In the present circumstances, Philosophers were regarded by many as men ‘in possession of a distinctiveness from companion and peer by virtue of a superior quick wit and intelligence’.


Mathematics and arithmetic, in Al-Ghazali’s view, are ‘exact’ sciences with no connection with metaphysical or religious principles. Therefore using mathematics to prove religious beliefs is, at best, absurd. These sciences are based on demonstrative proofs and their implications cannot be denied or affirmed in any religious connotation.


These philosophers used the language of Aristotle, resorted to apodeictic proofs, employed syllogistic rules for demonstrations, and wrote in a grammar that was mainly abstruse, high-sounding and worded and therefore, inaccessible to common Muslims. This perception led to the conclusion that metaphysics – being ‘the most difficult of sciences for the intelligent minds’ – could be deciphered only through the most sophisticated tools of mathematics and logic, the expertise of the philosophers. As a result, the average minds incapable of delving into the complexities of mathematics and logic themselves, would be enticed into believing that the philosophers who apply their mathematical skills with astounding precision to matters of the physical world, must also be followed in matters of religion.

Al-Ghazali warns his readers that every discipline of study has its experts, an expert in mathematics may not be an expert in grammar and an expert in geometry may fail miserably when it comes to matters of religion. In short, Al-Ghazali’s truck is not with mathematics, but with philosophers who could potentially lead people astray in matters of pure religion. Al-Ghazali makes this very clear in the introduction to the Tahafat-al-falasifa (not Tahafat-al-falsafa): he is not contradicting philosophers on points of semantics and definitions, nor does he disagree with them in issues with no religious significance (such as eclipses); his major disagreements pertain to questions with fundamental theological implications, and these are only three: (a) has the universe existed forever, (b) does God know all particulars, and (c) is bodily resurrection possible! ‘It is in this topic and its likes, not any other, that one must show the falsity of their doctrine.’

Far from all this, Al-Ghazali considers mathematics and arithmetic to belong to the category of the praiseworthy (mamduh) sciences. In his book Revival of the Religious Sciences, Chapter 1 he writes,

‘Sciences whose knowledge is deemed fard kifayah comprise [all] sciences which are indispensable for the welfare of this world such as: medicine which is necessary for the life of the body, arithmetic for daily transactions and the divisions of legacies and inheritances, as well as others besides. These are the sciences which, because of their absence, the community would be reduced to narrow straits.’

The science of mathematics is a community obligation and furthermore, delving even deeper into the mysteries of mathematics and medicine has also been regarded meritorious. In fact, Al-Ghazali laments the fact that Muslims prefer a study of Islamic law over medicine and it becomes hard to find Muslim physicians, yet jurisprudents abound and often indulge in disputation, rancour, useless hair splitting and vehement diatribes, adding to confusion and strife.

For example, an individual deciding to take up study of fiqh when there is a population in dire need of health care is someone ‘who neglects to give his attention to the calamity which has befallen a group of thirsty Muslims [and] is like the person who devotes his time to debate while several fard kifayah duties remain neglected in town.’

A major problem of Al-Ghazali’s times was that all forms of knowledge had acquired religious significance and so, points of intellectual dispute would often slip into bitter religious disagreements, leading to brandings of unbelief, excommunication and heresy.

Al-Ghazali addressed this situation by carefully proposing a classification scheme of all common forms of knowledge, placing Islamic jurisprudence, one major source of contention, at the level of ‘worldly disciplines’, not too superior to mathematics and medicine and regarding it as a collective duty of the community rather than an individual obligation.

Such a ranking was in opposition to the generally held opinion of the Islamic scholarship, and was considered a sacrilege towards the religious merits of fiqh, but Al-Ghazali stuck to his position. However, irrespective of all this, Hoodbhoy in his book would like us to believe that,

‘He condemns mathematics with vigour and without reservation, rejecting the notion that anything good can be contained in it.’ In fact George Saliba quite convincingly shows that the period after Imam Al-Ghazali is marked by an increase in scientific production, at least as far as astronomy is concerned. After all, we have the names of Ibn al-Shatir, Tusi, Urdi, Shirazi, Khafri, al-Baghdadi (d. 1152), Qushji (d. 1474), Nizam-al-Din al-Nisapuri (d. 1328) and the famous potentate and astronomer Ulugh Beg (d. 1449), who all flourished well nigh after Imam Al-Ghazali.

The foundation stone for the highly productive Maragha observatory was also laid in 1259, a year after the destruction of Baghdad. The golden age in Arabic astronomy was certainly after Imam Al-Ghazali, not before him.





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