International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Islam and Science

by Muzaffar Iqbal

Introductory Essay by Syed Nomanul Haq

This book is unusual in the burgeoning field of science and religion. It constitutes a Muslim believer’s discursive statement about Islam and science – the appellation “Islam” here denoting not only a doctrinal faith system but at once a culture, a civilization, and a historical phenomenon. Such an approach has both virtues and perils. Among its virtues is a methodological gain: what we see in the book is an attempt to develop the skeleton of an alternative methodology that arises from the bosom of Islam itself. Thus, the fundamental claim of the author is that the rich Islamic scientific tradition is ultimately grounded upon the Koran, supplemented and explicated by the internally authenticated Prophetic practices (Hadith). At the core of this ground, we are told, lies the principle of the unity, unicity, and the absolute uniqueness of God, namely the principle of Tawhīd.

In terms of the challenges it throws before the standard methodologies, the yields of this alternative framework are plentiful. It manages to question many a-historical, even contra-historical and contra-reason, ready-made ideological constructs that are still in vogue in popular and semi-literate circles. The false story of the “orthodox” Islamic opposition to science, for example, a discarded story that resiliently continues to lurk about in public discourses; or the “marginality” thesis – that science remained marginal to mainstream Muslim societies; or essentialist-anachronistic explanations of an ill-conceived “decline” of Arabo-Islamic science; or the imposition of two warring categories of “religion” and “science” in Islam; or the insistence, in the face of overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary, that Muslim scientific activity came to a fateful halt early in the twelfth century after the “orthodox” sage al-Ghazālī wrote his famous attack on Hellenized philosophers; and so on.

It should be recognized that many of the book’s conclusions will command general assent among historians. Yet – and now we turn to the perils – scholars may not agree with the path taken to reach these conclusions. Muzaffar Iqbal’s fundamental declaration of the rules of the game would seem to have leakages that call for urgent repair. For example, how does one explain the scientist Abū Bakr al-Rāzi (d.c. 925) who was daring enough to take a stand against prophecy? Or some authors of the grand Arabic alchemical corpus attributed to Jābir ibn hayyān who commit what in the mainstream Muslim world would be considered cracking the very core of Islam? And what about those practitioners of ‘Ilm al-Kalām (“Theology”) whose emphasis on reason sometimes tends to bypass both prophecy and revelation?

Historians may also point out that, with the exception of the book’s painstaking resolution of the decline issue, other matters have already been examined already. And as for the issue of the decline of science in Islam, it may be said that the ultimate resolution given by the author is a moral-ethical one; therefore, it is ideological and a-historical – the resolution that the “decline” in the Islamic world set in as a result of an excessive interest and investment in the grandeur of art and architecture and aesthetics!

But none of this is fatal to the book, nor does the critical clamor drown out the validity of its approach. It simply means that the challenge undertaken by the author is a massive one, and calls for further articulation, refinement, more historical flesh, even some corrections and reformulations.