International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Science and Civilization In Islam

by Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Introductory Essay by William Chittick

Nasr is best known as a philosopher who has argued in dozens of books and hundreds of articles for the recovery of an intellectual heritage common to mankind. His worldview was already well established by the time he published his PhD dissertation, An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines (Harvard University Press, 1964). Instead of seeing the history of science as a glorious saga of progress, Nasr describes it in two basic stages: Initially science played the legitimate role of investigating the realm of quantity through the application of qualitative and metaphysical principles, but gradually it began to pay inordinate attention to the quantitative realm, leading to a dualistic worldview.  The vision of a transcendent unity, the most basic human insight into reality, was replaced by ever-increasing multiplicity and dispersion, leading to the disfigurement of the human soul and chaos in society and the natural world.

Science and Civilization in Islam offers a reading of Islamic intellectual history that departs sharply from the approaches that dominated Western scholarship for most of the twentieth century and shaped the worldviews of most Muslim modernists (a broad category that includes “fundamentalists”). Nasr argues in an introduction and thirteen chapters that the Islamic tradition never allowed science to transgress the limited role that it played in healthy civilizations.

The first chapter offers short biographies of great Muslim “scientists,” meaning famous scholars who devoted significant attention to realms recognized as “scientific” by modern standards, such as mathematics and the natural world. The second describes the great diversity of educational institutions in various Islamic societies. Chapters three through seven present the development of cosmography, geography, and natural history, physics, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. 

After Chapter 7, the book turns to sciences that study the various non-phenomenal realms and gradually came to be excluded from the category of science (at least in the English use of the term) after the rise of quantitative methodologies.  Chapter eight discusses “the sciences of man” in terms of the anthropological sensibilities of al-Bīrūnī and Ibn Battūtah.  Chapters nine and ten address alchemy as a science of the human soul, first in Islam and second as it influenced the West.

Chapter eleven speaks about philosophy as the overarching science of reality and chapter twelve describes various controversies between philosophers and theologians. Chapter thirteen explains “the gnostic tradition,” meaning theoretical Sufism and a good deal of Islamic philosophy. In it Nasr offers a précis of what his long-time readers will recognize as his own position. The final goal of all science and learning is to lead the soul to “gnosis,” the highest form of human knowing, in which “knowledge and being coincide” and human beings achieve their entelechy.

Nasr writes for the general reader and supports his arguments with extensive quotations from primary texts.