International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul: Pertinence of Islamic Cosmology in the Modern World

by William C. Chittick

Introductory Essay by Shiva Khalili

In this book, William Chittick deeply explores Islamic epistemology and criticizes the principles of modern epistemology. He presents the principle of tawhid, “asserting the unity of God”, as the core issue of Sufism. (and a common issue in great religions). According to this principle, the ultimate truth is the highest and people shall “live in harmony with the transcendent principles that determine the way things actually are” [18].

However, modern society lacks this unifying principle and orientation. Takthir – diversity of gods and goals -- gives meaning and direction in the modern world. The difference between dedication to tawhid and takthir is shown in a comparison between great Islamic thinkers and modern scientists. The formers had knowledge in different fields, with no conflict between them, and everything was ruled by the encompassing truth of God as a reality and origin of all beings. Today’s scientists have fragmentary knowledge or information,which is often conflicting and prevents a holistic understanding of true meaning.

The Islamic tradition distinguishes two kinds of knowledge: transmitted (naqli) and intellectual ('aqli). Transmitted knowledge is gained from someone else – by imitation – while intellectual knowledge is the subjective experience that may occur by training the mind or “polishing the heart”. Academic sciences represent transmitted teachings (based upon consensus).  The essence and meaning of intellectual knowledge, however, cannot be taught but has to be understood and experienced in the heart and mind of the knower through self discovery.

The goal of human life is this self knowledge and the self realization. This can be achieved through actualizing both the theoretical intellect (knowing all realities and all the names) and the practical intellect (morality or acting correctly on the basis of the names taught by God) [30]. This indeed is the oath of tawhid, showing the inter-relatedness of Beings and the unification of them in One.

All other information and achievements contribute to the ignorance of the person of herself, the realities, and God. Chittick criticizes modern societies and modern sciences which are not based on tawhid. Modern society and its institutions (political, social and educational) contribute to the distance of the person from the true goal of humanity. Muslims should not be attracted to the achievements of the modern western world. Instead, they should reflect on the heritage of the few pre-modern muslim philosophers and mystics.

At the same time Chittick also warns about the dangers of dogmatism and ideology among muslims and Islamic countries which can also undermine intellectual knowledge and the relevance of self discovery.

This is an insightful book, interesting to both muslim and non-muslim readers. Pointing to the importance of being aware of the metaphysical presumptions of modern society and especially modern sciences, Chittick argues that the Islamic intellectual tradition can play a role in both collective and individual peace and harmony.

Chittick calls upon his readers to establish a standpoint that is not based on transmitted knowledge or theoretical frameworks, “a call to recover for ourselves – each of us individually – a proper understanding of our own nature”. However the book leaves the reader alone after this call, without clear examples of the realization of this path in our contemporary world. As Chittick insists, this personal quest does not require imitations. “True meaning can never be grasped by dogma, doctrine, theories, theorems, or any other mental construct“ [149].