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DAWN Tuesday Review, c.1996

Muslim Science

Some modern scholars are quick to point out that "Muslim science" is an absurd term. Science is a body of systematized and tested knowledge. Scientific facts and values remain the same whether they are professed by Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus or whoever. This objec­tion can be answered at two levels. At a common person's level we can say that science may be divid­ed into ancient and mod­ern or Greek and Indian, for the convenience of studying its history.

Likewise, science as practiced in Muslim societies may be termed the Muslim science. However, scholars like Seyed Hossein Nasr would take a different position. In his monumen­tal work Science and Civilization in Islam (1968) he has asserted that the Islamic sciences as well as all the mediae­val and ancient cosmological sciences had purpos­es and precepts that were essentially different from those of the modern science. The Islamic sciences were based on ideas that flowed out of the basic principles of the Muslim faith. It is this line of thought that I intend to follow in the present article.

With the triumph of rationality over religion in the seven­teenth and eighteenth centuries the west adopted an "evolutionistic" approach towards the history of science. Hence the story of science was seen as a linear development of the knowledge of facts. It was believed that these facts were universal, and that they have refined with the passage of time and from generation to generation. The only logical conclusion of this type of thinking could be this: "the science, known today, is the best; the science tomorrow will probably be even better." Some of our earlier authors inherited this approach under the colonial influence. Chief amongst them, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Justice Ameer Ali. The latter, in The Spirit of Islam seems to be suggesting an interesting thesis, that if the onslaught of the Mongols and the rise of orthodoxy had not curbed the spirit of inquiry in the Muslim society, the Muslims would have had made all the discoveries and invented all the inventions much before the Europeans did. This argument was taken to its intellectual peak by Iqbal in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1929). In these lectures, the poet-philosopher pointed out that the Muslims con­tributed an empiricist and deductive approach to the sciences. But he also stunned his audi­ence (and readers) by pointing out that the west has already started mov­ing away from its materi­alism since it has discov­ered the principle of rela­tivity.

Professor Karrar Husain refers to this argument as based on a "mechanical model" of social history, in his lec­ture included in Fikr-i-Islami Ki Tashkeel-e-Jadeed, edited by Dr Syed Jafferi (1988)). The mechanical model envis­ages a civilisation as a mechanism. The implica­tion is that the compo­nents of a civilisation can be exchanged or replaced with compo­nents from other civilizations, just like parts in a mechanism. Hence German philosophy could be grafted on Muslim Sufism, and so on.

Hossein Nasr's thesis is in a line directly opposed to this point of view. It is based on an "organismic" model. The organismic model implies that civilizations grow and degen­erate much like living organisms. All components of a civilization exist together to form a whole, and cannot be sepa­rated from the body (i.e., the civilization). Hence, we cannot say that Muslims borrowed science or philosophy from the Greeks. The Muslim civilization simply "nourished" on the ideas of the ancient Greeks, taking them, digesting them and absorbing the parts that conformed to its body systems while rejecting those which were found repugnant. Likewise, it is erroneous to say that the science of the modern Europeans is based on the achievements of the Muslims. The modern European civilization was conceived in the womb of the Renaissance. It used the works of the Muslim scholars as food for thought, but it grew on its own skeleton. The ultimate conclusion of this line of argument is that the modern science is not a progression of the Muslim science. Therefore it is not a more developed form of Muslim sci­ence. And therefore Muslim science needs to be studied, not from the perspective of modern science, but from its own perspective. For this, we have to understand the perspective of the Islamic civilization first, which was based on the spirit of the revelation and the foremost amongst its principles was the unity of God, and which also implied the unity of the created world. The purpose of the scientist was never to seek the mysteries of the universe for their own sake. The purpose was to seek salvation through a better understanding of the world created by Allah. And this purpose was shared by all components of the society.

Omar Khayyam, the famous mathematician and poet who lived in the eleventh century, divided the seekers after knowledge into four categories, which may also be seen as the four components of the classical Muslim intellect. This is how Khayyam describes them in his Risalah-i-Wujud (translated by Hossein Nasr):

(1) The theologians, who become content with disputation and "satisfying" proofs.

(2) The philosophers and learned men (of Greek inspiration) who use rational arguments and seek to know the laws of logic, and are never content merely with "satisfying" argu­ments.

(3) The Ismailis (a branch of Shia Muslims) and others who say that the way of knowledge is none other than receiving information from a learned and credible informant; for in reasoning about the knowledge of the Creator, His Essence and Attributes, there is much difficulty.

(4) The Sufis, who do not seek knowl­edge by meditation or discursive think­ing, but by purgation of their inner being and the purifying of their dispositions. They cleanse the rational soul of the impurities of nature and bodily form, until it becomes pure substance. It then comes face to face with the spiritual world, so that the forms of that world become truly reflected in it, without doubt and ambiguity. This is the best way of all. Tell unto reasoners that, for the lovers of God (Gnostics), intuition is guide, not discursive thought.

In this classic classification the scientists would fall into the category of the "philosophers." Interestingly, Khayyam does not put himself into the category of philosophers (although he was an extra­ordinary mathematician) but into the category of the Sufis. This is because he believed that his mathematical feats were merely subservient to his Sufistic endeavors of becoming "one with nature". In the words of Hossein Nasr, "... the aim of all the Islamic sciences — and ... of all the mediaeval and ancient cosmological sciences — is to show the unity and inter-relatedness of all that ' exists, so that, in contemplating the unity of the cosmos, man may be led to the unity of the Divine Principle, of which the unity of Nature is the image ... Islamic science seeks ultimately to attain such knowledge as will con­tribute towards the spiritual perfection and deliverance of any­one capable of studying it." This is why the fruits of the Islamic sciences are "inward and hidden," while the fruits of the west­ern science are obvious too in the form of technology.

An analogy from Professor Karrar Husain seems to be a fit­ting conclusion to this discussion. Just as a healthy human being benefits from exposure to fresh air and intake of nutri­tious diet while a sick person may grow worse if exposed to such things, so is the case with civilizations. Hence when the Muslim society was "healthy," it benefited from Greek thought and sciences. Then it had the capability to "absorb" alien ideas. By the time the modern western thought and sci­ence "invaded" it, the Muslim society, had grown "weak and ill.". That is why the impact of the modern science on us has been different than the impact the Greek science once had on our predecessors.

And this gives rise to the big question: if we really want to develop ourselves in science, then shouldn't we aim at trans­forming the whole society into a "healthy society" first? Shouldn't we aim at uniform development in all aspects of life (art, literature, tolerance, justice, and so on) rather than churning out just more engineers and doctors every year?

Just as a healthy human being benefits from exposure to fresh air and intake of nutri­tious diet while a sick person may grow worse if exposed to such things, so is the case with civilizations.

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