How to Take Islam Back to Reason: Far from Being Anti-Science, as George Carey Suggests, the Koran Demands Scientific Study. Now Muslim Leaders Are Planning Its Revival and Hope to Restore a Golden Age, Reports Ziauddin Sardar

By Sardar, Ziauddin | New Statesman (1996), April 5, 2004 | Go to article overview

How to Take Islam Back to Reason: Far from Being Anti-Science, as George Carey Suggests, the Koran Demands Scientific Study. Now Muslim Leaders Are Planning Its Revival and Hope to Restore a Golden Age, Reports Ziauddin Sardar


Sardar, Ziauddin, New Statesman (1996)


Science and Islam are intimately linked. This sounds odd. First, because we normally think of religion as harmfully hostile to science. Wasn't there a long and protracted war between science and Christianity? Did the Church not prosecute Galileo? But this "war" between science and religion was purely a western affair. There is no counterpart in Islam of such mutual hostilities. Second, science and technology are conspicuous in Muslim societies largely by their absence. It is this state of affairs that has led many--including at a recent seminar in Rome, George Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury--to conclude that Islam is anti-science.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Islam not only places a high premium on science, but positively encourages its pursuit. Indeed, Islam considers it as essential for human survival.

The Koran devotes almost one-third of its contents to singing the praises of scientific knowledge, objective inquiry and serious study of the material world. The first Koranic word revealed to the Prophet Muhammad is: "Read." It refers to reading the "signs of God" or the systematic study of nature. It is a basic tenet of Muslim belief that the material world is full of signs of God; and these signs can be deciphered only through rational and objective inquiry. "Acquire the knowledge of all things," the Koran advises its readers; "... say: 'O my Lord! increase me in knowledge". One of the most frequently cited verses of the Koran reads:

    Surely in the heavens and earth, there are signs for the believers;
    And in your creation, and the crawling things He has scattered
    abroad, there are signs for a people having sure faith;
    And in the alternation of night and day, and the provision God sends
    down from heaven, and therewith revives the earth after it is dead,
    and the turning about of the winds, there are signs for a people who
    understand. (45:3-5)

The sayings of the Prophet Muhammad reinforce these teachings. Islamic culture, he insisted, was a knowledge-based culture. He valued science over extensive worship and declared: "An hour's study of nature is better than a year's prayer." This is why he directed his followers to "listen to the words of the scientist and instil unto others the lessons of science".

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The religious impulse propelled science in Muslim civilisation during the classical period, from the eighth to the 15th centuries. The need to determine accurate times for daily prayers and the direction of Mecca from anywhere in the Muslim world, and to establish the correct date for the start of the fasting month of Ramadan as well as the demands of the lunar Islamic calendar (which required seeing the new moon clearly), led to intense interest in celestial mechanics, optical and atmospheric physics, and spherical trigonometry. Muslim inheritance laws led to the development of algebra. The religious requirement of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca generated intense interest in geography, map-making and navigational tools.

Given the special emphasis that Islam placed on learning and inquiry, and the great responsibility that Muslim states took on themselves to assist in this endeavour, it was natural for Muslims to master ancient knowledge. At the instigation of powerful patrons, teams of translators lovingly translated Greek thought and learning into Arabic. But Muslims were not content with slavishly copying Greek knowledge; they tried to assimilate Greek teachings and applied Greek principles to their own problems, discovering new principles and methods. Scholars such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Rushd subjected Greek philosophy to detailed critical scrutiny.

At the same time, serious attention was given to the empirical study of nature. Experimental science, as we understand it today, began in the Muslim civilisation. "Scientific method" evolved out of the work of such scientists as Jabir Ibn Hayyan, who laid the foundations of chemistry in the late eighth century, and Ibn al-Haytham, who established optics as an experimental science in the tenth century. …

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How to Take Islam Back to Reason: Far from Being Anti-Science, as George Carey Suggests, the Koran Demands Scientific Study. Now Muslim Leaders Are Planning Its Revival and Hope to Restore a Golden Age, Reports Ziauddin Sardar
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