Is Islamic Science Possible?

By Iqbal, Muzaffar | Islam & Science, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Is Islamic Science Possible?

Iqbal, Muzaffar, Islam & Science

Enough has been said by the proponents of Islamic science and by those for whom even the term "Islamic science" is an oxymoron. In fact, too much has been said by both sides and the discourse has often spilled over to unrelated territories. Certain proponents of Islamic science find numerous recent scientific theories and even technological inventions in the Noble Qur'an; some of their opponents reduce the eight hundred years of Islamic scientific tradition to a depot where Greek science was brought on horse-driven carriages and kept safe until it was recovered by its rightful heir--Europe. Some proponents of Islamic science see Darwin, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Harvey, and Einstein prefigured in al-Jahiz, al-Biruni, ibn Sina, Ibn al-Haytham, al-Tusi, and Ibn Nafis, while their opponents sarcastically ask science Muslims have accomplished over all these centuries.

These are, admittedly, the extreme ends of the discourse, yet one of the most significant realities of the contemporary world is the fact that there is no such thing as "Islamic science" anywhere. So, even if there once existed a scientific tradition which can rightfully be called Islamic, and even if it existed for as long as it did, what remains to be proven is its relevance and applicability in the contemporary world; without such a demonstration all arguments for and against Islamic science are merely academic, dealing with a relic of the past; while such debates are important for the history of science, their scope and relevance is limited. What is essential for this discourse to move forward is the actual emergence of a scientific tradition based on the foundational principles of the study of nature anchored in the Noble Qur'an and the Sunnah.

These principles have been eloquently expressed by a small number of Muslim scholars over the last half century. Briefly stated, Islamic science is a science that takes the natural world as a sign (aya) of the One who created it in the first place and Who is continuously, singularly, and uniquely its Sustainer. Furthermore, it is a science that serves as a tool to utilize the bounties of nature for the benefit of humanity in a manner that is indicative of a deep awareness of the veritable relationship of humans to these bounties granted by the Creator Who placed human beings as stewards and khulafa' of all that He created. A third significant aspect of science practiced from within the traditional Islamic view of the natural world is the organic and dynamic relationship between scientific investigation and the real and true needs of humanity. It is possible to invest disproportionate resources on one particular aspect of science and its applications--such as high-tech weapons, space or deep sea explorations intended to meet certain needs of the defense industry, or medical techniques which would only be practically available to rich and influential people--such an orientation for scientific research does not reflect Islamic principles and values. These and other aspects of a new tradition of science and technology, firmly anchored in the Islamic weltanschauung, delineate and define differences both in theory and practice that set it apart from a science and technology not so grounded and rooted.

Given the unambiguous position of Muslim scholars on the nature of Islamic science, one would expect that by now a readily identifiable revitalized Islamic scientific tradition and, consequently, a community of Muslim scientists would have come into existence. Yet there is neither such a revitalized tradition nor such a scientific community. There are, indeed, thousands of distinguished scientists who are Muslim, but one cannot find Muslim scientists dedicated to the exploration of the natural world from within the Islamic worldview. Does this mean that all formulations of Islamic science are merely theoretical propositions with no real potentiality? In other words, are the claims of the opponents of Islamic science really true? …

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