How Muslim Theologians Saved Islamic Science

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Posted by: Macksood A. Aftab

The conflict between science and religion posed a serious threat to religious power in the modern era. Many supporters of scientism have used the tremendous success of science in our time to question the usefulness of religion as a means of seeking truth. For example, Stephen Hawking recently stated in the Huffington Post article: “Before we understood science, it was natural to believe that God created the universe, but now science offers more convincing explanations.” More recently, the harsh criticism of religion, based on various forms of scientism by writers such as Richard Dawkins, has exacerbated the conflict.

Their opinion suggests that both religion and science have the same goal, namely the explanation of the existence of the Universe. In addition, the scientific method is considered a more reliable way to achieve this goal. This is primarily because science deals with physical processes that can be quantified and measured, whereas religion often resorts to metaphysical references that cannot be “proven”. Professor Nakwib Al-Attas, the famous Malaysian Muslim philosopher, summarizes the essential problem. He writes: "The essence of them [those who espouse science as the source for truth] the basic assumption is that science is the only true knowledge; what is it [scientific] knowledge refers only to phenomena. " Everything that does not have a “physical” existence, everything that cannot be studied empirically, is excluded from science. Therefore, it is implied in the worldview that holds science as the highest power of knowledge, is the denial of God.

As the Nobel Prize winner Werner Arber, president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, “natural sciences are in constant search for truth, as well as theology.” This naturally creates two clearly competing methodologies for finding and defining truth, which inevitably leads to a conflict between theology and science. Although the Catholic Church generally supported science, when the conclusions of scientists came into conflict with church dogma, problems arose. This can be seen in the experiments of Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin.

However, Islamic history has taken a different path. Despite the existence of sustainable Islamic scientific entrepreneurship in the Islamic world, an open conflict between science and religion did not arise. Professor Walbridge at Indiana University notes that "the Islamic world did not create martyrs for science, such as Bruno and Galileo." One of the achievements of Islamic civilization was the creation of a worldview in which both theology and science could be taken in an integrated rational framework,

The Islamic tradition of scholastic theology is known as calamTwo primary schools calam are Ash`ari and his close relative of the Maturidi schools. Both of them are based on a rational understanding of God and the Universe, which also strive to strictly preserve the distinctive features of the Islamic concept of God. This tradition, along with its wider place in the Islamic worldview, is best understood in the works of one of its main supporters, Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111 AD). Richard Frank, a scholar of Islamic theology, describes Ghazali as "the most important Sunni theologian at a decisive turn in the history of orthodox Muslim theology." At one time, Islam arose from the period of intellectual schism. Ghazali contributed to a consensus on this issue, which was to become the dominant doctrine of the Sunnis. Thus, the scientist and translator Ghazali Walter Skelly writes: “With him [Ghazali] the religious philosophy and experience of Islam reach their zenith. "

Demonstration proof (Burhan)

The triumph of Ghazali's epistemology lies in successfully reconciling reason with revelation. One of the key elements of this was a textbook interpretation of Holy Scripture, especially when it relates to statements that may contradict what is known for a reason. Ghazali sets the bar very high for scientific evidence of over-study of the scriptures, what he calls Burhan, Burhan is demonstrative knowledge or ultimate logical proof. According to Ghazali, he had an even higher epistemic status than even scholastic theology (calam).

Professor Al-Akiti from Oxford writes: “For al-Ghazali, Burhan [definitive logical proof]and not calam, this is what he considered scientific knowledge, the “gold standard” in the art of reasoning – the judgment set forth in his Miyar al-Ilm. The late Professor Marmur, a Ghazali scholar, summarizes Ghazali’s attitude to the ultimate logical proof as follows:

“Science, the conclusions of which are not clearly true and which contradict the literal statements of Scripture, must be rejected. On the other hand, if that which is manifestly true contradicts the literal meaning of the biblical language, then the latter must be interpreted metaphorically. ”

Firmly justifying his worldview in rationality, Ghazali continues to point out that physical science does not meet the standards of the final logical proof, if God is not added to the equation. This is explained by the fact that science is based on an erroneous assumption, namely on natural causality. The reason, claims Ghazali, can only ensure that God is there to provide it. And what is important, according to Ghazali, God is an there to provide it. Belief in God then becomes a prerequisite for the successful pursuit of science.

Cause God and Science

Ghazali was able to reconcile the most important principle of science (namely, causality) with Islamic theological doctrines (as formulated by the dominant school of Ash and Ari). The theology of Ash was developed in response to some unorthodox formulations of Islamic doctrine (for example, adopted by Mutazalits and Philosophers), which led to a decrease in key divine attributes. Some of these formulations share faith in a necessary cause with modern secular scholars. Therefore, the criticism of Ghazali about their view is particularly useful in addressing such issues in the modern era.

Some of the main articles of faith in the theology of Ash are that God is all powerful, He knows everything, and all events occur because of His obvious will. Therefore, Ash believed that all events were directly caused only by God, and not by anything else. God is not just the first cause, but also the immediate cause of each subsequent minor and major event that occurs in the Universe. This seems to contradict our modern understanding of secular science, which is based on the principle of natural causality. Namely, that things (or events) cause other things (or events). For example, we think that fire causes cotton to burn when they approach each other.

Ghazali questions the principle of necessary causality adopted by some philosophers. According to Ghazali, this relationship between cause and effect is not needed. To use its terminology, there is no definitive logical proof (Burhan), that is the reason that is responsible for the effect. He argues that all we are seeing is a quick succession of events, cotton is approaching the fire and burning cotton. But relationships based simply on closeness in time or space do not imply the necessary causality. Ghazali famously states: "The connection between what is usually considered a cause and what is usually considered an effect is not is necessary".

David Hume in the Western tradition made a similar argument against causality. He asked: "Where is causal glue" holding together the cause and effect? However, unlike Hume, who was prone to skepticism, Ghazali has the answer to this mystery. For Ghazali, the causative glue is God. God guarantees that the connection between cause and effect is always maintained. At the same time, Ghazali created a place for Orthodox Islamic theology, in which God is the direct cause of everything.

On its surface, this line of thinking may be misunderstood to actually undermine science, as some historians and scientists thought. For example, the historian Tamim Ansari writes: “Take it as you please, the argument against causality undermines the whole scientific enterprise. If nothing really leads to anything else, why bother watching the natural world for meaningful patterns? "Pervez Khudbhoi, an eminent Pakistani scholar, expresses a similar concern about the situation of Ash, saying that in such a world" even an accelerating arrow cannot reach its goal. " In other words, if a causal relationship is not needed, then there would be no reliable way to rely on our observations, to predict natural phenomena, or to make scientific experiments.

Conflict, science flourishes

However, this criticism implies a dogmatic belief in science, which shies away from the very real problem of causality. Ghazali does not (and does not) deny causality. He simply denies the necessary causality, namely that there is no convincing evidence that things can affect other things on their own. For Ghazali, God must ensure that the relationship between cause and effect is always maintained. As Frank Griffel, a scientist from Ghazali at Yale, says:

"Faith in God (tawakkul) is a basic condition for the study of natural sciences. Such trust requires confidence that God will not change books for horses or will not disconnect our knowledge from reality. Given that God usually creates our knowledge in accordance with reality, we can rely on our meaning and our judgment and confidently pursue the natural sciences. ”

According to this view, God could suspend the laws of causality, but He never does and never will. So fire will always burn cotton, but this is true only because in all cases of its appearance God guarantees that this is so. In fact, Ghazali created a framework in which science can work, and the principles of Islamic theology (Divine power, knowledge and will) are preserved.

Moreover, Ghazali even established miracles, which he calls strange and miraculous phenomena, in the empirical world. Then even miracles were not Divine acts of the suspension of the normal work of the Universe; rather, they were unusual phenomena of nature because of reasons that are not immediately clear to us. The possibility of additional causal chains, other than those that are currently physically observed, contributed to the further study of the natural world. Ahmad Dallal, a historian of Islamic science at Georgetown University, writes:

“The aspect that had the greatest influence on the development of science was the concept of multiple possibilities (tajwiz), the idea that concrete natural philosophical explanations (or planetary models) are possible, but not definite, and that there may be alternative explanations for natural phenomena … this idea was based on the epistemological criticism of Aristotelian metaphysics. "

After Ghazali, science in the Muslim world experienced a long renaissance, as evidenced by Yale University historian George Saliba. His understanding led to the legitimization of science. Science was the discipline provided by God. He also had the effect of effectively separating theology from physical science. Divine attributes are known through revelation, and science does not play a significant role in informing us about these metaphysical issues. On the other hand, revelation does not interfere with the work of science; it remains an independent discipline in the wider Islamic framework. Dallal explains

“After Al-Ghazali, the need to refer to religion to protect science has diminished significantly, not because science was not accepted, but because it did not need justification. Excluding studies related to the final cause from science, did not compromise the providence of God, which was simply accepted without questioning (bila kayf) ".

This worldview is based on the fact that God exists and supports the universe. God is not the ultimate goal of science, but rather the starting point. This created an organic and interdependent relationship between science and religion, which essentially eliminated the potential for conflict between the two disciplines. In fact, according to Professor Muzaffar Iqbal, a professor of Islamic science,

"No one thought of them [science and religion] as two independent objects that were supposed to be connected through an external mechanism … This relationship arose naturally and because the scientific tradition was deeply rooted in the worldview created by Islam. ”

This worldview was rational. He recognized the primacy of reason and actually provided Burhan highest epistemic status. Within this framework, secular science is criticized on the basis of the logical mistakes made by its supporters. Then science is presented not as a rival force with religion, but rather as a viable enterprise, as part of a comprehensive worldview that embraces God. In fact, it is based on the assumption of God. This delicate balance, which provided both science and theology, is one of the greatest achievements of medieval Muslim theologians.

Dr. Macksood Aftab is a neuroradiologist and clinical associate professor at both Michigan State University and Central Michigan University. He has a master’s degree in the history of science and is an editor Journal of Islamic Philosophy. The author can be contacted at:

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