بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
الحمد لله رب العالمين، والصلاة والسلام على سيد الأنبياء والمرسلين واله وأصحابه أجمعين أما بعد
“Say: ‘Truly, my prayer, and my service of sacrifice, my life, and my death, are all for God, The Cherisher of the Worlds:'”
This link to God cannot be restricted to a certain period of man’s life or to some aspects of his behaviour. His whole life is strongly linked to his Creator during the period spent at school, in the pre-school period or after it. It is true that the individual might not be aware of a given aim at a given time for one reason or the other; but this does not undermine our main principle. A young pupil who is six years old might not understand the reason he is being taught to read; but his or her teacher knows or ought to know. Thus, to say that a person does not know his aim cannot be equated with saying that he has no aims at all. Man’s ignorance of his aims is quite probable, but the complete absence of such aims is unlikely. The school curriculum is usually based upon well-defined principles; its activities and content should be designed in such a way that students may attain desired outcomes. This fact is held by most if not all educators regardless of their ideologies.
However, many students of Islamic institutions or madrasas seem to exhibit an apathy towards the secular sciences, be that the essential life sciences responsible for human well being and medicine, or knowledge of nature, of geology, astronomy, of physics, and the natural geo-spatial sciences.
Knowledge, to them, seems to exist in a duality of “good” and “bad” and the distinction to them seems to be very easy to determine.
Reasons for the Dichotomy
Three dominant reasons seem responsible for this view:
- The bigoted racist Western Orientalist ideology does not wish to give credit to the “other” for its greatest accomplishments and thus, Islamic accomplishments and discoveries are hidden from the eyes. It is the responsibility of educators and parents to imbibe the true source of this legacy in our children.
- The change in attitude in Islamic theology towards science, and the lasting damage inflicted by religious conservatism upon the spirit of intellectual inquiry, as well as, and also because of, the modernist attacks on religion and theology by an era fixated on scientific discovery and materialism
- The global colonisation which saw a European nation pillage and colonise vast swathes of land, subjugating its people and enforcing upon them, new ways of thinking, dressing, and learning. Thus, secular knowledge was classically conditioned to be a part of the “occupying God-less West” – belonging to the Other
A Quick Background of the Indian Mutiny
It was 1857. The year of the Indian sepoy mutiny. Thousands of Indian Muslims were massacred for their uprising against the colonial occupation once a threshold of acceptance had been reached particularly from notions of a covert operation to uproot not only their culture – through English language programs – but also of their religion – including sacrilegious acts such as the use of swine fats in sepoy guns. All of this and much more, much of it inevitable in a classic case of colonisation and occupation, served to form a deep rooted malevolence towards not only their occupants, but anything associated with them, even if such an association was merely incidental.
As such, one can appreciate to some extent of such a strong negative reaction within the context of the post-colonial Muslim world. However, it is very concerning that such a binary mindset, transplanted from the grievance-ridden narrative of the post-colonial Muslim world, persists within the European Muslim diaspora. This has direct implications for the self-understanding of European Muslim youth and the way in which they relate to the cultural plurality in their lives.
What is Islamic Pedagogy? Or Tarbiyah?
In Islam, it is important to note that the concept of ‘tarbiyah’ does not depict education along dichotomic lines of religious or secular therefore, it cannot be limited to a form of religious education, instruction, or nurture. It conveys a more comprehensive understanding of education as a holistic, embodied, and reflective process that facilitates human flourishing and the transformation of the human condition in its diverse psychical, cognitive, spiritual, moral, and emotional articulations. As such, tarbiyah, goes beyond the confines of a disinterested cognitive focus implied by the word ‘study’ or a mere religious/moral instruction and training.
Seeing the world from a holistic educational vision enshrined in the central Qur’anic theological concept of tawhid, stimulated early Muslims to engage with the indigenous thought and wisdom of the traditions of Persia, India, and ancient Greece that, in turn, have contributed to the emergence of the Islamic civilization. A key literary, educational, and moral concept that shaped Muslim higher education—particularly adab – its humanities curriculum, which meant refinement of character, manners, aesthetic, and literary taste—was developed out of interaction with the Indio-Persian heritage that Muslims inherited. Ibn al-Muqaffa (d.670), a convert from Persia, is usually credited with the development of the literary- and moral education-focused adab genre that is often overlooked in the recent literature.
It is significant that, when Muslims first reached Southeast Asia, largely through trade, instead of dismissing the deeply-rooted values of Hinduism and Buddhism of the region, they integrated and creatively expressed Islam within this rich civilizational tapestry. The morally and spiritually redefined Islamic adab become easily adoptable by people who mostly voluntarily converted to Islam. The adab complemented and was richly reinterpreted within the indigenous educational cultures. For example, it was infused into the sense of being an ‘educated person’ as depicted in the Darangen, the pre-Islamic oral epic poem of the Maranao people of southern Philippines. It is not surprising to note that so many contemporary Muslim thinkers in Southeast Asia, like Al-Attas (1980) in Malaysia, have preferred the concept of adab to be at the centre of their understanding of education in Islam.
Perhaps the largest outside influence contributing to the early flourishing of Muslim civilization came from the encounter with ancient Greek thought, mainly Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism, that had already shaped Christianity and to some extent Judaism. Muslims preserved, studied, and expanded ancient Greek philosophy and science without much serious hindrance from their faith. Most of the early Muslim moral and educational thought was actually modelled on ancient Greek works. Even Muslim theologians, mutakallimun, could not resist adopting the systematic thinking habits of the ancient Greeks. It was mostly the educated Christian Arabs who possessed the required linguistic competence and were encouraged by the Muslim Caliphs to translate Greek philosophical and scientific works into Arabic – known as the Translation movement of the 8th century. A Muslim philosopher like Al-Farabi (d.951), in his well-known book on ‘attaining happiness’, not only commented but developed these original works to the point of attempting to reconcile the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Muslim theologians like Al-Ghazali (d.1111) and Ibn Taymiyah (d.1328), who had mastered Greek philosophy and classical Islamic sciences, eventually offered a much more nuanced and critical reading of the ancient Greek legacy. Al-Ghazzali exposed the incoherence in the philosophical discourse of Muslim philosophers like Ibn Sina, and Ibn Taymiyah wrote influential works refuting Aristotelian logic. However, even the pioneers of early indigenous Islamic rationality, the Mu’tazilah, could not resist using the categories of philosophical thinking that had led to the emergence of Islamic philosophical theology – or kalam. The Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (d.1198), working in the early Muslim Western context of Spain, persuasively argued for the strong compatibility between Islam (shariah) and Greek philosophy. Nourished by ancient Greek ideas, Averroes’s and the Christian Thomas Aquinas’s philosophies of education exhibit stark similarities. Such a dialectical engagement enriched classical Muslim thought as it enabled a synthetic and integrated Muslim educational self-understanding to flourish.
It cannot be stressed highly enough that contemporary Muslims need to have confidence in their tradition and revive this early Muslim spirit of learning and critical education in order to engage creatively with the challenges facing them.
Moreover, in order to demonstrate this Islamic/Western creative exchange and dialogue, it suffices to consider how early Muslim scholars developed a notion of being a ‘perfect human being’ (al-insan al-kamil) through educational practice that had many parallels with the ancient Greek perception of the same idea. Yahya ibn ‘Adi (d.974), a student of Al-Farabi who was a Syriac Christian philosopher, theologian and translator working in Arabic in medieval Baghdad, suggested that the ‘perfect man’ is the one who has ‘every virtue and is without vice’. He lists these virtues as ‘temperance, contentment, preservation of one’s reputation, clemency, dignified and modest behaviour, affection, compassion and mercy, loyalty, trustworthiness, keeping of secrets, modesty, cheerfulness, truthfulness, good will and sincerity’. Ibn Sina, just like Aristotle, believed that the heart is the seat of all human faculties, even though they function through different parts of the brain. The ‘best or perfect man’, according to Ibn Sina, is one whose soul is perfected by becoming an intellect in act, and who has acquired the morals that constitute the practical virtues.
Similar ideas shaped most of the classical Muslim spiritual tradition, tasawwuf, particularly the theosophical thought represented by influential figures like Ibn ‘Arabi (d.1240) who was most receptive of philosophy. Most classical Islamic ethical thought and moral education, with few exceptions, have parallels with, if are not actually modelled on, early Greek thinking. This was not a simple borrowing but a creative appropriation and integration into the core revelation-based Islamic values. For example, the books written within the genre of adab were mostly entitled ‘refinement of character’ (tahdhib al-akhlaq) and modelled on the original Greek-inspired work by the Christian Ibn ‘Adi mentioned above. Naturally, Ibn ‘Adi’s book has no reference to the Qur’an but the equivalent works by Muslim scholars—such as al-Raghab al-Isfahani (d.1109) – integrated the core Greek ethics with insights gleaned from the Qur’an and prophetic traditions.
It appears that the philosophical and educational ethics in Islam were deeply shaped by ancient Greek concepts, such as phronesis, referring to the kind of practical wisdom and virtues, in Muslim tradition called hikma; needed for developing a good sense, judgment and following the best course of action in one’s life.
Muslims adopted an educational learning attitude towards their own faith but, most crucially, towards the wisdom embedded in humanity’s collective memory. As the 20-volume work, Book of Songs, by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani (d.967) illustrates, even the pre-Islamic Arab oral traditions of singing, poetry, humour, and story-telling were diligently studied and used as educational resources. Adab quickly became the literary tradition of the secretarial or administrative class within the Caliphs’ court, representing the culture of the professional literati and which indicated an acquired taste, refinement, revered statesmanship, and so on. Adab also came to define Islamic spirituality and signify the ethics and manners needed to be observed in different sciences that included the science of exploring the values of being a good learner, teacher and even conducting scientific inquiries (adab al-ta’lim wa al-muta’llim/adab al-tahqiq). Most crucially, the dichotomic perception laid out in Table 1 does not square with the nature and character of educational self-understanding in Muslim core sources and the diverse traditions relating to its higher education institutions. There is no space here to explore the dynamic educational theology and hermeneutics that shaped the Muslim intellectual heritage but, suffice to say that while Muslim higher education was open to the values developed within diverse pedagogic and ethical models outside the Muslim world, it managed to interpret them within a higher Islamic educational value system. For example, as already noted, the classical Greek ethical idea of sophrosyne (‘excellence of character, perfect harmony’) that also refers to the ‘power of self-control, training and controlling passion with reason’ influenced Muslim educational ethics and its perception of the perfect human being. However, the Qur’an and the prophetic traditions put forward a much more holistic perception of human nature and its perfection into a balanced maturity that integrates bodily, rational, emotional, moral, and spiritual elements. The idea of human excellence, harmony and just balance is expressed not with the brute power of control or possession of abstract knowledge but with the concept of ihsaan: that is, perfecting one’s conduct in life and showing values of kindness, compassion, generosity, hospitality, and openness. The inner control is tied with increasing self-awareness and God-consciousness (taqwa). Furthermore, a rigorous application of educational hermeneutics on the Qur’an reveals that the value of gratitude (shukr) defines the nature of Islamic faithfulness and bringing about a grateful humanity lies at the heart of Qur’anic critical and reflective pedagogy.
The Beginnings of a Dynamic and Holistic Islamic Epistemology – The Birth of Islamic Science
The early Muslim community, inspired by the transformative divine educational vision of the Qur’an that can best be expressed with the concept of tarbiyah, imbued its spiritual devotion with a deeper reflective competence, thus becoming witness to the ‘critical faithfulness’ embedded at the ethical core of monotheism as voiced by the Abrahamic faith traditions. This educational curiosity motivated early Muslims to deepen their understanding of Islam and the world around them. Naturally, this triggered the emergence of a dynamic and holistic Islamic epistemology, facilitating the advent of the classical Muslim sciences and a creativity which generated new knowledge, insights, and meanings. Early Muslims’ educational openness, which was a key catalyst in the initial rapid expansion of Islam, enabled them to have the confidence to accommodate the creativity of the new Muslims who brought with them diverse sets of cultural and intellectual insights thereby enriching Muslim civilization.
Furthermore, the values of educational ethics in Islamic and Western civilisations in their secular and religious foundations rests on the notion of human dignity. For example, within the Judeo-Christian tradition there is a clear emphasis on the idea that humanity is created in the image of God and, therefore, the dignity and sanctity of all humanity, regardless of colour and creed, need to be respected. Moreover, within prophetic monotheism there is a clear demand that practising justice and addressing inequality should be part of faithfulness. In the Muslim tradition, contributing to the ‘common good’ (maslahah) and ensuring the dignity (karamah), well-being and security of all, regardless of communities’ ethnicity and religious affiliation, are fundamental educational and ethical values. Recognition of the dignity of the ‘other’ requires a willingness to ‘relativise’ (that is, contextualise) our inherited identities, a necessary if not sufficient condition to engage with and learn from one another. This requires ‘critical openness’—a key competence which needs to be nurtured in multicultural societies if a new sense of solidarity and social cohesion is to emerge. If we are unable to show humility, we will risk doing violence to the other by simply assimilating them to our own self-understanding. It must be stressed that faith implies a capacity for both ‘self-relativising and self-transcendence’: that is, an ability to recognize both the contextual/contingent character of human existence and the need to remain critically open to the world around us and the ultimate reality beyond us (God). Contrary to current political readings depicting Islam as a totalitarian closed system, its educational theology emphasises the contingent character of the human condition so making human life always relative to certain contexts, which in turn opens up the possibility of dialogue.
The difference and diversity in human life and in nature in the Qur’an were acknowledged as signifying God’s eternal knowledge and wisdom. Therefore, respecting diversity could be seen as appreciating the Divine creativity. All of these critical educational values are actually mentioned in the Qur’an as being among the central features of a faithful and balanced community. Read within such contextual hermeneutics, theology (that is, the vertical dimension of faith, or God-centredness) becomes an anthropology (that is, translates into a human-focused horizontal dimension articulated as an ethical demand to facilitate human well-being, justice, happiness and fulfilment). As such, faith becomes a liberating and empowering educational force facilitating human flourishing (tarbiyah), nurturing values of gratitude (shukr) and respect for human dignity (karamah), and emphasising the need to remain open to difference (taaruf). The Islamic education of Muslim children and young people therefore should necessarily include understanding the plurality in Muslim tradition and the wider religious diversity in the modern world. As such, Islamic Education and inclusive Religious Education in the UK schooling system, for example, instead of being antagonistic, in fact, can complement one another.
In order to properly answer the nature of tarbiyah and Islamic Education, the question that needs to be raised is; what are the aims of an Islamic Education?
The purpose of Islamic Education is laid out in two distinct verses; the first speaks of Man sent to the Earth as a “khalifah”, a vicegerent. In order to sufficiently fulfil this role, man needs to be educated with regards to his subjects, both fauna and flora, for without this knowledge, man will be deficient in his decree over them. The second verse deals with man’s ultimate objective of ibadah – service of God.
From a western lens, educational objectives have been historically debated and assume a sake of learning for learning itself, or, influenced by the age of industrialisation, a focus shifted towards skills required for efficiency in the workplace.
However, in the Islamic sphere, three aspects fulfil the needs of a man with an objective – which together equid him to essentially serve God. The first is the faculty of the soul, the second the body, and the third, the aql – the rational aims.
The main concern of God’s khalifah is to believe in God and subject himself completely to Him. In the Qur’an we read: “I have only created Jinns and men, that They may serve Me” (ya’ budun). The concept of ibadah which is referred to in this ayah is interpreted to mean obedience to God and acting in accordance with His teachings. Sayyid Qutb observes that the concept of ibadah is comprehensive in that it includes all the actions of the khalifah since these are definitely considered as ibadat.
Consistently, the Quran commands introspection and reflection upon oneself and the sacred environment the net result of which is a unified criterion of knowledge. According to the Quran, therefore, there is no distinction of knowledge of the world, of the heavens, or of the religion itself. Indeed, it informs us that “He taught Adam the names of all things” (2:31). Commentators therefore espouse that Adam was the most scientifically knowledgeable of men since he knew the conceptions of all of the Divinely created entities.
In our crisis, we find that education and knowledge is sifted into two parts: one that centres around the Divine and is known as “religious knowledge”, or “ilm”, and the other, often disparagingly labelled as mere “information” or “ma’lumaat”. Such a distinction is far from the values of the Qur’an. The hadith itself, informs us not to neglect the world for the hereafter. But the verse in the quran which centres our conception of knowledge is the following:
“Inna l-din ‘ind Allaahi l-Islam.” The only din according to Allah, is Islam.
This makes the two terms “Islam” and “din” synonyms. Since Islam deals with the different aspects that relate to this life and the aims which deal with it cannot be described as secular or non-religious.
Interestingly, or rather, sadly, it has become common to think of “knowledge” as an all pervasive idea of everything that can be known; however, on the contrary, a definition of ilm is wholly more comprehensive and profound than can be captured by “knowledge”.
Ilm is, according to Rosenthal, a very deep rooted concept in the teaching of Islam:
“The Arabic ‘ilm is fairly well rendered by our “knowledge”. However, “knowledge” falls short of expressing all the factual and emotional contents of ‘ilm. For ‘Ilm’ is one of those concepts that have dominated Islam and given Muslim civilisation its distinctive shape and complexion. In fact, there is no other concept that has been operative as a determinant of Muslim civilisation in all its aspects to the same extent as ‘ilm’ … There is no branch of Muslim intellectual life, of Muslim religious and political life, and of the daily life of the average Muslim that remained untouched by the all‐pervasive attitude towards “knowledge” of something of supreme value for Muslim being.
The divine is inextricably linked to everything in the creation so knowledge of the creation can lead to knowledge of the Creator. This knowledge is infused with emotion through the love that one has for God and his Messengerصلى الله عليه وسلم born out of awe and gratitude for God’s Generosity and Mercy.
Imam Raghib al-Isfahani, in defining ‘ilm, says that knowledge can be divided into two:
Transmitted knowledge, ie naqli, and aqli – intellectual knowledge acquired through the faculty of thinking.
Throughout Islamic history, various great teachers have reminded the community that transmitted knowledge is not an end in itself. Its real function is to serve as a framework for self‐realization that is, for the awakening of the intelligence that is innate to the human soul.
This is also remarkably explicated by the great thinker, theologian, and mufassir, Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, who, in explaining ayat al-nur – the verse of Light in surah nur, says that nurun ala nur means wahyun ala aql. It is a composite knowledge of divine revelation upon the intellect, that creates perfect thinking, giving rise to the perfect man. If any of the two is lacking, man will be inevitably deficient.
The Secular Sciences – a Product of the West?
It is important to note that the legacy of the secular sciences does not belong to the West. Nor can anyone intrinsically claim it for themselves; however, many historians are of the view that the Western Renaissance and the age of Enlightenment was founded upon the accomplishments of the Islamic Golden Age. The madrassah, particularly in its most creative period (8th–13th centuries), integrated the transmitted religious sciences (naqliyaat), via a strong provision for auxiliary sciences (aliyyat)—such as the study of language and logic—with the philosophical and natural sciences (aqliyaat). This attracted European students who were prevented by the medieval Church from engaging in free and critical inquiry. However, Western students, encouraged by the open educational culture of the Muslim learning institutions, were re-connected with the ancient Greek philosophical and scientific heritage that in turn had stimulated the emergence of Renaissance humanism. The latter acted as a catalyst for medieval Europe to reform itself around a new reason/science-based secular Enlightenment narrative and to create institutions of higher learning that eventually eclipsed the no-longer-dynamic Muslim madrassah.
The early Muslims were pioneers in the Sciences, Art, and Philosophy, at a time when the rest of the world was plagued with ignorance. Read about scholars like Ibn Sina- the father of modern medicine, Ibn al Haytham- the first theoretical physicist and Al-Khawarizmi-the founder of algebra.
What is remarkable, for instance, is that for over 700 years the international language of science was Arabic. More surprising is the fact that one of the most fertile periods of scholarship and scientific progress in history would not have taken place without the spread of Islam across the Middle East, Persia, north Africa, and Spain.
However, due to a significant lack of knowledge with regards to the era known as the Dark Ages, the Muslim youth of today considers that the world was in a total Dark Ignorant Age for a thousand years except religious knowledge in the Arabian Peninsula; and so, when science was kindled in the European lands during the Renaissance of the 16th century, it is strongly rejected as something born from the evil murderous pillaging and colonising hands of the Europeans. Thus, all of it, in totality, is rejected.
Such prejudiced, hidebound, and bigoted blindness is far from the teachings of our noble religion.
The Dark Ages were European; due to a lack of coverage, it is often assumed this was global. Yet the accomplishments of the Muslims in Iberia, Africa, and the Middle East, was so advanced that it took philosophers of the post-modernist era in the 19th century to come to the same levels of thought that was advanced by Muslim thinkers of the 9th 10th and 11th centuries known as the “Islamic Golden Age”.
Was this Islamic Golden Age known for mere religious knowledge?
The Muslim scholars of this period were polymaths much like Leonardo Da Vinci. The Persian philosopher Ibn Sina – Avicenna – born in 980 – is famous as the greatest physician of the middle ages. His Canon of Medicine – Qanun al-Tibb – was to remain the standard medical text in the Islamic world and across Europe until the 17th century, a period of more than 600 years. But Avicenna was also undoubtedly the greatest philosopher of Islam and one of the most important of all time. Avicenna’s work stands as the pinnacle of medieval philosophy.
But Avicenna was not the greatest scientist in Islam. For he did not have the encyclopaedic mind or make the breadth of impact across so many fields as a less famous Persian who seems to have lived in his shadow: Abu Rayhan al-Biruni. Not only did Biruni make significant breakthroughs as a brilliant philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer, but he also left his mark as a theologian, encyclopaedist, linguist, historian, geographer, pharmacist, and physician. He is also considered to be the father of geology and anthropology. The only other figure in history whose legacy rivals the scope of his scholarship would be Leonardo da Vinci. And yet Biruni is hardly known in the western world.
Many of the achievements of Arabic science often come as a surprise. For instance, while no one can doubt the genius of Copernicus and his heliocentric model of the solar system in heralding the age of modern astronomy, it is not commonly known that he relied on work carried out by Arab astronomers many centuries earlier. Many of his diagrams and calculations were taken from manuscripts of the 14th-century Syrian astronomer Ibn al-Shatir. Why is he never mentioned in our textbooks? Likewise, we are taught that English physician William Harvey was the first to correctly describe blood circulation in 1616. He was not. The first to give the correct description was the 13th-century Andalucian physician Ibn al-Nafees!
And we are reliably informed at school that Newton is the undisputed father of modern optics. School science books abound with his famous experiments with lenses and prisms, his study of the nature of light and its reflection, and the refraction and decomposition of light into the colours of the rainbow. But Newton stood on the shoulders of a giant who lived 700 years earlier. For without doubt one of the greatest of the Abbasid scientists was the Iraqi Ibn al-Haytham (born in 965), who is regarded as the world’s first physicist and as the father of the modern scientific method – long before Renaissance scholars such as Bacon and Descartes.
A Note about Newton
Sir Isaac Newton. One of the greatest physicists ever, said, “If I have seen further, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants”. We know about Isaac Newton very well, but we do not recognize the ‘Giants’. We are aware of the famous picture of Isaac Newton, where he is seen experimenting with light. But we are not aware that the same experiment was done by ibn al-Haytham somewhat seven centuries before him.
Muslim scientists such as Thabit ibn Qurra, ibn al-Haytham wrote about Calculus. We know of ibn al-Haytham writing about gravity. Abu Bakr al-Razi, centuries before Newton, made distinction between absolute and relative space; absolute space, which is three dimensional and infinite, exists quite independently of the bodies contained in it. And ibn Sina tried to relate velocity with mass, which is a precursor to the concept of momentum. This is also connected to Newton.
Let us look at Newton’s laws of motion. ibn Sina, ibn al-Haytham with others are seen to be writing about Newton’s law of inertia, the first law of motion. Abul Barakat al-Baghdadi writes that force is proportional to acceleration, which we get to know from the second law. While ibn Bajja wrote that, for every force there is a reaction force. Which is a forerunner to Newton’s third law of motion.
How do so many things that Newton worked on are described before by Muslim scientists?
The ‘Giants’ they say, are Copernicus, Kepler, Descartes, Tycho Brahe and Galileo. But actually, it just might be that Sir Isaac Newton was influenced by Muslim scientists.
In his writings, there are clear marks of influence of ibn Tufail’s philosophical romance Hayy ibn Yaqzan (Alive Son of Awaken). It is known that both Latin and English translations of the book by Edward Pococke and Simon Ockley were available at Isaac Newton’s time. ibn Tufail’s influence is seen on other philosopher, scientists, and fiction authors too.
Ibn al-Haytham’s name is also frequent. Father of ‘History of Science’, George Sarton indirectly writes that Newton was influenced by ibn al-Ibn al-Haytham. And yes, Isaac Newton did keep a copy of ibn al-Haytham’s magnum opus, Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics) in his personal library!
So, Newton’s ideas did not fall from an apple tree after all.
Darwin – the Father of Evolution?
But what surprises many even more is that a ninth-century Iraqi zoologist by the name of al-Jahith developed a rudimentary theory of natural selection a thousand years before Darwin. In his Book of Animals, Jahith speculates on how environmental factors can affect the characteristics of species, forcing them to adapt and then pass on those new traits to future generations. Indeed, macro-evolution (at a macro cellular level) can be observed in a laboratory. It is only micro-evolution – at a specie level – that is contested by religion.
Clearly, the scientific revolution of the Abbasids would not have taken place if not for Islam – in contrast to the spread of Christianity over the preceding centuries, which had nothing like the same effect in stimulating and encouraging original scientific thinking. The brand of Islam between the beginning of the ninth and the end of the 11th century was one that promoted a spirit of free thinking, tolerance, and rationalism. The comfortable compatibility between science and religion in medieval Baghdad contrasts starkly with the contradictions and conflict between rational science and many religious faiths in the world today.
The golden age of Arabic science slowed down after the 11th century. Many have speculated on the reason for this. Some blame the Mongols’ destruction of Baghdad in 1258, others the change in attitude in Islamic theology towards science, and the lasting damage inflicted by religious conservatism upon the spirit of intellectual inquiry. But the real reason was simply the gradual fragmentation of the Abbasid empire and the indifference shown by weaker rulers towards science.
But why did they study science in the Golden Age?
Scholars say science found such favour in medieval Islam for several reasons. Part of the allure was mystical; it was another way to experience the unity of creation that was the central message of Islam.
”Anyone who studies anatomy will increase his faith in the omnipotence and oneness of God the Almighty,” goes a saying often attributed to Abul-Walid Muhammad Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes, a 13th-century anatomist and philosopher.
Islam is a religion in which scientific procedures are necessary for religious ritual. Dr. David King, a historian of science at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, pointed out in his book ”Astronomy in the Service of Islam,” published in 1993. Arabs had always been knowledgeable about the stars and used them to navigate the desert, but Islam raised the stakes for astronomy.
The requirement that Muslims face in the direction of Mecca when they pray, for example, required knowledge of the size and shape of the Earth. The best astronomical minds of the Muslim world tackled the job of producing tables or diagrams by which the qibla, or sacred directions, could be found from any point in the Islamic world. Their efforts rose to a precision far beyond the needs of the peasants who would use them, noted Dr. King.
Astronomers at the Samarkand observatory, which was founded about 1420 by the ruler Ulugh Beg, measured star positions to a fraction of a degree.
That ‘Copernican Revolution’ was Islamic!
That this revolution was meant to be a huge defeat for theology and religion, is known to nearly all. The Christian church banished Galileo, his predecessor, for proposing something as un-Biblical as the Earth revolving around the Sun! Copernicus finally succeeded. But what is lesser known is that, this biblical apathy is extended to all religions in total; it is no longer Copernicus vs Christianity, but instead, Copernicus vs God!
It seemed he had defeated the ancient arcane and irrational laws of God and thereby, proved him wrong.
But what is profound is that, Copernicus’ famous model that heralded the revolution, was part of ”the climate of opinion inherited by the Latin West from Islam”, according to Dr. Owen Gingerich, an astronomer and historian of astronomy at Harvard, referring to the works of the 13th century Islamic scholars Ibn al-Shatir and al-Tusi.
The Decline of Islamic Science
Christians reconquered Spain and its magnificent libraries in Córdoba and Toledo, full of Arab learning. As a result, Islamic centres of learning began to lose touch with one another and with the West, leading to a gradual erosion in two of the main pillars of science — communication and financial support.
In the West, science was able to pay for itself in new technology like the steam engine and to attract financing from industry, but in the East, it remained dependent on the patronage and curiosity of sultans and caliphs. Further, the Ottomans, who took over the Arabic lands in the 16th century, were builders and conquerors, not thinkers.
Islamic Science Wars
Humiliating encounters with Western colonial powers in the 19th century produced a hunger for Western science and technology, or at least the economic and military power they could produce. Reformers bent on modernizing Eastern educational systems to include Western science could argue that Muslims would only be reclaiming their own, since the West had inherited science from the Islamic world to begin with.
In some ways these efforts have been very successful. ”In particular countries the science syllabus is quite modern,” said Dr Bakar of Georgetown, citing Malaysia, Jordan, and Pakistan, in particular. Even in Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative Muslim states, science classes are conducted in English.
Nevertheless, science still lags in the Muslim world, according to Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani physicist and professor at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, who has written on Islam and science. According to his own informal survey, included in his 1991 book ”Islam and Science, Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality,” Muslims are seriously underrepresented in science, accounting for fewer than 1 percent of the world’s scientists while they account for almost a fifth of the world’s population. Israel, he reports, has almost twice as many scientists as the Muslim countries put together.
On the other hand, attempts to mould the Quran from a scientific perspective has created negative reactions in many, constructing a “Western style” of scientific knowledge that aimed to promote materialism.
Dr. Salam and Dr. Weinberg, two physicists, had devised the same contribution to a theory in physics independently, that made them both Nobel Laureates for the same discovery, despite the fact that Weinberg is an atheist while Salam is a Muslim who prayed regularly.
Dr. Farouk El-Baz, a geologist at Boston University, says: ”Science is international. There is no such thing as Islamic science. Science is like building a big building, like a pyramid. Each person puts up a block. These blocks have never had a religion. It’s irrelevant – the colour of the person who put up the block.”