Philosophy of Science, A Qur’anic Approach
By: Professor Mahdi Golshani
Nature means the physical world, which is, the world with which we come into contact through our senses. In the Holy Qur’an, there are more than 750 verses in reference to the natural phenomena. In most of these verses, the study of the book of creation and the meditation upon its contents has been recommended.
As confirmed by many outstanding Islamic scholars, the Qur’an is not a book of natural science, but rather, one of guidance and enlightenment.
The Qur’anic reference to the natural phenomena is meant to call man’s attention to the mighty and glory of the Wise Creator of the universe through quest and meditation upon the natural beings and to encourage him to strive to be in close proximity to Him.
From the viewpoint of the Qur’an, natural phenomena are signs of the Almighty, and any understanding of nature is analogous with understanding the signs through which we attain cognition of the Lord of signs: “And one of the signs is He created mates for you from yourselves in which you may find rest in them, and He put between you love and compassion, most surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect.” (30:21)
“And one of His signs is He shows you the lightening for fear and for hope and sends down water from the clouds, then gives life therewith to the earth after its death; most surely there are signs in this for a people who understand.” (30:24)
“And one of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours; most surly there are signs in this for the learned.” (30:22)
From the Qur’anic viewpoint, understanding nature is not a fruitful undertaking except when it helps us to understand the Wise Creator of this world and to attain close proximity to Him. Understanding nature can promote man’s insight towards the cognition of Allah and enables him to better utilize the gifts of Allah for his own eternal felicity and well-being.
The Possibility of Understanding Nature
In the Qur’an, there are many verses inviting man to study nature: “Say, ‘Consider what is it which is in the heavens and the earth...’” (10:101)
“And in the earth there are signs for those who are sure, and in your own souls (too); will you not then see.” (51:20 – 21)
“Say, ‘Travel on the earth and see how He made the first creation.’” (29:20)
“So let man consider of what he is created.” (86:5)
These verses show this understand nature is possible; otherwise, He would not have recommended its study.
From the following verses, too, we realize man has been endowed with the talent of cognition and he has to exploit this faculty to the best of his ability: “And He taught Adam all the names.” (2:31)
“Taught man what (he) knew not.” (96:5)
“And Allah has brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers – you did not know anything – and He gave you hearing and sight and hearts to give thanks.” (16:78)
Moreover, the Qur’an promises: “We will soon show them Our signs in the universe and in their own souls, so it will become clear unto them He is indeed the truth.” (41:53)
“And say, ‘Praise be to Allah, He will show you His signs so you shall recognize them, nor is your Lord heedless of what you do.” (27:93)
These verses indicate human beings will eventually come to have a better understanding of the truth about the universe.
The Main Issues in Understanding Nature
Although from the viewpoint of the Qur’an, the ultimate goal in understanding nature is to comprehend and approach God, yet there are certain subsidiary goals, the apprehension of which may be considered as preliminary steps towards this ultimate goal.
These are the issues in connection with natural phenomena, and are pointed out in the Holy Qur’an. We are going to classify them into three groups:
1. Origin and Evolution of Beings and Phenomena
“Do those who disbelieve not see the heavens and the earth were closed up, but We have opened them, and have made of water everything living...” (21:30)
“Do you not see how God has created the seven heavens one above another, and made the moon therein a light, and made the sun a lamp?” (71:15 – 16)
“Who made good everything in which He has created, and He began the creation of man from dust. Then he made His progeny of an extract of water held in light estimation. Then he made him complete and breathed into him of His spirit and made for you the earth, and the air and the hearts. Little is it you have thanks.” (32:7 – 9)
“Will they not then consider the camel, how they are created and the heaven, how it is reared aloft, and the mountains, how they are firmly fixed, and the earth, how it is made a vast expanse?” (88:17 – 20)
All these verses indicate we should attempt to discover the origin and evolution of beings, as this will help in enhancing man’s faith and expediting his proximity to Allah.
In some verses of the Qur’an, certain natural phenomena are mentioned as indications of the Resurrection: “Is not He who created the heavens and the earth, able to create the like of them? Yea! And He is the Creator (of all), the Knower.” (36:81)
“And God is He who sends the winds so they raise a cloud, then we drive it on to a dead country, and therewith We give life to the earth after its death, even so are the uprising.” (35:9)
“Oh people, if you are in doubt about the Resurrection, then surely We created you from dust, then from a small life-germ, then from a clot, then from a lump of flesh, complete in make and incomplete...and you see the earth’s sterile land, but when We send down on it the water, it stirs and swells and brings forth of every kind of beautiful herbage.” (22:5)
2. The Discovery of Order, Coordination and Purpose in Nature
Many of the verses in the Qur’an mention the existence of order, co-ordination, and purpose in nature as evidences confirming the existence of the Wise, Omniscient Creator. These verses can be classified into several groups:
a) Some verses specify the creation of the heavens and the earth was not in vain, but had indeed some purpose behind it. For example: “And He it is Who has created the heavens and the earth in truth...” (6:73)
“And We did not create the heavens and the earth and what is between them for sport.” (21:16)
“What! Did you then think We had created you in vain and you shall not be returned to Us?” (23:115)
b) It is mentioned in some verses in which events follow a natural course for a certain pre-determined period: “Do they not reflect within themselves: Allah did not create the heavens and the earth and what is between them but in truth, and (for) an appointed term? And most surely most of the people are deniers of the meeting of their Lord.” (30:8)
“Allah is He who raised the heavens without any pillars which you see, and He is firm in power, and He made the sun and the moon subservient (to you), each one pursues its course to an appointed time, and He regulates the affair, making clear the signs which you may be certain of meeting your Lord.” (13:2)
c) Some verses tell us in which the whole process of creation and the course of events in nature follow a proper reckoning and measure (for instance, everything there is a definite size and measure): “The sun and moon follow a reckoning.” (55:5)
“And there is not a thing but with Us are the treasures of it, and We do not send it down but in a known measure.” (15:21)
“And there is a measure with Him of everything.” (13:8)
“...He created everything then ordained for it a measure.” (25:2)
“And the heaven, He raised it high and he made the balance.” (55:7)
“...And caused to grow in it of every suitable thing.” (15:19)
It is precisely for the very existence of this order which laws of nature become significant. The scholars of natural science would not have so ardently pursued the discovery of these laws had they not been subconsciously aware of this very natural order.
Form the above-mentioned verses and those ensuing, on can conclude the discovery of order and co-ordination in nature (i.e. the laws of nature) and the certitude of God’s handiwork is of great significance in understanding nature: “He it is who made the sun a shining brightness and the moon a light, and ordained for it mansions which you might know the computation of years and reckoning. God did not create it but in truth; He makes the signs manifest for people who know.” (10:5)
“...You see no congruity in the creation of the Beneficent God; then look again, can you see any disorder?” (67:3)
3. Making a Legitimate Use of Natural Means Prepared by God (for Man)
In a good number of verses God mentions the gifts He has granted man: “And He has made subservient to you whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth.” (45:13)
“And certainly We have established you in the earth and made in it means of livelihood for you, little it is in which you give thanks.” (7:10)
“And out of His mercy He has made for you the night and day, which you may rest therein, and which you seek of His grace and which you give thanks.” (28:73)
“And one of His signs is which He sends forth the winds bearing good news and which He may make you taste His mercy, and which the ships may run by His command and which you may seek of His grace, and which you may be grateful.” (30:46)
“And He it is who has made the stars for you, which you might follow the right way thereby in the darkness of the land and the sea, truly We have made plain the communication for a people who know.” (6:97)
In these verses, the reason for reminding man of Allah’s blessings is to make him familiar with them, to urge him to use them, and, to offer his thanks to Allah. Thanksgiving means to use God’s blessings in the appropriate way for which they have been bestowed by the Almighty. It is thus important for the believer to make a conscientious use of Allah’s bounties, leading society towards eternal felicity. Hence, technology, which is the practical use of natural means, will be instrumental in realizing Divine goals.
Ways of Understanding Nature
Some Qur’anic verses tell us about the ways of understanding nature. We begin our discussion with a glorious verse: “And God has brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers; you did not know anything, and He gave you hearing and sight and hearts.” (16:78)
It says understanding is attained through eyes, ears, and intellect. Here, from amongst external senses, only sight and hearing have been mentioned, because they are the main tools with the help of which one acquires knowledge of the physical world. However, one can deduct from the Holy Qur’an in which the senses of taste, smell, and touch are also useful in giving us valuable information about the external world. Here we quote three verses: “...So when the tasted of the tree, their shameful parts became manifest to them, and they both began to cover themselves with the leave of the garden...” (7:22)
“And when the caravan had departed, their father said, ‘Most surely I smell the scent of Yusuf, unless you pronounce me to be weak in judgment.’” (12:94)
“And if we had sent to you a writing on a paper, then they had touched it with their hands, certainly those who disbelieve would have said, ‘This is nothing by clear enchantment.’” (6:7)
The word “Fuw’ad” has been interpreted as a means of perception and reasoning. Heart has also been mentioned as a means of understanding and perception.
“Have they not travelled in the land so they should have hearts with which to understand?” (22:46)
“...They have hearts with which they do not understand...” (7:179)
“And a seal is set on their hearts so they do not understand.” (9:87)
“Most surely there is a reminder in this for him who has a heart.” (50:37)
“These are they on whose hearts and hearing and eyes. God has set a seal and these are the heedless ones.” (16:108)
In many Islamic works, too, “heart” has been said to be a tool of reasoning. It has been cited by Imam al-Sadiq (a.s): “Among his organs is his heart which is the means of reasoning, perception and comprehension.”1
It is also quoted from Imam ‘Ali ibn Mohammad Baqir: “The Qur’an and the Traditions of the Prophet (S) indicate the heart is the lord of all senses and co-ordinates their deeds, and whatever the heart sets right, nothing can spoil.”2
Through the verses of the Qur’an, we intend to deduce the channels through which we understand nature are:
1. External senses (by means of which observation and experimentation takes place).
2. Intellect, unpolluted of vices (dominant over desires and fancies, and free from blind imitation).
3. Revelation and inspiration.
The Role of Observation and Reasoning in Understanding Nature
There are a number of verses in the Holy Qur’an which encourage man to use his senses in search of truth. Here are some examples of those verses:
“Say, ‘Travel on the earth and see how He made the first creation.’” (29:20)
“Say, ‘Consider what is in the heaves and the earth.’” (10:101)
“Will they not then consider the camels, how they were created.” (88:1)
“Do they not see the earth, how many of every noble kind have caused to grow in it?” (26:7)
In these verses, observation and seeing (vision) imply “seeing with the help of right reasoning.”3 In a number of cases certain practical experiments are mentioned as means for acquiring knowledge. We are going to cite three examples of them:
a) Through a crow, Allah teaches Cain how to bury a dead body: “Then God sent a crow, digging up the earth, so He might show him (Cain) how he should cover the dead body of his brother. He said, “Woe me, do I lack the strength in which I should be like this crow and cover the dead body of my brother? So he became of those who regret.” (5:31)
b) God teaches the rightful man the possibility of giving new life to the dead: “Or the like of him who passed by a town, and it had fallen down upon its roofs, he said, ‘When will Allah give it life after its death?’ So Allah caused him to die for a hundred years, then raised him to life. He said, ‘How long have tarried?’ ‘He said (in reply), ‘I have tarried a day, or a part of a day.’ Said He, ‘Nay, you have tarried a hundred years, look at your food and drink, years have not passed over it, and look at your ass and so We may make you a sign to men, and look at the bones, how we set the together then clothed them with flesh, so when it became clear to him, he said, ‘I know Allah has power over all things.’” (2:259)
c) God shows Abraham how He gives life to the dead: “And when Abraham said, ‘My Lord, show me how You give life to the dead.’ He said, ‘What, do you not believe?’ He said, ‘Yes, which my heart may be at east.’ He said, ‘Then take four birds, then train them to follow you, then place on every mountain a part of them, then call them, they will come to you fling, and know Allah is Mighty, Wise.’” (2:260)
Besides, there many tangible parables in the Qur’an which are meant to teach one something perceptible: “The parable of those who spend their property in the way of God is as the parable of a grain growing seven ears (with) a hundred grains in every ear.” (2:261)
“And the parable of an evil word is an evil tree pulled from the earth’s surface, it has no stability.” (14:26)
“Allah is the light of the heaves and the earth, a likeness of his light is as a niche in which is a lamp, the lamp is in a glass, (and) the glass is as it were a brightly shining star, lit from a blessed olive tree, neither eastern nor western, the oil whereof almost gives light though fire touch it not; light upon light, Allah guides to his light whom He pleases.” (24:35)
“And God is He Who sent the winds so they raise a cloud, then We drive it on to a dead country and therewith We give life to the earth after its death, even so are the quickening.” (35:9)
Therefore, there is no doubt the Qur’an considers external senses the primary tools in getting a part of our knowledge, but both in the above verses, and in many others to come, sensory stimuli have not been suggested as the sole source of nature’s cognition. In order to substantiate this claim we can advance the following arguments:
1. In most of the Qur’anic verses, wherever natural phenomena are mentioned, it is explicitly pointed out the perception of Divine signs in nature and their relation to the Lord of signs is within the reach of men to intellect, capable of reflection. Here are a few examples such verses: “He it is who sends down water from the heaven for you, it gives drink, and by it (grow) the trees upon which you pasture. He causes to grow for you thereby herbage, and the olives and the palm trees, and the grapes and of all the fruits, must surely there is a sign in this for a people who reflect.” (16:10 – 11)
“And He is it Who made the stars for you in which you might follow the right way thereby in the darkness of the land and the sea. Truly, We have made plain the communications for a people who know.” (6:97)
“And He has made subservient for you the night and the day and the sun and the moon and the stars are subservient by His commandment, most surely there are signs in these for a people who ponder.” (16:12)
“And of everything We have created pairs which you may be mindful.” (51:49)
“Do you not see God sends down water from the cloud, then makes it go along in the earth in springs, then brings forth therewith herbage of various colours, when it withers so you see it becoming yellow, the He makes it a thing crushed and broken into pieces? Most surely there is a reminder in these for men of understanding.” (39:21)
“And He it is Who has brought you into being from a single soul, then there is (for you) a resting place and a depository indeed. We have made plain the communications for a people who understand.” (6:99)
The use of such words as “Tafakkur, Ta‘aqqul and Tafaqquh...” in the above verses indicate (with different shades of emphasis) in which to understand nature, one should make use of one’s intellect.
The word “tafakkur” (meditation) in many of the verses means reflection on existing information and moving towards fresh awareness.4
(a) The words “Ta‘aqqul and Tafaqquh” show the intellectual advancement. Therefore, the cognition which originates through the senses should be backed by reflection and reasoning in order to enhance our knowledge. The following quotations from Imam al-Sadiq (a.s.) confirm this point:
“The origin and commencement of everything and the cause of their flourishing is the intellect, without which nothing can be achieved. God has endowed His servants with the light and ornament of intellect.
By means of intellect the servants know their Creator and get to understand He is the Ruler and they are under His rule, He is immortal and they are mortal. Their intellect directs them to infer through the observation of the handiwork of God p- such as the heavens, the earth, the sun, the moon, the day and night... – There is a Creator and controller of all these beings, and He has always been and will exist forever. It is through the intellect which man recognizes grace from disgrace, and realizes light is associated with knowledge and ignorance bears darkness. This inference can be made only through the intellect.”5
b) Sheikh Mufid in his book al-Irshad narrates in which Abu Shakir Daysani said to Imam al-Sadiq (a.s.), “You know we do not accept anything unless we see, hear, taste, smell, or feel it with our senses.”6
Imam al-Sadiq (a.s.) answered, “You mentioned the five senses, but they never find the truth unless their finding are steered through the channel of intellect, in the same manner as darkness cannot be removed except with a lamp.”
c) There is another quotation from Imam al-Sadiq which says,7 “When you see a stone moving upwards in the air, you know some person has thrown it. This knowledge has not come to you through your eyes, but through the channel of intellect, because it is intellect which infers a stone go up in the air by itself.”
Therefore, it can be concluded through observation and experimentation are indispensable for obtaining information from the external world, they are not sufficient means. Should we rely solely on our external senses, we won’t be able to interpret the physical world, and find the relation between natural events.
In fact, people are no different from other animals as far as external senses are concerned, and some of the animals in this respect, are even better equipped than human beings. What distinguish people from animals are their talents for profound observation of the world and the interpretation of events. And this is due to a faculty called rational faculty, which is capable of relating the signs and symbols, attained through the senses, and interpreting the universe. Senses give us a series of isolated signs and symbols, and intellect discovers their inter-relationship.
2. In the Qur’an, there are many verses denoting in some people eyes, ears, and hearts do not perform their roles, and while seeing the Almighty’s signs in nature, they do not meditate on them, nor do they benefit from those (blessings): “And how many a sign in the heavens and the earth they pass by, yet they turn aside from it.” (12:105)
“...They have hearts with which they do not understand, and they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear.” (7:179)
“...Or have they eyes with which they see, or have the ears with which they hear...?” (7:195)
“And be not like those who said, ‘We hear,’ and they did not hear.” (8:21)
“And if you invite them to guidance, they do not hear, and you see them looking towards you, yet they do not see.” (7:198)
“Have they not travelled in the land so they should have hearts with which to understand or ears with which to hear? For surely it is not eyes which are blind, but blind are the hearts which are in the breasts.” (22:46)
It is quoted from our great Prophet (S) in which:8 “Blind is not a person who lacks eyes, but one who lack insight.”
Some people, interpreting the above verses, rightly say we have two kinds of sight and hearing – the physical or external and spiritual or internal ones. The external organs of sight and hearing are tools for perception, and the internal ones serve for the appropriate use of those tools.
Imam Fakhr al-Din Razi refers to the following verse: “The likeness of the two parties is as of the blind and the deaf.” (11:24)
And says, “There is a similarity in the creation of body and spirit, in which both have eyes and ears. In the same way a deaf and blind person, in absolute silence and darkness, finds himself at a loss, an astray, irreligious and ignorant person’s heart too, lacks the power of sight and hearing and he is lost in the wilderness.”9
We would rather interpret the above verses in this way: Eyes, ears and other external senses are a means for the intellect, and their acquisitions could only be complete and meaningful if they go through the channel of the intellect. Eyes see, but the intellect interprets the result of sight and issues the verdict.10 The function of sight can be considered compete when it goes with insight, i.e. when sensory is supplemented with (supra-sensory) intellect. Here a few verses confirming this interpretation:11 “...But can you make the deaf to hear though they will not understand.” (10:42)
“And be not like those who said, ‘we hear,” and they did not hear. Surely the vilest of animals in Allah’s sight are the deaf, the dumb, who do not understand.” (8:21 – 22)
It has been quoted from Imam ‘Ali (a.s.) in Nahj al-Balagha:12 “The observer is one who reflects on what he has heard and reflects upon what he has seen, and makes use of his instructive experience in choosing to tread on clear paths wherein he can avoid falling into hallows and straying into pitfalls.”
There is a statement narrated from Imam al-Sadiq (a.s.):13 “...You thought things could not be felt except through senses. Let me advise you, senses do not directly lead you to objects, and we know objects only through the channel of heart, therefore, it is heart which directs the senses and present objects to the senses, the objects you (mistakenly) claim or not known to the heart but through senses...Heart reflects by the intellect which it possesses.
The Almighty God made heart the administrator of the body and it hears and sees through the heart. Heart is the judge and ruler of the body. Should the heart delay, the body cannot proceed, should it proceed the body cannot tarry.
Senses see and hear through the heart, should it order the sense, they obey, should it hinder them, and they stop. Happiness and sorrow, too, befall man through the heart and make him endure them. If senses fail and decay, the heart goes on functioning, but with the decay of the heart all the senses disappear – man neither sees nor hears.”
3. The Qur’anic verses indicate in addition to sense-rooted cognitions, there are non-sensory cognitions, too. These verses fall into two groups:
(a) In one group of the verses Allah refutes the arguments of the people who consider their external senses as the only reliable source for their knowledge: “And when you said, ‘Oh Musa, we shall not believe in you until we see Allah manifestly, so the punishment over-took you while you looked on.” (2:55)
“And they said, ‘We will by no means believe you until you cause a fountain to gush forth from the earth for us. Or you should have a garden of palms and grapes in the midst of which you should cause rivers to flow forth gushing out. Or you should cause the heaven to come down upon us in pieces as you think, or bring Allah and the angels face to face (with us). Or you should have a house of gold, or you should ascend into heaven, and we will not believe in your ascending until you bring to us a book which we may read.’ Say, ‘Glory be to my Lord. Am I aught but a mortal apostle?’” (17:90 – 93)
“They know the outward of this world’s life, but of the hereafter they are absolutely heedless.” (30:7)
(b) The Qur’an repeatedly reminds us in which we do not perceive many of the realities of the physical world through external senses: “Allah is He who raised the heavens without any pillars...” (13:2)
“But nay, I swear by which you see, and which you see not.” (69:38 – 39)
“Glory be to Him who created pairs of all things of what the earth grows, and of their kind and of what they do not know.” (36:36)
And we also learn from the Qur’an in which only Allah is aware of the mysteries in the heavens and the earth, and those to whom Allah has granted the bliss: “And Allah is the unseen in the heavens and the earth and to Him is returned the whole of the affair.” (11:23)
“Say, ‘Allah knows best how long they remained. To Him are (known) the unseen things of the heavens and the earth. (18:26)
“Surely Allah knows the unseen things of the heavens and the earth, and Allah sees what you do.” (49:18)
“The knower of the unseen. So he does not reveal His secrets to any except to him who He regards as an apostle.” (72:26 – 27)
Unfortunately, in recent centuries, some Muslim scholars have wrongly propounded the view which experiments are the only means to acquire knowledge, and the experimental study of the book of nature suffices to know God.14
We, too, agree in which experiment and observation are indispensable tools to understand nature. We even believe the Muslims’ work in this field has been quite inadequate. But we also believe our understanding of nature is not purely a matter of the senses. Besides, our observations and experiments cannot be the source of any knowledge unless they are channelized via the intellectual principles.
In the matter of scientific cognition of God, we are of the same opinion which martyred Professor Murtada Mutahhari expressed, “The boundary of experiment is only the cognition of the works of God, but the cognition of God through the works known by experiment is a kind of pure intellectual deduction.”15
“The ideal aim before the mind of the physicist is to understand the external world of reality. But the means which he uses to attain this end are what are known in physical science as “measurements,” and these give no direct information about external reality. They are only a register or representation of reactions to physical phenomena. As such they contain no explicit information and have to be interpreted. As Helmhotlz said, measurements furnish the physicist with a sign which he must interpret, just as a language expert interprets the text of some pre-historic document which belongs to a culture utterly unknown.
The first thing which the language expert assumes – and must assume if his work is to have any practical meaning – is the document in question contains some reasonable message which has been stated according to some system of grammatical rules or symbols. In the same way the physicist must assume the physical universe is governed by some system of laws which can be understood, even though he cannot hold out himself the prospect of being able to understand them in a comprehensive way or to discover their character and manner of operation with anything like a full degree of certitude.
“Taking it, then, the external world of reality is governed by a system of laws, the physicist now constructs a synthesis of concepts and theorems, and this synthesis is called the scientific picture of the physical universe. It is a representation of the real world itself in so far as it corresponds as closely as possible to the information which the research measurements have supplied. Once he has accomplished this, the researcher can assert, without having to fear the contradiction of facts, he has discovered one side of the outer of reality, though, of course, he can never logically demonstrate the truth of the assertion.”
In a lecture, delivered by Einstein at Oxford University in 1933, under the title of “On Methods of Theoretical Physics,” he said,16 “Newton, the first creator of a comprehensive, a workable system of theoretical physics, still believed in which the basic concepts and laws of his system could be derived from experience. This is no doubt the meaning of his saying, ‘hypotheses non fingo.’
“Actually, the concepts of time and space appeared at this time to present no difficulties. The concepts of mass, inertia, and force, and the laws connecting them, seemed to be drawn directly from experience. Once this basis is accepted, the expression for the force of gravitation appears derivable from experience, and it was reasonable to expect the same in regard to other forces.
“We can indeed see from Newton’s formulation of it in which the concept of absolute space, which comprised of absolute rest, made him feel uncomfortable; he realized there seemed to be nothing in experience corresponding to this last concept. he was also not quite comfortable about the introduction of forces operating at a distance. but the tremendous partial success of his doctrines may well have prevented him and the physicists of the 18th and 19th centuries from recognizing the fictitious character of the foundations of his system.
“The natural philosophers of those days were, on the contrary, most of them possessed with the idea in which the fundamental concepts and postulates of physics were not in the logical sense, free inventions of the human mind, but could be deduced from experience by ‘abstraction’ – which is to say, by logical means. A clear recognition of the erroneousness of this notion really only came with the general theory of relativity, which showed one could take account of wider range of empirical facts, and this, too, in a more satisfactory and complete manner, on a foundation quite different from the Newtonian.
“But quite apart from the question of the superiority of one or the other, the fictitious character of fundamental principles is perfectly evident from the fact which we can point to two essentially different principles, both of which correspond with experience to a large extent; this proves, at the same time, every attempt at a logical deduction of the basic concepts and postulates of mechanics from elementary experiences is doomed to failure.
“If, then, it is true in the axiomatic basis of theoretical physics cannot be extracted from experience but must be freely invented, can we ever hope to find the right way? Nay, more, has this right way any existence outside our illusions? Can we hope to be guided safely by experience at all when there exist theories (such as classical mechanics) which to large extent do justice to experience, without getting to the root of the matter? I answer without hesitation in which there is, in my opinion, a right way, and we are capable of finding it. Our experience hitherto justifies us in believing in which nature is the realization of the simplest conceivable mathematical ideas.
“I am convinced we can discover by means of purely mathematical constructions, the concepts and the laws connecting them with each other, which furnish the key to the understanding of natural phenomena. Experience may suggest the appropriate mathematical concepts, but they most certainly cannot be deduced from it. Experience remains, of course, the sole criterion of the physical utility of a mathematical construction. But the creative principle resides in mathematics. In a certain sense, therefore, I hold it true in which pure thought can grasp reality, as the ancients dreamed.”
In his book “Physics and Beyond,” Heisenberg writes17 in the year 1926 he was of the opinion Einstein still believed in the positivistic view of Mach, which is, he believed only observable quantities should be included in physical theories. Therefore, Einstein said, “but you do not seriously believe any but observable magnitudes must go into a physical theory?”. Heisenberg asked in some surprise, “Isn’t this precisely what you have done with relativity? ... After all, you did stress the fact in which it is impermissible to speak of absolute time, simply because absolute time cannot be observed, in which clock readings, be it in the moving reference system or the system at rest, and are relevant ot the determination of time.”
Einstein then admitted, “Possibly I did use this kind of reasoning but it is non-sense all the same. Perhaps I could put it more diplomatically by saying it may be heuristically useful to keep in mind what one has actually observed. But, in principle, it is quite wrong to try founding a theory on observable magnitudes alone. In reality the very opposite happens. It is the theory which decides what we can observe.”
Phillip Frank in his biography of Einstein says18 in which he once told Einstein in which he himself had introduced the positivistic views into physics. Einstein answered, “A good joke should not be repeated too often.”
Our purpose in citing these quotations is to point out in which many of the recent outstanding research scholars have been fully aware of the inadequacy of experiments for the interpretation of nature. Otherwise, we do not doubt the importance and indispensability of experiments and Muslim researchers should not forget the message carried in such verses:
Say, “Travel in the earth and see how He made the first creation...” (29:20)
Say, “Consider what is it in which is in the heavens and the earth...” (10:101)
We should also bear in mind while the Qur’an invites us to experimental study of nature, it also points out the importance of meditation and reasoning, and teaches us not to be satisfied with mere sensory experience, but by observing what is beyond the observable part of nature, we move closer to the Creator of nature.
The Role of Revelation and Inspiration in Understanding Nature
It is deduced from some verses in the Qur’an in which the true teacher of all sciences is the Omniscient: Read in the Name of your Lord who created...who taught (to write) with pen. taught man what he knew not. (96:1 – 5)
He created man and taught him to talk. (55:2 – 3)
And taught Adam all the Names... (2:31)
The least we can infer from these verses is God has endowed people with talent to acquire knowledge and has given him the necessary means. But some Muslim philosophers believe the role of observations in the perception of a priori knowledge and the role of preliminary matters in the perception of theoretical subjects is to prepare a person’s soul to fully benefit from the spiritual world.19
In fact, the main source of the inspiration in the matter of knowledge for human beings is the Omniscient Donor of knowledge, Allah. But the degree of relation between human beings and this Source differs from person to person. Some think and get nowhere, whereas some others find some truth through meditation, and yet there are some others who become aware of many realities with only little speculation.
Some Qur’anic verses indicate besides ordinary channels of observation, meditation and intellection, there is a more direct way of attaining the knowledge of the realities of the world through the Donor of knowledge, but this way is not a general one and only the select believers pass through it. These verses may be divided into several categories:
1. It is stated in some verses in which God reveals special knowledge to certain select believers: And Dawud slew Jalut, and God gave him kingdom and wisdom and taught him of what he pleased. (2:251)
“My Lord, You have given of the kingdom and taught me of the interpretation of sayings...” (12:101)
Then they found one from among Our servants whom We had granted mercy from Us and whom We had taught knowledge from ourselves. (18:65)
When God will say, “Oh Isa (Jesus Christ) son of Mariam (Mary). Remember My favour on you and on your mother, when I strengthened you with the Holy spirits, you spoke to the people in the cradle and when of old age, and when i taught you the Book and Wisdom and the Tawrah (Torah) and the Injil (Bible).” (5:110)
“And surely he was possessed of knowledge because We had given him knowledge, but most people do not know.” (12:68)
“And Dawud (David) and Sulaiman (Solomon) when they gave judgement concerning the field when the people’s sheep pastured therein by night, and we were bearer of witness to their judgment. So we made Sulaiman to understand it, and to each one We gave wisdom and knowledge, and We made the mountains, and the birds celebrate Our praise with Dawood, and We were the doers. And We taught him the making of coats of mail for you, so they might protect your in your wars; will you then be grateful?” (21:78 – 80)
In some of the verses, the idea which this way of teaching can be accomplished through human teachers has been rejected: “It is naught but revelation which is revealed. The Lord of Mighty Power has taught him” (53:4 – 5)
“And certainly We know what they say, ‘Only a mortal teaches him.’” (16:103)
“And God has revealed to you the Book and the wisdom, and He has taught you what you did not know.” (4:113)
“This is of what your Lord has revealed to you of wisdom.” (17:39)
“And He revealed to His servant what He revealed. His heart lies not of what he saw.” (53:10 – 11)
“Surely We have revealed to you as We revealed to Nuh (Noah), and the prophets after him, and We revealed to Ibrahim (Abraham) and Ismai‘il (Ismael) and Ishaq (Isaac) and Yaqub (Jacob) and the tribes of ‘Isa (Jesus Christ) and Ayyub (Job) and Yunus (Jonah) and Harun (Aaron) and Sulayman (Solomon) and We give to Dawud (David) psalms.” (4:163)
“And We revealed to Musa (Moses) saying, ‘Cast your rod, then lo, it devoured the lies they told.’” (7:117)
“What! Is it a wonder to the people in which We revealed to a man from among themselves, say, ‘Warn the people...?’” (10:2)
“And We revealed to Musa and his brother, saying, ‘Take for your people houses to abide in.’” (10:87)
“So We revealed to him saying, ‘Make the Ark before...’” (23:27)
“This is of the announcements relating to the unseen which We reveal to you.” (3:44)
“And We did not send before you any but men to whom We sent revelation.” (16:43)
“Say, ‘I am only a mortal like you, it is revealed to me...’” (18:110)
3. Yet another group of verses indicates the possibility of revelation for people other than prophets: “And when I revealed to the disciples, saying, ‘Believe in Me and My apostle,’ they said, ‘We believe and bear witness in which we submit (ourselves).’” (5:111)
“And we revealed to Musa’s Mother, saying, ‘Give him suck.’” (28:7)
In this case, “revelation” is interpreted20 as “inspiration.” Of course, the revelation has been used in other senses as well.21
What we may conclude from these verses is the possibility of learning from the Donor of knowledge through a channel different from the common channel of observation and thinking. This, too, has different levels: The highest level of revelation is reserved for prophets only, and according to the glorious verse: “And it is not for any mortal which God should speak to him except by revelation or from behind a veil, or by sending a messenger and revealing by His permission what He pleases...” (42:51)
It is done through a direct inducement of the meaning in the prophet’s heart, or by the creation of words or by sending an angel messenger to him.22 On the lower levels this is done through inspiration, which is variously termed as Kashf ilham.
Muslim philosophers believe the people having talent for attaining such immediate knowledge are those who are endowed with a saintly faculty. To explain their reasoning we take a look back, and see one of the channels to cognition is (logical) thinking. In thinking, the mind undergoes a two-stage movement, and shuttles between the known and the unknown. In thinking one seeks a middle term which is common in both the given propositions with the help of which he hopes to understand the unknown. In general, finding the middle term requires certain premises.
Yet, in certain special cases some people may reach the middle minds.23 This mental talent which takes one to the goal without following logical steps is called “intuition” and in its highest form has been called “the saintly faculty.” A person having this gift can know may realities without the use of his sensory and rational faculties. Avicenna in his “al-Isharat” says24 the following Qur’anic phrase refers to this special mental faculty: “The oil where of almost gives light though fire touches it not...” (24:35)
And he confirms its existence in the following statements:25 “You may wish to have more evidence to prove the existence of the saintly faculty gift. So hark! Do you not know in which “intuition” exists, and people possess different levels of reflection and intuition. Some are so dull and stupid they find no way to their goal, some others are moderately intelligent and can make use of their reasoning power and some others, more intelligent, can perceive intelligible through intuition. This intelligence differs from person to person, at the highest level, one does not need to learn (through regular course) or think through logical categories (for knowing the reality)
Now we are in a position to say in the same way in which revelation has various degrees, as stated by the following verse: “We have made some of these apostles to excel the others, among them are they to whom God spoke, and some of them He exalted by (many) degrees of rank, and We gave clear miracles to Isa (Jesus) son of Maryam (Mary), and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit.” (2:253)
“Inspiration, too, is of different levels – though on the whole it is lower than revelation. Some people enjoy this give at its highest level and others possess it in its weaker forms. For the former, realities are made manifest without effort of reflection, while the latter attain new knowledge through their own endeavours. Some of the contemporary scholars have accepted the existence of this power. Dr. Alexis Carrel in his book “Man, the Unknown” says:26 “Obviously, great discoveries are not the product of intelligence alone. Men of genius, in addition to their powers of observation and comprehension, possess other qualities, such as intuition and creative imagination. Through intuition they learn things ignored by other men; they perceive relations between seemingly isolated phenomena. They unconsciously feel the presence of the unknown treasure. All great men are endowed with intuition. They know, without analysis, without reasoning, what is important for them to know. A true leader of men does not need psychological tests, or reference cards, when choosing his sub-ordinates. A good judge, without going into the details of legal arguments, and even, according to Cardozo, starting from erroneous premises, is capable of rendering a just sentence. A great scientist instinctively takes the path leading to a discovery. This phenomenon, in former times, was called inspiration.
“Men of science belong to two different types – the logical and the intuitive. Science owes its progress to both forms of mind. Mathematics, although a purely logical structure, nevertheless, makes use of intuition. Among the mathematicians there are intuitive and logicians, analysts and geometricians. Hermitte and Weierstrass were intuitive, Reimann and Bertrand, logicians. The discoveries of intuition have always to be developed by logic. In ordinary life, as in science, intuition is a powerful but dangerous means of acquiring knowledge. Sometimes it can hardly be distinguished from illusion. Those who rely upon it entirely are liable to mistakes. It is far from being always trustworthy.
“But the great man, or the simple whose heart is pure, can be led by it to the summits of mental and spiritual life. It is a strange quality. to apprehend reality without the help of intelligence appears inexplicable. One of the aspects of intuition resembles a very rapid deduction from an instantaneous observation. The knowledge which great physicians sometimes possess concerning the present and the future state of their patients is of such a nature. A similar phenomenon occurs when one appraises in a flash a man’s value, or senses his virtues and his vices. But under another aspect, intuition takes place quite independently of observation and reasoning. We may be led by it to our goal when we do not know how to attain this goal and even where it is located. This mode of knowledge is closely analogous to clairvoyance, to the sixth sense of Charles Richet.”
Finally, I would like to mention though inspiration and enlightenment are means to attain knowledge, not everybody receives this gift of light: “This is God’s grace, He grants it to whom He pleases.” (62:4)
The only way which is open to everyone is the channel of observation and reflection while aiming at attaining the knowledge of reflection while aiming at attaining the knowledge of nature. The conditions leading to proper result shall be discussed in part of our discourse.
1. Kulayni, al-Kafi, vol. 2, p. 34.
2. Harrani, Tuhaf al-Uqul, p. 354.
3. al-Raghib al-Isfahani, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an.
4. Sadr al-Din Shirazi, Asfar, vol. 3, p. 516.
5. Kulayni, al-Kafi, vol. 1, p. 29.
6. Mufid al-Irshad, p. 281.
7. M. Bagir Majlisi, Bihar al-Anwar, vol 3. pp. 146 – 147.
8. ALi Muttaqi, Kanz al-‘Ummal, no. 1220.
9. Fakhr al-Din Razi, al-Tafsir al-Kabir, vol. 17, p., 209.
10. Of course, if somebody wants to refer to the analysis of what has been seen (or heard) as the eyes (or ears) of the heart, we will not argue with him against his terminology.
11. M. H. Tabatabi’i, al-Mizan, vol. 10, p. 68 and vol. 16, p. 167.
12. Nahj al-Balagha (S. al-Saleh Ed) p. 213.
13. M. Baqir, Majlisi, Bihar al-Anwar vol. 3, pp. 159.
14. Abu Hassan Nadwi, Islam and the World (Malaysia, 1401 A.H.) p. 95; Mohammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, (Lahore, 1960) pp. 127 – 131; A. Tabbarah, Ruh al-Din al-Islami, (Beirut) p. 270.
15. M. Mutahhari, ‘Ilal-e-Garayesh bi-Maddigari (Hekmat Pub.) p. 191.
16. Einstein, A Centenary Volume, Edited by A. P. French, pp. 312 – 313.
17. Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond, Harper-Torchbooks, p. 63.
18. Philip Franck, Einstein: His Life and Times, trans. George Rosen (New York, 1970), pp. 214 – 218.
19. Sadr al-Din Shirazi, Asfar, vol. 3, p. 384.
20. M. H. Tabataba’i, al-Mizan, vol. 3, p. 384.
21. al-Raghib al-Isfahani, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an.
22. M.J. Mughniyah, al-Tafsir al-Kashif, vol. 6, p. 534.
23. Ibn Sina, al-Isharat Waal-Tanbihat, vol. 2, p. 358.
24. Ibid, vol. 2, p. 353.
25. Ibid, p.359.
26. Alexis Carrel, Man, the Unknown, p. 85.