Islamic Science: Past, Present and the Future
By Ibrahim B. Syed, PhD
Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.
7102 W. Shefford Lane
Louisville, KY 40242-6462, USA
The rise of the Muslims to the zenith of civilization in a period of four decades was based on Islam's emphasis on learning. This is obvious when one takes a look at the Qur'an and the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (SAS), which are filled with references to learning, education, observation, and the use of reason. The very first verse of the Qur'an revealed to the Prophet of Islam on the night of 27th of Ramadan in 610 CE reads:
Read: In the name of thy Lord who created man from a clot Read: And thy Lord is the Most Generous
Who taught by the pen, taught man that which he knew not…. Surah AL ALAQ, 96: 1-5
And they shall say had we but listened or used reason
We would not be among the inmates of the burning fire.
Surah AL MULK, 61: 10
Are those who have knowledge
And those who have no knowledge alike?
Only the men of understanding are mindful.
Surah AL ZUMAR, 39: 9
And the Qur'an exhorts the Muslims to do scientific research:
And whoso bringeth the truth and believeth therein such are the dutiful.
Surah Al ZUMAR, 39: 33
Every Muslim man's and every Muslim woman's prayer should be:
MY LORD! ENRICH ME WITH KNOWLEDGE... Surah TA HA, 20: 114
The pursuit of knowledge and the use of reason, based on sense observation are made obligatory on every Muslim, man and woman.
The following traditions of the Prophet (SAS-Sallallaaho Alaihi Wa Sallam) supplement the foregoing teachings of the Qur'an in the following way:
(1) Seek knowledge "even though it be In China."
(2) "The acquisition of knowledge is compulsory for every Muslim, whether male or female."(2)
(2) "The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.
(3) "Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave."
(4) "God has revealed to me 'Whoever walks in the pursuit of knowledge I facilitate for him the way to heaven.' Increase in knowledge is even superior to increase in worship."
(5) "The best form of worship is the pursuit of knowledge."
(6) "Scholars should endeavor to spread knowledge and provide education to people who have been deprived of it. For, where knowledge is hidden it disappears."
(7) Some one asked the Prophet (SAS): "Who is the biggest scholar?" He replied: "He who is constantly trying to learn from others, for a scholar is ever hungry for more knowledge."
(8) "Seek for knowledge and wisdom, for whatever the vessel from which it flows, you will never be the loser."
(9) "Thinking deep for one hour (with sincerity) is better than 70 years of (mechanical) worship."
(10) "Worship, without knowledge, has no goodness in it and knowledge without understanding has no goodness in it. And the recitation of the Qur'an, which is not thoughtful has no goodness in it."
(11) "To listen to the words of the learned and to instill unto others the lessons of science is better than religious exercises."
(12) "Acquire knowledge: it enables its possessor to distinguish right from the wrong, it lights the way to heaven; it is our friend in the desert, our society in solitude, our companion when friendless; it guides us to happiness; it sustains us in misery; it is an ornament among friends and an armor against enemies."
The Islamic Empire for more than 1,000 years remained the most advanced and civilized nation in the world. This is because Islam stressed the Importance and respect of learning, forbade destruction, developed in Muslims the respect for authority and discipline, and tolerance for other religions. The teachings of Qur'an and Sunnah drove many Muslims to their accomplishments in science and medicine. The Muslims recognized excellence and, hungering intellectually, were avid for the wisdom of the world of Galen, Hippocrates, and Rufus of Ephesus, Oribasius, Dioscorides and Paul of Aegina. By the tenth century their zeal and enthusiasm for learning resulted in all essential Greek medical and scientific writings being translated into Arabic in Damascus, Cairo, and Baghdad. Arabic became the international language of learning and diplomacy. The center of scientific knowledge and activity shifted eastward, and Baghdad emerged as the capitol of the scientific world. The Muslims became scientific innovators with originality and productivity. For example Islamic medicine is one of the most famous and best-known facets of Islamic civilization, and in which the Muslims most excelled (2). The Muslims were the great torchbearers of international scientific research (3). Some of the best and most eloquent praises of science ever written came from the pens of Muslim scientists who considered their work to be acts of worship. The same motives led to the establishment of Al-Azhar (800 CE) the first university in the world. They hit the source ball of knowledge over the fence to Europe. In the words of Campbell (4) "The European medical system is Arabian not only in origin but also in its structure. The Arabs are the intellectual forebearers of the Europeans. "
In 700 CE a movement of Muslim scientists and scholars, known as Mutazillites, who believed that both the mysteries of nature and the religious belief could be explained and expressed in terms of human reason, provoked the emergence of a counter-movement called the Asharites who emerged in 900 CE. They contested the over-zealous use of reason and condemned bidah or innovation in religious belief. In the end the Asharites won but gave rise to taqlid - the tyrannical attitude to passive acceptance. When taqlid was accepted as the dominant paradigm, Islamic science and technology truly became a matter of history and the practice of Islamic science and technology disappeared.
The first word revealed to Prophet Muhammad (SAS) was "Iqra" (read). Ironically 70 to 80 per cent of the Muslim Ummah who constitute over one billion Muslims (the largest followers of a religion in the world) cannot read. For several hundred years, Islamic countries were colonial countries ruled by foreigners. The Muslim masses were without education and without natural resources and lacked inspiring and guiding leaders. Without these they could not struggle and could not compete and keep pace with the rest of the world, which has been developing fast. Awakening from its slumber, the Ummah is today confronted with formidable problems on all fronts. It's economic, social and political problems, which are overpowering by any standard are "iceberg tops" of its deeper-lying malaise on the intellectual and moral level (5). All or most of the Muslim countries are blindly following the western science and technology without any modification or change. This will again result in injury to the Islamic personality and culture at all levels and also it will destroy the physical environment. Muslim scientists and technologists who are in pursuit of building a new Islamic civilization must understand and solve the Ummah's problems. They must understand them correctly and analyze them critically. They must assess with precision how their solutions will affect the life of the Ummah. There is no cooperation and unity among the Islamic nations. There is always in fighting and inter-national fighting. Differences between ideologies, nationalism, economic status, etc., should be overcome.
There are international organizations such as the United Nations Organization and its several branches (FAO, UNESCO, IAEA, IITP, etc.), World Health Organization, and others. But their help in solving the problems of the Muslim Ummah is miniscule. Therefore the Muslims should solve their own problems. Muslim countries should tap the talents of Muslim scientists working in the Americas and Europe on matters concerning research, manpower utilization, material resources, motivating young scientists, sharing of intellectual wealth, etc.
There is nothing in the teachings of Islam that contends against learning, against science, and against technology. The pursuit of knowledge and scientific research is the birthright of every Muslim woman and every Muslim man.
The rediscovery of Islamic science and technology in the 21st century is an intellectually formidable task requiring a sustained effort over several decades. The first step to be taken for scientific rebirth is ijtihad, to exert the utmost effort, to struggle; to do one's best to know something. Ijtihad, after the Qur'an and Prophetic traditions, is the third source of Islamic law.
Muslim countries should unitedly aim at applying science and technology in the building of a new Islamic civilization. This will prevent the imbalance, disharmony and disintegration in almost every field of human endeavor such as social, economic, cultural, political or any other. This goal can be achieved by simultaneously implementing the following:
1. The Islamization of Muslim scientists and technologists who are trained by western science and technology.
The training of young Muslims in Islamic science and technology.
Currently the problem in the Muslim countries is that the Ulema do not have any knowledge of modern science and technology and the Muslim ' scientists and technologists do not have mastery of Islamic sources of knowledge. As we know the Ulema exert the greatest influence on the Muslim masses. It appears that it is easier and practical to train Muslim scientists and technologists trained in western education in Islamic sources of knowledge instead of training our Ulema in science and technology.
To train our younger generation into Islamic science and technology there is a need to develop a new curricula incorporating Islamic values in science and technology and also writing of textbooks in science and technology at all levels of education: primary, secondary, and higher education.
Muslim countries have established organizations to meet their religious, political, economic and social needs such as the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference), Arab League, Muslim World Bank, Muslim World League, World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), etc. But to my knowledge, no organization or institution has been established to meet the scientific and technological needs. Therefore there is an urgent need to establish the following:
Islamic Academy of Sciences.
Think-Tank institutions to solve scientific and technological problems of the Muslim countries
Islamic Foundations to award grants.
Recognition of Muslim scientists.
Establishment of Alternatives to Nobel Prizes, such as King Faizal Awards.
Prizes for work done or accomplishments of Muslim scientists and technologists.
Islamic Atomic Energy Agency where Muslim scientists and engineers from Muslim countries can be trained in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
Exchange of Muslim scholars in the sciences and engineering.
Holding of Annual Meetings at the national and international level.
Fortunately, Allah (SWT) has given a bounty to many Islamic countries, an income over 100 billion dollars per year. Hence, Islamic countries have the opportunity and resources to make Islamic sciences and technology NUMBER ONE in the world, once again. Let us ignite the spark of our great achievements to be materialized in the near future. Let the Muslim scientists and engineers in the western world contribute to the health, welfare and prosperity of our less fortunate brothers and sisters in the Islamic countries by contributing our brilliance. Insha'Allah, the First World Conference on Science, Technology and the Islamic Civilization will offer the opportunity to tap the cream of Islamic intelligentsia.
1. Syed, I.B.: "Islamic Medicine-1,000 Years Ahead of its Times". Journal of Islamic Medical Association (USA), 13(1): 6-13, 1981.
2. Nasr, S.H.: "Science and Civilization in Islam." New American Library, Inc., New York, 1968, pp. 184-229.
3. Salam, A.: IAEA Bulletin, 22(2), 81-83, and 1980
4. Campbell, D.: "Arabian Medicine", Vol. I, Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd., London, 1926.
5. Faruqi, I.R.: " Islamization of Knowledge: General Principles and Workplan." International Institute of Islamic Thought, Washington, D.C., pp. 43-48, 1982.