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SCIENCE IN THE ISLAMIC CIVILIZATION

"And He taught Adam all the names (of everything),"

 (Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow):31)

By: Dr. / Zaghloul El-Naggar

The word science (Latin scientia = knowledge, as distinguished from ignorance) is taken to mean a department of systematized knowledge as an object of study. However, the term has developed with time a much more restricted meaning, to define any of the various intellectual activities concerned with the study of the cosmos, its components and phenomena. This entails the methodological observation, identification, description, experimental investigation and theoretical explanation of the physical world and its observable events, at large or of a particular part of it. Consequently, the term science came to be equated with a knowledge or a system of knowledge covering a number of general truths in the universe and the operation of its empirical laws as obtained and tested through rational observation and/or experimentation followed by conclusion. These are generally included under the subtitle “Pure Sciences”, while their applications in the service of man are included under the name “Applied Sciences”. The scientific method is defined as the totality of principles, procedures and processes regarded as characteristic of, or necessary for, the systematic pursuit of cosmic knowledge. This involves the rational recognition and formulation of a problem, the systematic collection of data, through keen observation and/or careful experimentation, followed by the derivation of rational conclusions...

 

The understanding of the methodology necessary for both the formulation and testing of hypotheses and the establishment of rules for concept formation are also integral parts of the scientific method. Originally, the scientific method is an Islamic invention, despite the fact that the quest for cosmic knowledge did not part with man since his very early creation. It is virtually as old as the history of man on the planet earth. Despite the limitation of science to knowledge of the physical world and its phenomena, and the need for narrow specialization in that field of vastly ramifying spectra of information in an era of explosion of knowledge, science cannot be isolated from wisdom or separated from the authentic divine revelation, neither can humanities. Indeed, all branches of knowledge have to interact, and finally integrate in a comprehensive whole for the satisfaction of the human curiosity and rational thinking as well as for serving the main purpose of the human existence and the vicegerency of man on earth. Pure and applied sciences can interact with authentic divine revelations through the philosophy of sciences, while humanities can have its link through general philosophy. In this manner both revealed and acquired knowledge can be arranged in a triangular diagram, with pure and applied sciences at its base, and the divine revelation at its top. Above pure and applied sciences come the philosophy of sciences, then the humanities, the general philosophy and finally the authentic, purely divine, revealed knowledge. Every intellectual has to specialize in a narrow area of any of these five distinct levels, without depriving himself from a reasonable exposure to the major conclusions of each of the other levels. In this way, scientific knowledge can be placed in its right context as part of the totality of human knowledge, not as a sacred whole by itself. This process of the rational assessment of human knowledge - in general - and of its scientific part - in particular - is the only way out of the dilemma currently facing both Muslims and Non-Muslims alike, the formers by catching up with the recent advances in the area, and the letters by restraining such advances with proper moral, social and religious bindings.

In Islam, man started his existence with knowledge and commitment, not ignobly and disbelieving as claimed by most anthropologists. The very first knowledge man ever had was that granted to Adam (pbuh) by his Creator as explicitly described in the following Qur’anic verse: "And He taught Adam all the names (of everything)," (Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow):31) According to commentators, the divine expression “the names of (everything)” means the inner nature and qualities of every things deemed necessary for Adam and both his dependents and descendants to qualify for the office of vicegerency on earth. Stemming from this Qur’anic fact, all human civilizations past and present drew basically from that initial knowledge revealed by Allah to the father of the human race, for his guidance in this world and in the world to come. Whoever adhered to that divine guidance fulfilled his vicegerency on earth peacefully and successfully, and whoever deviated from it did injustice to himself as well as to others, even if he could achieve some material success. Consequently, it cannot be denied that our current knowledge is undoubtedly based on both that initial divine guidance and its repeated cycles of revelations throughout history as well as on past contributions of previous civilizations, of which the Islamic one was the most effective. This is simply because pre-Islamic civilizations [such as those of Ancient Egypt (5000 - 30 B.C.), of Mesopotamia (4000-550 B.C.), of Southern Arabia (2000 B.C. - 300 A.C.), of Northern Arabia (2000 B.C. - 636 A.C.) and of Persia (525 B.C. - 635 A.C.)] were mainly concerned with the administrative organization of the civil society, and hence did not concentrate much on the rational investigation of the universe. Similarly, the Ancient Chinese civilization ( 4500 B.C. - 700 A.C.) focused mainly on man-made social and moral values such as those tailored in Confucianism, Menciusism and Taoism which invited for the wrong concept of “the Re-integration of Existence”. Such movements invited for the mystification of the human intellect into the labyrinths of their secrets, and hence lacked rationalism in many aspects, particularly in their quest for knowledge about the universe. In a very similar experience, the Ancient Indian civilization (7 2500 - 1800 B.C.) under both Buddhism and Hinduism invited for a diverse body of religious, philosophical and cultural practices that revolved around the desire for liberation from earthly sufferings and evils. These practices evolved into a number of peculiar ideas such as the “Dharma” with its mystical contemplations and ascetic practices, the wrong call for the “Comprehensive Re-integration of Existence” in which everything should vanish, including the human common sense, the “Maya “ or the illusionary appearance of the world, the misconception of “Reincarnation”, etc. In the deviances of such man-made ideologies, the ancient Indian mind could not possibly rationalize its investigations of the universe, despite its recorded achievements in the area of mathematics. On the same level, the Ancient Greek civilization ( 1500 - 100 B.C.) - which was a natural extension for the Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations - indulged deeply into a multitude of mythologies, philosophical arguments and theoretical conclusions regarding the universe, without much observational or experimentational deductions. Consequently, their culture was full of allegorical narrations fictitious stories, legendary tales, mythological assumptions and illusionary visions about numerous supernatural beings, (gods, demi-gods and legendary heroes of a particular people), that served as primordial types in a primitive view of the world. This idolatry, polytheistic, myth culture could not possibly nurture a scientific revival of any importance, despite the fact the Ancient Greeks had inherited the legacy of previous civilizations, from which they borrowed the systematic way of classifying knowledge, without being able to properly use it. This is simply because their myths normally pre-occupied any systematic thinking. As mentioned by Briffault, the astronomy and Mathematics of the Greek were a foreign importation, never thoroughly acclimatized in Greek culture. After the fall of the Ancient Greek empire, the Roman civilization, the Persian civilization (500 B.C. - 476 A.C.) dominated Western Europe, while the Persian one dominated the scene in the Eastern Hemisphere (525 B.C. - 635 A.C). The Persian civilization adopted the legacy of the Ancient Chinese, Indian, Central Asian and Greek civilizations, and hence borrowed a mixture of their mythologies and idolatry beliefs. This mixture of fictitious cultures emerged into a number of false ideologies such as the Magianism, Zoroastrianism, Menciusism, Sabianism, etc., which mystified any rational thinking about the universe, despite affluence and material nourishment, as well as certain advancements in arts, technologies and some branches of science, such as astronomy. In the contemporary Roman civilization, both science and philosophy were either ignored or relegated to a rather low status. The spirit of independent research was quite foreign to the Roman mind and hence, the scientific knowledge was almost completely lacking. Not only this, but the inherited legacy of Ancient Greece was distorted and highly corrupted for entertainment rather than enlightenment. This legacy was changed into a collection of more myths, legendary tales, magic and some informative statements, all mixed together without any rationalization or criticism, but still constituted the Roman culture, which was dominated by the military superiority and aggression. In the year 325 A.C., the Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity, and made it the official religion of his empire, but his Christianity was a mixture of the teachings of Christ (pbuh) and the Greco-Roman polytheistic, idolatry beliefs. With the fall of Rome and the occupation of the Western Empire by tribes of Germanic savages, ancient learning in Europe has almost died out completely. However, in Eastern Europe, the Byzantine Empire tried to continue, as a European culture, but there was little original work done in the whole of Europe in the millennium following the fall of Rome (The new Encyclopedia Britannica). This phase is known in Europe under the expressive title “Dark and Middle Ages”. Even in Arabia, the land which had been blessed with repeated divine revelations and a multitude of Prophethood before the coming of Muhammad (pbuh) the people almost completely recanted as they were seriously affected by the surrounding deviations. Consequently, the Arabs sank into the darkness of various forms of polytheism and idolatry worship to the extent that one of them would build up a statue of soft dates as his god, and whenever he felt hungry he start feeding on it. Through contacts with nearby countries, the Persian beliefs also spread in small pockets, side by side with both Judaism and Christianity along the periphery of the Arabian Peninsula. Queer ideas about a universal struggle between superior and inferior powers, and between the forces of light and of darkness went hand in hand with distorted idolatry worship and beliefs in the Creator. From this quick survey, one can easily see how the world was before the coming of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), scientifically, intellectually, religiously and humanly. It was a world that had already lost the divine guidance, and hence sank in the darkness of misbelieve, ignorance and loss of identity. A world dominated by irrationality, arrogance and conceit, mythology, superstition, skepticism, magic and mischief, by decay of morals, degradation in thoughts and practices, lack of knowledge and of wisdom, and the spread of lots of injustices, transgressions and aggressions. It was a world crying for guidance, and the guidance was the revelation received by Muhammad (pbuh)., crying for a savior, and the savior was the revelation received by Muhammad himself (pbuh), whose mission has since been a turning point in the history of mankind.

Since receiving the very early verses of the divine revelation in the year 610 A.C., Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) started to invite vigorously to his message and the Muslim community expanded gradually to dominate the whole of the Arabian Peninsula within a period of about twenty years. A few decades later, Islam extended to more than half of the inhabited world, covering vast stretches in the three continents of Asia, Africa and Europe, where Islam became the chosen faith by millions of its inhabitants, and hence established the most impressive civilization in the history of mankind. The uniqueness of the Islamic civilization stems from the fact that it is based on a truly divine message, that has been kept intact since the early decades of the seventh century A.C. by a divine promise, when all forms of previous revelations have either been lost or distorted by human infiltrations. Enough to mention that Islam invited all human beings to the spiritually illuminating, eternal truth of Monotheism (Tawheed), while all other doctrines have deviated to mythic polytheism, idol-worshipping, agnosticism or disbelief. Again, while followers of other beliefs have confined themselves in a narrow circle revolving around one or the other of the main religious figures, whom they kept on exalting to the extreme sin of deification, Islam invites for the worship of none but Allah, the one Supreme Being (without parallels, partners or similitudes), who has sent a long chain of Prophets and Messengers, in whom every Muslim should believe, without the slightest discrimination, and should hold all their messages in full reverence. This momentous revelation of the eternal, divine truth opened a new chapter in the history of humanity as it was a remarkable spiritual, social and cultural revolution, based on deep belief in Allah, as the sole Supreme Being, Who Has created man for a definite purpose and a specified message to fulfill on earth, with full responsibility and accountability, and a definite call back for reckoning; belief in His angels, revealed books, Messengers, the Last Day, Resurrection, Judgment, Paradise and Hell and Eternity in Life to come. This process of Islamic revival was a remarkable spiritual and cultural movement, based on rationalism and respect of reason, love of useful knowledge and of wisdom, commitment to high levels of morality and deep belief in the unity of dignity of man (without discrimination), the unity at and respect for all divine revelations, Messengers and Prophets; and in the obligation towards the establishment of prosperity and divine justice on earth through knowledge, commitment and strive. Such a noble Islamic call came at a time when all previous as well as contemporary. Civilizations had already declined or became stagnant. Such stale cultures were generally characterized by the loss of reason or by exaggerating its capabilities to the level of theorization and extrapolation without direct or indirect observation, logical evidence or an acceptable criterion. Consequently, such cultures were flooded with many irrational thoughts and beliefs, false concepts, whimsical ideas, treacherous dogmas, devious intrigues, deceptive vagaries, capricious reactions and unacceptable freaks, despite its partial successes in a number of worldly matters. These deviations led to the accumulation of heaps of mythologies, magic, mysticism, superstitious and skeptic views which finally crystallized in a number of peculiar ideologies, queer dogmas and strange beliefs as outlined above. Such fallacies have been discredited in the light of the divine guidance received by the seal of Prophethood Muhammad (pbuh), whose message has indeed put an end to such deviations, and established the bases of the only religion acceptable to Allah, and the only way of life that can lead man on the right track for fulfilling the obligations of his vicegerency on earth. The simplicity, truthfulness and straightforwardness of the Islamic doctrine, were among many reasons for the rapid and peaceful spread of Islam (from China to Spain within less than one century), and paved the way for the establishment of the most unique civilization in human history. The Islamic civilization gave a special concern to useful knowledge and encouraged its proper pursuit, considering it to be-in itself- an act of worship. Enough to mention that the very first verses revealed from the Glorious Qur’an came down with the instruction to read and write and to honour the tools used for such activities ["Read! In the Name of your Lord Who has created (all that exists)."

(Surat Al-'Alaq (The Clot):1);

 

"Nun. {These letters (Nun, etc.) are one of the miracles of the Qur'an, and none but Allah (Alone) knows their meanings}. By the pen and by what they (angels) write (in the Records of men)."

(Surat Al-Qalam (The Pen):1);

 

"By the Tur (Mount), And by a Book Inscribed, In parchment unrolled."

(Surat At-Tur (The Mount): 1-3).

 

The Qur’an also honours both knowledge and the knowledgeable individuals ["Say: "Are those who know equal to those who know not?" It is only men of understanding who will remember (i.e. get a lesson from Allah's Signs and Verses)."

(Surat Az-Zumar (The Groups): 9);

 

 "O you who believe! When you are told to make room in the assemblies, (spread out and) make room. Allah will give you (ample) room (from His Mercy). And when you are told to rise up {for prayers, or Jihad (holy fighting in Allah's cause), or for any other good deed}, rise up. Allah will exalt in degree those of you who believe, and those who have been granted knowledge. And Allah is Well-Acquainted with what you do." (Surat Al-Mujadilah (The Woman Who Disputes):11)   , considers wisdom one of the great gifts from Allah (Surat Al-Baqarah (The Cow):269),

 

Instructs His final Messenger, and hence all human beings to ask Allah always for more knowledge "Then High above all be Allah, the True King. And be not in haste (O Muhammad (pbuh)) with the Qur'an before its revelation is completed to you, and say:" My Lord! Increase me in knowledge."

 (Surat Ta-Ha: 114),

And expresses the great bounties Allah has bestowed upon Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) by teaching him through the revelation, an essential amount of knowledge, he was never aware of "Allah has sent down to you the book (The Qur'an), and Al-Hikmah (Islamic laws, knowledge of legal and illegal things i.e. the Prophet's Sunnah-legal ways), and taught you that which you knew not. And Ever Great is the Grace of Allah unto you (O Muhammad (pbuh))."

 

(Surat An-Nisa' (The Woman):113).

 

The Qur’an emphasizes the fact that the great parables mentioned through a number of its verses can only be understood by learned people "And these similitudes We put forward for mankind; but none will understand them except those who have knowledge (of Allah and His Signs)."

(Surat Al-'Ankabut (The Spider):43),

 

And that such scholars, through their keen investigations of the vast, precise, orderly universe, can get to realize some of the superior qualities of The Creator, and hence enrich their beliefs [e.g. "Verily! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for men of understanding. Those who remember Allah (always, and in prayers) standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and think deeply about the creation of the heavens and the earth, (saying):"Our Lord! You have not created (all) this without purpose, glory to You! (Exalted are You above all that they associate with You as partners). Give us salvation from the torment of the Fire. "

(Surat Al-Imran (The Family of Imran):190-191);

 

"It is He Who made the sun a shining thing and the moon as a light and measured out for it stages that you might know the number of years and the reckoning. Allah did not create this but in truth. He explains the Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.) in detail for people who have knowledge. Verily, in the alternation of the night and the day and in all that Allah has created in the heavens and the earth are Ayat (proofs, evidences, verses, lessons, signs, revelations, etc.) for those people who keep their duty to Allah, and fear Him much."

(Surat Yunus (Jonah): 5-6);

 

 "Is not He (better than your gods) Who created the heavens and the earth, and sends down for you water (rain) from the sky, whereby We cause to grow wonderful gardens full of beauty and delight? It is not in your ability to cause the growth of their trees. Is there any ilah (god) with Allah? Nay, but they are a people who ascribe equals (to Him)! "Is not He (better than your gods) Who has made the earth as a fixed abode, and has placed rivers in its midst, and has placed firm mountains therein, and has set a barrier between the two seas (of salt and sweet water)? Is there any ilah (god) with Allah? Nay, but most of them know not! "Is not He (better than your gods) Who responds to the distressed one, when he calls on Him, and Who removes the evil, and makes you inheritors of the earth, generations after generations? Is there any ilah (god) with Allah? Little is that you remember! "Is not He (better than your gods) Who guides you in the darkness of the land and the sea, and Who sends the winds as heralds of glad tidings, going before His Mercy (rain)? Is there any ilah (god) with Allah? High Exalted is Allah above all that they associate as partners (to Him)! "Is not He (better than your so-called gods) Who originates creation, and shall thereafter repeat it, and Who provides for you from the heaven and earth? Is there any ilah (god) with Allah? Say: "Bring forth your proofs, if you are truthful."

(Surat An-Naml (The Ants): 60-64);

 

"See they not how Allah originates the creation, then repeats it. Verily, that is easy for Allah. Say:" Travel in the land and see how (Allah) originated the creation, and then Allah will bring forth the creation of the Hereafter (i.e. resurrection after death). Verily, Allah is Able to do all things."

(Surat Al-'Ankabut (The Spider):19-20);

 

 "See you not that Allah sends down water (rain) from the sky, and We produce therewith fruits of various colours, and among the mountains are streaks white and red, of varying colours and (others) very black. And likewise of men and Ad-Dawabb {moving (living) creatures, beasts}, and cattle are of various colours. It is only those who have knowledge among His slaves that fear Allah. Verily, Allah is All-Mighty, Oft-Forgiving."

(Surat Fatir (The Originator of Creation, or The Angels):27-28);

 

"He has created the heavens and the earth with truth. He makes the night to go in the day and makes the day to go in the night. And He has subjected the sun and the moon. Each running (on a fixed course) for an appointed term. Verily, He is the All-Mighty, the Oft-Forgiving."

(Surat (Az-Zumar (The Groups): 5); etc.].

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