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Science and Civilization in Islam

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Islamic Astrolabe
To understand the Islamic sciences in their essence requires an understanding of some of the principles of Islam itself

The Principles of Islam

The history of science is often regarded today as the progressive accumulation of techniques and the refinement of quantitative methods in the study of Nature.

Such a point of view considers the present conception of science to be the only valid one; it therefore judges the sciences of other civilizations in the light of modern science and evaluates them primarily with respect to their "development" with the passage of time.

Our aim in this work, however, is not to examine the Islamic sciences from the point of view of modern science and of this "evolutionistic" conception of history; it is, on the contrary, to present certain aspects of the Islamic sciences as seen from the Islamic point of view.

To the Muslim, history is a series of accidents that in no way affect the non temporal principles of Islam. He is more interested in knowing and "realizing" these principles than in cultivating originality and change as intrinsic virtues.

Once the spirit of the Islamic revelation had brought into being, out of the heritage of previous civilizations and through its own genius, the civilization whose manifestations may be called distinctly Islamic, the main interest turned away from change and "adaptation". The arts and sciences came to possess instead stability and "crystallization" based on the immutability of the principles from which they had issued forth; it is this stability that is too often mistaken in the West today for stagnation and sterility.

Unity-Based Knowledge

The arts and sciences in Islam are based on the idea of unity, which is the heart of the Muslim revelation. Just as all genuine Islamic art, whether it be the Alhambra or the Paris Mosque, provides the plastic forms through which one can contemplate the Divine unity manifesting itself in multiplicity, so do all the sciences that can properly be called Islamic reveal the unity of Nature. One might say that the aim of all the Islamic sciences and, more generally speaking, of all the medieval and ancient cosmological sciences is to show the unity and interrelatedness of all that exists, so that, in contemplating the unity of the cosmos, man may be led to the unity of the Divine principle, of which the unity of nature is the image.

the revelation brought by Prophet Muhammad is the "pure" and simple religion of Adam and Abraham, the restoration of a primordial and fundamental unity

To understand the Islamic sciences in their essence, therefore, requires an understanding of some of the principles of Islam itself, even though these ideas may be difficult to express in modern terms and strange to readers accustomed to another way of thinking. Yet a statement of these principles is necessary here, insofar as they form the matrix within which the Islamic sciences have meaning, and outside of which any study of them would remain superficial and incomplete.

Islamic civilization as a whole is, like other traditional civilizations, based upon a point of view: the revelation brought by the Prophet Muhammad is the "pure" and simple religion of Adam and Abraham (peace be upon them all), the restoration of a primordial and fundamental unity. The very word Islam means both "submission" and "peace" or "being at one with the Divine Will".

Islam's Levels of Meaning

The creed of Islam "there is no divinity other than God and Muhammad is His prophet" summarizes in its simplicity the basic attitude and spirit of Islam. To grasp the essence of Islam, it is enough to recognize that God is one, and that the Prophet, who is the vehicle of revelation and the symbol of all creation, was sent by Him.

This simplicity of the Islamic revelation further implies a type of religious structure different in many ways from that of Christianity. There is no priesthood as such in Islam. Each Muslim being a "priest" is himself capable of fulfilling all the religious functions of his family and, if necessary, of his community; and the role of the Imam does not in any way diminish the sacerdotal function of every believer.

In its universal sense, Islam may be said to have three levels of meaning. All beings in the universe, to begin with, are Muslim, i.e., "surrendered to the Divine Will." (A flower cannot help being a flower; a diamond cannot do other than sparkle. God has made them so; it is theirs to obey.) Secondly, all men who accept with their will the sacred law of the revelation are Muslim in that they surrender their will to that law.

Finally, we have the level of pure knowledge and understanding. It is that of the contemplative, the level that has been recognized throughout Islamic history as the highest and most comprehensive. The contemplated Muslim in that his whole being is surrendered to God; he has no separate individual existence of his own. He is like the birds and the flowers in his yielding to the Creator; like them, like all the other elements of the cosmos, he reflects the Divine Intellect to his own degree. He reflects it actively, however, they passively; his participation is a conscious one.

Thus "knowledge" and "science" are defined as basically different from mere curiosity and even from analytical speculation. To contemplate, from this point of view, "one with Nature"; he understands it "from the inside," he has become in fact the channel of grace for the universe. His Islam and the Islam of Nature are now counterparts.

Viewed as a text, Nature is a fabric of symbols, which must be read according to their meaning. The Quran is the counterpart of that text in human words; its verses are called ayahs ("signs"), just as are the phenomena of Nature. Both Nature and the Quran speak forth the presence and the word of God: {We shall show them Our portents on the horizon and within themselves until it will be manifest unto them that it is the Truth.} (Fussilat 41: 53)

Abstract & Concrete

Can our minds grasp the individual object as it stands by itself? Or can we do so only by understanding the individual object within the context of the universe? In other words, from the cosmological point of view, is the universe the unity and the individual event or object a sign (''phenomenon,'' "appearance") of ambiguous and uncertain import? Or is it the other way around?

one can already see why mathematics was to make such a strong appeal to the Muslim: its abstract nature furnished the bridge that Muslims were seeking between multiplicity and unity

Of these alternatives, which go back to the time of Plato, the Muslim is bound to accept the first: he gives priority to the universe as the one concrete reality, which symbolizes on the cosmic level the divine principle itself, although that cannot truly be envisaged in terms of anything else. This is, to be sure, an ancient choice, but Islam does inherit many of its theories from pre-existing traditions, the truths of which it seeks to affirm rather than to deny. What it brings to them, as we have already said, is that strong unitary point of view that, along with a passionate dedication to the Divine Will, enabled Islam to rekindle the flame of science that had been extinguished at Athens and in Alexandria.

We have seen that the sacred art of Islam is an abstract art, combining flexibility of line with emphasis on the archetype, and on the use of regular geometrical figures interlaced with one another. Herein one can already see why mathematics was to make such a strong appeal to the Muslim: its abstract nature furnished the bridge that Muslims were seeking between multiplicity and unity. It provided a fitting texture of symbols for the universe - symbols that were like keys to open the cosmic text.

We should distinguish at once between the two types of mathematics practiced by Muslims: one was the science of algebra, which was always related to geometry and trigonometry; the other was the science of numbers, as understood in the Pythagorean sense. The Pythagorean number has a symbolic as well as a quantitative aspect; it is a projection of unity, which, however, never leaves its source. Each number has an inherent power of analysis, arising out of its quantitative nature; it has also the power of synthesis because of the inner bond that connects all other numbers to the unit.

The Pythagorean number thus has a "personality": it is like a Jacob's ladder, connecting the quantitative with the qualitative domain by virtue of its own inner polarization. To study numbers thus means to contemplate them as symbols and to be led thereby to the intelligible world. So also is with the other branches of mathematics. Even where the symbolic aspect is not explicitly stated, the connection with geometric forms has the effect upon the mind of freeing it from dependence upon mere physical appearance, and in that way preparing it for its journey into the intelligible world and, ultimately, to unity.

Historical Roots

Today, as in the past, the traditional Muslim looks upon all of science as "sacred," and studies this sacred science in a well-established threefold articulation. First, within the reach of all, is the law, contained in essence in the Quran, elucidated by tradition and jurisprudence, and taught by the doctors; it covers every aspect of the social and religious life of the believer.

The title of Avicenna's great treatise, Kitab al-Shifa', which rivals in scope the Aristotelian corpus, means The Book of Healing. As the title implies the work contains the knowledge needed to cure the soul of the disease of ignorance. It is all that is needed for man to understand; it is also as much as any man needs to know. Newton's work Principia has an obviously far different ring: it means a foundation essentially, a "beginning" rather than a knowledge that is complete and sufficient for man's intellectual needs as the titles of so many medieval Islamic texts imply.

Islam came into the world at the beginning of the seventh century A.D., its initial date (the journey of the Prophet Muhammad from Makkah to Madinah) being 622 A.D.; it had spread over all of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain, by the end of that same century. Just as the Islamic religion is one of the "middle way", so too did its territory come to occupy in fact, it still occupies the "middle belt" of the globe, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In this region, the home of many earlier civilizations, Islam came into contact with a number of sciences which it absorbed, to the extent that these sciences were compatible with its own spirit and was able to provide nourishment for its own characteristic cultural life.

The primordial character of its revelation, and its confidence that it was expressing the truth at the heart of all revelations, permitted Islam to absorb ideas from many sources, historically alien yet inwardly related to it. This was especially true in regard to the sciences of Nature, because most of the ancient cosmological sciences - Greek, as well as Chaldean, Persian, Indian, and Chinese - had sought to express the unity of Nature and was therefore in conformity with the spirit of Islam.

strong unitary point of view, along with a passionate dedication to the Divine Will, enabled Islam to rekindle the flame of science that had been extinguished at Athens and in Alexandria

Coming into contact with them, the Muslims adopted some elements from each most extensively, perhaps, from the Greeks, but also from the Chaldeans, Indians, Persians, and perhaps, in the case of alchemy, even from the Chinese. They united these sciences into a new corpus, which was to grow over the centuries and become part of the Islamic civilization, integrated into the basic structure derived from the Revelation itself.

The lands destined to become parts of the medieval Islamic world - from Transoxiana to Andalusia - were consolidated into a new spiritual universe within a single century after the death of the Prophet. The revelation contained in the Quran, and expressed in the sacred language (Arabic), provided the unifying pattern into which many foreign elements became integrated and absorbed, in accordance with the universal spirit of Islam. In the sciences, especially those dealing with Nature, the most important source was the heritage of Greek civilization.

Alexandria, by the first century B.C., had become the center of Greek science and philosophy, as well as the meeting place of Hellenism with Oriental and ancient Egyptian influences, out of which came Hermeticism and Neoplatonism. The Greek heritage, itself to a great extent is an assemblage of ancient Mediterranean views, systematized and put into dialectical form by the peculiar discursive power of the Greeks passed from Alexandria to Antioch, and from there to Nisibis and Edessa, by way of the Christian Monophysites and Nestorians. The latter were particularly instrumental in the spreading of Greek learning, chiefly in Syriac translation, to lands as far east as Persia.

The totality of the arts and sciences in Islam thus consisted of a synthesis of the ancient sciences of the Mediterranean people, as incorporated and developed by the Greeks, along with certain Oriental elements. The dominant part of this heritage was definitely Greco-Hellenistic, in translations either from Syriac or from the Greek itself, by such masters of translation as Hunain ibn Ishaq, and Thabit ibn Qurran. There were numerous translations of Greek authors into Arabic in nearly every domain of knowledge. The ideas and points of views contained in these translations formed a large part of the nutriment which Islam sampled and then assimilated according to its own inner constitution, and the foundation given to it by the Qur’anic revelation. In this way there developed, in conjunction with the three basic "dimensions" of the Law, the Path, and the Truth, Islamic schools which were to become an accepted part of Islamic civilization.

With respect to Greek learning itself, Muslims came to distinguish between two different schools, each possessing a distinct type of science: one, the Hermetic-Pythagorean school, was metaphysical in its approach, its sciences of Nature depending upon the symbolic interpretation of phenomena and of mathematics; in the other, the syllogistic-rationalistic school of the followers of Aristotle, the point of view was philosophical rather than metaphysical, and its sciences were therefore aimed at finding the place of things in a rational system, rather than at seeing, through their appearances, their heavenly essences. The first school was regarded as the continuation, in Greek civilization, of the wisdom of the ancient Prophets, especially Solomon and Idris, peace be upon them; it was therefore considered to be based on divine rather than human knowledge. The second school was looked upon, for the most part, as reflecting the best effort the human mind could make to arrive at the truth, an effort of necessity limited by the finite nature of human reason.

"The Book of Healing" is the most comprehensive encyclopedia of knowledge ever written by one person, and undoubtedly the most influential Peripatetic work in Islam

The science of Nature cultivated by the Peripatetic school is primarily syllogistic: it seeks to determine the place of each being, in a vast system based upon the philosophy of Aristotle. The best expression of the doctrines of this school appears in Avicenna's early writings. "The Book of Healing" is the most comprehensive encyclopedia of knowledge ever written by one person, and undoubtedly the most influential Peripatetic work in Islam.

Some of the scholars’ writings, primarily those of the Peripatetic’s, were to be translated into Latin to help form that Western scholasticism which was later to give way to seventeenth-century "natural philosophy". Other writings, such as those of the alchemists, were to flourish in the Western world for several centuries, only to wither away in its atmosphere of rationalistic philosophy. There were still other works, especially those of the Sufis and Illuminatists, which were to have an influence on certain Western circles such as that of Dante, and yet for the most part to remain almost unknown in the Western world, down to comparatively recent times.

In this brief introduction, it has been necessary to cover much ground that is unfamiliar to Western reader. But we felt that we had to dispel the common conception of the Muslims as merely Puritan warriors and merchants, whose strange bent for the "subtleties" of algebra and logic somehow also enabled them to become the transmitters of Greek learning to the West. As against that all too current notion, we have tried to present a brief picture of a culture whose spiritual values are inextricably tied up with mathematics and with metaphysics of a high order, and which once again fused the constituent elements of Greek science into a powerful unitary conception, which had an essential influence on the Western world up to the time of the Renaissance.

Strangely enough, it is this latter conception, half unknown at best, and then quickly forgotten in the West, which has remained, up to the present Western impact upon the Islamic world, the major factor in the Islamic perspective determining its attitude toward Nature and the meaning it gives to the sciences of Nature; conversely, it is those very elements of the Islamic sciences, most responsible for providing the tools with which the West began the study of the already secularized Nature of the seventeenth century, that became secondary in the Islamic world itself and had already ceased to occupy the main intellectual efforts of that civilization by the ninth to fifteenth century.

The Western world has since concentrated its intellectual energies upon the study of the quantitative aspects of things, thus developing a science of Nature, whose all too obvious fruits in the physical domain have won for it the greatest esteem among people everywhere, for most of whom "science" is identified with technology and its applications. Islamic science, by contrast, seeks ultimately to attain such knowledge as will contribute toward the spiritual perfection and deliverance of anyone capable of studying it; thus its fruits are inward and hidden, its values more difficult to discern. To understand it requires placing oneself within its perspective and accepting as legitimate a science of Nature which has a different end, and uses different means, from those of modern science.

Source: This is a summary of an article titled (Science and Civilization in Islam), published at the Fordham University web site -
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Seyyed Hossein Nasr is Professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, and a prominent Islamic philosopher. He is the author of many scholarly books and articles

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