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Islam and Science, Concordance or Conflict?

Islam and Science. Concordance or Conflict? (Prof. Abdus Salam) The Holy Quran and Science Let me say at the outset that I am both a believer as well as a practising Muslim. I am a Muslim because I believe in the spiritual message of the Holy Quran. As a scientist, the Quran speaks to me in that it emphasises reflection on the Laws of Nature, with examples drawn from cosmology, physics, biology and medicine, as signs for all men. Thus “Can they not look up to the clouds, how they are created; and to the Heaven how it is upraised; and the mountains how they are rooted, and to the earth how it is outspread?” (88:17). and again, “Verily in the creation of the heavens and of the earth, and in the alternation of the night and of the day, there are indeed Signs for men of understanding.” (3:189-190). Seven hundred and fifty verses of the Quran — (almost one eighth of the Book) — exhort believers to study Nature, to reflect, to make the best use of reason in their search for the ultimate and to make the acquiring of knowledge and scientific comprehension part of the community’s life. The Holy Prophet of Islam (Peace be on him) emphasised that the quest for knowledge and sciences is obligatory upon every Muslim, man and woman. This is the first premise on scientific knowledge with which any fundamentalist thinking in Islam must begin. Add to this the second premise — eloquently reinforced by Maurice Bucaille in his essay on “The Bible, the Quran and Science”. There is not a single verse in the Quran where natural phenomena are described and which contradicts what we know for certain from our discoveries in Sciences. Add to this the third premise: in the whole of Islamic history there has never been an incident like that of Galileo. Persecution, excommunication 34 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS (takfeer), even to-day, over doctrinal differences, but never, to my knowledge, for scientific beliefs. And paradoxically, the first Inquisition (Mihna) in Islam came to be instituted, not by the orthodox theologians, but by the so-called rationalists, the Mu’tazzala—theologians themselves—who prided themselves on the use of reason. The saintly Ahmad ibn Hanbal was one of those subjected to the lash of their fury.1 Early Islam and Science How seriously did the early Muslims take these injunctions in the Holy Quran and of the Holy Prophet? Barely a hundred years after the Prophet’s death, the Muslims had made it their task to muster the then-known sciences. Founding institutes of advanced study (Boyut-ul-Hikma), they acquired an absolute ascendancy in the sciences that lasted for the next 350 years. An aspect of reverence for the sciences in Islam was the patronage they enjoyed in the Islamic Commonwealth. To paraphrase what H. A. R. Gibb has written in the context of literature: “To a greater extent than elsewhere, the flowering of the sciences in Islam was conditional… on the liberality and patronage of those in high positions. So long as, in one capital or another, princes and ministers found pleasure, profit or reputation in patronising the sciences, the torch was kept burning.” The Golden Age of Science in Islam was doubtless the Age around the year 1000 CE, the Age of Ibn-i-Sina (Avicenna), the last of the mediaevalists, and of his contemporaries, the first of the moderns, Ibn-al-Haitham and Al Biruni. Ibn-ul-Haitham (Alhazen, 965-1039 CE) was one of the greatest physicists of all time. He made experimental contributions of the highest order in optics. He “enunciated that a ray of light, in passing through a medium, takes the path which is the easier and ‘quicker’ “,2 In this he was anticipating Fermat’s Principle of Least Time by many centuries. He enunciated the law of inertia, later to become Newton’s first law of motion. Part V of Roger Bacon’s “Opus Majus” is practically a copy of Ibn-ul-Haitham’s Optics.3 Al Biruni (973-1048 CE), Ibn-i-Sina’s second illustrious contemporary, worked in Afghanistan. He was an empirical scientist like Ibn-ul-Haitham; as modern and as unmedieval in outlook as Galileo, six centuries later. 1. A. J. Arberry, “Revelation and Reason in Islam”, George Allen and Unwin, London 1957, p. 19. 2. H. J. J. Winter, “Eastern Science”, John Murray, London 1952, p. 72-73. 3. Briffault, “Making of Humanity” p. 190-202 quoted from Muhammad Iqbal “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam”, reprinted by M. Ashraf, Lahore 1971, p. 129-130. ISLAM AND SCIENCE. CONCORDANCE OR CONFLICT? 35 There is no question that Western Science is a Greco-Islamic legacy. However, it is commonly alleged that Islamic science was a derived science, that Muslim scientists followed the Greek theoretical tradition blindly and added nothing to the scientific method. This statement is false. Listen to this assessment of Aristotle by Al Biruni: “The trouble with most people is their extravagance in respect of Aristotle’s opinions, they believe that there is no possibility of mistakes in his views, though they know that he was only theorizing to the best of his capacity.” Or Al-Biruni on mediaeval superstition: “People say that on the 6th [of January] there is an hour during which all salt water of the earth gets sweet. Since all the qualities occurring in the water depend exclusively upon the nature of the soil. . . these qualities are of a stable nature . . . . Therefore this statement . . . is entirely unfounded. Continual and leisurely experimentation will show to anyone the futility of this assertion.” And finally, Al-Biruni on geology, with this insistence on observation: “. . . But if you see the soil of India with your own eyes and meditate on its nature, if you consider the rounded stones found in earth however deeply you dig, stones that are huge near the mountains and where the rivers have a violent current: stones that are of smaller size at a greater distance from the mountains and where the streams flow more slowly: stones that appear pulverised in the shape of sand where the streams begin to stagnate near their mouths and near the sea — if you consider all this you can scarcely help thinking that India was once a sea, which by degrees has been filled up by the alluvium of the streams.” In Briffault’s words4 “The Greeks systematised, generalised, and theorised, but the patient ways of detailed and prolonged observation and experimental inquiry were altogether alien to the Greek temperament. . . . What we call science arose as a result of new methods of experiment, observation, and measurement, which were introduced into Europe by the Arabs . . . (Modern) science is the most momentous contribution of the Islamic civilisation.” . . .’ These thoughts are echoed by George Sarton: “The main, as well as the least obvious, achievement of the middle Ages was the creation of the experimental spirit and this was primarily due to the Muslims down to the 12th century”. 4. H. Reeves, “The Birth of the Universe”, p. 369, edited by J. Audouze and J. Tran Thanh Van, editors Frontieres, Paris 1982. 36 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS One of the tragedies of history is that this dawning of the modern spirit in Sciences was interrupted; it did not lead to a permanent change of direction in scientific methodology. Barely a hundred years after Al Biruni and Ibn-al-Haitham worked, creation of high Science in Islam effectively came to a halt. Mankind had to wait 500 years before the same level of maturity and the same insistence on observation and experimentation was reached once again, with Tycho Brahe, Galileo and their contemporaries. The Decline of Sciences in Islam Why did creative science die out in Islam? This decline, which began around 1100 CE, was complete two hundred and fifty years later. No one knows for certain. There were indeed external causes, like the devastation caused by the Mongol invasion. In my view however, the demise of living science within the Islamic commonwealth was due more to internal causes — firstly of isolation of our scientific enterprise and secondly of discouragement to innovation (taqlid). The later parts of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries in Islam (when this decline began) were periods of intense politically-motivated, sectarian, and religious strife. Even though a man like Imam Ghazali, writing around 1100 CE, could say “A grievous crime indeed against religion has been committed by a man who imagines that Islam is defended by the denial of the mathematical sciences, seeing that there is nothing in these sciences opposed to the truth of religion” — even though Imam Ghazali could write this, the temper of the age had turned away from creative science, either to Sufism with its other worldliness or to a rigid orthodoxy with a lack of tolerance (taqlid) for innovation (ijtihad), in all fields of learning including the sciences. Does this situation persist to-day? Are we encouraging scientific research and inquiry? Of the major civilisations on this planet, Science is the weakest in the Islamic Commonwealth. Some of us Muslims believe that while technology is basically neutral, and that its excesses can be tempered through an adherence to the moral precepts of Islam, science —r on the contrary — is value-loaded; that modern science must lead to “rationalism”, and eventually apostacy; that scientifically trained men among us will “deny the metaphysical presuppositions of our culture”. Leaving aside the fact that high technology can not flourish with high science and also leaving aside the insult to the “presuppositions of our culture” for implied fragility, I suspect that such an attitude towards Science is a legacy of the battles of yesterday when the so-called “rational philosophers”, with their irrational and dogmatic faith in the cosmological doctrines they had inherited from Aristotle found difficulties in reconciling these with their faith. ISLAM AND SCIENCE. CONCORDANCE OR CONFLICT? 37 One must remind oneself that such battles were waged even more fiercely among the Christian schoolmen of the Middle Ages. The problems which concerned the schoolmen were mainly problems of cosmology and metaphysics: “Is the world located in an immobile place; Does God move the primum mobile directly and actively as an efficient cause, or only as a final or ultimate cause? Are all the heavens moved by one mover or several? Do celestial movers experience exhaustion or fatigue?” When Galileo tried, first, to classify those among the problems, which legitimately belonged to the domain of Physics, and then to find answers only to those through physical experimentation, he was persecuted. Restitution for this is, however, being made now, three hundred and fifty years later. At a special ceremony in the Vatican on 9 May 1983, His Holiness the Pope John Paul II, declared: “The Church’s experience, during the Galileo affair and after it, has led to a more mature attitude . . . The Church herself learns by experience and reflection and she now understands better the meaning that must be given to freedom of research . . . It is through research that man attains to Truth . . . This is why the Church is convinced that there can be no real contradiction between science and faith. . . . (However), it is only through humble and assiduous study that (the Church) learns to dissociate the essential of the faith from the scientific systems of a given age.” The Limitations of Science In the remarks I have quoted, the Pope stressed the maturity which the Church had reached in dealing with science; he could equally have emphasised the converse •—• the recognition by the scientists from Galileo’s times onwards, of the limitations of their disciplines — the recognition that there are questions which are beyond the ken of present or even future Sciences and that “Science has achieved its success by restricting itself to a certain type of inquiry”. And even in this restricted area the scientist of to-day knows when and where he is speculating; he would claim no finality for the associated modes of thought. In physics, this happened twice in the beginning of this century, first with the discovery of relativity of time and space, and secondly with quantum theory. It could happen again. I have been asked to elaborate on this. Take Einstein’s discovery of relativity of time. It appears incredible that the length of a time interval — the age one lives — depends on one’s speed — that the faster we move the longer we appear to live to someone who is not moving with us. And this is not a figment of one’s fancy. Come to the particle physics laboratories of CERN at Geneva which produce short-lived particles like muons, or the laboratories here at Saclay and make a record of the intervals of time whch elapse before muons of different speeds decay into electrons and 38 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS neutrinos. The faster muons take longer to die, the slower ones die early. Incredible but true. Einstein’s ideas on time and space brought about a revolution in the physicist’s thinking. We had to abandon our earlier modes of thought in physics. In this context, it always surprises me that the professional philosopher who in the nineteenth century and earlier used to consider space and time as his special preserve has somehow failed to erect any philosophical systems based on Einstein’s notions so far! The second and potentially the more explosive revolution in thought came in 1926 with Heisenberg’s discovery of limitation on our knowledge. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle affirms, for example, that no physical measurements can tell you that there is an electron on this table and also that it is lying still. Experiments can be made to discover where the electron is; these experiments will then destroy any possibility of finding simultaneously whether the electron is moving and if so at what speed. And conversely there is an inherent limitation on our knowledge, which appears to have been decreed by “in the nature of things”. I shudder to think what might have happened to Heisenberg if he was born in the Middle Ages — just what theological battles might have raged on the question whether there was a like limitation on the knowledge possessed by God. As it was, battles were fought, but within the twentieth century physics community. Heisenberg’s revolutionary thinking — supported by all known experiments — has not been accepted by all physicists. The most illustrious physicist of all times, Einstein, spent the best part of his life trying to find flaws in Heisenberg’s arguments. He could not gainsay the experimental evidence — but hope was entertained that such evidence may perhaps be explained within a different theoretical framework. Such framework has not been found so far; will it ever be discovered? Faith and Science But is the Science of to-day really on a collision course with metaphysical thinking? Again the problem — if any — is not peculiar to Islam — the problem is one of Science and Faith in general. Can Science and Faith at the least, live together in “harmonious complementarity”? Let us consider some relevant examples of modern scientific thinking. My first example concerns the metaphysical doctrine of the creation from nothing. Today a growing number of cosmologists believe that the most likely value for the density of matter and energy in the Universe is such that the mass of Universe adds up to zero, precisely. If the mass of the Universe is indeed zero — and this is an empirically determinable quantity — the Universe shares with the vacuum state the property of masslessness. A bold extrapolation ISLAM AND SCIENCE. CONCORDANCE OR CONFLICT? 39 made ten years back then treats the Universe as a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum •— of the state of nothingness. What distinguishes physics from metaphysics however is that by measuring the density of matter in the Universe we shall know empirically whether the idea can be sustained in the physicist’s sense. If it cannot be, we shall discard it. My second example is the Principle of the anthropic Universe — the assertion by some cosmologists, that one way to understand the processes of cosmology, geology, biochemistry and biology is to assume that our Universe was conceived in a potential condition and with physical laws, which possess all the necessary ingredients for the emergence of life and intelligent beings. “Basically this potentiality relies on a complex relationship between the expansion and the cooling of the Universe, after the Big Bang, and on the intervention of chance at various levels”, as well as on a number of coincidences which, for example, have permitted the Universe to survive a few billion years. Howsoever the biochemist and the biologist may understand the role of chance in the evolution of the Universe, the physicist tries to understand the coincidences which I mentioned, in terms of the twin “Principles of Self-Consistency” and “Naturalness”. This I will illustrate through a third example — through something I am currently working on myself. As an extension of the recent excitement in physics •—• that is of our success in unifying and establishing the identity of two of the fundamental forces of Nature, the electric and the weak nuclear •—• we are now considering the possibility that space-time may have 11 dimensions. Within this context we hope to unify the electroweak force with the remaining two basic forces, the force of gravity and the strong nuclear force. Of these 11 dimensions, four are the familiar dimensions of space and time. The curvature of these familiar space and time dimensions determines the size and life-span of our present Universe, according to Einstein’s ideas. The curvature of the extra seven dimensions, we have newly postulated, is assumed to correspond to the existence of the electric and the nuclear charges. But why don’t we apprehend these extra dimensions directly? Why only indirectly through the existence of the electric and the nuclear charges? Why the difference between the four familiar space-time dimensions and the seven internal ones which, according to our present thinking, have an extent no larger than 10~33 cms? At present, we make this a plausibility by postulating a self-consistency principle; we invent a field offeree designed to guarantee such a configuration as the only stable self-consistent dynamical system which can exist. The theory works, for example, if and only if the number of extra dimensions is 40 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS seven — no more •— and most likely, no less. However, there will be subtle physical consequences in the form of remnants, like the recently discovered three degree black-body radiation which fills the Universe and which we know was a remnant of a later era in the evolution of the Universe. We shall search for these remnants. If we do not find them, we shall abandon the idea. Creation from nothing, an anthropic Universe, extra dimensions — strange topics for late twentieth century physics —which appear no different from the metaphysical preoccupations of earlier times. But so far as Science is concerned, mark the provisional nature of the conceptual edifice, the insistence on empirical verification at each stage and the concept of driving self-consistency. For the agnostic, self-consistency (if successful) may connote irrelevance of a deity; for the believer, it provides no more than an unravelling of a small part of the Lord’s design — its profundity, in the areas it illuminates, only enhances his reverance for the beauty of the design itself. As I said before, personally for me, my faith was predicated by the timeless spiritual message of Islam, on matters on which physics is silent. It was given meaning to by the very first verse of the Holy Quran after the opening: “This is the Book, Wherein there is no doubt, A guidance to the God-fearing, Who believe in the Unseen.” Concluding Remarks There are a number of Muslims, who can influence decisions in their own countries. Let me say in all humility that to know the limitations of science, one must be part of living science; otherwise one will continue fighting yesterday’s philosophical battles today. Believe me, there are high creators of Science among us — and potentially among our youth. Trust them; their Islam is as deeply foundec’. their appreciation of the spiritual values of the Holy Book as profound as anyone else’s. Provide them with facilities to create Science in its standard norms of inquiry. We owe it to Islam. Let them know Science and its limitations from the inside. There truly is no conflict between Islam and modern Science. Let me conclude with two thoughts. One is regarding the urge to know. As I said before, the Holy Quran and the teachings of the Holy Prophet emphasise the creating and the acquiring of knowledge as bounden duties of a Muslim, “from cradle to the grave”. I spoke of Al Biruni who flourished at Ghazna in Southern Afghanistan one thousand years ago. The story is told of his death by a contemporary who says: I heard, Al Biruni was dying. I hurried to his ISLAM AND SCIENCE. CONCORDANCE OR CONFLICT? 41 house for a last look; one could see that he would not survive long. When they told him of my coming, he opened his eyes and said: Are you so and so? I said: Yes. He said: I am told you know the resolution of a knotty problem in the laws of inheritance of Islam. And he alluded to a well-known puzzle. I said: Abu Raihan, At this time? And Al Biruni replied: “Don’t you think it is better that I should die knowing, rather than ignorant?” With sorrow in my heart, I told him what I knew. Taking my leave, I had not yet crossed the portals of his house when the cry arose from inside: Al Biruni is dead. As my last thought, I would like to quote again from the Holy Book •— a Book, the very sounds of which, in the word of Marmaduke Pickthall “move men to tears and ecstacy”. More than anything else I know of, it speaks of the eternal wonder I have personally experienced in my own Science: “Though all the trees on earth were Pens And the Sea was Ink Seven seas, after, to replenish it, Yet would the Words of Lord be never spent, Thy Lord is Mighty and All Wise.” (31-27). Attributes of Allah Allah —there is no God but He, the Living, the Self-Subsisting and All-Sustaining. Slumber seizes Him not, nor sleep. To Him belongs whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth. Who is he that will intercede with Him except by His permission? He knows what is before them and what is behind them; and they encompass nothing of His knowledge except what He pleases. His knowledge extends overthe heavens andthe earth; andthe care of them burdens Him not; and He is the High, the Great. (Quran 2:256.) The REVIEW of RELIGIONS The Review of Religions is the oldest magazine of its kind published in the English language in the Indo-Pakistan Sub-Continent. Its first issue was published in 1902 and it has been continuously published since. It bears the distinction that it was initiated under the direction of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, the Promised Messiah himself. During more than eighty-one years the message of Islam has been conveyed through this magazine to hundreds of readers and many fortunate persons have recognised the truth of Islam and accepted it through studying it. The articles published in it deal not only with the doctrines and teachings of Islam but also set forth a comparative appreciation of the teachings of other faiths. One of its outstanding features is the refutations of the criticism of Islamic teachings by orientalists and non-muslim scholars. It also presents solutions in the light of Islamic teachings of the problems with which the Islamic world is from time to time confronted. A study of this magazine is indispensable for the appreciation of the doctrines of the Ahmadiyya Movement and the teachings of its holy Founder. Printed by The Eastern Press Ltd, London and Reading Published by The Review of Religions, The London Mosque, 16 Gressenhall Road, London, SW18 5QL