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Is Islam pro or con on science? Part 1

Of the 6.000 verses in the Qur'an, only about 750 deal with natural phenomena. Many verses of the Qur'an ask humankind to study nature, and this can be interpreted as encouragement for scientific inquiry. For example, (Q 29:20) "Travel throughout the Earth and see how He brings life into being."

The Islamic Golden Age

The Islamic Golden Age, a period ranging from the eighth to the sixteenth centuries, was known to advance science throughout the Islamic world. This period was initiated when most Greek texts on philosophy, mathematics, chemistry, and astronomy were translated into Arabic. Muslim scientists pushed past the Aristotelian precepts to develop the tenets of modern science: induction, observation, and repeatability. Not all scientists during this time were Muslim or Arab. There were numerous Persians in the mix and Westerners, but the Muslim Arabs provided the impetus to discover new knowledge.

As you might guess, religious and cultural needs dictated the course of research. For example, algebra was developed to solve the Islamic inheritance laws. Developments in astronomy, geography, spherical geometry and spherical trigonometry came about to help Arabs conduct trade and determine the Qibla's direction (Muslims pray facing the Kaaba). The increased use of dissections in Islamic medicine during the 12th and 13th centuries was influenced by hadith. According to al Bukhari, the Prophet said, "There is no disease that Allah has created, except that He also has created its treatment." In 1242, a Muslim scientist discovered pulmonary circulation. A Muslim scientist also refuted Aristotle's belief about Earth's centrality within the universe.

This age of enlightenment had to end. According to many historians, Muslim science was tainted with critical thinking; too many questions were asked. It was not good if the answers did not support the official line of thinking. The Ottoman empire was mindful of the Reformation happening in Western Europe, and they were afraid that Islam would break apart if an enlightenment movement were allowed to evolve. However, just the opposite occurred. The rise of a conservative clerical faction during the 14th to 16th centuries caused this decline in science. The patronage stopped, as did the acceptance of new knowledge. One example of this banishment was the closure of the Constantinople observatory. By order of the sultan, on the recommendation of the Chief Mufti, the observatory was demolished by a squad of Janissaries in 1580.

Modern Science in the Modern World

During the 20th century, the Islamic world was introduced to modern science. Many Arab educational systems adapted their higher ed institutions to absorb Western universities' business and science programs. Istanbul opened its university in 1900, and Cairo did the same in 1925. Soon after, other countries followed suit.

Muslim students soon found themselves entangled with philosophies that did not agree with Islam. One topic, Creationism vs. Darwinism, penetrated the minds of Muslim scientists and intellectuals and came to discord with Islamic theological doctrines. Creationism is where God created man, as noted in both the Bible and the Qur'an. Social Darwinism is the theory that human groups and races are subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin perceived in plants and animals in nature. In other words, humanity evolved from its early predecessors.

In the West, there was The Scopes Monkey Trial. The trial, held in a small Tennessee town in 1925, used former presidential candidate Williams Jennings Bryan to argue for "intelligent design," and Clarence Darrow, a famous attorney, presented the side for evolution. The trial's outcome held that the evolution of mankind was unproven and conjecture. With archaeological findings that support evolution coming out fast and furious in the last 97 years, the majority of Western scientists now believe in evolution.

The Muslim acceptance of Darwinism would have caused problems with Islamic doctrine. An interesting survey taken in 2000 by a researcher at the University of Oklahoma found that 19% of Muslims felt there was no conflict versus 81% who believed there to be some form of conflict between Islam and evolution. However, there is one exciting outcome. Most students say that discussing controversial topics helps them avoid blind acceptance of status quo arrangements. Even Islamic students want to understand the pros and cons of any argument to make the best decision for themselves.

In recent years, the lagging of the Muslim world in science can be seen in the disproportionately small amount of scientific output as measured by citations of articles published in international science journals, annual expenditures on research and development, and the number of research scientists and engineers. While some Muslim scientists have won Nobel Prizes, the numbers are fewer per capita and can be attributed to more insular interpretations of the religion. From the given evidence, it appears that science is unwelcome unless it supports the religion.

Actually, I'm not surprised by that finding. As I cover in my forthcoming book, Muslim Mechanics, science prospers in an open environment, which explains Islam's Golden Age. However, Islam changed to restrict critical thinking and crippled itself in the hunt for new knowledge. I have always maintained that Islam constrains free speech and free markets and this does not fit with capitalism. Capitalism needs free speech and free markets to work. Science is how capitalists find the most efficient processes, new and better products, and a higher standard of living. While Muhammad was a trader who supported free markets, Islam has evolved to include social constraints on everything that would undermine it. Capitalism has moved in the other direction. There need to be constraints on what capitalism can do in some cases, but of the two economic systems, capitalism is the more dynamic system.

Photo credit: Manik Shaha, Wikipedia Commons, 2017.

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