Islam and Science
The 6th century Islamic empire inherited the scientific tradition of late antiquity. They preserved it, elaborated it, and finally, passed it to Europe (Science: The Islamic Legacy 3). At this early date, the Islamic dynasty of the Umayyads showed a great interest in science. The Dark Ages for Europeans were centuries of philosophical and scientific discovery and development for Muslim scholars. The Arabs at the time assimilated the ancient wisdom of Persia and the classical heritage of Greece, as well as adapting their own ways of thinking (Hitti 363).
The Islamic ability to reconcile monotheism and science prooves to be a first time in human thought that theology, philosophy, and science were coordinated in a unified whole. Thus, their contribution was “one of the first magnitude, considering its effect upon scientific and philosophic thought and upon the theology of later times” (Hitti 580). One of the reasons for such development of science is probably due to God’s commandment to explore the laws of nature. The idea is to admire all creations for its complexity and to cherish the creator for His ingenuity. Possibly holding to this belief, Islam’s contributions to science had covered many roots of thought including mathematics, astronomy, medicine and philosophy.
A common misconception today is that religion and science cannot coincide because they contradict each other. In the case of Islam, however, this statement has been disproven by verses in the Qur’an, hadeeth (prophetic tradition), and scientific discoveries by prominent Muslim philosophers. On the contrary, one of the traditions left by Prophet Muhammad teaches Muslims “to seek knowledge, though it be in China,” or not at arm’s length (Science in the Golden Age 8). Muslims are encouraged to use intelligence and observations to draw conclusions. Islamic civilizations, in fact, were the “inheritors of the scientific tradition of late antiquity. They preserved it, elaborated it, and, finally, passed it on to Europe” (Science: The Islamic Legacy 3). Much of Europe’s scientific resurrection can be attributed to the translations of over 400 Arab authors in the subjects of ophthalmology, surgery, pharmaceuticals, child care, and public health (Tschanz 31). The fusion of both Eastern and Western ideas caused Islamic civilizations to thrive in all aspects of life, specifically science and technology.
There are many instances in which the Qur’an accurately portrays scientific details not available at the time of its revelation. One fallacy against the advancement of science through religion is that discrepancies between verses in the ancient manuscripts of the Qur’an and the modern ones could have been edited out, but when compared, both texts are identical. Some argue that Prophet Muhammad is the founder of Islam and is responsible for authoring the Qur’an, but “the compatibility between the statements in the Qur’an and firmly established data of modern science with regard to subjects on which nobody at the time of Muhammadnot even the Prophet himselfcould have had access to the knowledge we posses today” (Bucaille 3-5). Parallels between modern science and verses in the Qur’an exist even in the origins of the universe. Modern cosmology specifies that the universe originated from a hot, high density gas, or more simply put, smoke. Scientists now observe new stars forming from the same smoke. The Qur’an states that “He God turned to the heaven when it was smoke” (Qur’an 41:11). The Big Bang Theory is also supported by the Qur’an in that God asks “have not those who disbelieved known that the heavens and the earth were one connected entity, then We separated them?” (Qur’an 21:30). Dr. Alfred Kroner, one of the world’s most prominent geologists, expressed that without knowledge of nuclear physics 1400 years ago, one could not figure out that the earth and the heavens had the same origin on his own, especially since “scientists have only found out within the last few years, with very complicated and advanced technological methods, that this is the case” (Ibrahim 14-16). The Qur’an even describes the orbits of the sun and the moon. While the Greeks thought the sky was a revolving dome with the sun, moon, and stars affixed into it, the Qur’an told Muslims that each had their own orbits. In fact, until recently, the sun was thought to be stationary and the center of the universe, while the Qur’an stated that the two “float each in an orbit” fourteen hundred years ago (Qur’an 36:40).
In addition to the origins of the universe, there are also verses in the Qur’an related to origins of life and embryonic development. The Qur’an states, “We created man from an extract of clay. Then We made him as a drop in a place of settlement, firmly fixed. Then We made the drop into an alaqah” (Qur’an 23:12-14). The Arabic word “alaqah” has three meanings: leech, suspended thing, and blood clot. All of these meanings could be attributed to a developing embryo. It is like a leech because it obtains nutrients from its mother, similar to the way a leech feeds on the blood of others. The embryo is suspended in the mother’s womb, and it resembles a blood clot. At this stage, there are large amounts of blood present which circulate through the embryo until the end of the third week (Ibrahim 6-8). In addition to describing the physical characteristics of an embryo, the Qur’an and hadeeth describe the timetable in which the embryo grows. According to Professor Emeritus Keith L. Moore, even Aristotle did not provide details about the stages of embryology, though he recognized that stages were present based on his observations of hen’s eggs in the fourth century B.C. Further knowledge about the stages of embryology was not discovered until the twentieth century (Ibrahim 11). A hadeeth states that all components of creations are collected in the first forty days in the womb, and “if forty-two nights have passed over the embryo, God sends an angel to it, who shapes it and created its hearing, vision, skin, flesh, and bones” (Ibrahim 28). Dr. Joe Simpson agrees that “the first forty days constitute a clearly distinguishable stage of embryo-genesis” (Ibrahim 28). The Qur’an also states that “Allah hath created every living thing of water” (Qur’an 24:45). Evolutionary science confirms that 80-85% of the protoplasm is water, and life on the planet initially began from water (Ahmed 45). It describes the barrier between salt water and fresh water, which allows humans to drink. This barrier makes salt and fresh water able to run alongside each other without mixing in numerous places around the world (Ahmed 44). In addition to detailing the importance of water to sustaining life, the Qur’an describes the water cycle, and its findings were proven correct centuries later (Bucaille 6).
The duty Muslims felt to acquire knowledge led great civilizations and scholars to advance scientifically in the name of Islam. Al-Razi, Al-Farabi, and Avicenna are regarded among the greatest scholars of their time. Al-Razi was born in 841 near Tehran. He spent his youth as a musician, mathematician, and alchemist. He moved to Baghdad at the age of 40 to pursue medicine and died in 926. Al-Razi had no organized system of philosophy, but compared to his time he must be reckoned as the most vigorous and liberal thinker in Islam and perhaps in the whole history of human thought. He was a pure rationalist, extremely confident in the power of reason, free from every kind of prejudice, and very daring in the expression of his ideas without reserve. He believed in man, in progress, and in God the Wise. He spent his lifetime collecting data for Al Kitab al-Hawi, or The Comprehensive Work, which was a summary of all of the medical knowledge of that time. His book The Diseases of Children makes historians consider him the “father of pediatrics” (Tschanz 27); he was the first to distinguish the differences between small pox and measles in Al-Judari Wa Al Hasbah. He is credited with the discovery of sulfuric acid, which is vital to modern chemistry and chemical engineering as well as ethanol-alcohol and its use in medicine.
Al-Farabi, another great Muslim scholar, died shortly after, in 950. He studied Aristotle and Plato in detail, and it became evident in his later writings that they were a strong influence on him. He wrote more than 100 works, many of which have been lost, including many of his commentaries on Aristotle. He was one of the earliest Islamic thinkers to transmit to the world of his time the doctrines of Plato and Aristotle. He is considered by many to be the founder of an authentic philosophy. His writings created a lot of support, debate, and controversy. He contributed materials on the proof of the existence of the First Principle, and on the theory of emanation, as well as the theory of knowledge, in addition to his commentaries on Greek philosophers. He arranged the sciences into parts in the Catalog of Sciences: linguistic sciences, logic, mathematics, physics, metaphysics, politics, jurisprudence, and theology. The Latin translation of this book had a large influence on Medieval European universities (Science in the Golden Age 9).
Avicenna was born shortly after in 980 in Bukhara, present-day Uzbekistan. He was to the Arab world what Aristotle was to Greece, and he was known as “the prince of physicians” (Tschanz 28). He studied Aristotelian and the neo-Platonic philosophy of al-Farabi. As a result of this, Avicenna wrote many essays on Aristotle. He said that cause and effect are simultaneous, and, therefore, God and the world are co-eternal. He believed that God created intelligence or the soul, and these emanate from the heavens and reach the earth in huge chains. According to Avicenna, intelligence is sustained by God. He had the entire Qur’an memorized by age ten and practiced medicine with ease (Osler 98). “When I found a difficulty,” he said, “I referred to my notes and prayed to the creator” (Osler 98). He classified efficient causes and symptoms of diseases. He said that diseases are caused by the imbalance of the four elementary qualities of hot, wet cold and dry in the body. The cause of disease is categorized as either connected by the environment, regimen, and psychology. Among them is the traditional scheme of “non naturals” from air, food and drink, repletion and inanition, to the passions of the soul. His book also discuss concerns for the conservation of health: separate sections on pediatric, adult, and geriatric regimen. Avicenna provides 21 ailments distinctive to each major organs of the body-arranged from head to toe. (Siraisi 21-22). Avicenna wrote 20 books on theology, metaphysics, astronomy, philology and poetry, and two more on medicine, including Kitab al-Shifa’, The Book of Healing, a medical and philosophical encyclopedia (Tschanz 28). His most supreme work was Al-Qanun fi al-Tib, The Cannon of Medicine). It was over one million words long and summarized Hippocratic and Galenic traditions, along with his own observations. In addition, The Cannon included a description of 760 medicinal plants and the drugs which could be derived from them (Tschanz 31). Avicenna was so well-known, in fact, for his achievement in medicine, in fact, that he was placed next to Hippocrates and Galen, two of antiquity’s greatest physicians, in Dante’s The Inferno.
Islamic civilizations flourished with their advancements in medicine and mathematics. Medicine was the first of the Greek sciences to be studied in depth by Islamic scholars. After Plato’s Academy closed in 529, the medical school in Jundishanpur, Persia was the best medical school in the world. The first hospital was founded by Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad in about 805. Within 20 years, 24 more hospitals opened in the Islamic world (Tschanz 24). Pharmacy was also enhanced by Muslims, for “Islam teaches that God has provided a remedy for every illness and that Muslims should search for those remedies and use them with skill and compassion” (Tschanz 24). Islamic civilizations were so advanced in medicine in the ancient world and the Middle Ages that Geoffrey Chaucer included four Arab physicians in the “General Prologue” of the Canterbury Tales (Tschanz 20).
In addition to their advancements in medicine, Muslims made huge progress in mathematics. During Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime, about the year 600, Muslim “mathematicians developed the symbol zero and the system of place notation” (Science: The Islamic Legacy 4). Medieval Europe acquired systems such as algebra, Arabic numerals, and the concept of zero from the Muslim world. The Arabic numerals “simplified calculation of all sorts” and “made possible the development of algebra” (Science in the Golden Age 9). Instruments such as the astrolabe, quadrants, and navigational maps, which were vital to European voyages, were also developed by Muslims. They were also the first civilizations to practice trigonometry, and they clearly defined sine, cosine, and cotangent functions (Science in the Golden Age 12). Mathematical vocabulary such as “algebra” and “algorithm” are actually borrowings from Arabic words, that were later translated into Latin. It was a Muslim mathematician who formulated the trigonometric function explicitly. The word “sine” was actually the direct translation of the arabic word “jayb”. An English mathematician Robert of Chester, who flourished in the middle of the twelfth century, was the first to use sinus equivalent to this Arabic jayb in its trigonometrical acception (Hitti 573). Al-Khwarizmi composed the oldest book on mathematics, known only in translation. He presented more than 800 examples of the calculation of integration and equation, later anticipated by Neo-Babylonians (Hitti 379).” They introduced it with the Arabic numerals into Europe and taught Westerners the most convenient convention of arithmetic concept. “The zero and Arabic numerals lie behind the science of calculation as we know it today” (Hitti 573-574). In the first half of the ninth century, exponent numerals including the zero is used in preference to letters by al- Khwarizmi. In the second half of the ninth century, the Muslims of Spain developed numerals slightly different in shape, huruf al-ghubar, letters of dust, originally used in conjunction with a type of sand abacus. Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa, who was taught by a Muslim master published a work which remain a landmark in the introduction of the Arabic numerals (Hitti 573-574). Early in the ninth century, mathematical calculations stimulates the crave for answers to the celestial motion. This curiosity introduces a new field of thought, called astronomy. One most important application of astronomy is the timekeeping for the time of the five daily prayers. These are defined according to the position of the sun moving from east to west. The earliest known tables for such purpose are dated from the tenth century (King 46-48). Muslims in Islamic civilizations contributed many new concepts to the modern world, including tremendous advancements in medicine and mathematics.
Islamic history proves that religion and science can and do overlap throughout the Qur’an, hadeeth, and practices of Muslim scientists and scholars. For 1400 years, “science and religion have thrived like twin sisters,” and during the peak of Islamic civilizations, Muslims “made incredible progress from which the West was later enlightened” (Ahmed 41). Not only is there no conflict between Islam and science, but, according to Dr. Joe Leigh Simpson, “religion can guide science by adding revelation to some of the traditional scientific approaches” (Ibrahim 29). Science and Islam compliment each other, and the Muslims’ yearning for knowledge caused them to thrive in their accomplishments and achievements. In effect, these numerous achievements testify as to the positive impact of value Islam had on knowledge and accomplishment. Many of the great scientists of the time were also religious scholars. Therefore, the evidence is clear that harmony exists between Islam and science.
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