Islam and Science

Excerpts from an article by Dr Asghar Ali Engineer in Islam and Modern Age. (Dr Engineer won the Right Livelihood Award also called the alternative Nobel prize.)




Asghar Ali Engineer


Recently I came across an excellent monograph in the form of a small book Is Science Western in Origin? By Pof. C K. Raju, …who has written earlier a book on Time – a thick volume on philosophy of time. The later work is also of high academic standard. This monograph on origin of science is a significant contribution which tries to shatter the myth that science is western in origin.


We would throw more light on it little later but to begin with it would be quite relevant to discuss whether Islam and science go together or, as many believe, Islam is against science. Of course one can say this debate about Islam and science was more relevant to 19th century when the Muslim theologians (Ulama) opposed science as against Islam. What is its relevance today? Ulama no longer oppose science and its discoveries. This is largely true but still there are several problems in this debate which need to be discussed. Also, still some western scholars believe that Islam happens to be inherently opposed to scientific progress.


Recently I came across a book Lost in the SacredWhy the Muslim World Stood Still by Dan Diner published by Princeton and Oxford and the main theme of the book is how Islam and Muslims oppose progress. That is why it is necessary to throw light on Islam and modern science and the monograph by Prof. Raju tries to prove that science originated from India and the Arab world and the west simply imitated it and then cleverly manipulated and interpolated to show that modern science is of Greek origin.




Does Islam oppose science? Qur’an is the main source of Islam and hence we would like to first see what Qur’an has to say about this….


The Qur’an repeatedly invites believers to reflect over the creation of Allah and this itself could inspire believers to develop knowledge about this universe and for a period of time they did and contributed richly to the knowledge about this world. The first impulse came when the Abbasids started Darul Hikmah (House of Wisdom). By the way Qur’an lays great emphasis on Hikmah (wisdom). It is Allah’s name (Hakim) and Qur’an describes hikmah as khayran kathira (i.e. goodness in abundance).


Thus the Qur’an says, “He grants wisdom to which He pleases. And whoever is granted wisdom , he indeed is given a goodness in abundance.” (2:269). Thus hikmah has great importance in the Qur’an because hikmah is not possible without knowledge and the Abbasids rightly called the place where books of knowledge from various countries as House of Wisdom. According to Prof. Raju this house of wisdom became epicenter of science and what we call western science today could not have developed without this house of wisdom.




In this background we would like to discuss here briefly the monograph of Prof. C.K.Raju Is Science Western in Origin? In this learned monograph Raju tries to show the science is certainly not western in origin but it owes much more to India on one hand, and Islamic centres in Baghdad and Spain. This monograph is part of the dissenting knowledges pamphlet series.


According to Prof. Raju it is a sheer myth to say that science is of Hellenic origin. He says that “The story of the Greek origin of science postdates the Crusades. Before the Crusades, Christendom was in ‘Dark Age’” Prof. Raju also says that it was Roman Christian Emperor who ordered burning down of the Great Library of Alexandria and he also says it was Justinian who ordered closure of all philosophical schools in 529 CE. In the footnote Raju refers to Edward Gibbon who discusses in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and dismisses the canard that burning down the Great Library might have been the work of Caliph Omar, or that it might have happened during a fire started at the time of Julius Caesar’s attack.


Dr. Raju also makes an interesting observation that “Ironically, this Christian Dark Age coincided with the Islamic Golden Age.” Then he goes on to say that in sharp contrast to the book-burning tradition of Christendom, the Abbasid Caliphate had established in Baghdad House of Wisdom by the early 9th c. CE. This led to such an explosion in the demands for books that, along the lines of the hadith to seek knowledge even from China, paper-making techniques were imported from China to set up a paper factory in Baghdad, which had a flourishing book bazaar.


It is not true, according to him that books were brought only from Byzantine but also from Persia and India. Baghdad had scholars from all these countries and it became an important centre of intellectual debates and House of Wisdom, centre for transferring knowledge from these sources into Arabic. He also points out that apart from the contrast in knowledge, there was also striking contrast in wealth between Christendom and Islamic Arabs, Charlemagne’s emissaries were dazzled by the splendor of Haroun al-Rashid’s court, and the gifts they brought back were avidly imitated, and became models of Carolingian art.


It was only post-Crusades that the Church realized the importance of non-Biblical knowledge. In sharp contrast to earlier behavior Church preserved the magnificent library AT Toledo in the Muslim Spain when it was conquered during the proto-Crusades in 1085. Now the non-Biblical knowledge was accepted at the highest levels of the Church.


Prof. Raju also points out that India had very advanced knowledge of arithmetic and astronomy. He says that while the Arabs valued the ‘theology of Aristotle’ for arithmetic, they turned to India, not to Greece. Arabs imported various Indian arithmetic texts, notably those of Aryabhata, Brahmagupta and Mahavira. These were digested and transcreated in the Bayt al-Hikma, by al-Khwarizmi, and became famous as Algorismus after his Latinized name. These ‘Arabic numerals’ use the place-value system which makes it very easy to represent large numerals. It also makes arithmetic very easy through ‘algorithmus’. In fact the legendary Barmakids (derived from barmak- pramukh), the viziers of Abbasids were instrumental in importing knowledge from Persia and India.


Initially many texts in Baghdad came from Persia where the same practice of collecting world-knowledge was followed. But, even in Persia, knowledge of astronomy (translated as Zij-i- Shahryar) was imported from India. Raju then dwells on how of the secular knowledge nothing was available from Rome as otherwise Khusrau to whom Justinian was paying a hefty tribute for non-aggression would have imported it from there, not from India.


Prof. Raju also exposes the myth of Euclides as the writer of Geometry Elements. He points out nothing is known about Euclides as to who he was. He quotes to this effect the leading authority on Elements. Interestingly he also points out that the word Euclides is derived from Arabic iklid or klid which means key or here ‘key to geometry’. It could be because in Toledo translations were done either by those who knew Arabic but not the subject or those who knew Latin but not the subject and hence such howlers were common.


Raju also throws light on Copernicus who is considered as having revolutionized the knowledge of astronomy. Thus Raju points out that Copernicus’s mathematical model is a carbon copy of an earlier astronomical model by Ibn as-Shatir of Damuscus (d.1375). Ibn Shatir used a technique due to Nasiruddin Tusi (whose advice to Hulegu led to the downfall of Baghdad, and who was rewarded with the Maraghah observatory). The Maraghah school raised new questions, and offered novel solutions. Copernicus mimics both the questions and answers. Copernicus’s lunar model is identical to Ibn as-Shatir’s. the question therefore is not whether, but when, where, and in what form he learned of Maragha theory.”


Prof. Raju of course provides answers to these questions though it is too technical for us to throw light on that. But suffice it to say that Copernicus is hailed as father of modern astronomy and in turn on it depends our knowledge of universe today. All further developments in the knowledge of universe, of stars, of solar system and so on, depends on Copernicus’s revolution.


Prof. Raju raises one more important question and says, “The key questions, however, have never been asked: Could Copernicus have openly acknowledged his Islamic sources? Had he done that wouldn’t someone have denounced him as a heretic? Would that have helped his case for theological correctness? So, Copernicus followed the tradition: he used Islamic sources, but refused to acknowledge them.”


However, according to Dr. Raju the western scholars have manipulated evidence in such a way as to hide this fact that Copernicus imitated the model of Ibn as-Shatir and maintain that it was original work by Copernicus. After quoting the sources that Ibn as-Shatir’s manuscript was present in the library of the Church, he observes, “Note a further subtle way in which the rules of evidence are being juggled. The appropriate standard of evidence for history is balance of probabilities, and there is ample circumstantial evidence that Copernicus’ model was entirely derived. So, the onus of proof is on Western historians to supply solid evidence that Copernicus did not see that text! Instead, they shift the onus of proof, and demand further evidence! So the great Copernican revolution is better called the great Copernican Quibble!”


The pamphlet discussed here by Prof. Raju though small in length is much larger in significance. And more scholars would work on these lines. It is highly learned in its contents and unfortunately our universities do not have departments of history of science to carry on study on these lines. In the west history of science is an important area of study and it is high time we also carry on work in this important field.


In conclusion I would like to say though what has been discussed here is historical truth Muslims should not only celebrate this but use it an occasion for serious reflection that though west borrowed much from the Muslim world, why Muslim world is in such pathetic condition today. For them Islam is nothing more than a set of rituals and only an instrument for najat (emancipation) for the other world and not for achievements in this world?


Today Muslims are far behind western countries and depend entirely on the west for scientific knowledge. As the Christendom was passing through dark age when Islamic world was at its height of glory and achievements in the fields of science, mathematics and astronomy. Now it is just the reverse. Now the west (or Christendom) is at its height and the Muslim world is passing through dark age. The Muslim world now at best excels in religious knowledge (‘ulum al-Din).


;Ilm (knowledge) must be taken in its most comprehensive sense as this word has been used in the Qur’an and it should not be confined only to religious knowledge. The ‘Ulama should not mean only those who specialize in diniyat but all those who have expertise in modern secular sciences (all its branches). The ‘Ulama who have no knowledge of modern sciences have no right to lead us. Only those who have knowledge of modern world along with that of Islam have right to show us the way. Otherwise the ‘ulama would be nothing more than what Iqbal called them do rak’at ka imam (leader of prayer).

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