Monday, December 1, 2008

Islam and Science: Which Science?

In the Name of God, the Infinitely Good, the All-Merciful

If it is appropriate to ask which Islam is being related to science, the converse question is no less appropriate. Which sciences, or which part of it, are we relating to Islam? Science is not an entity that is obvious to everyone. The different understandings of the term science in contemporary discourse present another major issue that needs clarification. To begin with, there are disagreements on terminological usage itself, whether the domain of knowledge to which the term 'science' is applied is to be confined to the natural sciences, or to be extended to cover the humanities and social sciences as well. Some people use the word in both senses. Given the fact that the term science has been used in modern scholarship in its broadest sense of an academic or scientific discipline, as in Islamic tradition in which the Arabic term 'ulum (sciences) is used; we prefer to adopt this usage. Then there are disagreements on the content of science and its cultural context, whether the content is value-free or much shaped by its cultural context. In other words, there may not be just one way of doing science with the same characteristics over the ages, but there could have been as many types of science as there have been civilizations. We maintain the view that modern science is just one of the several major forms of science that the world has witnessed in its history. Islamic science, by which we mean science as it has been cultivated in Islamic civilization, is another form of science. This means that in speaking of the relationship between Islam and modern science we would be dealing with issues that are not necessarily the same as encountered in discussions on the relationship between religion and science in Islamic civilization.

In this essay, we are limiting the domain of scientific disciplines for our consideration to the mathematical, natural and cognitive sciences including psychology. Our discussion of the kind of relationships that exist between Islam and science is primarily aimed at these sciences. Given the limited length of this essay, it is not possible to deal separately with each of the sciences in its relations with Islam. Furthermore, rather than dealing with specific details in the relationship, we will focus on its main principles that are common to all the sciences. But these principles would provide us with a clear outline of the structural and essential relationships between Islam and science. Since it is in the nature of the sciences as academic disciplines to share many characteristics, we may find that in many instances the issues we raise and discuss and the conclusions reached are applicable not just to the mathematical, natural and cognitive sciences but to all sciences.

Having adopted the term science to comprehend this particular domain of scientific knowledge and activity, we now need to be clear whether we are only concerned with its epistemological dimension dealing with knowledge content or only with its ethical dimension dealing with applications of that knowledge, or with both. The word 'application' itself requires clarification. Some applications are theoretical in nature, producing results either within or beyond the domain of science proper. The rest of the applications are practical in nature, resulting in the production of techniques and technological products. As a whole, the domain of applications presents itself as the domain of ethical concern. Distinctions thus have to be made between epistemological and ethical concerns, because their relationships with religion involve different sets of principles. Likewise, we have to make distinctions between theoretical and practical applications for the same reason.

The Structures of Religion and Science

In our attempt to formulate a comprehensive relationship between Islam and science, it is necessary to examine the structures of both of them and then to relate the basic elements in the two structures to each other. Let us first examine the religious structure of Islam. According to a Prophetic hadith, Islam as a religion (din) is comprised of three dimensions: islam, iman, and ihsan. The nature of each dimension is apparent from both its linguistic and religious content. Islam refers to the various acts of submission to the Divine Will and therefore to the domain of the Shari'ah, Islam's Divine Law or moral and ethical-legal dimension which determines the hierarchy of values of all human acts and objects. Iman refers to the fundamental truths and realities that must be believed or known, more precisely to the divine and cosmic realities and their correspondences within the human universe. This is the domain of theology, cosmology and psychology. Ihsan is simply the practice of islam and the realization of iman at the level of excellence. As such, ihsan pertains to a person's internalization of islam and iman, the former with the view of realizing spiritual and moral virtues that constitute the essential values of the Shari'ah, and the latter with the view of attaining knowledge of the inner realities of all things.

We now examine the structure of science as a branch of knowledge and as an intellectual activity. It is only meaningful to speak of the structure of science if we accept the fact that knowledge has been systematically organized and divided into numerous academic disciplines and these disciplines classified in groups according to some well-defined criteria. Just as knowledge grows through specialization, so the academic disciplines grow in numbers. In Islamic tradition, there was tremendous intellectual activity focused on the issue of organization of knowledge into disciplines and their classifications. Muslim intellectual culture was also a witness to the creation of new scientific disciplines. Muslim philosophers of science called these disciplines 'sciences' ('ulum) and generally agreed that science understood in this sense is structurally divided into four basic components. The first component is a well-defined subject matter or object of study pertaining to which is established an accumulative body of knowledge in the form of concepts, facts (data), theories and laws, and the logical relationships that exist among them. This body of knowledge constitutes the main content of a science.

The second component is comprised of the basic premises and assumptions that serve as the immediate epistemological foundation of the science under consideration. These philosophers maintain that unlike the knowledge content of the first component which can be established, proved and verified within that science itself, the premises and assumptions could not. The premises are primarily about the nature and reality of the object of study and its ontological status. Their truths have to be assumed in that science but may be established in another science which is more fundamental and comprehensive.

The third component pertains to the methods of study employed in that science. Muslim scholars had generally been guided by the principle that methods of study vary with the nature of the objects being studied. There is no one single method that is common to all the sciences except perhaps the use of logic with its rigorous methods of rational inquiry, analysis and theory-construction. But for any science, its core method would be the one concerned with how to gather data for analysis and theory formation and how to test and verify truth claims such as formulated in hypotheses, theories and laws. Apparently, the traditional Muslim scientific mind is very much at ease with the idea of diversification of sources of data to even include divinely revealed sources. A science may employ more than one core method. When Ibn al-Haytham (d. 430/1039) wrote The Book of Optics, the best Muslim work on optics, he outlined in a clear manner the methods he intended to use in the study of the new science. Its core methodological approach would be a combination of mathematical and physical methods, a departure from earlier studies employing either mathematical or physical method only.

The fourth component concerns the goals sought to be achieved by that science. The main goal of a science is to discover that aspect of reality pertaining to its objects of study. It is to arrive at a complete knowledge of that domain of reality with scientific certainty ('ilm al-yaqin). By 'complete knowledge' Muslim philosophers of science mean knowledge of the essential nature of all things comprised in the domain of reality under study, including knowledge of the relationships between them formulated in the form of laws or universal propositions. This knowledge is arrived at through a long process and this process has been described earlier. Through a progressive refinement of the methods of study described in the third component within the limits of their competency, the accumulative body of knowledge identified with the first component will deepen to the point of revealing the natures of the things sought to be known.

These four components define the theoretical structure of science. All issues raised in the course of discussing these components are epistemological in nature. But the knowledge content of a science has uses and applications. There are its theoretical applications in other sciences and its practical applications in the production of tangible things. It is also extremely important in the context of this paper to identify the nature of the crucial issues involved in both types of applications. In going into this domain of applications, we find that we are confronted with both epistemological and ethical issues even in the case of a science that is desirable or legitimate.

Since we have dealt with epistemological issues, we now concentrate on ethical issues. The first ethical issues are raised by the theoretical applications when these applications are likely to lead to harmful knowledge. Second, there are ethical issues posed by the practical applications of this harmful knowledge leading to the production of harmful and destructive objects. Other ethical issues relate to the actual use of those harmful and destructive objects whatever the purpose of application may be, since the act of producing them is distinct from the act of using them. In all three cases of ethical questions posed above, how much can science and scientists be blamed and held accountable? This is a question of values, and as such its answer depends very much on the value-system of the culture posing the question.

Our foregoing discussion on the structure of science is largely based on the views of Muslim philosophers of science, but in our view, there is hardly any difference between the traditional Muslim account of the structure of science and its modern version except in terminology. We mean here the structural division of science, not its knowledge content in which, as a matter of fact, there are significant differences ranging from conception of definition to interpretation of truth claims. Traditional and modern sciences may differ from each other in a number of respects, but insofar as they are academic disciplines their theoretical structures are basically the same. This would mean that in our attempt to formulate relationships between science and Islam in the contemporary context, an understanding of the nature and character of the traditional sciences in Islamic intellectual history would be of great help. Also necessary is a deep understanding of the nature and character of modern science, its strengths and achievements, and its shortcomings and failures so that only the true and the beneficial are to be integrated into the formulations on which we are working.

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