Religion and Science
Uniting Reality: Islam and Science
We should be mindful here of the changing usage of words. "Intellect" and "intellectual" are so closely identified today with the analytical functions of the mind that they hardly bear any longer any relation to the contemplative. The attitude these words imply toward Nature is the one that Goethe was to deplore as late as the early 19th century -- that attitude that resolves, conquers, and dominates by force of concepts. It is, in short, essentially abstract, while contemplative knowledge is at bottom concrete. We shall thus have to say, by way of reestablishing the old distinction, that the gnostic's relation to Nature is "intellective," which is neither abstract, nor analytical, nor merely sentimental.
Viewed as a text, Nature is a fabric of symbols, which must be read according to their meaning. The Quran is the counterpart of that text in human words; its verses are called ayat ("signs"), just as are the phenomena of Nature. Both Nature and the Quran speak forth the presence and the words of God: "We shall show them Our portents on the horizon and within themselves until it will be manifest unto them that it is the Truth" (41 53).
To the doctors of the Law, this text is merely prescriptive, Nature being present in their minds only as the necessary setting for men's actions. To the gnostic or Sufi, on the other hand, the Quranic text is also symbolic, just as all of Nature is symbolic. If the tradition of the symbolic interpretation of the text of the Sacred Book were to disappear, and the text thereby reduced to its literal meaning, man might still know his duty, but the "cosmic text" would become unintelligible. The phenomena of Nature would lose any connection with the higher orders of reality, as well as among themselves; they would become mere "facts." This is precisely what the intellective capacity and, indeed, Islamic culture as a whole will not accept. The spirit of Islam emphasizes, by contrast, the unity of Nature, that unity that is the aim of the cosmological sciences, and that is adumbrated and prefigured in the continuous interlacing of arabesques uniting the profusion of plant life with the geometric crystals of the verses of the Quran.
Thus we see that the idea of unity is not only the basic presupposition of the Islamic arts and sciences: it dominates their expression as well. The portrayal of any individual object would become a "graven image," a dangerous idol of the mind; the very canon of art in Islam is abstraction. Unity itself is alone deserving of representation; since it is not to be represented directly, however, it can only be symbolized and at that, only by hints. There is no concrete symbol to stand for unity, however; its true expression is negation, not this, not that. Hence, it remains abstract from the point of view of man, who lives in multiplicity.
Thus we come to the central issue. Can our minds grasp the individual object as it stands by itself? or can we do so only by understanding the individual object within the context of the universe? In other words, from the cosmological point of view, is the universe the unity, and the individual event or object a sign (''phenomenon,'' "appearance") of ambiguous and uncertain import? Or is it the other way around? Of these alternatives, which go back to the time of Plato, the Muslim is bound to accept the first -- he gives priority to the universe as the one concrete reality, which symbolizes on the cosmic level the Divine Principle itself, although that cannot truly be envisaged in terms of anything else. This is, to be sure, an ancient choice, but Islam does inherit many of its theories from preexisting traditions, the truths of which it seeks to affirm rather than to deny. What it brings to them, as we have already said, is that strong unitary point of view that, along with a passionate dedication to the Divine Will, enabled Islam to rekindle the flame of science that had been extinguished at Athens and in Alexandria.