Religion and Science
Uniting Reality: Islam and Science
The title of Avicenna's great treatise, Kitab al-Shifa, which rivals in scope the Aristotelian corpus, means The Book of Healing. As the title implies, the work contains the knowledge needed to cure the soul of the disease of ignorance. It is all that is needed for man to understand; it is also as much as any man need know. Newton's work Principia has an obviously far different ring: it means a foundation, essentially, a "beginning" rather than a knowledge that is complete and sufficient for man's intellectual needs as the titles of so many medieval Islamic texts imply.
Islam came into the world at the beginning of the seventh century A.D., its initial date (the journey of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina) being 622 A.D.; it had spread over all of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain by the end of that same century. Just as the Islamic religion is one of the "middle way," so too did its territory come to occupy -- in fact, it still occupies -- the "middle belt" of the globe, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In this region, the home of many earlier civilizations, Islam came into contact with a number of sciences which it absorbed, to the extent that these sciences were compatible with its own spirit and were able to provide nourishment for its own characteristic cultural life.
The primordial character of its revelation, and its confidence that it was expressing the Truth at the heart of all revelations, permitted Islam to absorb ideas from many sources, historically alien yet inwardly related to it. This was especially true in regard to the sciences of Nature, because most of the ancient cosmological sciences -- Greek, as well as Chaldean, Persian, Indian, and Chinese -- had sought to express the unity of Nature and were therefore in conformity with the spirit of Islam. Coming into contact with them, the Muslims adopted some elements from each -- most extensively, perhaps, from the Greeks, but also from the Chaldeans, Indians, Persians, and perhaps, in the case of alchemy, even from the Chinese. They united these sciences into a new corpus, which was to grow over the centuries and become part of the Islamic civilization, integrated into the basic structure derived from the Revelation itself.
In this brief introduction, it has been necessary to cover much ground that is unfamiliar and often quite difficult for a Western reader to grasp. But we felt that we had to dispel the common conception of the Muslims as merely Puritan warriors and merchants, whose strange bent for the "subtleties" of algebra and logic somehow also enabled them to become the transmitters of Greek learning to the West. As against that all too current notion, we have tried to present a brief picture of a culture whose spiritual values are inextricably tied up with mathematics and with metaphysics of a high order, and which once again fused the constituent elements of Greek science into a powerful unitary conception, which had an essential influence on the Western world up to the time of the Renaissance.
Strangely enough, it is this latter conception, half unknown at best, and then quickly forgotten in the West, which has remained, up to the present Western impact upon the Islamic world, the major factor in the Islamic perspective determining its attitude toward Nature and the meaning it gives to the sciences of Nature; conversely, it is those very elements of the Islamic sciences most responsible for providing the tools with which the West began the study of the already secularized Nature of the seventeenth century, that became secondary in the Islamic world itself and had already ceased to occupy the main intellectual efforts of that civilization by the ninth/ fifteenth century.