“Islamic Science” — I often encounter this expression when I meet fellow Muslims at social events and I state that I am a scientist during the perfunctory revealing of professions. Not infrequently, my discussion partners start talking about “Islamic Science” with a certain degree of nostalgia and pride, because for them it conjures up the names and works of Muslim scientists such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Al-Biruni (Alberonius) who lived in the 10th and 11th centuries CE. It is important to realize that they are just two of the most famous representatives of the large scientific enterprise that has flourished in Muslim history.
As shown by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one of the world’s foremost contemporary Muslim philosophers, Muslim scientists have pursued scientific research since the 8th century CE, covering a vast range of disciplines ranging from astronomy and mineralogy to zoology and the medical sciences. However, the expression “Islamic Science” does not necessarily only refer to the fact that these scientists were Muslims. Instead, as suggested by another leading contemporary Muslim philosopher of science, Osman Bakar, the expression “Islamic Science” characterizes sciences “that were directly based upon and conceptually in harmony with the belief system of Islam.”
Nasr and Bakar contrast such “Islamic Science” with the modern science which emanated from Europe in the 17th century CE and has since become the dominant force of scientific inquiry in the world. In their view, modern science is nearly exclusively based on a rationalist and materialist view of the world, and therefore does not require that the scientific methodology and interpretation are integrated with any faith-based system. The dominance of modern science resulted in the decline of the more traditional “Islamic Science”, because even though numerous Muslims have continued to work as scientists, they no longer try to harmonize their scientific findings with the sacred concepts in traditional Islamic thought. Bakar and Nasr emphasize that modern science is not a value-free approach to knowledge, and that it carries within itself a rejection of the sacred dimension of knowledge. In Nasr’s view, modern science has monopolized the concept of science itself, whereas traditionally, science was a much more generalized term (derived from the Latin scientia = knowledge) that permitted the integration of the sacred with scientific concepts. He calls for a restoration of a more comprehensive “sacred science”, which would unify the wisdom and knowledge of all faiths with that of scientific inquiry.
I first encountered Nasr’s ideas as a university student and became enamored with the possibility of unifying the process of scientific inquiry with faith and spirituality. This was probably a reflection of a basic human desire to integrate and unify knowledge. I had already experienced a similar excitement in the late 80s when fractals and chaos theory were becoming fashionable in popular culture. I still remember that in my German high school, those of us who were science geeks would sit down during recess and talk about the beauty of a Grand Unified Theory of particle physics or how chaos theory would allow us to unite biology, chemistry and physics. We did not have any clue as to what “chaos theory” or the Grand Unified Theory actually entailed, but we were simply enthralled by the idea of unifying and integrating the various sciences with a few basic mathematical equations. So when I read Nasr’s books in the 90s, I felt that the “scientia sacra” (sacred science) would allow for an even more comprehensive integration of knowledge.
I grew up as a Muslim with an interest in Islamic thought and philosophy, and I also had a passion for the natural sciences. But I had not really given much thought to the possibility that these two domains of knowledge could be integrated. In many ways, Nasr’s ideas were quite inspiring, because he emphasized that Islam was not only compatible with science, but actually encouraged scientific inquiry.
It was only when I became a scientist that I realized the challenge of actually unifying two bodies of knowledge that at their very core are completely distinct. Modern scientific knowledge consists of theories and models that are based on results of experiments which empirically test specific hypotheses. Spiritual knowledge is based on the study of sacred scriptures and metaphysical experiences. This fundamental disparity between modern science and spirituality results in a very different view of reality, as has been eloquently shown in Taner Edis’ excellent book An Illusion of Harmony, and unifying modern science and spirituality seems like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Nasr’s approach of transforming the modern concept of “science” to a more traditional, pre-modern and expansive view of science would indeed allow for a resolution of the disparity.
A “sacred science” would indeed permit the integration of spiritual knowledge and scientific knowledge, but in practice, such a re-interpretation of the nature of “science” is not practical. During the last centuries, modern science has developed its own methodologies of how experiments are conducted and interpreted and these processes are constantly undergoing change. Globally speaking, modern scientists hail from very different cultures and speak different native languages, but share common conceptions of the nature of science and scientific experiments so that they can communicate results to each other. It is not uncommon at a scientific conference to have speakers from Japan, Germany and the USA give presentations in the same session and have some degree of consensus as to the nature and interpretations of their results.
If a group of scientists began to redefine their basic conception of science, so that it would allow for the integration of sacred knowledge, would they still be able to communicate scientific knowledge with colleagues who maintained the current modern day definition of science? Since “sacred knowledge” is defined so differently even by individuals within a single faith, how would scientists who incorporate “sacred knowledge” into their scientific inquiry share their results with colleagues who have a very different concept of “sacred knowledge” or perhaps even reject it completely?
These practical considerations have not deterred many contemporary Muslim scientists and philosophers, who are still actively trying to develop practical approaches to a modern day “Islamic Science”. However, there are also other voices that see modern science and religion as two distinct bodies of knowledge that allow us to view different but complementary aspects of reality. We do not advocate a unification of knowledge, but a form of mutual respect and dialogue so that each body of knowledge can draw from their partner’s strengths and wisdom.
Jalees Rehman is a German Muslim scientist currently on faculty at the University Chicago as an Assistant Professor of Medicine working both as a stem cell biologist as well as a cardiologist. In addition to his work in the biomedical sciences, he has also studied the boundaries between religion and science and is currently trying to understand the clash between modernity and postmodernity. This article was originally featured at the Huffington Post.