Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed
This article achieves two things: It reconciles taqdeer with tadbir and it reconciles al Ghazzali with Ibn Rushd. This has seldom been attempted before.
History can be a teacher or a tyrant. In 1095 CE, Imam Al Ghazzali, one of the most influential theologians in Islamic history, wrote in his treatise Tahaffuz al Falasafa (Repudiation of the Philosophers): “The connection (iqtirân) between what is habitually believed to be a cause and what is habitually believed to be an effect is not necessary (darûrî), according to us…(Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
Historians have long contended that this apparent refutation of cause and effect served as an effective force field blocking the advancement of science and technology in the Islamic world. Al Ghazzali’s position was challenged by Ibn Rushd (d 1198) who emphasized that cause and effect were the very basis of reason that held together the edifice of human knowledge.
Islamic civilization chose al Ghazzali over Ibn Rushd, while Europe chose Ibn Rushd over al Ghazali. As a result, Europe moved ahead in science and technology. The Islamic world, which at one time led the world in the natural sciences, lost its advantage and became subservient to Europe.
In this essay, we examine the historical context of this epic debate and offer a reconciliation of the two positions. Our approach is based on guidance from the Qur’an. Such a reconciliation is essential for creating a scientific and technological culture in the Islamic world.
Nothing less than the survival of Islamic civilization in an increasingly technological world hinges on such a reconciliation.
The discussion involves a confluence of philosophy, theology, kalam, empirical science, quantum physics, statistics and history and at times becomes highly cerebral. We have attempted to simplify the concepts and document our observations for those who come after us. It will also be available on www.historyofislam.com.
The distinctive character of positivistic knowledge is that it opens up avenues for the human to attain his potential through an exercise of reason. It enhances material welfare through innovation, shields the human from abject and debilitating poverty, protects life by enabling effective means of defense, provides a bulwark against disease through medical research and mitigates hunger and starvation through agricultural advancement. Indeed, it opens up a possibility (just a possibility) of heaven on earth.
We live in extraordinary times. These are times when humankind has conquered space and searches for life on other planets. Giant telescopes seek to unlock the very origin of the known universe. Terms such as space travel, the Theory of Relativity and the Big Bang have entered into common discourse. Machine learning and robotics drive the cutting edge of technology and seek to replace human reasoning with artificial intelligence. Nano-technology unlocks the secrets of cellular biology and beckons us to a world of engineered DNA. Indeed, we are now headed into a post-human world in which the very essence of being human is challenged.
While technology drives human civilization, the Islamic world is bogged down with pointless disputes about beards, clothes and coverings. By every yardstick, be it primary education or the number of scientific papers published in respectable journals, the Islamic world lags behind the technologically advanced world. What is more significant is that the gap between Muslim societies and the technologically advanced societies is increasing at an alarming rate. The result is illiteracy, ignorance, abject poverty, cultural bankruptcy, social stagnation, technological marginalization, political and military impotence.
How did this happen? How did a civilization that led the world in science and technology for five hundred years fall so far behind? In my writings, I have highlighted several factors that contributed to this decline: the Mongol deluge (1219-1258), the Crusades (1096-1250), the loss of Spain (1236-1492), the rise of tasawwuf with its emphasis on the esoteric (thirteenth century), the opposition to the printing press (fifteenth century), neglect of naval technology (seventeenth century), loss of international trade (eighteenth century), colonization and dismantling of the traditional education systems (nineteenth century). Underlying these factors was a distancing from rational thought that grew out of the titanic collision between the philosophers and the theologians in the eighth-ninth centuries. The dialectic between al Ghazzali and ibn Rushd was the cutting edge of that debate. Unless the Islamic civilization shakes off the hangover from that debate, it cannot expect to work its way out of technological backwardness.
This article takes a fresh look at that critical moment in history when philosophy collided with theology. More than eight hundred years have elapsed since that great debate. Empirical science, which was in its infancy in the eighth century is now a full-grown adult and it offers fresh perspectives on the issues that divided the two camps. We apply the modern understanding of classical mechanics and quantum physics and attempt to bridge the gap between philosophy, religion and science so that the Islamic civilization can move forward with confidence on the road to a technological renaissance.
The Historical Context
In the seventh century, the Islamic domains expanded and stretched from the Indus River in Pakistan to the Pyrenees mountains in France. This vast empire connected and welded together Asia, Africa and Europe, facilitating the movement of goods and ideas. The early Muslims, impelled by injunctions from the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet were enthusiastic and keen learners. They learned from the east and west, from India and China, Greece and Persia, moulded what they had learned in an Islamic crucible and added their own stamp to the reservoir of human knowledge through new fields of learning. The Abbasid Caliph al Mansur (d 775) invited scholars from around the world to come to the capital city of Baghdad and soon the city became a magnet for men of learning. Al Mansur established an academy called Baitul Hikmah (the House of Wisdom) where scholarly books from around the world were translated into Arabic. From India came the astronomy of Aryabhatta, from Greece came the works of Aristotle, Plato and Hippocrates, from China came the technology for manufacturing porcelain and papermaking and from Iran the art of constructing windmills. Baitul Hikmah was a cosmopolitan academy. Among the scholars who worked there were Muslims, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians. The Muslims learned the sciences of other civilizations and made their own contributions inventing the fields of algebra, chemistry, perfecting the methods of empirical science and adding to the fields of medicine, surgery, astronomy, art, music, history, geography, agriculture, engineering and philosophy.
Of all the sciences that the Muslims came in contact with, it was Greek rational thought that caught their fancy and they fell in love with its rigor and its precision. Aristotle became their hero and reason their guide. The Caliph al Mansur adopted and promoted Greek philosophy (the philosophy of the ancients as it was called) as court dogma. Muslim scholars set out to apply rational methods to physical phenomenon as well as social, cultural and religious issues with excitement and enthusiasm. These scholars were called the Mu’tazalites.
It was the heyday for rational sciences in Islam. It was the age of Harun al Rashid and Mamum, of Shehrezad and the Arabian Nights, of al Khwarizmi and al Kindi. The Mu’tazalites amalgamated the rational methods of the Greeks, the mathematics of the Indians and the technology of the Chinese, laid the foundation for empirical sciences, invented new disciplines and became torch bearers for the advancement of human civilization.
The application of classical Greek rational thought in an Islamic paradigm was not without its challenge. Of particular concern were the assumptions that the Greeks made about the nature of time and the questions surrounding cause and effect. These assumptions when applied to theological issues presented profound and fundamental doctrinal challenges to Muslim scholars.
The Greeks assumed that time was “eternal”. However, from an Islamic perspective, the acceptance of time as “eternal” would make it co-extent with God who is “wahid”, “self-subsisting” and “eternal”. This was unacceptable to the theologians. In addition, if time is eternal, then everything “other than God” was “created” in time. Specifically, was the Qur’an “created” in time? The Mu’tazalites, who were staunch Muwahids fell into a trap on this issue. They wanted to preserve the transcendence of God. Everything, “other than God”, had to be “created” “in time”. When they applied this logic to the Qur’an, they fell flat on their face. They concluded that the Qur’an was “created” by God “in time”. Needless to say, this position was unacceptable to the theologians. Resistance set in.
A second issue was cause and effect in nature. The Mu’tazalites affirmed that cause and effect were ubiquitous in nature. This position also had theological implications. If cause and effect followed one from the other mechanistically, then, how does the will of God operate in nature? Isn’t God the “doer” of all actions? Here again, the theologians took the Mu’tazalites to task and opposed them.
There were other issues of disagreement as well, namely, human free will (ikhtiar) and man’s responsibility for his actions. However, we will limit our discussion in this essay to only those issues that dealt with the phenomenon of nature and man’s interaction with it.
The position that the Qur’an was “created” “in time” caused great commotion in the Muslim body politic. The resistance to this position was led by the usuli ulema, spearheaded by Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal. The Mu’tazalites were not tolerant of dissent. Imam Ahmed was publicly flogged for his opposition and was imprisoned. However, with each oppressive measure, the voices of protest grew louder. Faced with mounting public pressure, the later Abbasid Caliphs relented. In 846 CE, the Caliph al Mutawakkil disavowed the Mu’tazalites and banished them from his court. In turn, when the anti-Mu’tazalites won the favor of the Caliphs, they instituted a Mehna (inquisition) against the Mu’tazalites; many were punished for their views and their books were burned.
The triumph of the usuli ulema over the Mu’tazalites in 846 marks a benchmark in Islamic history. Four significant aspects of the epic confrontation between philosophy and theology in Islam stand out. First, a critique of the speculative deductions of the philosophers did not come from within; it came from the usuli ulema. Second, when a critique did emerge from the ulema, the Mu’tazalites showed an inability to stomach the critique; they increasingly turned the whip on the protesters. Third, when the tables turned and the theologians triumphed, they in turn conducted an inquisition against the Mu’tazalite and persecuted them. Fourth, in the aftermath of the confrontation, the orthodox vision of Islam came to occupy the center while philosophy was pushed to the periphery. Henceforth, the philosophers would be compelled to be reticent in their work and look over their shoulders for any broadside from the theologians.
Philosophy had lost its official patronage in the courts of Baghdad but even as it had lost, it forced theology to defend itself. A new discipline emerged, combining theology with discursive philosophy with the dual purpose of safeguarding the theological fortress from the onslaught of philosophy while at the same time making theology palatable and accessible to the masses. This new discipline was called “kalam”. The practitioners of kalam were called the “mutakallimun”.
The triumph of theology over philosophy did not relieve the ulema of the burden of justifying their positions in a rational paradigm. For instance, if cause and effect do not follow one from the other as the philosophers maintained, how do actions and reactions follow one another? Fifty years after the Mu’tazalites were discredited in Baghdad, a noted scholar al Ash’ari rose to the challenge. He advanced the theory that “time” was not continuous, that it consisted of a series of digital, discontinuous, “atomistic” increments. At each increment, the will of God intervened in accordance with His predetermined plan to make things happen. Thus, the omnipotence of God was preserved. This explanation was easy to understand and it found broad acceptance in the Islamic world. Among those who accepted the Ash’arite cosmology were some of the greatest thinkers in Islamic history, including, the Seljuk Grand Vizier Nizam ul Mulk (d 1092) and Imam al Ghazzali (d 1111).
Al Ghazzali and the Geopolitical context of his works
Al Ghazzali (1056 -1111 CE) appeared on the canvas of history when the Islamic world was at the height of its political power but was riven asunder by internal ideological conflicts. In the latter part of the tenth century, the Fatimids stormed out of North Africa, capturing Egypt in 969 CE and extending their sway over Hijaz and Syria. Circa 1000 CE, their influence extended as far as Multan in Pakistan. The loss of Egypt meant that the Sunni Caliphs in Baghdad were cut off from trade routes that connected India with the trading city states of Venice, Milan and Genoa. The Fatimids in Cairo thrived even as the Abbasids in Baghdad struggled with shrinking revenues.
In the eleventh century (1040-1092), the Seljuk Turks descended from the Steppes of Central Asia, conquered most of West and Central Asia and established a vast and powerful empire stretching from Kashgar (China) to Damascus (Syria).
The Seljuk Empire circa 1092
As Sunni Muslims, the Turks became champions and protectors of the Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad. A test of arms between the Fatimids and the Seljuks was inevitable. They fought over control of Syria and Palestine in which the Seljuks were victorious. The response of the Fatimids was a deadly, clandestine war against their foes. The Assassins, a shadowy, disgruntled extremist group broke off from the Fatimids and waged an asymmetrical cloak and dagger war for over a hundred years against the Seljuks and other Sunni powers of Asia.
The intellectual landscape was equally turbulent. The Fatimid challenge to Sunni Islam was not just political-military, it was also doctrinal. The Fatimids believed that their version of Islam with its emphasis on the Imamate was the true Islam. They set upon converting the Sunni world to their faith, establishing schools and colleges to train the daees (proselytizers). The renowned Al Azhar university in Cairo was established in 969 CE by the Fatimid Caliph al Muiz not just as a higher citadel of learning but also as a propaganda center for Fatimid Islam. The well-trained daees spread out throughout the Islamic world, inviting the believers to shift over to the view that the first seven Imams were the true inheritors of the spiritual legacy of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh). Their esoteric ideas, often couched in secretive language, were a source of confusion in the Islamic body politic.
The Seljuks were patrons of art, architecture, poetry, education, astronomy and the mathematical sciences and their capital Esfahan became a magnet for theologians, philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, poets and architects. The celebrated mathematician-poet Omar Khayyam, who compiled the precise Jalalian calendar worked at the magnificent court of Seljuk Sultan Malik Shah (d 1092). The great vizier Nizam ul Mulk (d 1092) was himself a writer and author of Siasat Nama, a masterpiece of political science. He established universities in Esfehan, Baghdad, Nishapur, Merv, Samarqand and Bokhara and built madrasas throughout the empire.
Al Ghazzali, arguably the most influential theologians in Islamic history, was born in Tabaran-Tus (Iran) in 1057. He received his early education in Tus and then proceeded to Nishapur where he studied under the well-known Ash’arite scholar al Juwayni. Upon the death of his teacher, he moved to Baghdad (1089) which was at the time the premier center of learning in the world. Al Gazzali’s erudition and sharp wit attracted the attention of the grand vizier Nizamul Mulk, who appointed him Professor at the prestigious Nizamiya college in Baghdad.
The Seljuks were under doctrinal pressure from the Fatimids. The Batini Assassins were wreaking havoc on the body-politic. The arguments of the philosophers were causing confusion in the minds of the people. Encouraged by Nizamul Mulk, Al Ghazzali took on the defense of Sunni orthodoxy and turned his powerful dialectic against the esoteric doctrines of the Fatimids as well as the endless argumentations of the philosophers. A theologian by training, he dived deep into the tenets of philosophy and turned its arguments against its practitioners. His Tahaffuz al Falasafa (Repudiation of the Philosophers) was a masterful thrust at the philosophers. While maintaining the importance of reason in the implementation of the Shariah, Al Ghazzali denounced the philosophers for their beliefs in the eternity of time and cause and effect in nature, going so far as to suggest that philosophers like ibn Sina were Takfireen (disbelievers).
Al Ghazzali’s Repudiation of the Philosophers
The string of madrassas and colleges established by Nizamul Mulk in the vast Seljuk empire served as vehicles for dissemination of Al Ghazzali’s ideas. The Nizamiya syllabus that was introduced into these madrassas reflected the Ash’arite positions on philosophy. It was this syllabus, with some modifications, which was used in throughout Islamic world until the nineteenth century. Some madrasas in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh use a stripped-down version of the Nizamiya syllabus even to this day.
Al Ghazzali’s knowledge was encyclopedic covering theology, kalam, philosophy, ethics, Shariah, tasawwuf and his influence was global. He wrote more than 70 books, only one of which, namely, Tahaffuz al Falasafa, is under discussion here. In this book, Al Ghazzali examines twenty of the assumptions and beliefs held by the philosophers of the day. We limit ourselves only to two of the twenty issues Al Ghazzali examines, namely, his views on the nature of time (issue 1 in Tahaffuz al Falasafa) and his position on cause and effect (issue 17 in the book).
Al Ghazzali was an Ash’arite. Like al Ash’ari, Al Ghazzali accepted the atomistic theory of time, namely, that time can be digitized and divided into miniscule, discrete packets. This position led him to claim that there was no cause and effect in nature, only “habits”. It was God who was the efficient, direct, immediate agent for all events; He caused these events either directly or through intermediaries. Al Ghazali wrote: “The connection between what is habitually believed to be a cause and what is habitually believed to be an effect is not necessary, according to us. For any two things, it is not necessary that the existence or the nonexistence of one follows necessarily from the existence or the nonexistence of the other. Their connection is due to the prior decision of God, who creates them side by side, not to its being necessary by itself, incapable of separation” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Citing the example of the burning of cotton by fire, he observed: “….We say that the efficient cause of the combustion through the creation of blackness in the cotton and through causing the separation of its parts and turning it into coal or ashes is God—either through the mediation of the angels or without mediation. For fire is a dead body which has no action, and what is the proof that it is the agent?”
Al Ghazzali was concerned that the acceptance of cause and effect would preclude the possibility of miracles. He wrote: “On its negation (of natural causality) depends the possibility of affirming the existence of miracles which interrupt the usual course of nature . . . and those who consider the ordinary course of nature a logical necessity regard all this as impossible.” The philosophers maintained that there was cause and effect in nature. If cause and effect mechanistically and deterministically follow one from the other, where is the need for the intercession of God? This position, argued al Ghazzali, would contradict the omnipotence of God.
Ibn Rushd and his defense of the philosophers
Al Ghazzali’s position did not go unchallenged. The Spanish jurist and philosopher Ibn Rushd (d 1198) rose to the defense of the philosophers.
Ibn Rushd was born into a prominent family of jurists in Cordoba, Spain in 1126. His grandfather was an influential scholar at the Almoravid courts. Ibn Rushd received his early education in Cordoba and Seville and mastered the fields of jurisprudence, philosophy, theology, mathematics and astronomy. The Almohads (1147-1214) seized North Africa and Andalus (southern Spain) from the Almoravids and established their own Caliphate. Ibn Rushd found favor with the Almohad courts and worked for them in various capacities in Marrakesh, Seville and Cordoba. In 1171 he was appointed the chief Kazi of Cordoba, the most prestigious judiciary position in the kingdom. Encouraged by the second Almohad Caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf (1163-84), Ibn Rushd wrote his celebrated commentaries on Aristotle, which had a profound impact on the development of philosophy and science in Europe. We would like to point out here that Ibn Rushd was a contemporary of the well-known physician-philosopher Ibn Tufayl (1105-1185) and the Sufi master (honorably referred to as Shaikh al Akbar – the great shaikh), Ibn al Arabi (1165-1240). Ibn Rushd had a collegial relationship with Ibn Tufayl and worked with him while there are only anecdotal descriptions of his meetings with Ibn al Arabi.
Ibn Rushd wrote more than 100 books covering theology, jurisprudence, philosophy and mathematics. However, it is for his book, Tahaffuz al Tahaffuz, a critique of Al Ghazzali’s Tahaffuz al Falasafa that Ibn Rushd is best known in the Islamic world. His defense of the philosophers was forceful and comprehensive. We will focus here only on two issues from his Tahaffuz al Tahaffuz that are relevant to modern science, namely, his views on the nature of time and cause and effect.
Al Ghazzali questioned the necessity of cause and effect in nature. He held that only God was the efficient cause and that events happened one after the other according to their taqdeer (Divine decree). This was the Ash’arite position based on a discontinuous, atomistic view of time. This assumption about time was introduced by al Ash’ari to explain the possibility of miracles, namely, phenomenon that do not follow the accepted norms of cause and effect. Al Ghazzali wrote: “On the negation (of natural causality) depends the possibility of affirming the existence of miracles which interrupt the usual course of nature . . . and those who consider the ordinary course of nature a logical necessity regard all this as impossible.”
Ibn Rushd took issues with this position as contrary to reason. He wrote: ““……. Intelligence is nothing but the perception of things with their causes, and in this it distinguishes itself from all the other faculties of apprehension, and he who denies causes must deny the intellect. Logic implies the existence of causes and effects, and knowledge of these effects can only be rendered perfect through knowledge of their causes. Denial of cause implies the denial of knowledge, and denial of knowledge implies that nothing in this world can be really known, and that what is supposed to be known is nothing but opinion, that neither proof nor definition exist, and that the essential attributes which compose definitions are void. The man who denies the necessity of any item of knowledge must admit that even this, his own affirmation, is not necessary knowledge.”
Ibn Rushd was sensitive to the criticism of the theologians and took pains to explain that the philosophers were staunch believers: “The learned among the philosophers do not permit discussion or disputation about the principles of religion, and he who does such a thing, according to them, needs a severe lesson … Of religious principles it must be said that they are divine things which surpass human understanding, but must be acknowledged although their causes are unknown.”. On creation, he wrote: “Creation is an act of God. He created the world providentially, not by chance. The world is well ordered and is in a state of the most perfect regularity, which proves the existence of a wise Creator. Causality is presupposed”
Both Al Ghazzali the theologian, and Ibn Rushd the Jurist-Philosopher, supported their positions with quotes from the Qur’an. To al Ghazzali, the omnipotence of God was paramount. Like al Ash’ari, he postulated a discrete time so that he could conceptually accommodate the intervention of divine will in every action. However, in the process he relegated the truth of observation to “habit” and went on to propose, without evidence, his own theory of cause and effect as events that happened “side by side”.
To Ibn Rushd, time was continuous and eternal. To the theologian’s objection that this would make time co-extent with God, Ibn Rushd would reposit that the infinity of time collapses before the infinity of God, thereby preserving the sanctity of God’s primal creation of nature including time itself. To Ibn Rushd, cause and effect were confirmed by observation. Without a causal relationship, reason itself made no sense and the world would become unintelligible.
Ibn Sina, Necessary Agent and Contingent Agent
Ibn Sina (d 1037), one of the most distinguished scientists in the Islamic golden age, understood the futility of deciphering time and described physical phenomenon in terms of change rather than time. In his cosmology, time becomes a tool for measurement of change, much as it does in the cosmology of modern science. Regarding the issue of cause and effect, Ibn Sina differentiated between a “necessary” agent of change and a “contingent” agent of change. God was the “necessary” agent of change. It was He who is primal origin of all causes. The contingent agents are intermediate or apparent agents. For instance, if a house is destroyed in an earthquake, the earthquake is the “contingent” agent, God is the “necessary” agent. Ibn Sina was thus able to retain the causality in nature while safeguarding the tenet that God is the ultimate cause of all causes.
The Maturidi (d 944) Compromise
Shaikh al Maturidi, in his book Kitab al Tauhid, advanced a position that was a compromise between the Ash’ari and Mu’tazila positions. The Mutazilites had maintained that man had both a free will (Iqtiar) and freedom to choose (iktisab). It was their view that cause and effect were deterministic and necessarily followed one from the other. Shaikh al Ash’ari had taken the opposite view. Postulating that time was discrete, he maintained that only God had the free will and freedom to choose and that events happened at every moment in accordance with His predetermined will, either through angels or through direct intervention.
Shaikh al Maturidi took issues with both the Asharites and the Mu’tazalites. He maintained that a merciful God, in His wisdom and justice, created alternate outcomes for every event. He provided guidance through His revealed books and His messengers as to which of the alternate outcomes were “good” and which were “evil”. The human was endowed with reason (aql) to discern and choose between the alternative courses of action created by God and presented to man. Thus, al Maturdi accepted the free will and choice of the human while maintaining that the creator of those choices and of alternate courses of action was God. In al Maturdi’s cosmology both the free will and choice of the human and the omniscience and omnipotence were preserved.
Similarly, in a natural phenomenon, each event has an infinite number of outcomes, each of which is prescribed by the Will of God. That an event repeats and is predictable is the Sunnah of Allah. As the Qur’an states: “Allah creates and repeats His creation”. This repetition and the predictable patterns they create make it possible to capture natural phenomenon through equations, algorithms, mathematical representations and geometry and build the tree of scientific and technological knowledge.
Al Maturidi’s position is remarkably similar to some of the modern views of space-time. In this view, there is no one single pre-determined future but an infinite number of possible “futures”. The choice of any one course of action in space-time determines “the future” that we experience. The arrow of time is not just “forward” and “backward” as most philosophers argue, but it vectors in infinite number of directions, all of them within the “mansha” or conception of God. This cosmology opens up the possibility of an infinite number of possible futures depending on a choice that one makes at a given moment. Each further choice, in turn, takes us in a different direction. The creator of all choices is God; The human is the medium that exercises his choice using his limited free will. His omnipotence is thus preserved. The possibilities are illustrated in the diagram above.
In the diagram, action A leads to choices B,C,D,E,F,G all of which are within the “mansha” (will, plan, conception) of God. You choose outcome F. That is your “fate”. The choice of action F leads to further possibilities of which you choose action J. Once again, that is your “fate”. Then onto K,L,M,N,O,P and so on. Thus, “a human is the architect of his own fortune” but this fortune is within the mansha of God. A profound insight indeed that preserves the omnipotence of God and the choice of the human.
Al Maturidi’s compromise cosmology was popular in the eastern Islamic world. The Sunni, Hanafi Ottomans and the great Moguls of India adopted it as court dogma. In the recent past, Allama Iqbal (d 1938) used it in his articulation of human free will.
The Maturidi school was overshadowed by the more fatalistic Ash’ari cosmology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as the Ottoman and Mughal empires vaned and Europe increasingly dominated the world putting the Muslims on the defensive.
A Sufi perspective on time
In the spiritual Sufi perspectives, supported by the Qur’an, there are layers of reality separating human perception from the Ultimate Reality. In this perspective, the assumed “eternity” of time in philosophy is only figurative in as much as physical time collapses to nothingness before the eternity of God.
I asked a venerated Sufi Shaikh from Turkey to throw some light on this question. He said: “I heard from my Shaikh that time is like a fish in an ocean”. The Shaikh made a sinewy motion with his right hand to show the movement of a fish.
Time is like the fish that was lost by the companion of Moses at the junction of the two seas. Al Ghazzali, the theologian, stood at the shores of the sea and saw time as an atom. Ibn Rushd, the jurist and philosopher, rode on the back of the fish and saw time as movement in an endless ocean. The perspectives were different.
In the cosmology of Shihabuddin Suhrawardy (d 1191), there are heavenly domains that separate the human from the earthly domains. There are four identified heavenly domians: Ahad, Wahed, Wahdaniyet, Arwah. These domains are independent of space-time (la-makan in the Urdu language).The created world (alam e khalq) is separated from the heavenly domains and is the domain of apparent space-time. In this world, reason, logic, mathematics, language, cause and effect apply. The interface between the created world and the heavenly realms defines the limit of human reason.
The Core of the Controversies
At the core of the dialectic between the theologians and the philosophers was the nature of time and cause and effect. To the philosophers, time was continuous and eternal. In a structured, ordered universe, cause and effect were confirmed by observation. This position was unacceptable to the theologians. If cause and effect followed one from the other mechanistically, there is no room for the intervention of God. In that case, how do you explain the occurrence of miracles? Therefore, they advanced a theory of discrete time in which the will of God intervened at each discrete moment and ensured that the outcome of an event is according to God’s decree (taqdeer).
A second issue was the origin of time itself. Was time eternal, or, did it have a finite beginning and an end? The philosophers, following the lead of Aristotle, believed that time was eternal. Controversies emerged when this assumption was applied to the Qur’an. The philosophers were strict monotheists (Mowahhids). The assumption of eternal time led them into a trap of their own making. The Qur’an declares: “God is One. He is Self Sufficient. He does not beget nor is He begotten. And there is none like unto Him”. To preserve the sanctity of Tawhid (“there is none like unto Him), they could not make God’s Word co-extent with His essence. Therefore, they postulated that the Qur’an was “created” (by God) “in time”. This was unacceptable to the theologians and the two positions collided. The debate had a profound impact on developments in Islamic civilization.
RECONSTRUCTION OF A TECHNOLOGICAL CULTURE IN ISLAM – PART 2
Reconstruction of a Technological Culture in Islam – Part 2
Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed
What is Time?
A familiarity with the theories, assumptions and beliefs about the nature of time is a pre-requite to understanding the disputes between the philosophers and the theologians and bringing about a reconciliation between the positions of al Ghazzali and ibn Rushd. Accordingly, we survey the insights about time provided in the Qur’an and also examine the modern perspectives on the subject.
Time as revealed in the Qur’an
Time is a mystery within an enigma within a riddle. It is a secret that no one has been able to fathom. Yet, it forms the very basis of knowledge and of changes in the cosmos. Philosophy, logic, science and history are all based on fundamental assumptions about time.
The mystery of time deepens as we study the various contexts in which it is revealed in the Qur’an:
The days are counted;
Then, whoever among you is ill, or is traveling,
May complete his fasts later, (Quran, 2:184)
The Angels and the Spirit ascend to Him in a moment,
Whose measure is fifty thousand years. (70: 4)
Has there transpired upon humankind a time
From (the oceans of timeless) Time (ad Dha’r)
When he was not even a thing mentioned? (76:1)
There is a term decreed for every spiritual community.
When the decreed time arrives,
they cannot hold it back one moment
or move it forward (one moment). (7:34)
O humankind! If you are in doubt about resurrection,
Then (consider this): We did indeed create you from the earth,
Then from a sperm,
Then from an impregnated egg,
Then from a piece of flesh—
With features and without features—
So that We may convey to you (Our Message);
And We establish a pregnancy for a period fixed, as We will,
Then We bring you forth as a baby,
Then, (sustain you) so that you reach the fullness of youth. (22:5)
By (the passage of) time,
Verily, humankind is indeed at a loss,
Except such as those who have certainty of faith,
And perform righteous deeds,
And enjoin upon one another Justice (Truth),
And enjoin upon one another Patience (Constancy and Perseverance). (103:1-3)
And We struck their ears (made them asleep) in the cave for many years.
Then We woke them up to see which of the two groups remembered
long they had stayed (in the cave). (18:11-12)
Hearken! Of a certainty, the transgressors shall be in eternal punishment! 42:45
Every Nafs shall have a taste of death
And it is not until the Judgment Day
That you shall reap the full recompense (for your deeds). (3:185)
Establish prayer at the sun’s decline till the onset of the night (17:78)
And eat and drink
Until the white thread of dawn
Becomes distinguishable against the darkness (of night).
Then keep your fasts until nightfall. (2: 187)
And whoever desires to combine the Umrah with the Hajj,
And cannot find (a suitable gift),
Let him fast for three days during Hajj
And seven days after he returns (from Hajj).
This makes it ten altogether. (2:196)
He it is who created you from clay,
Then from a seminal fluid,
Then from an embryo,
Then He brings you forth as a baby,
Then (He sustains you) so that you reach the fullness (of youth)
Then (He sustains you) so that you reach old age,
And among you some die before it,
And (He sustains you) so that you attain an age determined,
And learn wisdom. (40:67)
Sovereign of the Day of Judgment (1:4)
So, Allah will decide between them on the Judgment Day. (4: 141)
Allah is He, there is no god but He.
Then He will indeed gather you all together on the Judgment Day
About it there is no doubt. (4: 87)
There can be no doubt that Allah will gather you all together
On the Judgment Day. (6:12)
And make us not be ashamed on the Judgment Day.
Indeed, You do not compromise on Your promise.” (3:194)
And what conjecture do they have –
They who ascribe a falsehood to Allah –
About the Day of Judgment? (10:60)
“O son of Adam! Do not abase time. I am Time (ad Dhahr)”
Modern Concepts of time
What are the modern concepts of time? Do they help us resolve the disputes between medieval Islamic philosophers and theologians?
Whereas the ancients measured time by sunrise, sunset and the sundial, modern man uses digital clocks and atomic clocks that are accurate to 10-22 seconds. However, the idea is the same: time is an entity that is measured by the relative movement between two other entities: the earth around the sun; the moon around the earth; the earth around its own axis; electrons around a nucleus, and so on. The old yardsticks were days, months and years. In modern astronomy, the distances between stars and galaxies are measured in light years, namely, the time light takes to travel from one entity to another.
Thanks to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and its popularization in fiction and movies such as Star Wars, even a child today is familiar with the idea of relative time. Time compresses as you approach the velocity of light. An astronaut who is travelling at very high speeds would experience time-compression and sense time very differently from someone left behind on earth. Travelling near the speed of time, our astronaut may visit several distant worlds and return to earth in a year (by his reckoning) only to find that all the people he knows had passed away centuries ago. If you travel at the speed of light, time stands still. If you travel at speeds greater than the speed of light, then it is theoretically possible to travel back in space-time.
According to Newton, “time exists independently of any perceiver, progresses at a consistent pace throughout the universe, is measurable but imperceptible, and can only be truly understood mathematically”. It is also called Newtonian time or “empty-space” time. Although the ideas of relativistic time have shadowed the ideas of absolute time, Newtonian time is a good enough approximation for most physical observations on earth.
Biological clocks regulate the rhythm of body functions in most mammals. In the human, the brain’s circadian clock regulates the rhythm of sleep. Although such rhythms are not precise and deterministic, the jet lag experienced by long-distance travelers confirms the influence of circadian rhythms.
Time seems to dilate and spread out when you are bored or when you are uncomfortable such as in a hot room. Similarly, time seems to move fast when you are happy such as when you are in the company of someone you love.
The Big Bang theory is a consequence of the observation that the universe is expanding. Mathematically, an expanding universe collapses to a single point (a singularity) at its origin. It is estimated that our known universe is approximately 14 billion years old. The question is this: Is the Big Bang the origin of time? The answer is bound to be unsatisfactory because it fails to answer the follow-on question: What was there before the Big Bang? This line of enquiry fails to answer the question whether time is “endless” and “eternal” or is finite and has itself an origin “in time”.
A Resolution – Modern views
Having taken a brief survey of the classical as well as modern ideas of time, we are in a position to to revisit the dialectic about cause and effect and the nature of time between two of the greatest minds who graced Islamic history, namely, al Ghazzali and ibn Rushd. The controversies had a lasting impact on the development of natural sciences in the Islamic world.
First, it must be observed that the debate took place in the deductive, “if” “then” paradigm of medieval philosophy. This paradigm has its own built-in assumptions and its own inherent limitations.
Second, the position taken by each of these sages is valid within the assumptions that he makes. The positions break down only when they are examined through the lens of modern empirical and inductive science.
Consequently, a critique of the positions taken by al Ghazzali and ibn Rushd and a reconciliation between them must focus on the assumptions that underlie their positions rather than the positions themselves.
Is Time “eternal”?
Ibn Rushd, following the logic of Aristotle, held time to be eternal. Al Ghazzali held that time was finite and created. Which position is supported by modern science?
Classical mechanics looks only at marginal, linear changes in time. A pursuit of the origin of time leads us to the Big Bang where space-time become a singularity. Modern science does not answer the question: What was there “before” the Big Bang?
The theory of relativity regards time as flexible and malleable that can be bent and stretched. The position of quantum mechanics is more subtle. While it regards time as universal and absolute, it postulates that the change in an entity from one state to another is due to the shifting of successive positions of atoms (or subatomic entities).
Both al Ghazzali and ibn Rushd quote from the Qur’an to support their positions. The guidance from the Qur’an is that Allah created the cosmos and He will fold it up on the Day of Judgment. This suggests that time, as we perceive it, is “finite” and is not “eternal”.
The assumption of the “eternity” of time sets up a trap because such an assumption extends the domain of human reason to all domains that are “not God”. This was the trap that the Mu’tazalies fell into. They were staunch Muwahids with an unflinching faith that God is “Ahad” and there is “none like unto Him”. So, they said that the Qur’an cannot be co-extent with God and placed it in “time”, meaning that it was “created” by Allah. This was repugnant to the ulema. As was pointed out earlier, it proved to be the undoing of the Mu’tazalites. The trap was of their own making. They overextended the reach of human reason to heavenly domains that are beyond space-time (la makan). The lesson from history is that reason, noble and sublime as it is, has its limits and breaks down in heavenly domains.
Cause and effect in nature
Al Ghazzali held that cause and effect were not a necessary consequence of the one from the other. His accepted the Ash’ari view that time moved in discrete, atomistic steps and at each discrete step the will of God intervened as the cause for an effect. He held that only God was the efficient cause and He caused all events either through direct intervention or through intermediaries (angels).
Al Ghazzali went one step further and advanced his own theory of heat transfer. He postulated when cotton is brought into contact with fire, the application of fire and the change of cotton from fiber to ashes take place “side by side”. This was a masterful philosophical statement; however, it was unsupported by empirical evidence.
According to our current scientific understanding, the heat transfer from the fire (hot gases) to the cotton (cellulose matter) is the cause of the “burning” (a phase change from cellulose matter to ash). Obviously, the philosophers and the theologians of the day were unaware of the concepts of energy and heat transfer. They were unaware that fire was energy that can be transferred to physical bodies forcing a change in their structure. Note that the modern position does not compromise the omnipotence of God since the fire, as the agent of burning, and the cotton, as the object that is burned, are both created to be so by God. God is Musabbib al Asbab (the cause for all causes, or, the ultimate cause).
The cause-and-effect philosophy, as formulated by al Ghazzali, made it impossible to formulate theories of natural phenomenon based on observation and experiment (“habit” as al Ghazzali termed it). The pursuit of natural science suffered. If one were to accept Al Ghazzali’s theory, airplanes cannot fly, automobiles cannot run, carts cannot move, electricity cannot be generated, transistors stop. In other words, it is impossible to acquire any positivistic knowledge which is built on cause and effect, logic and reason.
In contrast, Ibn Rushd held that cause and effect constituted a basic aspect of the natural law and formed the foundation of human reason. He held that events take place in accordance with cause and effect and that the will of God was axiomatic and built into the laws of cause and effect.
Islamic civilization made an error in misunderstanding the teachings of Al Ghazzali. His denial of (the necessity of) causality and his position that events happen according to their taqdeer was misunderstood by Muslims as predestination. This interpretation side-lined the principle of natural causality which forms the foundation of modern technological civilization and empirical science. It was a fatal error.
There is no empirical evidence to support the thesis (as al Ash’ari proposed circa 900 CE which was adopted by al Ghazzali) that time is digital, discontinuous and can be divided into atomistic parcels. It is merely a philosophical pre-supposition, a concept, an idea, a theory.
In classical mechanics, time appears as a measure of change that occurs as a result of an action by an entity. Quantum mechanics becomes fuzzy on ideas of time, or more precisely, on the arrow of time. It admits that time can be measured in quanta, perhaps as small as 10-22 seconds. When a change occurs, the subatomic particles in an ensemble move from one state to another. As to why they move to a new position in a predictable manner is a mystery; statistically, they could have moved to an entirely different configuration (which could result in an entirely different “future”). The quantum model may serve to accommodate the appearance of miracles as events that are nominally a violation of repetitive and predictable outcomes of events but which are statistically possible.
Classical mechanics, which forms the basis of modern technological civilization, is built on assumptions of natural cause and effect. Empirical evidence, reason, algorithms, logic and extrapolation form the accepted chain-links in the advancement of modern science and technology.
Modern science does not insist on mechanical causality. It only affirms that on a statistical basis, a cause produces an effect with a probability so high that it can be considered a near certainty.
The question of miracles
Miracles are events that contradict the expected outcomes based on cause ad effect.
Al Ghazzali held that the occurrence of miracles can be accommodated only if the necessity of cause and effect is discarded. This position needs to be modified in the light of our advanced knowledge of physics and statistics. Modern approaches of statistical mechanics may offer a possible way to explain miracles. In this approach, an event is an ensemble of zillions upon zillions of mini-events that are happening in the cosmos. It is conceptually possible to admit that the nett outcome of these seemingly unlimited number of concurrent events could be one that is contrary to its expected value, and that would be a miracle. The occurrence of a miracle can be accommodated in classical mechanics by adding “inshallah” to an expected event. Such a position is in accordance with the guidance from the Qur’an.
Classical mechanics deals only with questions of when and how (space-time) of marginal changes in nature; it does not concern itself with questions of who and why, or the primal origins of time. These questions are important. Indeed, they form the core of our search as human beings as to who we are and why we are here. However, they are beyond the capabilities of reason and are left to other modes of acquiring knowledge and other disciplines such as Tasawwuf, theosophy and faith. As an example, no amount of rational argumentation can explain what love is, whereas the heart can grasp it with immediacy.
The distinctive character of positivistic knowledge is that it opens up avenues for the human to attain his potential through an exercise of reason. It enhances material welfare through innovation, shields the human from debilitating poverty, protects life by enabling effective means of defence, provides a bulwark against disease and hunger through medical research and agricultural advancement. Indeed, it opens up the possibility (just a possibility) of heaven on earth. It is a fulfilment of God’s promise to the human: “And We have subjected to you all that is between the heavens and the earth”. Science is not just a nice appendage to a society; it is essential for the very survival of a society.
Why did the Islamic civilization choose al Ghazzali over ibn Rushd?
Several reasons may be advanced as to why the Islamic civilization chose al Ghazzali over ibn Rushd.
In summary, history and geography both favoured al-Ghazzali. When he wrote his Tahaffuz al Falasafa in 1095, the dialectic between theology and philosophy in Islam was already three hundred years old and it had been won by the theologians. Al Ghazzali’s work was the summation of that dialectic and its last chapter.
Why did Europe choose ibn Rushd?
Europe came upon Greek rational philosophy in the thirteenth century through a translation of classical Greek works from Arabic into Latin. There was no convulsive confrontation between theology and philosophy in Europe as there was between the Muta’zalites and the usuli ulema in the Islamic world in the eighth-ninth centuries. The writings of Thomas Aquinas (1274) scuttled the debate by separating church dogma from rational philosophy. The result was that Europe embarked on a secular path. Science, technology, sociology and history were separated from religion. Matters of faith were confined to the walls of the church. This separation continues to this day. As a consequence, modern man, having internalized the assumptions that underlie western civilization, finds himself in a soulless, godless world. God was taken out at the first gambit. Modern man cannot put Him back in the end game.
Construction of a Technological Culture in the Islamic world
History is like tarnished silver. It needs constant scrubbing to bring out the polish and remind us how beautiful its nascent shine can be.
The construction of a technological culture in the Islamic world must begin with a deconstruction of historical narratives and a fresh start based on the primal source, namely, the Qur’an.
Present day Muslims stand on the shoulders of giants. Great were the personages who graced Islamic history since that sublime moment when the Light of Muhammed (pbuh) illuminated the world. Their legacy continues to guide us.
However, it must be remembered that those who came before us struggled in the context of their times. Their contributions, great in their impact, were nonetheless limited by their knowledge of the physical and the assumptions they made in developing their cosmology. While they created giant footsteps on the sands of time, they also left behind a good deal of dust that needs clearing up.
Consider the Shia-Sunni split. It has its basis in history. The Suhaba disagreed on how to carry forward the legacy of the prophet after his death. The result was a wide chasm which continues to divide the global Islamic community even to this day. Does the Shia-Sunni schism have its sanction in the Qur’an? No. It ought to be relegated to the pages of history so that the community can reaffirm the brotherhood established by the Prophet.
Similar is the case with kalam and philosophy. In the eighth-ninth centuries Islamic theology had a broadside encounter with Greek philosophy. It was a brutal confrontation. Theology won the contest and philosophy was sidelined. But the tailwinds of the clash continued to haunt the Islamic intellectual landscape. Empirical science appeared as a sequel to philosophy and made its mark on world history. But its practitioners, giants like al Khwarizmi, ibn Sina, al Razi did not gain the kind of acceptance in the Islamic body politic as did theologians like al Ash’ari and al Ghazali.
It is in this context that we have to examine the dialectic between al Ghazzali and ibn Rushd. While their positions were valid within the paradigms they assumed, there are fundamental problems with some of their assumptions.
A deconstruction of historical narratives is therefore essential before a construction of an alternate vision of natural science and technology is constructed. The basis for this reconstruction is guidance from the Qur’an. It requires discarding the assumptions of “eternal time”, “atomistic time”, “side by side” as applied to cause and effect, even if such assumptions were held by the giants of Islamic history like al Ghazzali and ibn Rushd. History is a teacher. History is not a tyrant. The Islamic psyche must be unshackled from the tyranny of history.
The Islamic body politic, which is now held in ransom by shackles of history, must be freed to follow the Qur’an and the Seerah of the Prophet. The Qur’an offers a lofty vision of the human who is endowed with a body and a mind to interact with nature, a heart to feel divine presence and a soul to sift through right and wrong.
Reconstruction of a Science and Technology Culture in Muslim Societies
As we undertake a reconstruction of a science and technology culture in Muslim societies, we must be aware of the assumptions we made and enumerate those that we discard.
We discard the following assumptions that were made by the medieval philosophers:
Positions we accept, consistent with guidance from the Qur’an:
Regarding the human, we accept the following assumptions that are consistent with the guidance from the Qur’an:
The following inferences follow from our assumptions:
Empirical science and technology are based on observation, experimentation and reason.
The laws upon which science and technology are based are the laws of nature which constitute the Sunnah of Allah. Nature obeys divine laws based on God’s wisdom and justice and is amenable to understanding through reason. Divine grace is never absent from these laws. This self-evident truth needs no confirmation by philosophical discourse.
The Qur’an affirms again and again the primacy of reason in the created world, urging the human to witness, reflect and apply reason to understand nature (science), use the knowledge so acquired for human welfare (technology) and discharge his heavenly mandate as khalifa on earth to serve God (theology) and His creation (environment and ecology).
To enable him to discharge this mandate, God has bestowed upon the human faculties in addition to reason, namely, a heart to perceive the unseen world, a soul to sift through right and wrong and a spirit to connect him with Divine presence. The Qur’an thus offers guidance to the human through the body, the mind, the heart, the soul and the spirit. The knowledge acquired through these means constitute the totality of human knowledge, ilm ul ibara (knowledge that can be taught), ilm ul ishara (knowledge that can be alluded to but cannot be taught) and ilm al ladduni (revealed knowledge that comes down through the Prophets).
Natural science is implicit and explicit in the Qur’an. The human is urged again and again to know God (that is, to know His Names and attributes) through the Signs in His creation.
Let us illustrate how cause and effect unfold in nature and how they form the basis of science.
An Example: The Wonder of Flight
أَوَلَمْ يَرَوْا إِلَى الطَّيْرِ فَوْقَهُمْ صَافَّاتٍ وَيَقْبِضْنَ مَا يُمْسِكُهُنَّ إِلاَّ الرَّحْمَنُ إِنَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ بَصِيرٌ
Do you not observe the birds
With their wings spread above them,
And (birds with wings) folded up?
None can hold them up (in dynamic equilibrium) except the Most Compassionate;
Indeed, He is the Seer of all things. Surah al-Mulk, (67:19)
The wonder and awe of nature defies description. No matter which direction you turn, there are Signs for the majesty of the Creator.
An appreciation of the subtleties of this Ayah requires a mastery of several disciplines: aerodynamics; ornithology; structural mechanics; oxygenation; energy transfer; guidance, navigation and control, to name but a few. There are wondrous Signs in nature, if only we knew how to look and how to ask the right questions.
We present the bar-tailed godwit as an illustration for the tafseer of this Ayah. It is a tiny bird that migrates every year from Alaska, northwest of Canada, to New Zealand, deep in the southern Pacific Ocean. It flies about 7000 miles (11000 kilometers) without stopping anywhere. Sometimes, it flies West to the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia and then south to New Zealand. At other times it takes an alternate route South to the Pacific Islands and then further South to New Zealand.
How can a small bird fly 7000 miles without stopping anywhere? How does it navigate and find its destination when there are no landmarks? How does it fly at night? Where does it get its in-flight food and sustenance from? How does it keep warm when the outside temperature is close to zero?
We offer three alternative approaches that may be used to develop answers to these questions: (1) by a believing scientist (2) by a secular scientist (3) a fatalist.
A believing scientist would start with Bismillah. He would recognize that an understanding of the flight of a bar-tiled godwit bird requires a mastery of several disciplines: aerodynamics; ornithology; structural mechanics; oxygenation; energy transfer; guidance, navigation and control, to name but a few. There are four known forces in nature: gravitation, electromagnetic, weak atomic and strong atomic. The first two are relevant in this case. The last two are not. The scientist would study in detail the air currents, temperatures, pressures, moisture, electrical storms and other weather conditions along the flight trajectory. He would also study the physical characteristics of the bird: weight, size, shape, flight feathers and control feathers. He would experiment and know something about the neural networks and sensors in the bird and their electromagnetic characteristics. He would write algorithms and equations, with clearly articulated assumptions, for the dynamics of flight of this tiny bird. He would analyze and obtain some insights to the questions raised. For many of the questions, there may be no answers with our limited current knowledge base. The believing scientist would table such questions for continued research. At each stage of his research, he would marvel at God’s creation with awe and wonder and cry out: Subhan Allah! The experience would reinforce his faith and take him closer to God who created this tiny bird that has so much to teach the human.
A secular scientist would go through the same process and arrive at the same conclusions except that he would not start with Bismillah nor would he end with Subhan Allah. His experience would be like a ladder that dangles in the air, neither firmly grounded on earth nor reaching up to heaven, but suspended in doubt and dissatisfaction.
A fatalist would not ask any of these questions. He would simply say: it is the work of God and go to sleep.
Muslim scientists in the classical era of Islam fell into the first category. They were guided by the light of the Qur’an, witnessed God’s creation in all its splendor and learned from the Signs they saw therein. Modern day Muslims fall into the third category. Having lost their way through the labyrinth of history, they turn their backs on science and circle around in orbits of fatalism.
“Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change what is within themselves”. The development of a scientific and technological culture in Islam, must come from within. Elements of this transformation include:
Discard notions that are a product of history but have no basis in the Qur’an or the Sunnah of the Prophet. A cup must be empty before milk is poured into it. Specifically, assumptions about time, cause and effect which have accrued as a result of the clash between philosophy and theology in medieval times must be discarded.
So pervasive is the influence of the clergy in the Islamic world that no reformation can succeed without their support. The Shaikhs, Mullahs and Molvis have a hold on the masses which can only be the envy of even the most successful political leader.
The historical record of Islamic clergy is less than illustrious on questions relating to science and technology. While the sordid story of Galileo and the Latin church is well known, that of the Islamic religious establishment is glossed over. At critical moments in Islamic history, it was the religious establishment that put the brakes on scientific and technological progress. Here are a few glaring examples:
A suspicion of science as a secular pursuit that takes the human away from God persists to this day among a significant section of Muslim religious establishment. The shaikhs, mullahs and molvis simply do not understand science or technology. What they do not understand, they suspect and oppose, unless that technology personally benefits them.
The Islamic world would benefit a great deal if training centers are established to teach the shaikhs and mullahs in the basics of science and technology. The goal is to mitigate the suspicion and opposition of the clergy to science and technology by exposing them to the assumptions, processes and benefits that underlie the natural sciences and show that their pursuit i consistent the guidance from the Qur’an.
There exists a vast network of schools and madrassas purporting to teach religion (Deeni Ta’leem as it is called). India alone is estimated to have 30,000 madrasas. Pakistan has half as many. Primary instruction in these institutions is through rote learning. Secondary education includes memorization and hadith. At the advanced grades, the curriculum is a hangover of the Nizamiya syllabus from the twelfth century and includes a study of Fiqh, a history of the early Caliphs and rudiments of medieval philosophy.
With a minimal effort, these institutions can be transformed into agents of change towards a scientific and technological culture. In addition to the sciences of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, a basic exposure to science, math and technology would pay rich dividends. A change in syllabus is long overdue.
God created the universe and gave its key to the human. That key is reason. Nature yields what you demand from it. A critical, questioning attitude towards nature is required for this process. The Muslim scientists in the classical era excelled in their questioning and unlocked the secrets of the heavens (astronomy), elements (chemistry), plants (agronomy), cures for diseases (medicine) and natural structures (geometry). Such an attitude is a part of Ijtehad ordained by God. It was only in the later centuries that the clergy limited Ijtehad to personal minutia (such as whether a moustache is halal or haram) or totally abandoned it in favor of taqleed.
Cultivate a passion for experimentation in science and technology, coupled with an acceptance of results that are consistent even if they refute established and entrenched dogma.
As ibn al Arabi said: “Feehi ma feehi”. A thing is what it is. If a baseball that is hit shatters a brittle glass panel, we must have the integrity to say that the efficient (immediate) cause of the shattered glass is the momentum from the baseball. Cracks propagate because of stress. Earthquakes are caused by movement of geological plates. Airplanes fly because of airfoil design and fall because of wind shear. These statements in no way compromise the omnipotence of God who is musabbib al asbab. It is understood that man’s innovative capabilities are bestowed by God. The scientist’s quest is a search for the Sunnah of Allah in nature. He asks the questions: How? What? He marvels at his discoveries and he uses them for the benefit of man and to serve God and His crreation. (wa Saqqara lakum ma fis samawati wal ard- And I have subjected to you whatever is in the heavens and the earth).
Revolutions require political will and commitment. The influential strata of society, the governments, the clergy, the intelligentsia, the industrialists and bankers need to make a commitment for such a positive transformation. A change in mindset is a pre-requisite. The economies of Muslim countries need to shift from resource base (oil, gas, agriculture, minerals, gems) to knowledge base. Technological and scientific education is the key. A single silicon chip is more valuable than a hundred barrels of oil.
Some Concluding Words
What moves the modern world is technology. It influences the way we do our work, how we relate to each other and to nature. It is the modulator of human behavior, art, philosophy, economics, politics and culture.
As we move forward, the world is increasingly segregated into two segments: those who have access to technology and those who do not. The first group will rule the world. The second group will serve the first group.
Technology is not just a nice thing to have. It is not just to have mobile phones, TV, cars and airplanes. It is not just for national defense although technology has a major impact on defense. Technology is necessary for the very survival of a civilization.
Islamic civilization is at a cross roads. One road leads to security and prosperity based on science and technology. This is the road that the Shariah commands the human to take and for which the Qur’an provides guidance. The other road is one of ignorance, poverty, servitude and ultimately, extinction.
Islamic civilization has locked itself in a self-made prison and has shackled itself in chains of misconceptions about the human and the universe that he lives in. These misconceptions arise from a burden of history.
It is time the Islamic civilization unshackled itself. Ash’arite philosophy, assumptions about mysteries of time, rejection of causation are burdens of the past. A scientific and technological culture unshackles these burdens. The keys to unlock these shackles are in God-given Aql (reason). However, unlike secular man who has left God in the church and assumes that his reason is autonomous, the Muslim scientist exercises his reason as a divine gift to which the God’s creation opens its doors. The keys are in the Qur’an, which beckons the mind towards Signs of Allah, shows the broad, open highways to the physical (seeing, hearing, touching, speaking), ennobles the heart with the Light of Divine Names and guides the soul to avoid the pitfalls of disbelief. How marvelous a world that is! Subhan Allah!
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