Islamic Heritage of South Asia

The Arrow of Time – 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:

  • Counted time

The days are counted;
Then, whoever among you is ill, or is traveling,
May complete his fasts later, (Quran, 2:184)

  • Relative time

The Angels and the Spirit ascend to Him in a moment,
Whose measure is fifty thousand years. (70: 4)

  • Timeless time

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)

  • Time as a moment

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)

  • Time as a sequence of changes

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)

  • The passage of time (al Asr)

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)

  • Perceived time

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)

  • Time after death -Eternal time

Hearken! Of a certainty, the transgressors shall be in eternal punishment! 42:45

  • Indeterminate time

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)

  • Prayer time

Establish prayer at the sun’s decline till the onset of the night (17:78)

  • Fasting time

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)

  • Time for Haj and Umrah

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)

  • Ageing time

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)

  • The Day of the Sovereign

Sovereign of the Day of Judgment (1:4)

  • The Judgment Day

So, Allah will decide between them on the Judgment Day.  (4: 141)

  • The Day of Gathering

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)

  • The Day of Self Evaluation

And make us not be ashamed on the Judgment Day.
Indeed, You do not compromise on Your promise.” (3:194)

  • The uncertainty of time

And what conjecture do they have –
They who ascribe a falsehood to Allah –
About the Day of Judgment? (10:60)

  • Time in Hadith e Qudsi

“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?

  • Clock time

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.

  • Relativistic time

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.

  • Absolute time or Newtonian 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 time

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 Perception

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.

  • Time and the Big Bang

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 pre-destination. 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.

Is the human the “Architect” of his/her own “fate”?

The aforesaid discussions enable us to answer the question: Is the human the “architect” of his/her own fortune? The Qur’an asserts: “We have fastened the fate of every human around his own neck”. This Ayah would suggests that indeed, the human is responsible for what he becomes. How can this be accommodated in the overarching omnipotence of God?

The reasoning is complex and involves an interplay between theology, faith, science and mathematics. To make our reasoning understandable, we have illustrated it with a diagram.

Illustration: “Allah has fastened the fate of every human around his own neck”, The Qur’an

Life is a construct of events and choices. Let us consider a moment in the life of an individual. In the diagram, the tip of the arrow A represents a moment. At each moment, the individual is faced with making choice. Each of these choices is offered to the individual by divine decree. In the illustration, the individual concerned has choices B,C,D,E,F,G and H. Each of these choices creates a new future and takes the individual in a different direction.

In this illustration, the individual makes choice F. The tip of the arrow F is his “fate” that he has discovered.

In the new situation, represented by point F, the individual is again offered multiple choices. Each of these choices is a divine decree. Of all these choices, he choose alternative J. The tip of the arrow J determines the second point in the “fate” of the individual.

One can see that the human, through his choices offered to him among an infinite number of choices offered by divine decree, “creates” his own future. However, the outcome of each choice is a moment of divine intercession.

One can, therefore, plot the sequence of operations that result in an action and the sequence of actions that result in the flow of life: intent, choice, will, action, outcome of an action. It does indeed resemble the movement of a fish in the ocean.

“Time is like the movement of a fish in the ocean”, Grand Shaikh Abdullah Daghestani (d 1972, Russia). Chain of Transmission: Grand Shaikh Mohammed Nazim al Haqqani al Qibrisi (Turkey and Cypress, d 2012)

The human is responsible for his/her intent, choice, will and action and he faces divine judgement for the intent in his heart, the will in his mind and his “a’mal” (actions). However, the choices that are offered to him as well as the outcome of actions are not under his control; they are in God’s hands. Man proposes; God disposes. You can sow a seed but whether it grows into a mighty tree or withers out and becomes dust is the will of God. There is cause and effect in nature but it is not deterministic and mechanical; it is statistical and probabilistic. That is why the Qur’an emphasizes that when we assert something relating to the future, we end it with the “inshallah”(if It is the will of God).

This explanation satisfies the criteria for man’s freedom to choose and action, his limited free will as well as God’s omnipresence and omnipotent. Yes, man is the architect of his own fortune but that fortune is one among countless number of fortunes that Allah offered him. The individual chose but one of those fortunes and “discovered” his own destiny that was in the “mansha’” of God.. 

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.

  • Al Ghazzali was on the winning side of a long debate between theology and philosophy in Islam. The theologians (usuli ulema) had triumphed over the philosophers (the Mu’tazalites) at the Abbasid courts in Baghdad in 846 CE. Thereafter, philosophy had continued as a peripheral intellectual activity to the central core of theology. Great philosophers did emerge but the Muslim body politic continued to look askance at their work and they did not find the same level of acceptance or veneration as the greats of theology. The triumph did not insulate the theologians from the continued challenge of philosophy and they continued to innovate and defend their positions using the same rational methods that the philosophers used. The contribution of al Ash’ari must be looked at from this perspective. He advanced his theory of atomistic time to explain how God’s will interjected itself at every moment to determine the outcome of an event. Al Ghazzali rode on the shoulders of al Ash’ari and delivered a severe blow to the pursuit of philosophy going so far as to accuse the philosophers of blasphemy and kufr for some of their views.  
  • Al Ghazzali wrote the Tahaffuz al Falasafa under the patronage of the mighty Seljuk sultans. He continued to enjoy their goodwill throughout his life. By contrast, ibn Rushd’s relations with the al Mohad Emirs in Cordoba, Spain had a bumpy ride. He was patronized by the Almohad Emir Abu Yaqub (d 1184) but later fell out of favour with the Cordova court.
  • The teachings of Al Ghazzali were spread far and wide through the string of colleges and madrassas established by the Seljuk grand vizier Nizamul Mulk, who was himself an admirer of al’Ash’ari.  A truncated Nizamiya syllabus is taught in some of madrassas of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan even to this day. Ibn Rushd had no such good fortune. Under pressure from the ulema, he was tried in a tribunal for his views, his books were burned and he was banished from the Andalus for a while.
  • The bulk of Spain was lost to the crusaders soon after the death of Ibn Rushd (d 1198). By 1248, Cordoba as well as Seville were under Christian control. By contrast, the vastness of Asia protected much of it from the onslaught of the Crusaders upon Palestine and Syria. Al Ghazzali passed away in 1111 CE. For more than a hundred years, the madrasas in Nishapur, Esfahan, Samarqand, Bukhara, Ghazna and Kabul continued to thrive and spread al Ghazzali’s teachings until the Mongol invasions in 1219.
  • The Islam that emerged after the Mongol devastations (1219-1301) was a Sufi Islam, more inward looking, focused on inner reformation and purification. The teachings of al Ghazzali were more in tune with this esoteric, inward-looking Islam than the exoteric, reason-based teachings of ibn-Rushd. Indeed, al Ghazzali was a master of Tasawwuf and is credited as the scholar who gave a respectable position to Sufism within orthodox Islam.
  • Lastly, it was the sheer power of al-Ghazzali’s dialectic and his scholarship that won the day. He was not only a great scholar, a theologian par excellence, he was also a master of the school of kalam which emerged after the Mu’tazalite period.

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

  • The Mu’tazalites assumed that time was eternal. There is no evidence to support this position. Our current knowledge takes us only to the Big Bang and the origin of the known universe, which is about 14 billion years old. The universe has a determined life span; everything in it does.
  • The Ash’arites assumed that time was discrete, digital, discontinuous, atomistic. There is no evidence to support this position. We simply do not know what time is. We can make assumptions about it and each assumption leads to its own world-view.
  • Al Ghazzali postulated that cause and effect take place “side by side”. There is no evidence to support this lofty but vague philosophical assertion. It is contrary to the laws of mechanics and the laws of energy transfer.
  • Al Ghazzali also postulated that fire was a “dead body”. Far from it. Fire is energy and it is energy that propels the universe.

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:

  • Time is eternal
  • Time moves in discrete steps
  • Cause and effect are not necessary. They occur “side by side”
  • The human has no free will and is not responsible for his actions
  • The human has unfettered free will and is autonomous.

Positions we accept, consistent with guidance from the Qur’an:

  • God is the sole Creator. He creates from nothing. He is the First and the Last. His Grace pervades all creation and is not absent from it for a single moment.
  • He has created the vast and majestic cosmos for a purpose and that purpose is to know, serve and worship Him. Serving God connotes serving His creation.
  • The cosmos has a dynamic balance which is reflected in a dynamic balance and justice on earth.
  • Every atom in the universe obeys His laws “willingly”. These are the natural laws.
  • God repeats His creation and establishes patterns therein so that it becomes comprehensible.
  • Every entity in the universe is endowed with attributes (properties) with which it is known and recognized and which determine its behavior.
  • Cause and effect are ubiquitous in nature.
  • The immediate cause and effect we observe in nature do not violate the doctrinal statement that God is musabbib al asbab (the Ultimate Cause of all causes).
  • The cosmos has a beginning and an end.
  • Change is continuous.
  • Time is only a measure of change.

Regarding the human, we accept the following assumptions that are consistent with the guidance from the Qur’an:

  • The human, as the khalifa of God on earth, is endowed with the sublime faculty of reason.
  • Nature opens up its secrets to reason and is subservient to it. 
  • The human is gifted with a heart, a Nafs ( soul) and a Ruh (spirit).
  • The human is a knower and has a propensity to know. He was taught “the names” of all entities at his creation.
  • The human has the freedom (iqtiar) in his intent, choice and action and is responsible for his intent, choice and act.
  • The outcome of an action follows God’s laws and is not necessarily under human control.
  • God has sent divine guidance through His Messengers to guide the human make the right choices.

The following inferences follow from our assumptions:

  • Reason is the key that unlocks the secrets of nature. 
  • The human “discovers” his future through his own choice.
  • His choices mark the limit of his free will.
  • The choices offered to a human at any moment are limitless and are created by God.

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.

Moving Forward

“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 Historical prejudices. Apply the Qur’an.

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.

  • Train the clergy

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:

  • After the Caliph al Mustansir disowned the Mu’tazalites (746 CE), the usuli ulema applied the whip to ensure that any vestiges of Mu’tazalite influence were wiped out. The pursuit of philosophy continued thereafter but only as a peripheral activity to the religious center.
    • Secondly, it was the ulema who opposed the introduction of the printing press into the Islamic world (1460 CE), a decision that was directly responsible for the educational backwardness of the Islamic world. It was not until 1728 that the printing press was introduced into the Ottoman empire. It was introduced into the Mughal empire even later.
    • Lastly, it was the ulema who forced the Ottoman Caliph Murad III to demolish the newly constructed Taqiuddin Astronomical Observatory (1575) in Istanbul because they suspected that the work of the observatory was against Islamic teachings.

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.

  • Impart Mass Education

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.

  • Develop critical thinking as it applies to questions in natural science and technology.

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.

  • Experiment

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).

  • Political will and commitment

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!