by Abdassamad Clarke

It is certainly easier today to find a scientist's guide to Islam than a Muslim's guide to science. Examples of the former are the fragmentary entries in encyclopaedias. Many people have one, whether it is a simple one-volume encyclopaedia or the mighty multi-volume Britannica. Within, Islam is one subject among many: botany, Buddhism,… Islam, Italy.


However, these encyclopaedias have a problem: they are not objective. Anyone who knows a subject and compares what he knows with an encyclopaedia, will be struck by how many mistakes and misunderstandings there are in it, but it is even more acute in the case of Islam. It is as if the authors are incapable of being objective when it comes to Islam. Yet it is not only with Islam, but with many other subjects that this happens, which is odd, since objectivity is exactly the thing the authors claim to seek above all else.

Immediately, we have almost stumbled upon a number of the themes which will echo throughout this book. The encyclopaedia is assembled from many bits, little atoms of knowledge. The authors assume that knowledge arises from accumulation of the bits of information that are thought to make up knowledge. This is the prejudice of scholars generally, even in the Muslim world. Many lesser 'ulama think that an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Qur'an or fiqh judgements or the hadith literature, is real knowledge, whereas Imam Malik said, "Knowledge is a light which Allah places wherever He wills; it is not a great deal of narration."

In France, almost half a century before the French Revolution, Diderot (1713-1784 CE), along with D'Alembert, created a very influential encyclopaedia. It reflected his philosophical and political prejudices and was banned quite frequently. That was in the turbulent decades leading up to the French Revolution. When he was dying, his daughter heard him say, "The first step towards philosophy is incedulity." These were his last words. However, this was his particular prejudice and perhaps a misunderstanding of his fellow countryman Descartes' thought. As we will see, Descartes (1596-1650 CE) believed in God, but that did not stop his philosophy having quite opposite effects to what he intended.

The goal of science -if it is possible -seems to be praiseworthy: to see things as they really are, but perhaps today that is no longer possible for a scientist, because he wants to know the physical thing alone. He excludes other matters as "unscientific" and that is his prejudice. The philosopher wanted to know all things and concepts, and, moreover, he used also to be concerned about the nature of justice and just governance. The Muslim want to knows the Maker as well as the thing. He understands that then he must also have some knowledge (not information) of the self -the one who seeks to know -and that he is bound to live by the revealed way of worship and justice of Islam.

Another impediment to our search for the truth is that we ourselves are not objective. We have experienced a conditioning and a programming. I am not suggesting an Orwellian conspiracy, but our upbringing and our education have conditioned us before we start. The upbringing of the family is the most serious conditioning, but it lies outside the scope of this book. The conditioning of education, however, is a part of our topic.

The least part of educational programming is that in our mathematical education, for example, in the very simplest arithmetic of our earliest school years, and in simple and compound interest and algebra, we were taught the commercial ways of Western society. Those ways are not based on revelation and indeed are contrary to the revelation of Islam. They are also contrary to Judaism and Christianity. Moreover, they are against the philosophical tradition of the Greeks which gave rise to our science or 'natural philosophy.' Those commercial ways and the greed and anxiety they serve are at the root of the destruction of the biosphere and the erasure of human culture. They have been laid at the very foundations of our scientific education, and thus the building is as it is.

The existing Islamic perspective on science is not a great deal more enlightening than the encyclopaedists' view of Islam. In some modernist works we rub shoulders with an assortment of Isma'ili heretics and other figures who are somehow assembled under the label 'Islamic'. Other authors quite desperately contrive to interpret ayat of Qur'an as prefiguring a heliocentric map of the solar system, modern embryology, or even relativity, etc., forgetting that if tomorrow any of these theories are revised, their 'faith' will be seriously compromised. This is in clear contravention of the ayat of Qur'an in Surah Ali 'Imran where Allah, exalted is He, tells us that of the ayat of Qur'an there are those which are muhkamah, i.e. decisive, clearly explicit and unambiguous, which are 'the core of the Book', and there are those which are mutashabihah, i.e. open to interpretation, ambivalent, ambiguous or metaphorical, and that 'those in whose hearts is deviation follow up that of it which is open to interpretation seeking dissension and seeking its inner interpretation.' They also ignore the clear warnings of the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, against interpreting the Book of Allah in the light of one's own opinion.

Talk of 'Islam and Science' implies that Islam is not science but something else, i.e. religion. It is similar to saying 'men and women.' Men are not women, and women are not men.

The Bible, the Qur'an and Science in its title almost implies that they are three revelations, science being the most recent and thus decisive. Throughout that book, verses of the Bible and ayat of the Qur'an are judged by science and it, as judge, always decides that Qur'an is the winner, but it is clear that science is the important and decisive authority. This reflects an attitude that is quite common: an uncritical admiration for 'science' and its judgements. For us the Qur'an is the decisive authority.

By seeking to know something objective about science -itself the search for objective truth -we have embarked on a project which is like trying to hack one's way through a dense jungle. In this jungle there are things that look like hanging tendrils which are really snakes. There are things in the river that look like logs which are really alligators. It is quite dangerous to live in a world where things are not what they appear to be, for example, where people make a religion of objectivity and are then almost totally incapable of being objective, but that is the world in which we live today.

During the French Revolution the revolutionaries attacked the churches, paraded with a woman dressed as the 'goddess of reason' carried high on a palanquin - a kind of litter or stretcher - and took the Representatives from the National Convention to Notre Dame Cathedral where they worshipped 'reason'. They burned church pews to make bonfires, and feasted. Is there anything more irrational than that, except perhaps the religion originally celebrated in Notre Dame?

The American Declaration of Independence was a decisive moment in the history of the world. It was possibly the conception of the 'rational' age in the domain of politics as the French Revolution was its birth. The decision of the Americans to declare their independence of Britain was a major part of the inspiration for the Revolution, as was, ironically, liberal British society itself with which the French were soon, doubly ironically, to find themselves at war. The other factor in the Revolution was the very real gnawing of hunger in the bellies of 25 million French people for years on end, and their spiralling national debt. These matters too we will encounter in this book. We must expect many strange experiences as we look at this age and this story.

This is not a guide to all science, for most of it is not here. Perhaps it ought to be called A Young Muslim's Book of Mathematics & Physics or of the Atom and Atomism since most of the other sciences are not represented at all, but even those claims could not be substantiated. Darwin is not here, nor Mendel, Linnaeus, Pasteur, or Freud, but then again neither are Thomson, Rutherford, Dalton, Hooke and Boyle, and worse still where are al-Biruni and Ibn al-Haytham?

There is a good argument for taking maths and physics as the most representative of all the sciences. Because of their mathematical approach, they most stand for what science today is about, although we could say that genetics is now the most prominent of all sciences. All other sciences have followed in the footsteps of physics and mathematics, and genetics is in the position it is in today because yesterday's discoveries of molecular, atomic and subatomic structure have revolutionised it.

This book is really about the revolution inaugurated by Descartes, Galileo and Newton which was brought to its summit in the work of Einstein and arguably brought to an end by the discoveries of quantum physics. The other chapters throw into relief the strange and extraordinary nature of that revolution. The book is a summary in a very simple manner of many of the things I have learnt since I stopped studying science in a structured way. Some of them are things I longed to know then, but nobody could or would tell me. Much of it is about the history of the scientific discoverers, a history which is needed to illuminate the bare 'scientific facts.'