March 29, 2020 Faith Matters

Science and Islam: A Very Modern Conflict?

By Rashad Ali


From wild conspiracy theories to denial of the extent of the spread of the disease known as Covid19, to zealous and dangerous displays of religious fervour, to behaviour betraying complete ignorance of maintaining safe distancing across Muslim countries and even in the UK irrational edicts have lead to Mosques endangering their communities by holding Friday congregational prayer against government scientific advice and a plethora of sensible Muslim edicts.

In fact Western Sociologists have pointed out this is against the spirit of prophetic teaching. But this doesn’t take away from age old debate about the assumed irrationality of religion and the religiously minded versus progressive secularists or even challenging the faith of believers due to the obstinate responses of their Faith’s, Islam and others.

The Debate Around Religion and Science

In light of the above the debate about Science and Islam, and the place of empirical thought, scientific methodology and knowledge, and the relationship or antagonism with Islam is still an important discussion for believers and wider society alike. Whether this is an antagonism essential to the faith tradition. Or a manifestation of contemporary fundamentalism? Or something decidedly more complicated? With this in mind the following short essay seeks to address these questions.

The debate surrounding religion and science is certainly not one unfamiliar to either scientists or religious people. Nor is it by any means a new debate. Nor is it a debate that exists exclusively vis-à-vis Islam and science or in Eastern societies alone. Hence the debate itself does not really require an introduction. It is however still a relevant one, which has led in recent times to various conflicts in the intellectual, political and religious realms.

A number of popular books on the subject start by suggesting an intrinsic harmony between science and religion in general. There’s ‘Pathfinders – The Golden Age of Arabic Science’[1], authored by respected scientist, mathematician and physicist Jim al-Khalili[2], which discusses the development, definition, and application to astounding results, of early Arab, often Muslim scientists in the pre-modern era. A book by the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks[3], ‘The Great Partnership – God, Science and the Search for Meaning’[4], also seeks to demonstrate that, at least from within the Jewish tradition, there has been a necessary interdependency and healthy respect for science and all things scientific. Sacks also argues a necessary neurological and psychological relationship between the two methods and styles of thinking used by different sides of the brain.[5]

That’s not to say the other side of the debate hasn’t also been forcefully put forward by respected scientists and thinkers, all seeking to demonstrate the retarding effect that religion has had on people’s perceptions of reality, science, and even what they see as basic facts. Most well-known – or notorious depending on where you stand on the debate – is renowned author and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins[6] in his various books including ‘The God Delusion’[7]. Similarly on the socio-political level, we have contributions by the late thinker Christopher Hitchens[8] in his works including ‘God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’[9].

Whilst the debate and at times conflicts surrounding these issues did occur in what historically is described as the dark ages and subsequently the medieval times or pre-modern times; the level of debate and dispute among pre-modern Muslim theologians was actually less than the conflict we see today. This is arguably why we see efforts and books like Khalili’s, which arguably demonstrate that early Arabic science was deploying a scientific method that was on the whole institutionally supported by religiously-based empires or within societies which religion and religious values played a significant role. In this case, it means the Islamic faith as embraced by Muslim scholars within a strong religious society, including many not well known to agnostics and atheists.

In other words, an understanding of science, as a sub-branch of rational sciences with a rationalist philosophical approach (with noted exceptions) as the foundation for enquiry, was internalized within a part of the myriad of “ulūm”, collectively referred to as Islamic sciences. If not seen as a religious discipline in itself by some, it was often seen as a necessary discipline and a part of broader civilization in general. Hence Islam as understood by the many leading theologians placed scientific enquiry and knowledge derived there-from within such a context. The nature and extent of the conflict that we see played out today is something of a modern phenomenon, it’s causes best investigated elsewhere.[10] 

Defining terms as a means of conceptualizing science, scientific theory, and its relationship in or with Islam

Whilst it is common knowledge among scientists, the definition of scientific method and what is meant by science should be conceptualized here, before assessing their existence and acceptance or otherwise in classical or pre-modern Islam.

Science is defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica as ‘any of various intellectual activities concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and entailing an unbiased observation and systematic experimentation.’ The latter part of the definition actually defines the scientific method i.e. the unbiased approach to observing and recording, so that the observations maybe tested through reproducing the same experiment in another environment to ensure no bias; and systematic so that all factors are considered; and when reproducing the experiment and performed ceterus paribus i.e. all factors should be equal and the same, thereby not inadvertently affecting the results.

The explanation continues to define what it is that is being sought through such systematic observation and states ‘In general, a science involves the pursuit of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of fundamental laws'[11]. This then covers the aim (i.e. knowledge) and scope (i.e. general truths or universal laws or norms), covering all subject matters in this definition including social norms and laws, at least by definition, and also subjects which we commonly describe as sciences, (i.e. physical laws whether pertaining to: chemistry, biology and physics, and their sub branches that have evolved further from them.

Muslim history – scientists and scientific feats

Muslim history, scientists and scientific feats are not the focus of this essay. For exhaustive discussions of there, I refer to the recent works mentioned above. It is important to note, however, that they demonstrate that in pre-modern Muslim society there was a tolerance at least, if not an encouragement from political and imperial powers, for further theoretical and practical scientific development, whether related to mathematics, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geography (or geology to be more precise), and various aspects of physics and medicine including optics and study of light. [12]

Muslim theology and the Role of Science

There are various questions that we would need to look at and seek to answer, even if briefly, and assess in regards to pre-Muslim thought on theology, religion and the role of science. These would include, but not be restricted to, the following: How was science conceived? How was it, if it was at all internalized to Muslim theological discourse? How was it outweighed vis-à-vis scripture?

Regarding conceptualization and conception of science, with notable exceptions Muslim theologians were generally rationalists i.e. belonged to the rationalist school of philosophical enquiry. Ergo, they believed in the necessity of the priori postulate in order to conceptualize and understand and interpret any sensory reality or data. Therefore, they were more akin to the rationalist thinking being the foundation for their thought and even theology.

There were notable exceptions that discussed proofs and hierarchy of proofs that in connection with matters of creed. For example, when discussing what is evidence or rather proof for beliefs in the sense how does one arrive at basic truths, and knowledge which can form basic creedal beliefs, the list begins with darūriyāt – rational necessities or priori truths; followed by ihsās or sensed truths i.e. observations; and then mention of khabr or riwāya i.e. transmitted information or reports e.g. revelation in the Qur’an or prophetic sayings or transmitted facts like for example the existence of a distant city.

This is in most works of Muslim theology when discussing creed and beliefs and in what is often described by Muslim scholars as the definitive and final summation of sunni creed in Aqīdah al-Nasafī[13] and it’s well known commentary Shar’h al-Taftazâni – the explanation of Sa’d al-Din al-Taftazāni[14] of the creed[15]. This is a work which is considered a classic in the genre and an “orthodox” transmission of the creed.[16] Rational and sensory knowledge is given priority over all other sciences, including narration. The text states that mere “spiritual illumination” or “ilhām” is not a proof.

Furthermore, it is explained that this is the case due to the rational beliefs forming the foundations of the dogma i.e. one believes in God not because of scripture but because one is rationally convinced. Hence this is the first root or means of belief. Rejecting rational truths would therefore lead to rejecting rationality as the basis for belief, which is the foundation upon which faith in the scripture and God relies, thereby invalidating faith in God and the scripture as they branch off from the root or foundational belief. This is a principle discussed by all major medieval theologians, whether the likes of Juwaynī or Fakhr al-Razī and Ash’arite theologians. This is stated in no uncertain terms by al-Zahāwī, in his refutation of the puritanical reformist Salafi/Wahabi movement in the work ‘the True Dawn'[17].

This though does not specifically deal with science and the scientific methodology, though it established two components: necessary priori concepts and rational enquiry, and sensory observation. These two components take precedence even over transmitted textual evidence and scripture.

It also establishes the supremacy of the rationality over literal interpretations of scripture, and at times scripture itself, within orthodox and classical pre-modern theology. This should help demonstrate that this is not a “reformist” modern trend, or something alien to the tradition. This does not mean that this was universal, but it was the established position. And different authorities in theology dealt with these matters with slight differences in emphasis, hierarchy, albeit this was the prevalent view and even predominant attitude.

There were various extensions of this in understanding the role of the scientific approach and experimentation. To give examples from two well-known and famous pre-modern authors who also add to the list of sources of knowledge experimentation, include the theologian of what people today view as a conservative and scripturalist school, due to its association with Saudi Arabian puritanical Wahabism, the jurist ofthe Hanbali school of Islamic law or fiqh. The major scholar Ibn Qudāma al-Maqdisī [18] who authored a text on fundamental principles of Islamic law (usūl ul-fiqh), in which he stated in addition to the intellect, that knowledge is also acquired through observation and “tajriba” “experimentation”. This outlined in general the abstraction of knowledge through observation and recording of experimental data as a basis for knowledge, which was a source of definitive knowledge, which took precedence over speculative interpretation ‘Zann’ or over analysis from scripture[19]. The discussion is summarized from Imam al-Ghazali’s Mustasfa fi Ilm ul-Usul[20], the well-known scholar, theologian, sufi, and jurist. al-Ghazali[21] was given the title Hujjat al-Islam – literally the proof of Islam, as he embodied the revival of the religious sciences in their whole, including theology, and jurisprudence (fiqh) and the principles of law (usūl).

Another major authority in Islamic legal maxims (Qawa’id) and in fact a pioneer in defining the science of maxims of law as opposed to source principles was al-Imām al-Izz bin Abdul Salām.[22] Interestingly he took the philosophical principle further. He stated that worldly interests i.e. that which is beneficial for mankind and their interests and that which is harmful both physically and morally, could also be known in almost all cases through rational and scientific enquiry. The distinction would be known, he states by: ‘bil-tajārib wa-adāt'[23] meaning ‘through experimentation and established customs/rules’. This is a little explored area but essentially he stated that this would be in almost all matters of public interests, and only the odd religious conflict would occur on matters that were supra-rational, and therefore covered by an explicit religious injunction which is not rational, mainly in matters of worships. This actually subjects not only beliefs and knowledge in creed i.e. theology proper to rational and scientific enquiry, but interestingly social values and societal interests i.e. rules and ethics concerning social lives should also be rational and subject to scientific enquiry.


Whilst this is by no means a comprehensive survey of the literature, it is to sufficient to demonstrate the rationalist basis, which was embraced included one of its methods pf learning, the scientific method, observed facts, and science as a means of knowledge. Whilst it is beyond the scope to examine cases where this did take place in Islamic history in the works of scholars such as Ibn Hazm (456AH1054CE), the so-called literalist (Dhāhirī), by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzi[24] (540AH 1149CE), an orthodox Ash’arīte, and Imām Abū Bakr al-Jassās (died 370AH 980CE), who was a major scholar belonging to the Hanafi rite, exemplify this. It must be emphasized here that historically, literalist and orthodox theologians have concurred on eminently rational and scientific positions and arguments in their relevant commentaries of the Qur’an and legal works, rejecting the superstitious, ideas such as magic, demon possession, and establishing the spherical nature of the Earth – the above names are just a few who took these positions, and crucially, interpreted scripture in light of those rational beliefs (some may say today ‘facts’). 

This should further substantiate not only the scientific heritage, and achievements, but also that there was no intractable conflict between the rational and scientific and the religious realms of thought, though much debate, amongst pre-modern Muslim scholars on the topic of science and religion. The scientific approach did not threaten Muslims reading of scripture in pre-modern times, unlike what we see in some circles today.  

[1] ‘Pathfinders – The Golden Age of Arabic Science’, Penguin books 2010, England, Jim al-Khalili.

[2] Jim al-Khalili is a professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Surrey and also holds the chair in Public Engagement in Science, and has been awarded the Royal Society’s Michael Faraday Prize for Science Communication in 2007, and an OBE in 2008. A popular broadcaster and author.

[3] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has authored 18 books including ‘the Dignity of Difference’ and ‘Future Tense’ as well as the mentioned text. A broadcaster who regularly comments on intellectual and political matters on Radio 4.

[4] ‘The Great Partnership – God, Science and the Search for Meaning’, Hodder & Stoughton 2001, UK, Jonathan Sacks.

[5] The author had the opportunity to attend the book launch of ‘The Great Partnership’ where there was an exchange of ideas and perspectives between Jim al-Khalili and the Rabbi Sacks, where the atheist Khalili demonstrated a rather more positive approach to religion in the contribution that it made to values and science and interestingly than Sacks who spoke of the scientific distinction between brain functions, which were related to scientific and clinical thought and the imaginative and values/narrative side, functioning as two necessary parts of the brain. 

[6] Richard Dawkins a respected scientist who has won numerous awards, and taught at Oxford university and authored many books, the first of which ‘The Selfish Gene’ has been translated into many languages.

[7] ‘The God Delusion’, Transworld Paperbacks 2007, Richard Dawkins.

[8] Christopher Hitchens was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, a professor of liberal studies at theNew School in New York and prolific author, polemicist and intellectual. His books included ‘Why Orwell Matters’ and ‘Thomas Jefferson Author of America’. 

[9] ‘God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’, Atlantic Books 2007, US, Christopher Hitchens.

[10] Khalili however does discuss some of the factors for this in society at large and also ideas related to what is needed in Muslim/Arab majority countries to reverse the trend of the shift and lack of scientific progress and achievement which he documents with statistical data in his book, in chapters 15 and 16 ‘Decline and Renaissance’ and ‘Science and Islam today’.

[11] Page 552, Volume 10, Micropaedia, ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’ 1990

[12] Again I would refer to Khalili’s book for more details where he documents, and assesses and critiques claims of individual contributions made by various historic figures.

[13] Aqīdah al-Nasafī named after the author – Abū Hafs Umar al-Nasafī died in the year 537AH i.e. in the Muslim Calendar correlating to 1142CE. Elder goes as far as stating that the text has the place of catechisms and confessions in Christianity i.e. core statements of creed, in his introduction page xix (the introduction is numbered in Roman Numerals unlike the rest of the text.

[14] Sa’d al-Din Taftazānī born in 722AH 1322CE and was described by the polymath and well known scholar Ibn Khaldun as “[h]e was well versed in the philosophical sciences and far advanced in the rest of the sciences that deal with reason.” Introduction page xxi of Elder’s translation of the text.

[15] The text is available in English as ‘A Commentary on the Creed of Islam Sa’d al-Din al-Taftazani on the creed of Najm al-Din al-Nasafi – translated with introduction and notes by Earl Edgar Elder’ Columbia University Press – New York 1950, Great Britain, Canada and India published in the United States.

[16] See Elder’s introduction to the above text.

[17] Zahāwī is Shaykh Jamāl Effendi al-Sidqi al-Zahāwī born in 1836, an Iraqi scholar, editor of al-Zawra historian, theologian, and writer and author of modern day Iraqi origin. ‘The Doctrine of Ahl al-Sunna Versus the “Salafi” movement’ Jamal Effendi al-Iraqi al-Sidqi al-Zahawi translated by Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, As-Sunna Foundation 1996, US.  

[18] Abū Muhammad Abdullāh Ibn Ahmad Ibn Qudāma al-Maqdisī born in 541AH 1147CE, major author and scholar in Hanbali law proper and theory or usul as it is known.

[19] Rawdat ul-Nāzir wa Junnat ul-Manāzir, section on ‘Ilm’, knowledge. The text is yet to be translated into English but has several popular publications in Arabic.

[20] Mustasfā fī Ilm ul-Usūl, Dar ul-Arqām, Beirut-Lebanon 1999, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. See section on Ilm/Knowledge. Partial translation is available at ‘al-Ghazali’s webiste’ –

[21] Imām Abū Hamīd al-Ghazālī born 450AH 1058CE, was a major figure whose writings in creed, methodology, principles and law proper are the mainstay of the Shafi school thereafter, and in creed and principles studied and commented upon by all schools. His last major work is said to be al-Mustasfā fī ilm ul-Usūl on the science of Usūl or principles of Islamic law which form the foundation of deriving beliefs and laws in Islam.

[22] Sultân ul-Ulemā Imām al-Izz ibn Abdul Salām born 578AH 1182 CEwas a considered a major scholar who was considered an absolute authority (Mujtahid mutlaq) a level acknowledged to have been reached by very few in traditional Islamic circles. He authored several books on Islamic maxims and even summarized his own, of which the referred text is a summary of his own work – Qawā’id ul-Anām fī-Masālih ul-Ahkām. 

[23] Page 109, ‘Mukhtasar al-Fawā’id fil-Ahkām ul-Maqāsid – al-Ma’rūf bil-Qawā’id al-Sughra’, Dar ibn al-Jawzi 2009, Saudi Arabia/Cairo/Beirut, Imām al-Izz ibn Abdul Salām 

[24] A fascinating study of the works and thought of Fakhr al-Din al-Rāzī is available in the English language titled ‘Theology and Tafsir in the Major works of Fakh al-Din al-Rāzī’ which explores some his scientific and philosophical contributions, and analysis of Qur’ān through scientific lens’ related to astronomy, and also matters such as demon possession and magic (which he rejects as do the others mentioned in their various works) and other such issues. It is published by ISTAC in Malaysia (1996), authored by Yasin Ceylan.