Religion and Islamic Studies

Religious Belief and Scientific Belief

"Are those who know and those who do not know equal!?" (Qur'an 39:9)

What we tend nowadays to call "science" in the narrow or strict sense covers the latest developments and discoveries in the mathematical, physical, and biological sciences. Yet the expression continues to be used in a wider sense, one that covers our contemporary social sciences and occasionally human sciences (including perhaps the science of religion) as well. If, when speaking of the Islamic perspective on, or conception of, religious belief, scientific belief, and the relation between them, we mean to address the entire Islamic tradition, we will invariably be faced with an impossible task. To do this successfully, we would have to start from the Qur'an and go through Islamic history century by century, if not generation by generation, and see how the Qur'anic perspective was realized by the Muslim community in diverse regions and disciplines. This process would reveal what tensions and conflicts arose, how these were resolved, and what happened when the Muslim world was faced with the adoption of what we now call "science."

Putting this task aside, we can perhaps touch on a few points in that long and complex history. First of all, we will speak briefly of the Qur'anic perspective and then say a few words about how the different sciences, when developed, were organized into a general scheme of human knowledge and how this organization implies a certain view of the relation between religious belief and scientific belief. This talk will conclude with the raising of some questions regarding what we understand by the term "Islamic science" when we use it as a historical or classificatory notion.

The Qur'anic Perspective

The Arabic expressions in the Qur'an that are used to signify mental discipline and usually translated into English as "science" are primarily two: 'ilm, normally rendered as "science" or "knowledge" (a faculty of sciences is regularly called kulliyat al 'ulum in Arabic, 'ulum being the plural of 'ilm) and hikmah, normally tendered as "wisdom." To begin with science or knowledge,’ one cannot but be struck by the frequency with which words derived from the root ‘-l-m, from which ‘ilm is derived, in the Qur’an. They appear with such persistence that one is forced to teach the conclusion that this is one of the key notions in the Qur’an and therefore of Islam itself. A Muslim hearing or reading the Qur’an can have little doubt that its constant repetition is meant to impress on him/her that this is a matter of great import for one’s salvation. There can remain no doubt in the mind of a non-Muslim reading the Qur’an and observing the emphasis placed on this expression that science or knowledge is meant to occupy a central place in Islam.

The presence and importance in a revealed book, which itself holds a central position in the religion, of an expression that is normally perceived as related to secular matters appears as something unnatural to a student of the history of religion. It seems rather unexpected and remarkable, something in need of an explanation, especially since this kind of stress on science or knowledge is not found in the Bible. One is tempted to look for an explanation in the immediate environment, in the cradle of Islam, the heart of the Arabian peninsula and neighboring regions, where Jewish, Christian, Mandean, and other gnostics can be located.

The correspondence between some of the senses of ‘ilm and the Greek term gnosis tempts one to think of possible influences that may explain this Qur’anic phenomenon. Such a hypothesis appears useful because of the extremely limited role played by science or knowledge in pagan pre-Islamic Arabia, where one would normally look for the source or inspiration of this unusual Qur’anic emphasis. But since our knowledge of preIslamic Arabia, including its relations with neighboring regions, in such matters is far from perfect, such a hypothesis is no more than a wild guess. For, perhaps precisely the absence of any interest in and concern for science or knowledge (or the prevalence of ignorance, in that “age of ignorance” [jahiliyyah]),” in the immediate environment in the cradle of Islam was the reason for its emphasis. This would be similar to the case of the Qur’anic emphasis on God’s unity, as the prevailing norm was certain types of polytheism, against which Islam rebelled. In any case, the remarkably persistent presence of science or knowledge in the Qur’an is echoed by the Prophet, who called himself the city of knowledge: “I am the city of knowledge (madinat al ‘ilm) and ‘Ali is its gate.”

The word hikmah, usually rendered as "wisdom," is derived from the root h-k-m, which expresses something like practical judgment or practical wisdom, the kind of activity associated with decisions made by a judge or ruler (it is understood that this kind of juridical, administrative, military, or political wisdom requites previous experience and knowledge, as well as the ability to make the right decision in particular cases). Thus, wisdom in the sense of practical judgment, perhaps because it has to do with the most important of human affairs, is said to be more than mere science or knowledge: it serves the purpose of science or knowledge-the making of well-constructed or well-fitted (muhkam) things (the physician, because of his healing art, is thus popularly called hakim ) , as well as pursuing right human conduct and the right way of life.

Wisdom is distinguished from science or knowledge in another way: as comprehensive knowledge of things human and divine, especially the latter, or knowledge of the most important things, and thus distinguished from specialized knowledge and trivial knowledge. In this respect, the distinction between hikmah and 'ilm, which have been tendered as wisdom and science or knowledge, respectively, is comparable to the distinction between sophia and episteme in Greek and between sspientia and scientia in Latin. It so happens that in the case of Greek literature translated into Arabic, sophia (i.e., the knowledge of things human and divine) was occasionally translated falsafah (i.e., philosophy). Thus, wisdom and philosophy were in some cases used to mean the same thing: knowledge of the remote causes of things or knowledge of the highest things. When used to mean different things, wisdom reverted to its original sense of practical wisdom or else referred to a particular science or art. Hence the use of the expressions "highest wisdom" and "wisdom of wisdom" to mean the highest science and science of sciences.

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