Science and Muslims: Myths & clichés

Written by Muhammad Umer Thursday, 15 August 2013 19:40

Caliph al-Hadi put to death in Baghdad 5,000 philosophers in order to destroy sciences in Muslim countries. Be it the brutal treatment of liberal scholars or an ideological war against rationality waged by people like Ghazali, Islam and the Quran were always at the service of fanatic mullahs. No matter how hard people like Dr Mehmood, Hossein Nasar or Ziauddin Sardar try to prove it, Islamic science never existed

The Muslim world for more than the past thousand years is infested with the menace of anti-rationalism. Muslim society in general is trapped in a state of denial. It is averse to any kind of rational quest and ridden with the burden of traditions and has lost its will and ability to do science. In the words of noted Pakistani scientist and activist, Dr. Hoodbhoy, it is “inescapably trapped in a state of frozen medievalism”[1].

How did we reach this point? This is a question which haunts many thinking human beings, both Muslims and non-Muslims. Worst of all: there have been very few significant efforts at recovery and to make this part of humanity more rational and receptive to new ideas fit for living in this age of space exploration, nano-scale technologies and gene therapy. While it is true that the West went through a similar period of anti-rationalism, those dark ages are long over.

It is a favourite pastime for many of our Pakistani fellows to take pride in achievements of the past and claim ascendency over all the other ‘nations’ on the basis of some inventions of the seventh and eighth centuries. An inquiry into history is required if we are to determine whether


Science and Muslims: Myths & clichés
Written by Muhammad Umer Thursday, 15 August 2013 19:40

this pride is justified. Moreover, there are several related questions in need of rational analysis. To what extent did Muslims contribute to the development of modern science? Was the religion of Islam a driving force behind their intellectual quests or on the contrary was it a repressive force.

Islam originated among the Arab Bedouins, a superstitious, traditional tribal society for whom the height of intellectual activity was lengthy poems and storytelling. They had very little to do with science, philosophy and higher learning. Scroll through the list of Muslim scientists, and you find very few names hailing from Hejaz, the birthplace of Islam. The universities that attracted thousands from around the world were not built in Mecca or Medina. Rather it was to Baghdad and later southern Spain, where scholars flocked. It would be an outright injustice to the ancient civilizations that prospered in conquered areas centuries before Arab Muslims took over, to attribute all the cultural and scientific achievements in these regions to Muslims alone. Iranian civilization dates back to 4000 BC. Mesopotamia, widely considered as the cradle of civilization, was comprised of modern day Iraq and parts of Syria and Turkey. The economic prosperity and stability brought by the Arab conquests only provided suitable conditions in which these ancient civilizations revived themselves and reached new heights.

The brief period of intellectual development that Muslims enjoyed was influenced by these ancient civilizations, not by the new religion of Arab Bedouins. Islam as a religion had little to do with this. First, the civilizations that existed were Arab, Iranian, Indian etc or a mixture of these. There was nothing which can be termed, “Islamic civilization”. Secondly, of all the contributions Muslims made to science and philosophy, the Arab Bedouins of Hijaz hold a negligible share, even in theology. People hailing from areas like Persia and Mesopotamia, home to centuries old civilizations with a long history of scholarship and learning, were always at the forefront. One cannot simply throw aside the influence their history had on these men.

Scientific discoveries never happen out of the blue. They are built upon works accomplished in the past. Muslim science was inspired by the works of the Greeks, Indians and Iranians etc. Although Muslims did achieve some important developments in various fields of knowledge, they were a continuation of the works of scholars of ancient times. Muslims take pride in the fact that certain books written by Muslim thinkers were included in curricula across Europe for many centuries. However we forget to mention that in their time, Muslim scientists and scholars learned from books written by Greeks and philosophers of other nations. Khalid bin Yazid, the grandson of Mua’wiya, Muhammad’s famous companion and 5 th Caliph in Muslim history, is considered to be among the first Muslim alchemists. Tradition has it that he left his home in Damascus at the age of twenty and set out for Alexandria. Here he met his teacher Morienus, a Christian hermit of Jerusalem and learned the art of alchemy from him. Morienus was a protégé of Stephanus of Alexandria, a prominent Greek in the field of alchemy known for his famous work “On the Great and Sacred Art of Making Gold” [2].


Science and Muslims: Myths & clichés
Written by Muhammad Umer Thursday, 15 August 2013 19:40

Another important fact, mostly overlooked by modern day Muslims, is that non-Muslims residing in areas of Muslim influence also contributed in a huge way to these advancements. Some of the most famous translators of Greek to Arabic belonged to Christians of a Nestorian sect and Sabians [3]. Baramika, who introduced Indian medicine and mathematics to Bait-ul Hikmah, was an Indian Buddhist. A well known “Muslim” scientist “Al-Khwarzimi” is reported to be Zoroastrian by the famous historian Al Tabri.

A recent phenomenon is the claim that science originates from the Quran. This implies the argument that the Quran foretold all scientific discoveries and inventions, and that we should take inspiration from Quranic teachings for future scientific endeavors. An example of the first is   the French surgeon Maurice Bucaille, who tried to prove that Quran foretold embryology 1400 years ago. An example of the second is Dr. Bashiruddin Mehmood, a Pakistani scientist from country’s prestigious Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC), who argued that as Djins are made of fire as told in the Quran, we should capture them and produce electricity from them. The fact is that no matter how hard people like Dr Mehmood, Hossein Nasar or Ziauddin Sardar try to prove it, Islamic science never existed.

It is interesting to note that hardly any of the so-called Muslim scientists of medieval years ever tried to prove the authenticity of Islam and Quran on the basis of their findings. Or to put it another way, no one among these scientists ever ventured to substantiate the current dogmas and beliefs with their findings. The exact opposite was almost always true. If their findings did not agree with the current set of beliefs, they proposed a new set of beliefs, new theories and interpretations. They believed more in the scientific method of inquiry than subjugating rational discourse to narrow interpretations of religious texts.

The treatment meted out to these scientists is another point of concern. Muslims of today take pride in these medieval men without knowing how they were treated in their times. They were persecuted, jailed and tortured. They were silenced and rejected, their books were burnt and they were charged with blasphemy, heresy and apostasy. Some were killed. Ideologues like Ghazali, Taj-ad-Din-as-Subki and Ibn-as-Salah were there to provide a quasi-rational justification of this treatment. Hardly any proud Muslim knows the extent of this oppression. The list of ill-treated persons of letters is in no way short. Jamal-ud din Afghani wrote in one of his letters to the French scholar Renan: “AI-Sayuti tells that the Caliph al-Hadi put to death in Baghdad 5,000 philosophers in order to destroy sciences in Muslim countries down to their roots. Admitting that this historian exaggerated the number of victims, it remains nonetheless established that this persecution took place, and it is a bloody stain for the history of a religion as it is for the history of a people” [4].


Science and Muslims: Myths & clichés
Written by Muhammad Umer Thursday, 15 August 2013 19:40

The famous physician Al Razi was blinded by the torture he received. Andalusian polymath Ibn-e Rushd was tied to a post outside the central mosque and people were asked to spit on his face [5]. Al- Kindi received 50 lashes before a cheering crowd and Ibn-e-Sina had to spend a major portion of his life in hiding or on the run in order to avoid persecution. A nation with a history of persecuting their freethinkers cannot take pride in these men unless they openly disown and denounce their persecutors. On the contrary, ideological descendents of those persecuting mullahs still dominate the Muslim intellectual arena while heirs to the philosophies of these rationalists are still being hounded and cornered.

Let us now look at the question we asked earlier. How did we reach this point? A SESRIC (The Statistical, Economic and Social Research and Training Centre for Islamic Countries) report indicates that in OIC countries, there are only 649 researchers per million people compared to the world average of 2,532. Of the total money spent on R&D around the world, the share of OIC countries is less than 2%, in spite of the fact that many of OIC countries are oil rich. Only two Muslim scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize to date and the share of all the OIC countries in high technology exports is a little above 4%, less than the share of the Republic of Korea alone (above 6%) [6].

But before asking this question, let’s ponder a related question. Was Muslim society ever science friendly? Rapid and widespread conquests by Muslim armies brought economic prosperity, which engendered a leisure class free from the burden of mundane tasks. It was this class which had the time and resources to pursue higher learning. Receptiveness to rationality was restricted to these classes and did not penetrate the masses more influenced by fundamentalist theologians than these freethinkers. Throughout history these orthodox theologians despised the liberal scholars. Pages of history books are still stained with pro-freewill Qadarites. It depended on who ruled at a particular time. A liberal and open-minded ruler would honor these thinkers at his courts but as soon as a more conservative ruler took over, these faced oppression. The most convenient weapon in the hands of their persecutors was the religion of Islam itself. With this weapon at their disposal it was never difficult for hardliners to impress upon a favorable ruler and gather the masses behind them. When mullahs declared Ibn-e-Rushd a heretic, and later asked people to spit on his face, people willingly followed the judgment of the hardliners. No one from among the masses was there to support this great philosopher of all times. No matter how much scientific and philosophical advancements medieval Muslims achieved, society in general never really assimilated or internalized rational discourse. Muslim society in general remained under the clout of more literal traditionalist interpretations of Quran and any efforts at reinterpreting Quran on a rational basis were brutally suppressed.


Science and Muslims: Myths & clichés
Written by Muhammad Umer Thursday, 15 August 2013 19:40

Contrary to Muslims’ claims, Islam was never a driving force behind scientific discoveries. Proponents of ‘Islamic Science’ who happily make reference to a couple of Quranic ayah about learning and exploring the universe as a driving force behind scientific discoveries, look the other way or shout “out of context” when a similar parallel is drawn between Quranic injunctions about killing the infidels and the current wave of terrorism.

Except for a couple of inventions like sundial clocks, their origin and motives behind the inventions is still debated. Islam seldom played any role in any of scientific discoveries. Neither did it play any such role in the 7 th or 8 th centuries nor will it in the 21 st or the centuries to come. Quite opposite to claims of proponents of ‘Islamic Science’, Islam was always used as a tool of oppression. Be it the brutal treatment of liberal scholars or an ideological war against rationality waged by people like Ghazali. Islam and the Quran were always at the service of fanatic mullahs. The nineteenth century Muslim thinker and pragmatist Syed Jamaluddin Afghani, who himself was a fierce opponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution, at least admitted to this shameful truth. He once wrote: “In truth, the Muslim religion has tried to stifle science and stop its progress. It has thus succeeded in halting the philosophical or intellectual movement and in turning minds from the search for scientific truth” [7].


[1]. P.A. Hoodbhoy. Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy & the Battle for Rationality (1991) p. 1

2. J. Eberly. Al-Kimia: The Mystical Islamic Essence of the Sacred Art of Alchemy (2005) pp. 10-12

3. A. J. Sabra. 'Greek Science In Islam', History Qf Science'. XXV. (1987), p. 223

4. Syed Jamaluddin Afghani in 'Reponse de Jamal ad-Din aI-Afghani it Renan', quoted in Nikkie R. Keddie, An Islamic Response to Imperialism, (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1983), p. 187.


Science and Muslims: Myths & clichés
Written by Muhammad Umer Thursday, 15 August 2013 19:40

5. M. Z. Virk, Ibn-e-Rushd

6. Research and Scientific Development in OIC Countries, SESRIC, 2010

7. Answer of Jamal al-Din to Renan, Journal des Débats, 18 May 1883, quoted in Nikkie R. Keddie, Imperialism, Science and Religion: Two Essays by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, 1883 and 1884.

Muhammad Umer is a freelance writer currently doing his PhD in Biotechnology at National Institute for


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