Islam & Science

Ash-hadu an-la ilaha illallahu wa ash-hadu anna Muhammadan abduhu wa rasuluhu.
Awuzu billahi min ash-shaitanir rajim.
Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim.

by Professor Abdus Salam

Part I

1. The Holy Quran and Science

Let me say at the outset that I am both a believer as well as a practising Muslim. I am a Muslim because I believe in the spiritual message of the Holy Quran. As a scientist, the Quran speaks to me in that it emphasises reflection on the Laws of Nature, with examples drawn from cosmology, physics, biology and medicine, as signs for all men. Thus

“Can they not look up to the clouds, how they are created; and to the Heaven how it is upraised; and the mountains how they are rooted, and to the earth how it is outspread ?” (88: 17)

and again,

“Verily in the creation of the heavens and of the earth, and in the alternation of the night and of the day, are there signs for men of understanding. ” (3: 189-190)

Seven hundred and fifty verses of the Quran -(almost one eighth of the Book) -“exhort believers to study Nature, to reflect, to make the best use of reason in their search for the ultimate and to make the acquiring of knowledge and scientific comprehension part of the community ‘s life”. The Holy Prophet of Islam (Peace be on him) emphasised that the quest for knowledge and sciences is obligatory upon every Muslim, man and woman.

This is the first premise on scientific knowledge with which any fundamentalist thinking in Islam must begin. Add to this the second premise – eloquently reinforced by Maurice Bucaille in his essay on “The Bible, the Quran and Science”. There is not a single verse in the Quran where natural phenomena are described and which contradicts what we know for certain from our discoveries in sciences.

Add to this the third premise: in Islamic history there has been no incident like that of Galileo. Persecution, excommunication (takfeer), which unfortunately continues even today over doctrinal differences, but not, to my knowledge, directly for scientific beliefs. [1]

2. Modern Science, A Greco- Islamic Legacy

How seriously did the early Muslims take these injunctions in the Holy Quran and of the Holy Prophet?

Barely a hundred years after the Prophet’s death, the Muslims had made it their task to master the then-known sciences. Founding institutes of advanced study (Bait-ul-Hikmas), they acquired an absolute ascendancy in the sciences that lasted for the next 350 years.

An aspect of reverence for the sciences in Islam was the patronage they enjoyed in the Islamic Commonwealth. To paraphrase what H.A.R. Gibb has written in the context of literature:

“To a greater extent than elsewhere, the flowering of the sciences in Islam was conditional. ..on the liberality and patronage of those in high positions. So long as, in one capital or another, princes and ministers found pleasure, profit or reputation in patronising the sciences, the torch was kept burning”.

The Golden Age of Science in Islam was doubtless the Age around the year 1000 CE, the Age of Ibn-i-Sina (Avicenna), the last of the mediaevalists, and of his contemporaries, the first of the moderns, Ibn-al-Haitham and Al Biruni.

Ibn-al-Haitham (A1hazen, 965-1039 CE) was one of the greatest physicists of all time. He made experimental contributions of the highest order in optics. He “enunciated that a ray of light, in passing through a medium, takes the path which is tlie easier and ‘quicker’. [2] In this he was anticipating Fermat’s Principle of Least Time by many centuries.

He enunciated the law of inertia, later to become Newton’s first law of motion. Part V of Roger Bacon’s “Opus Majus ” is practically an annotation to Ibn al Haitham’s Optics. [3]

Al Biruni (973 -1048 CE), Ibn-i-Sina’s second illustrious contemporary, worked in today’s Afghanistan. He was an empirical scientist like Ibn-al-Haitham; as modern and as unmediaeval in outlook as Galileo, six centuries later .

There is no question that western science is a Greco-Islamic legacy. However, it is commonly alleged that Islamic Science was a derived science, that Muslim scientists followed the Greek theoretical tradition blindly and added nothing to the scientific method.

This statement is false. Listen to this assessment of Aristotle by Al Biruni:

“The trouble with most people is their extravagance in respect of Aristotle’s opinions, they believe that there is no possibility of mistakes in his views, though they know that he was only theorising to the best of his capacity”.

Or Al Biruni on mediaeval superstition:

“People say that on the 6th {of January) there is an hour during which all salt water of the earth gets sweet. Since all the qualities occurring in the water depend exclusively upon the nature of the soil. ..these qualities are of a stable nature. ..Therefore this statement. entirely unfounded. Continual and leisurely experimentation will show to anyone the futility of this assertion”.

And finally, Al Biruni on geology, with this insistence on observation:

“. ..But if you see the soil of India with your own eyes and meditate on its nature, if you consider the rounded stones found in earth however deeply you dig, stones that are huge near the mountains and where the rivers have a violent current: stones that are of smaller size at a greater distance from the mountains and where the streams flow more slowly: stones that appear pulverised in the shape of sand where the streams begin to stagnate near their mouths and near the sea -if you consider all this you can scarcely help thinking that India was once a sea, which by degrees has been filled up by the alluvium o f the streams”.

In Briffault’s words: [3]

“The Greeks systematised, generalised, and theorised, but the patient ways of detailed and prolonged observation and experimental inquiry were altogether alien to the Greek temperament. ..What we call science arose as a result of new methods of experiment, observation, and measurement, which were introduced into Europe by the Arabs. ..(Modern) science is the most momentous contribution of the Islamic civilisation …”.

These thoughts are echoed by George Sarton, the great historian of science:

“The main, as well as the least obvious, achievement of the Middle Ages was the creation of the experimental spirit and this was primarily due to the Muslims down to the 12th century”.

One of the tragedies of history is that this dawning of the modern spirit in sciences was interrupted; it did not lead to a permanent change of direction in scientific methodology .Barely a hundred years after Al Biruni and lbn-al-Haitham worked, creation of high science in Islam effectively came to a halt. Mankind had to wait 500 years before the same level of maturity and the same insistence on observation and experimentation was reached once again with Tycho Brahe, Galileo and their contemporaries.

3. The Decline of Sciences in Islam

Why did creative science die out in Islamic civilisation? This decline, which began around 1100 CE, was nearly complete two hundred and fifty years later .

No one knows for certain why this happened. There were indeed external causes, like the devastation caused by the Mongol invasion. In my view however, the demise of living science within the Islamic commonwealth had started much earlier. It was due much more to internal causes -firstly, the inward-turning and the isolation of our scientific enterprise and secondly -and in the main -of active discouragement to innovation (taqlid). The later parts of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries in Islam (when this decline began) were periods of intense politically-motivated, sectarian, and religious strife. Even though a man like Imam Ghazali, writing around 1100 CE, could say “A grievous crime indeed against religion has been committed by a man who imagines that Islam is defended by the denial of the mathematical sciences, seeing that there is nothing in these sciences opposed to the truth of religion”, the temper of the age had turned away from creative science, either to Sufism with its other worldliness or to a rigid orthodoxy with a lack of tolerance (taqlid) for innovation (ijtihad-), in all fields of learning – including the sciences.

Does this situation persist today? Are we encouraging scientific research and inquiry?

Of the major civilisations on this planet, science is the weakest in the Islamic Commonwealth. Unfortunately, some of us Muslims believe that while technology is basically neutral, and that its excesses can be tempered through an adherence to the moral precepts of Islam, science -on the contrary – is value-loaded. It is believed that modern science must lead to “rationalism”, and eventually apostacy; that scientifically trained men among us will “deny the metaphysical presuppositions of our culture”.

Leaving aside the fact that high technology can not flourish without high science and also leaving aside the insult to the “presuppositions of our culture” for implied fragility, I believe that such an attitude towards science is a legacy of the battles of yesterday when the so-called “rational philosophers”, with their irrational and dogmatic belief in the cosmological doctrines they had inherited from Aristotle found difficulties in reconciling these with their faith.

One must remind oneself that such battles were waged even more fiercely among the Christian schoolmen of the Middle Ages. The problems which concerned the schoolmen were mainly problems of cosmology and metaphysics: “Is the world located in an immobile place; Does God move the primum mobile directly and actively as an efficient cause, or only as a final or ultimate cause? Are all the heavens moved by one mover or several? Do celestial movers experience  exhaustion or fatigue?” When Galileo tried, first to classify those among the problems, which legitimately belonged to the domain of physics, and then to find answers only to those through physical experimentation, he was persecuted.

This persecution damaged the progress of science in Italy at least till the eighteenth century. Ideological restitution for this however, is being made now, three hundred and fifty years later. At a special ceremony in the Vatican on 9 May 1983, His Holiness the Pope John Paul II, declared:

“The Church’s experience, during the Galileo affair and after it, has led to a more mature attitude. ..The Church herself learns by experience and reflection and she now understands better the meaning that must be given to freedom of research. ..It is through research that man attains to Truth. ..This is why the Church is convinced that there can be no real contradiction between science and faith. ..(However ), it is only through humble and assiduous study that (the Church) learns to dissociate the essential of the faith from the systems of a given age”.

4. The Limitations of Science

In the remarks I have quoted, the Pope stressed the maturity which the Church had reached in dealing with science; he could equally have emphasised the converse -the recognition by the scientists from Galileo’s times onwards, of the limitations of their disciplines -the recognition that there are questions which are beyond the ken of present or even future sciences and that “Science has achieved its success by restricting itself to a certain type of inquiry”. And even in this restricted area the scientist of today knows when and where he is speculating; he would claim no finality for the associated modes of thought. In physics, this happened twice in the beginning of this century, first with the discovery of relativity of time and space, and secondly with quantum theory. It could happen again.

Take Einstein’s discovery of relativity of time. It appears incredible that the length of a time interval -the age one lives -depends on one’s speed -that the faster we move the longer we appear to live to someone who is not moving with us. And this is not a figment of one’s fancy. Come to the particle physics laboratories of CERN at Geneva which produce short-lived particles like muons, and make a record of the intervals of time which elapse before muons of different speeds decay into electrons and neutrinos. The faster muons take longer to die, the slower ones die early. Incredible but true.

Einstein’s ideas on time and space brought about a revolution in the physicist’s thinking. We had to abandon our earlier modes of thought in physics. In this context, it always surprises me that the professional philosopher who in the nineteenth century and earlier used to consider space and time as his special preserve has somehow failed to erect any philosophical systems based on Einstein’s notions so far!

The second and potentially the more explosive revolution in thought came in 1926 with Heisenberg’s discovery of limitation on our knowledge. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle affirms that while experiments can be made to discover where the electron is, these experiments will then destroy any possibility of finding simultaneously whether the electron is moving and if so at what speed. There is an inherent limitation fu our knowledge, which appears to have been decreed “il:’ the nature of things”. I shudder to think that what might have happened to Heisenberg if he was born in the Middle Ages -just what theological battles might have raged on the question whether there was a like limitation on the knowledge possessed by God.

As it was, battles were fought, but within the twentieth century physics community. Heisenberg’s revolutionary thinking -supported by all known experiments -has not been accepted by all physicists. The most illustrious physicist of all times, Einstein, spent the best part of his life trying to find flaws in Heisenberg ‘s arguments. He could not gainsay the experimental evidence -but hope was entertained that such evidence may perhaps be explained within a different theoretical framework. Such framework has not been found; but no one -at least no physicist -would say that this is the end;

5. Faith and Science

But is the science of today really on a collision course with metaphysical thinking? Again the problem -if any -is not peculiar to Islam; the problem is one of science and faith in general. Can science and faith at the least, live together in “harmonious complementarity”? Let us consider some relevant examples of modern scientific thinking.

My first example concerns the metaphysical doctrine of creation from nothing. Today a growing number of cosmologists believe that the most likely value for the density of matter and energy in the Universe is such that the “mass” of the Universe adds up to zero, precisely. If the mass of the Universe is indeed zero -and this is an empirically determinable quantity -the Universe shares with the vacuum state the property of masslessness. A bold extrapolation, made ten years ago, then treated the Universe as a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum -of the state of nothingness in a space and time created ex nihilo …What distinguishes physics from metaphysics however is that by measuring the density of matter in the Universe we shall know empirically whether the idea can be sustained in the physicist’s sense. If it cannot be, we shall discard it.

My second example concerns the recent excitement in physics -which follows on our success in unifying and establishing the identity of two of the fundamental forces of Nature, the electric and the weak nuclear.

We are now considering the possibility that space-time may have ten  dimensions. Within this context we hope to unify the electroweak force with the remaining of the two basic forces -the force of gravity and the strong nuclear force. Of the ten, four are the familiar dimensions of space and time. The curvature of these familiar space and time dimensions determines the size and life-span of our present Universe, according to Einstein’s ideas. The curvature of the extra six dimensions one has newly postulated gives the electric and the nuclear charges we are familiar with.

But why don’t we apprehend these extra dimensions directly? Why only indirectly through the existence of the electric and the nuclear charges?

Why the difference between the four familiar space-time dimensions and, the extra internal dimensions which, according to our present thinking, have sizes no larger than 10-33cms?

At present, we make this plausible by postulating a self-consistency principle. The theory works if and only if the number of extra dimensions is six. However, there will be subtle physical consequences; for example remnants, like the recently discovered three degree black-body radiation which fills the Universe and which we know was a remnant of an early era in the evolution of the Universe. We shall search for these signs. If we do not find them, we shall abandon the idea.

Creation from nothing, extra dimensions – strange topics, for late twentieth century physics – which appear no different from the metaphysical preoccupations of earlier times. But so far as science is concerned, mark the provisional nature of the conceptual edifice, the insistence on empirical verification at each stage and the concept of driving self-consistency.a

For the agnostic, self -consistency (if successful) may connote irrelevance of a deity:

Faman yudlilhu fala hadiya lahu.
Whomsoever Allah causes to err, there is no guide for him.”
[The Qur’an/7/al-Araf/186]

for the believer, it is part of the Lord’s design -its profundity, in the areas it illuminates, only enhances his reverence for the beauty of the design itself.

As I said before, personally for me, my own faith was predicated by the timeless spiritual message of Islam, on matters on which physics is silent, and will remain so. It was given meaning to by the very first verse of the Holy Quran after the Opening:

“This is the Book,
Wherein there is no doubt,
A guidance to the God-fearing,
Who believe in the Unseen”.

“The Unseen ” -“Beyond the reach of human ken” – “The Unknowable” -the original Arabic words are

yu’minuna bil ghaib
who] believe in the unseen [The Qur’an/2/al-Baqara/3]


5 thoughts on “Islam & Science

  1. I was present at this sermon. I recall having to sit outside the Fazl mosque because there were too many people attending the Jumma service. There was a light drizzle of rain during the entire hour or so but the warmth was in the hearts and the audience, including myself were totally mesmerised by Hadhrat Sahib’s words. That evening I went out to a bookshop and bought the book of the complete poems of Alexander Pope. He has since become one of my passions. I would recommend reading his ‘Essay on Man’ (especially if you can find an annotated version such as the one in the Twickenham edition of his poems). Though the work deserves to be read in full, some lines should suffice as a taster:

    He, who through vast immensity can pierce,
    See worlds on worlds compose one universe,
    Observe how system into system runs,
    What other planets circle other suns,

    No pow’rs of body or of soul to share,
    But what his nature and his state can bear.
    Why has not man a microscopic eye?
    For this plain reason, man is not a fly.
    Say what the use, were finer optics giv’n,
    T’ inspect a mite, not comprehend the heav’n?
    Or touch, if tremblingly alive all o’er,
    To smart and agonize at ev’ry pore?
    Or quick effluvia darting through the brain,
    Die of a rose in aromatic pain?
    If nature thunder’d in his op’ning ears,
    And stunn’d him with the music of the spheres,
    How would he wish that Heav’n had left him still
    The whisp’ring zephyr, and the purling rill?
    Who finds not Providence all good and wise,
    Alike in what it gives, and what denies?

  2. I should add that this is one of the most remarkable sermons I have heard. Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih IV(atba)’s insight on science, the philosophy of observation and nature, and history of science was astonishing. All interested in a most excellent exposition of God’s attributes and in science should listen to it.

  3. Ahmadi Muslims have loved pursuit of knowledge and research.

    As an example I leave you with a old Friday sermon of Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih IV(rah). I remember listening to this sermon as a young student and probably made up my mind to go into research then.

    On 19th February 1999 Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih IV (ra) gave a sermon about Ayatul Kursi during which Huzur gave extraordinary praise to Sir Isaac Newton, naming him ‘Wali-ullah’, and stating the superlative epitaph above by Alexander Pope to be justified and true. Huzur discussed many aspects of Newton’s life including those ignored by contemporary historians. This friday sermon is in the series of sermons on Ayatul Kursi – the whole series is worth listening to.

    See below for Huzur’s address: (In Urdu) (Urdu text, no English text is available)

    ‘What am I? The more I think of myself, what am I but a small boy, standing on the seashore, throwing every so often a small pebble across the vast ocean of truth that lies undiscovered.’
    –Isaac Newton

    ‘Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
    God said “Let Newton be” and all was light’
    –Alexander Pope

  4. Muslims were leaders of science at their time. The decline of science in Muslims from around 1100 CE is unfortunate and as Imam Ghazali wrote: “A grievous crime indeed against religion has been committed by a man who imagines that Islam is defended by the denial of the mathematical sciences, seeing that there is nothing in these sciences opposed to the truth of religion”

    As pointed out by Dr Salam, the Church had to eventually admit its mistake of persecuting Galileo and say “there can be no real contradiction between science and faith” – however, this statement has been known to Muslims for 1400 years.

    Islam in its essence points man towards nature – to study it, investigate, explore, experiment – no matter how much you try you will never find a contradiction or flaw in the nature/work of God.

    Please also read what Hadhrat Musleh Maud(as) has written on this topic:

    “We should base all true knowledge on experiment and the Word of God. Then there will be no conflict. If there appears conflict anywhere between Science and Religion, then either a wrong interpretation has been put on religious teaching and the Word of God has been misunderstood and misconstrued, or there has remained some error, some flaw in making scientific experiment.” (

    Today many Muslims are calling for the revival of sciences in Muslim world. The foremost however are the Ahmadi Muslims who believe with the strongest conviction that “There Cannot be Conflict Between the Act of God (nature) and the Word of God (Holy Quran).” ( )

    I will leave you all with a few excerpts from Hudur Aqdas (ayyadahu Allah ta’ala bi-nasrihi al-’aziz) who has told us time and time again to go into sciences and research. To bring science closer to religion – this way we would be serving Islam and humanity.

    At the concluding session of the 2005 Khuddam-ul-Ahmadiyya UK Ijtema Hazur (atba) said,
    “Your aim should not be this world alone. Your higher standard of living and your improved conditions should bring you closer to Allah and should make you grateful to Allah. Many of you are students in colleges and universities and should be grateful for this, and with prayer and worship you should also pay attention to education. In this country Allah has given you the option that should you so desire, with hard work, you can achieve any level of education. Instead of just doing basic education such as ‘O’ levels and ‘A’ levels, and then starting to look for work (and then when you find work) just do ordinary work, every Ahmadi student should try to study as much as possible. In every field, Ahmadi students should try to get ahead. Usually Ahmadi girls study more. Our young men should also pay attention to this. Your achieving higher education will not only be beneficial to you but will also raise the respect of the Jama’at and will also become a way of securing the higher education of your children. This is the responsibility of every Ahmadi student and he should already start thinking about this because an Ahmadi has to be the best in the field of education. It only needs a little hard work because Allah has promised that people of your sect will progress in knowledge and understanding. Our students should understand this. When they will make an effort in this respect, Allah will help them, insha’Allah.”

    Also at the concluding session at the 2006 Ijtema of Majlis Khuddamul Ahmadiyya UK Huzur (atba) said, “These days the local people here are less inclined to take up science subjects or to go in the field or research and it has also been highlighted in the newspapers that if this situation continued for a few years, they will not find any scientists in the future for research purposes. Therefore I say to Ahmadi children that as well as paying much attention to their education they should also move forward in field of sciences and thus these people in the west will be compelled to assimilate you for the importance of the subject in which you have gained qualification. It shall also provide more opportunities for employment for those who have gained or are gaining higher education and skills in these subjects. Moreover this will also rid of the false notion in the western people’s minds (because of their false belief about Islam due to their self-concocted background) that these people (Muslims) are ignorant and illiterate.

    So today you who are students should make up your mind that you will advance in scientific fields such that you will fulfil the future scientific needs of this country. This will enlighten the name of Islam, and as I said, these people will then be compelled not to say anything against Islam. In the Jubilee year Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih III had asked for a certain number of scientists, I think he said one hundred scientists from among Ahmadi children, who can attain the position like that of Dr Abdus Salam. So far we have not attained this number but you who are studying in these countries and are residing where you have all the opportunities, you must avail them and continue to attain higher grades.”

    Huzur(atba) in his opening address at the first Jalsa Salana of the Khilafat Centenary year in Ghana said, “Excel others in hard work. Excel others in education. That should be the hallmark of an Ahmadi. Allah told the Promised Messiah (alaihisalaam) as that the people of your sect the Jamaat will progress in knowledge. Therefore, I advise the youth: Immerse yourself in studies to the exclusion of everything else. Advance so much in every field of education that your minimum target is a Nobel Prize. That requires hard work over a long period. When nations want to develop and progress they make plans on a long-term basis. I pray that Allah may grant you the strength to do so.” (Ain-ul-Yaqeen (Official Newsletter of the Association of Ahmadi Muslim Scientist, USA) 1(2);Spring,2008),
    ( )

    On 6th of October 2008 Huzur(atba) in his address to Khuddam at the 36th Annual Majlis Khuddamul Ahmadiyya UK Ijtema said, “I once again want to remind students that our progress now depends on advancement in education. It is even more so in the west. I have said in the past that our students should try to progress in research in the fields of science, technology and medicine. This will enable you to have a firm footing in Europe. If you wish to adopt something good of the west then the research facilities available here should be brought to maximum use. Let the luminosity of Quranic teachings enlighten your mental faculties. This will guide you to serve humanity and will lead you to prove to the world the superiority of Islamic teachings. Consequently, this will be the means to introduce true Islamic teachings and assist in its preaching. Hence every one of you who is either working in any field or is a student should try and discover fresh methods of preaching Islam in your respective circle.”

    In 11th September 2009 Friday Sermon Huzur(atba) said:
    God states in Surah Al Bayyinah, ‘A Messenger from Allah recites Scriptures purified. Therein are the everlasting teachings.’ (98:3-4). The Promised Messiah (on whom be peace) said that the Qur’an contains the knowledge of all other holy Books and has all the truths. It has nothing redundant and it has all the explanations within. The Promised Messiah wrote that Unity of God was being attacked (and Huzur added, just as it is today) but whoever raised their pen against the Qur’an will be compelled to be drawn to it eventually. He said the Qur’an contained proofs and reasoning that could be verified in this age of scientific enlightenment. Huzur said indeed this challenge stands to date which the followers of the Promised Messiah (on whom be peace) substantiated. The concept present by Dr. Abdus Salam also proved the Unity of God. The Ahmadi scientists today should also keep these aspects in view, God would definitely help them. Indeed the Qur’an expounds spiritual matters as well as guidance towards knowledge of times to come. It is stated in Surah Al Naml, ‘And to recite the Qur’an.’ So whoever follows guidance, follows it only for the good of his own soul…’(27:93). However, only those will find the guidance about whom the decree that been made that they will purify themselves.

    1st July 2011 Sermon (53 minutes): Huzur said that I have told Ahmadi students that they should keep Quran as guide for their education and research and no one will be able to defeat them.

    Hudur Aqdas (ayyadahu Allah ta’ala bi-nasrihi al-’aziz) on Khuddamul Ahmadiyya Ijtema German. Ahmadi students should go into research for advancement of knowledge, for humanity, for their country, for Ahmadiyyat. Ahmadis should point out useless and harmful research e.g. cloning, some new technology related research. That research should be pursued that takes us towards God’s pleasure. The pursuit of worldly knowledge should be brought under God’s will.

    Jamia Class 4th December 2011: Hudur Aqdas (ayyadahu Allah ta’ala bi-nasrihi al-’aziz) on why he told Ahmadi students to go into research. (Check at 1 hour 13 minutes)

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