Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Does Islam encourage scientific advancement?

By Dallas M. Roark, Ph.D.

This is a reply to the article "How the Islamic faith encourages worldly advancement" by Sheikh Muhammad Saalih al-Munajjid. This article can be found here.

Question: (to the Sheikh)

In this world if the muslims dedicate all their time and actions for the benifit in the hereafter (aakhira) not doing any worldly matters, then how can the muslums contribute to the benifits of civilisation and humanity such as in technology, science and inventions?

The sheikh answered:

Praise be to Allaah. Islam is the final religion, and one of the most important characteristics of this religion is that it is a religion that regulates all aspects of life. Islam is the religion of this world and the Hereafter. Allaah says (interpretation of the meaning):

"Say (O Muhammad): Verily, my Salaah (prayer), my sacrifice, my living, and my dying are for Allaah, the Lord of the 'Aalameen (mankind, jinn and all that exists)" [al-An'aam 6:162]

In their du'aa's the Muslims frequently say,

"Our Lord, give us in this world that which is good and in the Hereafter that which is good, and save us from the torment of the Fire" (cf. al-Baqarah 2:201).

This is the complete, perfect and comprehensive religion of Allaah, which combines the rights of Allaah and the rights of people, and explains matters of this world and matters of the Hereafter.

Those who claim that Islam brought a kind of monasticism are making a false claim, because monasticism is a part of the deviant Christian religion, from whom some innovators among the Muslims adopted it, such as the Sufis. But Ahl al-Sunnah wa'l-Jamaa'ah take their religion from its pure source, and they understand it correctly. They believe that this world is the passageway to the Hereafter and that no one should be attached to this world at the expense of the Hereafter. They regard the Hereafter as their focal point because it is eternal life, so we should strive for that aim and not for a life that is short and transient. This does not mean that they should not strive for worldly aims too or develop the earth, rather the Muslims achieved great things in theoretical and practical spheres of knowledge, and other civilizations followed the Muslims in their progress and knowledge. Some prominent western universities still acknowledge this and teach it as part of their curricula.

DMR replies: There are a number of false statements or erroneous statements in the reply. First, … There are religions that arose after Islam which may be declared to be false, but Islam is not the final religion. Sikhism arose in the 15th century, Mormonism arose in the modern era along with Christian Science. All of them make some claims to being the final religion. But all of them along with Islam could well be false and misguided.

A religion may be the first and not be true. It may be the last and not be true. The time line does not determine the truth or falsity of a religion. What it teaches is the key, and Islam has a lot of problems in its teaching.

Second, I don’t think you really understand what Monasticism is all about. You just wrote about "matters of this world and matters of the Hereafter." Monks and Nuns were pursuing a good life here in their concerns for the hereafter. They were doing it more devotedly than Muslims who were out conquering other civilizations, destroying monasteries, and killing monks and nuns because they were not Muslim. Muslims felt they were doing Allah’s bidding,

"They long that ye should disbelieve even as they disbelieve, that ye may be upon a level (with them). So choose not friends from them till they forsake their homes in the way of Allah; if they turn back (to enmity) then take them and kill them wherever ye find them, and choose no friend nor helper from among them," (4:89, Pickthall)

The sheikh answered: The French philosopher Gustave le Bon stated in his book The Civilization of the Arabs:

" We must bear in mind that the Arabs - and the Arabs alone - are the ones who guided us to the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans. European universities, including the University of Paris, based their curricula on translations of their books for six hundred years and used their methods of research. The Islamic civilization was one of the most amazing that history has ever known. "

DMR replies: This quote needs a little elaboration. What it does not say is quite important. It is a generalization that has the sound of truth but it is misleading. This man was a psychologist whose main interest was crowd psychology. He was not a philosopher of science not a historian of the development of science.

If we are fair to history we must ask how the Arabs in a desert country of Arabia without much interest in science came to the forefront of science. They gained their knowledge by translating the Greek works into Arabic. Many of these translators were Jews and Christians as well as Muslims. The Arabs had access to these great Greek works from the 8th century on. The translations did not reach Europe until the 12th and 13th centuries. Moreover, the Arabs borrowed the Hindu numeral system.

Before we can move to the European universities and their curricula we must ask what happened to the Muslim use of these works.

First, the madrasas were committed to Islamic science which meant the study of the Qur’an, the hadiths, sharia and only Muslim religious ideology. The natural sciences were prohibited, and when occasional private teachers taught what was known of the natural sciences they were suspect and many felt that the natural science would lead to impious beliefs.

Second, the Muslim advances in the natural science were limited to areas useful for Muslim use. These science included medicine, astronomy, and mathematics, physics and optics. In spite of these advances the Islamic world never made the transition to the scientific revolution. Natural science has been in disrepute in Islam so long that in the mid-1980's Muslim intellectuals "lamented the fact that modern science had not taken root in the Islamic countries of the world..." (Huff, p. 235)

Third, the very nature of the university that is free to use Plato and Aristotle requires some explanation. The university is a corporation with freedom for inquiry of all kinds. There are rights and protections for the pursuit of truth to wherever it leads. There were legal entities in Islam for corporations and the freedom of speech. If one were interested in science it had to be in conformity to Islamic ideology. If not, it was heresy and one could be killed for doing it.

Fourth, "The Islamic civilization was one of the most amazing that history has ever known." One wonders really whether this man knew anything about Islam except the propaganda. Did he know about the brutal invasion and conquest of Jerusalem, Egypt, Asia Minor, North Africa? Did he know about the slayings, the enslavment, the rape, the forced marriages of Christian women to Muslim conquerors? Did he know about dhimmitude that was forced on people who would not accept Islam? Did he know about the mutilation of young girls to take away any sexual pleasure for the rest of their lives? It is an amazing statement that he made in light of his ignorance.

The sheikh answered: The Muslims are not like anyone else. When they adhere to their religion, they are at the forefront in worldly affairs too, but when they forsake their religion and neglect it, they end up tailing behind others.

DMR replies: How blind this statement is. When Muslims adhere to their religion it is then that they fall behind because of the educational system. There are 1 billion Muslims and only about 16 million Jews. Only about 8 Muslims have won the Nobel prize for science and nearly two hundred Jews have won it. Why? Education is the difference. Muslim education has focused on the Qur’an, and what is not in the Qur’an is not worth knowing. Western education has been open in its approach to knowledge. You can ask any question in the Western educational environment. You cannot question anything in the Qur’an, or Mohammed, or the Sharia. You are to obey. Learn the rules and obey.

The sheikh answered: When the Christians adhered to their deviant religion, they were backward in worldly affairs, but when they burned their churches, killed their monks and separated church from state, they advanced in worldly affairs and in science. The Muslims' religion motivates them to advance, and they fall behind when they fall away from their religion.

DMR replies: This paragraph is so muddled and unhistorical. When did they burn their churches, kill their monks, and separate church from state? The separation of church and state is a very recent event particularly in the USA. The monasteries were busy in preserving manuscripts, developing agriculture, and serving in hospitals, and charitable works. Only in communist countries did they kill the monks, destroy the monasteries, and they certainly did not have separation of church and state. No churches were allowed. One wonders what this paragraph is supposed to illuminate. It is also in Muslim cultures that churches are burned and people are killed for being Christians.

The Sheikh answered: The Christians became backward when they adhered to their deviant religion, because a religion that has been distorted by people cannot lead to advancement. They advanced when they left their religion behind. Which method calls for development of this world and strives to make scientific progress and help people in this world and in the Hereafter?

DMR replies: This is a statement devoid of fact and understanding. Islam did not do well in advancing modern science because of its view of Allah in contrast to the Bible’s view of Yahweh. In Islam occasionalism was accepted in the view of Allah. This meant that the world was a continuous flux of moments, recreated each moment by Allah, and this knowledge was implanted by Allah in the mind of the believer. This view rejected the natural order as a rational view of the cosmos which could be studied objectively apart from religious views. Man was rational, the universe was orderly, and investigation could be made. To reject occasionalism in the Muslim culture was foolhardy and might lead to death. This was the view of the Ash’arites and this was the driving ideology for centuries in Muslim science. Conclusion: it was adhering to Islam that set science backwards, not the reverse.

The Sheikh answered: There are many verses and ahaadeeth which urge the Muslim to develop the earth by means of agriculture and manufacturing. The Muslims understood that and hastened to strive to develop the earth without that affecting their worship and obedience to Allaah, and without thinking that there was any conflict between religious and worldly interests. The only thing to avoid in this endeavour is anything that distracts the Muslim from his religious duties and obedience to his Lord.

DMR replies: Agriculture has been a customary occupation for people who want to eat. Apart from this generalization, which does not claim anything unusual, what exactly have Muslims contributed to agriculture and manufacturing?

The Sheikh answered: It was narrated that Anas ibn Maalik (may Allaah be pleased with him) said: The Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said:

"There is no Muslim who plants something and birds or people or animals eat from it, but he will have the reward of charity for it." Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 2195; Muslim, 1553

Al-Haafiz ibn Hajar (may Allaah have mercy on him) said:

" This hadeeth points to the virtue of planting and farming, and encourages us to develop the earth. From it we may understand that farming and agriculture are encouraged. This is a refutation of those ascetics who rejected this idea. The reports which may be understood as discouraging farming and agriculture should be interpreted as referring to cases where that distracts Muslims from religious affairs, such as the marfoo' hadeeth of Ibn Mas'ood which says: "Do not acquire land (for farming) lest you become too attached to worldly matters." al-Qurtubi said: This hadeeth may be reconciled with other ahaadeeth on this issue (which encourage farming) by noting that this refers to being too preoccupied with land and farming and being distracted by them from religious matters, and the other ahaadeeth are to be understood as encouraging people to acquire land so that they may become independent of means or so that the Muslims may benefit from it and earn the reward for that. " Fath al-Baari, 5/4

The hadeeth mentioned by al-Haafiz Ibn Hajar,

"Do not acquire land (for farming) lest you become too attached to worldly matters" was narrated and classed as hasan by al-Tirmidhi (2328).

Al-Mubaarakfoori (may Allaah have mercy on him) said (Tuhfat al-Ahwadhi, 6/511):

What is meant is a prohibition on becoming preoccupied with this and similar things which then prevent one from worshipping Allaah and and focusing as one should on matters of the Hereafter.

Al-Teebi said: what is meant is that you should not be preoccupied with farming and let that distract you from remembrance of Allaah.

"Men whom neither trade nor sale (business) diverts from the remembrance of Allaah" [al-Noor 24:37].

DMR replies: You have derided monks as deviant and have overlooked the great contributions they have made. Consider the work of the following: "The modern science of genetics traces its roots to Gregor Johann Mendel, a German-Czech Augustinian monk and scientist who studied the nature of inheritance in plants. In his paper "Versuche über Pflanzenhybriden" ("Experiments on Plant Hybridization"), presented in 1865 to the Naturforschender Verein (Society for Research in Nature) in Brünn, Mendel traced the inheritance patterns of certain traits in pea plants and described them mathematically." (Wikipedia) Not bad for a monk. I would like to see a list of Muslim scientists who have made major contributions to Agriculture. George Washington Carver’s investigations into the soybean and peanut contributed to the health and prosperity of both farmer and non-farmer.

The Sheikh answered: We have seen how some western researchers have been fair towards the Muslims and their religion, and have acknowledged that the Muslims were pioneers in various fields of worldly science. There follow some of their comments so that the questioner and others may see the position of Islam in relation to other civilizations, and understand how Islam urges its followers to look, ponder, strive and invent. We will quote comments from thinkers of different backgrounds.

1 - The French thinker Gustave le Bon says in his famous book The Civilization of the Arabs (translated into Arabic by 'Aadil Zu'aytar):

" If the Arabs had taken over France, then Paris would have become like Cordova in Spain, a centre of civilization and knowledge, where the man in the street was able to read and write, and even compose poetry, at a time when the kings of Europe did not even know how to write their names! "

DMR replies: This is a great quote you have gathered. Let’s take a look at Cordova in Spain and see what it was like. You don’t give a date or time line so it is a rather general statement. This center of civilization was dependent upon the approval of the monarch. When that was withdrawn, a person’s life would be in danger and one had to flee. This happened to Averroes, despite the fact that he was the chief Qadi in Cordova for years. Opposition from the ulama was a constant threat to anyone who had ideas contrary to their views.

In North Africa and Spain there were times when the study of the natural sciences was prohibited and books were burned. The ruler of North Africa and Spain, al-Mansur (reign 1184-1199) "was intent upon putting an end to literature on logic and philosophy in the lands under his sway. He ordered that books on these subjects be burned, and he prohibited their study whether in public or in private, threatening capital punishment for those found studying them." (Huff, p. 153)

Consider the following: "In the actual event, the founding of Spanish universities in the thirteenth century, first in Palencia (1208-9), Valladolid, Salamanca (1227-28), and so on, occurred in long-established Christian areas, and the universities were modeled after the constitutions of Paris and Bologna. The various Arabic histories of Spain indicate that there were no Islamic colleges–-madrasas--built in Spain prior to the fourteenth century, when one was founded in Granada ca.1349." (Huff, p. 206)

There were two great names in philosophy in Spain. Averroes was a Muslim and Maimonides was Jewish. Averroses was persecuted by his own co-religionists and Maimonides was persecuted for being Jewish and had to flee the country to Cairo where he took up his medical practice. Averroes had stature as a judge but Muslims turned against their fellow Muslim and his books were burned, and he was forced to emigrate to Morocco in 1195.

The Sheikh answered: 2 - The German Orientalist Sigrid Hoeneker said, in her famous book The Sun of Allaah is Rising in the West, concerning the spread of libraries in the Arab and Muslim world:

" The libraries grew in every place like plants in good soil. In 891 CE a traveller put the number of public libraries in Baghdad as more than one hundred. Every city had a library where any ordinary man could borrow whatever he wanted, or sit in its halls to study and read whatever he wanted. Translators and writers also gathered in halls that were set aside especially for them, discussing and debating as happens nowadays at academic conferences of the highest level. "

The title of this book, which was originally written in German, means, "The light of Islam illuminates western civilization. This book is filled with the names of Muslim inventors, both Arabs and non-Arabs."

DMR replies: Yes, there were lots of libraries scattered through the Muslim world. These were open to those who could read. Not only were religious works included but scientific works were also included. The problem with the books on the natural sciences is this: one could read them in the library, but one could not teach them in the Madrases. One could teach the natural sciences in one’s home, but teaching the natural sciences created suspicious of impiety.

The other problem with the libraries is that during sectarian rivalry libraries were ransacked and burned down with all their contents.

The Sheikh answered: 3 - Read these words by a Russian intellectual who explains that this religion served humanity and led to advancement and civilization.

Tolstoy said:

" There can be no doubt that the Prophet Muhammad was one of the greatest reformers who have rendered great services to human society. It is sufficient to say that he guided an entire nation to the light of truth, and made it incline towards tranquility and peace, and preferred a life of asceticism, and prevented bloodshed and human sacrifice; he showed them the way to advancement and civilization. This is a great achievement that can only be made by one who is given strength; such a man is deserving of respect and honour. "

DMR replies: You don’t give any reference for this to be checked. If this is a real quote from Tolstoy it indicates that Tolstoy was in absolute ignorance about Mohammed and the history surrounding him. How can he say that Mohammed inclined Arabia or anywhere else to tranquility and peace? Did Tolstoy know about the many battles that Mohammed led, and the number he planned for others to lead? The life of Mohammed was not an ascetic one. Tolstoy must have someone else in mind. Mohammed received 1/5 of the booty taken in Muslim attacks and he had a large number of wives. Mohammed certainly did indicate a way to advancement and civilization – invade the wealthy countries in the Middle East, killing, raping, and enslaving. Slavery still exists in Islam because Mohammed approved of it. One wonders if Tolstoy knew of it, and if he did, would he have approved??

The Sheikh answered: 4 - The Austrian doctor Shabrak said:

"Mankind should be proud to have a man such as Muhammad as a member, for despite being illiterate he was able, ten-plus centuries ago, to bring laws that we and other Europeans would be very happy if we could reach the same level. "

DMR replies: Where are the references? If this means sharia, who would want it except for Muslims? The position of woman is half that of a man. The intellect of a woman is half that of a man. The inheritance of a woman is not equal that of a man. The rights of women are restricted. What European would be happy with these kinds of laws? Maybe some of the men, but not the women.

The Sheikh answered: 5 - In the field of medicine and surgery, the Muslims played an undeniable role.

The British writer H. G. Wells says in his book Milestones in Human History:

"They advanced in medicine far beyond the Greeks, they studied science and the functions of various parts of the body, and preventative medicine. Many of the treatment methods that they used are still used by us until today. They used anaesthetics for their operations and they used to perform some of the most difficult surgeries that are known. At a time when the church used to forbid the practice of medicine in the expectation that a full recovery could be achieved through religious rituals performed by the bishops, the Arabs had a true knowledge of medicine. "

He also said:

"Every religion that is not suited to civilization should be rejected. I have not found any religion that is suited to civilization except Islam. "

DMR replies: References???? Referring to Wells as an objective source for Islam is interesting. Wells was highly anti-Christian. You need to notice that while this quote seem to applaud Islam, Wells did not join up. He was a free-thinker and sneered at Christianity and would have done the same to Islam if he had known the real history of Islam in its wars, imposing dhimmitude on its victims. Given the life of Wells, I am sure that he would have smarted under dhimmitude and would hardly described it as suitable for his life.

The Sheikh answered:

The testimonies are innumerable. We wanted to quote a few of them to show that non-Muslims have said the same as we say. We chose people who cannot be suspected of agreeing to tell the same lie; they come from different countries and different cultures, and even from different religions and civilizations. All of those whom we have quoted pointed to the progress and success achieved by Muslims in material sciences, and leading mankind to advancement in many fields. Whilst the Muslims achieved distinction in these fields, they also achieved great things in the fields of religious sciences, worship and obedience to their Lord. The history of this religion bears witness to the great achievements in the field of writing books of shar'i knowledge, which is based on the Qur'aan and Sunnah. History also tells us of prominent figures whose worship and asceticism did not prevent them from being scholars in the religious or worldly sciences.

There are names of numerous Muslim scholars in many fields whose knowledge and progress cannot be denied except by one who is ignorant or arrogant, such as and al-Zahraawi in the field of medicine, Ibn al-Haytham in the field of vision and light, al-Khawaarizmi in the field of mathematics, and many, many others.

DMR replies: The dates on these scholars are: "Doctor Aladdin Ali Bin Abi Al-Hazm Al-Qurashi Al-Dimashqi, better know as Ibn Al -Nafees, was born & raised in Damascus in 1210.... al-Haytham (965 – c. 1039), al-Khawaarizm (c. 825) There is no doubt that these men worked in these areas, but in spite of that the story of Islamic natural science was aborted by the emphasis on the Qur’an and the suspicion toward the natural sciences as indicated above. How many have won Nobel prizes in the sciences? Why did Muslim science go down hill soon after these men?

The Sheikh answered: Finally we would like to recommend that you read this article, which is entitled 'Aml al-dunya la yunaafi 'aml al-Aakhirah (Striving for worldly purposes does not contradict striving for the Hereafter), where you will find more information. It can be accessed by clicking on this link:

We ask Allaah to guide the Muslims to their religion, and to help them to do that which is enjoined upon them, and to guide every seeker of truth.

And Allaah is the Source of strength.


DMR replies: Rather than read more mis-information I would suggest that the interested reader secure a history of science book to understand the reason that modern science arose in the West, not Islam, not China, not India. The book by Toby Huff, The rise of early modern science, gives a competent review of why modern science rose in the West, not Islam, and not China.

While progress was made in Islam building on the Greeks the transition to modern science was not achieved because of the lack of freedom to pursue the truth where it leads, the Muslim view of God and the world, and the lack of a concept of conscience in man in which man could judge what is right and wrong, a view that came from Plato and the New Testament.