Posted by: Dawud Israel | November 28, 2009

The Nature of Epistemology and the Prophetic Approach to Science and Islam

How many Muslim Nobel prize winners are there? There are 2 how many Jewish Nobel prize winners are there? About 1/4th of all Nobel prize winners are Jewish. There are 2 billion Muslims in the world, and 15 million Jews. Had Islam’s intellectual standing not collapsed in 1100- they would have every single Nobel prize today! -Prof. Neil deGrasse Tyson (this number has changed although not drastically)

So the question is WHY?

I’m taking a class on the sociology of science, which naturally crosses over into the philosophies involved with science so I’ve been reading and learning a lot lately about science, how it operates, its philosophies and approaches. So naturally, I reflected on it and realized where Islam fits in today…

Muslims don’t like science, even though we are very educated- what we do is we have to aspects of ourselves, the religious self, and the educated self- and neither speaks to each other. What this means is we approach Islam in the same way we approach superstitions (i.e. backwards). This is why you’ll see PhDs forwarding the stupidest most obviously fabricated ‘Islamic’ emails about if you don’t forward this you are going to Hell.

Misapplication of Islamic piety

The reason for the Muslim approach is because we fear the certainty of science and how its certainty can lead us into doubting Islam. This is not new, Imam Ghazali was against Mathematics because he feared (why do we even have fears against shaytanic forces? it teaches powerlessness before evil) it would lead to the student to view the world in a very exact, precise way- through the lens of mathematics and therefore, apply this view of science, to Islam. Now, this is not uncommon- the science of biology (observation) is different from physics or math which are rooted in laws- every science has its own dynamics and they do compete (Richard Feynman, great physicist described psychology as a bunch of “cargo cult science”) so this needs to be noted. Consequently, Imam Ghazali’s fears are among the reasons why Islam’s Golden age of learning collapsed and the so-called Ummah was “revived.” Whether, this is a false dichotomy or not, can be debated, but referring back to my point about the PhDs sending mindless, stupid, emails degrading to Islam leads me to believe this is a fair assumption: When Islamic dogmatism rises, science suffers. But I also believe that, if Islamic understanding rises to a level of yaqeen (certainty and confidence) in the deen where one will not be afraid to dive into the worldly sciences, knowing for a fact, they cannot contradict Islam.

The man who supposedly crippled the Golden age of Islamic learning and discovery, and yet, revived the religion

Yet contrary to these assumptions one must understand one essential truth: science is rooted in doubt. You question the phenomena of this world- whether they be societies and human interaction (sociology) or animals, and you test hypotheses. If they don’t pan out, you note that down- that is your discovery, x doesn’t work as an explanation- and then what do you do? You try again. Conversely, medieval notions of religion are rooted in absolute, all-encompassing certainty to such a degree and in such a way that all doubt is avoided.This is a key distinction.

How do Muslims approach certainty and doubt?

We need to understand Allah’s promise that Islam is universal as enough. We need to stop doubting this truth because everything scientific, whether it be historical, literary, intellectual, psychological spiritual or even biologically oriented- speaks to the truth of Islam. If we can approach that with certainty we can look at science in-depth, and for reasons I will prove, more successfully . But if we keep doubting Islam, we will avoid the sciences and the ummah resembles jahiliyyah.

In the early eras of Islam- doubt was welcomed. But Muslims today are so pitted and shocked into a fear of everything ‘un-Islamic.’ How many know that the notion of evolution was actually first proposed by a Muslim? Surprised? It doesn’t contradict Islam because Islam leaves this chapter of the human story open to many explanations and understandings.

But for Muslim scientists in the golden age, their mentality doesn’t conflict with religion. They see these ideas as tools, theory is a tool to be used. It doesn’t purport absolute certainty- because remember science is rooted in doubt. If science boasted absolute certainty, its not science anymore- doubt, questions, and the prospect of discovery is gone; now its religion. Dogma has no place in science because every successful science has kept his foot grounded in doubt and question, while holding onto a handful of certainties for stability. Understand that even rationality can be questioned in science as the philosophers of the past have said: “Prove the validity of reason, without presupposing it.” That should show us why we should not try to legitimize Islam with science, because if we were to hypothetically achieve that, its not Islam anymore, its not religion anymore, its science- devoid of certainties and full of doubt (much like many of the world’s religions). This amounts in my opinion to abusing the religion of Islam.


Muslims need to realize everything about our religion is scientific- if not supra-scientific: our hadith, our fiqh, our religious sciences all have validity and reliability in their explanations of the human spirituality; in short, they work but we are always discovering why and how they work. They don’t fit into traditional or Euro-centric conceptions of science, in the same way chiropractry or acupuncture doesn’t fit, but again it works so one can’t out rule them. Furthermore, spiritual states in the science of tasawwuf are very rigorously understood- the different spiritual experiences are accounted for and understood in Islam; but a step further, from different viewpoints (tariqas). Not only this, but many aspects of Islamic belief, canon and religious wisdom have always been ahead of the curve (a few I know for a fact: memory and cognitive science, psychology and forgiveness, washing/hygiene and spiritual wellness, time and dromology, and of course the classic scientific miracles of the Quran). But, here is the catch- you wouldn’t make these discoveries into the Divine wisdom present in Islam, if you did not learn the sciences!

So there are 3 obstacles as to why Muslims lag behind in the sciences:

1) Fear of Sciences as a threat to Islam: It should be a fundamental precedent to not indulge outside scientific inquiry into religion because most Muslims will not be able to overcome this fear. Trying to legitimize Islam with outside science is a pointless pursuit, because we know it will be proved in time- its inevitable, so why rush it now? It will not deal with our problem and no benefit to the rest of humanity, if only to simply placate the inferiority complex of the Muslims (which it won’t ever achieve because it presumes, without justification, science to be greater than Islam).

2) Preoccupation with Islam: Many of the doctors employed by the Muslims in Muslim history were Christians. Scientific advancement requires a great deal of time and devotion and if you are always busy struggling with Islam, you simply don’t have the same opportunity a non-Muslim has in pursuing scientific studies. If you can’t balance yourself, it simply won’t happen- here is a positive side to being in a very religious community where perfecting your Islam isn’t hard. Furthermore, we are coping with so much in the Muslim world- warfare, poverty, disease, globalization and competiting cultural forces, sectarian and religious confusion, apathy and a lack of leadership and vision. Being busy with the turmoil all these issues creates makes it difficult for us to succeed scientifically, let alone put in the time for it.

3) Superficiality: Saudi Arabia is building a new university- KAUST and in speaking to a friend who is learning Arabic in Jeddah, I know for a fact, as many other scholars have verified, the intellectual roof there is very low. Its no secret Islam in Saudi resembles authoritarian, repressive rule, to the point Islamic development is repressed and censored. I doubt any real advancement will happen with this new university- its being built more for show and possibility in hopes it will lead to something in future generations.

4) Why don’t we make prayer for ideas or scientific advancement? This indicates a lack of desire among the pious for any sort of scientific progress. When we think of knowledge, we think of Islamic knowledge- not knowledge of the world (knowledge of the world is actually a commentary on religious wisdom). Now, its important if we want Islam’s glory- that our pious people take up the sciences of the world and learn how to balance both their deen and dunya for God’s sake, not their own.

How the Prophet Muhammad (salallahu alayhi wasalam) Approached the Sciences

Understanding the above will lay fertile ground for scientific advancement in the Muslim world. The hadith delineates science and religion in a very powerful way. The sahabas saw the Prophet salallahu alayhi wasalam being surprised by how they pollinated the date palms in the Madina (there are male and female parts that one manually has to pollinate). This was strange to him, because he was from Mecca. The sahabas interpreted this surprise as something they shouldn’t do because they felt they upset him (salallahu alayhi wasalam). And so their crops ended up badly and they went to him and told him what happened. Nabi (salallahu alayhi wasalam) said: “Antum adra bi umuri dunyakum- You know your worldly affairs better than I do.” Our Prophet salallahu alayhi wasalam didn’t come to guide us in agriculture!

Subhana kallahumma wa bihamdika ash-haduana la illaha illa ant astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk, ameen.


  1. Subhanullah, its good to be back reading some gooood stuff here. I think all Muslims should invest time into studying Epistemology to some degree, it helps you free your mind from the fear of unislamic knowledge, and knowledge in general.

    “Trying to legitimize Islam with outside science is a pointless pursuit, because we know it will be proved in time- its inevitable, so why rush it now?”

    I think that this pursuit to legitimize islam with science, might show a weakness of faith. There are lots of Muslims who watch the likes of Zakir Naik, waiting to see Islam be proven right in the light of science – as if their faith depends on it. And I think that is why so many of us have the need to debate others, to gain a sense of faith in the religion. Our faith comes from winning arguments against out ideological opponents. But that’s completely messed up. People should already have faith. The Prophet Sallallahu Alayhi Wassalam went on Israa and Miraj at night between Isha and Fajr, and no one saw him in this journey. Abu Lahab laughed at the Prophet Sallallahu Alayhi Wassalam, and said that he had made up the whole story of Israa and Miraj. Yet the Sahaba radhiallahu anhum believed, without any legitimizing scientific tools of empiricism – they just believed – and that’s how we should be.

    As for the hadith, I think there needs to be more consideration of context. Firstly, I don’t know where it is referenced from – it be nice to know to find some scholarly interpretation. But there are many prescriptions of the Prophet Sallallahu Alayhi Wassalam that ARE worldly, and they are now supported by science –

    Like eating using black seed, using honey, the way we slaughter animals – not just the supplication made, how we cut our nails, how we clean ourselves, how we eat, why we are encouraged to eat with our hands and not utensils, wearing “surma” on the eyes, etc. These acts of sunnah are not random, but had hikmah behind them that are directly related to the dunya.

    If someone doesn’t take that into consideration, you get the idea that the deen doesn’t encompass your life completely, and that your “dunya” and your “deen” or two separate things, when in fact they have a relationship. This hadith doesn’t separate deen and dunya, what it does is allow us the freedom to pursue any kind of scientific knowledge.

    Anyways, this is why people can’t just take hadith out of anywhere or verses of the quran and come to quick conclusions. You wouldn’t be able to read a chapter of a medical textbook, and have the authority to prescribe medicine to people. You have to go through however many years of medical school, under the guidance of experienced physicians and professors, and then you can prescribe medicine. So we need to be careful when we use hadith and the Quran, and always take context into consideration – ehem …getting off topic.

    A really important, and well-written analysis on Muslim thinking.

    • I get what you’re saying though,

      still – i think the Islamic context that I believe we should have in our mindset can really help Muslims progress – again, in our deen and dunya.

  2. The hadith was mentioned by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf in a talk I noted it down.

    But those foods are again prescribed as a Sunnah. Benefit is mentioned for some of them, not for others- some surma has mercury in it too and scholars had to warn against that type of surma. The wisdom behind the Sunnah is therefore, not limited to only ONE wisdom, but many- some known only by few scientists. So how fair is it to only focus on that one wisdom? What if for example in the case of wudhu- studies show washing leads to morally better conscience and less guilt- it can be extended to Hinduism and the Ganges or as one newspaper article did: an old forgotten Jewish ritual.

    Muslims justify things with science, when often they simply don’t understand the Sunnah. Our love for the Prophet salallahu alayhi wasalam is the best justification of the Sunnah.

  3. I don’t want to take this conversation in too long discussion, but….

    You’re missing my point,

    I’m not trying to justify the hadith with science, I’m just saying that the Prophet Sallahu Alayhi Wassalam prescribed things that affected our dunya life as well as our deen life.

    And you have to be careful with that hadith, because a misinterpretation can lead to people thinking that they don’t need the legislation of the quran and the sunnah for their worldy life, whether it be political, scientific, material, whatever – and that islam and the legislation of the quran and sunnah only applies to our “spiritual life”.

    Like I said, the hadith gives us the freedom to pursue the knowledge of sciences, however we need to always go back to the quran and sunnah to see if there is any advice in there first.

  4. I’ll take it in a different direction- that we have grounding in Islam so we don’t doubt our deen, but yet, even if someone doubts their deen and does something for the ummah thats not rejected by the ummah. The hadith mention Allah will support His ummah, even with a faasiq.

    But our worldly affairs, especially nowadays, are unrelated to the deen- these are things Muslims were doing for ages and never needed the help of the Prophets for.

    This is the litmus test: Does the occurrence of Islam in the world- affect this scientific question? Often, no. Agriculture, transportation, etc. etc. has nothing to do with that. Some Prophets knew certain arts, yes, but by and large what they did, did not affect science or innovation or discovery.

    The only area where Islam becomes unquestionably relevant to science is Ethics.

  5. “what they did, did not affect science or innovation or discovery. ”

    There are some Muslim inventions and scientific discoveries that were made because of Islam directly – that includes the mapping of the stars and using them to find the Qiblah for prayer.

    The mapping of the stars for the Qiblah resulted in the invention of the astrolabe and similar inventions that were used to navigate ships.

    Also is In Muslim Spain, people were highly educated, including poor people, they were taught arabic because they wanted to learn the laws of the shariah, because the shariah is not a man’s law but is Divine. Language is also a science.

    I’ll admit that the vast majority of Muslim inventions or scientific breakthroughs didn’t have such a direct nature with Islam. However any science can have a religious context – and I personally believe that with religious curiosity many of the early Muslims pursued science.

    For example, if I were to pursue Qunatum Mechanics, it would be in the religious context that I’m studying the creation of Allah subhanuatala, and I am trying to understand His Divine Engineering – if we want to call it that.

    If I were to pursue Mathematics, I’d realize that any two variables have relationships, and that these relationships constitute Math, and that Math is therefore not created but discovered from nature, and that the forumlas we use are really our articulation of the mathematical laws of Allah Subhanuatala.

    I think if you look at things with a religious context – in an Islamic context, it provides a person with the passion and fervor to study any science to the degree of discovering something. The Muslim scientists in Spain were much better Muslims than the majority of us today. Ibn Nafis was a strict orthodox sunni of the shafii madhab and also somewhat of a philosopher.

    I can’t believe that someone with such a religious background did not discover blood circulation without the Islamic context that he was studying the creation of Allah subhanuatala.

  6. “But our worldly affairs, especially nowadays, are unrelated to the deen”

    What I am saying is this:

    We can pursue science with an Islamic context – that we are fascinated by the creation of Allah Subhanutala. Then our worldy affairs don’t have to be unrelated to the deen – they are in fact completely related. Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanwi said that the journey of this life is like the journey of a man travelling in a small boat. The man carries a soul, the boat is his body, and the water is the medium by which his soul travels and progresses, and this water symbolizes the dunya.

    This is a spiritual metaphor – but can be applied to the pursuit of science also. Science is also dunya, but it is also an opportunity to remember Allah, and be fascinated with Him, and the amazing, incomprehensible, magic of His creation. And from this science – we can also progress in our deen. And if the barakah in progressing in our deen will lead to progress in scientific discoveries, in our dunya, and the beautiful cycle goes on.

    This has two major benefits:

    1) It will take the fear out of pursuing science, and give Muslims more faith in the religion – and the freedom to discover scientific things without worrying that something will be discovered that contradicts with Islam.

    2) It will keep Muslims thinking about Allah all the time – and such a blessed remembrance will surely lead us to scientific discoveries.

  7. I understand however, I am discussing the present and future, the historical examples of science being necessitated because of Islamic practices is different, and by and large, done with (more or less, in a way).

    But let me put it this way:

    Is Islam essential to understanding science (discoveries, inventions, etc.) or is it something more or less extraneous? If a non-Muslim can make those discoveries and help his people, why is it such a concern for a Muslim to validate science via Islam and Islam via science? Its of no benefit. The hadith mention “The best of you are those who bring the most benefit to mankind.”


    What areas of science are unaffected by Islam today (i.e. thereby permitted)? Why not pursue those areas where religion is not even in the picture, except to say perhaps Subhana Allah?

    I think we need to remember the hadith that mentions the believer leaves what does not concern him. If science is your concern, there is no reason for you to get involved in things of which are not your concern- namely, silly stretches of ‘desperate Islam’ to say you can find the prescribed cure for x, y, z in the Quran, when any reasonable person or doctor, no less the Prophet salallahu alayhi wasalam would say flatly: no, its not there.

    I think in order to pursue science for the sake of God, you need to leave the deen outside of the scientific picture. Then you’ll get somewhere otherwise, shaytan will just play with your head.

  8. mashallah, agreed – but I think we’re having two different conversations – I guess that happens a lot with my extrovert brain, always thinking about what to say, and not about how to listen.

    I’ve already said that I don’t think we should legitimize Islam with science – that it shows a weakness of faith.

    What I was trying to say in relation to hadith, is that if majority scientific opinion tell us to do “x”, and Islam tells us to do “y”, we are obliged to do “y” and follow it through with faith.

    For example: Doctors say that we must have 8 hours of sleep a day, when many Shaykhs, by the prescription of hadith, recommend that you sleep a maximum of 5 hours a night, preferably 4 hours a night, with a nap at Zuhr.

    Who do you follow?

    Or that the human population is too much, and we should limit our children to a maximum of two per family. When Islam teaches us to have many children to spread the deen.

    Who do you follow?

    Another example is Israa and Miraj – there are a group of Muslims who believe that the sacred journey was a “dream” or a “hallucination” of the Prophet Sallallahu Alayhi Wassalam – and are uncomfortable with the thought that it was a physical journey because a horse made of electricity sounds to mythological. They need to justify it with scientific “common sense”.

    Again, Which one do you follow and WHY?

    You said before that Islam deals mostly with ethics, but ethics does not escape the arena of scientific thought. What about biological engineering, messing around with peoples DNA, or cloning mammoths, sheep and people, or Stephen Hawkings saying that “the universe does not preclude a God, but it doesn’t make God necessary” – and of course, Darwin’s Tree of Life. Or people who claim that homosexuality has genetic causes.

    This is when its necessary to make counter-arguments, and have some scientific understanding. Otherwise Islam becomes ideologically vulnerable if people can say it doesn’t make sense scientifically. So people like Zakir Naik, and Hamza Andreas Tzortsis become necessary, and other Muslim scientists too.

    BUT, our Muslims who want to become scientists should pursue scince with a sincere interest, and SHOULD NOT pursue science to legitimize Islam – because it shows a weakness of faith – and anyways, whether it be Muslim or Non-Muslim who makes scientific discoveries, the truth eventually comes out – and in the end Islam makes sense.

    I realize that I am making this too long of a discussion – and you don’t have to answer all my points, but my basic thesis for this discussion is that legitimizing Islam with science shows a weakness of faith, and that when Islam and modern day accepted science butt heads, a believer needs to make the right choice.

  9. That picture looks like Shakespeare

  10. “Yet so it is, we see the illiterate bulk of mankind, that walk the high road of plain common sense, and are governed by the dictates of nature, for the most part easy and undisturbed. To them nothing that is familiar appears unaccountable or difficult to comprehend.” George Berkely

    Hey – bro, I was re-reading over what you said and what I said, and I’m thick but I finally get what you’re trying to say, and some of my views have changed since.

    “The wisdom behind the Sunnah is therefore, not limited to only ONE wisdom, but many- some known only by few scientists. So how fair is it to only focus on that one wisdom? What if for example in the case of wudhu- studies show washing leads to morally better conscience and less guilt- it can be extended to Hinduism and the Ganges or as one newspaper article did: an old forgotten Jewish ritual.”

    – I get it now. There is more important benefit in the practices of the deen that transcend the confines of scientifically-proven advantages. Like the guilt thing with wudhu.

    It took me a while to get out of my science and theory-proving mindset but I see what you are saying now.

    “Muslims justify things with science, when often they simply don’t understand the Sunnah. Our love for the Prophet salallahu alayhi wasalam is the best justification of the Sunnah.”

    – mashallah this is an amazing statement, I don’t know why this didn’t register the first time I read it.

    “Our love for the Prophet salallahu alayhi wasalam is the best justification of the Sunnah.””

    – that last one would be my facebook status, if I didn’t deactivate.

    Also the homosexuality issue transcends scientific arguments in my opinion. It is not accepted by the deen, but that doesn’t necessarily imply a scientific statement that people can in no way be biologically homosexual –> what it implies is the physical act of homosexuality is considered ethically wrong in Islam, and the discussion doesn’t need to transcend into science – also the scientific discussions don’t exactly reduce the number of people who identify themselves as homosexuals or reduce the number of people who believe that the physical act is actually accepted in Islam with some weird interpretations of the ayahs regarding the nation of Lut.

    I digress, the real point is that Islam transcends the confines of scientific knowledge. Sh. Abdal Hakim Murad said something that really opened my mind up – I think he was quoting Al-Ghazali – that if it Islam was obliged to be proven by science, ie: the cosmological arguments for the existence of God, etc., then it would limit Iman to those with a certain level of intelligence.

    that Allah SWT, in His infinite wisdom and justice, allows faith and Iman to be accessible to all of mankind, regardless of their literacy, intelligence, power, wealth, status, gender, race, etc. And therefore, the proofs for the deen are not limited to philosophical and scientific arguments. –> We just have an emphasis on this because the West has been pursuing these two fields of thought for centuries, and we have adopted their mindset.

    I really do get it now, Jazakallah for persevering with me.

  11. “The man who crippled the Golden age of Islamic learning and discovery, and yet, revived the religion”

    AHH – this is the first time the importance of this statement registered into my head!!!

    you’re blog is even better than I thought it was!

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