Islamic Perspectives

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


Islam is at once a religion, a community, and a civilization. In all three senses, Islam is a source of unique perspectives on relations between science, technology, and ethics. As a religion, Islam upholds knowledge as the key to both individual and societal salvation. With the idea of unity of reality and knowledge as a guiding principle it refuses to entertain any distinction between the religious and the secular in the realm of knowledge. Science and technology are as relevant as the so-called religious sciences to the human pursuit of the divine. As a community, Islam stresses on the divine law as the most important source of ethics to guide human actions in all sectors of personal and public life and as the most visible expression of Muslim cultural identity. This law is generally viewed as not only all-embracing in the scope of its applications but also as dynamic enough to be adaptable to the changing needs of space and time. Science and technology are to be regulated by ethics embodied in this law. As a civilization, Islam seeks to promote the interests of all humanity by standing up for the perspectives of universalism, the common good and inter-faith understanding. As so many of Islam's thinkers have asserted over the centuries science and technology are the most powerful and the most enduring universal elements in human civilization and should be pursued for the sake of the common good and inter-faith peace, Islam places strict limits on technology and subordinates scientific rationality to revelation. As a community, Islam is more concerned to adapt science and technology for practical benefit.

Historical Background

Islam was born in Mecca, Arabia, in 610 c.e. when Muhammad, an illiterate but highly respected member of Arabia's most powerful tribe, the Quraysh, claimed he had received revelations from God. During one of his regular spiritual retreats in a cave on the outskirts of Mecca, the archangel Gabriel appeared before him instructing him to recite a few verses in Arabic and proclaiming him God's new messenger to humankind. That initial revelation was essentially about the true spirit of human learning: Seeking knowledge is to be done in the name of God who is humanity's best teacher, and the best human instrument of knowledge is the intellect as symbolized by the pen. This tenet supported the new religion's claim to be essentially a way of knowledge.

The Prophet, as every generation of Muhammad's followers call him, received further revelations intermittently over a period of twenty-three years until just before his death in 632 c.e. These revelations were systematically compiled into a book known as the Qur'ān (literally meaning The Recitation). The precise arrangement of the Qur'ān itself is traditionally thought to be divinely inspired. This book, believed sacred both in text and meaning, is the most authentic and the most important source of Islamic teachings. The names Islam for the religion and Muslims for its followers are set out in the Qur'ān. Islam means both submission to God's will and peace, while Muslim means one who submits to the divine will. More than anything else the Qur'ān is a source of guidance in the domain of knowledge. Muslims believe that the Qur'ān contains the principles of all sciences. Islam claims to revive the pure monotheism of Abraham while presenting itself as the synthesis of all previously revealed religions, which has helped foster a positive attitude among Muslims toward the intellectual and cultural legacies of other civilizations.

As a full-fledged religious community (ummah) with distinctive characteristics as envisioned in the Qur'ān, Islam was founded in Medina, formerly known as Yathrib, in 622 c.e. (although the nucleus of the community had formed earlier in Mecca). The Prophet and his followers migrated to Medina to escape persecution following his uncompromising stand on idol worship. This flight, known as the hijrah, marked a major turning point in the history of Islam. The original group grew to become a worldwide community that is estimated at 1.2 billion followers in the early-twenty-first century. As an extension of his community, the Prophet established a city-state that he named Madinat al-Nabiy (City of the Prophet) or simply al-Madinah (The City). This pluralistic city-state, multiethnic and multireligious, reflected the moral and ethical basis of the sociopolitical teachings of Islam. In postprophetic Muslim history, Medina is an enduring model of Islamic polity.

As a civilization (tamaddun), Islam manifested itself when the community organized all aspects of daily life in accordance with the spiritual and ethical values set out in the Qur'ān and as interpreted by the Prophet. The cultural identity of Muslims became easily visible in the way they cultivated a knowledge culture that did not separate the religious and the secular, envisioned and practiced moderation in religious life, merged temporal life with the spiritual, championed social justice, permeated ethical concern in all individual and societal activities, engaged pluralism, and approached relations with other faiths. But the happenings in Medina merely lay the foundation of Islam. Fuller development of the civilization occurred after the religion spread throughout the world, encountering other civilizations, and the ummah grew into a more ethnically and culturally diverse circle of believers.

Islam and the world did not have to wait long to see the realization of a civilization that was innovative, unique, and unrivaled in brilliance for its times. The spread of Islam to distant places was astoundingly swift. Within a century from the death of the Prophet, Islam swept through North Africa reaching Spain in the west and central Asia in the east, and even became a minority religion in China. With a generally positive attitude toward the cultural and scientific legacies of past and contemporary civilizations, Islam tried to create a new civilization by merging the best of these traditions with its own resources. The hallmark of Islam, the civilization, is the grand synthesis. Islam, the religion, inspires the Muslim mind to create a human civilization that is basically synthetic in nature.

Islam, Science, and Technology

This historical background provides a context to understand science, technology, and ethics in Muslim culture and civilization. Muslims believe the Qur'ān affirms the supreme role of knowledge in ordering human life and thought and delivering success. Knowledge is regarded as the key to human salvation and to human happiness in this world and in the afterlife. But knowledge that saves must be sacred in nature. Sacredness is not defined in terms of primacy of revelation over reason. Among Muslim philosophers and scientists the distinction between revelation and reason is rather blurred. This is because reason is regarded as a minor revelation given to every human individual and as such is itself sacred in nature even if many humans are not aware of it. By sacred knowledge the Qur'ān means knowledge that is related in some way to God, pursued in the name of God, and used and applied in the name of God. As Muslims see it, human knowledge, including science, possesses a sacred character because God is the ultimate source of all knowledge regardless of whether humans acquire it empirically or otherwise. The Qur'ān speaks of God as the All-Knower and the giver of knowledge to humans through various avenues ranging from physical senses to intellectual reflection, dream interpretation to divine revelation. The Muslim idea of sacred knowledge is contained in the very first revelation Muhammad received.

The Qur'ān also maintains that the ultimate purpose of human knowledge is to know God. This objective is attainable because human knowledge of creation will lead to knowledge of the divine reality, which is considered to be the highest form of knowledge possible. The Qur'ān is emphatic in acknowledging that God is knowable. Muslims approach the study of different branches of knowledge, including science and technology, with this spiritual objective in mind. Scientists view their study of the natural world as a form of religious worship, but the lesser objectives of knowledge are duly recognized. Knowledge helps humans to fulfill their rational and mental needs, such as clarity of mind, certitude of thought, and rational explanations of both natural and social phenomena, as well as those material needs that can be met by technology. In the traditional Muslim pursuit of knowledge, the deepest theoretical understanding of things goes hand in hand with an earnest appreciation of their practical utility.

It was the Prophet who inspired Muslims to pursue knowledge of things for both their theoretical and practical considerations. He encouraged his followers to reflect and contemplate natural phenomena pursuant to the Qur'ān with a view toward deepening understanding of divine power and wisdom in creation. But the Prophet also compared knowledge that had no practical benefits to a tree without fruit. He often prayed to God seeking protection from useless knowledge. On the basis of this tradition, Muslim scholars progressively sought to articulate ideas, concepts, and theories on the broader issue of the ethics of knowledge as activities of knowledge production and applications in the new civilization expanded and became more complex. Major issues included clarifying the meanings of beneficial and harmful knowledge in the perspective of Islamic law and determining the general criteria for each type of knowledge. Muslim preoccupation with the knowledge culture took many different forms. One was classification of knowledge, which proved to be a good way of keeping track of the state of knowledge at any given time. Classification of knowledge divided the sciences into thematic groups of well-defined disciplines, and preserved their hierarchy.

The Arab philosopher al-Kindi (c. 801–873) authored the first Muslim classification of the sciences in the ninth century. Since then many scholars have devoted considerable effort to expositions of this theme. The last significant work on the subject is the classification written by the Indian theologian Shah Waliallah of Delhi (1703–1762) in the eighteenth century. The importance and popularity of classification of the sciences was evident not only from the number of books written on the subject but also from the diverse nature of the scholarly community that produced them. Theologians, philosophers, scientists, historians, and jurists, among both Sunnis and Shiites, were represented in this unique enterprise. Classifications had been particularly useful to the organization of educational curricula. Interestingly there appeared to be a correlation between the rate of production of classifications of knowledge and the intensity of knowledge expansion. The interest in classifications was at its height during the era when Muslims were the most productive in terms of adding new scientific disciplines to the existing body of human knowledge. After the sixteenth century when intellectual and scientific innovations began to decline in most parts of the Muslim world, work on classifications dropped sharply. The fact that hardly any work has appeared on the subject since the eighteenth century testifies to the reduced importance of the role of knowledge among Muslims in the early-twenty-first century world.

It is clear from past classifications that Muslims were concerned with the need for a balanced approach to both theoretical and practical knowledge. In addition, Muslims accord relative importance to each science in the context of human knowledge as a whole. Generally scholars use three criteria to determine the epistemic position of each science in what is traditionally called the hierarchy of knowledge. The criteria are defined in terms of the relative excellence of the objects of study, methods of study, and benefits of study. Some sciences may be viewed as more laudable than others on the basis of one or more of these criteria. The greatest science in light of the three criteria is the science of God or theology in the true sense of the word.

Islamic Culture, Science, and Technology

As clearly reflected in classifications over the centuries, Muslims do not consider science and technology to be the most important branch of knowledge, as do many people in Europe and North America who view science as the sole basis for reliable knowledge and technology as the best means to solve human problems. From the Muslim perspective, science could never take the place of metaphysics and theology in either temporal or moral importance because the latter have God and the divine realities as their object of study whereas science and technology focus on natural objects created by God. Additionally technology could never replace divine law (shari'ah) as the best provider of efficacious solutions to human individual and societal problems. Despite these beliefs, at the apex of their cultural influence, Muslims demonstrated a degree of appreciation of science and technology unseen in earlier times. Such appreciation was contextual, as dictated by the shari'ah itself.

Muslims distinguish between two types of obligatory knowledge. The first type is fard 'ayn, meaning obligatory for everyone to have as, for example, in the case of knowledge of canonical prayer. The second type is fard kifayah, meaning obligatory for society to possess, though the task of acquiring it may be left to certain individuals or groups. Implicit in the meaning of this category of knowledge is that without it a society would lack something that is important to its well being. Shari'ah confers the status of fard kifayah knowledge to science and technology on the basis of their immense benefits to human society. A society without a level of science and technology proportionate to its problems is considered unhealthy. Political philosophers like al-Farabi (870–950) went so far as to claim that science and technology are necessary ingredients in the pursuit of human happiness. But to Muslims, science and technology serve society best when pursued and employed in the light of ethical-legal principles of shari'ah.

Muslims believe both shari'ah and science and technology are necessary to societal salvation, and that the two should be joined within the ethical and legal framework of shari'ah. Shari'ah, which is primarily based on the teachings of the Qur'ān and the prophetic hadiths, is considered by Muslims to be the most important source of ethical values and principles to guide human actions and conduct. In the case of the Shiites, the hadiths extend to embrace the teachings of their supreme spiritual leaders known as Imams. Shari'ah refuses to separate between ethical and legal thought. What is legal has to be ethical, and vice versa. The religious significance of scientific and technological activities resides in the fact that the shari'ah divides all human actions into five categories. These categories are the obligatory (wajib), the meritorious or the recommended, the indifferent (mubah), the forbidden (haram), and the reprehensible (makruh). The main significance of these ethical categorizations for science and technology in Muslim culture is that society and the state are in broad agreement on what ought to be the priorities in scientific and technological pursuits. Obviously scientific and technological products and activities in the obligatory and meritorious categories are given the greatest priority. At the same time shari'ah is ever present to remind society and the state of the need to refrain from indulging in scientific and technological activities belonging to the forbidden category because haram would be harmful to society. Shari'ah's general objectives, namely to protect religion, reason, life, progeny and property, and its specific exhortations pertaining to both worship and social duties determine the types and scopes of scientific and technological activities to be encouraged or shunned. Muslim science and technology over the centuries had more or less developed along the ethical track that shari'ah provided. Muslims emphasized sciences like mathematics, astronomy, geography, medicine, botany, and agriculture because of their practical relevance to shari'ah. For the same reason, Muslims developed civil engineering and medical, agricultural, and navigational technology to new heights in the medieval period. But on the whole, harmony between science, technology and ethics was rarely shattered.

Contemporary Issues

In many early-twenty-first century Muslim societies worldwide, the traditional bond between divine law and technology has been severed. For various reasons, shari'ah is no longer seen as relevant to the shaping of technological pursuits. Muslims face the ethical challenge of dealing with science and technology issues that are largely not of their own making, and that pose numerous challenges to traditional Islamic ethics.

Perhaps the most serious challenge derives from military technology and biotechnology including medical technology that enables humans to, literally, determine life and death. Modern military technology in the form of weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear and biological weapons, clearly transgresses the limits of traditional Islamic war ethics. Some Muslim states are defending the right to acquire such weapons on what they claim to be Islamic grounds, although it seems clear that their motive is primarily political. Many scholars in Sunni Pakistan defend that country's Islamic bomb on the basis of geopolitical considerations. In Shiite Iran clerics are divided on the issue of possessing nuclear weapons with President Seyed Mohamed Khatami (elected 1997) taking the stand that such weapons are contrary to Islamic ethical teachings. Muslims throughout the world are divided on the issue not along theological or jurisprudential grounds but by political, ideological perspectives. However one thing is clear: Pronuclear weapons advocates have been able to sustain their views largely by appealing to political considerations rather than to the more fundamental Islamic ethics on the conduct of war. Proponents of the supremacy of Islamic political power are likely to endorse such weapons.

Biomedical technology has impacted the social fabric of Europe and North America in an unprecedented way and has sent shock waves into the Muslim world. The range of biomedical technology currently employed in Muslim countries is still limited. But that limited use is apparently dictated far more by economics than by perceptions of ethical incompatibility with Islam. But the few richer ones as well as Muslim minorities in the west have helped Muslims to keep abreast with ethical issues arising from modern biomedical practice. In countries such as Nalaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, and Kuwait issues in biomedical ethics such as debated in the west are likewise discussed in the medical profession and the academia. The Islamic Organization for Medical Sciences based in Kuwait is exceptionally active in organizing international meetings of Muslim medical doctors to discuss implications of contemporary biomedical technology for Islamic societal values. Quite often experts in Islamic law are invited to these meetings for religious consultation. This meeting of Muslim scientific and religious minds has been successful in coming up with well-defined criteria for Muslim acceptance of biomedical technology. There is a particular concern for the impact of biomedical technology on traditional family values and institutions. The general Muslim view is that while that technology is not the cause of the breakdown in traditional family and marriage institutions, it nonetheless has created new possibilities that allow the viability of alternative lifestyles. Life-support machines that call into question the traditional definition of death, technology that uncovers information about babies still in the womb, sperm banks, and artificial insemination are major examples of modern-day scientific and technological innovations that have attracted the attention of Muslim ethicists. Debates on those issues had hardly settled when the more serious ethical issue of cloning emerged.

On some issues such as the technology associated with prenatal information and artificial insemination the Muslim debate has been fairly brief as religious experts and political authorities quickly find satisfactory answers to initial Muslim grievances on the possible misuse of the technology. On other issues such as the life-supporting machines the debate rages on. The majority view is that as traditionally held the community of believers should help to facilitate "easy and peaceful" death of the dying and not to prolong agony and suffering such as through the use of the life-supporting machine. The traditional belief is that death, a passage to afterlife, is itself a suffering. To be in a state of neither life nor death is viewed as being in a state of suffering. The traditional way of facilitating peaceful death is recitation of verses from the Qur'ān. The minority view is that use of the machine is permissible because religion also teaches the saving of every human life through every possible means. While debates on such issues rage on the more serious ethical issue of cloning emerged. Muslims are unanimous in rejecting human cloning. But they are deeply divided on the use of stem cells for research. The overwhelming majority oppose using human embryonic stem cells for research. But many Muslim groups consider use of adult stem cells as religiously permissible.

The following patterns emerge in the still-fluid Muslim response to bioethical issues. First Muslims are increasingly turning to Islam's inner resources as found in the Qur'ān, prophetic traditions, and traditional ethics in looking for answers to dilemmas posed by new technologies. Second Muslims are evaluating the potential value of new technologies while remaining committed to defending shari'ah-sanctioned social institutions. They are likely to adopt new technologies within the constraints of shari'ah as they have already done in many cases. For example, Muslim jurists have permitted artificial insemination as long as the couple is legally married according to Islamic law and the semen is that of the husband. Third Muslims are questioning whether humanity needs to have better and more encompassing ethical ideas than just those that appeal to research interests or search for medical cures in order to justify controversial, new scientific research and biomedical technology. As Muslims become more immersed in technological matters they more often find the need to consult the ethics of shari'ah.

A deep interest in ethical issues in science and technology presupposes a certain level of scientific and technological progress. As things are, most Muslim countries have hardly attained that level of progress. Many factors ranging from the religious and the political have contributed to the present Muslim lack of progress in science and technology. One of these is the neglect in Muslim education of that dimension of Islamic teachings favorable to scientific and technological progress. The current lack of interest in the ethics of science and technology in Muslim societies is thus understandable. But this lack of interest does not at all reflect the intellectual richness that characterizes the traditional treasury of Islamic ethical wisdom. Students of the shari'ah and the ethical dimension of Islamic science and technology when it was at its best are quite aware that Islamic ethical thought remains largely relevant to many of the contemporary ethical issues. There is nothing more glaring than the example of environmental ethics to illustrate the wide discrepancy between Islam's actual teachings and the current index of Muslim environmental awareness. The Qur'ān is replete with verses of environmental significance. Traditional Islamic architecture and urban planning has been one of the best Muslim attempts to embody the ideals of Islamic environmentalism as taught by the Qur'ān. Yet in the early twenty-first century Muslim countries are plagued with environmental pollution and urban degradation.

A promising Muslim country is Malaysia. It is one of the most advanced Muslim countries in science and technology. While seeking to reap the benefits of modern western science and technology Malaysia has also shown much interest in Islamic values as a contributing factor to scientific and technological progress in the twenty-first century. There is a visible attempt in the country to create a new synthesis of tradition and modernity not only in science and technology but also in other fields of civilization. The Malaysian government has created several institutions with that goal in mind. The most well known is perhaps the Malaysian Institute of Islamic Understanding, which has organized many programs on ethical issues in science and technology. Malaysia is quite advanced in genetic engineering. For a country noted for its Islamic fervor it is rather interesting that Islam does not appear to be a hindrance to the progress of genetic engineering. The new Badawi administration (succeeding that of Mahathir in 2003) has unveiled an agricultural policy that places great emphasis on genetic engineering and biotechnology. Interestingly, Badawi views this agricultural policy as an integral part of his Islam policy now known as civilizational Islam.

The case of Malaysia is important. It is not Arab but predominantly Malay like its neighbor Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim nation on earth. And yet in the early 2000s Malaysia appears to be more vocal than all the Arab states in championing modern Islamic issues. And many Muslims do make a careful distinction between Islamic and Arabic' while acknowledging the Arabic coloring of Islam by virtue of the Muslim belief that God has revealed the Qur'ān in Arabic. Islamic issues as distinct from Arabic are those that concern all Muslims transcending ethnic barriers. The Islamic organization in Kuwait may be led by Arabs but the ethical issues they discuss are Islamic issues of importance to all Muslims. Similarly the Malaysian institute of Islamic understanding is led by Malays who are non-Arabs but its programs on ethics in science and technology have the participation of Muslims from various parts of the world including Arabs.

Muslim attitudes toward modern science and technology are far more positive in the early twenty-first century than in the colonial period when they generally equated modernization with Westernization. From Morocco in the western wing of the Muslim world to Indonesia in its eastern most part colonial attempts at modernization such as in education, agriculture, and business often found stiff resistance from the Muslim populace. Such attitudes became the legacy of post-independence leaders in the Muslim world. But in the last several decades Islam has also emerged as an important source of positive influence on the Muslim thinking on science and technology. Many Muslims now see the possibility of merging the best of modern scientific and technological culture with the best of Islamic intellectual and cultural tradition.


SEE ALSO Christian Perspectives: Historical Traditions; Jewish Perspectives; Scientific Revolution.


Anees, M. A. (1989). Islam and Biological Futures: Ethics, Gender, and Technology. London: Mansell. One of the few Muslim discussions of biomedical ethical issues in an Islamic context. It gives a good treatment of the implications of advances in biomedical technology for Muslim beliefs and practices including approaches to issues of gender.

Anees, M. A. (1994). "Human Clones and God's Trust: An Islamic View." New Perspectives Quarterly 2: 1. A pioneering treatment on the subject of human clones by a Muslim writer. It has also been published as part of a chapter entitled "God and the Clone" in the book The Human Cloning Debate, ed. Glenn McGee and Arthur Caplan, Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Hills Books (2004).

Bakar, Osman. (1986). "Islam and Bioethics." Greek Orthodox Theological Review 31(2): 157–179. A detailed discussion of the relevance of Islamic law (shari'ah) to Muslim understanding of bioethical issues.

Bakar, Osman. (1997). History and Philosophy of Islamic Science. Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society. A good introduction to the relations between science and religion according to Islamic perspectives.

Bakar, Osman. (1998). Classification of Knowledge in Islam. Cambridge, England: Islamic Texts Society. Perhaps the most comprehensive study of Muslim classifications of the sciences ever taken. It is a useful source of information on the place of science and technology in Muslim intellectual culture in different periods of Islamic history.

Hill, Donald, R. (1996). Islamic Science and Engineering. Chicago: Kazi Publications. Provides an insightful account of various branches of medieval Islamic engineering and its contribution to the development of Western technology.

Hill, Donald R, and Ahmed Yusef al-Hasan. (1992). Islamic Technology: An Illustrated Study. Lanham, MD: Cambridge University Press. Impressive illustrated study of medieval Islamic technology providing readers with invaluable manuscripts and artifacts illustrations.

King, David. (1995). Islamic Astronomical Instruments. London: Variorum Reprints. Collection of papers the author has published in various journals on astronomical instruments originating or widely used in medieval Islam such as the astrolabe, quadrant and sundial.

McClellan, James E., and Harold Dorn. (1999). Science and Technology in World History: An Introduction. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. Good introduction for lay readers and undergraduate students to the history of science and technology in different civilizations in the East and in the West.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. (1976). Islam Science: An Illustrated Study. London: World of Islam Festival Publishing. The first illustrated study of the whole of Islamic science ever undertaken and thus provides a good companion to Science and Civilization in Islam (see below). The book combines an account of the morphology and brief history of the various sciences with illustrations drawn from sources spread throughout the Islamic world.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. (1987). Science and Civilization in Islam. Cambridge, England: Islamic Texts Society. Excellent overview of the theory and practice of Islamic science. It provides a useful context for understanding Muslim appreciation of science when Islam was at its best.

Sayili, Aydin. (1981). The Observatory in Islam. New York: Arno Press. One of the best historical studies of an important scientific institution in Islam, namely the observatory, which initiated a clear inter-dependence between scientific research and technological innovations in the field of astronomy.