Islamic Science, the Scholar and Ethics

by FSTC Published on: 24th February 2006

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The ethics or philosophy of science has in more recent times become an increasingly important subject. This article discusses and compares modern day scientific ethics with the ethics or morality underpinning Islamic Science.


Let us take a moment to ponder over a powerfully incisive thought from one of the greatest Muslim scholars of all time, Al-Ghazali

God has created the spirit of man out of a drop of his own light; its destiny is to return to Him. Do not deceive yourself with the vain imagination that it will die when the body dies. The form you had on your entrance into this world, and your present form, are not the same; hence there is no necessity of your perishing on account of the perishing of your body. Your spirit came into this world a stranger; it is only sojourning in a temporary home. From the trials and tempests of this troublesome life, our refuge is in God. In reunion with Him we shall find eternal rest – rest without sorrow, joy without pain, strength without infirmity, knowledge without doubt, a tranquil and yet an ecstatic vision of the source of life and light and glory, the source from which we came.

Iqbal, like his predecessors al-Ghazali and Ibn Khaldun, states that “total reflection also includes inner reflection, and the pursuit of knowledge should not be divorced from ethical and value criteria.” Hence, one could indeed argue that experimental and empirical efforts cannot be completely divorced from one’s heart, inner intuition, insight or conscience. Reason and revelation go hand in hand, it would then seem, while science and knowledge are at once personal and social. Sadar adds that,

Scientists are accountable to God for their activities, they are required both to serve the community and to protect and promote its ethical and moral institutions. The way they use science, therefore, must reflect the values of the society they seek to serve. Thus, the Quranic approach to science is at once dynamic and static: it promotes reason, objectivity and the pursuit of truth and excellence, but at the same time, it places this endeavour firmly within the boundaries of Islamic ethics and values.

The pursuit of knowledge has a very important place in Islam, but it is subservient to Quranic values and ethics. In the Qur’an, knowledge and righteousness must go hand-in-hand. The Qur’an promises good rewards and high rank for those who possess knowledge coupled with faith and practice. According to Al-Faruqi, Islamic science is the `practical knowledge that produces results and leads to virtue, the object of the Muslim’s prayer: “Oh God grant us a knowledge that is useful and beneficial.”‘ Under Islam, science serves the goals of society. The goals of an Islamic society are to increase brotherhood and spiritual awareness and reduce consumption. A science with these goals has to be different in nature and style from science as it is practised today. Furthermore, these goals cannot be pursued by any means. They can only be pursued by those means which are permitted by Islam.

Hence, Islamic civilisation, unlike today’s Western, secular civilisation, does not differentiate between matters of `state’ and matters of religion. It is a religion, a way of life and a code of conduct for individuals, families and societies simultaneously. Moreover, Islam does not just preach good religious practice, but also, and above all, Islam encourages good deeds, that are not to be done just occasionally but in all acts and decisions, in all spheres and realms. The Qur’an, indeed, repeatedly stresses the `amal salih (good deed). Furthermore, in Islam, there are no priests or intermediaries who can forgive a sinner on behalf of God. No Prophet died for a nation’s sins. Each and everyone is responsible before God for their own deeds, good and bad. From the layman to the man with great power or knowledge, all are accountable for their acts. Thus the Muslim is literally commanded to do good and right only.

Even a Muslim with a little faith, is nevertheless required to act and implement this faith in his daily life. Thus, whether he is in business or in war, the Muslim acts as well as he can, which explains why, even in the heat of battle and amidst so much brutality, Muslims should still adhered to the true, compassionate code towards the vast majority, i.e. the innocents. The high moral ethics of Islam, are thus second nature and permeate all human activity. These, then, are the philosophical and sociological considerations and some of the priorities which make Islamic science an entirely different enterprise from science as it is practiced today. It can be seen that the motivational and governing forces of this science were religious and cultural, and gave Islamic science a direction that was different from that of contemporary Western science.

A broad spectrum of scientists in the Muslim world have discussed Islamic and secular approaches to science. While science itself is neutral, it is the scientist’s approach that moulds science into an Islamic or secular entity; ‘science is Islamised by the way we practice it and utilize it.’ The Islamic approach recognises the limitations of the human mind and acknowledges that all knowledge is the property of God. Humility, recognising the limits of scientific method, and respect for the object of study are primary lessons that can be adopted at the very start of the journey to rediscover the heritage and contemporary meaning of Islamic science. This is in essence, the message of Islamic science to the world. The scientific tradition of Islam is based on the profound intuition of the interdependence and interrelation of all things in the universe, including of course our planetary environment.

Consideration for higher ethics under Islam is expressed in many ways. As early as the 9th century, the physician Ishaq bin Ali Rahawi wrote the first treatise on `adab al-tabib, i.e. medical ethics. In this treatise, Rahawi labels physicians as “guardians of souls and bodies” and in this treatise he spells out all the deeds and acts a Muslim physician must observe. Al-Razi, too, in his medical work did so much to `humanise’ medicine by taking into consideration the patient’s problems and attitudes. “The doctor’s aim is to do good, even to our enemies, so much more to our friends, and my profession forbids us to do harm to our kindred, as it is instituted for the benefit and welfare of the human race, and God imposed on physicians the oath not to compose mortiferous remedies.”

The distinguishing feature that made Islamic medicine quite remarkable was its unsurpassed ethics. Muslim hospitals served people irrespective of religion, colour or background, by staff that operated on a completely equal footing, whether Christians, Jews, or other minorities. A Muslim doctor was also identified as ‘Hakim’, which in Arabic translates as ‘wise’. Muslim physicians practiced with the guidance of God present in their minds. Hence, unlike secular medicine today, Muslim practitioners did not perform abortions or sex change operations. Nor did wealth decide who to treat and how. Muslim physicians also had obligations to their patients, community and colleagues that are difficult to imagine in practice today.

In Rahawi’s book there are twenty chapters, which include:

  • What the physician must avoid and beware of,
  • The manners of visitors,
  • The care of remedies by the physician,
  • The dignity of the medical profession,
  • The examination of physicians, and
  • The removal of corruption among physicians.

This same attitude was observed towards the wider world. Al-Faruqi points out that the natural world and all its splendour is for the Muslim a ‘ni’mah, a blessed gift of God’s bounty, granted to man to use and to enjoy […] not man’s to possess or to destroy, or to use in any way detrimental to himself and to humanity, or to itself as God’s creation.” Further “since nature is God’s work, His ayah or sign, and the instrument of His purpose which is the absolute good […] the Muslim treats nature with respect and demonstrates deep gratitude to its beneficial Creator and Bestower. Any transformation of it must have a purpose clearly beneficial to all before it can be declared legitimate.” Muslim scientists, whether Ibn al-Haytham in his optics, or Al-Biruni in his study of India, sought to understand nature, their respect for which was almost reverential, not to dominate the object of their study. Sardar notes that Bacon’s dictum that “nature yields her secrets under torture” would have sent shudders down al-Biruni’s spine. Indeed, Al-Faruqi had made a remarkable comparative exercise between Islamic science, that of its predecessors, the Greeks, and that of the contemporary West. ‘Greek science,’ they explain, was too intoxicated with the beauty of nature per se and regarded the tragic outcome of naturalism itself as natural. Since the Renaissance, modern Western civilisation has had the highest regard for tragedy. Its zeal for naturalism took it to the extreme of accepting nature without morality, as a supernatural condition. Since the struggle of Western man has been against the Church and all that it represents, the progress of man in science was conceived as liberation from its clutches. Hence, it was extremely hard even to contemplate a world affirmation or naturalism that was attached to normative threads stretching from a priori, noumenal, absolute source. Without such threads, naturalism is bound to end up in a state of self-contradiction, with internal conflicts that are ex hypothesi insoluble. The Olympian community could not live in harmony with itself and had to destroy itself. Its world affirmation was in vain.

Modern science, which is primarily Western, unlike Islamic science, has endless preoccupations that have very little consideration with regards to ethics. Nature, for instance, has only recently begun to receive its due after centuries of savage ‘development’. Even if there is an awareness of the effects of global warming, there is still barely any shift in Western consumer behaviour towards reducing the use of fuel. Furthermore, to the modern scientists, what is scientific supersedes everything else. Thus, in this respect, anything goes: the scientific and that which is defined as such. Furthermore, for the sake of ‘science’ so much pollution and destruction – devastation, in fact – occurs on a daily basis; whole species have become extinct in the name of progress. Entire peoples, regions, oceans, and animals of all sorts have also been sacrificed for the sake of science. The natural world is used for, or exposed to atomic tests, while horrendously depraved weapons have been tested in wars, while torturous new devices are trailed on prisoners of war. Scientists also develop poisonous gases that were used to exterminate millions of young men already in horrific conditions on the battlefields of Europe in the First World War, to Vietnam, and beyond.

There is also, of course, the issue of money. Under Islam, science was developed with the Godly injunction of doing good for humanity and nature. In our times however, the sponsor calls the shots. Sometimes the interests of humanity and finance meet, often they don’t. Money, then, takes precedence. Moreover, as the financier provides direction, the morality of science is not longer in the hands of the scientist. In a world dominated by monopolies, greed, and the absence of morality, it is impossible for science and ethics to work together in harmony. Solzhenitsyn summarised this in his inaugural address at Harvard University in 1978, stating that “the most impressive scientific and technological achievements could not redeem the moral poverty so prevalent in the Western world.”

Freedom is indeed, one such concept that has its limits in Islam. Freedom of expression has a divine sanction in Islam. No one, nor any man-made law, can take this birthright away from someone else. Freedom of expression is not only a right in Islam but an obligation, and one who tries to deny criticism and counter-criticism is openly at war with Islam. This is why criticism has been institutionalised in the Islamic concept of muhasabah, which embraces both criticism and self-criticism, including intellectual, political and social, correction of errors, being prepared to accept corrections, trial, giving account, and taking disciplinary measures or actions. The Prophet explained the obligation to criticise by asking his followers to imagine a ship at sea which was carrying passengers. Some of them were seated on the deck while others were seated below. One of those below started drilling a hole where he was sitting. If the other passengers were to stop him (and this would be a duty on the passengers below and on deck), his life would be saved, along with the lives of the other passengers and crew; if they let him carry on, they would all drown.

Like all freedoms, however, Islam couples freedom of expression with social responsibility. In the West, the book has become an icon; its contents are irrelevant; freedom of expression is equated with the book itself. In Islam, the book is symbolic, but its contents are important too. It can be used to offer any criticism, question anything including even the notion of the divine itself, focus discussion on any aspect of the entire spectrum of human experience and ideas. But, because it is held in such high esteem, it cannot be allowed to be used as a vehicle for abuse or the dishonour of individuals in society in the name of criticism. Criticise as much as you wish, tear arguments or ideas limb from limb, but do not attack the honour or the person by abuse, ridicule or mockery. This is the responsibility that Islam places on the freedom of expression.

Under Islam, authors always began with the formula ‘In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate’, and with salutation to the Prophet. Any Muslim author begs God to grant him the grace and strength to carry through his enterprise and for the very best of results. Muslim scholars quoted on every suitable occasion verses from the Qur’an, as well as hadith, in support of their arguments. Under Islam, Bucaille states,

men were more steeped in the religious spirit than they are today; but in the Islamic world, this did not prevent them from being both believers and scientists. Science was the twin of religion and it should never have ceased to be so.

Image Sources:

Image 1 (Earth) source:

Image 2 (Al Ghazali) source:

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