The Emergence of Scientific Tradition in Islam



Rate this article:

The definition and nature of science has long been an intriguing philosophical dilemma. In this essay Prof. Acikgenc discusses the substance of science, and related issues such as the scientific community, within an Islamic context.

image alt text
Figure 1. A class at the Gazanfer Aga Madrasa founded in 1566 (Image from Divan-i Nadiri, Topkapi Palace Museum Library, H. 899).

See the link below to the full article if you need to obtain PDF reading softwareThis short article is taken from the full article (by Professor Alparslan Acikgenc) which is available here as 24 page PDF file.

The epistemological ground of science can primarily be deduced from its cognitive nature. A tradition, on the other hand, is a social phenomenon, which springs from the social constitution of our nature and as such cannot be deduced from the cognitive aspect of science. This leads us to distinguish the cognitive, or rather the epistemic ground of science from its social aspect. In fact, these two aspects of science spring from two aspects of man, which must be somehow reflected in all human activities as well; epistemological and sociological. We do not mean, however, that all aspects of man are reducible to these two alone; on the contrary, our aim, being rather pragmatic, is to show that science as a human activity must manifest such characteristics of man which will be examined here as the social and epistemological grounds of science. This is also the case with the concept of science in Islam. Without developing these two grounds of scientific activities we cannot investigate how a scientific tradition emerged in Islam.

A scientific tradition is actually the foundation upon which sciences are built within a certain civilisation (or society). But this proposition leaves us with a dilemma that is theoretically circular. This is because our position in this essay presupposes that in a civilisation no learning activity can be characterised ‘scientific’ unless there is already a body of knowledge defined as ‘science’ within that particular civilisation. This being the case, since any tradition of learning or an intellectual tradition can be described as ‘scientific’ only after the existence of sciences, scientific tradition is required for the emergence of sciences, but sciences are required in turn for the emergence of a scientific tradition. Our disapproval of the use of the adjective ‘scientific’ for the intellectual activities prior to the emergence of sciences is defended on the basis of a totally new concept which we would like to introduce here as scientific consciousness that is required by the systematic nature of our mind. We shall try to expose this in order to resolve the apparent circularity in our theoretical foundation.

image alt text
Figure 2. The miniature of Mawlana Kara Yaqub al-Aswad (Image from Tarjama Shakaiq al-Numaniya, TSMK, H 1263).

By the systematic nature of our mind, we mean that mental function which forms an organised unity in order for the mind to be able to carry out its operations. As we proceed from infancy to adulthood, this mental unity is established gradually, forming itself into an architectonic unity that we call ‘worldview.’ Therefore, when we try to acquire knowledge our mind grasps that knowledge within this unity which has already been shaped in the mind.

In this way, if a specific subject of inquiry is investigated for a long period with an uninterrupted chain of investigators, which will be called here ‘scientific community’ (or the ulama within Islamic civilisation), the knowledge accumulated therein will be perceived gradually within a disciplinary unity. When this awareness emerges in the minds of the scholars involved in that activity they become conscious of the fact that subjects or problems of learning they have been investigating constitute a specific discipline, which is then given a certain name thus designating a particular science. It is such awareness that we shall entitle ‘scientific consciousness’ which is the natural result of the constitution of our mind. If scientific consciousness belongs thus to our mind as a natural characteristic, then it cannot be conventional, simply on the basis of the fact that it is primarily cognitive. But a tradition is almost totally conventional and social; hence, if there is such a thing as scientific tradition, then we may infer from our analysis so far that science is at once conventional and universal; the former ensuing from the ways and manners adopted by the scientific community in question, and the latter from the epistemological character of our mind.