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Andrew Zimmerman Jones

The Trajectory of Science in the Muslim World

By February 23, 2013

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al-GhazaliI came upon an intriguing article on Britain's Huffington Post from political reporter Mehdi Hasan, who was confronted by British biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins about whether he believed in a "winged horse." (I have been told the "winged horse" characterization is an over-simplification for the Islamic steed called Al-Baruq.) Hasan is a Muslim, so he concedes that he does believe in this entity, and in Allah as well.

There are some intriguing points within this article which I'll get to in the a later post, but for now I wanted to address one point of historical interest. Hasan presents the cosmological argument as support for the idea that religious faith is rational. He attributes the original formulation of this argument to medieval Muslim theologian al-Ghazali (1058-1111 AD), and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry concurs. An image of Imam al-Ghazali is shown in the graphic to the right.

But the fact that Hasan would invoke al-Ghazali is particularly contradictory given that about a third to one-half of the article is devoted to explaining how the Islamic faith is compatible with not only reason, but specifically with a scientific understanding of the universe ... but al-Ghazali himself is, by at least one account, largely attributed with distancing the Islamic world from their considerable scientific heritage!

Consider this quote from the book Space Chronicles by Neil deGrasse Tyson:

Between A.D. 800 and A.D. 1200 the intellectual center of the Western world was Baghdad. Why? Its leaders were open to whoever wanted to think stuff up: Jews, Christians, Muslims, doubters. Everybody was granted a seat at the debating table, maximizing the exchange of ideas. [...] Historians will say that with the sack of Baghdad by Mongols in the thirteenth century, the entire nonsectarian intellectual foundation of that enterprise collapsed, along with the libraries that supported it. But if you also track the cultural and religious forces at play, you find that the influential writings of the eleventh-century Muslim scholar and theologian Al-Ghazali shaped how Islam viewed the natural world. By declaring the manipulation of numbers to be the work of the devil, and by promoting the concept of Allah's will as the cause of all natural phenomena, Ghazali unwittingly quenched scientific endeavor in the Muslim world. And it has never recovered, even to this day.

I don't know if Tyson's characterization of al-Ghazali and his teachings are accurate or not. I am sadly deficient in my knowledge of Islamic scientific history, something which I need to remedy by getting around to reading House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization to get a better grasp on it (or, alternately, a different book called The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance ... which just goes to show there are many wise houses in the muslim world).

But it does strike me as odd that al-Ghazali would be specifically referenced on both sides of the same fundamental issue: invoked both as a sign of Islam's fidelity to science and reason by Hasan and also as one of the causes of the schism between Islam and scientific thinking by Tyson. I wonder if any of our readers might know more about al-Ghazali, who is apparently quite an influential figure in Muslim intellectual history, and might be able to set the record straight.

I welcome your comments.


February 23, 2013 at 3:56 pm
(1) abb3w says:

You might find some insight on the role of al-Ghazali by looking at Wikipedia’s entry on Averroes, who argued against al-Ghazali (particularly in “The Incoherence of the Incoherence”). In Islamic areas, al-Ghazali’s influence won out over Averroes; in Europe, it went the other way around.

February 23, 2013 at 5:57 pm
(2) Elizabeth Munroz says:

I think the record may never be demonstrated as to which viewpoint is accurate. I think it depends on who is recording the histories, therefore, more than one sided opinion.

February 23, 2013 at 8:35 pm
(3) Unicrane says:

About the steed, al-Buraq, in Islamic tradition, the Angel Gabriel and the Prophet (peace be upon them) traveled across the seven heavens on it. Angels are made of light, so can travel at the speed of light. But in this case, to travel, Gabriel used al-Buraq, which means that the steed could bring Gabriel to travel even faster than the speed of light. And it is only last year that we discovered that Einstein got it wrong. That there is something faster than the speed of light, called the neutrino particle. Before that, we, trusting Einstein’s science, believed that nothing was faster than the speed of light. Well, Muslims we taught 14 centuries ago that there is something faster than light and both Gabriel and the Prophet used al-Buraq to travel faster than the speed that Gabriel could. Humans are made from clay and angels from light. Could al-Buraq have been made from neutrinos? Allah knows best. Peace!

February 23, 2013 at 10:15 pm
(4) Physics Guide says:

Thanks for your clarification about al-Buraq. However, I do need to clarify a few important points. First, we’ve known about the neutrino particle for quite some time. More importantly, though, the experiment which indicated that some neutrinos were moving faster than the speed of light has been shown to be faulty. I discuss this here in greater detail, but there currently exists no evidence that any objects move through spacetime faster than the speed of light.

February 23, 2013 at 11:02 pm
(5) Ahmed Foda says:

About Al-Ghazali i am not an expert myself but all that i know about him is that he choose the way of dividing science from religion. Muslim philosophers in that era tried using philosophical deduction to explain & deduce about religious topics. just like our friend here tried with Al-Buraq & neutrinos. So Al-Ghazali presented his argument on why such philosophical approach would not be successful for religious topics while it’s very useful in scientific topics. so he pushed people to focus on using philosophy for natural science but drove them away from using it for religious believes.

For me i believe in such approach as when you believe in a powerful entity as god why would you require such entity to be bound be same physical laws that bound you. it’s not a matter of proof … it”s a matter of believe that’s why it’s called religion not science. so i don’t care what Al-Buraq is made of or look like.

February 24, 2013 at 8:53 am
(6) Bob says:

The idea that Ghazzali was responsible for decline of Philosophy is a ridiculous myth promoted by Bernard Lewis and some other orientalists. Ghazzali was a philosopher and a Sufi. He did attack philosophical methodology, particularly Aristotelian methods of Avicena and the Ismailis, but his approach was scholarly polemic. The real reason, were the scholars such as Ibn Jawzi, Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Hanbal. Hardline Sunni Imam who were strongly against anything other that Islamic theology. The current movements toward Salafism, who appreciate Ibn Hanbal, Ibn Jawzi, Ibn Taymiyyah and the likes, and abhor the sufis such as Ghazzali, actually enjoy when wrong orientalists blame Ghazzali for the decline. This is a very sensitive issue that enables the anti-philosophical powers in today Islamic nations to redirect the criticism to Ghazzali and act all innocent. You guys need more knowledge about issues such as this.

February 25, 2013 at 4:23 am
(7) Hakeem says:

The readers may want to follow this:


It’s timely with your article.

February 26, 2013 at 1:00 am
(8) Craig says:

Look stop trying to justify your religion with science , it will not work , then you say god or Allah doesn’t need to abide by the same laws as the universe. How many get out clauses do you need? Calling it faith doesn’t give you the right to impose it on others. I personally believe in science, logic, evidence and proof,. I think the universe is wonderful and science enhances my wonder, I don’t need “faith” in what has no proof to enjoy an ethical fulfilled life.

March 4, 2013 at 10:49 am
(9) Scott Baker says:

Great article, as shown by the reference-based comments and disputes it inspired.

March 4, 2013 at 12:19 pm
(10) Ajadi Adisa Abdulrahman says:

Religion and Sciense are different and we can not compare both. We cant see air and we believe it.that is the wonder of God

March 4, 2013 at 4:19 pm
(11) Sven says:

This has been kicking around the interweb for some time and is unfortunately what made me lose a lot of respect for Dr. Tyson, as he appears to have jumped on the New Atheist bandwagon. Hopefully this will help explain how and where Tyson basically lied:


March 4, 2013 at 11:31 pm
(12) William B. Cheney, III says:

I though Tacyons traveled faster than the speed of light. Also doesn’t Higgs?

March 5, 2013 at 10:05 am
(13) TALAL ALI says:

I would like to suggest to you to look in Geoge Sarton study “A History of Science”, the book in four parts in which one part about Arabic-Islamic science. The book shows the Arabic contribution to Scienc, Technology and Medicine.

March 18, 2013 at 5:55 pm
(14) Jim Donivan says:

Was it not Muslim fundamentalists that destroyed the Alexander’s Library
in Egypt?

Religion and science are anathema and only pose as cooperative entities.

All the schumlch in the world in whatever language will not alter reality regarding religion’s hatred and fear of science.

Actually, religion has a point; it should fear science.

March 22, 2013 at 5:26 am
(15) Nser says:

@Ajadi Adisa Abdulrahman: We don’t believe in air, we know there is air because we can feel it and breath it even though we do not see it.

If we expand our consciousness enough we will see that religion and science do not have to contradict each other. It is our narrow-minded perspective that creates the division

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