The Islamic Origins of Science

[Short Link for this page: ] For later posts, related to this topic, see “Overcoming Shock-and-Awe of Western Science“, and “Is Science Western in Origin?

Chalmers in his book “What is this thing called Science?” explains why he is studying the subject. He wants to prove the superiority of scientific knowledge to all other types of knowledge. However. he frankly acknowledges at the outset that the book DOES NOT SUCCEED in its objective — it is unable to find a clear cut definition of science which would prove the superiority of scientific knowledge. This book summarized centuries of Western debate on the subject, as well as the current state of the dialog. He also notes that some participants in this debate, after centuries of Western failure to define science, have come to the conclusion that it cannot be done — scientific knowledge is NOT some special mode of knowing the world which is privileged above others.

One thing that is hidden in Western accounts is the issue of WHY does it matter? Why is it important to prove that scientific knowledge is superior to other forms of knowledge? If we reflect on our lives, we note that most of the knowledge we have of living, loving, spiritual and emotional is NOT scientific. Clearly, the most important things that we know, that make us human, are not derived from science. Then why this urge to prove the superiority of scientific knowledge? Why not accept that is it just one form of knowledge, like any other?

To this question, I offer a radical answer, very different from anything found in the Western intellectual tradition.

Science was invented in the Islamic Civilization — by Ibnul Haytham. This was a distinct and radical advance over Greek methodology which was based on axiomatics instead of empirics. The essence of science is that it reaches beyond the appearances to grasp the underlying reality which generates this appearance. THUS it is a way to reach an understanding of the Creator by looking at the Creation. Extending this methodology to natural sciences — to use study of how light behaves to deduce principles of optics — etc is the essence of Science. Similarly, many underlying HIDDEN UNOBSERVABLE causes and objects are revealed by science.  This position is closely related to the REALIST philosophy of science which is discussed and REJECTED by Chalmers — although the reasons for his rejection are not valid, but this would take us far way from the main points I am trying to make here

After the fall of Islamic Spain, the West acquired a VAST treasure of knowledge in the form of millions of books in Cordoba Library as well as other collections. This is what led to the ending of the dark ages of Europe, and the beginning of the Enlightenment. However, the West had a HUGE AMOUNT of difficulty in ABSORBING, assimilating and HARMONIZING this ALIEN body of knowledge with their own belief systems. The Catholic Church set up CENSORSHIP BOARDS which did a very strict control on translations of Arabic and Islamic books to ensure that no heresies were introduced. Every book had to be approved by the Church Censors before it could be published. The INQUISITION was set up to terrify and torture people and keep them away from the forbidden types of knowledge contained in the Islamic books. See “Is Science Western in Origin?” by CK Raju for further details about this.

Ultimately, the Catholic Church FAILED in its efforts to keep out the dangerous Islamic Knowledge. The book “The Enlightenment Quran” shows the crucial role played by translations of the Quran in influencing the thoughts of leaders of the Enlightenment. [See also Thomas Jefferson’s Quran to see the amazing impact of the Quran on the founding & constitution of America.] One of the impacts was the creation of the Protestant Movements, which shattered the unity of Medieval Church. Ultimately, fighting among Christian factions led to general dis-enchantment with religion in Europe, which led to the rise of SECULAR thought which continues to have monumental and extremely harmful effects on humankind and our planet.

Even though the Catholic Church failed to keep science out of Europe, it SUCCEEDED in its efforts to HIDE the Islamic roots of science. Copernicus was just a translator of Arabic Scientific works; he became known as a revolutionary because he was forced to hide the origins of his writings – he had seen one of his friends, Scultetus, tortured and punished for ten years for heretical writings, and did not want to suffer from a similar fate. He did not publish his writings until he was on his deathbed.  Newton was strongly influenced by Islamic ideas, to the extent that he hid his true religious beliefs to avoid being labeled a heretic. All of his three laws of motions, and much of mathematics, was available to him from the Islamic scientific works. He stated that he had “stood on the shoulder of giants” – however, European history of science hides the fact that these were intellectual giants of the Islamic civilization.  NOTE that the key accomplishment of Newton was to look at the motion of the planets and deduce the existence of gravity. This is the KEY to scientific methodology – deducing the existence of hidden unknown objects and causal laws from the surface appearances.

The enormous battle that took place between Science and Religion, spread out over centuries, has shaped European mindset. The victory of Science over Catholic religion did not end the animosity between the two, and hence the effort, spread over the centuries, to prove the superiority of scientific knowledge. In effect, after abandoning religion, the secular thinkers adopted SCIENCE as their new religion, and put their faith in the idea that Science would eventually provide a solution to all human problems. When we try to prove the superiority of scientific knowledge, we are participating in this program, the goal of which is to prove that all problems we face as human being can be solved by science — and we need not rely on religion for this purpose.

However what is most AMAZING and IRONIC is what I have discovered only recently. The West NEVER actually understood the nature of science which they imported from the Islamic Civilization !!!   It was clear that the Muslims paid a LOT MORE ATTENTION to empirical observations than the Greeks ever did. The Greeks did not think much of lowly CONTINGENT observations as a means to knowledge. These can change from time to time irregularly and cannot form the basis of a GRAND knowledge which spans the universe and the centuries. For the first time, the Europeans tried to make sense of how empirical methods can be used to advance knowledge. They made repeated efforts and repeatedly failed. The first major misunderstanding was expressed by Francis Bacon, in the form of INDUCTION. This fails to understand the essence of the scientific method, already described earlier. The erroneous idea of induction persists in modern econometrics, which is based on the false belief that if we see a pattern in a cluster of points, we can predict that this pattern will continue. This is why regression methodology so often leads to false and meaningless results (spurious regressions).

Later, Leibniz, Descartes, Hume, Kant and many others major Western philosophers tackled the problem of how we can get knowledge from observations — the heart and essence of science — but failed to understand the methodology of science. It is possible to discuss this in detail, and explain the errors made by these giants of Western philosophy, but that is not our purpose here. Chalmers is a good guide in this area. The MAIN reason for their inability to understand scientific methodology was because the battle between science and religion led them to assume that: SCIENTIFIC reasoning is the opposite of RELIGIOUS reasoning. This was taken for granted from the beginning, and continues to be assumed in all Western investigations of the philosophy of science. This automatically blocks the understanding of the key concept of science, which actually allows us to deduce the existence of God from the extremely well-ordered, and precision-tuned universe we see around us.

TO THIS DAY, as Chalmers clearly states in his state of the art book — the West DOES NOT UNDERSTAND “What is this thing called SCIENCE?”. This point is of EXTREME IMPORTANCE — because TODAY we can launch a REVOLUTION in the social sciences by starting with a CORRECT understanding of science and applying it to the study of human beings and societies. An immediate objection to this will arise in the mind of the reader – if Western philosophers have failed to understand science, how could it be that the West has made such spectacular progress in science? To understand this, we must differentiate between theory and practice. Chalmers states that scientists are very poor philosophers. Scientists learn by apprenticeship to other scientists, learning-by-doing. Just like a superbly fluent speaker and writer of a language may have no conception of the rules of grammar for the language, so the scientists know how to do science, but cannot articulate the methodology which lies at the root of what they do. However, misunderstanding scientific methodology has had a tremendous impact on Social Science – this is because in social science an effort was made to follow the philosophers’ ideas about how to do science, leading to very deep and fundamental flaws in the social sciences. In particular, modern economics is based on a logical positivist methodology, and is completely wrong. See my post on “The Emergence of Logical Positivism” for a detailed explanation. Similarly, positivist foundations have led to a hopelessly bad methodology for econometrics and statistics; see “A Realist Approach to Econometrics“, and “Real Statistics: An Islamic Approach“.

I am in the process of creating an entirely different approach to economics. In my recent course on Advanced Microeconomics, I have explained how ALL of modern economic theory — utility maximization by consumers, profit maximization by firms, supply and demand equilibrium for determination of prices — IS STRONGLY REJECTED by empirics — if we study consumers, we find that they do not maximize utility ( see my paper: The Empirical Evidence Against Neoclassical Utility Theory: A Survey of the Literature). Similarly, there is very strong empirical evidence that firms do not maximize profits, and that prices are not determined by forces of supply and demand. Nonetheless, because modern economic theory is based on an AXIOMATIC methodology which goes back to the pre-scientific Greek Methodology and is NOT based on scientific methodology which pays close attention to empirical evidence, it comes to completely wrong conclusions.

I recently taught a course on economics in which I explained how nearly everything found in current modern economics textbooks is wrong, and how we can replace it with correct knowledge. One lecture within this sequence is linked below. This lecture details the ideas presented briefly above — that is the origins of science in Islamic Civilization,and the failure of the West to understand science.

The video is slightly less that one hour. I have also explained the fundamental methodological mistake made by economists in particular and social scientists in general, in using a misunderstanding of science to analyze human beings and society in a number of short articles. These are available from this link:

Today, the biggest problem of the Ummah is that we have become mesmerized by the IDOL of Western Knowledge — Although it is a bitter thing to say, the Ummah as a whole currently believes that the Western knowledge they acquired over the past few centuries is SUPERIOR to what was given to us in the form the Wahy — The Quran re-assures is that it is FAR BETTER than anything that others can gather. Unfortunately we have lost trust in this promise of the Quran — EVEN TODAY the Quran provides us with far better solutions to our human problems than the latest finding of Western Science. But Muslims as a whole no longer believe this and keep searching for solutions within the Western intellectual traditions. For a more detailed discussion of how shock-and-awe of the West has made Islam a stranger to Musllims, see “Diagnosis: Absorption of Secular Thought“.

May Allah bless us with the Noor of Eeman and GUIDE US all from out the Darkness and into the Light.

This entry was posted in methodology, science by Asad Zaman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Asad Zaman

BS Math MIT (1974), Ph.D. Econ Stanford (1978)] has taught at leading universities like Columbia, U. Penn., Johns Hopkins and Cal. Tech. Currently he is Vice Chancellor of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. His textbook Statistical Foundations of Econometric Techniques (Academic Press, NY, 1996) is widely used in advanced graduate courses. His research on Islamic economics is widely cited, and has been highly influential in shaping the field. His publications in top ranked journals like Annals of Statistics, Journal of Econometrics, Econometric Theory, Journal of Labor Economics, etc. have more than a thousand citations as per Google Scholar.

13 thoughts on “The Islamic Origins of Science

  1. Some of the readers have commented on this post that it is like a standard APOLOGIST position — the Muslim Civilization is so great because it invented science. This is a SERIOUS MISUNDERSTANDING of what I am trying to say in this post. It worth differentiating what I am saying from the apologist position, so that this confusion does not arise. In general, APOLOGETICS involves AGREEING that West is superior, and then arguing that Islam is also Western and hence can also share the glory of this superiority. To be more explicit: The position I am taking in the linked summary/lecture, is radically different from the apologetic position.

    Here is a description of the apologetic position. First we start by describing the Western position:

    1. Science is the greatest thing — the highest form of knowledge available to man
    2. Science was invented by the West
    As a conclusion we find that the West is the originator, creator and possessor of the highest form of knowledge. In this accomplishment it has no partners or equals.

    The Apologetic Position AGREES with the Western Position on proposition 1 — Science IS the highest form of knowledge. It disputes the West on point 2, arguing (correctly) that Muslims invented Science, and the West learned/acquired science from the Islamic Civilization. This means that the conclusion 2 above is false, Muslims also participated in creation of science and hence are entitled to some share of the glory.

    This apologetic position is very harmful from a purely Islamic point of view — we cannot agree to the idea that modern Western science is the highest form of knowledge, because it automatically degrades the value of the our Quran and Hadeeth. A Muslim must argue that the Quran and Hadeeth are far superior to ALL current Western knowledge. There is a simple reason for this. The Quran and Hadeeth teach us how we can become better human beings, and fulfill the potential locked within each human soul — Western science has NO guidance to offer regarding this most important question we all face in our lives.

    My argument is along rather different lines, and done for a very different purpose. Today, the Ummat as a whole is mesmerized by the Idol of Western knowledge, and believes that modern Western science is indeed the highest form of knowledge. I argue that

    1. Science was invented by Muslims and copied/borrowed by West WITHOUT acknowledgement — THEFT of HISTORY. This theft leads the average Muslim student to have an inferiority complex — they feel that all important knowledge was created by the West, and our ancestors did nothing in this domain — it then seems unlikely that what we Muslims could not do for a thousand years can be done by today by any one of us — this creates a certain hopelessness which is the greatest barrier to accomplishment.

    2. The METHODOLOGY of Science is directly ISLAMIC — that is the heart and core of science is to look at the observables and to deduce the existence of unobservables. This is EXACTLY the same methodology we use to look at the order and harmony of the Universe and deduce the existence of the CREATOR — THIS POINT IS AVAILABLE NOWHERE IN THE WESTERN LITERATURE ON THE METHODOLOGY OF SCIENCE. NOR IS IT AVAILABLE in the apologetics done by secularized muslims, who parrot Western philosphers of science on these matters.

    3. For reasons which are detailed in my lecture. the West NEVER understood the methodology of science TO THIS DAY. INSTEAD, they used a VERY WRONG understanding of scientific methodology to develop the social sciences. As a result, social sciences as developed in the West are SERIOUSLY DEFECTIVE. There are FUNDAMENTAL ERRORS in Western psychology, sociology, political science, economics etc. These errors have led to MASSIVE DAMAGE to world, society, humanity. The POSSIBILITY of MAJOR ERRORs in Western Knoweldge is NOT CONTEMPLATED by APOLOGISTS.

    4. Today, by shifting methodologies and adopting the correct methodology of science, as originally developed by Muslims, we can take the lead and show the way to the rest of humanity in fixing the HUGE number of problems CURRENTLY being faced by the world — in terms of environment, destruction of societies, wars, torture, terror, inequality, etc. THat is TODAY Muslims can get better guidance from the Quran about the problems facing the world than they can by studying Western sciences.

    THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH APOLOGETICS — In particular, it does not say that science is the highest form of knowledge. It says the TODAY the QURAN offers us BETTER solutions for problems facing human beings and societies THAN solutions that could be devised by the best experts at Harvard. That Western Social Science is WRONG because they NEVER UNDERSTOOD the correct scientific methodology. The goal of MY work is to DESTROY the illusion of Western knowledge. As our Poet Iqbal said

    Kheera na kar ska mujhay, Jalwa’ Danish-e- Farang — I would like to protect the eyes of the Ummah from the apparent illusion created by Western social science, which is ignorance masquerading as knowledge.

  2. Thank you for an inspiring write up Sir!
    Your posts really encourage us to think and go beyond the established knowledge hegemony of the west.
    I’m just curious about the patterns. You consistently have made a point that only observations could be the base of scientific discovery. Is it obvious that no patterns exist in the universe? The very skill of recognizing a symmetry or pattern and then imagining the unseen on the basis of it has, I think, has led the human mind to at least think much ahead into the unknown territories…for example Einstien and Ramanujan were highly intuitive/imaginative scientists. With limited physical observations available, they took a leap into the vast unexplored worlds and came up.with jewls of knowledge.
    Looking forwarf to.know your view on this!

    • The idea the science looks for patterns is called INDUCTION, and is due to Sir Francis Bacon, and is the basis of modern econometrics. This idea is SERIOUSLY wrong. Science looks for the HIDDEN CAUSE of the patterns, which is always unobservable. Science involves looking at the OBSERVABLE patterns in the real world and USING THESE to arrive at the UNOBSERVABLE realities which cause these patterns — this SECOND aspect is missing from Western understanding of the methodology of science. This is why Econometrics is such a terrible failure.

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