Saturday, July 14, 2012

Man and the Nature of the Scientific Quest

The lines below are from the book "Road to Makkah", an auto-biography of Muhammad Asad (formerly Leopold Weiss, an Austrian Jew).

Never before, I reflected have the worlds of Islam and the West come so close to one another as today. This closeness is a struggle, visible and invisible. Under the impact of Western cultural influences, the souls of many Muslim men and women are slowly shriveling. They are letting themselves be led away from their erstwhile belief that an improvement of living standards should be but a means to improving man’s spiritual perceptions; they are falling into the same idolatry of ‘progress’ into which the Western world fell after it reduced religion to a mere melodious tinkling somewhere in the background of happening: and are thereby growing smaller in stature; not greater;  for all cultural imitation, opposed as it is to creativeness, is bound to make people small…

Not that the Muslims could not learn much from the West, especially in the fields of science and technology. But the acquisition of scientific notions and methods is not really ‘imitation’ and certainly not in the case of a people whose faith commands them to search for knowledge wherever it is to be found. Science is neither Western nor Eastern, for all scientific discoveries are only links in an unending chain of intellectual endeavor which embraces mankind as a whole. Every scientist builds on the foundations supplied by his predecessors, be they of his own nation or of another and this process of building, correcting and improving goes on and on from man to man, from age to age, from civilization to civilization so that the scientific achievements of a particular age or civilization can never be said to ‘belong’ to that age or civilization. At various times one nation more vigorous that others, is able to contribute more to the general fund of knowledge; but in the long run the process is shared and legitimately so, by all. There was a time when the civilization of the Muslims was more vigorous than the civilization of Europe. It transmitted many technological inventions of a revolutionary nature and more than that the very principles of that ‘scientific method’ on which modern science and civilization are build. Nevertheless, Jabir ibn Hayyan’s fundamental discoveries in chemistry did not make chemistry an ‘Arabian’ science, nor can algebra and trigonometry be described as ‘Muslim’ sciences, although one was evolved by Al-Khwarizmi and the other by Al-Battani, both of whom were Muslims just as one cannot speak of an ‘English’ Theory of Gravity although the man who formulated it was an Englishman. All such achievements are the common property of the human race.

If the Muslims adopt modern methods in science and technology, they will be doing nothing more than follow the evolutionary instinct which causes men to avail themselves of other men’s experience. But if they adopt, as there is no need for them to do, Western form of life, Western manners and customs and social concepts, they will not gain thereby; for what the West can give them in this respect will not be superior to what their own culture has given them and to which their own faith points the way.

If the Muslims keep their heads cool and accept progress as a means and not as an end in itself, they may not only retain their own inner freedom but also, perhaps, pass on to Western man the lost secret of life’s sweetness…


  1. I am not sure if West vs East are the best lens to analyze this from.

    There line that divides is the focus on duniya versus focus on akhira. The medieval West was just as concerned about the akhira as the East was. And there are many in the East now that are focused on the duniya just like the West.

    In fact even the religion itself has not been safe from this infection of the duniya. People look for social benefits in things like salat, zakat, and hajj. They look for health benefits in ruku, sujud, fasting, and eating halal. They look for economic benefits in the rules of zakat and riba.

    The beauty of Islam is that it balances things. This means that we do not overoptimize any one aspect of our lives. What if alcohol and drugs lead to more creativity? What if riba fuels the engines of growth? The question is not optimizing technological output or economic prosperity, but balancing all these things. In the end the balance enter the human as well who is at peace with himself and hopefully successful in the akhira.

    While we balance everything else we leave one thing unbalanced: and that is pursuit of the akhira. Here we need to overoptimize and be completely unrestrained and unreasonable.

    The real reason for salat, fasting, zakat, hajj, and avoiding riba and alcohol is because they increase our likelihood of ultimate success in the everlasting life of the akhira. According to a hadith qudsi this world is not even worth the wing of a mosquito. Through Allah’s mercy He has put some benefits in these things for this life as well. However, they are unlikely to lead to the overoptimized extreme that a singleminded focus on the duniya produces.

    1. You are right.

      PS: "Road to Makkah" was written in the mid Twentieth century in a pre-globalized world when Muslim societies were more balanced and less dunya centric than now.


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