Islamic Philosophy and Science–M.S. Srinivasan.

Key perspectives: islamic intellect; range and scope; Al-Ghazal’s Synthesis; integral view; arabic science; physics and chemistry; history and anthropology; contributions to Modern Science; genius of the arabic intellect.

Philosophy and Science are the expressions of the thinking mind of the civilization and give an indication of its intellectual temperament and genius.  This article and the next one on Islamic science, will present a brief outline of the intellectual achievements of Islamic culture.  The main objective of this study is not scholastic accuracy but to provide a perceptive overview based on information from authentic sources.

The Islamic Intellect

The premodern Islamic intellect, not the whole of it, but a significant part it was a very learned, curious and searching intelligence, at once philosophic, scientific and catholic in its temper, open to knowledge and ideas from all other past and contemporary civilizations like the Greek, Indian and the Persian.  As the American historian, McNall Burns points out–“For those who approach Islamic civilization with modern preconceptions, the greatest surprise is to realize from the time of Muhammad until atleast about 1500, Islamic culture and society was extraordinarily cosmopolitan and dynamic”.  The Islamic philosophy in its heydays between 850 and 1300 “was far more advanced and sophisticated than anything found in either Byzantine and Western Christian realms.”  And the Islamic philosophers, called in Arabic language as “faylasufs” were “as distinguished in studying natural science as they were in philosophical speculations.  Usually the same men were both philosophers and scientists—.”

The Range and Scope

In the medieval Islamic civilization, rational freethinking was the result of a massive influx of the Greek intellectual heritage into the Islamic mind.  It was as if evolutionary Nature used the well-developed intellectual heritage of a past civilization to trigger and accelerate the mental evolution of a later civilization. As McNall Burns explains how this happened “Around the time when the philosophical schools were closed in Athens by order of the Emperor Justinian, Greek philosophers migrated east, and the works of Aristotle and others were translated into syriac, a Semitic dialect.  From that point of transmission, Greek philosophy gradually entered the life of Islam and became cultivated by the class of faylsufs.”

Thus, the medieval Islamic mind developed a great interest and admiration for the Greek philosophic and scientific thought, which perhaps kindled the spirit of freethinking and scientific enquiry in the Arabic mind.  Another factor, which turned the early Islamic mind fervently to philosophy and science was within the Islamic religion.  The Koran and the Prophet of Islam actively encouraged the pursuit of knowledge and science.  When, Ali, the third Caliph, asked Muhammad regarding the principle which governed his actions, the prophet replied “Knowledge is my capital, reason is the basis of my religion—-and science is my arms—”.  However, Islamic philosophy was not confined to the class of faylsufs who cultivated Greek thought.

The Islamic scholarship and philosophy may be broadly classified into five categories: the first are the legalist, the interpreters of the Islamic Law; second are the theologians, who interpreted Koran and speculated on the nature and attributes of God and His relationship with man; third are the rationalist freethinkers who followed the Greek philosophical schools; fourth are the Sufis who were much more of poets and mystics than philosophers, but the mystic doctrine of Sufism is an important influence on Islamic philosophy; fifth are the synthesizers who tried to reconcile the different schools of  philosophy.

The first two categories, legalist and theologians are the faithful, loyal and devout upholders of traditional religions.  The rationalist freethinkers were the disciples of Aristotle and Neo-platonic thought and believed “the universe is rational and that a philosophical approach to life was the highest god-given calling.”  The Greek thought and rationalism was a major influence on Islamic philosophy.  In fact the early Islamic philosophy was inspired by Hellenic thought.  Almost all medieval Islamic philosophers, came under the influence of Hellenic philosophy.  Even those Islamic thinkers who rejected it, like Al-Ghazal, used its logical methods in their argumentation and polemics.   This category of Islamic philosophers had the broad secular vision of the Greek philosophical tradition, expressed elegantly by the Arabic thinker, Al-Kindi,: “we shouldn’t then be ashamed to recognize truth and assimilate it—whatever it may teach us, even when it is brought to us by earlier generation or by foreign people.  For him who seeks the truth, there is nothing bigger than truth itself.”

Among synthesizers, Avicena tried to reconcile koranic ideas with neo-platonic philosophy and mysticism.  Islamia cult made a more or less similar attempt, trying to give an esoteric interpretation to Koran in the light of neoplatonic and goostic ideas.  However it was the attempt of Al-Ghazali in reconciling traditional Islam with Sufism, which had a lasting impact on Islamic philosophy.

 Thus the content of Islamic scholarship and philosophy ranges from narrow sectarian dogmatism of the fundamentalist, broad secular rationalism of the freethinkers and the spiritual universalism of the Sufis.  Some of the Sufi thinkers were uncompromising monists, like for example, Spanish Sufi philosopher, Ilan Al-Arabi who believed that there is nothing else exists other than God and the world is nothing but Himself in His outer manifestation.  Most of the Islamic scholars and thinkers like for example, Rhazi, Al-Kindi, Al-Baruni and Avicena were versatile mind and living encyclopedias, writing prodigiously on a variety of subject from philosophy and theology to science and medicine, history and politics.  Some of them were outstanding scientific minds.

Al-Ghazali’s Synthesis

Among Islamic philosophers Al Ghazali stands as a unique and towering figure.  A great thinker and a sincere seeker of God, a devout Muslim and a practicing mystic, Al Ghazali began his career as a professor in a madarasa in Turkey.  But unlike many Islamic intellectuals of his times, Al Ghazali, at a certain stage, was dissatisfied with intellectual polemics and the traditional legalist Islam.  He was also dissatisfied with himself.  After a sincere self-serching, Al Ghazali wrote in his autobiographical account: “I examined my motive in my work of teaching and realized that it was not a pure desire for the things of God, but that the impulse moving me was the desire for an influential position and public recognition.”  So, Al Ghazali threw off his promising career as a teacher, turned to Sufism and became a wandering Sufi.  After many years of wandering, contemplation and search, Al Ghazali returned to his native place to teach again and write his great magnamopus, Ihya’ulam al-Din, “The Reunification of the Religious Sciences”, in which he tries to reconcile traditional Islam with Sufism.  “In his work” says John Aden Williams “Law and Kalam (theology) are stated in orthodox terms but reinterpreted with Sufi emphasis on religious experience, sincerity and interior devotion—- Al Ghazali’s emphasis on direct religious experience as the vital element in religious knowledge led him to criticize the causistry and authoritanism of the mullah along with Islamic rationalism.  Man’s affair was to seek God and love Him; intellect’s role is to know its own limitation in this supremely important task.”  Muslim scholars hold Al Ghazali in high esteem as the greatest among Islamic thinkers and as the redeemer of Islam from rationalist free-thinkers and the spiritual extravagances of some Sufis who tend to reject the supports of religion.  As Akbar Ahmed states:

“The work of Abu Hamid Al Ghazali represent the zenith of Arab intellectual thought.  The intellectual crisis for Muslims Arabs between orthodox and Sufi forms of Islam, complicated by Hellenistic and other ideological influences, was resolved by Al Ghazali after intense soul-searching— Al Ghazali had been called by scholars of Islam like Professor. Anne Maries Schimmel ‘the greatest Muslim after the Prophet Muhammad’—-with Al Ghazali, the three currents¾theological, philosophical and mystical–made confluence to attempt an all-embracing harmony, an end to dispate.  Orthodox Islam, though suspicious of the mystics and prepared even to execute the extremists, finally accepted the Sufis as allies against the far more dangerous enemies, the freethinking philosophers Al Ghazali—-routed from the field the followers of Razi and Avicena.”

But western scholars of Islam take a much less positive view of Al Ghazali.  For example, John Alden Williams, while accepting the positive role of Al Ghazali as a reconciler of traditional and mystic Islam, writes on his impact on Islamic philosophy “—he gave to Islamic philosophy—a blow from which it was never to recover.”  The “blow” was rendered by the two major works of Al Ghazali.  First is his work of reconciliation and synthesis which we have already mentioned.  The other was his critique of rationalism “Incoherences of the Philosophers” in which he launches a critical onslaught on the rational free thinkers of Islam.  Interestingly, Al Ghazali’s critique invoked in response a counter attack from one of the rationalist philosophers of Islam, Averrhoes, who refutes Al Ghazali in his works which he named it as “Incoherencies of the Incoherences”! But, as John Williams points out “by that time Al Ghazali’s victory had been won.”

 The Integral View

 We are here discussing Al Ghazali in some length not only because he was considered as the greatest among Islamic philosophers but his impact on Islam raises some important questions on the role of reason and the need for progress in religion.

There is a truth behind the Islamic as well as the western scholars assessment of Al Ghazali.  The truth behind the religious view is that in a civilization which draws its inspiration from religion, excessive and indiscriminate free thinking or intellectual activity is not conductive to the growth of the spiritual inspiration and genius of the civilization.  So the religious approach is to pivot all philosophical activity around an authentic spiritual intuition, revelation or experience and make philosophy revolve around the central spiritual inspiration.  This is, more or less, the approach of all religious cultures like Hindu, Christian and the Islamic.  But the problem here is that if the spiritual intuition and reason of the civilizations or culture is not sufficiently innovative and progressive, it may lead to a futile circling around a fixed revelation, idea or dogma.  On the other hand the truth behind the western secular view is that the intellect or reason should be given the freedom to seek the truth in its own way according to its own intrinsic nature and law, dharma and should not be put under the yoke of religion.  But the problem here is that without a genuine quest for truth, this may lead to empty logic-chopping and word-spinning without any creative progress in knowledge or truth.  However, the western secular approach to philosophy is not opposed to an integral spiritual vision; infact it is favourable to a universal spirituality.  For, if God is the supreme Truth then all sincere, persistent and progressive quest for truth has to ultimately lead to Him.  As Sri Aurobindo, explaining the approach of a future spiritualized society to philosophy and science says:

“Thus true spirituality will not lay a yoke upon science and philosophy or compel them to square their conclusions with any statement of dogmatic religion or even of assured spiritual truth, as some of the old religions attempted, vainly, ignorantly with an unspiritual obstinacy and arrogance.  Each part of man’s being has it own dharma which it must follow and will follow in the end, put on it what fetters you please.  The dharma of science, thought and philosophy is to seek for truth dispassionately without prepossession and prejudgement, with no other first proposition than the law of thought and observation itself imposes.  Science and Philosophy are not bound to square their observations and conclusions with any current ideas and religious dogma or ethical rule or aesthetic prejudice.  In the end, if left free in their action, they will find the unity of Truth with Good and Beauty and God and give these a greater meaning than any dogmatic religion or any formal ethics or any narrower aesthetic idea can give us.”

In fact, this is more or less the approach of medieval Arabic philosophers like Al-Kindi to philosophy and science.  Islamic civilization in general gave a much greater freedom to philosophy and science than the Christian civilizations in the west.  But still, the traditional Islamic mind viewed the rationalist philosopher and the mystic with a certain suspicion and sometimes hostility.  Al Ghazali’s work of reconciliation created the bridge between the traditionalist and the mystic and eased the friction between them.  However Al-Ghali’s convincing synthesis and his equally effective and hard-hitting critique of the rational philosopher of Islam seemed to have an adverse impact on the thinking mind of Islam.  For, after Al-Ghali there was a gradual decline in the creativity of the Islamic intellect.  The Islamic mind seemed to be so much satisfied and convinced of Al-Ghali’s synthesis and his critic of rationalism that it thought no more innovation or progress was necessary in philosophy.  Or else it may be due to the gradual loss of vitality of a civilization, which was passing through the cycle of decline.  In this period of decline, the legal, theological and dogmatic mind of the traditional mullah gained the upper hand over the scientific and rational mind of the Islamic philosophers and also the intuitive and mystical mind of the Sufis.

This cessation or loss of creative vigour of the progressive thinking mind is one of the causes behind the decline of many civilizations.  Had the Greek-inspired Islamic rational and scientific mind of Islam flourished and continued a little longer until the modern age it would have perhaps helped the Islamic civilization to cope more successfully and creatively with the modern age dominated by the values of the West like science, reason, secularism and progress.

     The significant contribution of the Islamic mind to the progress of science is now a well-recognized fact of history.  Islamic civilizations never suppressed or persecuted the spirit of scientific enquiry.  In fact, most of the Islamic empires and rulers actively fostered science.  For example the well-known and flamboyant caliph Rashid had the works of Aristotle and the medical treaties of Greek physicians Hypocrates and Galen translated into Arabic.  And the immediate successor of Rashid, al-Mamun, sent missionaries to Byzantium to acquire and translate whatever important scientific works which were available there.

 Arabic Science

 When Europe was passing through the dark ages, Arabs acquired, assimilated and improved upon whatever scientific knowledge developed until then in other civilizations and preserved them for posterity.  As Sir James Jeans, in his chronicle of the history of physical science points out: “Through the combination and influx of knowledge, Arabians became the custodians of scientific knowledge—-Mohammedan did no small service to science in providing a storehouse of knowledge—-and assuring that knowledge which has been gained should not be irretrievably lost”.

 The main forte of Arabic science was in experimentation.  While the ancient Indians and Greeks were interested mainly in abstract sciences the Arabs were working mostly on experiential and practical sciences.  Again, as James Jeans, summing up the contributions of Islamic science, says “physics had freed itself from the speculative atmosphere which had enveloped in greek time and had become experimental¾an enormous step in the right direction.  And another historian, Robert Priffault states:

 “What we call science arose in Europe as a result of new methods of experiment, observation, measurement and the development of mathematics in form unknown to the Greeks.  That spirit and these—-were introduced into the European world by the Arabs.”  Let us now examine some of the more specific contributions of Arabs in various fields of science.

 Physics and Chemistry

The study of Chemistry was still pursued in the Islamic world in the name of Alchemy and with the scientifically dubious aim of converting base metal into gold or silver.  But in the process Arabic Chemist like Jabir and Geber, succeeded in developing or improving the methods of evaporation, filtration, sublimation, melting and distillation.  They also prepared new substances like oxides and sulphides of mercury, carbonate of soda, alum, borax, nitrate of silve, nitric and sulphuric acid.

In Physics, Islamic scientists made crucial contribution to the science of optics.  The Islamic scientists were making and experimenting with various types of optical instruments.  In the ninth century, Al-Kindi, who was also a leading Arabic philosopher, was writing on optics, especially on the refraction of light.  Later, in the next century, Ibn-al-Haizon, was studying the action of spherical and parabolic mirrors and the magnification produced by lenses.  Al-Hazen made some important and accurate discoveries in optics.  He solved the problem of finding the relation between the position of a source of light and the image formed by a lens.  He gave a scientifically correct explanation of the act of physical vision, saying that we see by something from the seen object passing into the eye–in opposition to the conception of Greek and other ancient thinkers that we see by something which goes out from the eye and gropes for the object.  With Al-Hazni says James Jeans “Optics was beginning to assume its modern form”.  In mathematics, Arabic mathematicians combined and improved upon the works of Greek and Indian mathematician and gave it the form which became the foundation of modern numerals and algebra summing up the contributions of Arabs to mathematics historian McNall Burns writes:

 “In mathematics, Islam’s greatest accomplishment was to unite the geometry of the Greeks with the number science of the Hindus.  Borrowing what westerners know as ‘Arabic numerals, including the zero, from the Hindus, Islamic mathematicians were able to develop an arithmetic based on the decimal system and also made advances in algebra (itself an Arabic word).  Building upon Greek geometry with reference to heavenly motions they made great progress in spherical trigonometry.  Thus they brought together all the branches of mathematical knowledge which would later be further developed in the Christian West.”

 The Islamic achievements in the science of medicine were equally significant.  As in other sciences Islamic physicians, studied and assimilated the medical knowledge of Greeks and Indians, and improved, extended and innovated upon it.  Two outstanding physicians figure in the medical achievements of Islamic culture: Al Rhazi and Avicena.

 Al-Rhazis wrote a voluminous encyclopedia of medicine called in Arabic, al-Hawi, the “comparative book”, which was translated into Latin.  In it, Al-Rhazi cites Greek, Indian, Persian and Arab opinion on diseases before presenting his own ideas.  In his other book a treatise on small pox and measles, deals with the distinction between the two diseases and gives a clear description of both.  He seemed to have written many books on medicine, more than fifty.  His works are distinguished by exhaustive and meticulous research, like for example, in one of his books, he lists 176 contraceptives.  The other great Islamic physician Avicena, was a versatile many-sided genius.  Avicena’s main work on medicine, “Canons of Medicine” became a classic of world-renown and was used in many medical schools in Europe.  Avicena discovered the contagious nature of tuberculosis, described pleurisy and several varieties of nervous ailments.  Other Islamic physicians discovered the values of cauterization and of styptic agents, diagnosed cancer of the stomach and made notable progress in treating disease of the eye.  And finally, the Islamic medicine men made great strides in the organization and management of hospitals:

 “—the Muslims excelled all other medieval people in the organization of hospitals and in the control of medical practice.  There were at least thirty-four great hospitals located in the principal cities of Persia, Syria and Egypt, which appear to have been organized in a strikingly modern fashion.  Each has wards for particular cases, a dispensary and a library.  The chief physicians and surgeons lectured to the students and graduates, examined them and issued licenses to practice.”

History and Anthropology

The other significant part of the intellectual achievement of the Arabic mind was in writing history.  Unlike most of the ancient Eastern minds like the Indian or Chinese, Islamic mind had a keen sense of history.  Historical narratives and studies form a considerable part of Islamic literature.  Among Islamic historians, two great minds, stand out for their pioneering contribution to the writing of objective and scientific history: Al-Barauni and Ibn Kaldum.  Encyclopedia Brittanica states “One must read such masterpieces of scientific anaysis as Al-Barauni’s work on India or Ibn Kaldun’s sociological studies in order to understand the depth of Islamic culture, which westerners rightly regarded with the greatest admiration.”

 Al-Barauni was one of those versatile Islamic mind with many-sided interests in physics, astronomy, chemistry, theology, philosophy, geography and history.  He seemed to have lived, traveled and wrote about India during the reign of Muhammad Ghazni.  Albaruani’s work on India was an account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India about 1030 A.D.  The object of his work on India, in his own words, is to provide the necessary information to “any one (In Islam) who want to converse with the Hindus and to discuss with them questions of religion, science or literature, on the very basis of their own civilizations”.  He was a devout Muslim but he was not a fanatic zealot like the Ghazani Muhammad.  He was basically a scientific mind, trying to understand and appreciate the Indian social and cultural life with a balanced and unbiased outlook.  He says or claims in his introduction to his work “My book is nothing but a simple historic record of facts.”

 Al-barauni was frank, honest and forthright in his appreciation as well as criticism of whatever he observes or studies.  He writes “In most parts of my work, I simply relate without criticizing, unless there is a special reason for doing so”.  Sometimes his criticisms are harsh, but they were frank personal opinions and not the result of religious prejudices.  However, when he gleefully states how Ghazni “utterly ruined the prosperity” of India and calls it as “wonderful exploits”, it makes us wonder how far and to what extent he is free from religious prejudices.

 Al-barauni displays the sensitivity of a truly cultured mind when he comments with a certain regret, on the Shahi dynasty which bravely resisted Muslims for more than twenty-five  years before collapsing: “The Hindu-Sahia dynasty is now extinct—we must say, that in all their grandur, they never slackened in the advent desire of doing that which is good and right, that noble bearing”.  He heartily admires Indian philosophy and says that Indian scholars were “blessed by God”, which would be considered as heretical and blasphemous by most of the medieval Islamic minds.  He appreciates in general the excellent work of Indian philosophers, mathematicians and astronomers though, as the editor and translator of Al-barauni’s work, Dr. Edward C. Sachal states “he naively believes himself to be superior to them and disclaims to put on a level with them.”  He appreciates the scientific aspects of the works of the Indian astronomer Varahamihra, but he finds some of the statements of Varahamihra, “like the ravings of a mad man.”  But he immediately moderates his harsh criticism and was humble enough to admit that behind such passages there may be perhaps some esoteric meaning unknown to him.  However, he displays no such humility when he makes sarcastic comments on some of the cosmological ideas of the Hindus, like seven seas and seven earths, which are mystical and symbolic representations of the inner experiences of Indian mystics.  This is understandable considering the fact that Albarauni is not a mystic and therefore we cannot expect him to have the insight to understand mystic symbolism.  Similarly his harsh criticism of Hindu polytheism displays a lack of understanding and insight into the deeper truth behind the many gods of Hinduism.  As a whole, Albarauni’s chronicle on India, whatever may be its shortcomings, was a remarkable attempt at writing objective and scientific history.

 The other Islamic historian held in high esteem by scholars was Ib Khaldum.  His work on world-history was acclaimed by eminent historian Arnold Toynbee as “undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place.”  Encyclopedia Britannia describes him as a “pioneer in the sociological approach to the philosophy of history.”  Ibn Khaldun also propounded a theory of raise and fall of civilization.  According to him, group-feeling, cohesion or solidarity and climatic factors are the two factors which determined the growth and decline of civilization.

 Contributions to Modern Science

 And finally any discussion on Arabic science cannot be complete without mentioning its crucial contribution to the progress of modern science in the west.  During the declining phase of the Islamic civilizations, most of the Islamic kingdoms of the East become hostile to science because of the raising religious fundamentalism.  As a result, most of the Islamic science and learning gravitated to the West in the Islamic kingdoms of Spain, which were more hospitable to the pursuit of science.  Thus Spain became the channel for the transmission of Arabic science and the past scientific heritage of the world to Europe.  The scientific works of Arab scientists, like Al-Battani, Al-Khwarizmi, Al-Kindi, Geber and Al-hazen, and also the Arabic translations of Greek thinkers and scientists like Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes and Ptolemy were translated and retranslated into latin by European scholars.  Thus the scientific knowledge of the past preserved and improved upon by the Arabs, passed on to Europe and kindled the scientific progress of the West.  Not only in pure science but also in technology, west learned from Islamic civilizations papermaking, irrigation techniques, and distillation of alcohol and methods of chemical processing.

 Genius of the Arabic Intellect

When we examine the intellectual achievements of the Arabic mind, which we have discussed so far, we get a glimpse of its genius.  The genius of the Indian mind is for origination, especially in spirituality.  The genius of the Japanese mind is for pragmatic improvement and adaptation.  The genius of the Arabic intelligence is for intellectual acquisition and assimilation of ideas from various sources through scholarship and learning.

The earlier Islamic mind was not a closed and dogmatic mind but an open and liberal mentality ready to receive ideas and knowledge from all other civilization.  Some of Islamic empires of the past are truly cosmopolitan cultures which “—united, people as diverse as Arabs, Persians, Turks, various African tribes and Hindus by means of a great religion and common institution.”  But the real success or achievement of these Islamic civilizations was not in its social or cultural synthesis, which is rather doubtful and controversial.  Their achievement lies in the realm of ideas, in their thinkers, scholars and scientists who were able to receive and assimilate knowledge from varied sources, added, improved and innovated upon it and preserved it for the posterity.


Akbar Ahmad, Making Sense of Islamic History and Society, Rodi Books, New York.

 John Adam Williams, Islam, Washington Square Press, Newyork.

 Edward Mcnall Burns and Other, World Civilisations, Vol.1, Goyl Saab, New Delhi.

 Sri Aurobindo, Social and Political Thought, SABCL, Vol.15, pp.214-215.

 James Jeans, History of Physical Sciences

 Dr. Edward C. Sachal, (edited), Al-Barauni’s India

Akbar Ahmad, Making Sense of Islamic History and Society, Rodi Books, New York.

John Adam Williams, Islam, Washington Square Press, Newyork

Edward Mcnall Burns and Other, World Civilisations, Vol.1, Goyl Saab, New Delhi.

–The notes pertain to edited quotes by the author without page references.

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