Science and the Muslim Ummah


One of the distinctive features of Islam is its emphasis on knowledge. The Qur’an and the Islamic tradition (sunnah ) invite Mus­lims to seek and acquire knowledge and wisdom and to hold men of knowledge in high esteem. Some of the Qur’anic verses and relevant traditions will be mentioned in the course of our discussion.

At the outset we may recall a famous hadith of the Holy Prophet upon whom be Allah's peace and benedictions‑that has come down through various sources; it says: “Acquisition of knowledge is incum­bent on every Muslim.”1 This tradition brought up the discussion as to what kind of knowledge a Muslim should necessarily acquire‑an issue around which various opinions were offered in the past.

Abu Hamid Al‑Ghazzali (died A.D. 1111), in his famous bookIhya ulum al din (The Revival of Religious Sciences), mentions that he had come across twenty different answers to the above question. The theologians considered that learning of Islamic theology (kaldm ) was an obligation, while the jurisprudents (fuqaha' ) thought that Islamic juris­prudence (fiqh ) was implied in the prophetic tradition. Al‑Ghazzali himself favoured the view that the knowledge whose acquisition is a religious obligation is limited to what one must know for correct per­formance of the acts obligatory for a person within the framework of the Islamic Shari'ah.2

For instance,one whose occupation is animal husbandry should acquaint himself with the rules concerning zakat. If one were a merchant doing business in an usurious environment, he ought to be aware of the religious injunction against usury so as to be able to effectively avoid it.

Al‑Ghazzali then proceeds to discuss sciences whose knowledge iswajib kifa'i 3 (something which is obligatory for the whole society as long as the duty for fulfillment of a social need exists, but as soon as the duty is shouldered by enough number of individuals, others are automatically relieved of the obligation). Subsequently, he classifies all knowledge into “religious” and “non‑religious” sciences. By “religious sciences” (‘ulum al‑shar) he means the bulk of knowledge imparted through prophetic teachings and the Revelation.

The rest constitute the “non‑religious” sciences. The non‑religious sciences are further classi­fied into “praiseworthy” (mahmud ), “permissible” (mubah ) and “un­desirable” ones (madhmum ). He puts history in the category of permis­sible sciences (mubah ) and magic and sorcery in the category of the un­desirable fields of “knowledge”. The “praiseworthy” sciences (mah­mud ), according to him, are those whose knowledge is necessary in the affairs of life and these are wajib kifai; the rest of them bring addi­tional merit to the learned who pursue them.

He puts medicine, mathe­matics and crafts, whose sufficient knowledge is needed by the society, in the category of sciences of which are wajib kifai. Any further research into the detail and depth of problems of medical science or mathematics is put by Al‑Ghazzali in the second category which involves merit for the scholar without entailing any manner of obligation.

Al‑Ghazzali classifies the religious sciences also into two groups: praiseworthy (mahmud ) and undesirable (madhmum ). By “undesirable religious sciences” he means those which are apparently oriented towards the Shari'ah but actually deviate from its teachings. He sub­divides the “praiseworthy” religious sciences into four groups:

1.Usul (principles; i.e. the Qur’an, thesunnah ,ijma   or consensus and the traditions of the Prophet's companions)

2.Furu (secondary matters; i.e. problems of jurisprudence, ethics and mystical experience)

  1. Introductory studies (Arabic grammar, syntax, etc.)

  2. Complementary studies (recitation and interpretation of the Qur’an, study of the principles of jurisprudence*, ilm al* rijal or biogra­phical research about narrators of Islamic traditions etc.)

Al‑Ghazzali considers the knowledge of the disciplines contained in the above four groups to be wajib kifa'i.

As to the extent to which one should learn the “praiseworthy” sciences, Al‑Ghazzali's view is that in matters of theology such as know­ledge of God, Divine qualities, acts and commands, one should try to learn as much as is possible. However, as to religious topics whose knowledge is wajib kifa'i, one should learn as much as is sufficient.

Here the summary of his views is that one should not pursue learning of those sciences if there are already others devoting themselves to their study, and if one were to do so, he should refrain from spending all his life for their learning, “for knowledge is vast and life is short. They are preliminaries and not an end in themselves.”4

As to theology (kalam), his opinion is that only as much of it as is corroborated by the Qur’an and hadith is beneficial. Moreover, he says, “now that the heretics attempt to induce doubts (in the minds of un­sophisticated believers), adequate knowledge of theology is necessary to confront them.”

Regarding philosophy, Al‑Ghazzali thinks that it is distinguishable into four parts:5

  1. Mathematics and geometry, which are legitimate and permissible.

2.Logic, which is a part of theology.

  1. Divinities, which discusses Divine essence and qualities and is also a part of theology.

  2. Physics, which may be divided into two sections: One part which involves discussions opposed to the Shari'ah and accordingly cannot even be considered a “science”; the other part discusses the qualities of bodies. The second part is similar to the science of medicine, although medicine is preferable to it. This section of physics too is useless while medicine is needful.

Mulla Muhsin Fayd al‑Kashani, in his book Muhajjat al‑bayda', says:

It is a personal obligation (wajib ayni) of every Muslim to learn Islamic juris­prudence to the extent of his needs. Further, learning of fiqh to fulfil the need of others is wajib kifa’i for him.6

Regarding philosophy, Kashani says:

The components of philosophy are not the only ones distinguished by Abu Hamid (Al‑Ghazzali)‑upon whom be God's mercy. Philosophy covers many other fields of religious and mundane matters (for example astronomy, medicine and rhetoric etc.)... Whatever of these sciences that is about the Hereafter

exists to the point of perfection in the Shari'ah, and that which is not useful for the Hereafter is not needed; moreover, it may even hinder the pursuit of the path of Allah. In the case of those portions which are effective for the knowledge of the Divine and are encouraged by the Shari’ah (like astronomy), it is sufficient to be satisfied with the simple unelaborated discussions of the Shariah about such matters.7

In brief, in Kashani's opinion anyone who wishes to learn these sciences should first acquaint himself with the religious sciences.

Sadr al‑Din Shirazi (Mulls Sadra) in his commentary on Usul al‑Kafi regards Al‑Ghazzali's opinion about the limitation of obligatory knowledge for a Muslim to the matters of ritual practice and legitimate deal­ings as unacceptable.8

In his opinion, learning of religious sciences (such as tawhid, Divine qualities and acts) and human sciences (such as dis­positions of the soul, its delights and afflictions) are also obligatory for the majority of human beings. Secondly, he believes that it is not at all essential that what is obligatory (wajib ayni) for all to learn should apply identically in case of every individual and what is obligatory for one individual be regarded as being equally obligatory for another.