This post will be an essay discussing the ‘conflict thesis’ in relation to Islam and Science. Please note that this essay is merely introductory, and the topic itself is extremely complex. I’ve done my best to try and provide a variety of insights (which is why this post is longer than usual), I hope you find this read intriguing and enjoyable!
I will provide a list of all the materials I used in this essay if anyone wants to read further into the subject.
The Relationship between Islam and Science
The discussion of the relationship between science and religion has been heavily prevalent since the 1800s, and has remained a topic of controversy to this date. The debate seemingly possesses much internal conflict, an idea which has been fuelled by the likes of Richard Dawkins in the 20th and 21st century. This essay will firstly examine the nature and origin of this debate, known as the ‘conflict thesis’, and argue for its failure as an efficient theory regarding the relationship between science and religion by using discussions of the ‘complexity thesis’. The essay will then focus upon the elaborate history of the Islamic world in relation to Science, showing how Islam has contributed to scientific advancements which still play a significant role in the contemporary world.
The ‘Conflict Thesis’ is an idea originally developed by John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White in the 19th century, both influential historians of science on this matter. In Draper’s work ‘History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science’ he states that:
The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interest on the other.
This is a clear indication of Draper’s attitude concerning the relationship between science and religion, that religion is ‘compressing’ and inhibiting towards scientific advancement. Significantly, Draper suggests that this has been the case all along, a continuous battle between the two throughout history. Science is portrayed as changing and developing whereas Draper presents religion as stagnant and regressive. In Andrew Dickson White’s work ‘The History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom’ he expressed a similar sentiment, claiming that nothing useful or good comes of any relationship between the relationship between science and religion, and that they are better left alone. White does not portray religion as negatively as Draper but instead implies that science and religion are simply not mutually supportive, but rather damaging in the other’s progress. The idea of the ‘conflict thesis’ was spurred on greatly by the events surrounding Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin, ‘classic’ examples of the science being repressed by religion. The famous trial of Galileo is frequently used as an example in support of the ‘conflict thesis’. The traditional view regarding the nature and workings of the Earth, taught by the Church, was that the Earth was stationary and at the centre of the universe and all the suns and stars rotated around it. Previously, in 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus challenged this idea of the Earth which he expressed in his work ‘Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’. It is interesting to find that his preface was indeed dedicated to addressing Pope Paul III, referring to him as ‘the Holy Father’, ironically countering the religious chaos his ideas would cause. Although Copernicus’ ideas regarding the Earth were dismissed, Galileo became heavily interested in the Copernican theory in the 17th century, and came to believe it was correct. After many public speeches and published works advocated to the Copernican theory, Galileo was called to trial and eventually imprisoned under house arrest for life. Galileo’s desire to spread the truth was supressed by those of power and is one of the most famous examples in showing religion inhibiting scientific advancement. Another, perhaps even more prominent example, is the case of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution which was developed in the 19th century. In his work ‘The Origin of Species’, Darwin famously proposes, after years of studying a various manner of organisms, the theory of evolution and natural selection. A basic explanation of the theory of evolution is that Darwin believed all life forms have evolved over millions of years from simpler life forms as a result of natural selection. Darwin states that natural selection was the process in which individual life forms with the best suited characteristics would have a higher chance of survival than the individuals lacking in these. The best-suited traits will be successfully passed onto offspring, and as a result over millions of years ill-suited characteristics die out and every individual will possess the best-suited ones. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution heavily opposed religious teachings, particularly the idea of creationism. Darwin’s theory disregarded the Christian belief that God created humans in his own image, and that he created all life on Earth, exactly as they are now. Furthermore, evolution also challenges the idea that God created Earth in six days, not billions of years, and that God is the designer of the universe. The theory of evolution suggests that the Earth was not perfectly functioning to begin with, but is constantly changing. This suggests that neither the climate on Earth nor the creatures of Earth were ‘made’ perfect. Darwin’s scientific views caused him to be the subject of much criticism essentially based on the idea that he was an anti-theist. It is thus clear why the examples of Galileo and Darwin are prominently used in showing religion as a hostile force against science and scientists, and seen as support for the ‘conflict thesis’.
However, in order to competently discuss Islam in relation to science, the criticisms and alternatives of the ‘conflict thesis’ must also be examined and discussed. It is interesting to note that both Copernican and Galileo were religious, suggesting that there are no ‘sides’, but rather a merging between religion and science. The ‘complexity thesis’ is favoured by contemporary historians of science. In his work ‘Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives’, John Hedley Brooke stated that: “There is no such thing as the relationship between science and religion. It is what different individuals and communities have made of it in a plethora of different contexts”. Brookes presents instead the complexity of the issue, suggesting that the relationship between science and religion is fluid and changes throughout history, so much so that it may not even be considered a ‘relationship’. Stephen D. Snobelen puts this idea simply as “there is no grand narrative of science and religion”. Gary B. Ferngren also recognises this shift in attitude amongst historians of science, expressing that the ‘conflict thesis’ was revaluated by modern historians, and the relationship between religion and science has been discovered to be more positive than originally assumed. Indeed, contemporary historians of science have come to recognise that some scientific advancements were founded as a result of religion playing the role of the catalyst, an example being Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. Although, some popular modern scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins still believe the ‘conflict thesis’ carries some credibility, there are many instances of both historical and modern examples of the relationship between science and religion being a positive one. The ‘conflict thesis’ would maintain that this relationship has always been damaging and in conflict, however this does not seem to be accurate and is “utterly simplistic” as M. Alper Yalcinkaya puts it. Snobelen even goes as far as to say that some historians who support the ‘conflict thesis’ are more concerned with their own personal agenda, which affects the credibility of their argument. Yalcinkaya also touches upon the ‘complexity thesis’, claiming that it does not consider the long history of the most popular religions. He focuses upon the conflict between Islam and Christianity which affects the debate. It can be seen that the ‘complexity thesis’ is an opposition to the ‘conflict thesis’, rendering it too simple to be able to represent science and religion across all of history. It is not sufficient enough to merely say that religion has inhibited science, for this is not always the case as time, communities and culture are so varying it cannot be generalised.
Islam, much like Christianity, has also been presumed to be inhibiting against scientific advancement. In the past, many Islamic rulers believed that all answers were in the Quran, and therefore saw science as a threat to the authority of Islam. Despite this, there were hugely significant scientific advancements in the Islamic world, suggesting that religion isn’t an inhibitor to the development of science. An example of this is provided by Jane H. Murphy who draws upon the life of Ibrahim Muteferrika in the 18th century, the first individual to be allowed to run a printing-press in the Islamic world. The role of communications should not be undermined in the history of science. It allowed the works of important historical figures such as Aristotle and Galen to be wide-spread and translated into the Arabic language, which became the lingua franca of the Islamic and Ottoman world. Muteferrika printed works of theology and the natural world and was met with limited opposition from those of power, as long as he maintained the centrality of God to all design. This suggests that there was no adamant opposition to scientific development in the Ottoman Empire, one of the most significant periods for the growth of Islam. Murphy concludes by stating that the Islamic world from the 8th to the 18th century saw developments in “mathematical, astronomical, astrological, geographic, botanical, and medical sciences”. Furthermore, she expresses that this significance placed upon science in the Islamic world in the past is reflected in Islamic teachings in the contemporary world as the teaching of science is important in all Muslim cultures. Another example of the merging of Islam and science is given by Yalcinkaya who focuses upon the work of Ahmed Midhat Efendi in the 19th and 20th century, a scholar of the Ottoman Empire, who sought to show how the two were mutually supportive. Yalcinkaya’s ‘Science as an ally of religion: a Muslim appropriation of ‘the conflict thesis’ is strong in criticising the ‘conflict thesis’, but more interestingly in showing how Midhat used Draper’s discussion of the theory to support the idea that Islam allowed science to flourish. This is significant since it seems to be a contradiction against the ‘conflict thesis’ itself. The theory states that religion and science are in constant conflict, and yet it is used by a Muslim scholar in support of Islam. This perhaps suggests a difference in portrayal of the Christian relationship with science and the Muslim relationship with science. Since many of the articles discussed regarding this debate have been from Europe, it is easier to see how it may be used in supporting an Islamic view of science. This, once again, reiterates the complex relationship of science and religion through time and culture. Midhat was also initially met with opposition which was quickly overcome after he praised the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II. Science became a way for the Islamic world and the Christian world to fuel their conflict and hostility. It was not science that Islam was against, and in fact science was used as a tool to try and create stable loyalty for the Sultan. The ‘conflict thesis’ was used as a means to subdue those who may be drawn to Western ideas. Yalcinkaya quotes a report from Midhat in the 1900 which stated that “students needed to have all the essential knowledge pertaining to science, but they should also obtain ‘religious firmness’”. This is the recurring idea in the Islamic world that scientific development is encouraged as long as it does not oppose Islam. This can be interpreted as a hindrance to science since it is not allowed to flourish independently as its own entity. Islam, at times encourages science and other times inhibits it for the sake of maintaining power and stability. However, there is not the ongoing and unwavering ‘conflict’ amongst the two as separate entities as the ‘conflict thesis’ suggests. Yalcinkaya states that Midhat “demonstrated forcefully… that Islam did not have a conflict with science”. This perhaps alludes to a strain in the relationship, which is much more convincing since a ‘perfect’ link between science and religion is unrealistic.
In order to further support the lack of an on-going conflict between Islam and science, more detailed examples will be discussed. The so-called ‘Golden Age’ of the Islamic-Arabic World from the 8th to the 13th century is important in portraying this. During this period, the Islamic empire was unimaginably vast and became a bank of information for scholars across the world. The most notable areas of flourishing ideas were Baghdad and Alexandria. The works of ancient Greek philosophers and scholars from all cultures were translated, corrected, and used for scientific and theological advancements. The prominence of this collection of data and the developments it led to in the Islamic world can be seen by the effect it had on the European world. The knowledge acquired by Muslim scholars spread across European countries and many of their scientific advancements were adopted, reforming how science was taught. Significantly, this interest in information and science was spurred on by Islamic teachings. An example of this is the Prophet’s desire to find a cure for every disease, and thus medical science flourished. Important Muslim scholars such as Yuhanna ibn Massuwayh and Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakarriya helped advance medicine. Some of their work include increasing the understanding regarding smallpox and measles, performing dissection, and understanding allergies. Astronomy and mathematics also underwent advancements at the hands of Ibn Firnas, Al-Zarqali, Al Bitruji, Al-Fargani and Al-Sufi. Astrological advancements saw the description of the Andromeda galaxy, the utilisation of mathematics in relation to science and the measurement of star motion. Many academic fields in the contemporary world now have been greatly influenced by the developments during the Islamic ‘Golden Age’. It is a clear indication of how Islam has perpetuated scientific development through using religious incentives, rather than being interlocked in conflict.
In the more contemporary world, we return to the presumption that Islam inhibits scientific development. However, the discussion of the Islamic Golden Age strongly rejects this. Jim Al-Khalili, a British physicist, broadcaster and author, has actively tried to show the advancement of science as a result of Islam through his various published works and television series. In his article titled ‘It’s time to herald the Arabic science that prefigured Darwin and Newton’, Al-Khalili expresses that he is on “a mission to dismiss a crude and inaccurate historical hegemony and present the positive face of Islam. It has never been more timely or more resonant to explore the extent to which western cultural and scientific thought is indebted to work, a thousand years ago, of Arab and Muslim thinkers”. John Hedley Brooke draws upon some of the modern scientific conflicts Islam faces today. He discusses the seminars held in Stockholm and Grenada in the 1980s. The seminars were centred around the discussion of Islamic values in relation to scientific research. A significant Islamic value which was drawn upon was the importance of nature and its preservation. Since humans were viewed as part of nature and not external to it, any damage to nature was also damage to mankind. As a result, Islamic ideals would urge for environmentally-friendly scientific research as well as cruelty-free experimentation without the use of animals. Brooke states this plainly as “The pursuit of knowledge has to be seen as a contemplative exercise – an expression of the obligation to worship”. However, Brooke also recognises that the theory differs from the practice. He discusses the wealthy Muslim countries which support technological advancement from the West with little regard for the consequences on the environment. Brooke and Al-Khalili’s work can perhaps be seen as a general attitude regarding Islam and science. Islam is not blindly praised as being a ‘saviour’ of science, but is also not portrayed as unequivocally conflicted with science.
Much like the ‘complexity thesis’ suggests, the relationship of Islam and science is a difficult one. Conflict amongst science and Islam exists, it would be impossible for it not to. However, Islam has also encouraged the development of science. It is a complicated debate concerning ethics, morals, religion and science which is still present in this day as Brooke presents. Among the complexity of this topic, this essay essentially argues for one solidity; that the relationship between Islam and science invalidates the ‘conflict thesis’. The theory is too simple and unwavering to be able to apply to a historical relationship of which is centuries old. It is essential to consider how Islam has both encouraged and inhibited the development of science, and use this to adopt more ‘correct’ attitudes and move forward in the history of science.
J. W. Draper, ‘History of the Conflict between Religion and Science’
Rosen, J. Dobrzycki, ‘Nicholas Copernicus on the Revolutions’
Charles Darwin, ‘The Origin of Species’
J. H. Brooke, ‘Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives’
S. D. Snobelen, ‘Declaring War on the Conflict Thesis: A Review Essay’
G. B. Ferngren, ‘Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction’
M. A. Yalcinkaya, ‘Science as an ally of religion: a Muslim appropriation of ‘the conflict thesis’ in ‘The British Journal for the History of Science’
J. H. Murphy, ‘Rethinking History for a New Islamic Science’
J. Al-Khalili, ‘It’s time to herald the Arabic science that prefigured Darwin and Newton’