Secular knowledge at its Islamic best
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan I The Pioneer | Nov. 29, 1998 | Page 5
Revealed knowledge is the only source from which to learn how to make spiritual progress, while material progress is based on a knowledge of nature. So far as success or failure in the Hereafter is concerned, it rests entirely on the revealed knowledge passed on to mankind by the Prophet (2:120). The Prophet Muhammad is enjoined to proclaim to mankind that “God’s guidance is the only guidance.” Nevertheless, Islam holds that while the principles for the attainment of salvation in the Hereafter derive solely from divine revelation, the attainment of material progress is underlain by knowledge of the laws of nature as discovered and established by secular scientific research.
Islamic schematism, therefore, by reason and by tradition, has always accorded to the secular sciences the status of an independent branch of learning. In fact, the Qur’an repeatedly urges us to give serious thought to the natural phenomena of the heavens and the earth, as being “signs for men of sense — those who remember God when standing, sitting and lying down, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth, saying, ‘Lord, You have not created this in vain” (3:190).
These verses clearly suggest that proceed to our own conclusions on the basis of human ratiocination in matters of the world. The difference between the scientific and the religious approach to practical matters has been made clear in a hadith. Fifty out of the 63 years of the Prophet’s life were spent in Mecca, a desert city where there was no agriculture. Later, he migrated to Medina where agriculture and horticulture were practiced — in particular, the growing of date palms. Naturally, the Prophet had no experience of either farming or fruit growing. One day, as the Prophet was passing through the outskirts of Medina, he noticed that some people, who had climbed up the date palms, were engaged in some activity. On inquiring what they were busy with, they explained that they were fertilizing the trees.
Traditionally, they did this by the artificial pollination of the date flowers, and this ensured a good crop. But when the Prophet said, “What if you don’t do it?” the people, in difference to his judgement climbed down the trees without completing their task. That year the yield was very low. When the Prophet inquired why the yield was so low that particular year, the orchard keepers replied that the yield depended on the pollination, which they had been carrying out when he had stopped them. On hearing this, the Prophet replied: “Continue doing as you used to, since you know the matters of the world better than I do.” This incident illustrates how the Prophet separated religious knowledge from a practical matter such as horticulture. In fact, the principle evident in this was applicable not just to horticulture, but to all natural matters governed by the laws of nature.
The clear inference is that what is demonstrable in nature, yielding itself to research and experiment, will be accepted by Islam as established, empirical knowledge. The same principle may be applied — as well as in agriculture and horticulture — to all other scientific disciplines, for instance, to geology, astronomy, engineering and so on. Islam is quite clear on this point that all of these are the subject matter not of religion but of scientific research. For instance, if experiment shows that water boils at 100 degree Celsius, it will be accepted as such without any dispute. Only that will be held valid which has been proved by scientific research experiment. All discoveries must be verifiable. Nothing will be accepted on the basis of mere speculation.
Historically, this Islamic policy of the division of religion and science is extremely important, as it opened the door to scientific progress for the first time in human history. Prior to the advent of Islam, this policy of division had never been followed, so that science remained the mere handmaiden of religion. Any attempt at true scientific research was generally hampered or stopped altogether by the forces of dogmatism and superstition. Independent progress was an impossibility. The division recognized by Islam was epoch-making precisely because it freed secular science from the grip of religion. This opened the way to the open conducting of research and experiment without any fear of interference. This process of liberation continued for a period of a thousand years, until that modern era came into existence, which is now known as the scientific age. What is demonstrable in nature, yielding itself to research and experiment, will be accepted by Islam as established, empirical knowledge.