Freedom of Enquiry

In his well-known book, The Legacy of Islam (1931), Baron Carra de Vaux acknowledges the achievements of the Arabs, but. nevertheless relegates them to the status of pupils of the Greeks. Bertrand Russell, too, in his History of Western Philosophy, sees the Arabs only as transmitters of Greek thought, i.e. that they brought Greek knowledge to Europe through their translations.
But this does not do justice to the academic attainments of the Arabs. It is true that the Arabs studied Greek literature and pro¬fited thereby. But what they ‘transmitted’ to Europe was much more than they themselves had received from Greece. The truth is that the ideas which sparked off the Renaissance, in Europe had not formed part of Greek thought. Had that been so Europe would not have had to wait a thousand years for its Renaissance.
It is well known that the progress made by the Greeks was mostly in the fields of art and philosophy. Their contribution to the field of science was actually quite negligible. The only exception is that of Archimedes, who was struck down by a Roman soldi¬er in 212 BC while pondering over geometrical problems in the sand.
(J.M. Roberts, History of the World, p. 238)
It is an indisputable fact that for scientific enquiry and scientific progress, an atmosphere of intellectual freedom is absolutely esse¬ntial. But if such an atmosphere did not exist in any of the countries of ancient times, neither did it exist in Greece. Socrates, for example, was forced to commit suicide by drinking hemlock as a punishment for his encouraging free enquiry among the youths of Athens. According to Plutarch, in The Ancient Customs of the Spartans, the Spartans learned to read and write for purely practi¬cal reasons, and all other educational influences-books and treatises, as well as the discourses of learned men were banned. The arts and philosophy flourished in democratic Athens, yet many artists and philosophers, among them Aeschylus, Euripides, Phidias, Socrates, and Aristotle were either exiled, imprisoned or executed or they took flight.
Aeschylus was accused of violating the secrecy of the Eleusinian mysteries. (Fictions which had become part and parcel of Greek thought) His being put to death on the basis of this accusation is further proof of the fact that the atmosphere for scientific progress did not exist in ancient Greece.
The state of science prior to the modern, scientific age is well illustrated by the fate of Pope Sylvester II (Gerbert), who was re¬nowned for his erudition. He was born in 945 in France and died in 1003. He was well versed in Greek and Latin and was famous for his scholarly achievements in various fields.
Gerbert was taken to Spain in 967 by Count Borrell of Barcelona and remained there for three years. There he studied the sciences of the Arabs and was greatly impressed by them. When he came back from Spain he brought with him several translations of these books and an astrolabe. When he began teaching Arab Science, logic, mathematics, astronomy, etc, he faced stiff opposit¬ion. The Christians attributed his learning to magical arts learned in Spain, some to the devil’s coaching. In such unfavourable circumstance, he finally died on May 12, 1003, in Rome, (EB-17/ 899).
From the beginning of recorded history right up to the time of Islam there had been no such concept as intellectual freedom. That is why we hear of only isolated instances of individuals who in ancient times, ‘Nere given to scientific thinking. And scientific thinking could not go beyond those individuals. For want of intell¬ectual freedom, such thinking was nipped in the bud.
Islam, for the first time in history, separated religious knowl¬edge from physical knowledge. The source of religious knowl¬edge which came into general acceptance was divine revelation (the authentic version of which is preserved in the form of the Qur’an) While full freedom was given to enquiry into physical phenomena so that individuals could arrive at their own conclus¬ions independently.
The Sahih Muslim (vol. 4), the second most authentic book on Hadith, dating from the second century Hijrah, contains a chapter leaded as follows: “Whatever the Prophet has said in matters of shariah (religion) must be followed, but this does not apply to worldly affairs:”
In this chapter, Imam Muslim has recorded a tradition narrated by Moosa ibn Talha on the authority of his father who said, “I was with the Prophet when he passed by some people who had climbed up to the top of some date palms. The Prophet enquired as to what they were doing. He was told that they were pollinating the trees in order to fertilize them by touching the male to the female. The Prophet said, “I don’t think this will benefit them.” When people learned of the Prophet’s comment, they stopped the practice of pollination. The yield, however, was very low that year. When the Prophet came to know of this, he said, “If they be¬nefit from pollination, they should continue with this practice. I had only made a guess. It was an opinion. There is no need to fol¬low my opinion in such matters. If, on the other hand, I say any¬thing about God, it must be adhered to, because I never say any¬thing untrue when I am speaking of God.
The same story is told by Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, and by Thabit and Anas, who were lifelong companions of the Prophet. At the end the Prophet told the date growers to stick to their own methods, because “you know your world better.”
According to this Hadith, Islam separates religious matters from scientific research. In religious affairs, there has to be strict adherence to divine guidance. But in scientific research, the work must proceed according to human experience. This indeed marks the advent of the greatest revolution in the history of science.
It is true that in ancient times, there were certain individuals in different countries whose personal achievements in the field of science were considerable. However, due to lack of co-operation and other adverse circumstances, their findings did not gain cur-rency either at home or abroad.
Moseoleban, a French historian, writes in his book, The Arab Civilization, that in ancient times many nations became suffi¬ciently powerful to dominate others, Persia, Greece and Rome ruling over eastern countries at different times. They were not, however, able to exert their cultural influence on these countries to any appreciable extent. Neither could their religion be spread ‘throughout these nations, nor could their language, or their sci¬ences, or their industries take root and flourish. Not only did Egypt hold to its own religion during the days of Roman rule, but the conquerors themselves adopted the religion and the architecture of the conquered. The buildings constructed in those periods were patterned on the architecture developed by the Pharaohs.
However, the goal that the Greeks, Persians and Romans were unable to achieve in Egypt was attained by the Arabs in a very short time and without resorting to the use of force. This was in spite of the obvious difficulties for Egypt in adopting the way of life of an alien nation and of adopting a new religion and a new language within the space of just one century when it meant aban¬doning an ancient culture which dated back seven thousand years. The same influence was exerted by Arabs on African countries and on Syria and Iran. Islam spread rapidly among these peoples. Even in those countries where the Arabs never ruled, where they came only as merchants, Islam spread with great rapidity, China being one of the notable examples.
No similar instance is found in world history of such an influ¬ence being exerted by the conqueror on the conquered. Even those countries who merely had temporary contacts with the Arabs came to adopt their culture. More surprisingly, com¬munities like the Turks and the Mughals, who conquered Mus¬lims, not only accepted their religion and culture but also became their staunchest supporters. Even till today, when the spirit of the Arab civilization is in decline right from the Atlantic Ocean to the Sindh River, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the deserts of Africa, one religion and one language are still in vogue – the relig¬ion and the language of the Prophet (The Arab Civilization.)
Moseoleban states, moreover, that the Arab influence was as visible in western countries as it was in the East. From the Arabs, the West acquired a culture while, in the East, the Arab influence affected every thing from religion and languages to the arts, crafts and sciences. In the West, religion, crafts and industries were not greatly affected. There was more influence on the arts and sci¬ences.
Through the Arabs, monotheism, and a civilization born under its influence, spread everywhere. Its impact was felt in major parts of the inhabited world of the time. Thus an atmosphere and an
en¬vironment were produced in which scientific research, leading to the conquest of nature’s phenomena, could be freely and indepen¬dently undertaken.