Site hosted by Build your free website today!



Science & Civilization








In Islam 



Mang  Aliby



Assalamu'alaikum wr wb.,


Science and Civilization in Islam.

In the Name of God Most Merciful and Compassionate



The Principles of Islam

The history of science is often regarded today as the progressive

accumulation of techniques and the refinement of quantitative methods in

the study of Nature. Such a point of view considers the present conception

of science to be the only valid one; it therefore judges the sciences of

other civilizations in the light of modern science and evaluates them

primarily with respect to their "development" with the passage of time. Our

aim in this work, however, is not to examine the Islamic sciences from the

point of view of modern science and of this "evolutionistic" conception of

history; it is, on the contrary, to present certain aspects of the Islamic

sciences as seen from the Islamic point of view.

To the Muslim, history is a series of accidents that in no way affect the

nontemporal principles of Islam. He is more interested in knowing and

"realizing" these principles than in cultivating originality and change as

intrinsic virtues. The symbol of Islamic civilization is not a flowing

river, but the cube of the Kaaba, the stability of which symbolizes the

permanent and immutable character of Islam.


Once the spirit of the Islamic revelation had brought into being, out of

the heritage of previous civilizations and through its own genius, the

civilization whose manifestations may be called distinctly Islamic, the

main interest turned away from change and "adaptation." The arts and

sciences came to possess instead a stability and a "crystallization" based

on the immutability of the principles from which they had issud forth; it

is this stability that is too often mistaken in the West today for

stagnation and sterility.


The arts and sciences in Islam are based on the idea of unity, which is the

heart of the Muslim revelation. Just as all genuine Islamic art, whether it

be the Alhambra or the Paris Mosque, provides the plastic forms through

which one can contemplate the Divine Unity manifesting itself in

multiplicity, so do all the sciences that can properly be called Islamic

reveal the unity of Nature. One might say that the aim of all the Islamic

sciences and, more generally speaking, of all the medieval and ancient

cosmological sciences is to show the unity and interrelatedness of all that

exists, so that, in contemplating the unity of the cosmos, man may be led

to the unity of the Divine Principle, of which the unity of Nature is the



To understand the Islamic sciences in their essence, therefore, requires an

understanding of some of the principles of Islam itself, even though these

ideas may be difficult to express in modern terms and strange to readers

accustomed to another way of thinking. Yet a statement of these principles

is necessary here, insofar as they form the matrix within which the Islamic

sciences have meaning, and outside of which any study of them would remain

superficial and incomplete.


Islamic civilization as a whole is, like other traditional civilizations,

based upon a point of view: the revelation brought by the Prophet Muhammad

is the "pure" and simple religion of Adam and Abraham, the restoration of a

primordial and fundamental unity. The very word islam means both

"submission" and "peace"or "being at one with the Divine Will."


The creed of Islam "there is no divinity other than God and Muhammad is his

prophet" summarizes in its simplicity the basic attitude and spirit of

Islam. To grasp the essence of Islam, it is enough to recognize that God is

one, and that the Prophet, who is the vehicle of revelation and the symbol

of all creation, was sent by him. This simplicity of the Islamic revelation

further implies a type of religious structure different in many ways from

that of Christianity. There is no priesthood as such in Islam. Each Muslim

being a "priest" is himself capable of fulfilling all the religious

functions of his family and, if necessary, of his community; and the role

of the imam, as understood in either Sunni or Shia Islam, does not in any

way diminish the sacerdotal function of each believer. The orthodoxy based

on this creed is intangible, and therefore not so closely bound to specific

formulations of dogmatic theology as in Christianity. There have been, to

be sure, sectional fanaticism and even persecution, carried on either by

rulers or by exoteric theologians, against such figures as al Hallaj and

Suhrawardl. Yet the larger orthodoxy, based on the essential doctrine of

unity, has always prevailed and has been able to absorb within the

structure of Islam all that is not contradictory to the Muslim creed.


In its universal sense, Islam may be said to have three levels of meaning.

All beings in the universe, to begin with, are Muslim, i.e., "surrendered

to the Divine Will." (A flower cannot help being a flower; a diamond cannot

do other than sparkle. God has made them so; it is theirs to obey.)

Secondly, all men who accept with their will the sacred law of the

revelation are Muslim in that they surrender their wdl to that law. When

'Uqbah, the Muslim conqueror of North Africa, took leave of his family and

mounted his horse for the great adventure which was to lead him through two

thousand miles of conquest to the Moroccan shores of the Atlantic, he cried

out: "And now, God, take my soul." We can hardly imagine Alexander the

Great having such thoughts as he set out eastward to Persia. Yet, as

conquerors, the two men were to achieve comparable feats; the "passivity"

of 'Uqbah with respect to the Divine Will was to be transmuted into

irresistible action in this world.


Finally, we have the level of pure knowledge and understanding. It is that

of the contemplative, the gnostic ('arif), the level that has been

recognized throughout Islamic history as the highest and most

comprehensive. The gnostic is Muslim in that his whole being is surrendered

to God; he has no separate individual existence of his own. He is like the

birds and the flowers in his yielding to the Creator; like them, like all

the other elements of the cosmos, he reflects the Divine Intellect to his

own degree. He reflects it actively, however, they passively; his

participation is a conscious one. Thus "knowledge" and "science" are

defined as basically different frorn mere curiosity and even from

analytical speculation. The gnostic is from this point of view "one with

Nature"; he understands it "from the inside," he has become in fact the

channel of grace for the universe. His islam and the islam of Nature are

now counterparts.


The intellective function, so defined, may be difficult for Westerners to

grasp. Were it not for the fact that most of the great scientists and

mathematicians of Islam operated within this matrix, it might seem so far

removed as to be irrelevant to this study. Yet, it is closer in fact to the

Western tradition than most modern readers are likely to realize. It is

certainly very close to the contemplative strain of the Christian Middle

Ages a strain once more evoked in part, during the modern era, by the

German school of Naturphilosophie and by the Romantics, who strove for

"communion" with Nature. Let us not be misled by words, however. The

opening of the Romantic's soul to Nature even Keats's "negative capability"

of receiving its imprint is far more a matter of sentiment (or, as they

loved to call it then, "sensibility") than of true contemplation, for the

truly contemplative attitude is based on "intellection."


We should be mindful here of the changing usage of words. "Intellect" and

"intellectual" are so closely identified today with the analytical

functions of the mind that they hardly bear any longer any relation to the

contemplative. The attitude these words imply toward Nature is the one that

Goethe was to deplore as iate as the early nineteenth century that attitude

that resolves, conquers, and dominates by force of concepts. It is, in

short, essentially abstract, while contemplative knowledge is at bottom

concrete. We shall thus have to say, by way of reestablishing the old

distinction, that the gnostic's relation to Nature is "intellective," which

is neither abstract, nor analytical, nor merely sentimental.


Viewed as a text, Nature is a fabric of symbols, which must be read

according to their meaning. The Quran is the counterpart of that text in

human words; its verses are called ayat ("signs"), just as are the

phenomena of Nature. Both Nature and the Quran speak forth the presence and

the worsl~ of God: We shall show them Our portents on the horizon and

within themselves until it will be manifest unto them that it is the Truth

(41 53).


To the doctors of the Law, this text is merely prescriptive, Nature being

present in their minds only as the necessary setting for men's actions. To

the gnostic or Sufi, on the other hand, the Quranic text is also symbolic,

just as all of Nature is symbolic. If the tradition of the symbolic

interpretation of the text of the Sacred Book were to disappear, and the

text thereby reduced to its literal meaning, man might still know his duty,

but the "cosmic text" would become unintelligible. The phenomena of Nature

would lose any connection with the higher orders of reality, as well as

among themselves; they would become mere "facts." This is precisely what

the intellective capacity and, indeed, Islamic culture as a whole will not

accept. The spirit of Islam emphasizes, by contrast, the unity of Nature,

that unity that is the aim of the cosmological sciences, and that is

adumbrated and prefigured in the continuous interlacing of arabesques

uniting the profusion of plant life with the geometric crystals of the

verses of the Quran.


Thus we see that the idea of unity is not only the basic presupposition of

the Islamic arts and sciences: it dominates their expression as well. The

portrayal of any individual object would become a "graven image," a

dangerous idol of the mind, the very canon of art in Islam is abstraction.

Unity itself is alone deserving of representation; since it is not to be

represented directly, however, it can only be symbolized and at that, only

by hints. There is no concrete symbol to stand for unity, however; its true

expression is negation, not this, not that. Hence, it remains abstract from

the point of view of man, who lives in multiplicity.


Thus we come to the central issue. Can our minds grasp the individual

object as it stands by itself? or can we do so only by understanding the

individual object within the context of the universe? In other words, from

the cosmological point of view, is the universe the unity, and the

individual event or object a sign (''phenomenon,'' "appearance") of

ambiguous and uncertain import? Or is it the other way around? Of these

alternatives, which go back to the time of Plato, the Muslim is bound to

accept the first -- he gives priority to the universe as the one concrete

reality, which symbolizes on the cosmic level the Divine Principle itself,

although that cannot truly be envisaged in terms of anything else. This is,

to be sure, an ancient choice, but Islam does inherit many of its theories

from preexisting traditions, the truths of which it seeks to affirm rather

than to deny. What it brings to them, as we have already said, is that

strong unitary point of view that, along with a passionate dedication to

the Divine Will, enabled Islam to rekindle the flame of science that had

been extinguished at Athens and in Alexandria.


We have seen that the sacred art of Islam is an abstract art, combining

flexibility of line with emphasis on the archetype, and on the use of

regular geometrical figures interlaced with one another. Herein one can

already see why mathematics was to make such a strong appeal to the Muslim:

its abstract nature furnished the bridge that Muslims were seeking between

multiplicity and unity. It provided a fitting texture of symbols for the

universe -- symbols that were like keys to open the cosmic text.


We should distinguish at once between the two types of mathematics

practiced by Muslims: one was the scrence of algebra, which was always

related to geometry and trigonometry; the other was the science of numbers,

as understood in the Pythagorean sense. The Pythagorean number has a

symbolic as well as a quantitative aspect; it is a projection of Unity,

which, however, never leaves its source. Each number has an inherent power

of analysis, arising out of its quantitative nature; it has also the power

of synthesis because of the inner bond that connects all other numbers to

the unit. The Pythagorean number thus has a "personality": it is like a

Jacob's ladder, connecting the quantitative with the qualitative domain by

virtue of its own inner polarization. To study numbers thus means to

contemplate them as symbols and to be led thereby to the intelligible

world. So also with the other branches of mathematics. Even where the

symbolic aspect is not explicitly stated, the connection with geometric

forms has the effect upon the mind of freeing it from dependence upon mere

physical appearance, and in that way preparing it for lts iourney into the

intelligible world and, ultimately, to Unity.


Gnosis in the Alexandrian world had used, as the vehicle for the expression

of its doctrines, a bewildering maze of mythology. In Islam, the

intellective symbolism often becomes mathematical, while the direct

experience of the mystic is expressed in such powerful poetry as that of

Jalal al-Din Rumi. The instrument of gnosis is always, however, the

intellect; reason is its passive aspect and its reflection in the human

domain. The link between intellect and reason is never broken, except in

the individual ventures of a handful of thinkers, among whom there are few

that could properly be called scientists. The intellect remains the

principle of reason; and the exercise of reason, if it is healthy and

normal should naturally lead to the intellect. That is why Muslim

metaphysicians say that rational knowledge leads naturally to the

affirmation of the Divine Unity. Although the spiritual realities are not

merely rational, neither are they irrational Reason, considered in its

ultimate rather than its immediate aspect, can bring man to the gateway of

the intelligible worldrational knowledge can in the same fashion be

integrated into gnosis, even though it is discursive and partial while

gnosis is total and intuitive. It is because of this essential relationship

of subordination and hierarchy between reason and intellect rational

knowledge and gnosis, that the quest for causal explanation in Islam only

rarely sought to, and never actually managed to, satisfy itself outside the

faith, as was to happen in Christianity at the end of the Middle Ages.


This hierarchy is also based on the belief that scientia -- human knowledge

-- is to be regarded as legitimate and noble only so long as it is

subordinated to sapientia -- Divine wisdom. Muslim sages would agree with

Saint Bonaventure's "Believe, in order to understand." Like him, they

insist that scientia can truly exist only in conjunction with sapientia,

and that reason is a noble faculty only insofar as it leads to

intellection, rather than when it seeks to establish its independence of

its own principle, or tries to encompass the Infinite within some finite

system. There are in Islamic history one or two instances when rationalist

groups did attempt to establish their independence of and opposition to the

gnostics, and also to set themselves against other orthodox interpreters of

the Islamic revelation. The spiritual forces of Islam were always strong

enough, however, to preserve the hierarchy between intellect and reason,

and thus to prevent the establishment of a rationalism independent of the

revelation. The famous treatises of al-Ghazzali, in the fifth/eleventh

century, against the rationalistic philosophers of his time mark the final

triumph of intellection overrindependent ratiocination a triumph that did

not utterly destroy rationalistic philosophy, but did make it subordinate

to gnosis. As a result of this defeat by al-Ghazzali and similar figures of

the syllogistic and systematic Aristotelian philosophy in the

fifth/eleventh century, the Islamic gnostic tradition has been able to

survive and to remain vital down to the present day, instead of being

stifled, as elsewhere, in an overly rationalistic atmosphere.


The reaction against the rationalists, of which the wntings of al-Ghazzali

mark the high point, coincides roughly in time with the spread of

Aristotelianism in the West, which led ultimately to a series of actions

and reactionsthe Renaissance, the Reformation, and the

Counter-Reformationsuch as never occurred in the Islamic world. In the

West, these movements led to new types of philosophy and science such as

characterize the Western world today, that are as profoundly different from

their medieval antecedents as is the mentaland spiritual horizon of modern

man from that of traditional man. Europe in that period began to develop a

science of Nature that concerns itself only with the quantitative and

material aspects of things, meanwhile, the tide of Islamic thought was

flowing back, as before, into its traditional bed, to that conceptual

coherence that comprises the mathematical sciences.


Today, as in the past, the traditional Muslim looks upon all of science as

"sacred," and studies this sacred science in a well-established threefold

articulation. First, within the reach of all, is the Law, contained in

essence in the Quran, elucidated by tradition and jurisprudence, and taught

by the doctors; it covers every aspect of the social and religious life of

the believer. Beyond that lies the Path dealing with the inner aspect of

things, which governs the spiritual life of those who have been "elected"

to follow it. This has given rise to the various Sufi brotherhoods, since

it is actually a way of life built upon communication at a personal,

nonsystematic level. Finally, there is the ineffable Truth itself, which

lies at the heart of both these approaches.


According to a still-current simile, the Law is as the circumference of a

circle, of which the Path is the radius, and the Truth the center. The Path

and the Truth together form the esoteric aspect of Islam, to which Sufism

is dedicated. At its core lies a metaphysical intuition, knowledge such as

comes only to the right "mode in the knower." From this spring a science of

the universe, a science of the soul, and the science of mathematics, each

of them in essence a different metaphorical setting for that one science

that the mind stnves after, each of them a part of that gnosis that

comprehends all things.


This may help explain why the mathematician, who was something of a

displaced person in the West right up to the late Middle Ages, plays a

central role in Islam from the very start. Two centuries after the

establishment in the Near East of Christianity (in A.D. 313), the

Christian-dominated West was still sunk deep in barbarism. Yet two

centuries after Muhammad, the Islamic world under the Caliph Harun al

Rashid was already far more active culturally than the contemporaneous

world of Charlemagneeven with the latter's earlier start. What reached the

West from Islam at that time was little more than dark tales of incredible

wealth and wondrous magic. In Islam itself, however, the mathematician's

craft, having "found its home," was already able to satisfy the civilized

man's desire for logical subtlety and for intellectual games, while

philosophy itself reached out into the mysteries beyond reason.


This early stabilization of the theoretical outlook of Islam extended also

to the type of man who embodied it. Whereas tke role of intellectual

leadership in the West devolved upon several different figures in turnthe

Benedictine monk, the scholastic doctor, the lay scientisttke central

figure in Islamhas remained almost unchanging. He is the haklm, who

encompasses within himself some or all of the several aspects of the sage;

scholar, medical healer, spiritual guide. If he happens to be a wise

merchant too, that also falls into the picture, for he is traditionally an

itinerant person. If his achievements in mathematics are extraordinary, he

may become a figure like 'Umar Khayyam. It is clear, moreover, that such a

man be his name even Avicenna will never be able to develop each of his

several attainments in the same fashion as the single-faceted specialist

may. Such specialists do exist in Islam, but they remain mostly secondary

figures. The sage does not let himself be drawn into the specialist's

single-level "mode of knowing," for then he would forfeit the higher

knowledge. Intellectual achievement is thus, in a sense, always patterned

upon the model of the unattainable complete, that "total thing" that is not

found in the Greek tradition. Ptolemy's Syntaxis becomes in the Muslim

world the Almagest or Opus Maximumeven as Aristotle is purely and simply

al-failasuf (the philosopher).


The title of Avicenna's great treatise, Kitab al-Shifa, which rivals in

scope the Aristotelian corpus, means The Book of Healing. As the title

implies the work contains the knowledge needed to cure the soul of the

disease of ignorance. It is all that is needed for man to understand; it is

also as much as any man need know. Newton's work Principia has an obviously

far different ring: it means a foundationessentially, a "beginning" rather

than a knowledge that is complete and sufficient for man's intellectual

needs as the titles of so many medieval Islamic texts imply.



Islam came into the world at the beginning of the seventh century A.D., its

initial date (the journey of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina) being 622

A.D.; it had spread over all of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain,

by the end of that same century. Just as the Islamic religion is one of the

"middle way," so too did its territory come to occupyin fact, it still

occupiesthe "middle belt" of the globe, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

In this region, the home of many earlier civilizations, Islam came into

contact with a number of sciences which it absorbed, to the extent that

these sciences were compatible with its own spirit and were able to provide

nourishment for its own characteristic cultural life.


The primordial character of its revelation, and its confidence that it was

expressing the Truth at the heart of all revelations, permitted Islam to

absorb ideas from many sources, historically alien yet inwardly related to

it. This was especially true in regard to the sciences of Nature, because

most of the ancient cosmological sciences -- Greek, as well as Chaldean,

Persian, Indian, and Chinese -- had sought to express the unity of Nature

and were therefore in conformity with the spirit of Islam. Coming into

contact with them, the Muslims adopted some elements from eachmost

extensively, perhaps, from the Greeks, but also from the Chaldeans,

Indians, Persians, and perhaps, in the case of alchemy, even from the

Chinese. They united these sciences into a new corpus, which was to grow

over the centuries and become part of the Islamic civilization, integrated

into the basic structure derived from the Revelation itself.


The lands destined to become parts of the medieval Islamic world -- from

Transoxiana to Andalusia -- were consolidated into a new spiritual universe

within a single century after the death of the Prophet. The revelation

contained in the Quran, and expressed in the sacred language (Arabic),

provided the unifying pattern into which many foreign elements became

integrated and absorbed, in accordance with the universal spirit of Islam.

In the sciences, especially those dealing with Nature, the most important

source was the heritage of Greek civilization.


Alexandria, by the first century B.C., had become the center of Greek

science and philosophy, as well as the meeting place of Hellenism with

Oriental and ancient Egyptian influences, out of which came Hermeticism and

Neoplatonism. The Greek heritage, itself to a great extent an assemblage of

ancient Mediterranean views, systematized and put into dialectical form by

the peculiar discursive power of the Greeks passed from Alexandria to

Antioch, and from there to Nisibis and Edessa, by way of the Christian

Monophysites and Nestorians. The latter were particularly instrumental in

the spreading of Greek learning, chiefly in Syriac translation, to lands as

far east as Persia.


In the third century A.D., Shapur I founded Jundishapur at the site of an

ancient city near the present Persian city of Ahwaz, as a prisoner-of-war

camp, for soldiers captured in the war with Valerian. This camp gradually

grew into a metropolis, which became a center of ancient sciences, studied

in Greek and Sanskrit and later in Syriac. A school was set up, on the

model of those at Alexandria and Antioch, in which medicine, mathematics,

astronomy, and logic were taught, mostly from Greek texts translated into

Syriac, but also elements of the Indian and Persian sciences were included.

This school, which lasted long after the establishment of the Abbasid

caliphate, became an important source of ancient learning in the Islamic



Aside from those more obvious avenues, there were also lines of

communication with more esoteric aspects of the Greek sciences,

particularly the Pythagorean school, through the community of Sabaeans of

Harran. This religious community traced its origin to the Prophet Idns (the

Enoch of the Old Testament), who is also regarded in the Islamic world as

the founder of the sciences of the heavens and of philosophy, and who is

identified by some with Hermes Trismegistus. The Sabaeans possessed a

remarkable knowledge of astronomy, astrology, and mathematics; their

doctrines were in many respects similar to those of the Pythagoreans. It

was probably they who provided the link between the Hermetic Tradition and

certain aspects of the Islamic esoteric doctrines, into which some elements

of Hermeticism were integrated.


On the Oriental side the Indian and, to a lesser degree, the Persian

sciences came to have an important bearing upon the growth of the sciences

in Islam, a bearing far greater than is usually recognized. In zoology,

anthropology, and certain aspects of alchemy, as well as, of course, in

mathematics and astronomy, the tradition of Indian and Persian sciences was

dominant, as can be seen in the Epistles (Rasail) of the Brethren of Purity

(Ikhwan al-Safa') and the translations of Ibn Muqaffa'. It must be

remembered that the words "magic" and Magi are related, and that, according

to the legend, the Jews learned alchemy and the science of numbers from the

Magi, while in captivity in Babylon.


There are most likely elements of Chinese science in Islam, especially in

alchemy, pointing to some early contact between the Muslims and Chinese

science. Some have even gone so far as to claimwithout much proof, to be

sure -- that the word al-klmiya' from which "alchemy" is derived, is itself

an arabization of the classical Chinese word Chin-l which in some dialects

is Kim-Ia and means "the gold-making juice." The most important influence

from China, however, was to come in later centuries, particularly after the

Mongol invasion, and then primarily in the arts and technology.


The totality of the arts and sciences in Islam thus consisted of a

synthesis of the ancient sciences of the Mediterranean people, as

incorporated and developed by the Greeks, along with certain Oriental

elements. The dominant part of this heritage was definitely

Graeco-Hellenistic, in translations either from Syriac or from the Greek

itself, by such masters of translation as Hunain ibn Ishaq, and Thabit ibn

Qurrah. There were numerous translations of Greek authors into Arabic in

nearly every domain of knowledge. The ideas and points of views contained

in these translations formed a large part of the nutriment which Islam

sampled and then assimilated according to its own inner constitution, and

the foundation given to it by tke Quranic revelation. In this way there

developed, in conjunction with the three basic "dimensions" of the Law, the

Path, and the Truth, Islamic schools which were to become an accepted part

of Islamic civilization.


With respect to Greek learning itself, Muslims came to distinguish between

two different schools, each possessing a distinct type of science: one, the

Hermetic-Pythagorean school, was metaphysical in its approach, its sciences

of Nature depending upon the symbolic interpretation of phenomena and of

mathematics; in the other, the syllogistic-rationalistic school of the

followers of Aristotle, the point of view was philosophical rather than

metaphysical, and its sciences were therefore aimed at finding the place of

things in a rational system, rather than at seeing, through their

appearances, their heavenly essences. The first school was regarded as the

continuation, in Greek civilization, of the wisdom of the ancient prophets,

especially Solomon and Idris; it was therefore considered to be based on

divine rather than human knowledge The second school was looked upon, for

the most part, as reflecting the best effort the human mind could make to

arrive at the truth, an effort of necessity limited by the finite nature of

human reason. The first school was to become an integral part of Islam,

certain of its cosmological sciences being integrated into some of the

branches of Sufism. The second school did have many disciples in the

earlier centuries and thus left an influence upon the language of Muslim

theology after the seventh/thirteenth century, it lost ground, however and,

despite its continuation up to the present day, it has remained a secondary

aspect of Islamic intellectual life.


The various levels of reference existing hierarchically within the

structure of Islam are presented concisely by a sage who lived in the

fifth/eleventh century, and who is probably the one Oriental figure most

familiar to the modern Western public: 'Umar Khayyam, mathematician and

poet extraordinary. That he should be regarded in the Western world, on the

strength of his famous quatrains as a skeptical hedonist is itself a sign

of the profound lack of understanding between the two worlds; for he was in

reality a sage and a gnostic of high standing. What appears to be lack of

concern or agnosticism in his poetry is merely an accepted form of

expression, within which he incorporated both the drastic remedy that the

gnostic applies to religious hypocrisy, and also the reestablishment of

contact with reality. (Late Greeks, such as Aenesidemus, had had recourse

to the same skeptical device, and with similar intentions. ) In the

following passage from a metaphysical treatise, Khayyam divides the seekers

after knowledge into four categories:


(1) The theologians, who become content with disputation .and "satisfying"

proofs, and consider this much knowledge of the Creator (excellent is His

Name) as sufflcient.


(2) The philosophers and learned men [of Greek inspiration] who use

rational arguments and seek to know the laws of logic, and are never

content merely with "satisfying" arguments. But they too cannot remain

faithful to the conditions of logic, and become helpless with it.


(3) The Ismailis [a branch of Shia Islam] and others who say that the way

of knowledge is none other than receiving information from a learned and

credible informant; for, in reasoning about the knowledge of the Creator,

His Essence and Attributes, there is much difficulty; the reasoning power

of the opponents and the intelligent [of those who struggle against the

final authority of the revelation, and of those who fully accept it] is

stupefied and helpless before it. Therefore, they say, it is better to seek

knowledge from the words of a sincere person.


(4) The Sufis, who do not seek knowledge by meditation or discursive

thinking, but by purgation of their inner being and the purifying of their

dispositions. They cleanse the rational soul of the impurities of nature

and bodily form, until it becomes pure substance. It then comes face to

face with the spiritual world, so that the forms of that world become truly

reflected in it, without doubt or ambiguity.


This is the best of all ways, because none of the perfections of God are

kept away from it, and there are no obstacles or veils put before it.

Therefore, whatever [ignorance] comes to man is due to the impurity of his

nature; if the veil be lifted and the screen and obstacle removed, the

truth of things as they are will become manifest. And the Master [the

Prophet Muhammad] -- upon whom be peace -- indicated this when he said:

"Truly, during the days of your existence, inspirations come from God. Do

you not want to follow them?"Tell unto reasoners that, for the lovers of

God [gnostics] intuition is guide, not discursive thought.


Here we have, stated authoritatively, the central perspective of Islamic

thought, in which the component parts fall naturally into place. Each one

is a different mode of knowing. It is puzzling at first sight to find

nowhere in it the mathematicians, of whom Khayyam himself was such an

eminent example. Notice, however, that the Ismailis correspond quite

closely with what in the early Pythagorean school had been the Akusmatikoi,

"those who go by what is told them." It should be noticed, also, that the

Pythagorean Mathematikoi, the "expounders of the doctrine," will be found

both among the philosophers and again among the Sufis, since systematic

theory remains helpless without spiritual achievement, which is precisely

what mathematics is intended to lead to, by contrast with syllogistic

hair-splitting. This is clearly revealed in later sections of the same work

in which Khayyam describes himself as both an orthodox Pythagorean and a



Here, too, we see the significant contrast with the Greek world. For the

Pythagorean doctrines alluded to had become practically extinct there by

the time of Aristotle, and were to be taken up again, and at that only

after a fashion, in the Hellenistic revival; in Islam, we see them

stabilized and restored almost according to their original pattern through

the unitary religious idea. Islam was thus able to hand on to the West, to

the extent that the latter accepted the Pythagorean tradition, something

more coherent, as well as technically more advanced, than the West's own

immediate heritage from antiquity.


There are other lines to be found in Khayyam's spectrum. The "atomistic"

school of thought which flourished in Islam after the fourth/tenth century,

and which in the Western pespective might be supposed to be scientific, he

regards as not belonging to science at all, but to theology, for the

Ash'arites who represented this school were exactly the sort of "

theologians" he described. In the writings of the followers of this school,

especially al-Baqillam, who may be considered their outstanding

"philosopher of Nature, "the continuity of external forms is broken by an

"atomistic" doctrine of time and space, and by the denial of the

Aristotelian notion of causality. For the Ash'arites (as also for the

Sufis), the world is annihilated and recreated at every moment; the cause

of all events is the Creator and not a finite, created agent. A stone falls

because God makes it fall, not because of the nature of the stone or

because it is impelled by an external force. Whatappears as "Laws of

Nature," i.e., the uniformity of sequence of cause and effect, is only a

matter of habit, determined by the will of God and given the status of

"law" by Him. Miracles, which seem to break the apparent uniformity of

natural phenomena, are simply going against the "habit" of Nature; the

Arabic word for a supernatural event means literally that which results

from "rupture of habit." We are facing here a strict "consequentiality,"

which has its parallel in Western thought of the seventeenth century. From

Descartes to the Occasionalists, the development presents curious



In the second grouping on Khayyam's list, the "philosophers and learned

men," we would find assembled all the famous names of Islamic science.

There is a sharp distinction, however, between two schools of

"philosophical" thought, both of which profess to be disciples of the

Greeks. The first is the Peripatetic school, whose doctrines are a

combination of the ideas of Aristotle and of some Neoplatonists. The

representative of this school who was closest to Aristotle was Averroes

who, paradoxically, had less effect upon the Islamic than upon the

Christian world, and should be studied more as a great member of the

tradition of Western philosophy than as an integral part of Islamic

intellectual life.


The science of Nature cultivated by the Peripatetic school is primarily

syllogistic: it seeks to determine the place of each being, in a vast

system based upon the philosophy of Aristotle. The best expression of the

doctrines of this school appears in Avicenna's early writings. The Book of

Healing is the most comprehensive encyclopedia of knowledge ever written by

one person, and undoubtedly the most influential Peripatetic work in

Islam.The other Islamic school professing to follow the Greeks was much

more sympathetic to the Pythagorean-Platonic than to the Aristotelian

tradition. This school, which in later centuries came to be called the

Illuminatist (ishraqi) school, asserts that it derives its doctrines not

only from the Pythagoreans and their followers, but from the ancient

Prophets, the Hermetic Tradition, and even from the ancient Zoroastrian

sages. The symbolic works of Avicenna, such as Living Son of the Awake

(Hayy ibn Yaqzan) are early expressions of the writings of this school. The

greatest Illuminatist philosopher, however, is Suhrawardi, who drew his

symbolism from all the many sources mentioned above.The sciences of Nature,

as well as the mathematics cultivated by certain adherents of this school,

are primarily symbolic, and resemble to a great extent the writings of

sorne Neoplatonists. Nature becomes for the writers of this school a cosmic

crypt from whose confines they must seek to escapeand on their journey

through it, they see in its phenomena "signs," which guide them on the road

toward final "illumination." Many Illuminatists, particularly those of

later centuries, have also been Sufis, who have made use of the eminently

initiatic language of the Illuminatist philosophers to describe the journey

of the Sufi toward gnosis. Many members of this school, and in general the

learned men whom Khayyam mentions, have also been among the group that have

cultivated mathematics, astronomy, and medicine; for these learned men took

an interest in all the arts and sciences, and helped to keep alive the

traditions of learning in those fields, as an integral part of their

studies in philosophy.


The Peripatetics were very strong during the fourth/tenth and

fifth/eleventh centuries, but their influence weakened during the

succeeding period. The Illuminatists, on the other hand, became strong

after the sixth/twelfth century and al-Ghazzah's triumph. They have had a

continuous tradition down to the present day, chiefly because of the

metaphysical (as against rationalistic) emphasis in their doctrines, and

also because of the use of their language by certain Sufi masters. One of

the greatest exponents of Illuminatist doctrines, as interpreted and

modified by the Safavid sage Mulla Sadra, was Hajil Mulla Hadi Sabziwari

who died in Persia less than a century ago.


The Ismailis, to whom Khayyam next refers, are a branch of Shia Islam,

which was very powerful in his time, and also played a considerable role in

the cultivation of the arts and sciences. Ismaili doctrines are

fundamentally esoteric, being based on numerical symbolism and the symbolic

interpretation of the "cosmic text." The symbolic interpretation of the

Quran, which is basic in Shia Islam as well as in Sufism, was made the

basis for the symbolic study of Nature. Moreover, such sciences as alchemy

and astrology became integrated into their doctrines, and such texts as the

Epistles of the Brethren of Purity, and the numerous writings of Jabir ibn

Hayyan, the alchemist, were to have their greatest influence upon this

group. The development of what has been called "Oriental

neo-Pythagoreanism" is found most clearly in the treatises of the Ismailis.

They were very much interested in the sciences of Nature; in integrating

the rhythms and cycles of Nature with the cycles of history and with the

manifestations of various prophets and imams, their works rank among the

most important Islamic writings on Nature.


Khayyam mentions, finally, the Sufis or gnostics, the group to which he

himself belonged. It may seem surprising that a man so well versed in the

arts and sciences of his day should consider the "way of purification" of

the Sufis as the best way of acquiring knowledge. His language in this

regard, however, is not merely theoretical, it is almost operational: one

cleanses and focuses the instrument of perception, i.e., the soul, so that

it may see the realities of the spiritual world. Aristotle himself, the

great rationalist, had once said that "knowledge is according to the mode

of the knower." The gnostic, in employing the "right" mode of knowledge

ensures that Intellection takes place in him immediately and intuitively.

In this regard, Khayyam's statement becomes clearer when seen in the light

of a doctrine that we shall discuss later: the doctrine of the universal

man, who is not only the final goal of the spiritual life, but also the

archetype of the universe.


To the extent that the gnostic is able to purify himself of his

individualistic and particular nature, and thus to identify himself with

the universal man within him, to that same extent does he also gain

knowledge of the principles of the cosmos, as well as of the Divine

realities. For the gnostic, knowledge of Nature is secondary to knowledge

of the Divine Principle; yet, because of the rapport between the gnostic

and the universe, Nature does play a positive role in guiding him to his

ultimate goal. The phenomena of Nature become "transparent" for the

gnostic, so that in each event he "sees" the archetype. The symbols of

substances -- geometric forms and numerical quantities, colors, and

directions -- these and many other such symbols are aspects of the being of

things. They increase in their reality -- a reality independent of personal

taste or of the individual -- to the extent that the gnostic divorces

himself from his individual perspective and limited existence, and

identifies himself with Being. For the gnostic, the knowledge of anything

in the universe means ultimately knowledge of the relationship between the

essence of that particular being and the Divine Intellect, and the

knowledge of the ontological relationship between that being and Being itself.


Kayyam's classification did not take into consideration certain writers of

great importance, who did not follow any particular school. There are also

many Islamic writers, hakims, including Khayyam himself, who possessed a

knowledge of several disciplines, and in whom two or more levels of his

hierarchy of knowledge may be found. Some of the most outstanding of these

men will be discussed in the next chapter.


smuch as the hierarchy of knowledge in Islam, as it has existed

historically, has been united by a metaphysical bond much as a vertical

axis unites horizontal planes of reference the integration of these diverse

views "from above" has been possible. Historically, of course, there have

been many conflicts, sometimes disputes leading to violence and

occasionally to the death of a writer. Such conflicts are not, however, as

elsewhere, between incompatible orthodoxies. They are regarded by most

Islamic commentators as due to the lack of a more universal point of view

on the part of those who have only embraced a less universal one. Only the

gnostic, who sees all things "as they really are," is able to integrate all

these views into their principial unity.


Regarded from their own point of view, each of these schools may be said to

possess a certain "philosophy of Nature, and, in conformity with it, to

cultivate the sciences dealing with the universe. Some of their writings,

primarily those of the Peripatetics, were to be translated into Latin to

help form that Western scholasticism which was later to give way to

seventeenth-century "natural philosophy." Other writings, such as those of

the alchemists, were to flourish in the Western world for several

centuries, only to wither away in its atmosphere of rationalistic

philosophy. There were still other works, especially those of the Sufis and

Illuminatists, which were to have an influence on certain Western circles

such as that of Dante, and yet for the most part to remain almost unknown

in the Western world, down to comparatively recent times.


In this brief introduction, it has been necessary to cover much ground that

is unfamiliar and often quite difficult for a Western reader to grasp. But

we felt that we had to dispel the common conception of the Muslims as

merely Puritan warriors and merchants, whose strange bent for the

"subtleties" of algebra and logic somehow also enabled them to become the

transmitters of Greek learning to the West. As against that all too current

notion, we have tried to present a brief picture of a culture whose

spiritual values are inextricably tied up with mathematics and with

metaphysics of a high order, and which once again fused the constituent

elements of Greek science into a powerful unitary conception, which had an

essential influence on the Western world up to the time of the Renaissance.


Strangely enough, it is this latter conception, half unknown at best, and

then quickly forgotten in the Wcst, which has remained, up to the present

Western impact upon the Islamic world, the major factor in the Islamic

perspective determining its attitude toward Nature and the meaning it gives

to the sciences of Nature; conversely, it is those very elements of the

Islamic sciences, most responsible for providing the tools with which the

West began the study of the already secularized Nature of the seventeenth

century, that became secondary in the Islamic world itself and had already

ceased to occupy the main intellectual efforts of that civilization by the

ninth/ fifteenth century.


The Western world has since concentrated its intellectual energies upon the

study of the quantitative aspects of things, thus developing a science of

Nature, whose all too obvious fruits in the physical domain have won for it

the greatest esteem among people everywhere, for most of whom "science" is

identified with technology and its applications. Islamic science, by

contrast, seeks ultimately to attain such knowledge as will contribute

toward the spiritual perfection and deliverance of anyone capable of

studying it; thus its fruits are inward and hidden, its values more

difficult to discern. To understand it requires placing oneself within its

perspective and accepting as legitimate a science of Nature which has a

different end, and uses different means, from those of modern science. If

it is unjust to identify Western science solely with its material results,

it is even more unjust to judge medieval science by its outward

"usefulness" alone. However important its uses may have been in calendarial

work, in irrigation, in architecture, its ultimate aim has always been to

relate the corporeal world to its basic spiritual principle, through the

knowledge of those symbols which unite the various orders of reality. It

can only be understood, and should only be judged, in terms of its own aims

and its own perspectives.




HEALTHY, Turning Ideas Into Reality


Not Only Thought, but do it ! (mang ali)