What is the view of the relationship between religion and
by John Kaltner
Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad tell Muslims
to study and learn from the world around them. They are urged to
examine their environment so that they can develop an understanding
of the created order and their place within it. At the same time,
they will come to a deeper appreciation of the power and majesty
of the God who brought everything into existence. Muslims understand
this to be an invitation to engage in scientific inquiry, experimentation,
the medieval period that eventually gave rise to the Scientific
Revolution, Islam exerted a tremendous amount of influence on the
intellectual heritage of the non-Muslim world. Were
it not for the Islamic community it is probable that some of the
most prominent figures of antiquity would have disappeared from
the pages of history, silently buried in oblivion.
foremost examples of this are the classical Greek philosophers like
Plato and Socrates. At an early stage in Islamic history, their
writings were translated into Arabic by Muslims, who preserved
them for centuries as the only extant copies of the works. Later,
when Muslims had the opportunity to interact and live with Christians
and Jews, they reintroduced into Europe the works of these important
thinkers. Muslim contributions in this area went well beyond preservation,
because they also offered interpretations of the writings of the
Greek philosophers that had an impact on how the non-Muslim world
came to understand these works.
were not only engaged in the preservation and interpretation of
literary texts, but were also responsible for some of the most significant
inventions and discoveries in science and related fields. It has
already been noted how important Muslim advances in medicine were
for European physicians and surgeons, as seen in the fact that Ibn
Sina’s (Avicenna) textbook was their standard reference work
is another field that was heavily influenced by Muslim scholars.
Algebra, coming from the Arabic word
al-jabr, was invented by Muslim mathematicians.
Algorithms take their name from Al-Khawarizmi (d.840), who was one
of the most brilliant mathematicians the Islamic world produced.
Muslims invented the concept of zero, which is a foundation for
the numbering system used throughout the world. Euclid’s writings
on geometry are known to us today only because they were translated
into Arabic and preserved by Muslims.
Islamic world also made important contributions to many other areas
of science, including chemistry, botany, pharmacology, and zoology.
One field that deserves special mention is astronomy, which Muslims
took keen interest in from the earliest days of Islam. Many new
stars were discovered by Muslims, who composed numerous astronomical
tables as a result of their observations that influenced the development
of European astronomy.
world’s first truly scientific observatory, at Maraghah in
Persia, was built in the heart of the Muslim world. Among the many
astronomical tools and instruments invented by Muslims, the most
well-known is the astrolabe, which allows one to fix the position
of the sun and stars in the sky, and assists in determining the
precise time of day. Muslim
interest in astronomy was often directly related to the practice
of their faith since knowledge of the sun’s location in the
sky and the direction of Mecca would determine when and how they
of the most significant works of translation and discovery took
place in Spain, during a period known in Spanish as Convivencia,
when Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together and learned from
each other. Between the eighth and fifteenth centuries, members
of the three faiths coexisted in an environment of tolerance and
respect that benefited all. During this time, remarkable achievements
were made in science, art, literature, and architecture, and the
era still stands as a shining example of what is possible when people
of different faiths come together in a spirit of trust and cooperation.
West profited from Muslim advances in science and eventually developed
a strong scientific tradition of its own. In recent times, the non-Muslim
world has generally surpassed the Muslim world in the areas of science
and technology, and this situation has been addressed by Muslims
in various ways. At one extreme are those who see this as evidence
that the people of the West have become too secular, and therefore
conclude that Muslims should have nothing to do with them. At the
other end are those who maintain that the Muslim world needs to
become more like the West and recover its commitment to scientific
these differences and debates, Muslims now face a challenge similar
to the one confronting Jews and Christians as science continues
to expand human knowledge and understanding. Concepts like evolution
and advancements like cloning sometimes challenge the assumptions
of their sacred texts and the teachings of their communities, and
this raises profound questions about the nature of faith and its
role in the world.
©2006 John Kaltner
Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies
at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses
in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam:
What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring
of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran
Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers
(Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).
from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on
Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra
Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John
Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for
purchase in December 2006.