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  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

ISLAM Judaism | Christianity
What is the view of the relationship between religion and science?

by John Kaltner

The 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, and analysis.

During 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.

The 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.

Muslims 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 for centuries.

Mathematics 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.

The 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.

The 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 prayed.

Some 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.

The 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 inquiry.

Despite 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.


Copyright ©2006 John Kaltner

John 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 (2003); Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).

Excerpts 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.


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