How Islamic Zoology was the perfect synthesis of Science and Spirituality
By Safiyyah Sabreen Syeed

Published in: History, Science
Date: 25 / 09 / 20

Science as it is understood today is defined as a study of the physical world utilizing certain methods and aiming at a coherent and objective understanding of the natural order, without resorting to any metaphysical explanation.

Whereas in the Muslim world the word ‘science’ was used in the meaning of the Arabic word ‘uloom’ or knowledge. It means all knowledge. So you had religious sciences, spiritual sciences, physical sciences and mathematical sciences, all springing forth from the same Islamic intellectual milieu. There was an inherent unity within these different fields and many times the same method was utilized in research within these sciences. Therefore, we find the scientific spirit first being exhibited in the religious sciences especially the formulation of Fiqh. [1]

A question that may be asked is why do we see this harmony and blurred lines between varied disciplines in the Muslim world? The answer is that Muslims of the medieval period viewed ‘knowledge’ as an integrated and holistic enterprise that emerged from a single source- God. It was this experience of the Divine unity, called ‘Tawhid’, that was manifest at different planes of reality. When it manifested in the physical world, physical sciences studied it, when it manifested in the realm of reason, logic and the mind, the Islamic philosophical tradition (Falsafa and Kalam) studied it and when this reality manifested in the realm of the heart and insight, the spiritual tradition of Islam (Sufism) studied it. In this sense, insofar as the Islamic Intellectual Age was concerned whichever way the seeker would look they would find all knowledge pointing towards that one God.

Malay philosopher Dr Osman Bakar writes, “In Islam religious consciousness of Tawhid is the source of the scientific spirit in all domains of knowledge. Consequently, Islamic intellectual tradition does not entertain the idea of the natural sciences alone as being scientific or as being more scientific than the other science.” [2]

Difference between Islamic and the Modern Scientific tradition

The Islamic scientific tradition regarded nature as a divine revelation, and a source for gaining the knowledge of God’s wisdom. Muslim scientists firmly believed that God’s wisdom is reflected in innumerable ways in His creation. They studied such things as natural forms, forces, energies, laws and rhythms not only to gain scientific knowledge as currently understood but also to arrive at a better understanding of the Divine wisdom. This distinctive feature of Islamic science has been well defined by American philosopher William Chittick who writes, “Up until recent times, Islamic thought was characterized by a tendency toward unity, harmony, integration, and synthesis. The great Muslim thinkers were masters of many disciplines, but they looked upon them as branches of the single tree of ‘Tawhid’. There was never any contradiction between astronomy and zoology, or physics and ethics, or mathematics and law, or mysticism and logic. Everything was governed by the same principles, because everything fell under God’s all-encompassing reality.” [3]

Comparing this Muslim scientific perspective with the modern perspective on science, we find a stark difference. For modern science, the physical world has been demystified and robbed of the harmonious and unifying feature that gave meaning to it's different parts. Therefore, modern science insists on studying nature by breaking it down into small parts rather than recognizing the inherent unity and uniformity in it. The modern scientists put all their attention at the pixel and ignore the full picture. This is not by accident, rather a fundamental method in studying science called Reductionism.

One of Dr Muhammad Iqbal’s great insights, was his view that modern science, by definition, yields disunity and dissonance. He wrote, “We must not forget that what is called science is a mass of sectional views of Reality. [T]he various natural sciences are like so many vultures falling on the dead body of Nature, and each running away with a piece of its flesh. Nature as the subject of science is a highly artificial affair, and this artificiality is the result of that selective process to which science must subject her in the interests of precision.” [4]

Modern science in order to achieve “precision” compromises on the overall harmonious view of nature and reduces phenomena to disconnected parts for the purpose of study. Such an approach results in a disconnect not only within different branches of study like the humanities and sciences or psychology and physics. But this approach yields discord even within a single field, like in the case of irreconcilability of the General theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.

Islamic Zoology- Synthesis of the spiritual and the scientific

The Muslim world was unique in that for the first time in history a type of science developed that was rigorously scientific as it emphasized on empiricism and the experimental method. But at the same time it was not divorced from a spiritual perspective on the universe. Let's understand this through the developments in Islamic Zoology. Muslim zoological studies were pursued with diverse ends in view. There was first of all the scientific study of the anatomy and classification of animals. Muslim classifications of animals were based on numerous criteria such as nature of their habitats and the way they organize their defense from external attacks.

Muslim interest in animals also arose out of practical concerns, the most significant of which is the medical. Considerable attention was given to veterinary medicine in the Medieval Muslim world. Even specialized fields like animal psychology and physiology were developed. What is interesting to note that this rigorously scientific study was also coupled with the Muslim zoologists concern with the spiritual, symbolic and moral significance of animals.

The history of Islamic science is filled with the mention of individual scientists and treatises in Islam that exhibit a perfect harmony and unity of scientific and spiritual knowledge in the domain of Zoology.

Al Jahiz- The Muslim Evolutionary Biologist

Al Jahiz in the 9th Century, wrote his famous work known as The Book of Animals, which became the most celebrated Arabic work on zoology. In it we find scientific literary, moral and religious studies of animals are combined. Dr Osman Bakar writes, “According to al Jahiz, the primary goal of the study of zoology is the demonstration of the existence of God and the wisdom inherent in His creation. Al Jahiz treated zoology as a branch of religious studies.” [5]

Kamal al Din al Damiri

Another 14th Century Muslim zoologist also represents this trend of unified scientific and spiritual knowledge in the Muslim world. In his book, The Great Book of the Life of Animals, we again witness this harmonious combination of spiritual, moral, religious and juridical, literary, scientific and medical perspectives in studying animals. Al Damiri even dealt with the significance of animals in the interpretation of dreams, a discipline which is inseparable from spiritual knowledge. [6]

Quran and the development of Islamic Zoology

The Quran gives clear injunctions regarding dietary prohibitions related to certain animals. This factor also inspired the study of animals from a religious and juridical perspective. This Muslim concern with the religious and juridical status of certain animals according to the Islamic Shariah (law) is a good point of departure to understand the influence of the Quran in the development of Muslim zoological studies and the unity of scientific and spiritual knowledge in the Islamic Golden Age. There were many Muslim scientists who became interested in understanding the justification for these Islamic dietary prohibitions, purely from the point of view of science.

The Quran mentions many animals like camels, ants, bees, spiders, birds and dogs with a view to drive home certain moral and spiritual lessons. Animals like all other creations are manifest signs and ayaat of God, the study of which will yield a better understanding of the divine action in the world. Therefore we see in the Medieval Muslim world, animal behavior and traits were subject to scientific study, in order to derive spiritual and moral lessons from a particular animal species.

So while the Islamic sciences are indistinguishable from Modern Science, when it comes to its emphasis on observation and experimentation. This emphasis happens to be a major contribution of the Muslim world to Western Science. But there are fundamental differences as well. One of which is the mystical-spiritual character of Islamic science which is at serious odds with the current naturalistic and physicalist understanding of science.

A beautiful testament of this spiritual character of the biological sciences developed in the Muslim world is the fact that even the great mystic sage Mevlana Rumi and notable theologian Shaykh Jurjani from the A’shari school partook in this effort to understand and articulate the origin and the place of species in the creative order. While for a Muslim mystic the interconnectedness and ultimate unity of all creation is the conclusion that can be drawn from a reflection on nature. Here are lines of his poetry:

First man appeared in the class of inorganic things,

Next he passed there from into that of plants.

For years he lived as one of the plants

And when he passed from the vegetative to the animal state

He had no remembrance of his state as a plant

Again the great Creator drew man out of the animal into the human state

Thus man passed from one order of nature to another

Till he became wise and knowing and strong as he is now.

And at the next stage he shall pass from this too

He will soar and lift his head among the angels

Then he will escape even from that phase too

Everything is perishing except His Essence [7]

A theologian like Jurjani views creation in order to highlight the notion of ‘possibility’ that compliments everthing in existence and God’s supreme wisdom and providence behind the world, that chooses from these inherent possibilities . He says, “When one contemplates the wonders among the animals and plants these cannot be attributed to blind forces, whether they be simple or composite. This is especially so with respect to what happens in the wombs of animals, which includes planning, measurements, and best choices . Again, someone who sees this knows without doubt that these acts can only be attributed to someone who knows comprehensively, knows all of the hidden secrets, and acts with wisdom and power. And the book of God says, “It is He who forms those in the wombs.” When the Agent Willer (Allah) (al-Faʿil al-Mukhtar) is accepted and everything is traced back directly to Him, one finds great benefit.” [8]



References

[1] Muzaffar Iqbal, Islam and Science, pg 2

[2] Osman Bakar, History and Philosophy of Islamic Science, pg 11

[3] William Chittick, Science of the Cosmos, pg 13

[4] Muhammad Iqbal, Reconstruction of religious thought in Islam, pg 33-34.

[5] Osman Bakar, The Unity of Science and Spiritual Knowledge: The Islamic Experience, Science and Spirit.

[6] Ibid, pg 7.

[7] Rūmī, Jalāl ad-Dīn, The Mathnawi Volume four, trans. Reynold A. Nicholson.

[8] Jurjanı, Sharh al-Mawaqif, VII. 196–197.

Safiyyah Sabreen Syeed

About the author

Safiyyah Sabreen studied Mechanical Engineering and is currently pursuing her Master's in Philosophy. She is the Content Director for KNOW. Being interested in the field of Islam and Science and Islamic Eschatology, she produced a documentary on the Golden Age of Islam and directs the Second Golden Age series.

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