Islam, Science and Religion

The number of Muslims in the world today is around 2 billion, meaning it’s 25% of the world's population. It is not a small number, and Islam is a religion whose adherents always increase from year to year, spreading to almost all corners of the world. In Russia and Europe, for example, birth rates of Muslim families are higher than those of Christian families, so it is projected that in less than 100 years from now the number of Muslims and Christians worldwide will be balanced. But we all know that the progress of a nation and society does not rely solely on its large population, but no less important is its science, technology, and economy, supported by qualified human resources and a government system that is rational, effective and innovative.

The history of the relationship between Islam and Christianity is colored by conflicts and wars. Even more, is its conflicts with the Zionism-Israel that is politically worsening. This prolonged conflict is completely a humanitarian tragedy in modern times. It is regretful and it should not occur in the first place for nowadays we shall uphold human rights, promote international cooperation, collaboration, partnership, avoid conflict and confrontation.

In the Qur'anic perspective, the diversity of ethnicity, religion and culture is God's will and plan, so that people make friends with each other, exchange wisdom, and compete in goodness. The Holy Qur'an does not say much about competing in truth, because true truth belongs only to God. But we should compete in goodness that brings benefits to others. The Qur'an highly praises those who have knowledge which, with their knowledge, are accompanied by good deeds may help others from suffering and difficulties, regardless of different ethnic background and religion. If they disagree about religion, according to the Qur'an, then it will belong to God’s final judgement. Furthermore, the Qur'an firmly states that the teachings that the Prophet Muhammad brought were to continue and perfect the previous teachings. Prophet Muhammad highly gave respect to the previous God’s apostles because all of their teachings come down from the same God. The Qur'an also states that Islam is a religion of mercy to the universe and it criticizes tribal worship and emphasizes personal accountability. In the sixth century this holy statement might sound very strange to Arabs whose lives were confined by tribal fanaticism.

When the normative Islam is understood, interpreted and then implemented by its adherents in the social and cultural realm, Islam offers a diverse feature on the great stage of history. Islam, which originally was believed to be a revelation from God, could spread, nurture and develop across the globe among others is due to its success in approaching the various existing local culture, traditions and values. As we are all aware that for a person who embraces such a new teaching or religion, they have already influenced by their native culture, values and traditions. This is why in observing Islam, we should appreciate its two dimensions, namely the ideality and the reality of Islam. Sometimes, we could see more of the expressions and articulations of different Islamic teachings according to social context and circumstances. For example, the expression and interaction of Islam in Indonesia is greatly enriched by the local culture that resulted in a tapestry of various cultures, from the native one to Hinduism and Buddhism. It could be said that the Indonesian Islamic tradition is a lot more richer than the one in the Middle East. This experience is also occurred when Islam entered the West in modern times, where their civilization has already been high and developing.

The Divided Religion
Let us revisit the Middle Ages, when the Western world was in the dark age, while the Islamic world was in a golden age marked by achievements in various fields such as philosophy and science that contributed to the birth of European enlightenment that created the current European civilization. This historical fact has always been a matter of discussion among historians with a hypothetical question “why did the Islamic world that gave birth to and laid down the foundation of the modern European science and technology, later on was going nowhere and its role then over taken by the West?”

The above question has raised a long discussion reflected in hundreds of books to find the answer. Among the causes was the structure and political culture of the Islamic world that unable to creatively and progressively nurture its great heritage in science and enormous achievements in power. The Islamic world elites were also involved in conflicts and they even fought over the leadership in the Islamic world for the spirit of tribalism. It can be seen easily in the history of Ashabiyah that crystallized and guided the Abbasid, Umayyad and Ottoman dynasties when they were in power, and continues until today in the form of sultanates in a number of Arab countries. Well, there is nothing wrong with political power that is built on the spirit of the empire and dynasty as long as it can develop further a rational and effective government, uphold the values of justice and be able to improve the welfare of the people. But it could become a problem if they always commit to fight each other and are far from conducting good governance practices, while at the same time their national economy is only relies on natural wealth with no capacity in human resources.

Another contributing factor to the decline of Islamic world after the Middle Ages was the stagnant scientific-empirical scientific tradition that focused more on the field of fiqh (deep comprehension of Islamic law) and Sufism, and their orientation was more vertical to God. Some scholars also preferred to take this path simply because they were tired and disappointed with the unsympathetic behavior of the rulers who committed wrong doings and took religion as an instrument of power. So it is not surprising if in the Islamic world the most advanced science achieved is fiqh and Sufism. The Islamic world uses limited capacity of science, used mainly for worship purposes, for example astronomy to determine Islamic calendar particularly the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan and the direction of Qibla. Meanwhile, for science and philosophy that are not so popular, their prominent scholars covertly transferred to and enjoy the fertile soil in Europe.

Yet another factor of the stagnation of science in Islamic world is because European power arriving in their region took their natural wealth and occupied them for quite a long time, coupled with regional conflicts they involved that were financed by their natural wealth, it just made the Islamic world, politically and economically, weak. It can be seen from national flags of several countries in Asia and Africa that were independent from European occupation after the Second World War, which only symbolized their physical resistance against invaders, but there is no symbol of vision to become a great nation with a large civilization. We could understand this situation where a country is oppressed under foreign rule and then, right after independence, they involved in a series of regional conflicts. It is not easy to expect a great civilization flourish in these circimstances.

After the World War, friendship and collaboration between countries are increasingly intertwined. People’s mobility and the spread of knowledge take place have increasingly intensive and massive. But it must be admitted that the realm of science and technology in the Islamic world is still lower than that of Western countries. Nevertheless, Muslims are very fortunate to have a rich treasure of civilization, which is still very potential to be developed without losing the authenticity of identity because the ontological and epistemological basiss of secularistic Islamic and Western civilizations are somehow different.

In the beginning, Muslims did not make a dichotomy between religion and science as we see it today, because all branches of science, from natural sciences to social sciences and humanities as well as the study of Islam scriptural texts are God's verses that develop in the Islamic civilization during the Middle Ages. But at the end of the Middle Ages the Islamic civilization was stagnant as Muslims’ attention was more preoccupied with the study of religious texts rather than natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. Those other branches of science then moved to the West which, incidentally, had emerged as a politically and economically victorious nation. Unfortunately, as the Muslim world entered the modern age, it was already in a losing position. The flourishing science there was only the religious one. As a result, the development of education in the Islamic world gave birth to scholars whose Islamic science was divided and limping, more dominated by religious knowledge, while other branches of science that were inherited and developed during the Middle Ages were ignored. But lately there have been emerging educational institutions that are trying to reintegrate the divided these Islamic sciences.

Prof. Dr. Komaruddin Hidayat

Rector of the Indonesian International Islamic University