Islam and the Philosophy of Science – Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

Written by  //  July 13, 2011  //  Article  //  Comments Off


One of the tensions that has risen in the modern era within the Muslim world is the struggle between various members of the intellectual class to authoritatively speak on matters of faith, law, and spirituality. The secularized elites argue that contemporary Islamic scholarship is merely engaging in blind following of past scholars and legal opinions and the gates of ijtehad need to be opened. Anyone who has studied fiqh would know that the gates of ijtehad were never really closed, otherwise fatwa on contemporary legal issues would not even be possible. What is really mean is not that ijtehad should be opened, but that the underlying assumptions of the Islamic sciences need to be interpreted equally or acquiesce to the dominance of the Western tradition whether it be in metaphysics, ethics, the natural sciences, the social sciences, etc. The problem with this approach is that secular elites are often guilty of the same blind following that they charge the 'Ulema of engaging in and neglect to engage to scrutinize the assumptions that belie the Western tradition. 

The following post by Sayyid Naquib al-Attas, one of the view Muslim thinkers who can grapple with many of the severe philosophical problems besetting the Muslim world from a traditionalist perspective, explains how Muslims should approach the philosophy of science. The comments in bold are my own. 

- Khuram - 

Islam and the Philosophy of Science

By Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

Sayyid Muhammad al-Naquib bin Ali al-Attas (born September 5, 1931) is a prominent contemporary Muslim philosopher and thinker from Malaysia. He is the author of twenty-seven authoritative works on various aspects of Islamic thought and civilization, particularly on Sufism, cosmology, metaphysics, philosophy and Malay language and literature. (Source)

[What is Religion?]

"Religion (islam) and belief (iman) are not identical, but they are mutually inseparable and indispensable. Belief in the sense we mean is to have faith, not quite in the sense faith is understood in English, but in the sense that it involves the becoming true to the trust by which God has confided in one, not by profession of belief with the tongue only, without the assent of the heart and the action of the body in conformity with it; and this is more than knowledge, which is prior to faith, so that it is also verification by deeds in accordance with what is known to be the truth. It is recognition and acknowledgement of the truth necessitating its actualization in one's self. Recognition of the truth is in this case arrived at simply because it is clear in itself as apprehended by that intuitive faculty we call the heart, that is, by means of guidance (huda) and not only by rational propositions and logical demonstrations. the truth is at once objective and subjective; and the objective and subjective, like religion and belief, are inseparable aspects of one reality. True religion is then not something that can succumb to the confusion arising from the objective-subjective dichotomy of the Greek philosophical tradition; nor is it that personal, individual, privatized and internalized 'religion of humanity' that emerges out of the secularizing process which seeks to abolish the institutionalization of religious belief."

[What is Nature?]

"Religion in the sense we mean is not opposed to the desacralization of nature if it means the expulsion from our understanding of a magical or mythical conception of nature; for nature can still be regarded as a manifestation form of the sacred without myth or magic if we understand it to be the evolvement of ideal realities in the Divine consciousness whose effects have become manifest in the realms of sense and sensible experience. Nature in itself is not a divine entity, but a symbolic form which manifests the Divine. Indeed, in the sense we have conveyed, all nature, and not just a tree or a stone, proclaims the sacred to those who see the reality behind the appearance. Religion is only opposed to desacralization if it means the obliteration of all spiritual meaning in our understanding of nature, and the restriction of our way of knowing to the scientific method as advocated by secular philosophy and science."

[What is God?}

"God is not a myth, an image, a symbol, that keeps changing with the times. He is Reality itself. Belief has cognitive content; and one of the main points of divergence between true religion and secular philosophy and science is the way in which the sources and methods of knowledge are understood."

[The Need to Critique the Underlying Assumptions of Science and How to Do So]

"Modern philosophy has become the interpreter of science, and organizes the results of the natural and social sciences into a world view. The interpretation in turn determines the direction which science is to take in its study of nature. It is this interpretation of the statements and general conclusions of science and the direction of science along the lines suggested by the interpretation that must be subjected to critical evaluation, as they pose for us today the most profound problems that have confronted us generally in the course of our religious and intellectual history. Our evaluation must entail a critical examination of the methods of modern science; its concepts, presuppositions, and symbols; its empirical and rational aspects, and those impinging upon values and ethics; its interpretations of origins; its theory of knowledge; its presuppositions on the existence of an external world, of the uniformity of nature, and of the rationality of natural processes; its theory of the universe; its classification of the sciences; its limitations and inter-relations with one another of the sciences, and its social relations."

[The Basic Assumptions of Science]

"A gist of their basic assumptions is that science is the sole authentic knowledge; that this knowledge pertains only to phenomena; that this knowledge, including the basic statements and general conclusions of the science and philosophy derived from it, is peculiar to a particular age and may change in another age; that scientific statements must affirm only what is observed and confirmed by scientists; that what should be accepted are theories only that can be reduced to sensational elements, even though such theories might involve ideas pertaining to domains beyond the empirical spheres of experience; that universality should not be attributed to scientific formulas, not should objects defined by universality be described as reality beyond what is observed; that the content of knowledge is a combination of realism, idealism, and pragmatism; that these three aspects of cognition together represent the foundation of the philosophy of science; that cognition is subjective, arbitrary, and conventional, and that in the relationship between the logical structure of knowledge and the empirical content of knowledge, the primacy of logic is affirmed; that mathematical theory is not a descriptive science making statements about the structure and processes of nature, and that it is in fact a logical theory; that since logic is indispensable to science, the role of language and logical systems in describing the structure and processes of nature is paramount; that truth and falsehood are properties of belief (i.e. belief in the sense of intellectual acceptance as true or existing of any statement or proposition) dependent upon the relations of belief to facts; that facts are neutral as far as truth and falsehood are concerned – they just are." 

[The World View of Science]

"Contemporary science has evolved and developed out of a philosophy that since its earliest periods affirmed the coming into being of things out of each other. Everything existent is a progression, a development or evolution of what lies in latency in eternal matter. The world seen from this perspective is an independent, eternal universe; a self-subsistent system evolving according to its own laws. The denial of the reality and existence of God is already implied in this philosophy. Its methods are chiefly philosophic rationalism, which tends to depend on reason alone without the aid of sense perception of experience; secular rationalism, which while accepting reason tends to rely more on sense experience, and denies authority and intuition and rejects Revelation and religion as sources of true knowledge; and philosophic empiricism or logical empiricism which bases all knowledge on observable facts, logical constructions and linguistic analysis. The vision of reality as seen according to the perspectives of both forms of rationalism and empiricism is based upon the restriction of reality to the natural world which is considered as the only level of reality. Such restriction follows from the reduction of the operational powers and capacities of the cognitive faculties and senses to the sphere of physical reality. In this system knowledge is valid only as it pertains to the natural order of events and their relationships; and the purpose of inquiry is to describe and to systematize what happens in nature, by which is meant the totality of objects and events in space and time. The world of nature is described in plain naturalistic and rational terms divested of spiritual significance or of symbolic interpretation, reducing its origin and reality solely to mere natural forces." 

[Critique of Rationalism]

"Rationalism, both the philosophic and the secular kind, and empiricism tend to deny authority and intuition as legitimate sources and methods of knowledge. Not that they deny the existence of authority and of intuition, but that they reduce authority and intuition to reason and experience. It is true that at the original instance in the case of both authority and intuition, there is always someone who experiences and who reasons; but it does not follow that because of this, authority and intuition should be reduced to reason and experience. If it is admitted that there are levels of reason and experience at the level of normal, human consciousness whose limitations are recognized, there is no reason to suppose that there are no higher levels of human experience and consciousness beyond the limits of normal reason and experience in which there are levels of intellectual and spiritual cognition and transcendental experience whose limits are known only to God."

[On Intuition]

"As to intuition, most rationalist, secularist and empiricist thinkers and psychologists have reduced it to sensory observations and logical inferences that have long been brooded over by the mind, whose meaning becomes suddenly apprehended, or to latent sensory and emotional build-ups which are released all of a sudden in a burst of apprehension. But this is conjecture on their part, for there is no proof that the sudden flash of apprehension comes from sense experience; moreover, their denial of an intuitive faculty such as the heart, implied in their contention regarding intuition, is also conjectural."

[The Limitations of Science Concerning the Study of Man]

"Since it is man that perceives and conceives the world of objects and events external to him, the study of nature includes man himself. But the study of man, of mind, and of the self is also restricted to the methods of new sciences such as psychology, biology, and anthropology, which regard man only as a further development of the animal species, and which are none other than methodological extensions of the restriction of reason and experience to the level of physical reality. Moreover, in order to verify hypotheses and theories science, according to them, requires correspondence with observable fact, and yet since hypotheses and theories that contradict one another can correspond with observable fact, and since the preference for one as against the other of them is not dictated by any criterion of objective truth – because truth itself is made to conform with fact – such preference is then dictated simply by subjective and arbitrary considerations dependent upon convention. This dependence upon convention has created the tendency to regard society, rather than the individual man, as ultimate, real, and authoritative. Conventionalism reduces all institutional forms as creations of the so-called 'collective mind' of society. Knowledge itself, and even human language, are nothing but expressions and instruments of the collective mind of this unspeakable god called Society."

[The Elevation of Doubt]

"Finally, doubt is elevated as an epistemological method by means of which the rationalist and the secularist believe that truth is arrived at. But there is no proof that it is doubt and not something else other than doubt that enables one to arrive at truth. The arrival at truth is in reality the result of guidance, not of doubt. Doubt is a wavering between two opposites without preponderating over either one of them; it is a condition of being stationary in the midst of the two opposites without the heart inclining toward the one or the other. If the heart inclines more toward the one and not toward the other while yet not rejecting the other, it is conjecture; if the heart rejects the other, then it has entered the station of certainty. The heart's rejecting of the other is a sign not of doubt as to its truth, but of positive recognition of its error or falsity. This is guidance. Doubt, whether it be definitive or provisional, leads either to conjecture or to another position of uncertainty, never to the truth – "and conjecture avails naught against truth." (Qur'an 10:36)

(p 112 – 117 of "Prolegemona to the Metaphysics of islam: An Exposition of the Fundamental Elements of the Worldview of Islam" by Sayyid Naquib al-Attas)


Further Reading:

The Tragedy of Humanism – Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

On Good Character

The Loss of Adab and the Fall of the Muslim World – Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

Al-Attas’ Concept of Ta‘dib as True and Comprehensive Education in Islam – Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud

Applying the Prophetic Sunna to the Modern World – Interview with Sayyid Naquib Al-Attas –

The Concept of Religion by Sayyid Naquib al-Attas

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A man searching to get from "Allah who?" to "Allahu!"

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