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Islam and Science
This article is about the relationship between Islam and science. For the historical development of science in the Islamic world, see Science in medieval Islam. For the belief that scriptures such as the Qur'an prophesied scientific theories and discoveries (known in Islam as Ijaz al-Qur'an), see Scientific foreknowledge in sacred texts.
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The Review of Religions, September 1996
The human body is a marvel of science. It is able to exist in a variety of circumstances, and adapt to its environment appropriately. This is done through numerous balance of mechanisms within the body which help to maintain a healthy equilibrium. Here, the author looks at this amazing balancing act in the light of Qur'anic revelations, and shows how the body itself is a proof of the existence of God.
There are many instances in the Holy Qur'an where Allah gives man insight into the Wisdom required for the creation of a Universe with its variety and diversity; a universe in which it is possible for life to exist. One can see many aspects that need consideration when creating such a majestic and glorious Universe such as the one in which we live. In the course of the history of man, certain clues have been left which lead the curious on to find a meaning to life.
In the Holy Qur'an which is believed by Muslims to be the revealed Word of God, it is written:
Say, `Who provides sustenance for you from the heaven or the earth ? Or who is it that has power over the ears and the eyes ? And who brings forth the living from the dead and brings forth the dead from the living ? And who regulates all affairs ? They will say, `ALLAH.' Then say, `Will you not seek HIS protection ?' (10:32)
This verse encourages those in search of truth to turn to Allah for an explanation of the nature of the Universe and the nature of the creations of Allah.
The subject that I wish to discuss here is balance, a subject which is fundamental to our functioning as human beings. It is also an intrinsic mechanism by which almost all things exist in the Universe. Balance, or equilibrium, is a constant feature of almost all systems one decides to look at.
The concept of balance is covered in detail within scientific circles as well as receiving extensive coverage from mathematical, philosophical, financial, ethical, logical, religious and spiritual points of view. One can look at balance from many angles: the process of coming to a conclusion on disputing an idea can be considered as balancing the different aspects; the decision to perform an action comes at the end of balancing the pros and cons; the difference between exports and imports make up the balance of trade when assessing the economic status of a country; the decision by a judge or jury to convict a person charged with a crime comes after balancing the evidence for and against (hence the scales are the symbol of justice).
Within the natural sciences, the concept of balance is called homeostasis. It has been described as the return to a set point after a system has been disturbed. I would like to present the concept as described by the Holy Qur'an, then draw on a few examples as discovered through advances in the tide of scientific research, with particular reference to the human body.
It is mentioned in the Qur'an that:
And the heavens He has raised high and set up the balance so that you may not exceed the measure. So weigh all things with justice and fall not short of the measure. (55:8-10) (2:184)
This verse encourages those in search of truth to turn to Allah for an explanation of the nature of the Universe and the nature of the creations of Allah. The Arabic word Meeza can be translated as balance, measure, equity, the mean, the middle path, an incorporates the concepts of judgment, equilibrium and reasoned argument. It is derived from the word Wazn which literally means weight, and another derivative from the same root is Mauzoon which means something made perfectly balanced or proportioned.
The Qur'anic verses concur with the findings of science that the universe is dependent on a series of laws which rely upon balance and equilibrium.
Another important Arabic word which I must mention in this context is Adl which means (absolute) justice. It is used by Allah when addressing mankind in the Holy Qur'an:
O man! What has made thee arrogant in relation to thy noble Lord? The One who created you and perfectly proportioned you and fashioned you with justice. This He did at every stage and to every form in which He compounded and fashioned you. (82:7-9) (
This verse invites mankind, who may have failed to notice the complete order throughout the Universe to at least take a look at himself to see the symmetry and proportionality of the human body. The word Adl encompasses the concepts of `Mauzoon' and `Meezan' but also incorporates the issue of consciousness which is an inexhaustible subject in itself.
Generalised Control System
The fundamental components of a control system of any type can be clearly seen by looking at the design of a simple thermostat which controls the temperature of a house. The thermostat has three essential components:
- thermometer to measure temperature
- source of heat
- switch to regulate heat
If the thermostat is set at a particular point, for example 25 degrees C, and the temperature rises above this, it is detected by the thermometer and a signal is sent by the regulator to turn the heat off. If the house temperature is detected below 25 degrees C, a signal is sent to turn up the heating until it reaches the desired temperature.
This simple example can be used to explain any control system which attempts to keep a value constant.
Introduction to Human Physiology
The matter that I wish to draw your attention to is the balancing systems which exist within the human body. As I am sure you appreciate, the science of the human body is a complicated subject with all its intricately interwoven systems. The outstanding feature that I want to get across is that balance is a key part of virtually all the systems.
In general, the compartments of the body have various parameters or values which are maintained at and optimum level to perpetuate and preserve life. If these parameters fall outside `normal' levels, the body has various intrinsic mechanisms to normalise those values. If unable to keep the value within the desired range, the body inclines to a state of disease. If there is a further change away from the normal range, after all attempts are made to normalise and compensate for the abnormal values, the body may suffer loss of an organ, or, in extreme circumstances death.
The necessity to maintain stability of structure and function is paramount to every animal. This stability or equilibrium is threatened by internal and external assaults. Externally, assaults may come in the form of extremes of temperature and internally, assaults may take the form of the production of harmful waste products. Cells require a constant environment in which to operate at an optimum level. This environment includes temperature, chemical composition (e.g. Sodium, Potassium, Calcium), acidity etc.
Energy and Waste
In order to perform internal cellular processes, the cells require a constant energy supply. This is mainly provided by the breakdown of fats and carbohydrates. Using oxygen, the fuel is `burned' (oxidised) via a number of biochemical pathways to provide energy, yielding a number of waste products.
The blood circulatory system provides a link between the various organs in the body. The left side of the heart (left ventricle) pumps blood rich in oxygen to the organs through the arteries. The cells then use the oxygen to burn the fuels which are also circulating in the blood to produce energy. One of the most abundant waste products, carbon dioxide, has to be removed to avoid poisoning the cells, so it is returned to the right side of the heart (right ventricle). From here, the carbon dioxide rich blood is pumped to the lungs where it is breathed out and replaced with fresh oxygen. If the requirement for oxygen increases, so the breathing and heart rates increase. As requirements decrease, so breathing and heart rate decrease.
Equilibrium of Glucose Metabolism
The most common source of energy in animals including humans is the carbohydrate glucose. Using oxygen via a specific biochemical pathway known as `glycolysis', glucose is oxidised to provide energy yielding the products carbon dioxide and water. Glucose levels are replenished by means of the diet. Food is absorbed from the gut into the bloodstream, and can be stored in the liver, muscle, and fat. Glucose is stored mainly in the liver and muscles as glycogen. Since glucose is the preferred source of energy in the body, the fate of absorbed glucose depends on the energy requirements of the body. If the cells need to produce energy, they need a steady supply of glucose, so there are mechanisms within the body to mobilise its stores of glucose. The detection of an inadequate blood glucose level is by glucose receptors predominantly within the brain and pancreas. The brain processes the information and sets into motion the feeling of hunger within the person such that they may acquire and ingest food. The pancreas releases a protein hormone called glucogen which causes the stores of glycogen to be converted to free glucose in the blood. These two mechanisms among others, provide the cells with their required glucose.
If, conversely, the blood glucose is greater than the need of the cells, then following detection by receptors, the pancreas releases another hormone called insulin. This favours glucose being stored as glucogen rather than being free in the blood. Also, the brain gives the feeling of being satiated, so no more food is ingested.
Therefore, it can be seen that the blood glucose level is regulated within a fairly tight range to preserve its balance. If this is disturbed, the effects can be dangerous and problematic for the individual. For example, if not enough glucose reaches the brain, the cells cannot survive. In the short term, the person feels dizzy and has a feeling of hunger. If this lack of glucose continues for a longer period of time, alternative sources of energy are utilised. If inadequate, it leads to brain cell death and eventually to bodily death.
Alternatively, if there is too much glucose in the blood, this leads to other problems. The medical condition defined by a raised blood glucose is Diabetes Mellitus, and can be related to heart and blood vessel disease, loss of vision, loss of sensation, gangrene and kidney failure, if uncontrolled. It has been shown to be a problem with insulin either not being released or not having its desired effect.
Temperature Control and Balance
In the human (animal) body, there is a system to regulate and control temperature. In mammals (warm-blooded animals) the optimum temperature is approximately 37.5 degrees C (98.6 degrees F). This means that although the external temperature may vary greatly from place to place and time to time, the body has mechanisms to compensate for the variations.
On Earth, the temperature has been measured below -60 degrees C in Arctic conditions and above 60 degrees C in desert conditions. The greatest variation in internal body temperature consistent with cellular life is around +- 4 degrees C, so if body temperature were to rise and fall with external temperature, the cells would soon die.
In the brain, specifically the hypothalamus, there is a temperature monitoring device somewhat like the thermostat that I described earlier. This receives input from temperature receptors (thermometers) scattered throughout the body, both on the skin and in internal organs.
If the hypothalamic `temperature centre' detects that the body temperature is too high i.e. greater than 37.5 degrees C, then cooling processes are activated. These include diverting blood nearer to the body surface which allows the excess of heat to be lost to the environment. In addition, sweat glands are activated which produce perspiration which evaporates and cools the skin. Also, the body's metabolic rate (rate at which food is being burned) is decreased so less heat is produced.
If the `temperature centre' detects that the body temperature is too low, the systems of heat conservation are set into motion. These include diverting blood away from the surface to prevent further heat loss, effecting the burning of food stores, the mechanisms of shivering and teeth-chattering to generate heat by movement and the concurrent production of heat-generating hormones. There are many problems associated with either extreme of body temperature. If it is too high, it leads to a state of dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat stroke etc. Conversely, if body temperature is too low, the resulting hypothermia is associated with cell death and heart problems. It is obvious that the issue of water control balance is also closely linked to temperature control so this is a good example of the integration of balancing systems within the human body.
Most individuals maintain body weight within a very small range of +- 1-2% over most of their lives. Body weight and energy balance are regulated by genetic and environmental influences. These control food intake, appetite, diet selection, absorption in the gut, energy expenditure and fat storage/breakdown. Integration of various signaling processes results in constant weight in normal circumstances. Any disturbance of this finely tuned energy balance results in a net increase or decrease of weight producing obesity (weight gain) or cachexia (weight loss).
The geographical description of obesity and cachexia highlights the disgraceful imbalance in food distribution. In the so-called developed world, obesity is the most common disease. In 1990, more than 30% of the United States population were obese. In the United Kingdom, the prevalence of obesity has risen from 12.7% to 13.2% in men and from 15.0% to 16.0% in women between 1991 and 1994, and is continuing to rise. This is starkly contrasted to the developing world where the most common disease is malnutrition and starvation.
As well as the balancing mechanisms that I have briefly described, there are countless other systems of balance control within the human body. These include mechanisms for oxygen, carbon dioxide, sodium, potassium, calcium, light, sound, pain, movement, posture and blood pressure. But by no means is this list exhaustive. I have just tried to give an indication of how important the concept of balance is for animal life, and in particular for human life.
It is not surprising that this concept has been disclosed by God, Who created it, in His Revealed Word within the Holy Qur'an. The suggestion in the Qur'an is that the Universe is subject to a number of laws which interact harmoniously and with perfect balance. It is stated that if the equilibrium were not maintained, the Universe would tumble into absolute destruction. This all points to a Unity of purpose, the raison d'etre being the glorification of the One Creator. It says in the Qur'an:
If there had been in them (the heavens and the earth) other gods beside Allah, then surely both would have gone to ruin. (21:23)
This statement is supported by the apparent consensus of laws in operation within the Universe. These lead any open-minded and free thinking individual to have to conclude that there is One Creator and Sustainer of the Universe in which we live.
The balance mechanisms that I have touched upon in terms of the physical world can also be considered in terms of morality and spirituality. These encompass the subjects of conscience, the existence of the soul and the ability to distinguish between good and evil. The explicit explanation of balance, absolute justice and equilibrium are abundant in the Holy Qur'an. In the opening chapter, Allah teaches mankind a prayer which, if discovered and utilised, would prove invaluable in the maintenance of a balanced life.
Guide us on the right path. (1:6)
The words Siratul Mustaqeem from the original Arabic can be translated as `Right Path', `Straight Path' or `Shortest Path'. This implies the path of fewest deviations, hence not living on either extreme, but maintaining a straight direction of purpose.
The insight and wisdom of the Holy Qur'an is truly astonishing. The knowledge that is present within its teaching is a vast and limitless source of information. If we were to follow the instructions, many physical, moral and spiritual diseases could certainly be avoided.
With reference to balance, if we were to avoid excesses within our lives, we could avoid the problems associated with the resulting imbalances. The balancing mechanisms of the body tolerate a certain amount of abuse and cushion the effects of indulgence to a certain extent. However, after continuous assaults on the various systems of the body, the protective mechanisms give way and allow the various disease mechanisms to have their way.
Therefore, the evidence suggests that the best way of life is that of the well balanced and middle path. This is upheld by religious doctrines as well as scientific research. It appears that scientific discovery has only recently caught up with what was revealed in the Holy Qur'an 1400 years ago. Surely the most logical and reasonable line of thought would lead one to follow and learn from the Revelation of Allah Who created us and set into being all of the natural laws to which we are subject.
The Holy Qur'an:
- Chapter 10, Verse 32
- Chapter 55, Verse 8-10
- Chapter 82, Verse 7-9
- Chapter 21, Verse 23
- Chapter 1, Verse 6-7
- The Holy Qur'an with English translation and commentary. Edited by Malik Ghulam Farid, 1981.
- The Holy Qur'an with English translation and commentary, 1988.
- Absolute Justice, Kindness, and Kinship: The Three Creative Principles. Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, London 1996.
- Principles of Biological Control, Prof. D. F. Horrobin, 1970.
- Endocrinology, M. E. Hadley, 1984.
- Review of Medical Physiology, W. Ganong, 15th Ed., 1991.
- The Wisdom of the Body, W. B. Cannon, 1932.
- Samson Wright's Applied Physiology, 13th Ed., Professors C. Keele, E. Neil, and N. Jacobs, 1983.
- Principles of Anatomy and Physiology, 6th Ed., G. J. Tortora and N. P. Anagnostakos, 1989.
- Nature, 372:406-407 (1994), T. J. Rink.
- Health Survey for the United Kingdom, 1994. HMSO, 1996.
- Ballieres' Clinical Endocronological and Metabolism. Sheen A. J. et. al., 8:3:509-525 (1994).
Al-Huda, March 1997 (Australian Magazine)
Sent by Dr. Shahid Nadeem Chohan (Al-Huda Editor)
A documentary on evolution with frequent references from the Holy Quran.
The future of science in Islamic countries
By Dr. Abdus Salam
"In the conditions of modern life, the rule is absolute; the race which does not value trained intelligence is doomed ... Today we maintain ourselves, tomorrow science will have moved over yet one more step and there will be no appeal from the judgement which will be pronounced ... on the uneducated." Alfred North Whitehead
First and foremost, it is important to reemphasise that the Muslim Ummah constitutes 1/5th of mankind, larger in population than the USA, Western Europe and Japan combined, and only exceeded by China as a unit. In income terms, it represents 1/15th of global GNP - three times as large as that of the Chinese.
So far as the Sciences are concerned, the Muslim Ummah has a proud past. For 350 years, from 750 CE to 1100 CE, the Ummah had an absolute world ascendency in Sciences. From 1100 CE for another 250 years, we shared this ascendency with the emerging West. From the 15th century onwards - this period paradoxically coinciding with the great Empires of Islam (Osmnali in Turkey, Safvi in Iran, Mughal in India) - we progressively lost out. There is no question, but today, of all civilizations on this planet, science is the weakest in the lands of Islam. The dangers of this weakness cannot be overemphasised since honourable survival of a society depends directly on strength in Science and Technology in the conditions of the present age.
Why were the Muslims ascendent in Sciences? Three reasons: first, the early Muslims were following the injunctions of the Holy Book and the Holy Prophet. According to Dr. Muhammad Aijazul Khatib of Damascus University, nothing could emphasize the importance of sciences more than the remark that "in contrast to 250 verses which are legislative, some 750 verses of the Holy Quran - almost one-eight of it - exhort the believers to study Nature to reflect, to make the best use of reason and to make the scientific enterprise an integral part of Community's life." The Prophet of Islam - Peace be upon Him - said that it was the "bounden duty of every Muslim - man and woman - to acquire knowledge".
From these injunctions, followed the second reason for our ascendency. Notwithstanding the customary opposition of traditionalists, upto the fifteenth century the scientific enterprise and the scientists in early Islam were supported magnificently by the Muslims principalities and by the Islamic society. Thus, to paraphrase what H.A.R Gibb has written in the context of literature: "To a greater extent than elsewhere, the flowering of the sciences in Islam was conditinal... on the liberality and patronage of those in high positions. So long as, in one capital or another, princes and ministers found pleasure, profit or reputation in partronising the sciences, the torch was kept burning." And some princes - like Ulugh Beg at Samarkand - themselves joined in the scientific quest.
The third reason for our ascendency was connected with the cohesion of the Ummah - the Islamic nations, notwithstanding their political differences, acted as a unified Commonwealth, so far as Sciences were concerned.
The importance of science for the Muslim nations
Why am I so passionately advocating our engaging in the enterprise of Science and of creating Scientific knowledge? This is not just because Allah has endowed us with the urge to know, this is not just because in the conditions of today this knowledge is power and science in application, the major instrument of material progress and meaningful defence; it is also that as self-respecting members of the international world community, we must discharge our responsibility towards and pay back our debt for the benefits we derive from the research stock of contempt for us - unspoken, but certainly there - of those who create knowledge.
I can still recall a Nobel Prize Winner in Physics from a European country say this to me some years ago: "Salam, do you really think we have an obligation to succour, aid, feed and keep alive those nations who have never created or added an iota to man's stock of knowledge?" And even if he had not said this, my own self-respect suffers a shattering hurt whenever I enter a hospital and reflect that almost every potent life- saving medicament of today, from pencillin upwards, has been created without our share of input from any of us from the Muslim world.
As I have emphasised, Science is important because of the underlying understanding it provides of the world around us, of the immutable laws and of Allah's design; it is important because of the material benefits and strength in defense and its discoveries can give us; it is important because of its universality. It could be a vehicle of co-operation for all mankind and in particular for the Islamic nations. We owe a debt to international Science, which, in all self-respect, we must discharge.
As Allah has promised, He does not let the efforts of those who strive, go waste. [--arabic verse--]
Let me end with the following prayer;
let no future historian record that in the fifteenth century of the Hijra, 'Muslim scientific talent was there but there was a dearth of statesmen to marshal and nurture it.'