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Science, Attitudes Toward

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The Oxford Dictionary of Islam What is This? Covers the religious, political, and social spheres of global Islam in the modern world

    Science, Attitudes Toward

    Seeking religious knowledge is of such importance that it is deemed an act of worship. Muhammad is quoted as having said, “Acquire knowledge from the cradle to the grave,” and “Seek knowledge everywhere, even in China.” Attitudes toward science in the Muslim world have varied enormously over the centuries. They have vacillated between comprehensive embrace, as in the work of al-Biruni (d. 1048 ), Ibn Sina (d. 1037 ), and Ibn al-Haytham (d. 1039 ), to a very cautious and sometimes negative position, as seen in the writings of the orthodox ulama and in al-Ghazali 's (d. 1111 ) Tahafut al-tahafut (Destruction of the philosophers). The general view among the rejectors of the scientific point of view (that of Greek natural philosophy) was that it was dangerous to religion. This view was shared by Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406 ), who devoted a long section of his Muqaddimah to a “refutation of philosophy” and cited the hadith “Muslims do not do what does not concern them.” This follows the view that “useful” knowledge is that which enhances religious piety. Religious conservatives periodically gained the upper hand in Islamic society, with the resultant condemnation of the study of logic, philosophy, and the natural sciences. The paradoxical nature of attitudes toward science in the Muslim world is reflected in the fact that Muslims made major contributions to the development of the natural sciences, yet mainstream educational institutions tended to ignore modern science. Currently, there is no opposition to the natural sciences in the Muslim world, although there is great caution about such issues as genetic engineering and organ transplants. In some Muslim circles there is concern about the use of sociological descriptions of human society because these suggest that factors other than Islamic beliefs govern human interactions. The general view today is that there is nothing in the Quran that explicitly opposes scientific inquiry.

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