Islam contains an elaborate hierarchy of knowledge integrated by the principle of Divine Unity (tawhid). This hierarchy includes juridical, social, and theological sciences, as well as spiritual and metaphysical ones, all of which derive their principles from the Qur’an. Elaborate philosophical, natural, and mathematical sciences, each originating from one of God’s Beautiful Names, also developed.
For example, the Name the All-Healing shines on medicine; geometry and engineering depend on the Names the All-Just, All-Shaping, and All-Harmonizing; and philosophy reflects the Name the All-Wise. Each level of knowledge portrays nature in a particular light. Jurists and theologians consider knowledge to be the background for human action, philosophers and scientists see it as a domain to be analyzed and understood, and metaphysicians view it as the object of contemplation and the mirror reflecting suprasensible realities.
Muslim scholars have no tradition of separating the study of nature from knowing God. Thus many Muslim scientists, such as Ibn Sina, Nasir al-Din Tusi, and Jabir ibn al-Hayyan, either were practicing Sufis or attached intellectually to Sufi schools.4 Muslims always have considered observing and contemplating nature very important aspects of their spiritual journey.
Furthermore, Muslims have maintained an intimate connection between science and other fields of Islamic studies. This connection is found in the Qur’an itself, for as the Divine Scripture of Islam it corresponds to the macrocosmic revelation (the universe). Thus Islam is also the name of the Divine system of the universe. The Book of Islam is “the recorded Qur’an (al-Qur’an al-tadwini)” and the entire universe is the “Qur’an of creation (al-Qur’an
Humanity is also a Divine Book that corresponds to the Qur’an and the universe. Given this, ayat designates a Qur’anic verse, events taking place within our souls, and all phenomena occurring within nature. Human life is so interrelated with natural phenomena that those who can discern them can draw absolutely correct conclusions about the world’s future. In other words, the laws of history can be deduced from the laws of nature. For example:
Your Lord is God, Who created the heavens and Earth in six days. He then mounted the Throne, covering day with night, which pursues it urgently—and the sun, moon, and stars subservient, by His command. Verily, His are the creation and the command. Blessed be God, the Lord of all being. Call on your lord, humbly and secretly. He loves not transgressors. Do not do corruption in the land after it has been set right. Call upon Him in awe and eagerly. Surely the grace of God is nigh to the good-doers. It is He Who looses the winds, bearing good tidings before His grace, till, when they are charged with heavy clouds, We drive it to a dead land and use it to send down water and bring forth all fruits [from the soil]. Even so, We shall bring forth the dead. Hopefully you will remember. And the good land’s vegetation comes forth by the leave of its Lord, and the corrupt [land’s vegetation] comes forth but scantily. Even so We turn about signs for a people who are thankful. (7:54-58)
These verses apparently discuss natural phenomena yet mention the Resurrection and prayer’s importance. Corruption in the land is forbidden, and we are told that God commands everything and has no partners either in creation or command. Thus the main principles of faith (belief in God’s Oneness and the Resurrection) are emphasized while we are reminded of our function or duty: As God’s vicegerent, we are to pray, establish justice, and avoid corrupting and transgressing the Divine law.
Other inner meanings are hinted at. For example, day and night symbolize happy moments and misfortunes respectively, which alternate in both a person’s and a nation’s life. Rain, the symbol of Divine Grace, is mentioned as the grace of God, which is close to those who do good. The winds bearing the good tidings of rain correspond to the pioneers or leaders of a religious revival, and their message is likened to heavy clouds of rain.
Hearts without faith and minds without good judgment and sound reasoning resemble dead lands that need rain to be made fruitful. Just as a fertile land’s vegetation emerges by its Lord’s leave, hearts and minds ready for the Divine Message are the sources from which faith, knowledge, and virtues radiate. How-ever, there always will be some desert-like minds and hearts that do not receive enough rain to produce any vegetation and so do not benefit from this grace.
Finally, these verses console believers living as small oppressed minorities amidst a corrupt, wrong-doing community with the good tidings that victory is near as long as they keep striving for God’s cause and seeking help in patience and prayer.
Thus revelation is inseparable from the cosmic revelation, which is also a book of God. By refusing to separate humanity from nature, Islam preserves an integral view of the universe and sees the flow of Divine grace in the arteries of the cosmic and natural order. As we seek to transcend nature from its very bosom, nature can be an aid in this process, provided that we learn to contemplate it as a mirror reflecting a higher reality:
In the creation of the heavens and Earth and in the alternation of night and day there are signs for people with minds, who remember God and mention His name, standing and sitting and on their sides, and reflect upon the creation of the heavens and Earth: “Our Lord, You have not created this for vanity. Glory be to You! Guard us against the chastisement of the Fire. (3:190-91)
Humanity is located at the axis and center of the cosmic milieu. By being taught the names of all things, we receive the keys to knowledge of all things and so gain domination over them. However, we receive this power only in our capacity as serving as God’s vicegerent (khalifa) on Earth, not as a rebel against Heaven.
In fact, humanity is the channel of grace for nature, for our active participation in the spiritual world causes light to enter the world of nature. Due to our intimate connection with nature, our inner state is reflected in the external order. Thus when our inner being turns to darkness and chaos, nature turns from harmony and beauty to disequilibrium and disorder. We see ourselves reflected in nature, and penetrate into nature’s inner meaning by delving into our own inner depths. Those who live on the surface of their being can study nature as something to be manipulated and dominated, while those who turn toward the inner dimension of their existence can recognize nature as a symbol and come to understand it in the real sense.
This concept of humanity and nature, as well as the presence of a metaphysical doctrine and a hierarchy of knowledge, enabled Islam to develop many sciences that were influential in the West’s own development of science and yet did not disturb Islam’s intellectual edifice. Someone like Ibn Sina could be a physician and Peripatetic philosopher and yet expound his “Oriental philosophy” that sought knowledge through illumination. A Nasir al-Din al-Tusi could be the leading mathematician and astronomer of his day as well as the author of an outstanding treatise on Sufism.
Muhy al-Din ibn al-‘Arabi could be a leading personage in the most esoteric dimension of Sufism and yet explain the universe’s expansion and the motion of objects. Jabir ibn al-Hayyan’s adherence to Sufism did not prevent him from founding algebra and chemistry. And Ibn Jarir al-Tabari,5 one of the most outstanding figures in Islamic jurisprudence, history, and Qur’anic interpretation, wrote about the winds’ fertilizing clouds so that rain would fall. Ibrahem Haqqi of Erzurum, a well-known seventeenth-century Sufi master, was a brilliant astronomer and mathematician as well as a specialist in the occult sciences.
There are many more such examples, but these are enough to show that Islam’s hierarchy of knowledge and its possession of a metaphysical dimension have satisfied its followers’ intellectual needs. And so they never sought to satisfy their thirst for causality outside of religion, as happened in the West.
Islam is the universal order, the integral religion of harmony, and the unique system that harmonizes the physical with the metaphysical, the rational with the ideal, and the corporeal with the spiritual. Each dimension of our earthly life has its own place within Islam’s matrix and thus can perform its own function, enable us to be at peace with ourselves and our community and nature, and to gain happiness in both worlds.
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2. Nasr, S. Hossein. Three Muslim Sages: Avicenna, Suhrawardi, Ibn ‘Arabi. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1964.
3. ———. The Encounter of Man and Nature. London: 1968.
4. ———. Science and Civilization in Islam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1968.
5. Nursi, Said. Sozler (The Words, 2 vols.). Istanbul: 1958.
6. ———. Lem’alar. Istanbul: Kaynak, 1986.
7. ———. Mektubat (The Letters, 2 vols.). Istanbul: 1990.
8. Schumacher, E. F. Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. London: Blond and Briggs, 1973.
9. Scognamillo, Giovanni. Batinin Inanc Temelleri. Istanbul: 1972.