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Science, Art and Society
in the Islamic Civilization:

By Muzaffar Iqbal

Walking through the winding streets of Fez, one sees old houses which provide the outer “clothing” of a nourishing and nurturing inner space for families; these winding streets were planned hundreds of years ago in a manner that was typically Islamic. They were planned to exclude the external world from the privacy of the home. Closed and windowless to the outer world, the walls of these houses protect an open courtyard from where the dwelling places inside receive their light and air. The streets are circular because these concentric circles are etched around a center, which is not only the center of the material world thus constructed, but also the spiritual center of the community: the Jami` mosque. These streets and the side streets that come out from the center, like the spokes on a wheel, provide maximum access to the mosque as well as to the commercial activity yet do not allow the outside world to impose into the privacy of the homes. And when the call to prayer is chanted from the high minaret of the mosque, all have easy access to the mosque where the space transforms from its silence into a chanting remembrance, that renews the nexus between God and those who respond to his urgent invitation.

The traditional Islamic cities such as Fez, Isfahan and Damascus fully utilized technologies but these technologies were based on the same principles that had guided the Islamic tradition; hence there was no incongruity in their development. Now they are coming under increasing dangers of various kinds due to the intrusion of modern technological advances that have no regard for the sacred dimension of these cities or for the living space that they enclose. But in spite of these rude intrusions, these cities still present a living testimony to the integral nexus that existed between all things in the traditional Islamic society. The sciences, the arts and the crafts that utilized Islamic science and technology, the open spaces in the cities and in the mosques, the covered bazaars and the guilds—all of these varied aspects of the Islamic civilization functioned in relation to each other as well as in relation to a center. In the microcosm, this centrality is the human heart; in the outer world, it is the sacred city of Makkah, or more precisely the Kacba in Makkah, toward which all Muslims turn while praying.
“This act of orientation has a profound significance. It represents an awareness that there is a right direction—the ‘Straight Path’ mentioned in every unit of the ritual prayer—and that every other direction leads away from the goal of human life. At the same time, this act of turning towards the Center, both within and without, is an act of integration in accordance with the basic Islamic principle of unity.” 1

This concentric pattern, together with the urban planning which was involved in the construction and maintenance of these cities, is inextricably linked to an aesthetic sensibility that visualizes space as a sacred dimension of existence, stretching out to the heavens. The circular streets—which appear like cul-de-sacs but lead to an intricate pattern of life—are living reminders of the importance of privacy that Islam cherished in all matters of individual life. The market place in these old cities is not merely an impersonal space where faceless traders and equally anonymous customers exchange money and goods; rather these are warm places where relationships are established, news and pleasantries are exchanged, goods are bought and sold and when, in the middle of a bargain, the call to prayer is heard, both the seller and the buyer go together to the mosque, where they stand shoulder to shoulder, facing the same direction. Likewise, goods sold and bought are also the product of craftsmen who work nearby and whose art is not merely for decoration—though it serves that purpose as well—but for daily use. Whether it is carpets, utensils or clothing with intricate designs and motifs, they were all living expressions of a tradition that are part of daily life. These ancient cities still support artisans as well as guilds. Islamic arts and crafts, which employ a number of traditional scientific and technological tools, provide yet another dimension of the nexus that existed between the scientific tradition and the aesthetic and spiritual dimensions of Islam. A feature still existent in these cities is the presence of various bazars (aswaq) known by the artistic or the commercial activity associated with a particular trade, such as the weavers, dyers, metal workers or glass blowers. These aswaq, where masters train their apprentices and pass on their arts to successive generations, still stand in remembrance of the close links that existed between Islamic spirituality and the sciences and the crafts it inspired.

The sense of transcendent implies the consciousness of an inner human desire to transcend the limitations of the earthly state. Whether it is in the sciences or the arts and crafts, this yearning expresses itself in countless ways which involve the search for the true principles of the natural world as much as it involves the expression of beauty and harmony, may that be in sciences or the arts. Within the traditional civilization of Islam, these expressions are fused together through certain principles that provide internal avenues and links to a tapestry of various branches of science, arts and crafts. Even a glance at an astrolabe—the most versatile instrument of the Islamic astronomical tradition—is enough to realize these inner connections, which express themselves in the instrument’s engravings and its fine metal work.

The striking characteristics of mathematical patterns in Islamic art and architecture are an obvious example of the nexus between qualitative mathematics and Islamic spirituality. This “mathematical nature of Islamic art and architecture does not derive from external historical influences, Greek or otherwise. It derives from the Qur’an whose own mathematical structure is bewildering and reveals an amazing rapport between Islamic intellectual and spiritual concerns and mathematics.” 2 A building such as the Great Mosque of Córdoba, one of the finest expressions of Islamic architecture, still provides a glimpse of these inner connections. Though this mosque now stands in isolation from its historical environ that once housed almost eighty thousand shops and artisan workshops, and although there is no sign of the public baths and inns or of the multitudes of citizens, merchants and mules passing over the bridge on the Guadalquiver (the Great River, al-wad al-Kabir) into the center of the city, one can still see numerous connections between Islamic spirituality, sciences and practical arts in this structure. However, one has to use one’s imagination because even the interior of this monumental mosque is not what it used to be; the presence of a “dark church structure that was built between the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and arbitrarily placed at the center of the light forest of pillars like a giant black spider” 3 makes it extremely difficult to clearly distinguish the features of the mosque which looked like a broad grove of palm trees. The mosque also stands today without the fabulous royal city, Madinat al-zahra, which once provided the backdrop to the city or the famous library of al-Hakam II, with its 400,000 volumes, many of them containing annotations about their authors in his own hand. It is also devoid of the traditional courtyard with fountains for washing the face, hands and feet for the ritual purification before prayers. But some things still remain and among them are the prayer niche and the marvelous array of columns and arches with their hypnotic symmetry. “The pillars are linked by horseshoe-shaped arches immediately above the abaci…the upper arches are heavier than the lower ones and the abutments of both increase in size with the height of the pillars. This feature, too, is reminiscent of palm branches—and the whole, contrary to the classical European conception of architecture, rests on comparatively slender columns. Yet the effect of the vaulting is in no way oppressive; the arches appear to be suspended like so many rainbows in the sky.” 4

Harmoniously embedded in the seven-sided prayer niche of the Córdoba Mosque are many features of various Islamic sciences, arts, architectural motifs and a peculiar Islamic usage of colors and forms. This blend creates a unique space inside the niche—where the word of God was once recited—a space that evokes the feeling of awe and reminds one of the mysterious “niche of light” passage in the celebrated “Light Verse” of the Qur’an (24:35). The fluted shell-like vault, designed to create extraordinary acoustics for the transmission of the recitation of the Qur’an to the far corners of the mosque, and the horseshoe shaped arch that seems to breathe “as if expanding with a surfeit of inner beatitude, while the rectangular frame enclosing it acts as a counterbalance. The radiating energy and the perfect stillness from an unsurpassable equilibrium.” 5

It is no wonder that this extraordinary mosque has remained, up to our own times, one of the enduring sources of inspiration and reflection on that period of Islamic civilization that had nurtured a scientific tradition which seamlessly blended its various connections with the metaphysical sources of Islam. Seen in its totality, Islamic scientific tradition is not only rooted in the metaphysical truths of Islam, it is also integrally linked to Islamic art, Arabic language and literature and all other expressions of human creativity that emerged within Islamic civilization. It is this integral aspect of the nexus between Islam and the science it inspired that was to be lost through the implantation of modern Western science in the Muslim world. But before modern science could come into existence, a large body of Islamic tradition had to be transmitted to Europe. This process of transmission, and the subsequent transformation of this material forms another link in the emergence of a new Islam and science discourse and is explored in chapter 6. The next chapter is, however, devoted to an examination of a question that has vexed several generations of historians: the withering of Islamic scientific tradition.
Excerpted from Islam and Science, Ashgate, 2002. .

1. Eaton, Charles Le Gai (2000), Remembering God: Reflections on Islam, ABC International Group, Inc, Chicago, pp. 55-6.
2. Nasr, Seyyed Hossein (1987), Islamic Art and Spirituality, State University Press of New York, Albany, p. 47.
3. Burchardt, Titus (1999), Moorish Culture in Spain, tr. by Alisa Jaffa and William Stoddart, Fons Vitae, Louisville, pp. 9-10.
4. Burchardt (1999), p. 11.
5. Ibid.


Islam and Science provides the necessary background for understanding the contemporary relationship between Islam and modern science. Presenting an authentic discourse on the Islamic understanding of the physical cosmos, Muzaffar Iqbal explores God’s relationship to the created world and the historical and cultural forces that have shaped and defined Muslim attitudes toward science. What was Islamic in the Islamic scientific tradition? How was it rooted in the Qur’anic worldview and whatever happened to it? These are some of the facets of this rich and fascinating account of a tradition that spans eight centuries and covers a vast geographical region.
Written from within, this ground-breaking exploration of some of the most fundamental questions in the Islam and science discourse explores the process of appropriation and transformation of the Islamic scientific tradition in Europe during the three centuries leading up to the Scientific Revolution. The book can be ordered from www.amazon.com or www.Ashgate.com

Muzaffar Iqbal: A Biographical Note

Dr. Muzaffar Iqbal is the founder-president of Center for Islam and Science (CIS), Canada. He holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Saskatchewan, Canada (1983). He did his post-doctoral work at the Montreal Neurological Institute of the McGill University where he synthesized radioactive tracer medicines for tracing brain tumours.

Dr. Iqbal has held academic and research positions at University of Wisconsin-Madison (1984-85), McGill (1986) and University of Saskatchewan (1979-1984). During 1990-1999, he lived and worked in Pakistan, first as Director (Scientific Information) for the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH) and later as Director (International Cooperation), Pakistan Academy of Sciences (PAS). COMSTECH is the main scientific body of the 56 Muslim States of OIC. He was thus directly involved with the development of scientific institutions in the Muslim world.

Dr. Iqbal was the editor of Islamic Thought and Scientific Creativity (1991-96)—an international journal in the field of Islam and science.
His published works include Science in Islamic Polity in the Twenty-first Century (ed., 1995), Health and Medical Profile of the Muslim World (ed., 1993), Possible Strategy for Energy Mixes in the Muslim World (Co-ed., 1994), Mineral Profile of the Muslim World (ed., 1995). He was the Guest Editor for the Winter 2000 special issue (on Islam and Science) of Islamic Studies, the quarterly journal of the Islamic Research Institute, International Islamic University, Islamabad, Pakistan.

Dr. Iqbal has published papers on the history of philosophy of science, history of Islamic science and on the relationship between Islam and science in various international journals. He is also the author of two novels, Inkhilac (Uprooting, 1988) and Inqtac (Severance, 1994), a book on the history of the Independence Movement of Pakistan (1977), a book on the life and works of Herman Melville (Herman Melville: Life and Works, Savera, 1996) and more than fifty short stories. His fiction and translations have appeared in literary journals in Pakistan, Canada and the United States.

His other publications include a bilingual (Arabic-Urdu) edition of the poetry of the tenth century mystic, Mansur al-Hallaj, Divan al-Hallaj (1997, reprinted 2000), an anthology of Pakistani short stories, Colours of Loneliness (Oxford University Press, 1999) and Towards Understanding the Qur’an, (tr.) ( Leicester, 2000).

Dr. Iqbal’s areas of specialization include intellectual history of Islam, metaphysical and philosophical aspects of the relationship between Islam and science, Islam and the West and Islam and the contemporary world.

Dr. Iqbal is the editor of Kalam www.kalam.org, an edited and moderated listserver and news service dedicated to the promotion of a constructive discourse on Islam and science. His fortnightly column, “Quantum Note”, appears on every second Friday in Pakistan’s largest English language newspaper, The News, http://www.jang-group.com/thenews.

His forthcoming publications include Islam and Science (Ashgate, 2002) and God, Life & the Cosmos: Christian and Islamic Perspectives (co-ed.) (Ashgate, 2002).

© 2003 21C Magazine