Islam and science: Our forgotten history


Ahmad Kamal, Student, Jamia Ahmadiyya Ghana

Growing up, my science textbooks were filled with theories of famous Western scientists. Naturally, I grew up crediting our scientific enlightenment to these Western sounding names with an ignorant inclination to believing it was only due to a Christian society.

I had come across articles that had named a few Muslim scientists and their inventions, which were fascinating, but living in a world of Newton, Boyle and Faraday, I remained largely unconvinced of any lasting Islamic influence in the field of science.

Of course, what continued to elude me was the realisation that some Muslim scientists such as Musa al-Khazarizmi, a mathematician (780–850 CE) and Ibn al-Haytham, the “father of optics and experimental physics” (11th Century) were intrinsic to unlocking the secrets of the world just as much as Newton or Archimedes were, but sadly, as Ehsan Masood notes:

“The Arabic sounding names somehow became lost in the myth of the Dark Ages […]” (Science & Islam – A History

He further writes:

“It is as if the memory of an entire civilization and its contributions to the sum of knowledge has been virtually wiped from human consciousness. Not simply in the West but in the Islamic world too, the achievements of Islam were, until recently, largely forgotten or at least neglected, except by a few diligent specialists […]” (Ibid)


It is said that a nation without knowledge of their past is like a tree with no roots which falls with the first gush of wind. In the same way, if we remain oblivious to our past, we begin to resemble a leaf; unaware it is part of a tree. 

The Holy Quran has many accounts of past nations. All these narrations are there to remind us what led to the destruction of these nations and for us to take a lesson from them. Hazrat Hakim Maulvi Nuruddin, Khalifatul Masih Ira states in his autobiography:

“Islam has presented the world with countless favours. A great favour from among those is that it was the Muslims who promoted the knowledge of history. Other nations advanced in this field after learning it from the Muslims. So how sad and regretful is the fact that today, it is the Muslims who are most unfamiliar to the status of their prominent personalities “(Mirqatul Yaqeen, pp. 22-23)

He then gives an example:

“Bani Israel was such a great nation having the potential to even say نَحْنُ‭ ‬أَبْنَاء‭ ‬اللّٰهِ‭ ‬وَأَحِبَّاؤُهُ (We are the children of God and His beloved [Ch.5: V.19]), but once they became ignorant to the status of their great personalities, they were utterly disgraced. Thus, in the Holy Quran, God using the words‭ ‬يَا‭ ‬بَنِيْ‭ ‬إِسْرَائِيلَ‭ ‬اذْكُرُوْا [O Children of Israel, remember (…) (Ch.2: V.123)] has addressed them many times reminding them of the status of their prominent personalities.

“Hence, we realise that to lead a nation away from decline into progress, one method will be to continuously remind them of their prominent personalities thus leading to the wide propagation of the nation’s history” (Ibid)

The knowledge of history remains crucial to understanding and maintaining our civilisation and this is a special blessing endowed to the human species alone. History is our memory, and without it, we are no less than the wild. Steven Pinker, regarding the importance of history, writes:

“To be aware of one’s country and its history, of the diversity and customs and beliefs across the globe and through the ages, of the blunders and triumphs of past civilizations […] such awareness truly lifts us to a higher plane of consciousness. It is a gift of belonging to brainy species with a long history.” (Enlightenment Now – The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress [2018])

The rest of the world is slowly but surely realising the role Islam played in this world’s collective enlightenment. Prince Charles, in a speech at Oxford University, on 27 October 1993, said:

“If there is so much misunderstanding in the West about the nature of Islam, there is also so much ignorance about the debt our culture and civilisation owe to the Islamic world. It is a failure which stems, I think, from the strait-jacket of history which we have inherited”

Similarly, Former US President Barack Obama, on 4June 2009, in Cairo, remarked:

“It was Islam that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s renaissance and enlightenment.”

Such prominent Western personalities sound like they are ready to give Islam credit for its part in our scientific enlightenment but to have one country living up to it is far better than fifty preaching it.

Yet, Islamic countries fail to set an example of acknowledging their very own. The biggest example before us is that of Prof Abdus Salam.

Prof Abdus Salam was co-winner of the Nobel Prize in 1979 for his work on a model of particle physics, which theorised how fundamental forces governed the overall dynamics of the universe. He was the first Pakistani and Muslim to win a Nobel Prize in physics.

He believed his theories were guided by the Quran and driven by his belief in the unity of God, which had made him look for the unification of forces in nature. In his home, he used to work while listening to the recitation of the Holy Quran. He even quoted the verses of the Quran and dressed in his traditional attire for his Nobel acceptance speech. 

Gordon Fraser writes about the speech:

“In his Nobel Prize address, even before sketching the science for which he had earned the award, he outlined the history of Islamic science and its importance for the pre-renaissance world, for ardent seekers of knowledge like Michael the Scot. But then Islam and science had gone their separate ways and somehow lost each other. Salam’s ambition was to reconcile them.” (Cosmic Anger: Abdus Salam – The First Muslim Nobel Scientist, [2008])

He further writes;

“Salam, resplendent in his turban saw himself as a Muslim gospeler, restoring nameplates in the pantheon of science that had become obscured or even illegible” (Ibid)

Prof Abdus Salam Sahib was not an average Nobel laureate. His work had placed him among the very best. Professor Jim al-Khalili says about Abdus Salam:

“There is no doubt in my mind that his work places him as the greatest physicist of the Islamic world for a thousand years. Not since Ibn al-Haitham and al-Biruni has there been a more influential figure in this field.” (Pathfinders – The Golden Age of Arabic Science, [2010])

But to Pakistan, he was nothing but an Ahmadi. This meant he deserved to be disregarded and mocked.  His name was meant to serve as inspiration to young Muslims; however, sadly it was denounced and shunned, and subsequently removed from textbooks.

He had proposed that Pakistan would set up an Islamic Science Foundation to promote science in Islamic countries and recognise the contribution of Muslim scientists but “support in his home country was vital, but with Salam’s hardly discernible in Bhutto’s Pakistan, his proposal fell on deaf ears and became sidelined.” (Cosmic Anger: Abdus Salam – The First Muslim Nobel Scientist, [2008])

Maybe if his own country had valued and appreciated him and had broken the lens of religious bigotry and discrimination, perhaps his name would have found a way into my textbook and the textbooks of millions of young Muslims around the world.

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