Conclusion – Technique and Science

12. Conclusion – Technique and Science

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه أجمعين وسلّم

Title: Conclusion – Technique and Science

Author: Abdassamad Clarke

Publication date: 20/4/2013

Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Civilisation and Society Programme of the MFAS. This is the last of 12 sessions which make up the Technique and Science module. The lecture will last approximately 40 minutes during which time you should make a written note of any questions that may occur to you for clarification after the lecture. 


Goethe, whose scientific work featured in lecture No. 3 of this course, was one of those whose meditations on the meaning of science were profound. In particular he devoted one of his most famous poems, the epic Faust, which occupied him throughout his life and whose second part he completed shortly before his death, to the issue of knowledge and the man of knowledge, and Goethe was highly aware of the new departures in scientific and technical progress. He used the mediaeval legend, which was full of fear of the new age about to dawn, sometimes superstitiously but sometimes not without justification, and which largely informs our image of the ‘Faustian pact’ between science and the devil, a legend given dramatic form by Christopher Marlowe. But Goethe did something quite profound with it. He modelled his version on the story of Job in the Bible (Ayyub in the Qur’an), except that, with a truly astonishing leap of imagination, where Job’s trials had been illnesses and afflictions, Faust is tried with good fortune and blessing. 

In the heavenly assembly, God boasts to the angels of His beloved servant Faust. The envious Mephistopheles asks permission to tempt Faust and prove his mettle, to show God that Faust is not as good as His opinion of him. He is given permission and so departs to Earth to pursue his mission. This is of course succinctly stated in the Qur’ān as the mission of shayṭān vis-à-vis mankind in general in many different ayats, for example:

17|61|وَإِذْ قُلْنَا لِلْمَلَٰٓئِكَةِ ٱسْجُدُوا۟ لِءَادَمَ فَسَجَدُوٓا۟ إِلَّآ إِبْلِيسَ قَالَ ءَأَسْجُدُ لِمَنْ خَلَقْتَ طِينًۭا

17|62|قَالَ أَرَءَيْتَكَ هَٰذَا ٱلَّذِى كَرَّمْتَ عَلَىَّ لَئِنْ أَخَّرْتَنِ إِلَىٰ يَوْمِ ٱلْقِيَٰمَةِ لَأَحْتَنِكَنَّ ذُرِّيَّتَهُۥٓ إِلَّا قَلِيلًۭا

17|63|قَالَ ٱذْهَبْ فَمَن تَبِعَكَ مِنْهُمْ فَإِنَّ جَهَنَّمَ جَزَآؤُكُمْ جَزَآءًۭ مَّوْفُورًۭا

17|64|وَٱسْتَفْزِزْ مَنِ ٱسْتَطَعْتَ مِنْهُم بِصَوْتِكَ وَأَجْلِبْ عَلَيْهِم بِخَيْلِكَ وَرَجِلِكَ وَشَارِكْهُمْ فِى ٱلْأَمْوَٰلِ وَٱلْأَوْلَٰدِ وَعِدْهُمْ ۚ وَمَا يَعِدُهُمُ ٱلشَّيْطَٰنُ إِلَّا غُرُورًا

17|65|إِنَّ عِبَادِى لَيْسَ لَكَ عَلَيْهِمْ سُلْطَٰنٌۭ ۚ وَكَفَىٰ بِرَبِّكَ وَكِيلًۭا

61 When We said to the angels, ‘Prostrate yourselves to Adam!’ they prostrated, except for Iblis. He said ‘What! Am I to prostrate to one You have created out of clay?’

62 He said, ‘Do You see this creature You have honoured over me? If You reprieve me till the Day of Rising, I will be the master of his descendants except for a very few.’

63 He said, ‘Go! And as for any who follow you, your repayment is Hell, repayment in full!

64 ‘Stir up any of them you can with your voice and rally against them your cavalry and your infantry and share with them in their children and their wealth and make them promises! The promise of Shaytan is nothing but delusion.

65  ‘But as for My slaves, you will not have any authority over them.’ Your Lord suffices as a guardian. (Sūrat al-Isra 17:61-65)

The option Mephistopheles offers Faust is that he will show him everything that a man could possibly desire, to which Faust replies:

If to the moment I should say:

Abide, you are so fair -
Put me in fetters on that day,
I wish to perish then, I swear.1

meaning that if he ever says to a moment “Stay! Don’t go!” then Mephistopheles will take his soul to damnation. 

After the epic adventures of the pair, at the very last instant Faust says:

This is the highest wisdom that I own,
The best that mankind ever knew:
Freedom and life are earned by those alone 

Who conquer them each day anew. 

Surrounded by such danger, each one thrives, 

Childhood, manhood, and age lead active lives. 

At such a throng I would fain stare,

With free men on free ground their freedom share. 

Then, to the moment I might say:
Abide, you are so fair!
The traces of my earthly day

No aeons can impair.
As I presage a happiness so high 

I now enjoy the highest moment.2

 Faust promptly dies. Mephistopheles thinks he has won but is promptly disabused of this notion by the angels of mercy who arrive to take Faust to heaven. 

Thus, with his profound trust in the mercy of Allah and his genuine fear of the satanic and its workings in history and in man’s destiny, Goethe laid to rest the idea of science as merely a pact with the devil, seeing beyond it to some greater significance in the Divine plan. Nevertheless, Goethe was profoundly apprehensive about the satanic potential of science, particularly in its abstraction, just as he was equally afraid of that potential in the Romantics, as we saw in lecture No.3.

Science and philosophy

What distinguishes classical physics and all its derivative sciences, including the new physics, from its parent, philosophy, is impatience with words and with the reflections of philosophy and theology and the wish to get at ‘the things themselves’, through rigorous experiment and observation. It has been argued that what the early scientists, Newton et al, did was to discard the idea of discussing why things happen in favour of the new precision mathematics gave them in describing how things happen. Nevertheless, the minute the experiment is done the physicist is back in the realm of words and ideas. At one time he could also have been expected to have had an education and training in words and ideas, i.e. in philosophy and logic, but in recent times he has largely discarded that and expects to be taken just as seriously when he speaks about his work in ordinary language as he is and ought to be when he does his rigorous experiments and calculations. What was a part has now become the whole. The branch of philosophy has become the tree of science. Its very last conquests have been in the domain of consciousness, as we saw in Dr. Dalmau’s paper in lecture No. 10 on “Emotion, Reason and the Human” which looked at the work of neurobiologist Antonio Damasio, and in the realm of language itself, as we saw in lecture No. 11 on “Language and the Technical”, in which by means of the ‘science’ of linguistics language is subjected to a highly abstract mathematisation.

Yet because of the sincerity of many scientists, they have been open to their work destroying the very paradigm within which they worked and which they cherished, and forcing the emergence of new paradigms, as we saw was the case with Max Planck, a devoted classical physicist, whose work would begin the overthrown of classical physics and usher in the quantum age.

The main theme of our course has been the relationship between science and technology and we discovered in lecture no.6 by Ibrahim Lawson “Concerning Technique” that technology, although historically posterior to science, is in reality prior to it:

‘Chronologically speaking, modern physical science begins in the seventeenth century. In contrast, machine-power technology develops only in the second half of the eighteenth century. But modern technology, which for chronological reckoning is the later, is, from the point of view of the essence holding sway within it, the historically earlier.’

We linked that to this process of ‘method’ – a synonym for ‘technique’, and specifically Descartes’ articulation of it in his Regulae ad directionem ingenii (Rules for the Direction of the Mind) and Discours de la méthode (Discourse on the Method), and his and others’ desire to articulate science and philosophy on the basis of Euclid’s procedures of careful definition of terms, statement of axioms and then advancement of hypotheses and their proof, finally leading to theorems.


It would be a strange approach to carp at careful observation, experiment, rigour, precise definition and proof. And it is futile and unworthy to begrudge success, for undoubtedly science has been and is superbly successful in its own terms. But. We say: there where the power and strength lie, there also lies the danger, and that is in the area of the technical. It is in its precision and rigour that science finds its strength, but it is there that the peril lies. It is there that science first became technical. In that process we will only examine one element, which is emblematic of the whole: the definition of terms. 

Technical terms

Terminology when rigorously defined becomes ‘technical terms’, and we include Islamic sciences such as fiqh, ‘aqida and tasawwuf each of which has its technical terms, mustalahat. By this admission, we widen our field of study and join together our two courses on the Madhhabs of Islam and Technique and Science. The same strengths lie in both fields but also the same perils. 

We thus arrive in the modern age with the interplay of two cultures – the humanism of Judaeo-Christian culture and the dīn of Islam – in which both have technified themselves thus gaining power and thus exposing themselves to the inherent peril. As Shaykh Abdalhaqq Bewley argues in The Four Madhhabs of Islam, the technification began very early and its greatest early exponent was Imam ash-Shāfi‘ī but that it is to him we owe much of the preservation of the dīn as it has reached us. That is its power and it contributed to social and political stability and countered tendencies to fragment. Shaykh Abdalhaqq writes:

It certainly fulfilled its intended task of halting the accelerating break-up in the homogeneity of the practice of Islam in the various areas of the Muslim world of that time and ensured a consistency of practice which was to safeguard the integrity of Islam right down to our own time. Indeed it is true to say that it is largely due to Imam ash-Shafi‘i’s superlative system that we owe the extraordinary uniformity of Islamic practice throughout the world, so that even today 1200 years later, wherever a Muslim travels in the world, despite all the geographical, ethnic and cultural differences which undoubtedly exist, there is no significant difference in any of the basic practices of Islam. This is a tremendous achievement.

Thus very early in the history of Islam, this technical spirit was at work and coloured most of the later work of the ‘ulama. This work in fiqh was followed by the work in ‘aqida in which, as we saw in lecture no. 11 of the Madhhabs of Islam course on “Origins of the Schools of ‘Aqida” by Shaykh Ali  Laraki, a first heroic attempt by the Mu‘tazila to rescue the Muslims from intellectual confusion and fragmentation was itself put on a clear basis consonant with the Book and the Sunnah in the West by al-Ash‘ari and in the East by al-Maturidi.

In later epochs these two important sciences resulted in a highly specialised élite class of scholars who occupied positions of substantial power, rank and wealth in Muslim society. It is no accident that late Osmanlı society, aligned with a highly technical and sophisticated late Hanafi fiqh and science of ‘aqida, fell in love with science and technique, which arguably led to its downfall through the simple expedient of a debt, incurred for the sake of scientific and technical progress, that was subject to exponential growth and grew unstoppably until the dawla was bankrupted. An unexpected result was the sidelining of the ‘ulama class themselves in favour of what was perceived as a more alluring technical science. Without the respect which they had previously enjoyed, the ‘ulama were then unable to contain the two divisive movements that came from less well-educated people: the reactionary wahhabi and salafi groups and modernists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which although containing scholars, they were nevertheless men of lesser calibre who embraced partial versions of the dīn that any of the great men of knowledge of the past would have seen through.

A technical term is a word with all its complex roots. Scientific man defines it, and in Arabic a definition is a hadd, literally a ‘limit’. Man turns to a word and imposes a definition or a limit upon it, but to see the significance of this it requires us to alert ourselves to the utilitarian view of language in order to ask the question properly “what is language?” all the while aware, of course, that we ask the question using the language about which we enquire. Utilitarian thinking glibly skips this awkward but fruitful conundrum. It assumes that such introspection is useless – in which it is right because it has no use – and proceeds to define terms. The philosophy behind this says that words are in themselves meaningless and merely denote whatever we take them to denote. The contrary school says that words themselves have meanings and are not merely signifiers for things and concepts. These two are said to have been positions adopted by the early schools of grammar of Kufa and Basra. These two viewpoints today are sub-schools of the two that say that existence itself is meaningless or meaningful.

So what precisely is this peril? Necessary as precise definitions of words are for clarity of thought and speech and thus for the action and behaviour that result from them, a parallel activity is needed which is to allow the words themselves to speak their own meanings by listening to them. Definition is a hadd, a limitation, but we must also be alert to words’ meanings when limits have been removed from them for it is then that they are able to allude to the Divine Who is limitless. Nevertheless, practical life needs limits as do words. It is in keeping the balance between these two contrary demands that most of the dīn and most culture happens.


For example we can give precise definitions of ‘freedom’: 

1 the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.

• absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government.

• the power of self-determination attributed to the will; the quality of being independent of fate or necessity.

2 the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.

• the state of being unrestricted and able to move easily.

• unrestricted use of something.

3 (freedom from) the state of not being subject to or affected by (something undesirable).

4 (the freedom of –) Brit. a special privilege or right of access, especially that of full citizenship of a city granted to a public figure as an honour.

5 archaic familiarity or openness in speech or behaviour.

These are undoubtedly clear definitions of freedom and the various ways we use it linguistically. They do not engage in any profound way with what the word freedom really means. We can pursue this trail by looking into the etymology. 

ORIGIN Old English frēo (adjective), frēon (verb), of Germanic origin; related to Dutch vrij and German frei, from an Indo-European root meaning ‘to love’, shared by friend.

It is not my purpose to pursue this meaning in further depth, but it surely must come as a surprise that it derives from the verb ‘to love’ and that it relates to the modern Danish verb at fri ‘to propose marriage’.

This case is not the exception but rather the rule. When one explores any number of words that one uses in a daily fashion, all of which have their proper definitions upon which we rely in order to speak clearly and comprehensibly to each other and to understand each other, we find that their original meanings are very often far from the meanings they have come to have, and that the history of the distance between them is very illustrative of what has happened to us politically, socially, culturally and economically over the centuries.

If no other damage was done, the otherwise praiseworthy definition of terms and consequent technical and scientific culture that grew up necessarily split off from the poetic dimension of language, resulting in what C. P. Snow called ‘the two cultures’. But the split is more ancient than that. For the definition of terms is necessarily what we would describe as earthly while the sense of limitlessness we think of as heavenly. The accent and stress placed on definition was to close the doors of Heaven to its acolytes.

‘Aqida and Fiqh

It is instructive to consider the case of the Islamic sciences to understand the rich interplay that there can be between definition of terms and allowing the words to speak of their limitlessness. The science of Islam is fiqh, the science of action and behaviour, of worship and transactions. It is important here that terms receive their clear definitions because both practice of the acts of worship and worldly transactions depend on them. Without them practice would become fragmented, which would result in political disunity and civil sedition, marriages and divorces would not be conducted in a sane manner and thus lineages would become dubious along with other deleterious social and moral effects, and the market would become disordered and prone to usury, all of which and more we actually see in our own day. It is no accident that at the root of that disorder are highly abstract disputes about basic terms, the usul al-fiqh and their madhhabs.

In the realm of ‘aqida, it is clear that terms need clear definitions too because this is the realm of ‘ilm al-kalam – the science of what may and may not be said, and how it may be said. This is the realm of the articulation of the creed in public, and it is vital that it is not done in such a way as to mislead the public. Very few people are capable of sustained thought and to require that of them would be to throw them into doubt, confusion and uncertainty. 

However, there is a vital area, that of inner reflection, in which one must be able to hear the words in their widest possible meanings since this is the area in which they have their heavenly dimension. One must be careful about how one articulates in public since that is an action and must be governed by taqwā but there is no such restriction on one’s reflection, since reflection is not culpable.

This grid can be taken back with us to science and its history and will allow us to understand a great deal of what has happened. Science does and always has operated on two levels: first, the actual scientific work of scientists, published in peer-reviewed journals and subject to criticism by those competent to understand and criticise; second, the popular understanding and often misunderstanding promulgated by the media. Daily the media are packed with accounts of scientific studies, from cosmological work to the newest research on health and illness to sociological studies. Thus, science serves a dual function, and scientists can quite correctly distance themselves from popular misconceptions even when those misconceptions are widely disseminated and endure, sometimes for decades. It is this danger that Ibn Rushd, arguably a father of the Renaissance and thus of the very scientific culture in which we live, warned against in his Fasl al-Maqal fee ma bayna ash-shari’ati wa’l-hikmati mina’l-ittisal and in its Damima and in another work al-Kashf ‘an manahij al-adillah. Rather than his being an ardent populariser of philosophy as his detractors maintain, he argued that it is a subject for a small group of well educated people who ought not to confuse people by putting its ideas before those who are not so well educated. In particular, he took issue with Imam al-Ghazali, not because he differed with the philosophers and accused them of disbelief but, because in the process he had opened up the subject to ordinary people and thus exposed them to ideas that could weaken their īmān.

We are exposed similarly to a use of science whose meanings have been hard for scientists to grasp, men such as Bohr and Heisenberg when confronted by mind shattering quantum discoveries, that is popularised both by scientists unversed in philosophical reasoning or in the case of Islam uneducated in ‘ilm al-kalam and by writers and journalists who wrongly deduce things to which they were already disposed or prejudiced in favour of, often because of various emotional experiences.


Contraction and Expansion

Goethe saw a process in nature of the polarity of attraction and repulsion and that through this polarity there could be an intensification such as the appearance of the rose. 

The missing capstone is the perception of the two great driving forces in all nature: the concepts of polarity and intensification, the former a property of matter insofar as we think of it as material, the latter insofar as we think of it as spiritual. Polarity is a state of constant attraction and repulsion, while intensification is a state of ever-striving ascent. Since, however, matter can never exist and act without spirit, nor spirit without matter, matter is also capable of undergoing intensification, and spirit cannot be denied its attraction and repulsion. Similarly, the capacity to think is given only to someone who has made sufficient divisions to bring about a union, and who has united sufficiently to seek further divisions.3

Science with its rigorous stripping away of anything extraneous to its methods and not established by its discipline is a process of contraction. It is a male process or in Chinese terms it is yang. It has necessarily to be accompanied by the female yin expansive process, and here we find that in the arts and most specifically in literature and music. However, because of our focus thus far on language, we will confine ourselves to literature, which in Arabic is adab, a vital part of the motto of MFAS:

لَا يَدْخُلُ فِينَا إِلَّا مَنِ اهْتَمَّ بِالْأِدَبِ وَالسِّيَرِ وَطَلَبَ عِلْماً نَافِعاً

"Let none come among us except those who are concerned with adab and siyar and who seek beneficial knowledge"

noting that adab is a rich homonym containing meanings such as literature, courtesy and discipline, and that siyar, which is also a rich synonym, contains the sense of biographies.

Given our focus on language and our having taken one aspect of that only, the definition of terms as being emblematic of the rest of the process, and our having underlined the need also to hear the undefined word speak its own meanings and those that it indicates, we find that this knowledge has always been embodied in the literary impulse without which sciences alone can indeed contain dangers. There are some of the ‘ulamā’ who consider that major salafi figures who were undoubtedly great scholars yet took unwise positions because of their comparative poverty in adab. It was for that reason that any balanced scholarly tradition among the Muslims devoted equal space to adab along with grammar and fiqh, for example, the traditional emphasis on study of poetry and the pre-Islamic poetry in particular, and in the madrasa tradition of the Hausas in which the student could study these three in parallel for up to 16 years before opening a classic work of hadith or a book of tafsīr. It is for this same reason that the next course in our Civilisation and Society programme will be the course “Society through Literature” in September 2013.

Every great over-towering mountain has lesser mountains and foothills from the heights of which the majesty of the towering mountain can better be understood. Thus it is with literature and the noble Qur’an, in which Allah, exalted is He, explains two contrary aspects of His Noble Book:

هُوَ ٱلَّذِىٓ أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ ٱلْكِتَٰبَ مِنْهُ ءَايَٰتٌۭ مُّحْكَمَٰتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ ٱلْكِتَٰبِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَٰبِهَٰتٌۭ ۖ

7 It is He who sent down the Book to you from Him: ayats containing clear judgements – they are the core of the Book – and others which are open to interpretation.

Thus, the understanding of language in both its aspects, that in which terms are precisely and carefully defined, which we characterise as Earthly, and that in which language can serve to indicate something vaster and deeper, which we have characterised as Heavenly, can take us to the point where we can get a glimpse of the Divine Book of Allah, the Qur’ān. That in turn can take us to another point of ascent. In a noble hadith the Messenger of Allah @ states   أُنْزِلَ الْقُرْآنُ عَلَى سَبْعَةِ أَحْرُفٍ ، لِكُلِّ آيِةٍ مِنْهَا ظَهْرٌ وَبَطْنٌ ، وَلِكُلِّ حَرْفٍ حَدٌّ، وَلِكُلِّ حَدٍّ مُطَّلَعٌ    “The Noble Qur’ān, was revealed in seven modes. Each ayatāyat has an outward (ẓahr) and an inward (baṭn)4. Every mode has a limit (ḥadd). Every limit has a place to ascend to (muṭṭala‘).”5

In a qasida, Shaykh Muhammad ibn al-Ḥabīb, may Allah be merciful to him, says:

وَتَجَرَّدْ مِنْ كُلِّ عِلْمٍ وَفَهْمٍ لِتَنَالَ الذِي نَالُوهُ الْكِبَارَا

Strip yourselves of all knowledge and understanding

so that you may obtain what the great have obtained.

It is only those who have knowledge and understanding who can strip them off to reach out to that which the Shaykh indicates and they only do that in the depths of the night in the intensity of their ‘ibada or in khalwa retreat for the purpose. And Allah bestows on His slaves out of His bounty whatever He wishes and chooses from among them whom He loves, may Allah make us among those He loves.

That brings us to the end of today’s lecture the last of our course. Recommended reading, as always, includes careful study of this lecture itself and of the other lectures alluded to in this lecture and the rest of the course. The subject of our next course is “Society through Literature” and it begins in September 2013 in shā’Allāh. Thank you for your attention. Assalamu alaykum.


Essay topics

1. Examine the theme of causality, and contrast the position of Ash‘ari kalam with that of classical physics.

2. Examine the metaphor of the machine as espoused by scientists

1 Walter Kaufmann, Goethe’s Faust, p.185

2 Ibid. p.469

3 Goethe, “A Commentary on the Aphoristic Essay ‘Nature’ (Goethe to Chancellor Von Müller)” from Scientific Studies edited by Douglas E. Miller.

4 There are many interpretations of these two terms, ẓahr ‘outward’ and and baṭn ‘inward’, such as ‘a verbal expression and interpretation’, ‘a verbal expression and meaning’, ‘an apparent and known interpretation and an intrinsic interpretation’, ‘a narration and an admonition’ and ‘a reading and an understanding’. Ed.

5 It was narrated by ‘Abdullāh ibn Mas‘ūd (d. 29 AH / 650 CE); ref at-Tibrīzī, Mishkāt al-Maṣābīḥ, Kitāb al-‘Ilm, sSection 2, hadithḤadīth 238. The terms ḥadd ‘limit’ and muṭṭala‘ ‘place to ascend to’ are translated according to the meanings given by Ibn al-Athīr (d. 630 AH / 1232 CE) in his an-Nihāyah.