3. Science and Religion. Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History


11 Dec 2014

History of Science, Astronomy

Ahmad Dallal

Dmitri Gutas

In this lecture, which is the third of four given at Yale University in 2008 as part of the Dwight H. Terry Lectureship, Ahmad Dallal discusses the intersections of science and religion as presented by both scientists and scholars of kalam (speculative theology).  He seeks out specific trends that reinforced conceptual developments in scientific thought.  The lectures were later published as a book:  Ahmad Dallal (2010) Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History, Terry Lecture Series. New Haven, CT / London: Yale University Press.

Dallal first emphasizes that the understand of the Qurʾān by scholars such as al-Bīrūnī (d. 1052) maintained a separation between religion and science, as the Qurʾān does not include anything that requires harmonizing the scripture with what is known from the natural world.  Even scholars, such as al-Ghazālī (d.1111) and al-Suyūṭī (d.1505), who maintained that the Qurʾān was a comprehensive source of knowledge, neither attempted to correlate the Qurʾānic text to science, nor claimed authority in scientific subjects because of their knowledge of the Qurʾān.

He finds the separation also in the works of al-Rāzī (d. ca. 925).  Although scientific topics are used as illustrations of God’s wisdom, there is no attempt to read science into the works, and no sense that any science is favored or predicted by the Qurʾān.

His discussion of kalam focuses on the work of ʿAḍuḍ al-Dīn al-Ījī (d.1355).  Al-Ījī, as Dallal sees him, wanted to undermine the comprehensive claims of philosophy as a complete system of knowledge.  So although a substantial part of the work is about astronomy, kalam, Al-Ījī suggests that “it’s not our business to make positive statements on matters of astronomy”.

Dallal sums up by noting that scientists didn’t need to look for answers anywhere but within science.  In this way, these premodern scientists and religious thinkers conceived of science as culturally neutral. He quotes Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) saying sciences shared among all the nations, not belonging to any one of them.

The additional lectures are:  Beginnings and Beyond”,“Science and Philosophy”, and “In the Shadow of Modernity” .  They were given 19-28 February 2008.  Dallal is introduced by Dmitri Gutas, professor of Arabic at Yale.


Islam:  The material on Islam is within the bounds of what Muslims have historically understood as acceptable.

Science:  There is relatively little here on actual science, but what is presented is accepted by contemporary scientists.

History:  The historical material is appropriately represents the material that Dallal argues with.

About Ahmad Dallal

Ahmad Dallal is currently (2018) the Dean of the Georgetown University in Qatar.He grew up in Lebanon, and after working for a time as an engineer, he decided to advance his studies in Islamic intellectual history.  Dallal has published extensively on the history of science in the Muslim world, and taught at a variety of institutions in both the United States and the Middle East.  His newest book, due out in June 2018, discusses eighteenth century intellectual history of the Muslim Middle East, pushing back against the “decline thesis” of Muslim intellectual production.

Dallal holds a PhD from Columbia University, New York (1990), and a B.E. in mechanical engineering from the American University of Beirut (1980).

He maintains a social media presence on Twitter.

Select Bibliography

“Ahmad Dallal”, Twitter, <https://twitter.com/guqdean>, accessed 30 April 2018.

“Ahmad Dallal”, World Economic Forum, <https://www.weforum.org/people/ahmad-dallal>, accessed 30 April 2018.

“Islamic Thought Expert To Become Georgetown University in Qatar’s New Dean” (2017) Georgetown University, <https://www.georgetown.edu/news/ahmad-dallal-new-GU-Q-dean>, accessed 30 April 2018.

Bassam Haddad and Ahmed Zuhairy, “Intellectual Journey: On Islamic Studies – A STATUS/الوضع Conversation with Ahmad Dallal” (2014) Jadaliyya, <http://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/32770/Intellectual-Journey-On-Islamic-Studies-A-STATUS%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%88%D8%B6%D8%B9-Conversation-with-Ahmad-Dallal>, accessed 30 April 2018.