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Science Not Art: Problems with our Islamic History


Let me introduce you to Hassan. He is an artist with an imagination that runs wild with more creativity in his little finger than most of us have in our whole lives. He spends his spare time in art galleries and exhibitions. He enjoys experimenting with different pantones to find the right shade of green for his latest artwork. So far, he’s your typical artist, except for the small fact that he’s a medical student.

Like many children of first generation immigrants, Hassan was prodded towards a stable career in healthcare rather than the decidedly less secure world of being an artist. His innate artistry is out of place in the sterile world of Medicine, but he accepts this trade-off for the security that a career in medicine brings.


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Much like Hassan, I contend that Islamic history is art trapped in the world of sciences.

While Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t being busy leading the Rough Riders or being President, he made the same case for history in general. Every civilization and culture views history through a different lens. While the Europeans classically treated History as a category within literature and the Hindus as often indistinguishable from mythology – Muslims took an entirely different approach. When it comes to fields of Islamic studies, we tend to classify the most important as sciences. Tafsir, Ilm al hadeeth, Tajweed and Fiqh are all researched and taught with the same precision and accuracy as physics or maths. There is relatively little room for artistic license or experimentation.

science vs art

This is a strength especially when it comes to the studies that make up the bedrock of the faith and are used to decide the rules and regulations that govern it. However, problems arise when subjects that don’t naturally fit into the scientific category are reclassified as such. One such example is Islamic history. Our history has often been subjected to the same rigorous standards as those applied to other Islamic sciences. Anything that doesn’t meet the highest standards of verification and authentication can potentially be downplayed or treated as suspect.

This view of history was pioneered by none other than the father of historiography Ibn Khaldun, who was frustrated by the “uncritical acceptance of historical data.” It comes as no surprise to find out that Ibn Khaldun was a jurist before he found fame in later life as a historian. However, history is not merely data to be proven or interpreted in a narrow set of ways. History is the art of putting together bits of information from the past and weaving together a narrative that gives us an insight into the motivations and actions of those that preceded us.

quiz art vs science

Translation: Artists tend to see boats first, scientists tend to see arches.

For instance, History as science will tell us that the Moghul Empire finally collapsed due to a range of socio-economic factors afflicting the corrupt Moghul state combined with the overwhelming military superiority of the British. While that may technically be accurate, History as art would explain the fall as a perfect storm of threats compounded by the tragic but unexpected outcome of an aging Emperor’s affections for his ambitious and treacherous young wife Zeenat Mahal. The former view is based on empirical evidence but wholly uninspiring and devoid of the human touch, while the latter is pieced together based on some facts, some extrapolations and based on the characters of the personalities involved.

zeenat mahal

Worth sinking an Empire over?

Skeptics from the scientific school of thought will read the above and fear that this is a call to legitimise superstition and fairytales. It is not. The reality is that the majority of our history, or any history for that matter, will fail to pass the benchmarks that we must necessarily use for our sciences. The result of this is that there are swathes of our history that are simply looked upon as second class and therefore not prominent.

Maria Konnikova argued the same point cogently in Scientific American. There needs to be a paradigm shift in how we see and classify Islamic history. Islamic historians should feel comfortable in the freedom to discuss and teach aspects of our history that may not be 100% verifiable, but that fit within the broad construct of our traditions. We need to explore and cultivate the vast fertile expanses between irrefutable evidence based facts and pure fiction. Should we do so, we will reap a rich harvest of engaged and inspired Muslims who can take lessons and inspiration from our past and use it to guide our future. That’s hopefully something that even the most dedicated scientist would find it difficult to argue against.

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Dr. Muhammad Wajid Akhter - National Council Member, Muslim Council of Britain | - Lead, National Muslim Covid Response Group | - Council Member, British Islamic Medical Association | - Founder, Charity Week for Orphans and children in need | - Co-Founder, Islamic History Channel | - International Director, FIMA Lifesavers



  1. ifthikar

    February 10, 2016 at 6:41 PM

    A very profound observation and understanding of the disciplines and differences between ‘sciences” and “humanities” or “arts”.
    The former requires empirical evidence , application of logical principles and formulation of algorithms. The humanities on the other hand is more intuitive,creative, abstract and appeals to the beauty of the senses. It gives an alternative lens to view the world and its events. The exclusion of the alternative lens can sometimes give rise to cognitive dissonance and inexplicable disconnects between observed events and the realm of real possibilities.
    A classic example from a religious perspective is the reliance only on the established rules of hadith narrative and compilation to ascertain the details of the marriage of Ayesha RA to the prophet SAL. If history or the seerah of the prophet (SAL) is interpreted in the narrative of the “arts” perspective using differential and parallel chronological events and dates where the event is narrated by bringing together a synthesis of the multiplicity of events at that time , a different narrative comes to light. The controversial age of Ayesha R.A at the time of her marriage could be placed at between 16 and 18 years of age. Why then does the overwhelming opinion of the scholars rely only on the single hadith that is attributed to a sahih Bukhari hadith? The answer lies in the analysis of the article on which this comment is being made. The usurpation of the art of history writing to the rigid adherence to the logic of chain of narratives or the classification of hadith literature stands in the way of truly using the balance that the two complimenting tools that the arts and the sciences can bring to the realm of epistemology and making sense of life.

    • p4rv3zkh4n

      February 11, 2016 at 8:10 PM

      @ ifthikar

      Aisha radhiallahu `anha said : When (a girl) reaches 9 years of age she is a woman

      [Ref: Tirmidhi and Bayhaqi 1/320]

      Aisha (radhiallahu `anha) herself is affirming that back then female at 9 years of age would be considered to be women . This was the norm back then. Today the norm is shifted. Now we have 11-14 year old children old enough to have illegal sex, be in a relationship , sell drugs but that’s all fine for the islamophobes. When it comes to Islam or Muhammad (sallalahu `alayhi wa sallam) islamaphobes cry themselves a river.

      The Prophet’s contemporaries (both enemies and friends) clearly accepted the Prophet’s marriage to `Aisha without any problem. We see the evidence for this by the lack of criticism against the marriage until modern times. However, a change in culture caused the change in our times today.

    • M.Mahmud

      February 13, 2016 at 5:34 PM


      • ifthikar

        February 15, 2016 at 12:07 PM

        try clicking on the link ot copy pasting it on your browser and click.

    • M.Mahmud

      March 6, 2016 at 3:51 PM

      Where do people come up with this kind of absurdity, weirdly coincidental absurdity not found in the Ummah before but somehow a contempory falsehood, right around the time disbelievers insult Muslims for the marriage of Aisha RA.

      The claims she was not nine when consummated have been thoroughly debunked and refuted.

  2. p4rv3zkh4n

    February 11, 2016 at 8:23 PM

    @ ifthikar

    Ai’sha (r.a) being married when she was 9 years old and the prophet (s.a.w) died when she was 18 years old, has been reported in numerous reports via different chains

    1. Aishah → ‘Urwah → Az-Zuhree → Mamar → Abdur Razaaq → Abd ibn Humaid → Muslim

    Aishah (r.a) reported that the Prophet (s.a.w) married her when she was seven years old , and she was taken to his house as a bride when she was nine, and her dolls were with her; and when he died she was eighteen years old [Sahih Muslim -English Translation – 3311]

    Aishah → Yahya (ibn Abdur Rahmaan ibn Haatib) → Muhammad (ibn Amr) → the father of U’baidullah ibn Muadh → Ubaidullah ibn Muadh → Abu Dawood [Sunan Abi Dawood, Hadith no. 4937

    Aishah → Al-Aswad → Ibraheem → Al-A’amash → Abu Mua’awiyah→ the father of Abdullah → Abdullah → Ahmad ibn Hanbal [Musnad Ahmad 24152]

    hadeeth of aisha’s age being 9 at time of nikkah has been narrated through many other routes which do not contain Hisham ibn ‘Urwah.

    hadith that proves aisha was nine at time of marriage was also reported by imam bukhari, nasai, ibn majah, bayhaqi, tabarani and other scholars.

    • Philip Havey

      February 19, 2016 at 1:08 PM

      The marriage in question was a political arrangement wherein some form of real
      or symbolic consumption had to seal the bargain and there was no clear definition
      of childhood throughout the world until the 19th Century. Strangely, enough in a wold
      where life expectancy was 40 years until 1810 when it jumped to 79 when the new
      sanitation conditions were installed, puberty came much earlier.
      My confusion about Islamic history lies with the fact the Mecca was a matriarchy
      Where in the Prophet (S.A.W) prevailed in purely passafisptic gesture of refusing
      to leave the sanctified area.
      Because of the Prophet’s (S.A.W.) untimely death, certain aspect of the prevailing
      feminism was not properly incorporated into ceremonies of Hajj and the entire
      period until the Ka’ab Stone was shattered by artillery fire remains rather vague
      in non-Islamic venues, so this may be a more important focus of attention rather
      than a girl’s age.

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