Islamic Physicists Surpass Their Era

by Dr. Fahmi Amhar
(Head of Geomatics Research Bureau, National Coordinating Agency for Surveys and Mapping – Indonesia)

Moslems believe that any knowledge comes from God, and Qur’an is His Saying. Hence, as the source of knowledge, Qur’an is surely correct. So, what about knowledge regarding matter, energy, space-time and interaction of objects in this world, which often called as “physics”?

Some Moslems significantly say “Yes.” Hence emerge the term: “Islamic physics”. This is a number of theories or more precisely “hypotheses” from a physical law claimed by them “founds” in Qur’an. As an illustration, there is three examples here: (1). Theory that earth is the center of solar system (geocentric), even the universe, since Qur’an have never mention any verses (ayat) that expressing earth to revolves, but the sun, month and star are revolving the earth (QS 13:2, 14:33). This theory also supported by a notable Sheik from Saudi Arabia, that giving his religious advices that believing to heliocentric theory can plunge some one into heresy. (2) Theory that assert lodestone (magnetic iron) serves the purpose of energy generating which has no ending. This theory base on QS 57:25, expressing that God create iron which has a super strength in it. They (this theory proponents) interpret the strength as energy. (3) Theory about seven atmosphere layers, because Qur’an tell that rain fall from the sky (QS 35:27) meanwhile God was created seven skies (QS 41:12), so they interpret the rain happened at first sky layer.

Considering those theories and claims, they likely repeat what which been done by the mutakalimin (philosophy lover) in the past, that searches for a conclusion only based on assumption, even if the assumption comes from a Qur’an verse that interpreted subjectively. Of course, the mutakalimin way of thinking has never yield any real scientific breakthrough, let alone usable for practical matters.

The Moslem physicists in the golden era of Islam were people who educated from beginning of with basic Islamic tenets (aqidah). Typically, they have memorized Qur’an before reaching mature age (baligh). And they firmly comprehended that the nature has her own objective laws, that can be revealed when they conduct observation and research patiently and cautiously.

Ibn al Haytham (al-Hazen) was the pioneer of modern optics when he published his book in 1021 AD. He founds that the seeing process is about the fall of light into the eye, not because of the strength of eye-shaft as believed by people since Aristotle’s era. In his book, al-Haytham showed various means to build simple binoculars as well as simple camera (camera obscura).

It is interesting to know that al-Haytham did his optical experiment at the time of his house arrestment, after he failed to fulfill the duty from the Egypt Governor (Egypt Amir) to realize the Nile river dam project. Then, he was released after the Amir discovered that al-Haytham optical inventions were equal with his investments.

Ibn al-Haytham also the pioneer to starts a tradition of scientific method to test a hypothesis. It was 600 years precedes Rene Descartes, which assumed by others as the father of European Scientific Method in Renaissance era. The ibn al-Haytham’s scientific method started from empirical observation, formulation of problems, formulation of hypotheses, hypotheses tests with experiments, analysis of experiment results, data interpretation and conclusion formulation, and ended with publications. This publication then assessed by peer-review that enabling every people to traces and, when needed, repeats what have been done by a researcher. Peer review processes had become a tradition in the medical world since Ishaq bin Ali al Rahwi (854-931 AD).

Ibnu Sina also known as Avicenna (980-1037 AD) had agreed with the concept of the limitation of light velocity. Ash Rayhan al-Biruni (973-1048 AD) also founds that light far quicker from voice. Qutubuddin al-Syirazi (1236-1311 AD) and Kamaluddin al-Farisi (1260-1320 AD) gave the first correct explanation about rainbow phenomena.

In mechanics, Ja’far Muhammad ibn Mozes ibn Syakir (800-873 AD) hypothesized that celestial objects and “sky layer” are subject to the same physical laws, same with the earth.

Al-Biruni and latter al-Khazini developed experimental method in statics and dynamics, then also hydrostatics and hydrodynamics, that really important in constructing a bridge, barrage (dam), and ship.

In 1121M, al-Khazini in “Book of the balance of wisdom” suggested that gravitation and its potential energy changes, depends on the distance from the center of earth. He also explicitly differentiated between force, mass and weight. This invention is useful in constructing waterwheel.

Ibnu Bajah (Avempace) that passed away in 1138 AD argued that there will always be a reaction in every action. This theory is very influential in physics, including for Galileo and Newton, and hardly useful for calculating the strength manjaniq, which is a giant catapult that cannon alike.

Hibatullah Abu’l-Barakat al-Baghdadi (1080-1165 AD) disagreed with Aristotle that said a constant force will yield a uniform motion, when he wrote in his book al-Mu’tabar that a constant force will yield acceleration (acceleration). Accordingly, acceleration is the average of velocity alteration.

Ibnu Rushd also known as Averroes (1126-1198 AD) is a mujtahid (learned scholar of Islamic sciences) in fiqih (Islamic law) and also a physicist, in one of his book he defined force as certain level of works which must be done to change kinectical condition of an dilatory object. So, Ibnu Rushd work is earlier 500 years from Newtonian classical mechanics.

All these illustrations indicates that Physical Islam –if there is one– is a physics that has passed a series of scientific method, which then proved to be applicable to practice. Physics as empirical science can be achieved by every researcher that posses passion on it, without reference to his/her faith. Factual truth of physics is not necessarily be supported by Qur’an and will not perturb any Qur’an verses or the other way, since both of them have different realms. Impelling that a physical fact fits in with a verse or the other way, in fact shows the poor understanding, in terms of the physical fact, or the contents of Qur’an it self. And all of these have never been experienced by the physicist in Islamic golden era.

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