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Religion, Science, and Technology

Osman Bakar
The Encyclopedia of Islamic Bioethics What is This? A comprehensive reference work covering the major issues in Islamic bioethics, including medicine, clinical practice, genetics, theology, and Islamic law.

Religion, Science, and Technology


Bioethics is a modern term introduced to denote a new academic discipline or field of study based on ideas and issues that emerge largely from the interactions of biology and ethics. This relatively new field is made particularly necessary by the growing ethical concerns arising from frontier research in applied biology, especially genetic engineering and biotechnology. Bioethics is now widely recognized as an independent academic discipline.

Islamic bioethics is both an old and a new field of academic inquiry. It is old in the sense that the practical concern with what are now considered bioethical issues has been present in Islam since its early history. But it is new in the sense that its domain of inquiry now covers a much wider range of modern ethical issues that do not originate from the Muslim world but rather largely from the modern West. It is also new with respect to the kind of philosophical challenges it has to grapple with in response to the competing theories of ethics that seek to best explain the meaning and significance of contemporary bioethics as well as its relations especially with its neighboring academic disciplines.

The main purpose of this article is to provide an overview of the synergic relations between religion, science, and technology in Islam with special emphasis on their implications for Islamic bioethics. The synergic relations in view and their significance for Islamic bioethics are discussed both from the historical and epistemological perspectives. Together these perspectives bring into focus two important issues. First is the dominant role of Shariʿah (Islamic law), both regulative and creative, given its centrality in the religious structure of Islam and second is the existence of two parallel ethical traditions that have influenced each other throughout the history of Islam. This dual tradition is rooted in the Islamic epistemological principle that affirms divine revelation and human reason as two fundamental sources of knowledge. The interaction of the two traditions has been perhaps most visible in the field of medicine. Accordingly, both issues are discussed in this article. The epistemological challenge that the dual bioethical traditions pose to the contemporary pursuit of an integrated Islamic bioethics is raised in the article’s conclusion.

Religion, Science and Technology: Structural and Synergic Relations in Islam

One of the most prominent features of classical Islamic civilization was the multifaceted synergy between religion, science, and technology. In conformity with the teachings of the Qurʾān, religion (al-dīn) is generally understood in Islam to embrace all aspects and dimensions of human life, individual and societal. In the Islamic perspective religion is not to be viewed as simply one among many cultural entities fundamental to human progress but rather as the foundation of all such entities, including science and technology. Unlike views prevailing in certain cultures that insist on the separation of science and technology from religion, the Islamic tradition argues for their interrelatedness, unity, and harmony. For centuries Muslim scientists and technologists have pursued their scientific and technological activities within a spiritual and ethical framework. For example, in the study of scientific medicine in early Muslim history, the inclusion of the Prophetic medicine literature as introductory materials in the medical curriculum helped provide it with its spiritual and ethical framework. Moreover, the conception of the human body in both traditions of medicine is essentially one and the same that admits a spiritual dimension.

As conceived in Islam the core function of religion in the construction of a social order is epistemic and ethical. The epistemic role of religion is to guide human beings in their knowledge and intellectual activities. By virtue of their societal importance, science and technology have featured prominently in the historical manifestation of Islam’s epistemic role. Muslim epistemologists see the Qurʾān as the most fundamental source of Islamic epistemology, especially pertaining to the core principles of all the sciences. The idea of divine revelation in the form of a book that claims for itself a status as a perfect repository of sound and useful knowledge is thus central to Islamic epistemology.

The ethical role of religion is to provide practical guidelines for moral-ethical conduct in all sectors of human life, both at individual and societal levels. The part of religion that serves as the main source of these moral-ethical guidelines is its sacred law (Shariʿah), which is regarded as the most fundamental and the most potent organizing and governing principle of human society. Shariʿah is mainly concerned with the proper relationships that should exist among human beings and between human beings and their natural environments. Technology constitutes an important element in this web of relationships that is capable of influencing the quality of human life. In view of its comprehensive and pervasive societal role Shariʿah is called upon to organize and regulate the pursuit of science and technology as well.

As science and technology developed in Islam into well-defined intellectual and cultural activities they acquired definitive roles and functions in relation to religion. This Muslim-created science, justifiably referred to by some contemporary scholars as Islamic science, accumulated a wealth of knowledge of the natural world and the larger cosmos that influenced and enlightened the understanding of religion itself.

The fundamental doctrines of the creed, popularly known as the six articles of faith, are all understood as being knowledge-based and knowledge-laden, although the important role of faith in their acceptance is also recognized. These doctrines may be stated as belief in the Divine Reality as revealed by the countless Divine Names and Qualities; belief in the angelic world inhabited by creatures of non-physical light; belief in divine revelations in the form of sacred books and in divinely inspired human messengers sent in both cases to all branches of humanity; belief in the end of the present cosmic order and in the Resurrection and afterlife; and belief in the divine determination and measure of all things. According to the Islamic tradition, each of these doctrines is best understood when it is elucidated in terms of scientific knowledge of both natural and human worlds and when it is affirmed by means of rational-intellectual (ʿaqlī) arguments. For this reason, for Islam’s theological schools, scientific knowledge became integrated into the theological deliberations.

The same kind of synergy could be observed in the relationship between religion and technology. Religion, or more specifically Shariʿah, has shaped technology in the Islamic context by defining priorities and orientating its development. Shariʿah provides the ethical-legal framework and context for the pursuit of technological development in Muslim societies. Shariʿah's function with respect to technological activity is not merely regulative but also creative in the sense that its moral and ethical-legal injunctions on a wide range of societal issues have the potential to generate technological innovations and development as exemplified by numerous cases in classical Islamic technology.

The observance of many injunctions of Shariʿah is known to have a scientific dimension. For example, astronomical knowledge is needed in the determination of the specific times of the day for the observance of the five daily canonical prayers, since each prayer is dictated by a particular alignment in the relative positions of the Earth and the sun. In addition, the accurate determination of the prayer direction (qiblah) facing Mecca from different points of the globe requires geographical knowledge. Similarly, fasting in the month of Ramadan and pilgrimage to Mecca during specific days of the Muslim lunar year require the help of astronomy. The daily fast during Ramadan is to last from dawn to dusk, the precise times of which are again to be determined on the basis of the sun’s specific position relative to the Earth. The seasonal pilgrimage journey to Mecca from various continents raised practical issues, the scientific and technological responses to which helped enhance Muslim geography and modes and quality of transportation.

Islam’s inheritance laws (farāʾiḍ) and wealth tax (zakāh) are based on precise mathematical ratios as required by Shariʿah. Ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (780–850), the father of modern algebra, claimed that it was his attempt to find mathematical formulae that would help facilitate distribution of inherited wealth that led him to the discovery and foundation of this new mathematical science. Since Shariʿah insists, in principle, on preciseness and exactness in the observance of these religious obligations it would only be a matter of time before science and technology emerged as an important determining factor. The history of Islamic civilization shows that scientific and technological tools used in the service of Sharīʿah underwent a progressive development over the centuries, as best exemplified by the progressive refinement of the astrolabe, an astronomical tool for timekeeping purposes, and navigational compasses.

With the rise of scientific institutions in Islam beginning in the ninth century, the astronomical observatory and the hospital (bimaristan) being the most prominent, synergistic relations ran deeper between science and technology and Shariʿah, and technological activities helped raise new issues for scholars of jurisprudence (fiqh) and of principles of jurisprudence (uṣūl al-fiqh), as well as for the philosopher-scientists. The observatory enhanced the contribution of science and technology in the fulfilment of Shariʿah observance as may be seen in the use of mathematical calculations for determining the beginning and the end of Ramadan as contrasted with the tradition-based jurisprudential method of physical sighting (ruʾyah) of the new moon. As for the hospital, it enhanced scientific medicine as an alternative to Prophetic medicine while advancing its professional ethics. Consequently, there arose in Muslim astronomy and medicine a lasting contention between the scientific and the jurisprudential perspectives that extends to the present day, with each claiming to be more Shariʿah-compliant than the other.

Classical Islam treated bioethical issues mainly in two different branches of knowledge: medical jurisprudence (fiqh al-ṭibb) and scientific medicine (ʿilm al-ṭibb). Medical ethics (adab al-ṭabīb) was an important branch of practical medicine. The historical roots of Muslim practical concern with bioethical issues may be identified with the Prophet Muḥammad’s own lifetime. Bioethics as a theoretical concern in Islam, however, did not manifest itself until the ninth century after an intellectual tradition had developed that crystallized into different schools of thought. Even then, bioethics did not develop in Islam into an independent science as was to happen later in the modern West.

Epistemological and Ethical Developments: An Overview

In the first two centuries of its development Islamic societal life became crystallized into distinct cultural components. Agriculture and medicine, which some traditional Muslim epistemologists of a later era referred to as practical sciences, and which featured prominently in the early Muslim classifications of the sciences, may be regarded as the most visible and the most important of these cultural components. These two fields appear to have developed much earlier than the rest and may be regarded as the first branches of human knowledge to manifest the synergy between religion and science that is characteristic of Islam. Historically, Islamic bioethics is rooted in agriculture and medicine, which are both mentioned and praised in the Qurʾān and the Prophetic ḥadīth. It is epistemologically appropriate to refer to ethical issues arising from activities in agriculture and medicine as belonging to bioethics, since the two practical sciences were treated as branches of biology. Moreover, there was a close nexus between agriculture and medicine from early Muslim history, primarily through the applications of botany to dietotherapy and pharmacotherapy, elements of which are to be found in the Prophetic medicine itself. But the earliest textual evidence of these aspects of practical medicine only dates back to the beginning of the third Islamic century, as provided by ʿAlī ibn Rabban al-Ṭabarī’s work, Firdaws al-ḥikmah (Paradise of Wisdom).

Between agriculture and medicine, the latter seemed to be of greater significance to the origin and development of Islamic bioethics. One good reason for this would be the special religious and social status accorded to medicine in the Muslim community. Undoubtedly, Prophetic medicine (al-ṭibb al-nabawī), a systematized body of the Prophet Muḥammad’s teachings on medicine, hygiene, and health, played a great role in fortifying this view. Another good reason is the connection to the pre-Islamic scientific medical tradition. From the era of the Prophet until modern times, two medical traditions have existed side by side in Islam while significantly influencing each other. One is Prophetic medicine, the other scientific medicine. The former is based on the Prophet’s tradition (Sunnah) and the latter mainly on the Greek and Persian medical traditions that Islam has inherited and developed. The latter may be described as philosophical or intellectual-rational in nature. The noted Muslim philosopher al-Fārābī (870–950), who was reported to have practiced medicine described it as one of the philosophical sciences. Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī (1236–1311), himself a notable physician, treated medicine as a ḥikmah or philosophy-based applied science.

Scientific medicine in Islam owed its origin to the pre-Islamic Greek and Persian medical legacies. The first Muslim medical doctor in the philosophical-scientific tradition in the history of Islam, al-Ḥārith ibn Kaladah (d. c.634), a graduate from the School of Medicine in Jundishapur, Persia was a companion of the Prophet. The Prophet readily approved of this medicine. Ibn Kaladah was fondly referred to as “the Physician of the Community.” His son al-Nadr later also became a medical doctor. Ibn Kaladah’s connection with the Persian-Greek scientific medical tradition pushed back the date of the first Muslim encounter with this pre-Islamic tradition to the time of the Prophet. A popularly held view among modern scholars of the history of Islamic science is that the date in question is most likely at the turn of the eighth century.

From the perspective of Shariʿah, the Prophet’s favorable acceptance of scientific medicine served as an important precedent for the Muslim community in its positive view of this type of medicine. Later Muslim jurists accorded it with the status of farḍ kifāyah, meaning knowledge that is obligatory for the community to pursue and possess. However, throughout Islamic history until more recently in modern times, Prophetic medicine remains far more popular within the general Muslim community than scientific medicine. The influence of Prophetic medicine in society was so great that it significantly shaped the development of scientific medicine in Islam. Ibn Sīnā (980–1038), Islam’s most famous physician, undertook the task of integrating Prophetic medicine into his scientific medical curriculum that gained wide acceptance not only in Islam but also in medieval and modern Europe. Thus, Prophetic medicine was a major factor in influencing and enhancing the affinity between religion and scientific medicine in Islam (see Bakar, 1999).

In both Prophetic and scientific medicines, which include matters of hygiene and health, we find practical issues of ethical concern and of the need for an ethical code of conduct in early Islam. The various edited works on Prophetic medicine compiled by religious scholars of the later period of Islamic history clearly show that the Prophet dealt with a good range of what one would now consider bioethical issues, including those pertaining to health care, embryological development, dietary preferences, therapeutics, and treatment of the sick and the dying. Since the Prophetic tradition (Sunnah) is next in importance to the Qurʾān as a source of Shariʿah, these bioethical issues became important guiding precedents for the post-Prophetic scholars of Islamic law (fuqahāʾ).

The apparent complexity of modern bioethical issues arises from the fact that technological advancement usually brings with it more possibilities and also implications, both good and bad. However, what matters most is the significance of the new sociocultural or technological context when viewed within a broader ethical framework, which in the case of Islam is provided by Shariʿah, more particularly by its foundational elements known as the higher purposes of the law (maqāṣid al-Shariʿah). This is the challenge before the scholars of Islamic law in any age, which is essentially an epistemological one.

The modern issue of ethical-legal permissibility of artificial insemination is a good case in point. Within the global Muslim ummah, this issue, which originated in the West, created a stir with people pondering its implications for Islamic ethics. It was soon put to rest when a religious ruling (fatwa) was issued in March 1980 by the Grand Sheikh of the famed Sunni seat of religious learning Al-Azhar University in Cairo that would leave intact the sanctity of traditional marriage between males and females and the protection of proper lineage, which Muslims regard as its immediate higher purpose. The ruling in question was that artificial insemination is permissible in Islamic law provided that the male semen inserted into the female womb for the purpose of pregnancy is that of the legal husband. The Shīʿī ruling issued in the late 1990s by Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khomeini, Iran’s present Supreme Leader, is slightly more liberal in that it allows under certain conditions for third-party gamete donation. In either case, the wisdom of the fatwa seems quite obvious when the issue is judged in the light of the teachings of Shariʿah as a whole. Had the technological innovation in question been freely used without any qualification and constraints it would have caused moral and ethical havoc in the Muslim communities. This is because the integrity and the unity of Shariʿah, itself a doctrinal consequence of Islam’s Principle of Unity (al-tawḥīd) would mean that undermining any integral aspect of the law would have repercussions on the rest of Shariʿah to the point of even undermining the very structure of Islamic society. Islamic laws of inheritance would be the first to be affected by challenges to the traditional marriage institution and idea of proper lineage.

As for scientific medicine, in early Islam there was continuity of pre-Islamic biomedical ethics, but thanks to the influence of Prophetic medicine and due to other factors, this medicine charted its own path of development, which was readily integrated into the more universal perspectives of Islam. The early post-Prophetic scientific medicine was mostly practiced by Jewish and Christian physicians who had left Jundishapur for Baghdad, then the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, but they subscribed to the same universal medical ethics as observed in Islam.

The earliest known specialized work on Islamic medical ethics is Adab al-Ṭabīb (The Ethics of the Physician) of Isḥāq ibn ʿAli al-Ruhāwī who flourished in the late second half of the ninth century. However, ideas and questions on medical ethics appear in earlier, more general writings as well such as in the works of ʿAlī ibn Rabban al-Ṭabarī (fl. 830–850) and Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī (854–925), including his work on spiritual medicine (al-ṭibb al-rūḥānī) made famous in modern times through its English translation by Arthur J. Arberry, The Spiritual Physick of Rhazes. It could be said that medical ethics in Islam could be as old as its first medical practices given the exceptionally ethical nature of the medical profession. Moreover, the first Islamic hospital (bimaristan) was built in the early eighth century during the reign of the Umayyad caliph al-Walīd ibn ʿAbd al-Malik (r. 705–715) and a more modernized hospital during the rule of the Abbasid caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd (r. 786–809). The development of these institutions coincided with a more comprehensive observance of biomedical ethics. The various biomedical issues discussed in the medical writings of Islam’s first three centuries are yet to be fully studied.

While scientific medicine is primarily concerned with professional ethics, Prophetic medicine provides general ethical guidelines for the public in matters of health and disease. Prophetic medicine also serves a kind of epistemological function in that it provides a wealth of information on the Prophetic precedents in the treatment of the bioethical issues of the day. On the basis of the Qurʾān and Prophetic precedents, and through the use of sound methodological principles, new post-Prophetic precedents are created that play an important epistemological role in the development of Shariʿah-based sciences, particularly the science of principles of jurisprudence (ʿilm uṣūl al-fiqh).

The Two Knowledge Traditions: Implications for Islamic Bioethics

Ibn Khaldūn (1332–1406), the noted philosopher-historian, observed in his celebrated work, The Muqaddima that the Islamic intellectual tradition has solidified into two main scholarly streams a few centuries before his lifetime. One is Shariʿah-based, which has been popularly known by the term “transmitted” (naqlī) tradition. The other is philosophy or reason-based termed the philosophical-rational (ʿaqlī) tradition. In a sense, these two traditions are rooted in the ethical-legal and the intellectual functions discussed earlier. It is from this duality that an Islamic ethical tradition has developed. This ethical tradition can be said to have two main branches, the jurisprudential and the philosophical. Its implication for the theory and practice of Islamic bioethics is quite clear. Bioethics is a composite science that derived from the philosophical-scientific tradition and ethics, both jurisprudential and philosophical. In the treatment of bioethical issues in Islam it is thus wise to consult both jurisprudential and philosophical ethics for answers.

From the Islamic perspective, human traditions are either ultimately rooted in divine revelation or they are of human origin devoid of any causal link with the divine order. The continuity between revealed and human traditions, as Islam would assert, is possible only in the first type of human tradition. From this perspective of continuity between the two traditions, it is argued that even if the Qurʾān and the Prophetic ḥadīth are silent on many of the ethical-legal issues, it would still be possible to establish epistemological or conceptual links between them. This possibility explains Muslims’ success in developing the principles of jurisprudence (uṣūl al-fiqh) in the early post-Prophetic period that enabled them to establish secondary sources of Islamic law such as consensus (ijmāʿ) and analogical reasoning (qiyās).

Establishing and maintaining epistemological links between primary and secondary sources of Shariʿah, or between Prophetic and post-Prophetic legal-ethical precedents, was an important intellectual undertaking in the development of the Islamic ethical-legal tradition in general and its bioethical branch in particular. So long as these links were preserved, a balance in the relationship seemed to be well in place. However, the moment the links became blurred, as has arguably happened in modern times, the dynamism was soon lost. The same links have helped ensure the integrity of the Islamic ethical-legal tradition as a whole despite its pluralistic character. Islamic bioethical tradition itself was constituted of a number of schools of thought with their respective perspectives on bioethics.

In the classical Islamic period, a theoretical and practical concern with issues of importance would result, more often than not, in the creation of a new branch of knowledge. Such was the case with bioethical issues. The knowledge structure common to all the sciences has four fundamental parts, namely its objects of study, its multilayered foundation, its methodology, and its goals. Specifying the substance of each part for Islamic bioethics remains as an important intellectual undertaking for Muslim philosophers of law and ethics and of science, today as it was in the past, if not more so.

The Need for a New Science of Bioethics

The foregoing discussion shows that there are some outstanding issues concerning Islamic bioethics that need to be addressed. First, a more comprehensive and coherent historical account of bioethics in Islamic civilization is needed. Second, the Islamic philosophy of bioethics, especially its epistemological dimension, is yet to be well developed and systematically formulated. The core of this philosophy is the four-element epistemological structure of bioethics viewed as a scientific discipline, or ʿilm (plural: ʿulūm), as understood in traditional Islamic scholarship. The four elements refer to its subject matter, foundational assumptions, methods of study, and goals. These elements are by no means easily identifiable given the composite nature of the discipline. The two bioethical traditions existing side by side in Islam would only complicate the epistemic task at hand. However, the quest for a contemporary Islamic bioethics cannot be fully realized unless this epistemic task is successfully addressed. Recent developments in several Muslim-majority countries, including Malaysia, Turkey, Kuwait, and Iran show that there are increasing cross-disciplinary initiatives taking place aimed at articulating Islamic responses to contemporary bioethical issues. In particular, the collaborative efforts undertaken by jurists and biomedical scientists in the area of epistemology and professional ethics could prove significant for the future development of Islamic bioethics as a whole.


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