Ibrahim, the first universal philosopher and scientist
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Philosophy, dating back to 30th century BC, has shaped our modern life. Curiosity and striving for a sense of purpose, two things innate in human nature, has ensured that each human civilization developed or borrowed a set of acceptable “answers” for its existence, which ultimately shaped its moral codes and laws. Historians date back the history of philosophy to the Bronze age (~3,000 BC) where Babylonians, and Mesopotamians in general, invented the first writing system, developed laws and governing structures, and established cultural value for literacy. In Europe, the history of philosophy is traced back to the classical age of Greek philosophy beginning in the 7th century BC.
Given the ample books and literature on the classical age of philosophy and the lack of detailed archaeological documentation of Mesopotamian’s philosophy, philosophy is generally studied with the Greeks as a starting point and progressing into medieval and modern ages. That progression is often used to originate modern thinking and scientific development in logical reasoning. However, a closer examination reveals that Mesopotamian philosophy had greater impact on shaping modern life, especially in since Ibrahim, known as Abraham, peace be upon him, established himself as the first universal philosopher known to mankind. His observations, method of reasoning, and established way of conduct has much more to do with who we are as humans than Greek philosophy.
Predating Greek philosophy, Ibrahim was able to gather the three branches of philosophy (rationalism or logic, empiricism or observation, and faith or religion) into one paradigm. Absent archaeological documentation of the Ibrahimic method, a clear picture emerges of details of his methodology from the Quran, a text that has maintained its originality for over 14 centuries, which also runs parallels in the Old Testament and the Torah.
Ibrahim’s journey, as documented in the Quran, starts by challenging the idea of multiple deities that had been accepted by Mesopotamians at that time. His objection was mainly focused on its lack of consistency. He demonstrated this by considering the biggest and brightest objects known to people at that time, the sun, the moon, and stars:
فَلَمَّا جَنَّ عَلَيْهِ اللَّيْلُ رَأَىٰ كَوْكَبًا ۖ قَالَ هَٰذَا رَبِّي ۖ فَلَمَّا أَفَلَ قَالَ لَا أُحِبُّ الْآفِلِينَ فَلَمَّا رَأَى الْقَمَرَ بَازِغًا قَالَ هَٰذَا رَبِّي ۖ فَلَمَّا أَفَلَ قَالَ لَئِن لَّمْ يَهْدِنِي رَبِّي لَأَكُونَنَّ مِنَ الْقَوْمِ الضَّالِّينَ فَلَمَّا رَأَى الشَّمْسَ بَازِغَةً قَالَ هَٰذَا رَبِّي هَٰذَا أَكْبَرُ ۖ فَلَمَّا أَفَلَتْ قَالَ يَا قَوْمِ إِنِّي بَرِيءٌ مِّمَّا تُشْرِكُونَ إِنِّي وَجَّهْتُ وَجْهِيَ لِلَّذِي فَطَرَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ حَنِيفًا ۖ وَمَا أَنَا مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ
So when the night covered him with darkness, he saw a star. He said, “This is my lord.” But when it set, he said, “I like not those that disappear.” And when he saw the moon rising, he said, “This is my lord.” But when it set, he said, “Unless my Lord guides me, I will surely be among the people gone astray.” And when he saw the sun rising, he said, “This is my lord, for this is greater.” But when it set, he said, “O my people, I am free from what you associate with Allah. Indeed, I have turned my face toward He who created the heavens and the earth, inclining toward truth, and I am not of those who associate others with Allah.”
Surat Al-An’am 6:76-79
Ibrahim observed that the biggest objects in space are intertwined in their motion with other objects. They appear and disappear as related to other objects in space. This observation indicates that no single object is functioning independently, as everything is related together by a process that is bigger than them. His observation did not go unchallenged by a culture that believed otherwise:
وَحَاجَّهُ قَوْمُهُ ۚ قَالَ أَتُحَاجُّونِّي فِي اللَّهِ وَقَدْ هَدَانِ ۚ وَلَا أَخَافُ مَا تُشْرِكُونَ بِهِ إِلَّا أَن يَشَاءَ رَبِّي شَيْئًا ۗ وَسِعَ رَبِّي كُلَّ شَيْءٍ عِلْمًا ۗ أَفَلَا تَتَذَكَّرُونَ وَكَيْفَ أَخَافُ مَا أَشْرَكْتُمْ وَلَا تَخَافُونَ أَنَّكُمْ أَشْرَكْتُم بِاللَّهِ مَا لَمْ يُنَزِّلْ بِهِ عَلَيْكُمْ سُلْطَانًا ۚ فَأَيُّ الْفَرِيقَيْنِ أَحَقُّ بِالْأَمْنِ ۖ إِن كُنتُمْ تَعْلَمُونَ
And his people argued with him. He said, “Do you argue with me concerning Allah while He has guided me? And I fear not what you associate with Him unless my Lord should will something. My Lord encompasses all things in knowledge, then will you not remember? And how should I fear what you associate while you do not fear that you have associated with Allah that for which He has not sent down any authority for you? So which of the two parties has more right to security, if you should know?
Surat Al-An’am 6:80-81
Ibrahim’s response was simple: if everything you worship is tied by a process that is bigger than itself, then you better explore that bigger thing. He argued that the idols his people worshiped could not bring benefit or harm to their worshipers, so there was no compelling reason to continue worshiping them. On the other hand, if there is one Creator and that Creator is consistent, than breaking from this consistency would bring drastic consequences.
Ibrahim’s most impacting legacy, however, is not his observation, but rather his conclusion through rational thinking. He articulated two terms that still hold true and have shaped the development of human civilization to this day.
First, he concluded that God can never be seen or measured. As everything which can be observed or measured is governed by a process through which it is measured, than the measured object itself. Since all observable and measurable phenomena are subordinate to a higher power that initiated them, the Creator behind all of these processes must be invisible. In other words, the Creator cannot be observed or measured because He is greater than any means used to measure Him. Therefore, everything that people worship which can be observed and measured is a false god, as it is subordinate to something bigger.
Second, he observed that God is consistent. As every star, object, or phenomena follows a consistent process, God is consistent because everything he has created is governed by such processes.
These two observations, especially the second, still guide all scientific advancements as all human beings implicitly believe that everything which is observed or measured follows a somewhat predictable law or process. This effort is a direct consequence of Ibrahim’s second conclusion and, in fact, opposes the Greek philosophy which is often considered the starting point in the history of philosophical development towards modern science.
Ibrahim’s exploration did not stop at observation and logic, as he then added a third law: if God is consistent and everything serves a function and follows processes that God created, then there must be a purpose for humanity. With this third law, Ibrahim managed to combine all three branches of philosophy (rationalisim, empiricism, and faith) into one unified theory. The story documented in the Quran states that thereafter Ibrahim called upon his God for help whom he concluded must exist:
قَالَ لَئِن لَّمْ يَهْدِنِي رَبِّي لَأَكُونَنَّ مِنَ الْقَوْمِ الضَّالِّينَ
Unless my Lord guides me, I will surely be among the people gone astray.
Surat Al-An’am 6:77
After this discovery that life has as a purpose, Ibrahim received the revelation of a set of principles that humanity should live by in order to fulfill this purpose for which God created them.
A pillar among these principles is that one should never doubt the existence of orderly natural laws, although our understanding of them must be continuously evaluated and refined. This value very much guides every modern scientific discovery. We humans always believe there is an underlying natural process that governs everything we can see or measure. If we fail to explain or uncover this process, we would doubt our approach or understanding but not that the process itself exists.
The parallels that Ibrahim’s philosophy has with modern science has it’s roots back to the founders of modern science in physics who predominantly believed in the existence of a process initiated by a higher power.
There is a parallel in Ibrahim’s philosophy with the founders of modern science, particularly the great minds of physics such as Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Bor, Einstein, and Plank, all of believed in a higher order that governs natural phenomena and the universe. This principle was articulated by Ibrahim as documented in the Quran:
وَإِذْ قَالَ إِبْرَاهِيمُ رَبِّ أَرِنِي كَيْفَ تُحْيِي الْمَوْتَىٰ ۖ قَالَ أَوَلَمْ تُؤْمِن ۖ قَالَ بَلَىٰ وَلَٰكِن لِّيَطْمَئِنَّ قَلْبِي ۖ قَالَ فَخُذْ أَرْبَعَةً مِّنَ الطَّيْرِ فَصُرْهُنَّ إِلَيْكَ ثُمَّ اجْعَلْ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ جَبَلٍ مِّنْهُنَّ جُزْءًا ثُمَّ ادْعُهُنَّ يَأْتِينَكَ سَعْيًا ۚ وَاعْلَمْ أَنَّ اللَّهَ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ
And mention when Ibrahim said, “My Lord, show me how You give life to the dead.” Allah said, “Have you not believed?” He said, “Yes, but I ask only that my heart may be satisfied.” Allah said, “Take four birds and commit them to yourself. Then after slaughtering them, put on each hill a portion of them and then call them. They will come flying to you in haste. And know that Allah is Almighty and Wise.”
Surat Al-Baqarah 2:260
In this verse, Ibrahim inquires about life and death by asking God for a demonstration. God is clarifying the distinction between believing in process that God initiated and doubting one’s understanding of that process. He asks Ibrahim if he believes and the answer is yes. Ibrahim confirms his belief in the process that God created although he doubts his understanding of it, hence asking for a demonstration. This belief is fundamental to any branch of science, that there is order in every process in nature and the scientist is on a mission to understand it.
However, Ibrahim’s request for a demonstration was prompted by a challenge from Nimrod, a ruler in Babylon, who claimed that he controls life and death as well. Nimrod demonstrated this by bringing two of his prisoners, killing one and setting the other free. He then claimed that he controls life and death like God. Ibrahim was a firm believer in the process that God initiated, yet he lacked an understanding of this process which left him without an answer in this encounter. God then gave him a demonstration by bringing life to birds after they have been slaughtered. Ibrahim understood from this that life is in the soul which is given to bodies and only God controls this phenomena. At that same time, God enabled a process through which humans can kill each other as a trial for this life, an answer to the Nimrod demonstration.
Ibrahim is not done yet, until now, for he observed that nothing observable or measurable can stand by itself, that everything of this nature follows a consistent pattern, that the one who initiated all processes (God) cannot be seen, and that God Himself is consistent. He then established that there must be a purpose for life in accordance with God’s consistency in His creation, after which he received the revelation. The revelation was a set of principles and values that God wants humans to live by:
قُلْ إِنَّنِي هَدَانِي رَبِّي إِلَىٰ صِرَاطٍ مُّسْتَقِيمٍ دِينًا قِيَمًا مِّلَّةَ إِبْرَاهِيمَ حَنِيفًا ۚ وَمَا كَانَ مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ
Say: Indeed, my Lord has guided me to a straight path, an upright religion (of sound principles and values), the way of Ibrahim inclining to truth. And he was not among those who associated others with Allah.
Surat Al-An’am 6:161
Nevertheless, there is still one missing piece: how can these principles and values be implemented? The manner in which a principle is implemented is as much important as the principle itself. Furthermore, principles and values which God wants to be implemented apparently seem to contradict each other.
For example, God loves both justice and forgiveness, yet emphasizing one value at certain times seems to oppose another. Here, Ibrahim also established his own method based upon understanding the Creator and the creation, and adopting a method of moderation and balance. Whereas Ibrahim knows of God’s reward and punishment for those who abide or violate his values, respectively, he also understood that God wants our conduct to be shaped by our humanity. This was clearly stated in the Quran:
وَمَا كَانَ اسْتِغْفَارُ إِبْرَاهِيمَ لِأَبِيهِ إِلَّا عَن مَّوْعِدَةٍ وَعَدَهَا إِيَّاهُ فَلَمَّا تَبَيَّنَ لَهُ أَنَّهُ عَدُوٌّ لِّلَّهِ تَبَرَّأَ مِنْهُ ۚ إِنَّ إِبْرَاهِيمَ لَأَوَّاهٌ حَلِيمٌ
The request of forgiveness of Ibrahim for his father was only because of a promise he had made to him. But when it became apparent to Ibrahim that his father was an enemy to Allah, he disassociated himself from him. Indeed, Ibrahim was compassionate and patient.
Surat At-Tawba 9:114
Ibrahim sought forgiveness for his father after he rejected faith in God. Although God did not accept this plea as God is just, Ibrahim was praised for his concern, compassion, and forbearance for his father as well as for humanity in general. Ibrahim had the same attitude when he attempted to plea with the angels sent to the town of Lot to give more time for them to change their behavior:
فَلَمَّا ذَهَبَ عَنْ إِبْرَاهِيمَ الرَّوْعُ وَجَاءَتْهُ الْبُشْرَىٰ يُجَادِلُنَا فِي قَوْمِ لُوطٍ
When the fright had left Ibrahim and the glad tidings had reached him, he began to plead with Us concerning the people of Lot.
Surat Hud 11:74
Our world views are often shaped by our own experiences and environments. A prevailing view in our time separates knowledge of the physical world, science, from the reason the world came into existence in the first place, religion. In contrast, the faith and philosophy of monotheism originated in Ibrahim’s observation of the unity in all aspects of nature and how this unity derives from one source, God. Greater understanding of the compatibility of faith and reason in this manner can lead to balance and harmony between individuals, communities, and the natural world.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.