The realms of knowledge and science necessary to understand Islam, are not only traditional and historic knowledge. In my view, philosophy, law, linguistics and natural science are perhaps more important. History and tradition are the background to the rise of Islam; philosophy, law, linguistics and natural science, deal with the content of the message itself. First three aspects are more important than the latter, natural science, to everyday worhip. But, in the modern era, scientific findings on natural phenomena have been successfully used to prove the truthfulness of Islam. The message of Islam covers many fields. For a better understanding, it's helpful, to have at least some knowledge of philosophy, law, linguistics, and science.
The very first Greek philosophers
Greece was an early starter in scientific development. Thales, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are leading names. Natural science was approached through the perspective of philosophy and its deductive methods. However, Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) introduced induction in the sense of observation of visible reality. Experimentation played no role yet; also Aristotle’s approach remained within the boundaries of philosophy. Thales (624 – 546 BC) was perhaps the first and founding Greek philosopher. He was interested in water and could predict sun eclipses by calculation. In his view, water was the most elementary principle of the universe and everything originates from water. Thales was famous for his arithmetic skills. According to Greek tradition, he had visited Egypt and re-taught the Egyptians to calculate the height of their pyramids by the size of their shadows. Other big names are Anaximandros (585 – 525 BC) who thought of the indefinite (apeiron), the one elementary substance out of which everything has come forth, without beginning, end or time and producing hot and cold, dry, humid and any other polarity or contradistinction; and Demokritos (app. 460 – 380/370 BC). Demokritos who was the first to think of a theory on atomic particles in which a fabric’s structure was determined by differences in ranking, shape and size of these atoms. His theory is named Atomism: The theory that says, that all materials are made of innumerable indivisable particles: a-tomos (‘indivisable’). Indian Buddhists have largely contributed to Atomism. They thought, that atoms flash into and out of existence; teachings that seem to be confirmed in western science (Heisenberg’s probability principle). An important axiom in atomism is metaphysical nihilism: If only atoms exist, discriminate objects don’t really exist, or they are not vital. Everything is one coherent set of particles. Therefore, objects themselves don't interact with us; we only observe their effects on us. We perceive honey as sweet, but sweetness itself, doesn't exis, and our senses aren't reliable enough to genuinely and objectively observe sweetness. Democritus said: 'By convention sweet, by convention bitter, by convention hot, by convention cold, by convention color: in reality atoms and the void.'
Atomism, has a natural and a philosophical dimension. In those days, like in the Prophet’s era, the philosophical aspect was the focus of interest. Topics that may be of interest to science were part of religious considerations. But, experiments in the realm of natural science were not yet practised. Cosmology was perhaps the most important focus of interest during the Antiquity. Trying to explain the mechanism of the cosmos was to be done through reason mainly. However, observation also played a big role to some thinkers. Observation of celestial bodies had led to outstanding knowledge on astronomy in several parts of the known world, and this knowledge had become a solid fundament to many religious practices.
These first Greek philosophers defined many of our present notions on being and motion. The Elea-School, Eleatism, developed the idea of reality as 'being in space': nothing cannot be; any substance or idea exists in feasible, tangible space. Its main representant was Parmenides (540 or 515 BC – ca 450 BC?); his main axiom was ‘For never shall this prevail, that things that are not, are’, meaning that the opposite between being and non-being is non-existent. There is no nothingness and everything exists in the spatial sphere, even ideas originate from tangible substance. Even thinking is part of being and Parmenides said ‘thinking and being are one and the same’. Another school of thought was the theory that ‘everything streams and nothing lasts’, ‘panta rhei kai ouden menei’. The Eleatists believed in a permanent static being, Heraclitus believed more or less the opposite; he believed in perpetual change and movement. ‘The world is the same for everyone, it was not created by men or gods, it is and will be an everlasting fire, flaming up or damping down. Heraclitus saw fire as the basic element, Parmenides water, Anaximenes air and Xenophanes earth and water.
A third important school of philosophy was Sophism. The sophists were the first professional philosophers; they made philosophy a paid teaching job, trying to teach others the art of argumentation and discussion. Every person has his own opinions, no one can decide which opinion is true, there are no absolute fundamentals in the universe that can be found or discovered, and the effort to do so, is basically waste of time. Knowledge comes to us through observation, and worldly success and satifaction are the best achievement human beings may reach -- not truth.
A famous fourth school of thought, inspiration to philosophers as Parmenides, Empedocles, Philolaus and Plato, was Pythagorism. Pythagoras was a mystic thinker and a mathematician, but left no writings. Pythagoras and his companions were a small and close knit community with their own way of life, which even fell victim to persecution. Their theory was, says Aristoteles, ‘that numbers constitute the true nature of things and numbers have borders, the same way as objects have. Emptiness is the border between things or numbers. Emptiness exists and pervades heaven from an indefinite breath – it breathes, as it were, into the emptiness. Emptiness differentiates the nature of things; it differentiates and distinguishes successive names and terminology in a series. This, firstly, happens for numbers, as emptiness distinguishes their nature’. Emptiness, ‘apeiron‘, is indefinite and perpetual and inspires reality: The definite and finite, ‘peiron‘, the cosmos, its nature and distinguishes it from other definites and finites, other objects, forms, ‘things’. This inspiration of apeiron into peiron, makes the world a mathematical place. Purely in a mathematical way, the continuum of numbers and the domain of reality, the cosmos, are a play of form and emptiness and its rules are, that it must happen in a harmonious fashion. This harmony-principle distinguishes Pythagorism from the older theory by Anaximandros and the Elea School. Pythagoras has also, in the same line of thinking, commented on sound and tone height. Pythagoras is famous for his calculation method of triangle line lengths, the Pythagoras axiom, which some say was derived from ancient Egyptian calculations used for the construction of their pyramids, but no proof of such do we have. Others say, he may have derive his theorem on right-angled triangles, a2+b2=c2, from the Indian mathematician Baudhayana (800 BC). One of Pythagoras’ students, Alcmaeon, a philosopher and medical thinker, said that ‘we don’t think with our blood, the air or fire -- it is our brain that enables us to think, smell and see. From there, we form our thinking and opinion, and then our knowledge. As long as the brain isn’t damaged, man has his senses and herewith, I confirm that it is our brain that makes the mind speak’.
Even the evolution theory had its predecessor in ancient Greece: Empedocles (ca 492 BC – ca 432 BC). Empedocles was, among others, a doctor, poet, teacher in philosophy, and statesman, born in Sicily. He held the strong belief, that everything has emerged from the four elements earth, air, water and fire, through the two opposing elemental powers he called love and hatred, in a random perpetual flow of mixture and seperation, like mixing colors of paint. Love is the building power and hatred the destructive power. Only the strongest combinations could survive. Empedocles also believed, like Parmenides, that the cosmos is eternal; has always been present, and that no material goes missing. Empedocles called God ‘a circle the middle of which is everywhere and its periphery nowhere’. Aristotle later adopted most of Empedocles’ theory.
Sources and Suggestions for Further Reading:
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://www.iep.utm.edu