Islam: a Pythagorean understanding and display of the concept of God
By Berkan Can Ates
Pythagoras has been one of the most celebrated mathematicians and philosophers of all time, with his name having become a household one along with the 3 founding fathers of Western Philosophy, namely, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
Pythagoras’ mathematical career unarguably had a great impact on his definition and understanding of the concept of divinity. Other than his odd hatred and obsession with beans, Pythagoras was amazed by numbers, specifically, rational and integer ones. During the 60 years he spent as a mathematician, Pythagoras was influenced by the veridical permanence of his discoveries and, by taking a very logical positivist stand, came to see mathematics as the ultimate definition of beauty and order. Furthermore, he enhanced on this aesthetic view and inferred mathematics was the fundamental source of reality and divinity by famously saying: “Number is the ruler of forms and ideas and the cause of gods and demons.” To put in plainer terms, Pythagoras thought numbers are somewhat idolised forms of the supreme power that governs as numbers are representations of the universal order. What initially comes off as a design theory argument, actually turns out to be Mathematical Pantheism, the notion that mathematical concepts compose of an all-encompassing God.
To tell you how strong Pythagoras was in his Mathematical Pantheistic view of God, I shall perhaps refer to a myth concerning a little feud between Pythagoras and one of his brightest students, Hippasus, about irrational numbers.
Firstly for those of you who may not have come across irrational numbers, an irrational number is any number that cannot be written in a simplified fraction such as , where and are any integers, and to make things worse for mathematicians, when written in decimal form, they go on forever without ever repeating themselves. The most well-known irrational number is (pronounced Pi), which is obtained by dividing the circumference of a circle by its diameter. As you could tell, irrational numbers are handful for mathematicians because of their unpredictable nature and Pythagoras was no exception.
Legend tells one of the brightest members of Pythagoras’ student circle, the Pythagoreans, whose name was Hippasus, discovered that √2 could not be expressed a fraction, thereby it is an irrational number, hence irrational numbers must exist.
Pythagoras thought that irrational numbers’ existence disproved his own Maths-God union. This was because, as I have explained above, irrational numbers do not have a pattern and they are chaotic, and surely God would be the opposite of chaos, or so did Pythagoras thought. Imitated by the idea of living in a Godless, or even worse, a universe run by a chaotic God, Pythagoras bluntly refused Hippasus claim. Hippasus, dissatisfied by his teacher’s attitude, tried to reveal his findings on his own, however was drowned in the sea by Pythagoras.
This is a myth, nonetheless the idea that irrational numbers’ existence poses a threat to beauty and unity of Mathematics is absurd.
Best way to counter Pythagoras’ absurd claims would be to observe an irrational number. Given I have already talked about , let’s stick to it. is irrational and goes on forever, this seems rather irritating. However, contains EVERY possible number sequence. So your date of birth, your passport number, your health insurance, and many more are somewhere in , even written in the respective order. Taking this to a step further, if we were to assign a number for each letter of the English alphabet, all pieces of English literature ever written again can be found in . In a way, contains every information that exists in the universe, so in fact is the opposite of chaotic, it is a unique number which unifies everything that existed, exists, and will exist.
Even irregular numbers are unified, and this shows what Pythagoras thought only held true for integers; Mathematics is perfect.
Now that we have established what it means to be a theological Pythagorean, we may now focus on the parallels it has with the world’s second largest religion, Islam.
Firstly, it is useful to know Muslims see their God as being the universal perfection itself, a perfection that is visible in mathematics.
This idea comes directly from the holy Quran itself. Muslims think the emphasis Quran puts on knowledge is a way God showing himself to his people via knowledge. According to the Quran, God orders people to pursue wisdom. In fact, the first Ayah, the first message God gave to Muslims via Muhammad, is Iqra, which translates to read. Although there are varying degrees of interpretations of this Ayah, Sunnism, mainstream branch of Islam, accepts it as such. To add to this, one thing that sets Mathematics apart from other sciences is that Mathematics is a mind-independent concept-it is not subjective. A right-angled triangle’s sum of opposite and adjacent sides squared equalling to the square of its hypotenuse is objective and it cannot be changed per wish. To relate this idea of permanence, Muslims see Quran as being unchanging, fixed as God’s words can’t be changed. Hence arises the idea that Mathematics is reflective of God’s words: equally unified, equally permanent.
This might explain the scientific, mathematical and philosophical advancement of the Islamic World made from roughly 800 A.D. to 1250, an era known as the Golden Age of Islam. Inspired by the coherence Mathematics has with God, one of the founders of early chemistry and other life sciences, Muslim polymath Avicenna, figured he could prove the existence of God through logic and his argument came to be known as the Proof of the Thoughtful, one of the most influential medieval arguments for God’s existence according to contemporary philosopher Peter Adamson. Avicenna’s proof is an example of the widely held Muslim view that God is a logical and valid notion and is visible through the uniformity in universe, more specifically in mathematics.
Another way in which Pythagorean Theology is similar to Islam is that the latter uses geometric shapes to express the perfection of God and its creations, and this derives from the same idea that Mathematics’ reflects the permanence and beauty that God has.
With the development of the Islamic world and spread of the religion, particularly during the Islamic Golden Age, many Islamic artists and architects were tasked responsible for teaching Islam and its God’s beauty through arts so many artists, because it is forbidden to visualise any holy figure, including God. So they turned to the most orderly and uniform concept that still exists to this day: Mathematics.
Usage of geometric shapes such as triangles and circles can be observed in greatest pieces of medieval Islamic art across the globe. Famous examples that come to mind are the triangular and circular arches in Alhambra Palace in Al-Andalus (Granada, Spain), the tiles of the Ben Youssef Madrasa (an Islamic school) in Morocco, to the finest of Ottoman architecture, the Selimiye Mosque or even at a local mosque where inscriptions such as the Seal of Solomon, a hexagram, are often visible.
Islam is world’s second largest religion with 1.8 billion adherents around the globe. This opinion piece will surely not be reflective of thoughts of many theologists and philosophers from different sects. Nonetheless through specific verses from the Quran and anecdotes from Islam’s 1400 years old history, it is undeniable a Mathematically perfectionist view of God exists in Islam, one that also forms the origin of Pythagorean Theology.
1) “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
- Albert Einstein
2) “Number is the ruler of forms and ideas and the cause of gods and demons.”