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Science and Islam
Does Islam contradict science? Is science alone enough to answer the questions?
Most learned people regard science as a reliable way of obtaining knowledge about the world and life because science requires healthy questioning and testing of ideas. Yet many regard religion as faith without evidence and reasoning or as mere traditional practice. This is the opinion of many learned people, particularly those influenced by western culture. In this article, we –as Muslim scientists, will try to show that while the above assertion about science is partially true, the assertion about religion is short sided and unscholarly, especially when the religion of Islam is concerned. Without doubt, science is affecting human life in many respects but we should recall that science is a human activity restricted by human visions and imaginations, so it does not solve all unknowns, cure all diseases, or provide all needs; it is neither superior nor more important than Islamic knowledge in relation to understanding from where things come, to where they lead, and for what purpose they exist, as well as obtaining a happy meaningful life. We sometimes hear that a claim or a notion is not scientific; this does not mean that such notion/claim has no truth; rather it means that such Notion cannot be verified scientifically as discussed below. Thus, science can only access the events within its domain and the knowledge obtained by science is always limited and open to further investigation.
Clearly, there are many reasons for science to be so influential on our lives. Time to time we proudly tell how early Muslim scholars developed Islamic knowledge as well as science with very careful investigations. Many scientists like early Muslim scholars, whose Works indeed deserve much attention, have been applying very carefully crafted methods to acquire knowledge about the world so they attained so much success by Allah’s permission. Whereas scientific integrity is a must for any scientist, scientists as persons are not necessarily more truthful and careful than anybody else, and their conclusions about the truth are not free of their individual biases and shortcomings. Nevertheless, science and its well-established ethics are the shared construction and common legacy of human endeavor for quest of knowledge. However, scientific knowledge alone is only sufficient to arrive at conclusions about partial truth, but not the whole, pure truth.
2. Short Tour of Science Done by Muslim Scholarship: Importance of Using Tools
We should pay attention to Muslim contribution to science. As we will exemplify later, the early Muslim scholars were seriously encouraged by the Holy Quran and the beloved Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (ASV). Just a while after the Prophet’s death, the Muslims made many significant contributions to many scientific fields. Scholars like Ibn-i-Sina (Avicenna,980-1037 AD), Ibn-al-Haitham (Alhazen), and Al Biruni (973-1048 AD) made long lasting original contributions. Just one example suffices. Quoting one of the late Nobel laureate great physicist Abdus Salam1: Alhazen (965- 1039 AD) was one of the greatest physicists of all times. He made experimental contributions of the highest order in optics. He enunciated that a ray of light, in passing through a medium, takes the path which is the easier and quicker. By this he was anticipating Fermat’s Principle of Least Time by many centuries. He enunciated the law of inertia -later, and independently- to become part of Galileo’s and Newton’s laws of motion. Clearly these are only a few of paramount contributions that conventional history of science does not mention properly.
The wide spread claim is that Galileo was the first to use tools in modern science. Yet when we study Muslim scholars’ achievements, we notice that they not only theorized but also used tools to test their ideas unlike Greek scholars. Careful examination of the history will prove that modern scientific methods are well established by early Muslim scholars contrary to what dominant literature on the history of science has been teaching. For example, the works of Prof. Fuat Sezgin clearly exhibit this very fact to the world. Aside from physical sciences, many works of Muslim scholars of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), Quranic interpretation (tafsir), and Prophetic instruction (hadith and sunnah) analysis, and of the corresponding methodologies (usul) of these fields, exhibit strict and demanding procedures and principles that are very similar to those that constitute today’s scientific rules.
Prof. Fuat Sezgin of Goethe University has exposed Muslim’s and Islam’s contribution to science in his many works and established the Institute of Science in the Arab and Islamic History in Germany where he reconstructed tools and maps, mostly belonging to the Golden Age of Islamic science. I quote what he writes about Alhazan and Audouze2: “By putting his concepts to various tests, using the camera obscura and other tools, Alhazen also introduced the experimental method of proof, insisting that theories had to be verified in practice, a key element to modern science that was missing from the less empirical Greek tradition. ‘Arab science succeeded as much in pragmatic applications as it did in theoretical concepts, Audouze maintains. Islamic scholars distinguished themselves from their Greek predecessors, who were more inventive in ideas than in practical matters.”
The urge of Muslims to do science and use tools originates from the dynamics of Islamic religion. On this matter, Prof. Sezgin says2: “Skilled at determining the precise location of Mecca from anywhere in the Muslim empire, Islamic astronomers were unsurpassed in their calculations and predictions. Many mosques engaged a fulltime astronomer, called a muwakkit (timekeeper), to determine the hours of prayer and consult lunar calendars to fix the dates for Ramadan and other religious events.”
The scholars of Islam made wonderful contributions to not only science but also social sciences, jurisprudence, law, and Islamic arts with a motivation to answer people’s needs. Clearly for such a development, one needs great freedom in many respects, peaceful environment, high recognition, and support which all were provided by the society and the governments at that time. While Muslims have grown intellectually, they have as well grown in healthy conscience, intuition, and human faculties. This topic in itself deserves a broader treatment elsewhere.
3. Scientific Methods
Greek philosophers had difficulties accepting the regularities they observed in the world as acts of many gods who could act arbitrarily and independently. They tried to reason and explain the universe as somehow built by natural laws and rejected many gods (which in fact was an improvement in this sense), but they ended up with the assumption which today’s atheist philosophers as well purport that the universe is selfcontained, rejecting any supreme agency outside the universe. Since then, when scientists reason carefully and see that precise, persistent, and all pervading laws exist in nature, they debate questions like why these laws exist, where they come from, and how such laws turns into action (or how matter is subjugated to those laws).
In his work about nature3, Bediuzzaman discusses these ideas by many respects. Briefly, he tells a story about a wild man in a desert who runs into a palace and enters it. Because the man is preconceived by the idea that the palace can be explained solely in terms of what it contains and what it is made of, and that there can be none outside of the palace who has made the palace, he starts to examine the things in the palace as to whether they are capable of building and maintaining the palace. He finds nothing suitable to be the maker and maintainer of the palace except for a book of record of the palace wherein he reads sets of rules as to how the palace generally works and how things are generally arranged. He says: “Though this book has no power and intelligence, this is the most eligible one to make this palace!” So he says: “This book must have been responsible for all aspects of this palace.” Bediuzzaman says that the world is such a palace which is infinitely more intricate, complex, well-adjusted, and well ordered. The so-called nature is such a record book that contains the laws which are blind, powerless, and purposeless; and being just a written book nature cannot write all these intricate and pervading laws and cannot establish mercy and purpose to universal events.
Hence understanding the laws in nature is a very central issue in discussing science and religion, and clarifying what they each stand for and how they relate. How can we discover these laws or read the above mentioned recording book? To this end, a scientific method is developed over the years. For brevity, we will describe here only an outline of this method.
Scientific methods consist of principles and procedures for seeking and disseminating knowledge; it involves uncovering information through observation and experimenting, and hypothesizing. As famous physicist R. P. Feynman puts it4: “First you guess. Don’t laugh; this is the most important step. Then you compute the consequences. Compare the consequences to experience. If it disagrees with experience, the guess is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is or how smart you are or what your name is. If it disagrees with experience, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”
A scientific hypothesis or a theory pertaining to a physical process which makes predictions is an educated (i.e.; consistent with the previously verified laws) and mathematically well-founded (i.e.; allowing calculation of quantities) guess that is only valid until supported by experiments and used to develop technologies that work as expected at least under a range of controlled conditions where the theory is assumed to be valid. So we should always keep in mind that the element of educated guessing aspect is the basis of any scientific method.
A hypothesis that has been tested repeatedly against its predictions and has been verified by repeatable experiments gains a status of a ‘law’ or a principle. Theory is the syntheses of a broad range of information gathered from verified hypotheses. In her science and pseudoscience lecture notes, Prof. Sylvia Browne compares science and religion5, and writes: “Scientific theories are experimentally verifiable (or falsifiable) and predictive. They address how questions (e.g. How do stars form? When will the next lunar eclipse be?) Religious and ethical statements are (generally) not verifiable. They address why questions (e.g. Why does the Universe exist? What kind of life is worth living?). These are not intrinsically less worthwhile than scientific inquiries; they are simply addressing different questions.” This is general view of scientific community and we will tackle here the concept of falsifiability at the junction of religion being not verifiable. However, she admits that the questions that religion deals with are also worthwhile as much as scientific ones.
The concept of falsifiability has become part of the scientific method because for a thesis to be scientific there must be ways to prove it wrong if it is possibly wrong. Great theoretical physicist A. Einstein said: “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” Experiments are in fact done under controllable conditions isolated from other effects so it can prove only limited cases. From this limited results, scientists do extrapolations to generalize their hypothesis. Therefore, to actually prove a thesis, an exhaustive set of experiments have to be carried out but this needs a lot of time and effort. But if the hypothesis is falsifiable, you can prove it wrong with a single test if it is possibly wrong. But we should keep in mind that if a thesis is not falsifiable, it is called unscientific, but it does not mean that it has no truth or reality; it just means science cannot verify it.
Some of the information given by the Quran and Islam fulfills the falsifiability property of being scientifically testable. We are not saying that the Quran has to fulfill this measure but that it has this aspect as a fact. There are many examples one can give, and Bediuzzaman devoted several of his works on this subject. But we will give two examples by quoting Dr Gary Miller (Abdul- Ahad Omar) a Canadian mathematician and theologian who pointed out6: “Speaking of outsmarting the author of the Quran, the Islamic point of view is that when a man embraces Islam, his past is forgiven from the very beginning. This has been the invitation to Islam: come to Islam and all is forgiven from the past. But consider this. There is only one enemy of Muhammad, peace be upon him, who is mentioned by name in the Quran: one Abu Lahab. In a short chapter of this book, he is condemned to punishment for his sins. As it happens, the man himself was alive for many years after this revelation. He could therefore have finished Islam very easily. He needed only to go to the Muslims to announce his conversion. They had in their hands the revelation which said that this man is doomed to punishment. He could have gone to Muslims and say: ‘I accept Islam, am I forgiven or not?’ He could have confused them so much as to finish this small movement because he would have been pointing out to them that they were now in confusion. The policy was instant forgiveness of the past, but their own revealed scripture announced that he was not forgiven. As it was, Abu Lahab died without accepting Islam.”
Another one: the Qur’an has many challenges by calling the disbelievers to produce like the one of its verses and this challenge has not been met yet while its enemies are eager to finish it or while its friends wants to follow the Qur’an as much as they could try to imitate its style. Gary Miller continues: “Another interesting verse is a challenge which is addressed to those non-believers. It reads: ‘Have they not considered the Qur’an, if it came from, other than Allah, surely they will find in it many inconsistencies. (4:82)’ Here is a challenge to the reader. If you think you have an explanation where this book came from, have another look at the book. Surely you will be able to uncover some inconsistencies to support your case. Imagine a student submitting a term paper or a final exam and then writing at the bottom of the page a note to his teacher: ‘You will find no mistakes in this paper. There are no mistakes on this exam.’ Can you imagine the teacher letting that rest? The teacher would probably not sleep until uncovering some inconsistency after a challenge like that. It is not the way human beings speak. They do not offer challenges like that. But here we have it in the Qur’an, a direct challenge saying: ‘If you have a better idea as to where this book came from, here’s all you need to do. Find some inconsistencies.’”
We conclude this section reemphasizing that only some of the Islamic information are falsifiable, however, this does not mean that the rest have no reality or truth. Almost one eighth of the Qur’an repeatedly calls Muslims “to study nature, to reflect, to make the best use of reason in their search for the ultimate truth and to make the acquiring of knowledge and scientific comprehension part of the community’s life.” Muslim as well as non-Muslim scholars of different disciplines carefully and critically studied the entire Islamic information many times, and found no inconsistencies in it. If they did, the many scientific and political powers would have announced it all over the world media with fervor. Despite this, the whole books of Bediuzzaman, called Risale- i Noor (Treatises of Light), are devoted to such issues giving reasons after reasons as to why Qur’anic knowledge is so consist ent with itself as well as the reality outside, and is acceptable intellectually, logically, and emotionally. Bediuzzaman simply proves that the Qur’an can only be the word of the Creator who created the whole existence and is the source of all truth, since the Qur’an properly and accurately describes some of the observable physical events, in addition to explaining the why questions, especially the purpose of life, in a manner convincing to the mind and the heart, and gives information about eternal happiness, the unseen, and life after death without contradicting any of the human faculties. The Qur’an addresses all human faculties, not only the intellect. Science driven by human intellect alone does not of course take the task of exploring unseen realms such as life after death, absolute truth, and absolute measure of justice, and thus without the help of Qur’anic revelation one cannot arrive at faith. But the Qur’an enters those realms with an all encompassing eye, and explains the whole truth, something no humanly endeavor has rightfully accomplished.
As an example we quote a non- Muslim testimony on this matter. “In making the present attempt to improve on the performance of my predecessors, and to produce something which might be accepted as echoing however faintly the sublime rhetoric of the Arabic Qor’an, I have been at pains to study the intricate and richly varied rhythms which – apart from the message itself – constitute the Qor’an’s undeniable claim to rank amongst the greatest literary masterpieces of mankind… This very characteristic feature – ‘that inimitable symphony,’ as the believing Pickthall described his Holy Book, ‘the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy’ – has been almost totally ignored by previous translators; it is therefore not surprising that what they have wrought sounds dull and flat indeed in comparison with the splendidly decorated original.”7
Two other examples out of many are the following:
“The above observation makes the hypothesis proposed by those who see Muhammad as the author of the Qur’an untenable. How could a man, from being illiterate, become the most important author, in terms of literary merits, in the whole of Arabic literature? How could he then pronounce truths of a scientific nature that no other human being could possibly have developed at that time, and all this without once making the slightest error in his pronouncement on the subject?”8
“It seems to me that Muhammad was a very ordinary man. He could not read or write. In fact, he was illiterate. We are talking about 1400 years ago. You have someone who was illiterate making profound pronouncement and statements and are amazingly accurate about scientific nature. I personally cannot see how this could be mere chance.
There are too many accuracy’s and, like Dr. Moore, I have no difficulty in my mind in concerning that this is a divine inspiration or revelation which led him to these statements.”9 [Prof. Dr. T.V.N. Persaud, who is a Professor of Anatomy and Head of the
Department of Anatomy, and a professor of Pediatrics and Child Health, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He is the author or editor of 25 books, and has published over 181 scientific papers. In 1991, he received the most distinguished award presented in the field of anatomy in Canada.]
1. “Ideals and realities: selected essays of Abdus Salam”, Abdus Salam, C. H. Lai,Azim and Kidwai, pg 283. The “first true scientist”, Professor Jim Al-Khalili presents Science and Islam on BBC 5, January 2009.
2. “Rediscovering Arabic Science”, Professor Fuat Sezgin, Saudi Aramco World, May/June 2007.
3. The Flashes, B. S. Nursi, 23. Flash, p. 234 (translation by Ş. Vahide, www.nursistudies. com).
4. The quote is from a PBS (American Public Tv) show on Dr. Feynman. He was describing to his class how to look for a new law of physics.
5. hysics.uiuc.edu/courses/phys192/ spring11).
6. http://www.dis coveringislam.org/dr_gary_miller.htm
7. “The Qur’an Interpreted”, Arthur J. Arberry, London: Oxford University Press, 1964.
8. “The Bible, the Qur’an and Science”, Maurice Bucaille, , 1978, p.125.
9. Prof. Dr. T.V.N. Persaud, who is a Professor of Anatd of the Department of Anatomy, andnd Child Health, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. He is the author or editor of 25 books, and has published over 181 scientific papers. In 1991, he received the most distinguished award presented in the field. Kaynak: http://askaquestionto.us - Science and Islam
Author: The Pen Magazine