Harmony between the Quran and Science: It’s not that Simple!

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The “Science vs. Religion” debate appears to be more of an issue for monotheistic religions than it is for those of the Far East. The claim that the universe was created by a God who is beyond the universe, coupled with what appears to be at times scientifically irreconcilable claims in sacred scriptures about the natural world, including human beings and their place in it, placed religion in a precarious position during the Age of Enlightenment. As scientists gained ascendency and displaced priests as the most authoritative group in society, believers found themselves faced with the task they initially avoided through Church-driven suppression and persecution; to rationally defend their beliefs in God and scripture given all the mounting scientific evidence that seems to refute them.

Although we may speak of the Enlightenment as a phenomenon in which science and free thought finally overcame religious dogma and thought policing, such a generalization ignores the particularities of the context in which it happened. While the term “religion” can be applied broadly, the direction in which Enlightenment thought in Europe has gone philosophically and metaphysically is inextricably linked to the context in which it budded. The theological issues raised by thinkers and scientists of the time were not as broadly religious as they were specifically Christian. Ideas of an All-Loving God; of human beings created in the image of God; of Original Sin; and of a universe and Earth created for human beings are not shared with other religions and even vehemently opposed in Islam. What is considered a problem for Christians is not necessarily a problem for others. Hence, a belief that one has refuted one religion, irrespective of the validity of such a refutation, does not translate to a refutation of all religion.

Despite an awareness of the need to contrast the Quran with the Bible, this nuance has unfortunately escaped many modern Muslims. Furthermore, a pernicious assumption has gone unexamined by the majority as evidenced by the contemporary scientific “miracles” of the Quran movement. Namely, science is considered the highest authority, which is exemplified in putting forth the claim that a harmony between science and the Quran is proof that the Quran is indeed God’s revelation to the Prophet Muhammed ﷺ.

It is interesting to note that numerous scholars of Quranic exegesis, as well as Hadith scholars and scholars of Islamic legal theory have penned in various occasions throughout their commentaries a strong opposition to this. Contrary to popular belief on the part of many Muslims, modern scientists are not historically unique in their challenges to scripture. Naturalists, as they were referred to by Muslim scholars of the medieval era, were also making their versions of grandiose claims about the ultimate nature of reality that were in contrast to scripture. However, instead of engaging in futile debates about the technical details of the science, Muslim scholars at the time pointed to the naked emperor in the room and highlighted the speculative nature of their claims. Those naturalists were not simply providing a descriptive account of the world and restricting themselves to what they could demonstrate. They were trying to offer an alternative metaphysical account to compete with the theological one. This was not science as such. It was medieval scientism.

As Muslims became preoccupied with explaining the loss of old glories many pointed to and were mesmerized by modern science and the various technological advancements in Europe and drew parallels to try and facilitate an Islamic version of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was rooted in free thought and inquiry. The Quran and Hadith encourage the pursuit of knowledge, which requires free thought and unobstructed inquiry. The Enlightenment was marked with great scientific advancements. Muslims had the Golden Age of Islam which was filled with such discoveries. The Bible had too many contradictions with what scientists have concluded about the natural world. The Quran had these conclusions within it all along before these scientists even existed. (Why we had to wait for non-Muslim modern scientists to make these discoveries instead of just telling everyone and saving humanity a thousand years of scientific ignorance is a question we never address.)

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In her 2013 article in Theology and Science, Isra Yazicioglu provides a refreshing nuance to the harmony thesis by examining the interpretative approach of the Sunni theologian Bediüzzaman Said Nursî (1877-1960). According to Nursî, his early assessment was that there can never be a conflict between the Quran and modern science. If such a conflict appears, it is not an objective reality, but a subjective state produced in the mind as a byproduct of a misunderstanding of either one. However, as Yazicioglu notes, his view underwent some development over time:

As Nursi’s life journey took him through the various social, political and personal upheavals of the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, his discussion of the relationship between science and religion also seems to have gone through some changes… [I]n the earlier part of his scholarly career Said Nursi seems to be more excited about new scientific discoveries and technological development. In this period, which he later labels as the “Old Said” period, he seems to have embraced modern science and technology with excitement, albeit not without exhortations on maintaining faith and serving humanity in God’s name. His approach to harmony of faith and science in this period is reminiscent of many other Muslim reformists and revivalists. Like his contemporaries, the “Old Said” highlights the importance of free inquiry from a Qur’an perspective and considers the study of the universe as a religiously meaningful act: believers should be open-minded, appreciate the relevance of the Qur’an in a new era, and embrace reason and science as divine gifts leading to appreciate the Creator better. In contrast, after the horrors of the World War I, Nursi seems to become more cautious vis-à-vis modern science and technology. He still very much believes that scientific inquiry and technology are fully compatible with faith in God. The difference is that his approach to modern science in this second period, which he himself labels as the “New Said” period, is more critical. The “New Said” puts more emphasis on the fact that what is meant by modern science is not always a neutral endeavor, and he spends more time on noting the philosophical and ethical strings frequently attached to modern science.

Attuned to the difference between the descriptive aspect of science, which deals with the world of facts, and the interpretative aspect of it, which is necessarily influenced by personal philosophical views and intellectual leanings, Nursî makes an important distinction as described by Yazicioglu:

Nursi notes that just as the sacred sources, such as the Qur’an and the hadith, need to be distinguished from their mistaken interpretations, so scientific data needs to be separated from its materialistic interpretation. A scientist’s authority within his field of expertise must be respected, and should be distinguished from his personal interpretation of the world in existential and metaphysical terms. Nursi regrets that many a weak believer wavers when they hear a scientist deny faith, for they confuse scientific expertise with a materialistic interpretation of the world.

In addition to distinguishing between science and its materialistic interpretations, Nursi makes an interesting distinction between types of disciplines: (1) those that improve with accumulation of knowledge in time; and (2) those on which the passage of time has little effect. The former is mostly in the realm of sciences; a simple fact that was a mystery for a genius in the Middle Ages can eventually become, in later centuries, a fact well known even by kids. Just as moving a big stone becomes easier as the number of people pushing it increases, so these sciences improve with the passage of time. On the other hand, the second type of knowledge, which pertains to spirituality and knowledge of the Divine, is like jumping over a trench; the fact that one person was able to jump over the trench does not facilitate the task of the next person. In other words, expertise in this second type of knowledge is not affected by the passage of time or with accumulation of technical information over time. That is why, Nursi says, in matters of faith one should not simply prefer the opinion of a modern scientist or a modern thinker to the theological comment of a great theologian of past. The former is in no way privileged in spiritual matters simply because of living later in history and having access to more accumulated technical data about the world.

An interesting point that Yazicioglu highlights in Nursî’s thought is the use of the Quran as the interpreter of the world in a metaphysical sense. A common argument believers use as evidence for the existence of God is the argument from design. By pointing to the order and design in the natural world one will eventually ask, “Who designed it?” In this line of reasoning, the limited understanding and knowledge of the lower is used to prove the higher. Herein lies the theological problem with this argument. Instead, Nursî goes in the opposite direction:

Nursi often contrasts the Qur’anic worldview with materialist and naturalist worldview: both are talking about the same universe, yet interpreting it completely differently. For Nursi, the Qur’an is the interpreter of “the mighty book of the universe”; it shows how the world through the wisdom, power and beauty in it points to the Divine Artist behind the scenes. In contrast, Nursi argues that materialist philosophy completely misses these indications in nature. Cutting off the art from the Artist, the materialist approach claims that there is no intrinsic meaning to the way the things are. According to Nursi, the approach of such “misguided philosophy” is analogous to the attitude of someone looking at a profound text and instead of reading it, merely analyzing the shapes of the letters and the geometrical relations between the letters, the quality of the paper and the ink; then claiming to have uncovered the reality of the book. Such a person thinks that the beautiful calligraphy in the book has no meaning to it, and is just there like that, as meaningless figures. Whereas, Nursi argues, the person who looks at the world in the light of the Qur’an is like a person who is literate, and pays attention to the ink and calligraphy on the pages of the book so as to read the meaningful messages communicated through them.

Yazicioglu cites a tangible example of the Quranic reference to the sun to show how Nursî’s approach contrasts with the materialist one and thus leading to two different interpretations despite looking at the same object:

Nursi contrasts the purposes of the Qur’an with the purposes of science. Unlike science, the Qur’an is not talking about sun for the sake of giving technical information. Rather, the aim of the Qur’an is to reveal how sun is a sign pointing to God’s mercy and wisdom: “the Qur’an does not mention the sun for its own sake. Rather, it refers to it for the sake of the One who illuminates it.” Thus, when the Qur’an refers to the sun as a “lamp,” it is actually revealing its intrinsic reality. For, Nursi argues, the term “lamp” calls into mind the idea of furniture in a home, which is intentionally placed there for the benefit of the inhabitants. Hence, by describing the sun as a lamp, the Qur’an proclaims that the world is a purposefully constructed home, that human being and living beings are guests of a Merciful and Powerful Host, and that the sun is an obedient creature of this Host.

Nursi shows [here] to what extent a particular interpretation of science may pass off as a scientific fact. It is a fact that the earth revolves around the sun. In contrast, the claim that the benefit of the sun for living beings is a mere accident and not an intentional gift by a Creator is a philosophical interpretation, and not a scientific position per se…while there is no discrepancy between the Qur’an and science on a factual level, there is nevertheless a tension between the Qur’an and such interpretations of science that reject the “witness” of the world to the Transcendent.

Indeed, using this example, Nursi contrasts the Qur’anic view with what he calls as “atheistic philosophy”. Like an illiterate person missing the meaning of the words on a page, the latter approach pretends to have uncovered the truth about the sun simply by noting its quantifiable properties: “See how [atheistic philosophy] says ‘the sun is just a vast burning liquid mass. It causes the planets, which have flung off from it, to revolve around it. Its mass is such-and-such…[etc.]'” Nursi claims that this description, when presented as the reality of the sun, is in fact ignorance. For it denies the purpose, wisdom and mercy communicated through the existence of the sun. He argues that such an interpretation of the world only yields a “terrible dread and fearful wonder” in existential sense and “it does not afford the spirit the satisfaction and fulfillment of true knowledge.” Such materialistic interpretation is not science per se, and the reader must be careful about such views that try to pass off as a neutral science.

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For in-depth discussions with Mohamed Ghilan on books and articles such as the one featured in this Vignette through an Islamic perspective, join Andalus Book Club.

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