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Islam and Science
Jan 1, 1995

Polarization of Muslim opinion

The relationship between Islam and Science has been a point of scholarly discussion for a long time. Seven hundred years ago, al-Ghazali expressed fears that some mathematical knowledge may lead to the denial of God. A similar fear was expressed more recently by the American convert to Islam, Maryam Jameelah who wrote:

Modern science is guided by no moral value, but naked materialism and arrogance. The whole branch of knowledge and its applications is contaminated by the same evil. Science and technology are totally dependent upon the set of ideals and values cherished by its members. If the roots of a tree are rotten, then the tree is rotten; therefore all its fruits are rotten (Jameelah, 1983).

Their view does not demonstrate a consensus. Al Afgani wrote that

…those who forbid science and knowledge in the belief that they are safeguarding the Islamic religion are really the enemies of that religion (Keddie, 1983).

Muslims seem to have been historically polarized into those who reject scientific discoveries as ‘dangerous’ and those who look for co-existence with scientific development.

Historic background

Most discussions on Islam and science have been limited to the many great achievements of Muslim scientists like al-Biruni, al-Tusi and al-Khwarizmi. Most look beyond the pitiful position the Muslims are in today and remember that:

At its peak, about one thousand years ago, the Muslim world made a remarkable contribution to science, notably mathematics and medicine. Baghdad in its heyday and southern Spain built universities to which thousands flocked. Rulers surrounded themselves with scientists and artists. (Ghiles, 1983).

We must remember that Arabic was the language of science from the 8th to 11th centuries. This period marked the birth of European algebra with the translation of a treatise by al-Khwarizmi ’s-a fact that prompted Ghandz to recognize that ‘Al-Khwarizmi is more entitled to he called “the father of algebra’ than Diaphantus because Al-Khwarizmi was the first to teach algebra in an elementary form and for its own sake (Ghandz, 1936). The Muslim tradition did not reject those who came before them. The studied the works of Euclid, Archimedes, Apollonious and the like. Respect for the predecessors and a desire to develop this early work lead to the great discoveries of Islam. Knowledge is the property of God. It is always being revitalized. Cultures are interdependent in this respect. Hoodbhoy (1991), critical of the notion of Islamic Science, admits that ‘today we remember Nassir al-Din al-Tusi for his trigonometry, Omar Khayyam for his solution of cubic equations, Jabir Ibn Hayyan for the ingenuity of his chemical apparatus and al-Jazari for his intricate machines. Among the great scholars of Islam are the following:

The mathematician, Thabit lbn Qurrah (826-901ce)

The astronomer, Abul Qasim al-Majiriti (d. 1007ce)

The astronomer, Qutb-al-Din al-Shirazi (12336-1311CE)

The scientists, the Banu Musa brothers

The physician, Ibn Sina (980-925ce)

The physician, Muhammad al-Razi (865-925ce)

The writer on optics, Ibn al-Haitham (965-1039ce)

The philosopher and scientist, Abu Yusuf al-Kindi (SO l-873ce)

The commentator on Aristotle, lbn Rushd (1126-I 198cc) The geologist, Baha al-Din al-Amili (1546-1621ce).

The list is endless. Many of these scholars had memorised the whole Qur’an and excelled in their religion. Europe borrowed from the Muslims but rarely acknowledged the fact.

Is there a conflict between science and Islam?

Islam promotes the material and spiritual well-being of Man. It enjoins its followers to seek and utilise knowledge for the betterment of their life on earth and in the Hereafter. The Messenger used the most up-to-date weapons in battle, laying down the principle that we must never fall technologically behind. This was not true of other religions. On the authority of St. Augustine, it was forbidden for a Christian to believe that there were people living on the other side of the earth. The world was believed to be flat, and, if there were people on the other side, they would be standing upside down-and this was unacceptable to the Church. Similarly, on the authority of St. Paul, Christians were required to believe that disease, famine, pestilence, and air pollution were caused by demons. Vaccination was therefore forbidden in Christianity. This took place while al-Razi was already making advances in the field of inoculation.

Muslims were not exempt from persecution by their own authorities. Al Kindi, popular in the court of Caliph Maimun had to flee when al-Mutawakil took over. Al Razi lost his eyesight when, on the instructions of the amir, he was hit with his own book.

Is there science in the Qur’an?

The Quran is a book of guidance. It was the motivation and driving force behind many of these scientists. The Quran offers hints that could lead to major discoveries if followed up diligently. Modern day scholars have studied at length Qur’anic references to science subjects, and produced texts in areas of astronomy, embryonic biology, the movement of bees, the mountains, the composition of the earth, the plants and a variety of other subjects. Even those that wish to deny the assertion that the Qur’an contains scientific hints have to concede defeat when they examine verses like those found in the chapters of Yasin, 36-7, 40; al-Shams1-4; al-Anbiya, 30; al-Rahman, 7; al-Naziat, 28 and many others.

The Qur’an gives vital hints which include important insights and encouragement to undertake new forms of scientific research.

Although, scientific knowledge is only part of the general guidance to be found in the Qur’an, there are some modern scholars who have made research into science found in the Qur’an a full-time preoccupation.

Some of the work done by these scholars has been very useful. It has reawakened Muslims to the value of their inheritance and rekindled the desire for further research and given it sanction from their own Holy Book. However, some scholars, in my view, have overstepped the boundaries and exposed Islam to Western ridicule and nourished the inferiority complexes of those Muslims that still need proof that the Qur’an is revelation from God.

When in 1961, an Egyptian scientist, Muhammad Jamaluddin El-Fandy published a pamphlet entitled On Cosmic Verses in the Qur’an, he was cheered in the Muslim world: but in the West, scientists smiled patronizingly, satisfied that if the Muslims were going to rely on them to prove the accuracy of their Divine Book, then they could not have much to offer. The trend had only just started. Azizul Hassan Abbasi, a Pakistani neuropsychiatrist asserted that he had managed to find in the Qur’an modern cures for diabetes, tuberculosis, stomach ulcers, rheumatism, arthritis, high blood pressure, asthma, dysentery and paralysis. In the end, the claims turned out to be more intellectual amusement.

In 1976, Maurice Bucaille, a French surgeon, published The Bible, The Qur’an and Science and with it sparked off a wave of excitement in the Muslim world. Bucaille subjected both the Bible and the Qur’an to rigorous tests against the findings of modern science in the fields of astronomy, geology, animal and vegetable sciences, and human reproduction. He concludes:

The Qur’an most definitely did not contain a single proposition at variance with the most firmly established modern knowledge. Modern Man’s findings concerning the absence of scientific error are therefore in complete agreement with the Muslim exegetes’ conception of the Qur’an as a book of Revelation (Bucaille, 1978).

The Muslims were excited. Their book had been ‘proven’ correct. Bucaille’s sweeping suggestion that modern Man’s findings concerning ‘the absence of error’ were endorsed by the Qur’an was missed by an excited Muslim community. The marriage between the Qur’an and modern Man’s ‘scientific’ findings was a completely happy one. His conclusion that it is impossible not to admit the existence of scientific errors in the Bible’ was also swallowed wholesale by the Muslims.

Muslims had always taken on faith the belief that the Qur’an, being the Word of Allah, did not contain any errors; and that the Bible, in its present form, is not a true revelation from God. But now they had ‘scientific proof’. The rules of the game had changed. Modern science had been accepted by a cross-section of Muslims as the umpire between the scriptures. Bucaille became a hero among Muslims. At those conferences where he was not invited, he was generously quoted by a variety of people including highly learned Muslim scholars. The time-bomb that Bucaille had set could be detonated by the emergence of a scientific ‘Salman Rushdie’ with a formula that finds scientific error in the Qur’an or proves the scientific accuracy of the Bible.

In April 1985, Keith Moore, Chairman of the Anatomy Department of the University of Toronto’s School of Medicine, ‘discovered’ the agreement between Islam and contemporary knowledge on the subject of embryology. He joined Bucaille on the conference circuit presumably further confirming that the Qur’an was scientifically correct.

Much of their work has undoubtedly benefited the Muslim community, but where, the likes of Bashirudin Mahmud, a Pakistani nuclear engineer, suggests that Jinn, whom God made out of fire, should be used as a source of energy to combat the energy crisis, the trend they have set leads us into total absurdity. Sayyid Qutb described the whole exercise as ‘a methodological error’, and has insisted that while the Qur’an contains guidance on scientific subjects, it is not a scientific textbook.

Can science test the accuracy of the Qur’an?

Despite the excesses of Mahmud and others, the Muslim world received a great shock when the Egyptian engineer, Rashad Khalifa obsessed with the mathematical nature of the Qur’an, not only concocted the ‘theory of nineteen’ but even went on to predict the date of the Day of Judgement. He did the ultimate when, based on his theory that every chapter was related to the number nineteen, he discovered ‘errors’ in the last two verses of sarah al-Tauba. The foundations of Islam had been attacked. We no longer needed to believe. He wrote:

This marks the advent of a new era in religion; an era where faith is no longer needed. There is no need to ‘believe’ when one ‘knows’. People of the past generation were required to believe in God, and uphold his commandments on faith. With the advent of the physical evidence reported in this book, we no longer believe that God exists; we know that God exists.

He implies that as we have scientific evidence, we now longer need the Prophet, upon him be peace.

Had al-Ghazali been alive, he would rightly have felt vindicated about his statements 700 years earlier.

Muslims in the modern world

Muslims have to decide on a position viz-a-viz such outrageous things as sperm clinics that provide women with facilities to have children without ‘known’ fathers or the attempts to prepare organs for transplant into human beings by injecting pigs with human genes, etc. Some of these inventions are directly antagonistic to the doctrine and spirit of Islam. On the other hand, modern scientists fail to understand their own limitations and have assumed that science is completely secular in nature. Conflict is inevitable.

Muslims believe in absolute truth originating from God, to whom they pray five times a day. Prayer is considered to be futile by scientists like Sullivan, He says:

The belief that nature is orderly is not yet universal.. we still find congregations praying for rain although they would hesitate, probably, to pray that the sun might stand still. That is because astronomy is a more developed science than meteorology (Hoodbhoy, 1991).

In otherwords, when the Muslims learn more about meteorology, they will stop praying for rain, and probably some would (vindicating al-Ghazali).

The rejection of divinity automatically leads to further complications. Science must account for the origin and essence of Man and matter. Scientists have developed numerous, often contradictory theories, making the whole undertaking capricious and undertaking, and giving the Muslim reason to feel a sense of triumph in his insistence on divinity. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to date constitutes the most traumatic clash between Islam and science. While the Qur’an says:

Truly We created Man in the best shape. Then we return him to the lowest of the low, save those who believe and do righteous deeds; theirs will he an uninterrupted wage (al-Tin, 95.4-6).

Darwin says:

When I view all beings not as special creations, but as lineal descendants of some few beings they…. seem to me to become enabled (Darwin. 1985).

Even in the West, Darwin’s theory of evolution was received with many misgivings. People who were not known or their Christian piety were alarmed at the idea of being descended from lower animals.. Here is an interesting spontaneous reaction to Darwin’s theory:

The wife of the Bishop of Worcester, when informed about Darwin’s theory commented, Descended from apes! My dear, let us hope that it is not true, but if it is, let us hope that it may not become generally known’ (Hoodbhoy, 1991).

The wife of the Bishop referred to above was reacting instinctively to offended dignity when she rejected this particular scientific adventure: which is illustrative of Man’s inherent dignity.

The problem between Islam and modern science will continue to exist until such a time when modern scientists cultivate the humility to accept human limitations.

Conclusion: The way forward for Islamic Science

Among the responses to the excesses of modern science has been the work of Bucaille, etc. They revived the confidence of the Muslims and provided ammunition in the arguments against secularism. However, if Muslims were the only people on earth, this research would not have produced real advances. Their work enjoys the results of the advances in modern science.

Others have established a philosophical framework for advances in science. Among them is Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who, concerned that Man’s spiritual essence is threatened by the rapid and doctrine less industrialization which is also a menace to natural order, said:

Today, more and more people are becoming aware that the applications of modern science...have caused directly or indirectly unprecedented environmental disasters, bringing about the real possibility of the total collapse of the natural order.

An alternative is the framework drawn up by Sardar (1987) who rejects Nasr’s Gnosticism. However, the reality of our situation is that we can neither simply ‘start again’ nor continue to he idle consumers of western technology.

There has been neglect of the sciences at various levels-at the level of the ordinary Muslims who should get involved in research, at the level of the spiritual leadership where the ulama should encourage their followers to study the sciences, and at the level of the political leadership which should facilitate scientists as their predecessors had.

Islam provides for a social, political and economic system that would make it possible for scientists to work in tranquillity, under state protection and sponsorship, and produce results such as those produced before the split between our leaders and scientists.

The leaders of the Muslim world need to put in place a system that will enable their scientists to work in security and comfort. When the Muslims do this, they will not have to complain about the irreligiousness of modern science because they will be at the forefront.