Is Islam compatible with science?
By Dr. Abdullatif Aljibury

The following is my response to the Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy article in the email below (Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad):

Since science is the discipline through the use of which humans can discover the laws of the universe and help them understand its physical processes, it enables mankind to harness the material resources and energy to improve their lives and the environment. It is the purpose of this article to show that Islamic ideology does and fully encompass this broad premise of scientific endeavor which is clearly spelled out in the Holy Quran. To accuse Islam of being either opposed to science or to limit Islam to a specialized and so-called “Islamic Science,” is not compatible with the Quranic text which is the only source of information that documents our assertions. No apologies are offered and no school of thought is adhered to in this exposition, but merely objective analysis to seek the truth. It is unfortunate that Islam is evaluated according to the behavior of Muslims who through their shameful behavior over the centuries contributed to this sad state of affair that we find the Muslim countries sinking into.

Basic Precepts:

To begin with let us recall the first verse that was revealed; (96:1), which defines the basic tenet of Islamic Ideology:

اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ
[1] Read! In the Name of your Lord Who has created (all that exists).

We understand from this verse that God has created “everything “in this universe. This sweeping statement makes it very clear that God is the creator of not only the whole stellar system including all material objects, (living as well as the inanimate), but also the forces and events that are part of this dynamic universe. It means that God has made all the forces and the laws that govern these forces that give rise to this “balanced” system that we find ourselves in.

In the second verse, God then guides and directs our attention towards a purely scientific phenomenon that is the beginning of the mechanism of the formation of the human embryo. He is emphasizing in no uncertain terms the importance of getting us on the track of scientific thinking to explain observable and conscious phenomenon.

خَلَقَ الْإِنسَانَ مِنْ عَلَقٍ
2] He has created man from a clot (a piece of thick coagulated blood that clings).

Then God drives home His intent in the third verse graciously commanding human kind to “Read” so that we can unequivocally understand the detailed mechanics of His creation, reemphasizing for the second time in so many verses the importance of gaining knowledge to appreciate and understand the wonders of His creation through reading.

اقْرَأْ وَرَبُّكَ الْأَكْرَمُ
[3] Read! And your Lord is the Most Gracious.

He then follows these commands by the assertion that He wants to teach us through the written treatise information or knowledge that is unknown to us. In other words, God wants us to discover, through the then two well known available educational tools (reading and writing), the mysteries of the universe.

الَّذِي عَلَّمَ بِالْقَلَمِ
عَلَّمَ الْإِنسَانَ مَا لَمْ يَعْلَمْ
4] Who has taught (the writing) by the pen.
5] He has taught man that which he knew not.

A very important point needs to be emphasized here is that with the admonition to pursue knowledge and uncover the secrets of the universe, there is no mention of any restrictions on the methods to be used to achieve these noble ends. Needless to say, that the divine code of ethics (not to enjoin anyone as equal to God, to be good to the parents, do not kill an innocent person…etc) is to be observed at all times. Beyond that all methods of scientific research are acceptable. This is a unique general principle to be followed throughout the Quranic text which is that when God mentions a topic or an issue, then it should be taken simply at its face value and not to add restrictions or conditions unless they are otherwise specified in the text.

From the above five verses, we humans have been urged to shoulder the task of discovering the workings of this universe. God wants us humans to pursue and discover new knowledge and phenomena. Therefore, the domain of human activity is only limited by the extent of our knowledge of the universe.

Our intellectual ability which He has bestowed upon us is to be our means of our endeavor as spelled out in 55:1-4;

الرَّحْمَنُ عَلَّمَ الْقُرْآنَ خَلَقَ الْإِنسَانَ عَلَّمَهُ الْبَيَانَ

[1] The Most Gracious
[2] Has taught (mankind) the Qur’ân
[3] He created man.
[4] He taught him the ability for articulate and rational thinking (Albayan..)

It is remarkable that these pronouncements precede the next verse that informs us about astronomical bodies, mainly the sun and the moon, whose movements have been found later to be calculable (55:5):

الشَّمْسُ وَالْقَمَرُ بِحُسْبَانٍ
[5] The sun and the moon run on their fixed courses (exactly) calculated with measured stages for each (for reckoning).

Surely, God must be challenging man to make an effort to discover the laws governing the movement of celestial bodies and to be able to calculate their courses. Furthermore, God continues to challenge us to look into other fields such as the stars, the trees, the oceans, outer space and the changing time, and other wide variety of different topics that have been mentioned in this same chapter as well as in other chapters in the Quran.

The purpose of our existence:

Through our pursuit of knowledge, we humans can live up to the trust that has been placed on our shoulders to be God’s vicegerents. It follows that our duties is to make this world, inclusive of the people and the environment, a better place for all, such as the development of new technologies and better use of the available resources. (2:30):

وَإِذْ قَالَ رَبُّكَ لِلْمَلاَئِكَةِ إِنِّي جَاعِلٌ فِي الأَرْضِ خَلِيفَةً قَالُواْ أَتَجْعَلُ فِيهَا مَن يُفْسِدُ فِيهَا وَيَسْفِكُ الدِّمَاء وَنَحْنُ نُسَبِّحُ بِحَمْدِكَ وَنُقَدِّسُ لَكَ قَالَ إِنِّي أَعْلَمُ مَا لاَ تَعْلَمُونَ
[30] And (remember) when your Lord said to the angels: “Verily, I am going to place (mankind) on earth as vicegerent (representative.)”

It follows from the above verse that the purpose of our creation is to represent God on earth. To fill this tall order, we must try to learn about ourselves and the environment, in order for us to seek through research and development, the best route to take to fulfill our duty as representatives of our creator. Having understood the purpose of our lifespan on this earth, we can set forth our agenda to work towards the maintenance of the order and balance in the universe as well as to make it a better place for every living creature. We must adopt such an agenda, if we aspire to win our office of the vicegerent! What better way to worship God than to live up to and fulfill His expectations?

Methodology:

To achieve the goals set forth by our creator, He has demanded that we use our minds to search for the truth. God has always, and throughout the Quran, challenged our intellect and our thought processes to observe, reflect and understand the world, natural events and all the facts that we are conscious of. Such phrases as “don’t you ever think or “ever understand” or “ever reflect “ or “ ever observe!” are profusely used throughout the Quran to appeal to our intellect in order to understand present and past events, natural phenomenon and facts. Didn’t Prophet Mohammad mention that intellect and science are his foundation and weapon?

Throughout the Quran, there are no limitations placed on how we go about achieving the tasks that we need to undertake in order to fulfill our duties as true representatives of God in His kingdom. Notice the challenge is not addressed to Muslims alone, but rather to all of the human beings. Since we humans are all working towards discovering the truth about the World, we must not shy away from any proposition, theory or idea that appears contradictory or far fetched if the aim is seeking the truth. There may be more than one method to arrive at the truth. We must be wise enough to accommodate differences of opinions or methodologies or theories that aim at arriving at the truth. Everything in this universe is His and we humans are all trying to discover and fathom the secrets of His Creation. We must always be supportive of new science and all attempts to add to our knowledge of the universe. We must be supportive of any effort that improves the well being of humankind. We should be accommodating differing opinions, because through differing opinions we are on the right track to reach the truth. For this reason, we shall always look for new ideas, new discoveries and a continuing learning process as we push forward to learn the intricacies of His Creation, and as surely as the night and day, we will fall short.

Concluding Remarks

As we have seen from the above exposition of our ideology, there is nothing in there that limits our tools to pursue science. There is a great deal of flexibility in the above mentioned Quranic statements to allow us to interact with the civilized community and push towards a brighter future that is awaiting us. We can confidently join the global community to push forward to achieve civility and the well being for all. We have the support and the means provided by Our Creator through the articulate and rational intellect, “Albayan” to reach such goals. For that, we must be truly thankful to Him.

Abdullatif Aljibury. PhD
12-06-09
Danville, CA USA

_____________________________

From: To: Subject: Fw: Pervez Hoodbhoy

— On Thu, 11/26/09, ahsan hafeez <ahafeez13@hotmail.com> wrote:

Islam’s arrested development
Islam did ancient science brilliantly, but today Muslims lag behind. To catch up, they must demand the freedom to question

bullet Pervez Hoodbhoy
bullet guardian.co.uk,
bullet Wednesday 25 November 2009

The question: Can Islam be reconciled with science?

Material resources are immaterial to the current sorry state of science in Islam. To do science, it is first necessary to accept the key premises underlying science – causality and the absence of divine intervention in physical processes, and a belief in the existence of physical law. Without the scientific method you cannot have science because science is all about objective and rational thinking. Science demands a mindset that incessantly questions and challenges assumptions, not one that relies upon received wisdom. If this condition is not fulfilled, all the money and machines in the world make no difference.

Can Islam accept the premises of science? There are some versions of the religion that can, and others that simply cannot.
But before proceeding further, let me distinguish between ancient science – which Muslims did brilliantly – and modern science. They are not quite the same but are so often confused together that it is important to make the point. The ancient science of the Greeks, Chinese, Muslims, and Hindus was a rather limited affair that did not put any theological system under undue stress. Scholars observed, drew a few conclusions, and wrote a treatise that only a few could read. It was inconceivable at that time to imagine that the workings of the entire physical world could be understood from just a handful of basic principles. There was almost no link to technology and therefore no impact upon how people actually lived.

Not so for modern science. This product of the European Enlightenment is now the essence of a universal human civilisation. Although it was fuelled by the discoveries of ancient science, including Muslim science, the Enlightenment had an impact that was totally different from the stellar works of individual ancient scholars.

Modern science defines our world by constantly creating new technologies. It also claims to explain everything from the scale of the atom to the universe, and from times that range from the present to the very birth of the universe. It evokes resistance among traditionalists because it offers an explanation of how humans emerged from the depths of biological evolution to their present form. All this makes it hugely different from ancient science, which is what the Greeks and Muslims – as well as Chinese and Hindus – had done so splendidly in their respective times. So if a civilisation did great ancient science, this does not automatically mean that it is equally qualified for doing modern science.

To return to the issue of the compatibility of science with Islam: at one level the for-and-against arguments resemble those for Christianity. Islam has had its share of pro-science reformers, such as the 19th century figure from India, Syed Ahmad Khan and the Iranian Jamaluddin Afghani, who argued that miracles specified in the Qur’an must be understood in broad allegorical terms rather than literally. Following the rationalist (Mutazillite) tradition of 9th century Islam, Muslim rationalists insisted on an interpretation that was in conformity with the observed truths of science.. This meant doing away with cherished beliefs, also held by Christians, of the great flood and Adam’s descent from heaven, etc. It was a risky proposition at that time but it was far safer than it is today when the mood has shifted away from empirical inquiry.

On the other hand, fundamentalist versions of all religions, including Islam, are philosophically averse to the notion of material forces running the world. They insist that the divine hand constantly intervenes, and so individual wellbeing requires constant supplications to the powers “up above”. This belief system ascribes earthquakes, as well as drought and floods, to divine wrath. On this basis, it would be fair to say that Saudi Islam, or the various Wahhabi-Salafi-Deobandi versions, reject material causality and hence the very basis of modern science.

Shia Islam, on the other hand, while politically assertive and insurrectionist, is less inclined towards pre-modern beliefs. Ayatollah Khomeini was quite content to keep science and Islam in separate domains. He once remarked that there is no such thing as Islamic mathematics. Nor did he take a position against Darwinism. In fact, Iran is one of the rare Muslim countries where the theory of evolution is taught. Today it is a front-runner in stem-cell research – something which President George Bush and his neo-conservative administration had sought to ban from the United States.

But there is another side of the coin: Khomeini also developed the doctrine known as “guardianship of the clergy” (vilayat-e-faqih) which gives mullahs much wider powers than they had generally exercised in the past. Instead of being simple religious leaders, in post-revolutionary Iran they became political leaders as well. This echoed the broader Islamic fusion of the spiritual and the temporal, something that science is acutely uncomfortable with.

To conclude: scientific progress in Muslim countries requires greater personal and intellectual freedom. Without this there can be no thinking, ideas, innovations, discoveries, or progress. The real challenge is not better equipment or faster internet connectivity. Instead, to move ahead in science, Muslims need freedom from dogmatic beliefs and a culture that questions rather than obeys.