Science and Islam: Rethinking the Relationship


by Abdulrahman El-Sayed

3972270586_0d57d53639A recent article in the International Journal of Cardiology entitled “The heart and cardiovascular system in Qur’an and Hadith” analyzes the concept of the heart in Islam with regards to cardiac physiology and cardiovascular disease in the biomedical context, and discusses relevant historical Muslim scholarship about health and disease. Received by the Muslim community with much celebration, this article represents the latest in an attempt to couch Islamic thought in light of modern science.

Our current historical context places a particularly strong emphasis on science as an objective means to test the validity of ideas. Epistemologically, what is science? It is a systematic means of asking questions about the natural world. Scientists make observations about phenomena and fit their understanding of those phenomena into falsifiable frameworks, which are then used to generate hypotheses. These hypotheses educate controlled experiments, allowing for more observations. Rinse and repeat. A scientific theory, thus, must 1) be based on observation, and therefore 2) be falsifiable (i.e., have the potential to be proved wrong by observation of something to the contrary). Science, therefore, is fundamentally limited in scope to the observable.

Unfortunately, the temptation to use science to validate Islam often entraps Muslims with poor understandings of either concept. Given the twin requirements on scientific theory that I outlined above (observable and falsifiable), a cursory consideration of the nature of religion would confirm that science simply doesn’t possess the means to assess it. A metaphysical creator (Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala – exalted is he) is, by definition, unobservable. That’s why the second page of the Qur’an will tell you that the Book is a guide for those who believe in “ghayb.” Roughly translated, ghayb means unseen, or unperceivable–literally unobservable. If Allah is fundamentally unobservable (which is why faith is challenging – if we could all see, touch, hear, smell, or taste Allah, then there would be no question of belief in Him), then He and His actions are non-falsifiable, and therefore completely out of the realm of scientific assessment. The same is true for any metaphysical aspect of faith teachings – such as the spiritual quality of the heart.

Articles like the one discussed above, when triumphantly declared as testaments to the greatness of Islam, highlight a certain uneasiness our community has with inherent beliefs in our religion. We seem to believe that somehow when “big bad science” says that there’s wisdom or miracles in the Qur’an, it makes it truer.

The fundamental danger of this approach of using science as an “objective” validation tool for the Qu’ran is that scientifically-based theories are, by definition, falsifiable, and therefore fallible: theories that were as sacrosanct as gravity have been shattered (falsified) with one simple experiment. Insofar as there are untruths in current scientific theories (and there are – those very untruths are what keep the scientific community in business), and they disagree with descriptions of phenomena in the Qu’ran, which does one who uses science as a validation of the Qur’an believe?

Moreover, our reliance on science as a crutch for our weakness in faith has another harmful externality: it incentivizes poor quality science. Much of the article in question conflates the spiritual heart discussed most often in Muslim scholarship, with the physiological heart of the biomedical literature. Insofar as a metaphysical, the spiritual heart is unobservable and non-falsifiable, it sits completely outside of the bounds of scientific assessment, and therefore, is not appropriate for a biomedical journal. For this reason, conflating religion with science reflects poorly on the part of Muslims with regard to the scientific community.

Rather than using science to interpret Islam, our scholarly community must think more critically about using Islam to interpret scientific findings. Unfortunately, many who trumpet “the scientific miracles of the Qur’an” will also flatly and unabashedly deny the existence of data supporting evolution. While this remains a massively contentious debate across theistic communities, Muslims cannot retreat to stereotyped evangelical Christian opinions. Our religious scholars must consider how Islam might interpret objectively-observed and falsifiable evidence for the processes of genetic drift and non-random adaptation. Rather than jump to stereotyped, knee-jerk opinions (effectively blindly condemning the theory), how can we use Islamic exegesis to interpret these increasingly well-supported scientific data? How can we understand these findings within the context of Islam’s teachings about creation, life, and change? These questions are particularly relevant to biomedical ethical dilemmas such as abortion, stem-cell research, and so forth.

Much of the framework upon which modern scientific reasoning is built was developed by Muslims during the early history of our religion. These early scientists however, recognized the strengths and limits of their approach—Muslims today must approach science with the same zeal as well as the same recognition.

3:191

“[Those] who remember Allah while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], “Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You [above such a thing]; then protect us from the punishment of the Fire.” (3:191)

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21 Comments

  1. loveProphet says:

    One should know that historically loads of scholars(including the Sahaba according to Ibn Hazm who said there was a consensus that the Earth was not flat based on an interpretation specific Qur’anic verse) have used scientific interpretations of certain Qur’anic verses, amongst them Imam Ghazali! Traditionally the ones who opposed this were the Mu’tazilites.
    Also many interpretations of Qur’anic verses, including fiqhi ones can turn out to be wrong but we don’t abandon fiqhi interpretations.
    And when there are verses that clearly ellude to scientific phenomena in the literal sense, to not describe it via a scientific interpretation would actually be a distortion of the Qur’an.
    In fact Sayyidina Umar(RA) is reported to have said that the best explanation of the Qur’an is time.
    The article given here also suffers from self-contradiction as it argues that we should not interpret the Qur’an according to science as science can change, yet it goes on to say that evolution(I guess he’s talking about human evolution too as he’s been general here) is “well-supported” and that we should re-interpret the Qur’an.
    Really the Muslims who prop up the theory of human evolution need to get a grip of the philosophy of science and the biology of it to understand that the theory is not well-supported and that the data all can be interpreted differently.
    What needs to be done is to differentiate between a sound understanding of Qur’anic verses that refer to scientific phenomena from those that are plain wacky or misinterpretations. It is also important to say that an interpretation is an interpretation and so if the science changes, our interpretation can change too(unless the verses are clear). This is whats historically been done.
    Science is a study of the signs of Allah that the Qur’an asks mankind to do and its natural to use science for that purpose(of course the inferences are philosophical though).

    • Adnan Javed says:

      I really have to disagree with what you are saying here – the article makes an EXCELLENT point. Your statement disagreeing with the fact that evolutionary theory is well-supported smacks of ignorance. Have you taken the time to actually go through the volumes of evidence supporting the ideas he’s mentioned (specifically genetic drift and genetic shift)?

      His line about us retreating to the same line of thought as Evangelical Christians is highly pertinent.

      Loveprophet, reading your arguments against human evolution prove to me only 2 things: 1. You have very little understanding of Genetics and anthropology 2. You know very little about the fossil record and geology. Would you speak so boldly about Islam if you were so ignorant of Islamic knowledge? What makes you think you can start arguing against a well established theory like natural selection if you have very little experience studying it? (I assume you have very little experience studying based on the fact that you talked to a “biology teacher” about it)

  2. loveProphet says:

    Another few points to mention that one could have avoided if one studied some philosophy of science.

    When talking about falsifiability in science, what is meant
    is that our understanding of the kinds of entities or properties that
    ultimately do the explaining in science is always open to change. It doesn’t mean that things like what is the gender of a worker bee will change.
    Also no one agrees what science is or whether falsifiability is a characteristic of science since there are a number of theories that aren’t falsifiable so the claim that “by definition” is simply wrong.
    The Qur’an itself challenges mankind to produce a chapter like it, doesn’t that sound like a claim to falsifiability(though we know that it won’t be beaten)?
    Doesn’t the Qur’an command man to use reason? Last time I checked, arguments through reason can turn out to be wrong or can be falsified.
    Plus the term objectivity doesn’t reflect reality as nothing really is objective.
    By the way, human evolutionary theory is becoming less supported by data as time goes by. See:
    http://www.sunniforum.com/forum/showthread.php?35042-Human-Evolution-and-Islam

    • A. Elasmar says:

      Assalamu Alikum,
      Although you present valid concerns I think you missed the point of the article.
      What I gathered was that science can be used to understand the signs of Allah’s magnificence and his creation but no to equate a 1:1 weight of an Ayah to a scientific finding or discovery because the science is not absolute and always changing (maybe at somewhat of a slower pace, but changing nonetheless) but Quran is as is and will never change. You look at science as another means of understanding the power and wisdom of Allah.
      Also on the human evolution bit I think the author was trying to say that evolution within species, like your lack of use of your wisdom teeth, or your appendix, is something that exists and should be acknowledged instead of being completely rejecting the concept just because it is preceded by the word evolution.
      Allah knows best.

  3. Dawud says:

    Jazaka Allahu khayran.

    Muslims on the whole are stuck in a pattern of thought where because they lack Islamic knowledge, they will search out and adhere to anything that validates their faith. Whether it’s this article or 2012 or certain pseudo-miracles, this puts them at the mercy of outside forces.

    It has become an Islam based on what is outside Islam– those things that barely have even the slightest essence of Islam. They then use this validation to give weight to whatever practices they are already performing, NOT in improving but in comforting themselves in thinking what they are doing is enough. There is a destructive element to all this.

    I recommend you check out Pervez Hoodbhoy’s book, “Islam and Science,” to see how childish Muslims have become with their Islam, thinking they can use jinns as fossil fuel… :P

  4. loveProphet says:

    Pervez is actually zoroastrian and not Muslim. His works show more a lack of understanding of Islam and history.

    As for the quote “Also on the human evolution bit I think the author was trying to say that evolution within species, like your lack of use of your wisdom teeth, or your appendix, is something that exists and should be acknowledged instead of being completely rejecting the concept just because it is preceded by the word evolution.”

    Well there were so many things considered vestigial but they are not anymore because evolutionists in their arrogance and ignorance have learnt more whilst still they try to deceive common people. One example is the appendix, did you know that since a few years ago, its purpose has been discovered and that its actually beneficial to health?
    I don’t know about the wisdom teeth but its going to be the same case.
    However you are right about microevolution and Sheikh Nuh Keller gave the best Islamic opinion on the issue as I’ve come across. In fact macroevolution doesn’t even contradict Islam, just human evolution and some other matters.
    Also brother Elasmar, I did touch upon your previous issue. The thing is that one needs to differentiate between those who aren’t trained in the Islamic sciences and then interpret Qur’anic verses with those who are. Some verses are clear though.
    However its not right to claim that Islam discovered something just because the verse implies it.
    Its actually expected that the Creator would describe His creation accurately and so we’d get things that we can confirm with science.
    I mean take the example of the big bang. Its not exactly mentioned in the Qur’an but through the Qur’an we know that the universe had a beginning. The big bang theory says the same thing so are we going to somehow say that our interpretation of the Qur’an is wrong?
    We can say “look, the Qur’an gives descriptions similar to the big bang, it doesn’t mean the theory is right or that the theory can’t change but it does give the idea that we can empirically test some things and that they’re supporting us and when that adds up with other things, it just adds proof to the Divine nature of the Qur’an.”
    We need to think deeply over the verse that Allah will show us His signs so that the path is clear or that we should reflect upon His signs. Whats the point of the verse if we can’t use nature to point towards Him(i.e. through science)?
    Also looking for proofs about Islam is not always a sign of weak faith(in fact, Islam doesn’t ask people to follow the religion blindly but to be intellectually convinced is the best way), in fact it can be used as a form of dawah and therefore is a good deed.
    Sure there’s belief in the ghayb, but that is possible when one is convinced rationally about Islam.
    I think that the article shows serious misunderstandings and I’ve noticed it common amongst those who write about such things with such a viewpoint.

    • Dawud Israel says:

      Who told you he’s Zoroastrian? I don’t think he’s Zoroastrian, his book was critical but perhaps you are being prejudiced because it showed how silly Muslims are rather than glorify us. In any case, I think his religious beliefs are not important, for the same token Edward Said’s religious beliefs are not important–that man has done so much for Islam and yet was not a Muslim.

      Hoodbhoy has a strong message but there are obviously some short-comings in it, and there are other explanations for why science has died in the Muslim world.

    • Adnan Javed says:

      What exactly are your qualifications to talk about the function of the appendix? Have you done a pubmed search on it and gone through all the current research on it? I can’t take anything you write on the topic seriously because you aren’t well versed in even the basics of scientific research.

  5. Abbas says:

    “Muslims cannot retreat to stereotyped evangelical Christian opinions… Rather than jump to stereotyped, knee-jerk opinions (effectively blindly condemning the theory), how can we use Islamic exegesis to interpret these increasingly well-supported scientific data?”

    That was pleasant to hear, particularly with regards to evolution. Yes, evolution is merely a theory, but it is also a very well documented one. We musn’t tread an Evangelical path on this one. There must be a way to incorporate the concepts of genetic drift and genetic shift into Islam.

    On stem cell research: I’m very excited! It’s a fantastic science, with fantastic implications for disease prevention and cure. And its halal! No surprize that Iran and UAE are exploring its possibilities.

  6. loveProphet says:

    My dad knew Pervez Hoodhboy and his history knowledge seems quite weak and he lacks understanding of Islamic concepts which make him highly gullible to mistakes.

    Anyways genetic drift and other such things dont contradict Islam. Honestly I don’t know how someone can think it does except through ignorance of the biology of it all or of the relevant Islamic theology and doctrines. Sheikh Nuh Keller spoke well on this.

  7. loveProphet says:

    If you see Pervez’s analysis, its actually based on the orientalist version of the history of Islam, is very simplistic and which is being turned upside down. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Islamic civlization’s advancement in science was not connected to al-Ghazali or the “closing of the gates of ijtihad”(which the modernists wrongly interpret) and in fact science even flourished at that time.
    However one can take the good and leave the bad if one knows how to.

    • Dawud Israel says:

      Of course no one knows how to because we are all fools! :)

      See that mentality is what is keeping us down- the assumption that we don’t know how to handle or use our own minds. Of course, people have common sense, they can figure it out. So what if Orientalists have a certain conception of Islam– we all know there is more to it! If you want an Orientalist to become a shaykh first, and then you will listen to what he has to say, then you are not going to get anywhere. This is where common sense clashes with religious prejudice.

      In any case, Richard Buliet mentioned that scientific achievement in the Muslim world was largely an exception, not a trend– it was abnormal, and unusual– the idea that everybody was a genius/savant/polymath is a myth.

      • Jeremiah says:

        AS salamu alaikum Br. Dawud,

        I agree with you on one hand. We tend to romanticize the ‘Golden Age’ and pretend every Muslim was like Imam al Qarafi or Imam al Ghazali. However, I find the statement you quoted from Buliet to be a bit strange.

        Outside the applicable community, scientific achievements are always ‘exceptional’. The statement of Buliet may be easily applied to civilizations from centuries ago up to our current times. The average American has no idea what a semiconductor is, but nearly everyone has been impacted by the advances in semiconductor technology that were largely driven by innovations from American scientists and engineers. The same can be said for various advancements in different fields.

        I may be wrong, but I detect a disturbing trend of downplaying the accomplishments of past Muslim nations.

  8. adil says:

    thank you for writing this.

  9. loveProphet says:

    It is not common sense or part of critical thinking to blindly accept what the orientalists have said about our history since they are very biased, plus their views have been changing a lot(especially this century) or have been shown to be wrong by less biased sources but a lot of Muslims have blindly accepted the old orientalists claims.
    Cases like of Richard’s is a case in point of blind acceptancee.

  10. al-suyuufi says:

    “There must be a way to incorporate the concepts of genetic drift and genetic shift into Islam.”

    Wait what? Since when is Islam supposed to pander to modern science? This is exactly what Dawud was saying in his first comment: “It has become an Islam based on what is outside Islam– those things that barely have even the slightest essence of Islam.”
    Instead of saying let’s see IF Islam can support evolution, people now try to MAKE it fit in using ad hoc interpretations of the Quran and Hadith. Instead of making the Quran and Sunnah into the ultimate end, they make evolution (or any theory) the end and Islam the means so that they can feel good about themselves in believing something they already wanted to believe.
    There’s a difference between saying that Quran supports Big Bang because there’s a clear Ayah alluding to it, and saying that it support evolution by reinterpreting things based on evolutionary theory.

  11. kamal says:

    please remove my posting of may 10th 2010

    thank you

    -kamal

  12. kamal says:

    I would like to know if a website moderator could delete my posting of May 10th 2010, because my mother feels it does not represent me in a good manner, considering my usage of arabic transliteration in a slightly juvenile manner.

    salam

  13. Shadi Ibn Ahmad Sayyid says:

    Asalamu alaikum wr wb.

    The approach to science is extremely simple. We interpret science according to Islam,we do not change meanings in the Qur’an to fit science. When you do this,you will indeed find that the Qur’an stands flawless regardless of what some zealous atheists and Christians will tell you with their “Greek imitation” claims. I have studied this topic for about 7 years and I have also studied tafseer,and I can tell you that this topic has been exaggerated ten fold.

    Like wise when philosophers tried to change the meanings of the Qur’an,now the science minded Muslims are attempting to do the same.

    Please read this part very carefully. Science back then was a series of guesses that were dependent on limited observation. The Qur’an is miraculous in this area because **it speaks about the unseen and seen facts about nature yet remains spotless**.

  14. Amaan says:

    :O
    Finally someone knows what they are talking about!!

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