Monday, March 01, 2010

Guest Post: Critiquing I'jaz - the claim of "scientific miracles in the Qu'ran"

This is a guest post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here, here, here and here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah.

Critiquing I'jaz - the claim of "scientific miracles in the Qu'ran"

A few months ago, I received an invitation to a conference in Algiers (my original home town) on “Islam and the Rational Sciences, past and present”. It is being organized by the (highly official) High Islamic Council from March 29 to 31, 2010. I decided to accept, even though it falls at a bad time in my spring schedule.

As the conference covers the past and the present, I could not decide on the best topic to tackle. Indeed, the field of “Islamic Science”, an expression that I consider problematic, but that is very widely used in the literature, refers to one of three (very different) topics: (a) the science that was produced during the Islamic Civilization’s “golden era” (see Salman’s talk on Feb. 25 on “Medieval Islamic Astronomy”); (b) applications of science (mostly astronomy) to Islamic life issues (prayer times, fasting month, Islamic calendar); (c) conceptual/philosophical issues, e.g. evolution, natural law, divine action, miracles, etc.

Unfortunately, and as if the above three (huge) fields were not enough, the “Islamic Science” discourse has been snowed over by a mountain of literature, videos, conferences, and whatnot, that are nowadays devoted to what is known as I`jaz, which is short for “miraculous scientific content of the Qur’an”. In a nutshell, if you haven’t heard about this before, there are now numerous and widespread claims of Qur’anic verses presumably containing modern scientific established facts and theories, ranging from black holes and pulsars to embryology and genetics, not to mention lasers and the precise value of the speed of light…

So I submitted two abstracts to the organizers, and I asked them to choose between the two: (1) a critical review of this I`jaz “theory”; and (2) a rebuttal of the claim that Copernicus’s heliocentric theory had actually been developed by Muslim astronomers centuries earlier… And to my surprise (to some extent), the organizers, reading clearly my intent and thesis in the abstract I submitted, chose the critical review of I`jaz. I know that the public, and probably most of the participating scholars, will be fully supportive of the I`jaz theory (despite its ridiculous methodology, it is unbelievably popular in this region), so this promises to be an interesting “showdown”. I’ll let you know how that goes.

But I assume you would like to know a bit more about this “theory”… So, first there is (and has been for about 15 years now) an “International Commission on Scientific Signs in Qur’an and Sunna” (Sunna refers to the Prophet Muhammad’s Tradition, i.e. statements and acts). Among other things, it organizes international conferences; there have so far been 9 of them (in places like Kuwait, Islamabad, Dubai, Dakar, Indonesia – one even in Moscow!), with the next one taking place in 2011 in Istanbul. And I’m no longer counting the smaller, local or regional workshops this International Commission has organized on the topic, including some “training workshops” on how to do such “research” (how to dissect verses and prophetic statements for scientific content). Likewise, it would be impossible to list all the books published by this Commission and other such institutions. As to websites, especially in Arabic, it would be an interminable exercise to try to find them all, or even the main ones. (You can find quite a bit of interesting content in English here , here, and here… and, for our friends in Quebec and the rest of the French-speaking world, some French content here).

Even the normally moderate and reasonable (and widely read) Islamic portal IslamOnline has a section on “Scientific Miracles in the Qur'an” (under Health & Science, in the subsection on Faith & the Sciences), where one can read articles on the following topics:

  • Scientific Facts Revealed In The Qur'an by Zaghlool R. M. El-Naggar, citing many verses as referring to scientific facts : “verses that refer to the shape of the earth (13:3; 15:19; 26:28; 39:5; 50:7; 55:17; 65:12; 67; 70:40, 41); its motions (21:33; 36:40; 27:88; 12:3; 91: 1-4; 92:1,; 10:67; 77:10, 11; 27:71-73; 2:27; 29:61; 31:29; 35:13; 57:6; 36:37; 2:164; 3:190; 10:6; 23:80; 55:5; 14:33;) and its origin (21:30)… the vastly distant positions of stars (56: 75, 76), the expanding nature of the universe (51:47), the smoky nature of the early sky (universe) (41:11, 12), the existence of the interstellar matter (20:6; 21:16; 25:59; 30:8; 32:4; 37:5; 38:10, 27, 66) and the concentric nature of both the heavens and the earth (the universe) (67:3); (71:15) and (65:12)… the celestial (extraterrestrial) origin of iron in our planet (57:25)…” and many more.
  • Rain by Design by Harun Yahya, based on Q 43: 11 and Q 50: 9
  • The Big Crunch by Zaghlool El-Naggar , based on Q 21:104, 21:30; 41:11; 51:47; and 14:48.

Oh, I forgot to mention something important: many of the practitioners of this field are scientists and academics, including the above writer, Zaghlool El-Naggar, a retired university professor of geology, who has published numerous papers, articles, and books, and has supervised students. (Check out his CV here. For another example, see Dr. Husam Hassan Abulula’ CV here.)

Make no doubt about it, this is the biggest trend in the cultural landscape of the Muslim world nowadays, as astonishing as this may be! Few voices are countering this “theory”; I’ll let you know how my talk and discussion go in next month’s conference. Stay tuned.


Arni Zachariassen said...

Too bad you can't go into your critique right now. You got me all excited!
I'm approaching this from the outside, as a Christian theologian. And, importantly, as an ex-creationist/IDer. Last year our local mosque here in Aberdeen, Scotland had a couple of open days where they invited curious neighbours to come and visit. My wife and I went and it was a very pleasant experience. Very interesting. Nice people. We were taken from room to room and presented various aspects of the Islamic faith. Among the five pillars, women and family in Islam, Islam and Scotland, there was a section dealing with the topic at hand. Islam and science, I think they just called it. The presentation was basically what you're outlining. In Christian circles we would call it concordism, the belief that the Bible (or in this case, the Quran) aligns perfectly with science. Needless to say, I wasn't very impressed, but I was intrigued. I find the similarities and differences between Christian and Islamic creationism fascinating. I don't know much about the Quran, but I know Muslims understand it very much in a similar fashion as Christian fundamentalists do - and, of course, did so way before there were any Christian fundamentalists: That it's the dictated word of God, literally true and all that. And I know that the claims of creationists about various agreements between the Bible and science are utterly absurd. They do not only stretch the Biblical text beyond recognition, but ironically miss many of the actual "scientific" statements of the Bible, because they want it to be in agreement with modern concepts. The Bible's ancient cosmology, for example, is apparently missed by everyone of them. Of course, they also deny modern concepts, such as biological evolution and geology. As you say, the methodology is ridiculous. Haphazard and lazy. So when I talked to our guide in the mosque, I wasn't exactly impressed, assuming (rightly, I presume) that Christians and Muslims treat their holy books equally bad in this regard.
So yeah, I'm looking forward to leaning the details of your critique. I hope it goes down reasonably well :)

Atif Khan said...

If possible, please share the video of that session.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Hello Arni,
Thanks for your comments -- very interesting indeed. I'll present a more substantial critique of this trend, with principles and examples, sometime -- I promise, since there seems to be some interest. It will not surprise you to hear already that on this issue, there is much similarity between the Christian concordism and the Islamic one, except that for those Muslims who subscribe to this "theory", there is the absolute conviction that many scientific facts are actually depicted in the Qur'anic verses, so these are not just "concordant" with what Modern Science has told us, they've actually preceded it!

The same methodological and theological problems can be found, namely the distortion of the verses' apparent meaning, the neglect of the scriptural contexts of the verses, the largely flawed understanding of Science in general and of specific items/facts/theories more precisely (people confusing dark matter with dark energy and even with... black holes, etc.).

In any case, I'll come back to this question sometime, and I think Salman plans to write about it sometime soon.