Sunday, June 13, 2010

Why do Muslims look for modern science in the Qur'an?

Nidhal's earlier post about "Islamic Astronomy" has generated some spirited discussion. One of the comments on the post speculated that were Einstein familiar with the Qur'an, he might not have introduced his Cosmological Constant (he introduced it to make his theory of general relativity consistent with the widely held view of his time that the universe is static. Soon after, though, Edwin Hubble provided evidence for an expanding universe). This view - that expansion of the universe was already in the Qur'an - is cited as one of the evidences for the superiority of the Qur'an. In fact, finding discoveries in the Qur'an is a popular activity and you can find many websites and books devoted to it, and may also be sent e-mails propagating these "discoveries". A couple of comments about this:

I was thinking of writing about the nature of science in this context - that it depends on precise statements that can potentially be tested and verified, etc. However, Emre in the comments has already made some excellent points. So I will focus more on the motivations behind the effort to find science in the Qur'an.

But let's start with a more basic questions: Why do we do science, in the first place? It is usually driven by curiosity and an urge to find out more about the physical world. This curiosity can be driven by science teachers, first time looking through a telescope, by being inspired by religion to understand God's work, or as in my case, by being Saganed (oh - yes, Sagan gets a category by himself). But you have to see where the evidence leads you - and some of your most cherished and well-established ideas can turn out to be wrong and you abandon it. In fact, the scientific process encourages scientists to poke holes at its own theories - and if one is successful in bringing down a giant from the past - the community honors this person with the highest award. And this new idea is simply the beginning of inquiry. This combination of creativity, curiosity, and skepticism, is what has made science so successful - and by far the best way to understand the physical world.

But motivations for finding modern science in the Qur'an is mostly driven by apologetics. The primary concern is usually not finding out about the natural world, but rather showing that Qur'an (and Islam by proxy) is correct. In fact, one starts with this assumption. Once "evidence" for science in the Qur'an is found, inquiry stops. There is nothing more to do with this information - except for claims of religious superiority. At the same time, I cannot see a point where any of the believers will be willing to change their minds in the face of a counter-evidence (for example, claims about people living hundreds of years in the past can run into trouble). Of course, the reply would take shelter behind a "wrong interpretation" - which is usually easy to make given the lack of scientifically specific details in the Qur'an. Let me be very clear here. There is nothing wrong for Muslims in believing that the Qur'an is the true word of God or that it contains moral truths worthy of shaping one's life around. These are statements of faith! Problem comes in when this attitude is translated into doing science.

Funny thing is that adherents of other major religions have also been trying to show the superiority of their own respective religions by finding evidence of modern science in their respective holy texts or by showing that their texts can make predictions. For example, you can check out the work of the crank Hugh Ross on Christianity and Bible, also the whole industry behind The Bible Code, find revelations about quantum mechanics in holy texts for Hinduism, and perhaps elements of String Theory in the Torah. These are just a few examples, and all these groups of people are also equally convinced that their religion is superior because of their respective findings. However, the narrative of science in the Qur'an is far more prevalent than these other ideas.

Needless to say, there have been no contributions - let me repeat no contributions - to modern science from any of these apologetics. This is not surprising, as this is not how science is done! If any of these groups had any serious validity, numerous Nobel prizes would have been scooped up by these guys (and yes, these are mostly guys). In fact, medieval Muslim scholars can set a nice counter example. Al-Haytham, Al-Bitruji, Ibn-al-Shatir, etc. did not use the Qur'anic text to raise objections to Ptolemy's models. Rather, their dissatisfaction with the Ptolemaic model was based on superior observational data, and philosophical objections regarding the Equant, etc. (update: please also see our Science & Religion lecture by George Saliba on this piece of history of science)

But why seek affirmation of one's religion from science at all? Well, this is a fascinating issue - and it has to do with the spectacular success of science in the last 200-300 years. Now religions look to science for validation. For Muslims, this reaction is buried in the colonial past and the efforts of the reformers at the end of the 19th century. More on this some other time.

For present, if you want to make progress in science, please keep it separated from religion.

Also see earlier post:
"Science in the Qur'an" in Algiers...

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Salman,

Not sure whether I should be even saying anything at all. I probably should shut up. But can't help ...

First, thanks for the post.

"In fact, medieval Muslim scholars can set a nice counter example. Al-Haytham, Al-Bitruji, Ibn-al-Shatir, etc. did not use the Qur'anic text to raise objections to Ptolemy's models."

How many text books of science even mentions their name?

I am yet to find a main stream science book that even discusses the work of these Muslim scholars. Any objection to Ptolemy's model is mentioned in the form of the Coppernican model. No one talks of how Coppernicus worked out his model. Not even his book (De Revolutionabis? -- I hope the spelling is correct) mentions or acknowledges any of these people. So how do you know that these people did not use Qur'an? As far as I know, their main inspiration was Qur'an.

"For present, if you want to make progress in science, please keep it separated from religion."

Stephen Jay Gould says science and religion are non overlapping magisteria (NOMA). So they should be kept separate?

I don't think they are totally NOMA. Nor do i agree with you that science should be kept separate from religion.

Well, science and religion are 2 very different domains. And probably practiced also in very different ways.

I do not understand why you think progress in science cannot be made if one cannot keep it separate from religion. I think science works in a certain way and irrespective of what religion offers, it will continue to work its way.

"But motivations for finding modern science in the Qur'an is mostly driven by apologetics."

Forgive me if I am wrong. But you seem to not like that people do look for scientific facts in Qur'an. Any particular reason for this? I am asking because I see nothing wrong in doing it.

Salman Hameed said...

Anonymous:

"How many text books of science even mentions their name? "

Most serious history of science books in the last two decades do talk about efforts of medieval Muslim astronomers to challenge the Ptolemaic system. Ibn al-Shatir's name is quite prominent in this regard (see Saliba's lecture that I have added to the post). Al-Haytham is usually mentioned in optics textbooks and a crater on the Moon and an asteroid has been named after him.

As far as Copernicus' work is concerned, do check out the Saliba lecture. He talks about this towards the end.

"how do you know that these people did not use Qur'an? As far as I know, their main inspiration was Qur'an. "

Qur'an may very well have been the motivation to explore the heavens (and to get a better handle on the calendar system, and prayer times, etc). But when they listed objections to the Ptolemaic system, as far as I know, they did not cite a Qur'anic verse for that. And remember, their objections to the Ptolemaic system did not include removing the Earth from the center of the universe. They were dealing with ways to accommodate observations and models that predict the motions of planets and did not like epicycles and off-centered equants.

"Forgive me if I am wrong. But you seem to not like that people do look for scientific facts in Qur'an. Any particular reason for this? I am asking because I see nothing wrong in doing it."

As I explained in the post, there is nothing of scientific value (again, I emphasize, scientific value) that can (or has been obtained) from looking for clues in any of the holy books. Its not just the Qur'an. I have the same feeling for the Bible, the Torah, Bhagvad Gita, etc. Again, the reason why people look for science in these books is antithetical to the way science works. By the way, I'm also not fond of the idea of finding science in Moby Dick, Lord of the Rings, and the Rubayyats of Omar Khayyam.

A deeper reason is that I hope the best and the brightest minds in the Muslim world apply themselves in doing actual science, and not be distracted from such pseudo-scientific activities as finding science in the Qur'an. As I explained in the post, nothing follows from such an activity.

I expect that people believe - because they have faith. This is a personal journey for everyone. I hope this faith is strong enough to not need the crutches of science to validate it. As is, people of different faiths are already "finding" science in their respective holy books. I'm sure, everyone involved believes that they are absolutely correct and everyone else is absolutely wrong.

Hope this answers some of your concerns. If you are in college, I hope you take up science. It would be great to have good critical thinkers from the Muslim world - in the tradition of Al-Haytham or John Herschel or Edwin Hubble or Abdus Salam.

S Ali said...

Thanks for your long response, Salman. I enjoyed reading it.

"But when they listed objections to the Ptolemaic system, as far as I know, they did not cite a Qur'anic verse for that."

Why would they?
They did not take Qur'an as a scientific text book. That is not what it is. And citing a Qur'anic verse on a purely scientific piece of writing will not add any value to it. Why then is this even expected?

"And remember, their objections to the Ptolemaic system did not include removing the Earth from the center of the universe. They were dealing with ways to accommodate observations and models that predict the motions of planets and did not like epicycles and off-centered equants."

My saying that the Muslims scholars did raise objections to the Ptolemaic model is not to lay emphasis on WHY they objected. But to let people know that some scholars did contribute to the work of Coppernicus even though, as Saiba too mentioned, they were not acknowledged.

"A deeper reason is that I hope the best and the brightest minds in the Muslim world apply themselves in doing actual science, and not be distracted from such pseudo-scientific activities as finding science in the Qur'an."

The best and brightest minds are probably dong science.

But what you call 'psuedo-scientific activity' is not pseudo-scientific activity in my opinion. It is not a 'scientific activity' of any sort. But it is a 'scholarly activity.'

This 'scholarly activity,' in my mind, should be revived and reinvigorated for it has been largely buried for a long time. I don't think people should shy away from work that adds value to the Qur'an and Islam.

I don't mind if people do similar work to add value to the Bible or Torah or other religious texts. Such activity should not be discouraged.

"I hope this faith is strong enough to not need the crutches of science to validate it."

This is so very wrong. Sorry to say so.

Science is not used or misused as a 'crutch' to validate faith. Science is simply used to add more meaning to faith and to consolidate issues of faith.

If I provide a book that was written 1400 years ago, but has some facts about science that we discovered in 2010, I am sure it would mean a lot to an unbiased person. And when I tell them that it is God's revelation, it would be believable because it has this proof.

On the contrary, if my book has nothing of the sort, at best, it would be another Harry Potter.

I seriously think Islam has a lot that needs to be revived in the name of 'Islamic Science.' If we do not do this, it is like ignoring that Egyptology or microbiology requires to be a specific disciplines in the academic curriculum.

Islamic Science may not be an -ology. But it is still big enough to be a subject (of religion?).

"If you are in college, I hope you take up science."

Well, I love science and my education is in one of the many fields of science. But unfortunately not cosmology; I find cosmology extremely fascinating.

Salman Hameed said...

"If I provide a book that was written 1400 years ago, but has some facts about science that we discovered in 2010, I am sure it would mean a lot to an unbiased person. And when I tell them that it is God's revelation, it would be believable because it has this proof.

On the contrary, if my book has nothing of the sort, at best, it would be another Harry Potter."

Hmm...may I ask what procedure you are going to deduce to "prove" that there was science in the Qur'an? The point of my post was that the language of religious texts (including that of the Qur'an) is not anywhere precise to make any claims about the presence of science in the 21st century. This is the reason adherents of all reasons find science in their respective holy books. So is there an objective way of testing it out? I doubt it - and this is the reason I think it is a waste of time (not much different than astrology). [also, remember, to include not only positive instances of science in the Qur'an but also disconfirming evidences - such as the claim that some humans lived a life of hundreds of years in the past. Otherwise, your study will be suffering for "confirmation bias"].

Ali Kazim Gardezi said...

Hi Guys,

That's an interesting discussion indeed. I would just like to add few points here.

Being a muslim, I love Quran and deeply respect it. But with all due respect, I've found Quran's verses vague and can be molded (interpreted) in different ways.

No Muslim scholar said earth is round. No Muslims scholar supported Galilio when he declared that. Only once it has been proven, we went into Quran and came up with a verse, which can be interpreted that way, which is, day follow the night and night follow the day (or something like that). Now how can u get the idea that world is round from this verse? (I saw Zakir Naik quoting this verse to prove scientific validity/compliance of Q uran).

I'm pretty sure, once evolution theory is widely proven, we will come up with a verse(s) from quran proving that. We do it to keep Quran relevant. Infact I know some Muslims who don't object theory of evolution as it doesn't go against there interpretation of Quran.

Apologies for being bit blunt. Many people found my views blasphemous. But the truth has to be told.

By the way, there is an interesting article on dawn.com (http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/the-newspaper/columnists/nadeem-f-paracha-science-ends-here-060) which worth looking.

Peace

Lina Malkawi said...

I guess, like most other humans, Muslims are desperately looking for miracles to strengthen their faith, despite the Quran's repeated insistence that miracles of extraordinary phenomena will not strengthen their faith any more than ordinary phenomena, and despite the dozens of times the Quran calls on believers to give up demanding and looking for miracles.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

For present, if you want to make progress in science, please keep it separated from religion.

If you want to make progress in science, make sure enough people get exposed to its methods and understand its process so they don't need to be told this. That is, if people need to be given the above dictum, something is off already.

There is nothing wrong for Muslims in believing that the Qur'an is the true word of God or that it contains moral truths worthy of shaping one's life around. These are statements of faith! Problem comes in when this attitude is translated into doing science.

There do exist ways to keep one's faith w/o hurting one's scientific endevours for sure, but even in that case it can be said that science is taking the primary role and restricting the domain of religion. If you allow that, whatever religiosity that emerges might be little more than what people call 'cultural' (as in Cultural Muslim).

If what I can see about the currents here in Turkey is anything to go by, allowing that kind of supremacy to science and reason provokes an -- sometimes overtly -- anti-science and anti-scientist stance in mass religious movements.

emre said...

To my mind, the secularization of Islam is the best thing that can happen to it. Keep the better customs, lose the mythology.

If Jews can be atheists, why not Muslims?

S Ali said...

I just read the article on Pakistan's 'Dawn' from the link given by Ali Kazim Gardesi.

I feel insulted!

This article is most certainly not written by a Muslim. And so may be I should only expect it?

Anonymous said...

Assalamu allikkum..brotheres.....

sceince is only a fraction of quran.

foremost ting is to inform people about god and one god...Allah & ALl religion taught this..may i know can u deny truth of god?

1st u believe in creation & its excellnce...check your own wisdom& physique ,...which is not yours...it belongs to its creator...so go according to his wish.

2nd Why you forgot about prediction in quran...its another miracle......& its another fraction...persian get defeated by roman at low laying land..

3rd..sceince..
all world is in process of growth of human thoughts..which can give sceintific result of inventing...its only invention..great by human..
But..it was ther in Quran & other religious texts...but that time also it was used by human being but not advanced in sceince....

SO ONCE WHEN THEY ADVANCED THEY UNDERSTOOD.....NO ONE IS STOPPING PEOPLE FROM INDEPENDENT THINKING BUT..THIS SHOW MAN ONLY FOLLW FINDINGS IN QURAN AFTER 1000 OF YEARS AND CONFIRMING...THIS CAN ONLY GUIDE THAT ITS A REVELATION FROM GOD..ALLAH & WE ALL CAN GO AHEAD WITH SCEINTIFC THOUGHTS WHAT EVER..BUT ONLY LATER U CAN FIND IT WAS THER IN QURAN......IF QURAN IS OF SIMPLY ONE FINDINGS AND WITH MANY ERRORS...AND NOT COMPATIBLE FOR EXISTING WORLD WE COULD HAS SHUN IT...BUT IN ALL RESPECT ITS GIVE EXCELLENT GUIDE TO HUMAN BEING.........GIVE IMPORTANCE TO CREATOR AND RELIGION BECSU HAVE 2 DIE...AND ITS UR REPONSIBILITY TO UNDERSTAND GOD IN SIMPLE WAY AND ABIDE TO HIS RULES.....

THANKS BROTHER .....BE BOTH IN THIS WORLD GOOD MUSLIM & THINKER