Monday, January 17, 2011

My Book – some thoughts…


This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
Thank you very much, Salman for the great announcement about my book. I hope it will be well received by everyone, as I really believe it can constitute a very useful contribution to the Islam-Science field.
As you may know by now from my various writings, including on this blog, I insist both that Science must be taken seriously and rigorously by Muslims and everyone, and that harmony can be achieved between the Islamic beliefs/worldview and modern science, provided that the religious texts are not read and understood in any literal way. Hence, this book is first and foremost for educated Muslims who are finding it difficult to balance what Science tells them and what their Muslim tradition teaches them. It should also be useful for non-Muslims who are curious to know whether there are any moderate Muslim views that are neither fundamentalist nor post-Islamic and how such a voice proposes to harmonize modern science with religious faith. Indeed, as can be read in the opening page of the book, I dedicated this work to my two sons and their generation, and I explain in the acknowledgment section that I hope the book will help my sons and “their cousins” (i.e. young Muslims) “develop an identity which is both authentic and modern, without dilemmas, contradictions or crises.”
Three to four years passed between the day I started writing the book and the time the English version appeared (in the meantime, the French version was published some 2 years ago). First, as I was writing, the book got longer and longer, because I kept finding topics that needed other material before they could be explained in a clear and convincing manner. Indeed, the original outline for the book didn’t have the first two chapters on Allah/God and the Qur’an (at least its philosophy of knowledge), it was going to start with contemporary issues of Science and Islam, but then when I started to formulate the various analyses, I realized that I had to provide the background and platform (both the theology and the philosophy of science) before building anything. And by the time I was done, the book was too long, and I had to go over it and try to cut it to a more reasonable size, which was not easy at all. And when that task was, more or less, accomplished, 2-3 years had passed, and new ideas and developments had come up that needed to be integrated in the book…
Then the search for a (good) publisher began, and that was far from easy, as I was unknown in both the French and the Anglo-Saxon publishing worlds, this being my first work in those languages. Luckily, the French version got picked up very quickly, but the English one took much longer, especially as I ambitiously pitched it to academic (university) presses, whose reviewing process took forever; it was nearly successful (in one instance, 3 of the 4 reviewers were very positive, but still it got turned down), and in the end, IB Tauris (in London) picked it, which was very nice, considering that this house is very strong in publishing good works related to the Islamic world and is well distributed in the region, which was very important for what I’m aiming for…
And lastly, let me try to answer your interesting question, Salman: “if you were to give one advice to an aspiring Muslim scientist today, what would that be?”
First and foremost, get solid training in Science, whatever field of it you choose; for unfortunately, too often in the Muslim world, the education provided in Science (and many other fields) is deficient, as the pedagogy (approach, textbooks, etc.) is mediocre. Secondly, if you want to be a real scientist (a creative thinker, one who understands what s/he is doing), not a “technician of science” (someone who can apply the “methods” s/he was taught, but with no deep understanding and no capacity to go further), learn some philosophy of science, as well as some history of science (but especially the philosophy of science part, which is hardly ever taught in our region). Thirdly, read the literature, from specialized journals to magazines (like New Scientist), and from new books to blogs…
I am eagerly awaiting the reactions to my book, from everyone – Muslims and non-Muslims…

28 comments:

Ali said...

"...unfortunately, too often in the Muslim world, the education provided in Science (and many other fields) is deficient,... "

Do you think this is why people do not believe in Darwin's Theory, for example?
If so, what exactly is deficient?
In an interesting video on youtube, Dawkins implies that many UK doctors, too, do not believe in Darwin's Theory. So, do they also face the same deficiency?

"...if you want to be a real scientist (a creative thinker ...)..."

Why do I feel that who you call a "real scientist" is also a person who has "tunnel vision"?

"I am eagerly awaiting the reactions to my book, from everyone ... "

As i told you, I have ordered the book. Mean while, I am hoping that i will not have to disagree with you on most things. :)

Even if I disagree, i still enjoy reading your views. :)

Mohamed said...

This looks like a great book, Nidhal, and I've put an order for it.
I recently started reading your blogs, and I happened to hear you on Wisconsin Public Radio addressing "Can Islam and science co-exist?", and I was impressed. I liked your approach to the question, and I think we need more thinkers like you in the Muslim world.
My main agreement with you is that Muslims need to move away from literalist interpretations of the tradition, which too often cause conflicts with, among other things, science.

Keep up the good work!

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Ali,
I think you and I tend to agree more often than we disagree, and as long as we respect each other's views and try to understand the other perspective, that's more than fine.

Salman is running a big project on the views and attitudes of Muslim physicians toward Evolution; he said he may have results by summertime, so we'll wait to hear his analysis. From my experience, Muslims (even the educated ones) tend to reject Evolution because: 1) they really don't know much about it other than simplistic ideas; and 2) they've been shown only one interpretation of the Qur'an and only one type of Muslim scholars' views, and they've heard too many people (Muslims and non-Muslims) tell them that Evolution rules out God.

I don't despair from seeing you coming to agree with me on Evolution (and on much of the rest) after you've read my book. If you still don't, that's OK.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Mohamed,
Many thanks for your kind praise and encouragement. I'll try to keep up the good work, and I ask for everyone's help and support -- and forbearance when I err.
Best wishes.

Abdullah (Ex-Muslim) said...

The problem is that the Holy Quran itself contradicts science. The Qur'an says the Heavens & Earth were created in 6 days (al-A’raaf 7:54). Now I'm not interested in how you interpret the words 'days' (yawm) here. I just want to look at the proportion of time the Qur'an gives about Creation.

This is given in (Fussilat 41:9-12) where it says God created the Earth in 4 days and then turned to the Heavens and created them in 2 days.

The first problem is that it implies the creation of the earth preceded the rest of the universe. Of course we know that is not true. It was however a common belief at the time when people believed in a geocentric universe.

The second problem is the proportion of time the Qur'an alots to the creation of the Earth and the Heavens.

It says that the Earth was created in 4 days and then the Heavens in 2 days.

So the Earth took 66.66% of the time.

While the rest of the Universe took 33.33%.

We now know that the universe took about 13.9 billion years to form, while the Earth took 4.5 billion years to form.

Of course there was no point when one was left complete while the other was being created as the Qur'an suggests, but the universe was still forming while the Earth was forming. In which case the percentage of time the Universe took to create is about 76% while the Earth took about 24%.

The Qur'an is of course not a science book. Nor is it a book by an Omniscient creator. It is the book of a man. A man from the 7th century - who shared a geocentric understanding of the universe as others at the time. He thought the Earth was the centre of the universe and took much longer to create than anything else in it.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Abdullah,

1. The creation story/scenario in the Qur'an is much more complex than the "days" issue you raise. All that is discussed explicitly and a length in my book.

2. I think you're making the same mistake of literalism that the fundamentalists make, namely taking one verse, or even part of it (sometimes just one word), here or there and assigning not just precise meaning to it but multiplying and dividing and insisting that the result creates a conflict with science. But I have been at pain trying to explain that a "reconciliation" between Islam and Modern Science is only possible if we drop the literalistic mind-set.

If I were you, I would really read the book -- even if it's just out of curiosity about how a "reconciler" claims he can do it. You might change your views (at least a little) on some issues, or you may not. But I am sure you will come away from it with a richer understanding of the different viewpoints and arguments. We all need to get rid of simplistic and cartoonish views.

Abdullah (Ex-Muslim) said...

I sincerely appreciate what you are doing as a "reconciler" Nidhal. We need more people like you and less radical/fundamentalists who make Islam look bad. Best of luck with doing this.

I may purchase your book and read it once I get a chance, but for now I need to focus on my PhD. :)

Ali said...

Dear Abdullah,

With due respect I must tell you that, in my humble opinion, you WILL NOT BE an ex-Muslim, had you understood The Qur'an.

May God show you the right path and bless you.

Ali

Ali Kazim Gardezi said...

Hi Nidhal,

I wonder if ur book is available in UAE market or for that matter in AUS bookstore? I live in Dubai so I can get it quicker if I buy locally.

As for your attempt to reconcile Islam and Quran, my views are more of Abdullah's than that of Ali's (as expressed above). But I still respect your attempt. May we Muslims start producing the likes of Khawarzimi n Ibn Sina, people of Islam and Science.

Your suggestion for the muslim scientists is to study science in depth and move away from literal interpretation, if I understood you correctly, right?

In my humble opinion, we have been taught to take Quran literally. The problem is that if we do not take some of the verses literaly (as suggested by you) then we are putting a big question mark on the authenticity of the remaining verses? Shall we take them literally or not? Or is it just matter of time, till science knows all the answers, that we move away from them too?

Maybe a reconcile between Islam (or for that matter any religion) with Science is not possible. I have my doubts.

I hate to say that but I feel like Quranic verses are so vague that it can be interpreted in many ways. We have given it a specific meaning as long as we dont know the answers (from science). Once we know the answers, we give same verses different meanings (matching science). For example, earth revolves around sun, no one claimed it (even during the Golden era of muslim scientists), till Gallilo proved it in 15th century. And now we have the likes of Zakir Naiks who are proving this from Quran. If u r read that verse in Quran, you can not make out what it means, unless you know that earth revolves around sun and you want to interpret it in that manner. I'm sure sooner we will see proves of evolution theory coming out of Quran as well. I believe you have already hinted it in your reply to Ali.

Sorry for being skeptical but I couldn't help it. So I thought of asking it to you, as you are Muslim and a scientist and have done lot of research in this area. Has this thought ever occurred to you?

Ali Kazim Gardezi said...

Hi Nidhal,

Call it a sheer coincidence, but I received a link to small video about the role of Muslim scientist in today's inventions, while I was writing my comment about Islam and science.

I must share the link for benefit of all the readers

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZDe9DCx7Wk

It is reassuring to know that Muslim scientist once contributed heavily in the field if science. I wonder what lead us stray? Why we are in the situation we are? Why our societies are full of superstitions.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Dear Ali Kazim,

Thanks very much for your comments. I don't mind you being skeptical at all. Believe it or not, I largely agree with you on most of the points you made.

First, I think it is hugely important to always keep in mind that the Qur'an is not a book of science. Thus, none of the verses where it describes phenomena of (or in) nature are to be taken literally, simply because it's not the Qur'an's goal to teach us something about how things work, only what all that is supposed to mean (to us). So if we learn to get such explanations from Science, then my general interpretation-philosophy works and my advice to young Muslim scientists holds and fits well.

Yes, in recent times (centuries), Muslims have been told to take verses of the Qur'an literally, but that should not be in the subjects outside of the Qur'an's dominion. The Qur'an provides a philosophy and meaning for our (and everything's) existence, not a description of how things work.

And indeed, for many centuries great Muslims carried out scientific investigations, sometimes inventing whole new fields and techniques, and none of them -- to my knowledge -- looked into the Qur'an for explanations about how things work, and none of them -- to my knowledge -- found anything wrong with their methodology or any conflict with what the Qur'an was saying.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Hello again Ali Kazim,

Sorry I forgot to answer your question about the availability of my book in the UAE. Actually, I really don't know. I'll check with the publisher, and I will ask the AUS bookstore if they can shelve some copies for sale.

In fact I will try to assemble information about where the book can be purchased in various countries, from Malaysia to the Middle East (elsewhere, one should just check good bookstores). Once I have enough info, I will post a note.

Sorry, but this is my first such experience... :-)

Ali said...

Hi Ali Kazim,

You have expressed some interesting thoughts.

"I hate to say that but I feel like Quranic verses are so vague that it can be interpreted in many ways."

Isn't this because of our 'limited' intelligence?
For example, what is written in the Quran has been written 1400 years ago. It has not changed and does not change according to science. It is our own INTERPRETATION that changes to 'make' the Quran compatible with science. (I have included the word 'make' in inverted commas becasue we are NOT making anything in the true sense. We are just revising our human INTERPRETATION.)

So, in a sense, what Nidhal is proposing -- not to interpret the Quran literally -- may not be a bad idea.
At the same time, you make a very valid point -- interpreting the Quran this way (non-literally) questions its validity.

And it is because of this question that I support interpreting the Quran literally. At the same time, I also admit that sometimes, our limited human intelligence is incapable of interpreting the REAL TRUTH of the Quran unless we find the truth through other means.

Yet, the best solution, in my humble opinion, is to stick to a literal interpretation.

Ali Kazim, as you will accept the fact: our human capabilities are far from perfect. But because of our human imperfections, we must NOT find fault with the Quran. If we accepted the geocentric view because WE thought the Qran says so, it is OUR fault. The Quran does not say that the sun revolves around the Earth. It says otherwise. But with our limited human intelligence, we COULD NOT see that the Quran talks of heliocentrism.

So, if we think the Quranic verses are vague and cannot be interpreted literally, that is because the fault lies with us. Not in the Quran.

Ali said...

Hi Nidhal,

I placed my order for your book on the 16th at Amazon (US). Today, they wrote to me saying that the shipping is delayed and they will inform me when they can ship it. Thought I will let you know. It might be worth while to check.

Best wishes,

Ali

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Ali,

Many thanks for the info -- not good at all.

I've just sent an email to the publisher's representatives in the US (and in the UK); they will check on that. Let's hope you get the book soon.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Ali,

Here are two examples (among many) of what happens when people insist on a literal reading of the Qur'an on topics of nature and science:

1. Tafsir al-Jalalain, one of the most famous, classical exegeses of the Qur'an, insists, on the basis of 88:20 that, I quote: "As for His words sutihat, ‘laid out flat’, this on a literal reading suggests that the earth is flat, which is the opinion of most of the scholars of the [revealed] Law, and not a sphere as astronomers (ahl al-hay’a) have it, even if this [latter] does not contradict any of the pillars of the Law." (You can look this up on http://www.altafsir.com/ by simply putting in the sura and verse numbers.) And this goes on today: here's a recent video where an Iraqi guy argued that Earth is flat (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wppjYDj9JUc); I know he's also saying a lot of crazy stuff, but my point is that he's saying all that on the basis of his literal reading of the Qur'an (he says so himself).

2. Many highly educated Muslims today argue that Earth was created before the heavens; you will find all the references in my book when you get it...

Atif Khan said...

I am wondering what is the point of making science and religion compatible when they are not really. Quran is implicit and I totally agree with Ali Kazim here that it can be twisted to justify its validity anytime because of its implicit nature.

Science is clear and explicit and should be followed and preferred.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Atif,

Again, there is no choice to be made between "following the Qur'an" and "following science" on issues that are the province of Science. In that domain, the Qur'an only provides a "philosophy of nature" and, to some extent, a "philosophy of knowledge".

On the other hand, the Qur'an addresses issues (why we are here, how we are supposed to relate to one another, to nature, and to God) where Science is out of its element.

There are indeed "two magisteria", but they are not exactly "non-overlapping". If I'm not clear, I'll explain my views in a post some day, as it's now getting well down at the bottom of the Comments section.

Kevin said...

Although I come from a Christian background, I'm really interested to read this book. Will I be able to find it in Malaysia? I think a lot of my Muslim friends in Malaysia will be interested as well... :)

Anyway, it's great to see Muslim scientists/scholars adding their voice to the science-religion dialogue...

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Kevin,
Thanks. Yes, I really believe you and your Malaysian friends will find the book of interest.
There is a page on the publisher's website (http://www.ibtauris.com/Distribution.aspx) where one can find the local or regional representatives' addresses and phone numbers. I suggest that you and anyone interested in knowing where the book can be obtained give a call to the local representative of IB Tauris (there is one for Malaysia and Brunei). Alternatively, one may order from Amazon-UK.
Those in the US, for once, will have to wait...

Ali Kazim Gardezi said...

Hi Ali,

Interpretting Quran literally has far too many problems when it comes to science and the way universe work. The only way to move forward without dismissing Quran completely (in terms of science only) is to take it as guiding principal, as I suppose Nidhal meant.

Muslim scientists should continue to study science deeply n throughly without fearing that Islam or Quran will hold them back. Improve our understanding of the world. Improve the image of the Muslims. Improve the image of your country, and most of all utilize your mind in the best possible way. This would be a worthy cause to live for.

Ali Kazim Gardezi said...

Abdullah (Ex Muslim) is doing the right thing by concentrating on his PhD. That's what we should all be doing instead of unnecessarily confusing ourselves of whether to take Quran literally or not ( in matters of science). That's my point of view and you may disagree.

Ali said...

Hi Ali Kazim,

I respect your views. I wish I can agree with everything you said. :)

Interperting the Quran is a big issue. I am sure we both, and probably everyone else too, will agree on this.

Some time ago, I too thought the Quran must be taken as a book that provides, in Nidhal's words, a "philosophy of nature;" or a "guiding principle" as you say. This approach, in my mind, can only satisfy one if one is to have a very superficial look at the book. The more I read and the more I tried to understand what the Qur'an means, the more I realised that it is impossible to stick to this approach.

With all respect to what Nidhal is proposing, I must say that, once you start contemplating on what the Qur'an says, you will understand that its words carry a much deeper and richer meaning that has to be understood thoroughly before you can know what it means. Its not easy. But I found the process intellectually stimulating. This also led me to accept that the Qur'an cannot be taken as anything but what it literally means.

And because I tried and could not stick to a non-literal interpretation of the Qur'an, I am looking forward to reading Nidhal's book.

Ali said...

Dear Nidhal,

I can understand why you are proposing to interpret the Quran in a "philosophical" manner.

With regard to Tafsir al-Jalalain, I will call it a human error. So was geocentrism. So is the Iraqi guy on the video you gave the link for.

I checked 88:20 on the following website where more than 30 different translations of the verse are given.
http://islamawakened.com/Quran/default.htm
The vast majority of the translators have used "spread out" as the translation of the word 'sutihat.' So if someone thinks it means something else, I think its only fair to call it human error.

Your second example is more difficult to comment upon before I do more research and before I read your book.

All the best.

Ali

Ali said...

Hi Nidhal,

This post is almost history now. But, out of curiosity, I want to ask one question.
What is the word count of your book? Amazon says it is 416 pages. Just want to have an idea.

Thanks.

Ali

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Hi Ali,

I'm not sure about the word count, as the book went through various edits. In terms of pages, it's much less than 419 (that was, I think, before the final edits and page-setting), the final version is about 350 pages plus notes and index.

Hope you enjoy it.

ice said...

Assalamu aleykum, Nidhal.

I'm very interested in your book, because this theme "Quran and Sciense" is very important, I think. I'll try to order book through Europe - now we have no it in Russia.

I often see such opinion, and you have also said it above: "First, I think it is hugely important to always keep in mind that the Qur'an is not a book of science. Thus, none of the verses where it describes phenomena of (or in) nature are to be taken literally, simply because it's not the Qur'an's goal to teach us something about how things work, only what all that is supposed to mean (to us)".

Why do you think so, Nidhal? What is the fundament (ayahs, hadiths etc.) of such opinion?
Sorry, maybe you answered it in your book, but I have not it yet.

Assalamu aleykum,
Ullubiy

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Wa Alaikum Assalam, Ullubiy,

Thank you for your interest and query. I strongly encourage you to order the book and read it. A whole chapter is devoted to the Qur'an's philosophy of knowledge/science, another chapter is devoted to Science, another one to "Islamic Science", and another one to the Qur'an's presumed miraculous scientific content. And that's just the first half of the book... So, forgive me if I don't start arguing my theses here in blog comment space.

One thing I must stress, however, is that not every idea/opinion/thesis will have a direct Qur'anic verse or hadith underlying it. Some views are constructed from various principles and analyses, and we cannot always expect a simple Islamic reference for the viewpoint being presented.