Monday, May 30, 2011

An Online Qur'an Resources Project

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.


Professor Daniel M. Varisco recently posted an announcement about an ‘Online Qur’an Resources’ project, which is sponsored by the Social Science Research Council.
Varisco chairs the Department of Anthropology at Hofstra University and is the director of Middle Eastern and Central Asia studies. He is fluent in Arabic and has lived in the Middle East (Yemen, Egypt, Qatar) for over 5 years since 1978, according to this page on the Hofstra University website. He may also be familiar to many readers of Irtiqa, especially those who keep a good eye on intelligent blogs dealing with Islam, and indeed Salman has often referred in passing to Tabsir, the blog produced by Varisco with other contributors. Tabsir, which is Arabic for “to give clarity or insight”, aims at providing “fair, open-ended scholarly assessment” of issues dealing with Islam and the Middle East, as opposed to the “stereotypes, misinformation and propaganda [that are] spread in the media and academic forums.” And last but not least, “Tabsir provides an online resource and archive for students and teachers.”
And so in the aim of providing such resources and archives for students and teachers, Varisco has, with Bruce B. Lawrence, a professor in the Department of Religion at Duke University, launched the Online Qur’an Resources project.
 I would like to present a very brief overview and a few comments. Clearly, this is not going to be a thorough review, for it’s only been a few days since the site was announced, and a visitor will immediately realize that it is rich with dozens of links and documents, and it will take any interested person many hours to sift through it.
The first thing I want to say is that this is a welcome contribution, for the following main reason: this is one of the very few websites that tries to present a spectrum of views on various aspects of the Qur’an, ranging from the ultra-apologetic standpoint to the most critical positions. Indeed, one is immediately startled to see on the same page (Science and the Qur’an, more on this shortly), links to pages by: Harun Yahya, Maurice Bucaille, Zakir Naik, Taner Edis, and Infidels.org.
The main sections of this Qur’an Resources website are: The Qur'an; Interpreting the Qur'an; Reciting the Qur'an; Translating the Qur'an; Qur'an, Jihad and Justice; Science and the Qur'an; and Attacking the Qur'an. Let me focus on the ‘Science and the Qur’an’ webpage; others might comment on the other sections.
The page is divided into the following subsections: General Muslim Views; Anti-Muslim Views; Astronomy; Biology; History of Islamic Sciences ; Mathematics; and Medicine.
In the ‘General Muslim Views’ subsection, one is quickly surprised to find Irtiqa, the only “resource” listed there that is not directly related to the Qur’an. In fact, Irtiqa does not even devote a section to the Qur’an among the 36 subjects listed on its page (menu on the right). Of the other 12 resources listed in that subsection, 10 are directly related to the Qur’an and Science, and the other two deal with “Islamic Science”. Irtiqa is the odd one out.
The other (sad) surprise is that many of those resources deal with I`jaz, the “miraculous scientific content of the Qur’an”. I know this is not the curators’ fault, and indeed I`jaz tends to dominate the Science-Islam digital landscape, but perhaps Varisco and Lawrence could make an effort to provide more scholarly articles (check out the Journal of Islamic Studies and Zygon, for instance) on that topic, and not rely too much on the mediocre material one finds on the free web. For one must ask: what kinds of “resources” do the works produced by Zakir Naik and Tariq Al-Suwaidan constitute?
And essentially the same remark can be made about the other subsections of the Science and the Qur’an page, namely the surprising juxtaposition of nonsensical works with other, much more scholarly and rich ones. For example, in the Astronomy section, one finds the famous article by Owen Gingerich on “Islamic Astronomy” (published in Scientific American in 1986) a few lines above the (in)famous determination of the speed of light from Qur’anic verses (by the late Dr. Hassab Elnaby – see a detailed critique of that work and that whole line of discourse in my book, “Islam’s Quantum Question”). Likewise, in the Biology subsection, Harun Yahya is put alongside Jalees Rehman.
So, in summary, this is a welcome contribution, and a potentially very useful resource repository. And though I must remind myself and everyone that I have only looked briefly at the website, and it’s clearly a work in progress, I think that one advice that can be given to Varisco and Lawrence is to distinguish or differentially label the various kinds of “resources” given, for students in particular will not immediately know that there’s a world between Gingerich and Elnaby, and to beef up this repository with articles and references of much greater substance and academic weight.

6 comments:

Ali said...

"The other (sad) surprise is that many of those resources deal with I`jaz, the “miraculous scientific content of the Qur’an”."

The Qur'an says:
... there are signs for men of understanding ...
... there are signs for men who are wise ...
So, please, instead of being sad that people do talk about I'jaz in the Quran, contemplate on what God revealed to us.
You would need to read the Qur'an and deeply think about what is said in it in order to understand the scientific content of the Qur'an. I challenge anyone who would disagree with me.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Ali,
We need to distinguish between saying that the Qur'an encourages humans to contemplate nature and the cosmos and considers phenomena around us as signs of the Creator's wisdom and power and between claiming that modern scientific discoveries and inventions can be found in the Qur'an. The latter is I`jaz, and one can show the nonsense in these claims and in the methodology used by its proponents (see Chapter 5 in my book). The former is a respectable belief that I have no objection to whatsoever.
We just need to be more discerning about things that are claimed about the Qur'an; not every "great" thing said about the Qur'an in necessarily true.

Mohamed said...

The universe is a complicated place, and that's why I'm always puzzled by those who are unwilling to say, "I don't know."

I'm also baffled by those folks who think they have it figured out. Who believe everything we need to know has already been written down in a book---the Bible, say, or the Quran.

If only things were that simple.

Ali said...

Nidhal,

"We need to distinguish between saying that the Qur'an encourages humans to contemplate nature and the cosmos and considers phenomena around us as signs of the Creator's wisdom and power and between claiming that modern scientific discoveries and inventions can be found in the Qur'an."

Honestly, i don't know how you can do this.
If you can "contemplate nature and the cosmos and considers phenomena around us as signs of the Creator's wisdom and power" how can you separate this from scientific findings?
I m not saying that EVERY "great thing said about the Quran" is true. But that at least some of the scientific findings can be found in the Quran.
Are you saying that we should not co-relate these findings?
Or that we should just ignore them?

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Ali,
The difference is between someone's contemplation and awe of nature and the cosmos and a scientist's rigorous description of a phenomenon in a way that we regard as scientific (fitting all observations, predictive, etc.). Those are two very different levels of looking at nature, the second one very precise and mathematical. This second level is not what the Qur'an does, simply because that it not what the Book is about.

There are more issues to raise against the I`jaz theory (of scientific miraculousness of the Qur'an), but I won't get into that, as your question focused on the difference between the Qur'an encouraging contemplation and even investigation of nature and between it itself containing scientific descriptions of phenomena.

I am not saying you cannot harmonize (you said "correlate") the verses that talk about stars or rivers or mountains with their scientific descriptions (you're free to interpret verses in a way that makes sense to you), but don't make the mistake of thinking they're the same thing and hence the Qur'an already contained that.

Ali said...

Nidhal,

"This second level is not what the Qur'an does, simply because that it not what the Book is about."
I agree.
The second level you mention is not what the Qur'an is about.
But God did not tell us that there are signs for men of understanding so that we will look at the cosmos and be in awe of it in the manner a child is in awe of his new toy. God tell us of the signs because we are supposed to use the intellect God bestowed on us and find out what these signs are. And science is the means through which we achieve this.

"... but don't make the mistake of thinking they're the same thing and hence the Qur'an already contained that."
Please tell me how I cannot think the are not the same thing?
If the Qur'an says that the heaven and earth were one unit of creation before God clove them asunder, for example, how can I not believe that this is what the Big Bang theory is about?
Please also tell me how I can think it is not already there in the Qur'an?
I am not saying that all scientific findings are there in the Qur'an. But that there are some findings that we cannot ignore.