Islam and Science

In the modern age, religion is often presented as purely a matter of faith. It is said that science and religion fall into c o m p l e m e n t a r y, if not con- flicting, domains. It is then argued that a clear demar- cation between the secular and the spiritual is necessary. In order to separate the domains of religion and science, it must be recognised that science is reason organised for understanding the material universe. It is claimed that religion, on the other hand, is prudent abdication of reason with regard to those questions that are outside the reach of science. Science involves observation, analysis, hypothesis, and empirical validation. The last – that is, the experimental verification – forms the essence of science. The boundaries of science, the chain of deductive and causal relationship, due to the very nature of this enterprise, must be allowed to extend as far back and wide, as it can. But the experimental validation must remain the sole arbiter and judge of which theories are accepted as immutable laws of Nature and which theories are relegated to the heap of mere speculations. Islam rejects the belief that science and religion belong to opposite domains. We hold that reason must be the primary means of evaluating the validity of Islamic beliefs. We believe that a Supreme Creator exists and that the Creator communicates with man through divine revelation. How can these two fundamental assertions be 56 Review of Religions – October 2002 Islam and Science This essay is based on a speech delivered by the author for West Coast Jalsa, Chino, California, U.S.A. on December 29, 2001. By Rafi Ahmad, Ph.D. – California, USA reconciled? We propose that Islam is a reasonable appli- cation of revelation and rationality with regard to those questions that are outside the reach of science. There are three aspects of the relationship between Islam and science. First, our premise is that the descriptions of c o s m o l o g y, embryology, and the origin and evolution of various forms of life given in the Qur’an conform to modern scientific findings and thus point to the Divine origin of the Holy Qur’an. The second premise is that Islam and science are not only compatible but that Islam encourages scientific enquiry. The third aspect is the scientific contributions of Islamic societies. The Qur’an and the Universe Hadhrat Khalifatul-Masih IV, in his book, R e v e l a t i o n , R a t i o n a l i t y, Knowledge and Truth, observes that: ‘The knowledge gained through revelation is quite different from that of the knowledge gained through secular scientific investi- gation. The divine scrip- tures are not text books of science, hence any reference therein to scientific subjects could not be merely incidental. The main purpose is to establish the unity of source.’ (p. 285) That is, the Qur’an assures us that there can be no contradiction between the scriptural universe — the word of God — and the material universe — the work of God. The Qur’an makes highly accurate observations about the creation of the universe. It says. Do not the disbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were a closed-up mass, then We clove them asunder? … Will they not then believe? (Ch.21: v.31) 57 Islam and Science Review of Religions – October 2002 The Qur’an continues: And We have built the heaven with might and We continue to expand it indeed. (Ch51: v.48) The reference in these two verses is to the origin of the universe as envisioned by the Big Bang theory and to the expansion of the universe from a black hole, a dark ‘closed-up mass’ in the apt Qur’ a n i c p h r a s e. The expansion of the universe, discovered by Edwin Hubble in the 1920s, is a cornerstone of modern cosmology, and is best envisaged as the continual stretching of space itself. Stephen Hawking, who is one of the most eminent theoretical physicists of our time, writes in his recent book The Universe in a Nutshell: ‘The discovery of the expansion of the universe was one of the great intellectual revolutions of the twentieth century. It came as a total surprise, and it completely changed the discussion of the origin of the universe. If the galaxies are moving apart, they must have been very close together in the past … (this) implied that the universe and time itself must have had a beginning in a tremendous explosion.’ (p. 76) A controversy raged for fifty years over whether the universe was expanding. And when it became inescapably clear that it is expanding, another controversy started over whether this expansion means that the universe had a beginning — that is, the Big Bang. The support for the notion of a Creator in the Big Bang theory arises not only from the fact that the theory provides a moment when creation could have occurred but also because at the beginning of the universe we encounter the unexplainable. Laws of physics break down at that point. In physics, that point is called a singularity. 58 Islam and Science Review of Religions – October 2002 The foregoing Qur’anic verse mentions disbelievers. The reference might very well be to the agnostic and atheistic scientists of today. The idea of origin of the universe with a singularity did not sit well with many distinguished astrono- mers. Herman Bondi, Fred Hoyle, and others came up with a steady state theory, an attempt to explain the expansion of the universe in a way that would not require the universe to have had a beginning — and by implication a Creator. But this theory was readily discarded, as it did not correspond to the observa- tional data. A few years later, James Hartle and Stephen Hawking proposed a model, where the universe has no boundary either in space or in time — so that this allegedly self-contained and self- creating universe could just be. In his popular book, A Brief History of Time, Hawking then asked: What place, then, for a creator? ( p.141) There are two main objections to Hartle-Hawking theory. First, we must grant this theory quite a body of pre- existing laws of physics in order to get away with the trick of avoiding boundary conditions. Second, given our present state of knowledge, this remains an extremely speculative model with little chance of observational veri- fication. Thus the Qur’an can still rightfully ask: Do not the disbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were closed-up mass, then We opened them out? And We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe? (Ch.21: v.31) The cycle of creation and destruction of the universe might mislead one to believe that the universe is eternal. The theory of entropy – the tendency in the universe towards irreversible disorder – can be used to dispel this misconception. There is also a constant dissipation of 59 Islam and Science Review of Religions – October 2002 matter and energy, which indicates that the universe will finally perish. The Q u r’an also declares its ultimate annihilation. It says: All that is on it (earth) will pass away. And there will remain only the Person of thy Lord, Master of Glory and Honour. (Ch.55: v.27-28) The Qur’an throws light on many aspects of the origin of life on earth. The Qur’ a n observes that living things were created from water [21:31], which is a well- established scientific fact. The Qur’an refers to the fact of human evolution in the following verse: What is the matter with you that you do not ascribe dignity to Allah? And certainly He has created you in stages. (Ch.71: vs 14-15) It is important to make a distinction between the fact of evolution and a theory of evolution. The fact of evolu- tion means that there is evidence that life has progressed in nature from lower to higher forms over time. A theory of evolution, on the other hand, attempts to provide a mechanism for that process. The Darwinian theory of natural selection hypoth- esises the evolution of life as a purely physical process fully explainable in terms of small random variations and selection of the fittest. It is a quasi-scientific theory full of critical flaws; and it does not lend itself well to either deductive analysis or empirical verification, the hallmarks of true science. The under- pinning of the Darwinian theory is that the role played by a supernatural agency in the evolution of life can be completely eliminated. The Qur’an recognises the fact of evolution but rejects the Darwinian theory of natural selection. Many Qur’ a n i c verses speak of the evolution of man on earth in planned 60 Islam and Science Review of Religions – October 2002 and progressive stages, where accidents play no major role in the survival of the species or individual. Hadhrat Khalifatul- Masih IV writes ‘at every step of creation, choices that had to be made were made not by the blind hand of natural selection but by the will of God.’ [Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth, p. 103] Fourteen hundred years ago, when the Qur’an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), human understanding of the cosmos was extremely rudimentary. Nonetheless, as we have seen, there are extraordinary scientific facts revealed in the Holy Qur’an. Islam and Scientific Enquiry The Qur’an invites reflection upon the universe, the stars and the planets, the light and the rain, the life in its myriad variety — and the extra- ordinary conditions that govern them. It recommends pondering over the prime cause of creation and the evident wisdom and power of its Creator. The Qur’ a n i c verses inviting reflection on nature outnumber those that are related to religious obser- vation. Prophet Muhammad(sa) said that the quest of knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim, man and woman. He enjoined his followers to seek knowledge even if they have to travel to far away places. His constant prayer was for the knowledge of the ultimate reality of things. The Qur’an invites the believers to scientific enquiry on the premise that they are guided by this knowledge to their Divine Creator. It declares: And in your creation and in that of all creatures, which He scatters in the earth, are Signs for a people who possess firm faith. (Ch.45: v.5) Verily in the creation of the heavens and of the earth, and in the alternation of the night 61 Islam and Science Review of Religions – October 2002 and of the day, there are signs for men of understanding. Those who remember Allah standing, sitting and reclining, and reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth, saying, ‘O Our Lord, You have not created this universe in vain’. (Ch.3: vs. 191-192) The spiritual longing, the remembrance of God, and reflection upon the God’s creation heightens the sense of wonder for the believer and reinforces his faith that the universe was created with a purpose. The Holy Qur’an says: And We have not created the heavens and the earth, and that which lies between the two, but with truth; (Ch.15: v.86) And then it makes a unique proclamation. It says: Who has created seven heavens in harmony. No incongruity canst thou see in the creation of the Gracious God. Then look again; Seest thou any flaw? Aye, look again and yet again, your sight will only return to you frustrated and fatigued. (Ch.67; vs.4-5) These verses have profound significance as we are challenged to study the universe, explore it, and appreciate its perfection and p r e c i s i o n . The universe and its physical laws are indeed without any flaw. The structure of the physical laws are delicately balanced and finely tuned. Many of the basic features of the universe are determined in essence by the values that are assigned to the fundamental constants of the universe. The features of the universe would be drastically different, if the constants assume even moderately altered values. Paul Davies in his book The Accidental Universe writes: 62 Islam and Science Review of Religions – October 2002 ‘… why, from the infinite range of possible values that nature could have selected for the fundamental constants, and from the infinite variety of initial conditions that could have characterised the primeval universe, the actual values and conditions conspire to produce the particular range of very special features we observe. For c l e a r l y, the universe is a very special place: exceedingly uniform on a large scale, yet not so precisely uniform that galaxies could not form; extremely low entropy per proton hence cool enough for chemistry to happen; almost zero cosmic repulsion and an expansion rate tuned to the energy content to unbelievable a c c u r a c y, … and many more apparent accidents of fortune’. (p. 111) But we observe no accident, only design — perfect and precise! The Holy Qur’an further says: And He has subjected to you whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth; all this is from Him. In that surely, are Signs for a people who reflect. (Ch.45: v.14) It would be impossible to conceive a more powerful gesture of encouragement for the limitless exploration of the universe. It is implicit that everything man would discover could be of service to him. Muslim Contribution to Science Under the influence of the Qur’an, the attention of its followers was turned towards the study of nature and its laws. Three centuries after the Hijra, one of the most dynamic scientific movements in history began and rapidly gained momentum in the lands of Islam. It continued unabat- ed for several centuries, and Muslims remained the torch- bearers of science and 63 Islam and Science Review of Religions – October 2002 civilisation. It produced the greatest physicists, astrono- mers, mathematicians, chemists, clinicians, zoolo- gists, and geologists of their time. Most eminent among them are Al-Jabir, Ibn-Hayyan, Al-Jahiz, Al-Damiri, Ibn-Musa Al Khwarizmi, Abu Kamil, Razi, Masudi, Al-Beruni, Ibn-Sena, Omar Khyyam, Al-Kindi, Ibn- Rushed, Yahya Ibn-Mansur, Ibn- Al-Haitham, Al-Farisi, Abul Wafa, Al-Beruni, Sharafu-Din a t – Tusi, Al-Farghani, Al- Battani, and Ulugh Beg. These scientists produced seminal work in medicine, decimal number system, algebra, mathematical algorithms, hydrostatics, propagation and diffusion of light, measure- ment of celestial movements, the length of the solar year, and the radius of the earth – to name a few among their numerous achievements. The word alge-bra is derived from the title of a book by the Muslim mathematician, Al Khwarizmi; and the word algorithm is derived from his very name. This scientific spirit of Islam produced a school of rationalist philosophers known as the Mut’azilites, who emphasised that the real message of revelation could not be understood without the use of reasoning. It is reported that the doctrine of Mut’azilite became the distin- guishing mark of the intellectuals. And phenomenal progress in the secular sciences occurred under the Mut’azilites rulers. Commenting on the scientific achievements of Muslims, a well-known historian, Robert Briffault writes in his book, Europa: The Days of Ignorance: ‘What we call science arose as a result of new methods of experiment, observation and measurement, which were introduced in Europe by the Arabs … This modern science is the most momentous contribution of the Islamic civilization’. (p. 232) 64 Islam and Science Review of Religions – October 2002 This historical verdict is echoed by George Sartan, the great historian of science, in his monumental book, Introduction to the History of Science: ‘The main, as well the least obvious, achievement of the Middle Age was the creation of the experimental spirit, and this is primarily due to Muslims.’ (p. 675) The prestigious scientific journal Nature says: ‘At its peak about one thousand years ago, the Muslim world made a remarkable contribution to science, notably, mathematics and medicine. … A spirit of freedom allowed Jews, Christians and Muslims to work side by side. Today all this is but a memory.’ (Francis Ghiles, Nature, March 24, 1983) Alas, that is true. By the end of the 12th century, an intellectual decline has set in the Muslim world — and it continues to this day. There were external causes, but religious extremism and moral decadence seem to have played a central role in the demise of Islamic science. Add to this, the isolation of scientific enterprise and a rigid orthodoxy with a lack of tolerance for innovation. Prof. Hoodbhoy, a well-known Pakistani physicist, writes: ‘The decline of science in Islamic culture was contemporaneous with the ascendancy of an ossified religiosity, making it harder and harder for secular pursuits to exist. … But certainly, as the chorus of intolerance and blind fanaticism reached its crescendo, the secular sciences retreated further and further. Finally, when the Golden Age of Islamic intellect ended in the fourteenth century, the 65 Islam and Science Review of Religions – October 2002 towering edifice of Islamic science had been reduced to rubble.’ [Islam and Science, p.95- 96] It is an unfortunate fact that today science is the weakest in the Muslim countries. Dr. Mehdi Golshani, an Iranian professor of physics, says that less than one percent of the scientific papers published in the internationally recognized journals originates from the Islamic countries. Pr o f . Hoodbhoy remarks that ‘although Muslims are one- fifth of the world’s population, they are barely noticeable in the world of scientific research.’ (Islam and Science, p.50) After centuries of darkness and intellectual decline in the Muslim world, we see a ray of hope, a silver lining in the cloud. One follower of the Promised Messiah (as), Dr. Abdus Salam, discovered the fundamental theory uniting the two basic forces of nature – the electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces. This discovery is considered one of the most profound contribu- tions to the twentieth century science. Besides his pre- eminent work in the area of particle physics, Dr. Salam dedicated his life to the cause of scientific advancement in the third world in general and in the Muslim world in particular. Regarding the future of science in Islam, Dr. Salam remarked that “so long as the Q u r’anic and the prophetic tradition of religious liberty and tolerance prevails, science in Islam will flourish, for the two are closely linked, so far as our faith is concerned.” [Renaissance of Sciences in Islamic Countries, p.179]. In that spirit, we hope and pray that our young men and women pursue science for the establishment of the truth of the Holy Qur’an, for the refutation of quasi-scientific theories, and for the enrichment of life. 66 Islam and Science Review of Religions – October 2002 Bibliography • Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Tr u t h, Islam International Publications Ltd, 1998. • H. Dalafi and M.H.A. Hassan (Ed.), Renaissance of Sciences in Islamic C o u n t r i e s, World Scientific, 1 9 9 4 . • P. C . W. Davies, T h e Accidental Universe, Cambridge University Pr e s s , 1 9 8 2 . • Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Ti m e, Bantam Books, 1988. • Stephen Hawking, T h e Universe in a Nutshell, Bantam Books, 2001. • Pervez Hoodbhoy, Islam and S c i e n c e, Zed Books Ltd. 1 9 9 1 . • Michael Behe, D a r w i n ’s Black Box, The Free Pr e s s , 1 9 9 5 . • George Sartan, I n t r o d u c t i o n to the History of Science, Krieger Publishing Company, 1 9 7 5 . • Robert Briffault, Europa: The Days of Ignorance, Charles Scribner & Sons, New York, 1935. 67 Islam and Science Review of Religions – October 2002 About the author Rafi Ahmed is a computer scientist. He has a graduate degree in mathematics and a Ph.D. in computer science. He has published over thirty research papers, book chapters, and encyclopedia article in the areas of applied mathematics and computer science. He has also written and spoken on theological and religious subjects. He serves as the education secretary for the San Jose (California, U.S.A.) Chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.) We hope you have enjoyed reading this edition of the magazine. The Review of Religions will continue to prov i d e discussion on a wide range of subjects and welcomes any comments or suggestions from its readers. To ensure that you regularly receive this monthly publication, please fill in your details below and we will put you on our mailing list. The cost of one year’s subscription is £15 Sterling or US $30 for overseas readers (Please do not send cash). Pa y m e n t s should be made payable to the London Mosque and sent to the address below: The Review of Religions The London Mosque 16 Gressenhall Road London SW18 5QL United Kingdom Please put me on the mailing list for the Review of Religions for 1 year. I enclose subscription payment of £15.00 or US $30.00. 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