The Marriage of Faith & Science
“You’re so blind. How can you believe in religion in today’s era of science?”
We hear this said way too often.
Critics of organized religion such as agnostics and atheists attack anyone with some affiliation to God with this argument. Their attacks, unfortunately, more often than not, are not unfounded. Most of Western History, which is predominantly taught in schools today, portrays a tumultuous relationship between Science and Christianity.
Perhaps, the most infamous of this relationship was the Catholic Church’s treatment of Copernicus and Galileo for their belief that the earth was not the center of the universe. As the arrow of time has moved forward, the church has clashed with science over a number of issues such as evolution, contraception, cloning, stem cell research etc.
Armed with this bit of information from their history books, critics then proclaim that science and religion can never go hand in hand; and in fact, religion is what prevents humans from advancing in the fields of science and technology.
However, this understanding is flawed because of two reasons:
(i) History books have been tailored to depict Western society.
(ii) All faith traditions have been equated to be one and the same.
Islamic history, which is often left untaught in schools, however, completely defies this understanding and has more often than not proved to be one of the beacons of science. Our heritage has historically been one where scientific knowledge was cherished and encouraged. Indeed, some of our greatest scholars were experts not only in theology, but also in astronomy, medicine, mathematics, chemistry etc.
Ibn Qayyim, for instance, who is known predominantly for his Hanbali theological works, was a stalwart of chemistry and astronomy. He was among the first astronomers to propose that planets were smaller than stars and that the Milky Way was a galaxy studded with a myriad of stars. In the field of chemistry, he was influential in introducing empirical relationships in reactions and successfully refuted alchemy.
Under the rule of Sultan Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire (1520-1566), therequirements of being an imam of the grand mosque were:
- · To have mastered the languages of Arabic, Latin, Turkish, and Persian.
- · To have mastered the Qur'an, the Bible, and the Torah.
- · To be a scholar in Shari'ah and Fiqh.
- · To have mastered physics and mathematics up to university standard.
- · To be a master of chivalry, archery, dueling and the arts of Jihad.
- · To be of a handsome countenance.
- · To have a strong melodious voice.
Such requirements clearly go to show that our heritage and history have clearly been receptive of scientific advancement.
However, in the past century or so, a schism between science and the Islamic world seems to have developed. And as the adage goes, “History repeats itself”, most of the recent issues concerning this perceived disagreement between Islam and science seem to be related to cloning and evolution.
Indeed, the gravity of the situation is such that many Muslims have been left shaken in their faith, or have left Islam. The ensuing paragraphs deal with the aforementioned aspects of science.
Cloning & Evolution as Examples
Unlike Christianity, most scholars of Islam have held a more liberal view of cloning. Sunni scholar, Yusuf al Qaradawi maintains that cloning of certain body parts is permissible, but cloning an entire human is impermissible.
Critics of Islam often point out the verse from the Qur’an, “Does not man see that We have created him from Nutfah (mixed male and female sexual discharge semen drops).” [Surat Yasin: 36:77]. They argue that while God claims that humans are created from Nutfah, scientists now have the ability to create the process laid down by God, and thus, have defied a verse of the Qur’an, effectively questioning the validity of the entire Qur’an.
While on the face of this, it seems a valid argument, in reality, the claims are shallow. The verse talks about the creation of man from Nutfah, but doesn’t say that it is the only way a human can be created.
In addition, the Qur’an and the hadith make it explicitly clear that, “no power exists except that of Allah”. This essentially implies that even when scientists are able to clone, which is both a theoretical and a practical fact, it wouldn’t have been possible without the permission of Allah.
|Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei facing the Roman Inquisition in a painting by Cristiano Banti.|
Additionally, cloning can only occur with the help of pre-existing live cells, indicating that Allah is still the giver of life and soul. It is also important to understand that while the Qur’an and sunnah encourage scientific research, the completeness of our deen is evident since it also lays down ethics of research.
On the other hand, evolution is perhaps one of the most controversial topics among all major faith groups. Many Muslims have found it difficult to reconcile evolution and the Qur’anic description of the creation of Adam (as).
And we observe extreme opinions from both ends of the spectrum- some scholars saying that evolution is impossible, while other modernists claiming that man did evolve and the verses of the Qur’an are symbolic.
Although the former opinion contradicts established science, the latter opinion can open a Pandora’s Box where every verse can be argued to be symbolic.
Perhaps, the most logical opinion is held by Dr. Yasir Qadhi who argues that the science of evolution is “good science”, that is, it is backed up by scientific data. As in all sciences, it is up to the creativity of the scientist to join the dots in a logical manner and present a hypothesis.
He further argues that the verses of the Qur’an make it amply clear that all life forms came from water, of which some creatures crawl, some walk on two legs, and some on four. [Surat An-Nur: 24:45] The order in the verse gives an indication that indeed; creatures did evolve in a way that evolutionists present, except that we as Muslims believe that evolution happened, not as a result of random chance but through divine selection.
Qadhi then, points out a caveat to this rule, where he argues that the verses of the Qur’an and hadith literature have made it amply clear that Adam (as) was indeed created by Allah in Paradise, and was not a product of evolution. Thus, a Muslim has an additional data point from the Qur’an which a scientist does not have.
Therefore, Qadhi says that if someone were to say that evolution (or divine selection) caused various creatures to come forth, until the time of Adam (as); at which point Adam (as) and Eve (as) were sent to the earth as vicegerents, fitting the jigsaw perfectly in the grand scale of things, then a Muslim shouldn’t have a problem in accepting it.
Avoiding Conflicts in Our Understanding of Science & Islam
It should be noted that since Islam is the truth, it will not contradict an established truth.
Based on this, we can have three possible scenarios:
- Science and Islam are silent on the issue: An example of this would be the belief in alien life. No scientist, presently, can prove or disprove the presence of alien life. Similarly, the Qur’an and the sunnah are silent about this. Therefore, just like a scientist can either believe or disbelieve in the presence of alien life, a Muslim can choose to believe or disbelieve in alien life.
- Verses of the Qur’an offer flexibility in interpretation while science is explicit: A classical example would be the creation of the universe, where Allah (SWT) says that the universe was created in six days. Modern science says that the universe was created in multiple stages  and a closer look at the word used, “yawm”- suggests that in classical Arabic, it could also refer to “long periods of time”.
Early Muslim scientists such as Alhazen (The Model of the Motions, 1038) and Abu Rayhan Biruni (Masudic Canon) refuted the geocentric model of the Solar System for example and were quick to adopt the heliocentric model. Even though, the majority of mainstream Sunni Muslim scholars didn’t accuse them for kufr and the society of Muslims in the Islamic Caliphate didn’t punish them or view them as guilty like the Catholic Church did to the European scientists centuries after these findings.
- Verses where Qur’an is explicit while science can appear to be contradictory:An example of this would be evolution as discussed above.
In conclusion, it is also important to note that it is within the realm of religion to believe in miracles. Science is merely a tool to understand the creation of Allah (SWT), and with its limitations can explain to a fair degree of accuracy how things work, but not why. Allah (SWT) says, “Does the Creator not know best what He created?”
Finally, for those who disbelieve in an All-Knowing God, they’re free to interpret the world as they see fit. However, as Muslims we should remind ourselves of our Creator’s words, “I did not make them witness to the creation of the heavens and the earth or to the creation of themselves.” [Surat Al-Kahf: 18:51].
- M. Kafatos and R. Nadeau, The Conscious Universe: Parts and Wholes in Physical Reality, Springer, 1999.