Science and Islam-2

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By Prof. Ibrahım PIRAHMEDOGLU and Assoc. Prof. Gokalp KAHRAMAN


Award winning science writer Paul Davies wrote an op-ed New York Times article (Nov. 24, 2007) where he said: “Because the very no­tion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God cre­ated the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect math­ematical relationships… In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus… The laws that regulate the World all are expressed as tidy mathemati­cal relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?”

Since the emphasis on the laws of physics is so central, we should be concerned closely with what they really are. A good example of how scientific method works is in the ef­forts of discovering the laws of mo­tion; everything in the universe from giant stars to atoms is in motion. Some two thousand years ago, Aris­totle attempted to clarify motion by identifying natural and violent mo­tion. He assumed that natural mo­tion proceeds from the “nature” of an object. He also categorized that all substances consists of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire, whose proper places are on top of each oth­er, respectively. He hypothesized that every substance has its own natural place; the motion occurs when that substance leaves off its natural place. If you throw a stone to some height above its proper place, it falls and re­turns back to its natural place, so the smoke ascends for the same reason. He gave lots of detail which we will omit here but, nevertheless, it was a good scientific hypothesis that had many predictions. He predicted that earth is sphere; since if you arrange earth as close as possible to its centre, the shape you will get is a sphere. He predicted that heavy objects must fall faster since it must be most eager to find its place. But he never tested his ideas for which one needs a quan­tification, well defined concepts and measuring tools, i.e., one is not only interested in just the behaviour such as rapidly falling but rather seeking quantitative behaviour, for example, measuring how much time it takes for a stone to fall. Hence, mathemat­ics, measurements and using tools have later become part of the scien­tific method, especially by the Mus­lim scholars like Alhazan as we men­tioned in the previous issue briefly.

Usually western historians of science jump from Greeks to Renaissance ignoring Muslim contribu­tions. Let’s for the sake of argument assume their record is correct. In 1500s Galileo rejected Aristotle’s hypothesis about the motion. He demonstrated that objects regard­less of their weight downfall the same height at the same time when air friction is absent. He also real­ized that Aristotle was wrong in saying that the forces are required to maintain constant velocity of an object although a force is needed to set the motion. While something is moving at constant speed, no force is needed to keep its motion as long- as the friction is absent. Galileo not only hypothesized but also did ex­periments to check its predictions. He conducted series of experiments using inclined planes. He observed that on downhill planes, a rolling- body’s speed increases because of gravity; while on an uphill, object’s speed decreases. What happens to rolling object 011 a level plane where gravity does not affect the motion along the plane? The rolling ball maintains a constant speed. Galileo inferred that the body will roll for­ever without slowing or speeding- up under negligible friction.

How can Galileo be sure that the motion would take forever un­less he would have miles long level planes with negligible friction when he ran his experiments? He cannot; since it is impossible, he has done an extrapolation. Another objection to his conclusions is that he must have had friction free sys­tems. When technology attained vacuum, then Galileo’s conclusions were tested removing any doubts. So Galileo opened up a tradition of idealization or making a model of a case where in real situation is much more involved and practically unre­alizable. Nevertheless, he formulated what is now known to be the law of inertia far more comprehensive than the Aristotle’s hypothesis.

R. R Feynman asked his father when he was a kid: “I had a ball in a wagon I was pulling, and I noticed something, so I ran up to my father to say that ‘When I pull the wagon, the ball runs to the back, and when I am running with the wagon and stop, the ball runs to the front. Why? How would you answer?’ He replied, ‘That, nobody knows.’ He said, ‘It’s very general, though, it happens all the time to anything; anything that is moving tends to keep moving; any­thing standing still tries to maintain that condition… It’s called inertia, that principle'” Let me draw reader’s attention to ‘that, nobody knows’ part. Grown up Feynman liked his father’s answer, because he was aware that knowing the name of something didn’t mean that you understood it as he said: “He put the difference be­tween what we know and what we call it very distinctly… Nobody knows why things fall. It’s a deep mystery, and the smartest people ill the world don’t know the basic reason for it.”

All this scientific method while leading to a discovery of some law also conceals subtle issues related to that law making us think that the mat­ter is trivial. We are all indeed sort of “brain washed” as if we understood fully the laws at a deep level, and we are comfortable making bold state­ments such as ‘Oh, magnetic field or energy is doing this or that!’

It is indeed very essential to dif­ferentiate between knowing some­thing in actuality and simply naming it. Feynman was trying to convey a message unless you understand the mechanism leading to a certain event, you have not learned anything. In his talk delivered to high school teachers he told that students would learn nothing by just saying ‘energy is causing something to move’. He explained elegantly: “Without using the word ‘energy,’ tell me what you know now about the dog’s motion. You cannot. So you learned nothing about science.”

Bediuzzaman pointed out the same problem in another perspec­tive; he said: “By naming some deep and vital facts, they treat the matter as trivial as though it is understood fully. For example, by saying that this is an electric force, they just treat this deep and subtle fact as a cheap ordinary matter. Yet while just giving a single name, they hide almost two pages of wisdom at­tached to that law, a miracle of the All Powerful Allah. They reduce it to a hollow cheap level so they submit that fact with multitudes of benefits to blind forces or haphaz­ard coincidence or a vague nature.”

Having discovered laws and identifying the concepts and thus naming things of course is a neces­sity but not sufficient to solve the problems. After a concept is devel­oped, we tend to use it freely with­out thinking the stages involved in it, so this is in fact a handicap as well in teaching science itself. Another concern is that the formulation and naming the concepts do not dimin­ish the mystery of that law since as you go deeper in your discovery you unfold so many wisdoms attached to that simple fact. Hence, we should not stop there, reflect upon what we found and think about whether that law by itself can figure out those so many wonderful consequences.


The attitude of science is strictly to concentrate on the things within the universe and their relationships; however, recent progress in science made some leading scientists to di­gress this path, yet they refute to hold views of any organized religion. One of them is Paul Davies whose recent op-ed article on NYT highly has been debated, and he also wrote many books on these issues such as ‘God and New Physics’ and ‘Mind of God.’ He says: “I believe that mainstream science, if we are brave enough to embrace it, offers the most reliable path to knowledge about the physical world… But I do think that if religion is to make real progress it cannot ignore the scientific culture; nor should it be afraid to do so, for as I have argued, science reveals just what a marvel the universe is… Sci­ence offers a surer path to God than does religion… Science is more likely to reveal the deeper meaning of ex­istence than appeal to traditional re­ligion.” Thus he proposes that since science now started to deal with deep issues of existence, such as the ori­gin and meaning of the universe, the place of men in nature, why not sci­entists step forward and offer answer to the world’s old age riddles. The grander and comprehensive adjec­tives were raised in a debate between well-known geneticist Prof. Francis Collins and famous atheist botanist Prof. Richard Dawkins (Nov. 2006 Time Magazine). Dawkins came to a point where he said: “I accept that there may be things far grander and more incomprehensible than we can possibly imagine.”

In summary, science advanced to a level concerning deep issues and some scientist found religious views short sided, even sometimes childish. They often do criticism by directly aiming at views of the church or sometimes at Judeo-Islamic-Christian tradition. It is surprising that while these sci­entists are careful to be very precise in their propositions as the scientific tradition requires, yet when it comes to religious issues and categorizing religions they make very bold state­ments which is often not correct. It is true that Islam and Judeo-Christian- ity share the same heritage but they are as different as “chalk and cheese” as late Imam Ahmed Deedat of South Africa demonstrated at his public de­bates with Christian authorities. As Muslims, we do not think that scien­tific views, even at their present form, are grander and more comprehensive than that of any of the Islamic views (that is itself falsifiable claim, too). Whoever reads the Arabic Qur’an or even a careful/less-careful transla­tion of its meanings; he will verify at various degrees how rational, thought provoking, appealing and challenging the Qur’an is. You do not have to read the whole Qur’an to feel its beauty and grand visions, even if you read just the opening chapter or few short chapters, the Qur’an finds its way through your mind and heart. As Marmaduke Pickthall expressed “move men to tears and ecstasy.” And the Qur’an states: “Though all the trees on earth were pens and sea was ink; seven seas, after, to replenish it, yet would the Words of Lord be never spent, your Lord is Mighty and All Wise (31-27).” In truth, only Is­lam provides the comprehension that the scientists speak of.

So Muslims did not gain this grander vision after the progress of science, they always have had it by the Qur’an. Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207- 73Ad), great mystical poet compared the reality and the sciences, telling that the reality is like pearls deep in the vast ocean which are in fact ab­sent to the gaze of a man standing by the seashore. For such man there is only salty water and fish in the see and nothing else. Fortunate man who dives deep can only find the pearls. He concludes that scientists are like the man who takes out water with pail and never find pearls this way. Now science too claims that it deep dives into the ocean and as­serts that what it has found may be the pearl that it seeks.

Bediuzzaman also gave a simi­lar example where he told that the reality is like a treasure that con­tains variety of pearls and all kinds of jewelleries under the deep ocean. Assume various deep divers dived and obtained one type of pearl from that treasury. So that par­ticular diver makes a claim that the treasury is full of that kind of pearl only, and some other finds a differ­ent kind and he makes the same claim, and so on. He goes on to ex­plain that scientists are one type of a diver, and Muslim philosophers or mystics are another type, and so on, who all claim that the treasure consists of what they have found. They may all be correct in their respective claim but it is not the whole picture. He further says that the Qur’an has also deep dived into that ocean, discovered the treasure in a more comprehensive way since its eye is full open during the diving. That is, Qur’an brings to our atten­tion from smallest things to stars, to animals and vegetation, and to mountains and rivers, and so on; and the level of that mentioning is at the status of the One Who is the source of all reality, which in the above par­able is represented by a treasure un­derneath the deep ocean. We should note that despite the broader sense of talking about things in the uni­verse, until now no statement of the Qur’an is refuted by any discovery of science. On the contrary, Qur’an foretold some of the new scientific discoveries in a succinct way more than 1400 years ago.

Style of the Qur’an captures readers’ mind by taking it from a small insect to the big stars, as elo­quently explained by Bediuzzaman: “With whichever ‘hammer’ the Mak­er of the world, fastened the Sun and the moon in their places, with the same ‘hammer’ and at the same instant He fixes atoms in their plac­es, for example in the pupils of liv­ing creatures’ eyes. And with which­ever measure, whichever immaterial instrument. He arranged the heav­ens and unfolded them, at the same instant and with the same arrange­ment, He opens up the eye remov­ing its veils.” There are great arti­cles like this on this subject alone by many Muslim scholars, in particular Bediuzzaman’s treatise called “The 25th Word.” We refer the reader to them for further discussion.

This brings us to the question of whether Qur’an is a science book or not. At the outset, Qur’an is not a science book. It mentions some physical events, which science may be concern with as well, briefly in a simple form since it addresses most­ly the general public to direct their attention to the uniqueness and oneness of the All-Mighty Creator, Allah, without insulting their com­prehension. However, underneath such brief and simple description one can unfold many treasures. This point sufficiently is dealt with the 19th Letter of Risale-i Noor where it was stated clearly: “The all-wise Qur’an speaks of the universe in order to make known the divine is­sues, attributes, and Names. Hence it explains the meanings of the Book of the Universe to make its Creator known. For it regards beings, not for themselves, but for their Crea­tor. Also, it addresses everyone… For example, when it mentions the Sun, it says, ‘The Sun is a revolving lamp or lantern.’, because it does not emphasize the Sun for its own sake, but rather because it is sort of chief official in the working of the solar system, it gathers the mind’s attention to His divine order and regulating power…” By calling the Sun a lamp, Allah reminds us that He prepared this system for our use by making the seasons as wagons carrying the favours of Allah to all his guests here on earth and every­where else so that He wants us to recognize His favours and mercy, and just thank Him. Clearly the purpose of the Qur’an is to show us Allah as He makes every object re­flect His Names and Attributions, at which point the way of science usu­ally stops and does not go further.

Assume we find a book which we do not know how to read. Then we try to discover its letters, describe their shape, their size, etc. so do all sorts of detailed study but limited only to discovering the properties of letters and nothing else (this is analogous to scientific method). In another way to read the book, we try to understand some of the meanings disclosed by its sentences or paragraphs composed of the arranged letters (this is analogous to the Qur’anic way). Here the argu­ment starts as to whether whose arguments is more meaningful and more beneficial for human­kind. That book in question is ob­viously the book of universe. Here the Qur’an comes down with all its challenging aspects claiming that it is the best translator of that book from the very Author of the book of the universe. Hence the Qur’an is at our hands, challeng­ing on the matter, so we should check ourselves and see whether it fits what it claims to be. This is indeed falsifiable if have a taste for that kind of argument.


We cannot exhaust all details in this article; even the points intro­duced may be somewhat vague or too brief. If this article may initi­ate the reader to think about this interesting subject, then it fulfils its purpose. We started explaining the character of science, which is the property of all humanity, and how it is practiced somewhat in a detailed manner. We reminded that early Muslim scientists were mo­tivated by the Qur’an and the dy­namics of Islam, and made original great contributions to science; they did not just transmit the Greek sci­ence as usually said.

We showed how an educated guess, a sort of intuition, based on observation transformed to a de­gree of law. Here we omitted many details in order not to overwhelm the reader. We preferred that the reader gain some understanding of how a law is discovered, so while evaluating either a religious or scientific matter, the reader is guided to make sound judgments and avoid wrong presumptions. Since scientific conclusions are arrived at through many idealiza­tions and extrapolations, we must be careful about them.

We indicated that there is a change of mode in science recent­ly by a group of leading scientists suggesting the scientific reasoning should be pushed as far as it can go up until finding the source of all truth. Of course, this is a highly debated issue not settled yet. Hence, scientist warned that the recent sci­entific progress and its results can­not be ignored by the religion. This has been true for Islam which always welcomed scientific efforts and facts, since as science reads the Book of Universe, it refines our understand­ing of truth, verifies the testimony of the Creator, and tests the chal­lenging aspects of the Qur’an.

Yet we decline that Muslims get grander and comprehensive visions from science. Muslims from its begin­ning had always grander and more encompassing ideas about the uni­verse, and proper understanding of the Creator, Allah. So a particular new scientific discovery just provides veri­fication or realization of a Quranic information, improving Muslims’ al­ready greater understanding

Last point we made is that Qur’an values the objects or the world as Al­lah’s favours which is different than the way (secularly interpreted) sci­ence views, since the Quranic pur­pose is to show the value of things as they show Allah’s Attributes, es­pecially, mercy, wisdom, knowledge, will, and power. So we should not ex­pect direct scientific information from the Qur’an, except only signs to the greatness and subtlety of creation.

We conclude with the advice of Bediuzzaman who strongly opposed the secular interpretation of science, one that lacks any reference to the Crea­tor of the Book of Universe that sci­ence reads, and that regards scientific efforts independent of Creator’s will and purpose. Once, a group of high school students asked Bediuzzaman, “Please, teach us about our Creator, Whom our teachers do not mention.” He replied in his Guidance for Youth, “You should listen to the science itself, rather than your teachers, since each science is teaching you, with its tongue of disposition the Names of the Crea­tor.” Students at any level should not suffice what is presented to them, but rather they should think about how a thing is in the service of Allah, get­ting details from science and under­stand the wisdom as to how it is show­ing Allah’s Names and Attributes. So it is better for us to read the book of universe in a Quranic way as well as the scientific way, and know that they neither contradict each other nor are rivals to each other, keeping in mind that the science is just a human en­deavour and is thus limited. No matter how much man may thrive, science can progress only as much as Allah wills in accordance with His wisdom.