Yesterday I had the privilege of giving a talk about ‘Islam and Science’ to a very bright group of individuals at Ryerson University. I am thankful to Allah that the talk was a success and it was followed by a very intriguing and intellectual discussion, which is more than had I hoped for. For the sake of interest (and hopefully benefit) I wanted to share just a few points that were made that I think are crucial to keep in mind for a Muslim in the sciences or any other discipline.
Science vs Scientific Practice
It is common knowledge that the Quran contains many references to scientific findings that have been confirmed by early scientists as well as modern-day scientists. Things like the constellations of the sky, the nature of subatomic particles, and the development of the human fetus are topics that we come across quite often in the Quran. Given these facts have been proven correct by science, many Muslims have taken on the approach (including myself at one point) to use these facts to verify the accuracy of the Islamic faith and to distinguish Islam as ‘the’ religion of knowledge. But in doing so, we have a problem. Although science is a universal phenomenon (ie. human physiology is consistent no matter who you are and whatever era you come from), scientific practice is not. The practice of science has always been driven by political, economical, and social interests (although it shouldn’t be), and the best way to validate this claim is to talk to a researcher of any discipline. It is not until you immerse yourself with research that you will discover that not everything you learn in ‘mainstream’ science regarding your topic of interest is entirely true. Therefore, due to the conflicts of interest and the nature of the objectives behind scientific practice, simply relying on scientific findings in the Quran to promote a rational element of Islam may actually cause more harm than good. In fact, with the ever-changing nature of science, doing so may only put the reputation of the faith at risk, especially if we try to use it to teach members of our community and for dawah (invitation) purposes.
Islam as a Product
The other problem is that we are constantly using scientific connections in Islam to prove ourselves to other societies, particularly those with atheist beliefs. Since atheism is driven by concepts that are in disagreement with Islam, naturally, we get all hyped up to tackle these concepts, and that’s where a lot of people will open the Quran in search for scientific claims to argue with atheists (because apparently, scientific reason is mostly associated with atheism nowadays). As some of the students put it yesterday, this is an aggressive approach, because all of a sudden it looks like we are overlooking the meaning of these Quranic verses and overusing their scientific references just to promote and validate Islam to others. In other words, its been our way of telling atheists “You claim to know all of these things without a God, but we know these things before you ever did because we have a God: so in your face!”. That’s basically what it sounds like to me, and it is just inappropriate on so many levels.
More importantly, this approach does not add any value to emphasizing the “truth” of Islam because obviously this religion is far more than just the observation of our surroundings. Yet so many of our discussions about Islam and Science have been geared towards proving others wrong, however in that process, we have made it difficult to talk about this important subject amongst ourselves. Every talk I have been to about Islam and Science has only focused on explaining the Islamic meaning of science to outsiders of this faith, meanwhile the audiences were always Muslim. I don’t have the intention of constantly debating this subject, and considering some of my dearest friends are atheists, I’m pretty sure we can come up with other things to argue about while still embracing our friendship, so I’ll pass. But really, how will these talks ever expand my own understanding of the Islamic viewpoint on science? More so, how will they ever address the true reason why the Quran uses scientific references in the first place? This brings me to my last point.
Questions to think about
There is much more to the relationship between Science and Islam than just pointing out specific verses from the Quran. We are living in a world where we are constantly learning new things in our environment, and as we absorb all this new scientific information, the relevant question becomes: how do I accept this new information? How can I relate science to my Muslim perception on life? And how can I use what I learn from science in this life to prepare me for the next, or in other words, to become a better Muslim? These are the questions that interest me, and I think trying to answer them leads to self-development and self-awareness to a much greater extent than the previous approach. Luckily, there is a whole body of literature that explains Science and Islam in this sense, and it established by early Muslim scholars, such as Al-Ghazali, Al-Tabari, and Ibn Sina, to name a few. Unfortunately, explaining all their contributions in this subject matter would require turning this post into a thesis, and considering I still need to get back my own thesis at some point today, I will have to leave it for another post. Furthermore, to explain the concepts of the literature will require making multiple references to philosophical thought, and so it is only fair to have a separate post dedicated to these concepts. However, as a take-home message, I want to leave you with this:
Although science is universal, it will not exist without the command of Allah (SWT). We may live in a secular environment that continues to draw boundaries between the acknowledgement of the Almighty and the observation of His Creation, but we already know that this is invalid, so no need to linger on it. Let us focus on the importance of learning about our surroundings with good intentions and implementing this knowledge to build a better understanding of our life as Muslims. Rather than focusing on what to tell others, we should be encouraged to explore the significance behind the references that Allah makes to science in the Quran. I pray that this will only draw us closer to our Creator and help us become better ambassadors of our faith.