The Islamic ummah is currently unique amongst the Abrahamic peoples in the depth of its deference to science and technology. (There might be a postcolonial reason for this or, perhaps, the deference has a more indigenous lineage, back to a rationalist subjectivity the Muslims themselves invented centuries before Europe took and ran with it so successfully. That’s not our concern today.)
Running from the East to the West of the body of Islam, in homes, mosques and discussion circles, we find the “proof” of Islam’s veracity is often couched in reference to scientific theories. Popular authors such as Bucaille, Yahya, Deedat and Naik will often claim the Qu’ran’s eternal Truth by arguments that it “predicts” scientific facts that could not have been known at the time of the Prophet Muhammed. Bucaille, for example, claims the Qur’an predicts the movement of the solar system in orbit around the centre of the Milky Way. Yahya claims Einstein’s theory of relativity and the communication system of the honey bee were shown to Muhammed by Gabriel. Passages that might have been mysterious in the past are now clear in their prediction of scientific facts: and for this reason, we know that the Qur’an is Truth.
We could contrast this with modern day Christians (from ecstatic American Pentecostals to more sedate Anglicans and Catholics) who tend to emphasize a personal, emotional, experiential, supernatural aspect of their faith (being touched in some way by the Holy Spirit/Jesus, miracles of saints, visions of Mary etc). And this difference is often utilized by Muslim apologists to illustrate a key division between the religions: Islam is scientific, Christianity is superstition. The fact that this argument works so well illustrates how respected the scientific perspective is within the Islamic ummah. (We see the same argument employed by the same group of Muslims against Sufis, with their claims to astral travel and so on.)
There are deep problems with this perspective. Science and spirituality are “compatible”. As a Sufi, I could elaborate on the numerous spiritual problems (or stumbling blocks) that arise from the currently predominant Muslim position on science and religion. I’ve spoken about such things elsewhere within this blog. But, speaking as a Muslim and a scientist, I am concerned with an orthogonal issue: in deferring to these dubious authors and apologists, the Muslims believe themselves to be deferring to science, but are in fact utilizing pure pseudoscience. They are deferring to cranks. They are basing their “proof” of the Qur’an’s Truth upon pure inauthenticity: there is nothing more inauthentic than claiming to think scientifically when there is no science thought. Inauthenticity is the nature of hypocrisy. And basing the proof of your religion on hypocrisy can’t be good for anyone.
A few points of criticism, regarding Bucaille and Yahya, but with applicability to the rest of the bunch also in mind.
1) The most damning aspect of Bucaille is not so much the scientific facts he is reading into the Qur’an, but his process of reading them into the Qu’ran. It is this process that is unscientific. Contrary to popular opinion, the scientist’s certainty in the success of his/her theory comes from the ever present threat of its failure, its possible falsity, of its future implosion. This is called the falsifiability of the theory’s claims.
For example, Newton developed a theory of how gravity worked that was, for a number of centuries, the accepted scientific truth of why things fall to the ground. But then Einstein came along with a different explanation. One of the implications of his theory was that gravity is able to bend light. And so he was able to propose a test that, if failed, would result in his theory being immediately be rejected. (It passed). A similar observation can be made for the later debate on the whether the universe is expanding outwards from an initial massive explosion (a Big Bang) or whether it is an infinite, eternal space that only appears to be expanding because new matter keeps coming into existence (the Steady State theory). The Steady State theory is not accepted today because it has been shown to be false. This is because the scientist who proposed it, Fred Hoyle, proposed it in a scientific fashion: the Steady State theory (like the winning Big Bang theory) was always open to falsification. It made claims that could be tested. It failed these tests — basically they discovered an “echo” of the explosion. So Hoyle abandoned it and accepted the Big Bang idea.
This doesn’t mean that the “winning” theory is now set in stone: every scientist will accept that evidence might come up against the Einstein’s theory or the Big Bang and render them “false” approximations. Every scientist accepts the threat that a better theory will come along, potentially just as radically different in form from the theories that it replaced.
The point is that every scientific theory permits itself to be checked repeatedly. It might pass these tests a million times over: that makes it useful. But its scientific nature has its basis in the fact that it can also be disproved with just one test, that it can be falsified.
Bucaille, in contrast, uses an accepted scientific theory — like the fact that the Solar System is orbiting around the centre of the Galaxy — and reads it into the Qur’anic verse:
(God is) the one who created the night, the day, the sun and the moon. Each one is traveling in an orbit with its own motion. (21:33)
The Muslim accepts that the Qur’an is Absolute Truth as part of his/her faith. It is therefore not open to falsification. It will pass any tests of its Truth that we throw at it. This means that there is no test in that will render her false: that’s simply not how the Qur’an works — because by her nature, there is not even the possibility of her being false. That’s the nature of her Strength. In contrast, a scientific theory’s (lesser) strength lies in the fact that there is always the possibility of it being proved false (and the longer we can’t achieve that, the stronger the theory becomes, but the threat should always be present).
By making (21:33) into a scientific statement, the apologist is essentially saying that this part of the Qur’an is also open to falsification. There is the possibility that the sun does not orbit the centre of the Galaxy: this is a scientific claim that we can test over and over, seems to be right — but if we realise that we got this fact wrong, then the scientist would have no problem simply ditching the current theory about our galaxy.
But, as Muslims, we don’t treat (21:33) in such a way: it’s an eternal Truth for us and, presumably, for Bucaille as well. Imagine there came a time when scientists realised that the sun does not go around the Galaxy. Say, scientists realised that the old Geocentric view is better, that the sun actually does go around the earth. We know what Bucaille and his ilk would do: they would merely revise their equation and say that (21:33) refers to the geocentric view. They can’t loose, so to speak: they will be able to project whatever theory the scientists provide onto the Qur’an, because their projection never offers the possibility of being discredited, never the possibility of being proven false. But that possibility is the basis of scientific knowledge.
Hence the projection is unscientific — there nothing wrong with being unscientific — but they are being insincerely unscientific because they adopt an apparently scientific tone and gather followers on that basis.
2) There is also the problem with consistency and compatibility. If you claim (as these people do) that the current state of science is predicted in Islamic doctrine, then you are claiming compatibility and consistency between the doctrine and the scientific texts. If we assume that the Islam is a kind of scientific theory (amongst other things), what are we to make of the predication that the the sun will rise in the west at the end of days? Or the splitting of the moon. We would have to radically revise our notion of mechanics to allow for such events to be viable. Let alone an unappealing biological explanation for the virgin birth, astagfirullah.
3) There is also general problems with scientific mistakes in these texts. Yahya make a big fuss about the “seven heavens” of the Qur’an being a scientific theory of the layers of the earth’s atmosphere. Generally speaking, atmospheric science uses a 5 layer categorization — that is sometimes refined to be more than 7. Again, if we are really sincerely assuming a scientific, falsifiable approach, the fact that there are not seven layers of the atmosphere ought to disprove the entire Qur’an as a theory (if it was a genuine scientific theory) — but of course we all know that the Qur’an is absolute Truth, so such a danger is not present.
There are also common arguments these authors seem to have cut and paste from Christian creationists. For example, that evolution denies the 2nd law of thermodynamics, that everything in the universe “degenerates” into heat eventually and, therefore, there cannot be evolution, because evolution involves greater complexity from lesser complexity. This is a basic fallacy because the 2nd law is about overall degeneration — there are of course pockets of greater complexity from lesser, but always at the overall expense of degeneration — for example, we build ourselves all kinds of complicated things (tv sets, computers, houses, etc) — but by generating a lot of extra heat to do so (power plants etc) — so the 2nd law is still very much in process.
It is boggles the mind that we are now in a situation in which young Muslim men and women are entering university repeating this stuff. Forgetting the damage it is doing to their spiritual path — fuzzy thinking like this will lead to social disadvantage for their respective communities. If you don’t understand the science behind the technology that runs the world, then you will have no hope of controlling that technology. You’ll be its slave, not its master. Clearly someone has got a good dissemination machine working over the ummah that might ultimately prove just as damaging to it as any past colonial power.
I am not being hysterical about this. Even if the ummah is infused with “bad” science, humanity itself will all basically work itself out in the long run. I have spoken to a large number of young Muslims who have eventually apostasized from the religion thanks to an overdose of these materials, going to university, finally learning how science works and throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But if the baby was an illusion in the first place, perhaps that apostasy is one of the best things that could happen to them, on their path. At least they are moving that one step closer to Al Haq, even though it means complete severance from the (pseudoscientific illusion of the) Qur’an. And so the Muslim apologists might be doing humanity a great favour, in a perverse way. If people are brought into Islam or brought out of Islam because of attachments to weak pseudoscientific arguments for the Qur’an, then its just another idol being brought into existence or broken down, one amongst many.
And as Sufism teaches us, this process of building up and breaking down is not just an aspect of science and religion. Building up and breaking down is the ultimate nature of life itself, it is the felt effect of Allah’s breath of Love running through our existence.