God’s command to ‘Observe what is in the heavens and earth’ (10:101) you could argue encompasses both the science agenda of working out what makes life and nature work, inasmuch as Islamic sciences deciphering God’s law. But despite much common ground, there’s often a lack of awareness, verging on misunderstanding, of how science and religion work by far too many on both sides. On one end, science is seen as the ‘bad guy’ driving a wedge against religion, while on the other it is held as a ‘saviour’ and the only source of ‘knowing’ and values. As Muslims, we have to contend also with the culture of proving the scientific content of revelation. Yet the Qur’an and Prophetic examples were never meant to be about science, or were they?
When we put these questions and dilemmas in context to wider post-modern scepticism of both science and religion, and subsequent defence by some, understandably, things become not just a degree more complicated but also, I find, unnecessarily divisive. Protagonists on all sides, rather than engage meaningfully and productively with each other, retreat to positions that serve to enhance self-image. Yet, with a little more insight and maturity it is possible to see parallels between Islamic and natural sciences. Thus, when scholars on both sides take to bludgeon against one another, it is, as I argue here, a betrayal of the very methods that underpin their respective disciplines.
Just like groups of Islamic scholars come together to decipher the religious ruling on an issue (mas’ala) in the course of which they see patterns within revelation, from which they form principles (usul and qawaid) to organise religion, scientists also collaborate with each other to understand natural phenomena, forming hypotheses and theories. A hypothesis is simply a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation. A collection of hypotheses which have been repeatedly tested and shown to be correct often leads to a theory. A theory is a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained.
Just like there are systematic and methodical frameworks which Islamic lawyers (fuqaha) use to decipher Islamic law, such as principles that dictate the valid use of analogical reasoning (qiyas), there is a ‘scientific method’ which scientists use to collect, verify and evaluate evidence about natural phenomena. The philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994) called this ‘falsification’ – the idea that something cannot be true if it is contradicted by observation or experiment.
It’s worth also pointing out here that just as there are ongoing discussions about how principles of Islamic sciences (usul, qawaid) are to be applied (e.g. the relative preference of public benefit, maslaha mursala, versus juristic discretion, istihsan, between the classical Maliki and Hanafi usul, respectively), there is a fair amount of debate among philosophers of science about the nature of these things we call ‘facts’ and ‘proofs’ and how we arrive at conventions that we call scientific ‘laws’ and ‘theories’ from them.
As with any endeavour that involves investigating something whether it’s in ‘ilm al-hadith or trying to work out the double helical structure of DNA, research entails evaluating methods and the results that those methods yield. Oftentimes, we get conflicts that open up yet more questions which lead to the refinement of a hypothesis or theory over years of painstaking research. Oftentimes we reach an impasse. Sometimes, though rarely, we get paradigm shifts. Through such iteration, both natural and Islamic sciences have developed over time and become more and more concise, or sophisticated as the case may be.
In all of this, there is a fair amount of competition. For scientists, being first to discover something gives them kudos and euphoric moments, published papers, research grants and salaries. If we were to travel back in time to the medieval period, in places like Baghdad, Cordoba, Cairo or Isfahan, and so on, I think we’d be able to substitute quite well the polities of scientists today with the polities of Muslims scholars – lawyers, chemists, philosophers, physicians and so on. They were funded by government and endowments of sorts, and it was a mix of meritocracy and favour from ruling classes which raised their rank and status.
There is yet more common ground when it comes to the outputs of both scientists and Islamic scholars. Their works are subjected to peer-review. In science, results are independently assessed by other scientists, who give feedback and ask for clarifications or further experimentation to substantiate claims before the science is accepted for publication. Independently, other scientists are also at liberty to publish contrary evidence. Equally, in Islamic scholarship, there is a strong culture of refuting ideas and beliefs, which can be likened to rejecting hypotheses. Historically, the most famous example is perhaps the refutations and adjustments in-between the philosophical musings of Ibn Sina (980-1037), Al-Ghazzali (1058-1111), Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) and Mulla Sadra (1574-1640), which spanned hundreds of years. I’d also argue that among both scientists and Islamic scholars there is a competitive spirit, which by God’s mercy, prevents society from being perpetually blinkered. Finally, just like Islam can be misreported, misunderstood or misinterpreted, the same can happen in science.
Yet, despite these similarities between the two disciplines, it is often the case that people needlessly sour the air. Not because that’s how these two disciplines meet in their truest forms, but because many on both sides are somewhat unable to understand each other’s methods. One way this happens is when the entire relationship between science and Islam is reduced to a few big contentious questions.
The first of these, ‘can science prove God?’ is somewhat a misleading question from the offset. This is because, among philosophers of science, there is a fair degree of consensus that things come under the purview of science if they can be independently tested. God, however, reveals that ‘there is nothing like Him’ (112:4). Hence, the thought of subjecting the Omnipotent (Al-Qahir), Everlasting (Al-Baqi), Most Loving (Al-Wadud), incomprehensible entity (dhat) to some notion of ‘test’ seems if anything just absurd. The fact that God can’t be subjected to ‘scientific testing’ of sorts, it could be argued, serves to illustrate His incomprehensibility.
My point here is that stress-testing if something should come under the purview of science (or religion) is an important first step. By getting this right we stand a better chance of landing on a cogent view of how science and religion can productively interact. That science tries to tell us about the physical world and how it works, whilst religion gives us values, morals and meaning to the world and to our place in it. Moreover, for Muslims there is yet something beyond the phenomenal realm here also, as God, Himself hinted: ‘How can you be sure that if a sign came [that] they would still not believe[?] … even if We had sent to them the angels, made the dead speak to them, and gathered before them all things before their eyes, they would not have believed’ (6:111).
The second contentious area is evolution theory. Evolution theory tries to explain how the similarity and diversity of life came about, and looks for evidence in life forms (in fossils, phylogenetic, physiology, gene sequencing, behavioural adaptations etc.) to propose a mechanistic view of how life may have developed and evolved. It’s a theory because, fundamentally, evolutionary relationships can’t themselves be observed in situ, through a real-life time-lapse video of millions of years for instance, and hence it relies on assumptions and speculation to fill huge gaps in evidence and many things which remain completely unexplained. I don’t think scientists in the main deny this. The proof of this is that it is why there is so much research being done to shed light on all these unknowns.
Interestingly, evolution theory doesn’t directly test ‘causality’ in itself, and assumes that the evolutionary mechanisms such as natural selection are in themselves spontaneously causative. This notion itself causes all sorts of problems for philosophers of science. Nevertheless, evolution is the working paradigm by which the entire subject of biology is unified in making sense of the diversity and origin of life. In some respects, it reflects how the human mind naturally works. We observe and analyse patterns, and seek connections between variables, so that we can explain phenomena better. Though, as Muslims we believe, and it goes without saying, everything is dependent on God and happens by His Power (Qadar) and attributes (sifat) whether we realise it or not.
The geological migration of the Pangaea super-continent over millions of years into the dispersed continents today is a good example of how scientists search for and make use of evidence to make connections that allow them to propose mechanistic explanations (theories) of why the earth’s land topology is the way it is today. Another good example is the ‘variations in your languages’ (30:22). No one denies that languages which have reached us today had different roots and fusions. Indeed, the subject of Etymology is the ‘study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history,’ enables entire languages to be classified into families based on their similarities.
Oftentimes, as Muslims, rather than take a closer look at the philosophy of science and how science works, we fall into the lure of basing our defence of religion through populist reactions against evangelical evolutionists like Richard Dawkins. Before you know it, the meeting point is not necessarily based on the body of deep Islamic scholarship and a way of approaching ideas and problems through the right perspectives. As my former Professor of Immunology Denis Alexander argued, Dawkins isn’t as respected by everyone in the scientific community as people from the outside might assume – due mainly to the politics against religion which he engages in. Nevertheless, in doing so, we forget that evolution theory remains a quite messy theory and succumb to the feeling that our faith assumptions are threatened. We then feel compelled, verging on religious obligation, to take to the hammer and uncritically refute evolution theory, come what may.
Moreover, we forget that there is plenty of speculation among Islamic scholars about the ‘ascent to God’ driven by an intense love of God. Whereas, it could be argued speculation driven by a different kind of quest to propose a unifying framework of biology is what evolution theory is based on. The point is, whilst evidences and arguments exist, they are relatively speculative compared to definitive things like the verse ‘Say God is One’ or the phenomenon of gravity, respectively. Moreover, speculation of this kind isn’t automatically a fruitless exercise. Some would argue it helps them get closer to God, whereas scientists would argue it helps them to understand and organise biology.
So what exactly is the problem here and how do we resolve things? It seems, the entire problem we have with evolution theory centres around whether the Qur’anic account of Adam’s creation is incompatible with man having evolved? In answer to this question the knowledge claim that God has explicitly or implicitly informed us that it is intrinsically impossible for one sort of being to come out of another (speciation) is nowhere to be found. In fact, there is actually possible evidence in support, in the metamorphosis of a disobedient group of Bani Isra’il into apes which God mentions in the Qur’an (7:166) as well as references to similar metamorphosis in hadith.
However, while speciation isn’t negated for other species, the view for Man in the Quranic account (38:71-76) seems to hint that God created Adam as the first human being (bashar) in Jannah and not on earth as we know it. And also He created in a particular way by virtue of ‘fashioned him’ (sawwaituhu) ‘with My hands’ (considered figurative speech) and ‘breathed into him My spirit.’ Hence, the argument then is, if Man wasn’t on earth when he was created, it could not be possible that he evolved out of a precursor who was on earth.
Now, one could argue that there could have been a process of evolution that did happen which produced something similar to Man (e.g. Neanderthals, Homo Erectus etc.) which became extinct, and it was Adam’s progeny (Homo sapiens), having been ‘put on earth,’ who came to disperse as God intended. One could also argue that the use of ‘fashioned him’ applies to being fashioned on earth, particularly given that God says, ‘I am going to create a human being from clay’ – ‘clay’ possibly referring to an earthly material. Though, these are all speculative of course. Moreover, where God tells us that he has created us in the ‘best of form’ (95:4), it doesn’t necessarily negate evolution per se as some think; it’s merely stating, as a matter of fact, that the human form is ‘the best of form’ in its physique, and rational and spiritual qualities. The point is, if God hasn’t explicitly revealed such details to us, in their absence, phenomena and events which came before ‘all that exists’ or life forms as we know them will always be somewhat speculative. A good example of this is the soul (ruh): despite being an entity which people at the time of the Prophet accepted, it was God who ended speculation by saying we ‘have been given very little’ (17:85) of the knowledge of some things like the soul.
What are we to do? Firstly, it’s worth noting that the question of whether the Qur’anic account of creation is incompatible with Man having evolved has only arisen in modern times, following Darwin. And so, it’s up to contemporary scholars to investigate. There’s no point looking at classical scholars because, quite simply, evolution theory didn’t exist then. Though, Muslim theologians did in the past have a remarkably expedient way of defending the body of sound Islamic beliefs through simple and specific statements. Classical aqidah texts are all in the main made of these statements. It is therefore not unreasonable, and certainly I don’t think it would be a betrayal of Islamic scholarship, to simply assert: ‘we believe in what has been related in the Qur’an and authentic hadiths regarding the creation of Adam’ and to leave it at that. Beyond this, to make explicitly binding belief statements about evolution (which is subject to revision in any case) may be problematic and unwittingly engineer a cause for Muslims to needlessly doubt revelation.
With all of these things considered, it is understandable that some Muslims feel threatened by evolution theory, and possibly science generally. There are many reasons for this. The first is the line of thinking that our current Godlessness of the world comes at a time when science has presided over it. Hence, people conclude that science is at fault. However, this is a very narrow analysis and does not take into account macro factors of ummatic experience (e.g. lack of education, civil strife, silo mentality, crisis of intellect, colonisation etc. etc.).
There is also a sense among many Muslims, rightly or wrongly, that, as sh Abdul Hakim Murad observes, there are mounting ‘attempts to unpick all trans-historical notions of meaning and canonicity.’ Whilst this might be the case (not just from, what I would argue, an abuse of science but also in other fields like sociology, psychology etc, where the de-constructive tendency can be far more overt), it is not a reason to blame science per se, because fundamentally science is a value-neutral enterprise. Most scientists, says Denis Alexander, whilst not dogmatically against traditional conventions, accept a ‘moderate form of constructivism of science, not so much for ideological reasons but because the evidence supported it.’[x] This kind of scientific constructivism typically expresses itself in the form of ‘expertism’ and correlational studies, inviting individuals to adapt their behaviours. Though, it still remains the job of Muslims to evaluate them through the prism of well-reasoned argument of the Qur’an and Sunnah – this is true of anything of course.
Moreover, some philosophers of science (known as ‘positivists’) like Paul Fayerabend (1924-1994) take the view that an obsession with science leads to individuals losing their freedom to make up their own minds about lifestyle choices, beliefs and factors that define identity. Fayerabend’s argument was against extremist scientists who sought to legitimise the use of science to prescribe human behaviours and social arrangements because they reckoned that these things are inevitably determined by genes and biology alone. This sentiment is very much alive among many Muslims, most likely as a result of poor understanding.
Whilst there is so much more to be discussed, lastly, I think many Muslims fear, as Imam Al-Ghazzali noted, the continuous search ‘for the cause of the world’ as nature for them becomes ‘barren’ and ‘dark’ as it’s not spiritualised through the knowledge of God.[xi] However, this is a matter for religious institutes to produce thinkers and professionals who can show how one can be in search of the causes of the world while being grateful believers immersed in Godliness.
To conclude, whilst as believers we’re discharged with the responsibility of being moral guides to the world by virtue of being Godly, we must learn that science as a rational approach to understanding the physical world is emphatically encouraged in Islam. We must also be alert to the potential misuse or poor practice of science – eroding values, ethics, faith and Godliness. But this should be based on robust erudition of both science and revelation and not on speculation of revelation imposed on science or vice versa.
[x] Denis Alexander and Ronald Numbers, Biology and Ideology – From Descartes to Dawkins, Chicago University Press, 2010, p6.
[xi] Abu Hamid Al-Ghazzali, The Niche of Light (Mishkat al-Anwar), Brigham Young University Press, 1998, p46.