It would be fair to say that Muslims and science have shared an uncomfortable relationship in the recent past. While the prevailing view amongst scientists is that God doesn’t exist, citing numerous examples from the various sub-branches of science to back their claim, Muslims have not only contested this notion but gone further to claim that modern science actually proves the validity of the Qur’an. Views that have been popularised range from the Qur’anic description of embryological development to theories of plate tectonics, much of which is expressed on dawah tables across the country, and even in public debates with prominent atheists.
As a scientist who believes in God, I witness this phenomenon with some degree of discomfort. Arguably it is the zealot in me that marvels at the comparison of an embryo’s rhombomeres with teeth marks on a piece of chewing gum, but the scientist within me questions this portrayal – is it really adequate; how do we know that Allah was specifically referring to the arrangement of rhombomeres in this description? Why can it not just be as the verse states: that the embryo starts of as something without form, like a chewed lump of flesh, and morphs into something with a complex structure?
What becomes agonising however, is to see how those untrained in the sciences attempt to go into detail using weak scientific arguments as solid proof of the ‘miraculous’ nature of the Qur’an, and especially when prominent Islamic apologists use these arguments against scientists who are renowned experts within their respective fields. Not only do they disseminate fallacious science amongst believers, they also feed into the wider narrative that people of faith are simple-minded unable to engage with complex topics without simplifying it to the point of misconception. The impact of such encounters is also far reaching; many people either entered the faith or began practicing it on the basis of these ‘scientific miracles’, and once many of these readings were exposed for their weaknesses these individuals either questioned (their understanding of) the faith or left it altogether.
Aside from these issues, there is the added problem that in the constantly developing world of science, using a scientific argument can prove problematic since it later becomes doubtful. Some of the earlier scholars of Islam used the scientific theories of their time to explain certain verses. However, with time and scientific advancement, these theories changed and so did our scientific explanations of the verses. Whilst some Muslim apologists will argue that this in itself is a miracle, that the verses containing scientific miracles fit with scientific theories of all times, the scientist will rightly argue at the fallacious nature of such reasoning and accuse the Muslim of merely undertaking hermeneutic gymnastics to make the verses of the Qur’an somehow ‘fit’ with science thus disproving the existence of scientific miracles in the first place.
So how should we engage with science? Well firstly, the Quran is not a book of science and by treating it so we do it a great disservice; we opt to look for a ‘scientific miracle’ in the words of God instead of unearthing the deeper spiritual benefits that exist within them.
That’s not to say that science can’t be a useful tool to appreciate Allah’s Lordship, to be in absolute awe of Him in such a way that we completely submit ourselves to Him and no other, in every aspect of our lives, especially as He states,
“Say: Indeed, my prayer, my rites of sacrifice, my living and my dying are for Allah, Lord of the worlds.”
My decision to specialise in auditory neuroscience was greatly inspired by early thoughts of sound waves being generated from a distant sound source, and although gradually losing energy as they travelled through space, my ear was still able to pick up this sound. What I found through my study was that the physiological mechanisms underpinning this inevitably leads one to marvel at how sophisticated the ear actually is. Sound waves hit the ear drum and cause it to vibrate, to which are attached three microscopic sized bones working like pistons to conduct those vibrations to our inner ear, the cochlea. The cochlea is an extremely intricate organ that contains three fluid filled compartments separated by thin membranes; the differing ionic composition of these compartments creates a positive voltage and amplifies sound energy. As the vibrations of the bones of the ear hit the cochlea, a displacement in these cochlear fluids results, causing tiny hairs within the cochlea to move, and as they do so, an electrical signal is generated, which is then conducted by nerve fibres within the cochlea to the brain. The cochlea is also ‘tonotopically arranged’, meaning that different regions of the cochlea pick up different frequencies of sound. Most interesting of all is that all components of the ear, from the shape of the ear canal to arrangement of the cochlea, are optimised to augment the frequency range of spoken word.
Importantly and more to the point, it is studying auditory neuroscience that has led to me be in complete and utter awe of my creator. The Lord created a human hearing system that has allowed earlier generations to hear the words of Prophets – who would have then processed these messages in their auditory cortices and then transmitted them to future generations; a system in which they hear the words of God and then transfer these words into the memory centres of their brains; a system that allows us to hear the majestic call to prayer, which then causes activity within our motor cortex resulting in bodily movements that takes us towards the mosque. When I think of auditory neurophysiology within all these contexts, I am quite simply lost for words.
And how about the manner in which Allah describes those who reject his message, as being ‘deaf, dumb and blind’? Despite the fact that Allah has gifted his creation with such a perfect hearing organ, from microscopic bones to nanostructures within the cochlea allowing us to hear some of the most amazing sounds, some of His creation still reject the message even though they have heard it; it is as though they hadn’t these organs in the first place. When contemplating the creation of God, awe (haibah) should compel us to bow our heads in utter submission, and raise our hands in prayer as an act of complete surrender. How then, can I not be of those who “hear and obey”?
As Muslims we need not feel threatened by science nor assume that it legitimises the validity of the revealed word, they occupy different spheres. One tells us how, the other why. In this way both the Quran and science can strengthen our belief in God and our worship to Him; it certainly has done so for me.