I have to take issue with Nadeem Alam’s views on religion and science, (AMUST issue # 147, February 2018, Page 14).

Nadeem rightly asks if science is overshadowing religion. In these times when new scientific discoveries roll out on a seemingly daily basis “Yes” would be an unsurprising answer. He is also right that science does pose a threat to religious beliefs.

Indeed ultra-atheists such as Richard Dawkins use the findings of science to beat up and discredit religion.

Nadeem’s statement that “It is commonly said that scientific inventions and discoveries pose a great threat to religion and with the progress of science, religion will cease to exist,” has a ring of truth to it but he is correct about it being a misconception when he states: “There can never be a conflict between ‘True science’ and True religion.’”

That there can never be a conflict between “true” science and “true” religion was recognised nearly 900 years ago by Ibn Rushd, (Averroes) who discussed this issue in his Kitab fasl al-maqal (On the Harmony between Religion and Philosophy). Ibn Rushd realised that theologians and jurists were often not masters of science and philosophy and that conflicts could only be resolved if both sides of the problem were examined.

Nadeem describes religion as absolute faith in the creator and possession of scientific knowledge of his creation’. It is a permanent unchanging faith no matter the circumstances. However, there is another kind of faith which Ibn Rushd alludes to. That is a rational faith based on personal experience and observation and reasoning. This is the kind of faith held by scientists who also hold religious beliefs, (we are all not Richard Dawkins).

While Ibn Rushd adopted the principle of there can be no conflict he recognised that in practice there was often an apparent conflict. Here he set out a two-pronged approach. Firstly you examined the theology and if it seemed correct you then returned and re-examined the science. Sometimes this would inform the scholars that a fresh theological understanding was needed in conformity with a rational, reasoned faith.

At other times closer scrutiny of the science would reveal faults in reasoning or fresh evidence that changed the science. Ibn Rushd also recognised that sometimes reconciliation could not be achieved and it was best left to others, perhaps better informed to pursue at a later date.

Modern science operates on a system of explanation and testing. A theory is developed to explain particular observations and facts of the natural world. I use theory here in its strict scientific sense not the vernacular sense of a mere hunch or guess. A theory has strong explanatory and predictive powers. If it fails to explain or its predictions fail then the theory fails and is discarded or modified.

Theologians, philosophers and scientists recognise this and typically adopt an approach described by the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould as non-overlapping magisterial (NOMA). In this approach religion and science use different approaches and methodologies and occupy different domains, (magisteria) of inquiry and authority.

This is where Nadeem’s claim that “What scientists are discovering today was known to us centuries before through our religious texts” is problematic. If we make a claim that the Qur’an contains scientific information that modern science has only just discovered then that claim becomes subject to the same processes of scrutiny as the scientific claim. If that scientific claim is disproved then by association the Qur’an has been disproved. So let us examine some of Nadeem’s claims.

Turning first to astronomy Nadeem states: “It’s an age long misconception that Astronomical inventions pose threat to religious beliefs.

Nadeem then observes that after the phenomenon of meraj, the ascension of Prophet Muhammad (s), his companions asked “Oh Rasulullah! How did the earth look from the space above?”

“A dinar in the sea of the sand” was his reply.

Firstly I will admit that this was the Prophet speaking, not the Qur’an, however, anyone familiar with the Apollo mission photos of the Earth seemingly suspended in the black void of space knows that it is nothing like a dinar in a sea of sand. Of cours, the Prophet was speaking metaphorically, the vast emptiness of space was like the vast empty desert and the precious dinar was the earth that sustains us and gives us life. Indeed the Qur’an itself speaks in metaphors or allegories.

This is clearly stated in Surah Al-Imran verse 7: “He it is who has bestowed upon thee from on high this divine writ, containing messages that are clear in and by themselves – and these are the essence of the divine writ – as well as others that are allegorical.

Now those whose hearts are given to swerving from the truth go after that part of the divine writ which has been expressed in allegory, seeking out [what is bound to create] confusion, and seeking [to arrive at] its final meaning [in an arbitrary manner]; but none save God knows its final meaning…”

Nadeem concludes: “Who did know that earth was a globe floating in this galaxy? How the astronomers see the earth from space now,  Prophet Muhammad (s) saw 15 centuries ago.” However, a dinar is hardly a globe and the Prophet’s statement is more in keeping with a view of his time of the earth as flat than as a globe. Indeed there is one now infamous fatwa from Saudi Arabia in 1976 that stated the earth was indeed flat according to the Qur’an.

The problem here and it is a trap that Nadeem falls into is to adopt an overly literal interpretation of the Qur’an instead of reading some verses as purely allegorical.

For instance, Nadeem interprets the verse from Surah verse Ar-Rahman, verse 5 “The sun and moon follow courses exactly computed.” As referring to our present day knowledge of the orbits of the Sun and the Moon. The problem here is the use of translations and the inherent bias of the translator.

Nadeem uses the Yusuf Ali translation referring to the courses as “exactly computed” not as orbits. The Pickthall translation is more circumspect: “The sun and the moon are made punctual.” Here they merely keep to a timetable. The Muhsin Khan translation with its propensity to incorporate commentary and opinion into the translated text turns the verse into a “scientific” statement: “The sun and the moon run on their fixed courses (exactly) calculated with measured out stages for each (for reckoning).”

In fact, the key Arabic word is (Behusban)بِحُسۡبَانٍ۬ which is probably best understood as “according to” and if read in conjunction with verse 6: “And the herbs and the trees-both (alike) bow in adoration.” Could be interpreted as plants growing according to the seasons as measured by the Sun and the Moon. Now, this would not be a problem as even prior to the advent of Islam the positions of these two were used to mark the passage of seasons and planting and harvest times. So we have verses with a clear meaning in accord with the understanding of the time.

This over literalisation and finding “science” in Islam is fraught with problems. As an example of one such apparent conflict Abu Aminah Bilal Philips rejects the theory of relativity because it conflicts with Gods attributes:

Einstein’s theory of relativity (E=mc2, energy is equal to mass times the square of the speed of light) taught in all schools, is in fact an expression of Shirk in al-Asmaa’ waas-Sifaat.[1]

In fact, In 1982 a seminar on the Islamisation of Knowledge was held at the International Islamic University in Islamabad. The Rector, A K Brohe, a lawyer by training delivered the keynote address. In his address, he also rejected Einstein’s Theory of Relativity as false and incompatible with Islam.[2]

Both Brohe and Bilal Philips are wrong. Einstein did not pluck his theory out of thin air. It was based on observational evidence of Mercury’s orbit which was incompatible with the predictions of Newtonian physics. Einstein’s theory explained those observations.

The theory also made predictions about the effect of the Sun’s gravity on the path of light through space. In 1919 the astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington made observations confirming those predictions. It is interesting to note that Einstein, a secular Jew and Eddington, a Quaker, both of whom hated war, maintained a clandestine correspondence through the course of the first world war despite their countries being on opposing sides in the conflict.

There is another problem with the misuse of science in Islam. Speaking at the International Seminar on Qur’an and Science held in Karachi in 1986, Salim Mehmud, the head of Pakistan’s Space Organization offered the Miraj as an example of relativistic time dilation. His argument was that the duration of this event while long for the Prophet was almost instantaneous in earth time.

Relativistic time dilation actually works in the opposite way. Assuming the journey took place at light speed or faster, (a miracle in itself), while time would have slowed down for the overnight journey of the Prophet it would have moved much faster for his earthbound companions and his absence would have been much longer than just overnight.

Thus we have the situation of one Muslim, A K Brohe rejecting the theory as incompatible with Islam and another, Salim Mahmud accepting it as a valid explanation for the Isra and Miraj. Aside from demonstrating a complete misunderstanding of relativity you have to ask what is the value of using badly understood science to explain away miracles which, by definition, are not explainable by natural or scientific laws?

Nadeem closes his article with the following quote from Dan Brown: “Religion and science are never at odds, science is merely too young to understand the former.”  While this quote from a writer famed for that work of religious fiction, “The DaVinci Code” may fit the theme of Nadeem’s argument there is a much more appropriate quote for setting out the relationship between religion and science:

“Travel through the earth and see how Allah did originate creation; so will Allah produce a later creation: for Allah has power over all things.” Surah al-Ankabut verse 20.

In other words, engage in science to understand the world and how it works.

[1] Bilal Philips, “Islamic Studies, Book 1,” Islamic Online University, <http://www.bilalphilips.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Islamic%20Studies%20Book%201.pdf> (accessed 14 February, 2014), 25 – 26.

[2] Pervez Hoodbhoy, Islam and Science, Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality, (Malaysia: S. Abdul Majeed & Co., 1992), 79.