Modern science poses challenges to most religions, including Islam and students getting their first exposure to science at high school or university level often find it difficult to reconcile the logic and reason of science with the tenets of their faith.
The Young Muslims guide to Modern Science by Nidhal Guessoum, who is an astrophysicist at the American University of Sharjah, addresses this problem.
The introductory chapter opens, under the heading Science and Islam Mixed Up with an account of a Saudi sheikh lecturing to university students stating that the earth does not move and presenting religious and “scientific proofs” for his claim which included the claim that the moon landings were a Hollywood fake.
After a discussion of the poor state of scientific literacy in the world, (strange ideas are not just confined to Muslims), Nidhal goes on to outline the importance of scientific literacy and objectives to achieve it.
He points out that the major problems such as climate change renewable energy, healthcare and population dynamics all need scientific understanding and input. He closes with a brief discussion of the interaction of Muslim culture and science, setting the stage for subsequent chapters.
A brief discussion of the history of science in chapter two covers the early Greek foundations and contributions by Egyptian, Indian and Chinese science and of course the golden age of Muslim science and the development of the scientific method.
A discussion of the development of modern science from the mid-16th century beginning with Newton and Copernicus then follows and covers key developments in most scientific fields up to the current era, concluding with the words; “The grand adventure continues…”
The third chapter discusses modern science, its characteristics and foundational principles. After an explanation of scientific terms such as law , hypothesis, theory and model the discussion turns to the criticisms of science most notably its practice of reducing a subject to smaller more easily studied parts then using this to build up a bigger picture.
While this criticism has some validity Nidhal reminds us this has resulted in major scientific advancements. The significant criticism from some Muslim scholars is that science only looks for explanations of nature from within nature itself and neglects a higher spiritual connection with God.
However Nidhal points out that simply deciding God is responsible bypasses the search for explanation of how things work or happen.
While some scholars such as Ziauddin Sardar and Mohammad Hashim Kamali have minor issues with some aspects of modern science, Nidhal points out that they acknowledge that hadiths encourage openness to knowledge from other sources.
He also mentions the great Indian thinker, Mohammed Iqbal who saw the birth of intellectual thinking in understanding the Qur’an, thus making the mastery of the inductive methods of science a religious obligation.
The next two chapters are the main course of the book. Chapter four gives concise essentials of modern physics, astronomy and cosmology and biology and reviews the various forms of evidence supporting these sciences.
The biology section is the most interesting, dealing with genetics which is the real cutting edge of biological science and the contentious topic of evolution, including human evolution.
These short pieces provide a taste of the topics and assume the reader will encounter more detail in the course of their study. As with the rest of the book these sections are accompanied with simple, informative diagrams to aid understanding.
Although sources are footnoted a more comprehensive list of extra reading would be useful for those conducting their own personal enquiries. The chapter closes with an overview of what remains to be known in these branches of science.
Chapter five covers what Islam says about these topics. It begins by distinguishing between theories with little or no supporting evidence and well founded theories with a solid evidence base such as Einstein’s theories, Newton’s laws and Darwinian Evolution.
Two essential principles are stated:
1. The Qur’an is a book of guidance not a science text and references to nature and the cosmos must be viewed and understood in that light.
2. The Qur’an and science use different methodologies. Science attempts to understand nature by investigating nature. The Qur’an uses a logical discourse to build faith and a relationship between humans, God and the world.
Confusion and conflict comes when the two trespass on each other’s turf. To reconcile the problem Nidhal refers the reader to Ibn Rushd’s Fasl al-Maqal, (The Definitive Discourse).
This is a short treatise outlining the approach to reconciling apparent conflicts between the revealed Qur’anic text and the conclusions of reason, philosophy and science. This basically requires the consideration of metaphorical or allegorical meanings of verses in the Qura’n by those well versed in understanding its message.
This of course rules out an overly literalistic interpretation of the verses seen in the practice of I’jaz ‘Ilmiy,used to find “miraculous” scientific content in the Qur’an. Nidhal devotes nearly four pages to discussing this, pointing out five significant problems with this practice. The other problematic issue is so called “sacred science”.
This argues that modern science ignores the sanctity of nature and eliminates its spiritual dimensions by its secular methodology. While a Muslim’s encounter with modern science often leads to a questioning of faith or alternatively the rejection of science, attempts to reintroduce a sacred overlay involve rejection of large swathes of modern science and Nidhal devotes another four pages to discussing this problem.
A discussion of the acceptability to Islam of modern cosmology and biology, particularly evolution then follows. After a brief overview of “Big Bang” cosmology and its issues, the discussion turns to the vexed question of evolution including a frank discussion of the views both for and against human evolution.
Again Nidhal emphasises that “the Qur’an is a book of spiritual, moral and social guidance”. While it encourages exploration of the natural world as a testament to God, it does not contain detailed explanations for the workings of nature and references to it do not always have a literal meaning.
The chapter closes with an interesting discussion of whether science leads away from God prefaced by quotes to the contrary from Carl Sagan and the Muslim astronomer Al-Battani.
The concluding chapters look at contemporary and emerging scientific issues where Islam needs to have an ethical input or reconcile with theological issues.
The closing chapter looks at what science can contribute to Muslim’s lives and cautions against misleading information, providing a useful “baloney detection kit” to recognise false or misleading claims.
Most importantly it stresses that science should actually care about religion and its importance in people’s lives.
I highly recommend this book particularly for senior high school students and students starting at university studying science or for those who are simply curious about the place of science in Islam.
For those seeking a deeper treatment of the topic I recommend Islam’s Quantum Question, a much more detailed book also by Nidhal Guessoum.
The Young Muslim’s Guide is published by Beacon Books.
PS: In an earlier edition of the Muslim Times I responded critically to an article on Islam and science by Nadeem Alam not realising he was a school student, I was perhaps too critical. I have a spare copy of for Nadeem if he cares to contact me through AMUST.