Any science that collided with the Quran will turn out to be false! (Tertium organum). – P. D. Ouspensky
What is the relationship between the Quran and science?
Here are a few points that can shed light on this issue:
VERSES ON NATURAL PHENOMENA OFTEN ‘MIRACULOUSLY’ CONTAIN MORE INFORMATION AND ALLUSIONS THAN OTHERWISE EXPECTED
The Quran is not a textbook of science, and it was originally a lecture addressed to the Arabic speaking and, in modern sense, ‘illiterate’ listeners of the 7th century Arabia.
Thus the Quran must have originally referred to natural phenomena with intent very different from that of a modern science book. Here our normal anticipation would be that the Quran must contain many scientific errors that we, in our age of scientific progress, must be able to easily detect.
Interestingly however, when we go through a critical observation of some of these verses – considering the many natural scientific topics they sketchily cover, together with the related expressions, unique terms, interesting highlights, allusions and interactive hints throughout the Quran – we often get overwhelmed by the impression that, not only that the Quran doesn’t contain any provable scientific error, the Quran – usually with simple text and simple style, though sometimes appearing vague and mystic – alludes to many important discoveries of modern science and to the core philosophical discussions of our time.
Remarkably, the Quran itself, having one of its attributes ‘hakeem’ (‘wise’ or ‘clarifier’, 36:2), is well aware of this (43:3-4).
Thus, while illustrating many natural phenomena in a language that appears ‘miraculous’, the Quran covers an extensive range of topics, messages and meanings. On deeper analysis with interconnected reading, often a text offers far more information than it appears on the first sight. And often a single phrase in it may allude to various issues of several subjects.
THESE VERSES OCCUPY ONE SIXTH OF THE QURAN, WHILE THEIR FUNCTIONS ARE MANIFOLD
Now, the Quran states that all nature extols divine glory. So every single thing in nature is a divine sign or message (ayah) that declares divine majesty and, therefore, deserves our serious attention and observation. The Quran outlines some of these signs or messages as examples in order to promote and further clarify some of its fundamental concepts.
There are in the Quran over six thousand verses (also called ayah, i.e. divine sign or message), whereof over one thousand are associated with natural phenomena. This is about one sixth of the Quran!
Obviously, the function of the verses about natural phenomena is NOT simply to state facts about the natural world.
Apart from reminding us of God’s most emphasized characteristics like compassion and mercy as our Sustainer, these verses also seem to have other important functions.
Yes, they function on the first place as references to, and reminders of, nature’s wonders and veiled messages regarding God’s existence and oneness as well as His numerous attributes including mercy, wisdom, power and greatness.
Then, a deeper insight into these verses with a growing scientific understanding of the world helps our thoughts in a number of ways. It helps us to better comprehend the Quranic messages holistically; it reassures and reinforces our acknowledgement of the Quran as a divine revelation; it makes us better appreciate God’s greatness and our relationship with the Universe from a divine perspective; it stimulates our imagination with an awareness of being connected with the infinite; it provides meaning of life; it promotes rational attitude and logical thinking; and it generally encourages our curiosity about ourselves and the world around us.
Also, through the many natural scientific topics it sketchily covers, together with the numerous interactions, the Quran directly awakens a scientific inquisitiveness in a receptive mind.
THE QURAN REFERS TO SCIENCE IN ITS OWN WAY
To a serious reader, the Quran represents a key that unlocks the doors to the understanding of the hidden meanings and unknown realities behind the relative, material boundaries of our daily existence.
Thus, while the Quran functions as a voice broadcast from the worlds of the ‘Unseen’ (2:2-3), it is also a mystic interpretation of the messages underlying the great Book of Universe.
On its way, therefore, it goes on referring to many natural phenomena, but not in the way a textbook of science does.
The Quran considers creation in order to glorify the Creator, while science considers the world in order to know it solely within its physical dimensions.
THE QURAN IS A BOOK OF ‘SIGNS’, NOT A TEXTBOOK OF SCIENCE
Thus one can say that the Quran is a book of ‘signs’, not a textbook of science. It is not concerned about detailing the scientific facts or describing any scientific model per se.
This explains our observation that, although the Quran doesn’t make people discover any new scientific information or develop any specific scientific theory, new scientific findings and related fresh knowledge often surprisingly match with and also better clarify many of the previously less understood texts.
Evidently, the ‘messages’ (ayah) of the Quran, by definition and as instructed by the Quran itself, must be understood in such a way that they conform both to reason and to scientific data – i.e. nature’s divine messages scripted throughout the Universe.
That is why the Quran lays so great emphasis on reasoning and deep observation of nature to explore its ‘hidden’ messages so that we can better understand the veiled messages of the Scripture, which in fact are essentially the same as the messages of the great Book of Nature (10:100-101).
SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS IS PROVING HELPFUL TO BETTER UNDERSTAND THE QURAN
So, humankind’s growing scientific knowledge, which has been thriving through her divinely gifted pursuit for observation and investigation, is proving helpful not only to understand the ‘hidden’ messages of the Universe but also to uncover many of the veiled messages of the Quran, as predicted by the Quran itself (21:37, 10:20, 41:53, 75:16-21, 6:66-68, 27:93).
Unfortunately but understandably, the earlier generations of the commentators, as they lived in a pre-scientific time, often did not have that basic minimum of information necessary to better comprehend many of these messages.
As they failed to decipher the apparent enigma underlying these messages, they either accepted them as mystic texts unexplainable by human intellect or simply interpreted them too literally, often through various fabricated hadiths and unverified Judeo-Christian materials, and, as a consequence, grossly erroneously.
However, as science advanced to new frontiers, later commentators started comprehending some of them in a better way, gradually translating them in the light of the evidence-based, newer scientific knowledge.
In other words, science is proving helpful to freshly interpret many of those verses that have been incorrectly interpreted by the earlier generations of commentators (6:66-68).
WE SHOULD TRY TO GET DEEPER INSIGHTS INTO THE QURAN THROUGH THESE VERSES WITH OUR GROWING SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE
The Quran does indeed present fascinating facts and reveals a heightened understanding and appreciation of creation and its environment. Although the primary focus for the presentation of these facts was to convince the desert Arabs, as Joseph Islam noted, no doubt as science would have advanced, further insights into the Quranic statements would have become apparent:
“Only a message from a Divine Creator can remain so timeless and in perfect harmony with advancement in thought and science. The Quran remains just that; a completely ‘timeless’ and ‘truthful’ message.”
A deeper analysis of many of these verses through our growing scientific understanding of the world impresses us with the miracle that the Quran continuously provides dynamic messages and meanings according to the developing knowledge of evolving generations.
For instance, look into the statement “And indeed We created man out of potter’s/sounding clay of black mud transmuted. 15:26” (cf. 15:28, 15:33). Now, this makes a good sense if interpreted in light of modern evolutionary biochemistry. That is how we can appreciate that ‘black mud’ (‘hama’) here actually means carbon and that the term ‘transmuted’ (‘masnoon’, also meaning altered, moulded or aged, which shares same root with ‘sunnah’, ‘to follow a path’) alludes to the change over lengthy time span of millions of years when ‘hydrocarbons’ were gradually organised into higher organic molecules – like amino acids (protein), nucleic acids (RNA and DNA) and so on – necessary for origin and evolution of life. All these molecules are ‘sounding’, i.e. tale-telling, as they encompass in themselves history of millions of years. Thus the Quran seems to have used the expression ‘black mud transmuted’ to depict the original matrix – carbon (‘black mud’)-based organic molecules like hydrocarbons and their derivatives – whereby started the evolution of human’s physical body.
BUT WE SHOULD NOT TRY ANY FORCED RECONCILIATION BETWEEN THE QURAN AND SCIENCE
Now, as the Quran so much inspires the pursuit of knowledge and encourages in so many ways all sorts of scientific investigation, its followers must unequivocally regard science and its methods. They must foster in themselves the genuine scientific spirit found within the scientific community, rather than attempting to prejudge a scientifically established fact or data in a way that is not scientific (17:36).
As science is an endless, relentless quest for the truth, MEN OF SCIENCE should be allowed to continue developing science in their own way, uninterrupted, i.e. by following the appropriate scientific method with its inductive and deductive logic. They should never be censored or interfered by any external influence, nor should their scientific discoveries be judged by any religious, educational or social group, or by any authority or government body.
On the other hand – apart from learning from men of science – MEN OF RELIGION have obviously a right and an extra duty to be vocal on the moral aspects or the consequences of a particular application of science. For instance, they should express the voice of their conscience against nuclear proliferation, chemical and biological weapons, indiscriminate abortion, carbon emissions and so on, as well as against the possible socio-moral setbacks caused by advanced technology and material development.
Here is a quote from Gary Dargan that roughly clarifies the relationship between science and the Quran:
“What you get with Islam is that it encourages thinking about and investigating nature. It values scholarship. … Personally, I believe that science should stand on its two feet, and on its own merits. It shouldn’t require the Quran to justify it as correct. Likewise the Quran should not require science to prove it. … Science itself is a progress report. Ideas are always subject to being disproved whereas the Quran being a revelation from God is something that has to stand unchanged for all time and it is not amenable to disproof.”
THE QURAN IS A ‘LIVING DOCUMENT’ THAT EXCELS THE KNOWLEDGE OF EVERY GENERATION
We cannot avoid the impression that the Quran is a ‘living document’, as Dr. T. B. Irving rightly called it, which appears to excel the level of knowledge of every generation, and a living miracle throughout the ages.
The Quran is a living document with evolving meanings and messages for an evolving mankind.
This is how Professor Bruce Lawrence describes this:
“As tangible signs, Quranic verses are expressive of an inexhaustible truth, they signify meaning layered with meaning, light upon light, miracle after miracle … In a historical context the Qur’an becomes A Book of Signs, multilayered in its meanings, continuously reinterpreted by successive generations and diverse audiences. Detached from history the Qur’an becomes the Book of Signs, singular in its meaning, applicable across time and place, unchanging, univocal.” The Qur’an: A Biography
What is the relationship between the Quran and science? Here are a few points that can shed light on this issue:
- Verses on natural phenomena often ‘miraculously’ contain more information and allusions than otherwise expected.
- These verses occupy one sixth of the Quran, while their functions are manifold.
- The Quran refers to science in its own way.
- The Quran is a book of ‘signs’, not a textbook of science.
- Scientific progress is proving helpful to better understand the Quran.
- We should try to get deeper insights into the Quran through these verses with our growing scientific knowledge.
- But we should not try any forced reconciliation between the Quran and science.
- The Quran is a ‘living document’ that excels the knowledge of every generation.