The American Scientist has an interesting article titled Modern Cosmology: Science or Folktale that got me up to speed with current theories for the cosmos as we see it. The books I remember reading about the universe as a kid, which talked about black holes and dwarf stars and so on, didn’t have all this stuff about “dark matter” and “dark energy”, and I never went back to read up on it.
Imagine my surprise when the author concludes by saying
Alas, [the Big Bang model] has since run into serious difficulties, which have been cured only by sticking on some ugly bandages: inflation to cover horizon and flatness problems; overwhelming amounts of dark matter to provide internal structure; and dark energy, whatever that might be, to explain the seemingly recent acceleration. A skeptic is entitled to feel that a negative significance, after so much time, effort and trimming, is nothing more than one would expect of a folktale constantly re-edited to fit inconvenient new observations.
It bears remembering, as a religious person, that scientific theories are just that: theories, that change, grow and are even replaced over time. That’s the nature of the enterprise, and I don’t mean by that to disparage the role of science in the least. I think it is important for muslims to keep that in mind in order to avoid two really common mistakes in dawah.
The first is refutation of science that is deemed to be “unislamic”. The poster boy of this one is Harun Yahya with his books preaching against evolution that are flooding the marketplace. O muslims! His books are full of nonsense. Anyone with a little background in natural science [and that’s all I got, a little background] can see that evolutionary theory is pretty solid science. That doesn’t mean that we need to take any moral or spiritual guidance from it – that’s not what science is for – nor does it mean that it is perfect and immune to change, growth or even replacement as scientific knowledge increases. But it does mean that railing against it from an “islamic” polemical position will just make you look foolish. [background – HY in the NYT]
The second is pointing to scientific theories to validate the Holy Quran or the religion in general. How many excruciating khutbas or lectures have I sat through where bad science is used, or good science is misused, to try to prop up people’s faith! Come on, I can’t be the only one. Actually my motivation for writing this short piece was a particularly bad one that I sat through about two weeks back, on the occassion of the Isra’ wal-Miraj, the miraculous Night Journey of the Holy Prophet from Mecca to Jerusalem and from there to the Heavens. Our speaker for the evening hit just about every stale talking point in the “science is on our side” playbook, from “scientific evidence from the West” that the ritual prostrations are excellent exercise for blood flow, to the final straw, that the Big Bang is explained in the Quran and the coming “Big Crunch” in a few billion years’ time is synonymous with the Final Day when the Trumpet blows. Good Lord! The Companions, Allah bless them, were anticipating the Last Day at any moment and living accordingly, but our lecturer has safely located it a few billion years into the future. All the more reason to spend our energies building an Islamic Empire on Earth, I’m sure. What is worse though, is the implications in light of the article above. When or if scientific knowledge invalidates the Big Bang, what then of the Holy Quran? What then of the muslim who has tied his faith to a passing scientific theory? What then of the authority or the credibility of our speaker, already shaky in my book, an Al-Azhar University graduate supposedly representing the fruit of religious knowledge?
We need to be clear about what we turn to science for and what we turn to religion for. As Hamza Yusuf explained in a lecture called “Islam and the Unseen”, science tells us the How of the world, while Religion, or metaphysics, the Why. Yes, the Holy Quran holds within it all knowledge. But no, examining the Holy Quran is not a method by which to devise a better washing machine or computer chip, although it is within Allah’s power to bestow that knowledge by that means, should He Almighty so wish. To me, the Islamic science that champions of Islamization of Knowledge say existed and are now seeking to reestablish was not some discrete entity distinct from kaffir science but simply the fruit of scientific inquiry by pious people. O Allah, make us from amongst the pious people and direct our earthly endeavors to the best in the here and the Hereafter, Amin.
Original article found via Arts & Letters Daily.
[Update: Mere Islam has an intense dialog about evolution that relates back to some issues raised here. Key excerpts:
From the abrasive Belgian Beer, this excellent observation: intelligent design is not only bad science, but even worse theology. The idea that evolution from one species to another must be false because it is statistically improbable — an atrocious piece of pseudo-scholarly fiction that lies at the heart of the intelligent design argument — has a remarkable consequence: it means that what their god can and can’t do is limited by their paltry imagination. It amounts to saying, “If I can’t see how it could happen, God did’t do it [sic].”
Quite right. There is nothing that takes place on earth for which God is not the creator. Just because the ways and means are subtle and apparently random does not remove it from God’s power. The winds blow by His command and in the way in which He intended.
From Mere Islam’s Abdurrahman Squires: one could argue that the creation process took place in stages…and the Qur’an actually hints at this (with the exception of the first man). However, the various forms of homo erectus (or is it homo erecti?) that were evolving were not, from the religous point of view, actually human beings since they did not have a soul. However, once this God-guided evolutionary creation process took place, God created “with His own Hands” (i.e. not by an evolutionary process) a creature that was just like the other homo erecti that had evolved…and He breathed into him His spirit. Thus, from the religious point-of-view, this was the first human being (i.e. homo sapien body with a soul).
That is the formulation that I have arrived at, too. Allah is infinite in His Attributes. As the Creator, He is eternally creating. I have heard it said by holy men that the entirety of this universe that we perceive is annihilated and recreated in every instant by the power of God the Destroyer and God the Creator. The point here being that we have no conception of the ways and means of God’s creative, sustaining and destroying power.]
[Update 2: Abdussamad Clarke puts the science vs religion tempest back in its Western Christian teacup. Key excerpt:
Given the parochialism of Western thought, that a christian proof has fallen is regarded as the death of God, rather than a localised cultural event of European and Western christian history. Of course, this confusion is compounded by the work of many Muslim authors who import christian arguments wholesale into their books without realising that they are already widely discredited and disproved in Europe and were never the basis of Muslim proof in this arena in the first place.
The second half of the essay wanders into Gold-dinar axe-grinding that is less relevant to the issue at hand. Still worth a read though.]