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.]

Published by bingregory

Official organ of an American Muslim in Malaysian Borneo, featuring plants, pantuns and pictures from the Malay archipelago. Oversharing since 2002.

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  1. I love reading headlines that say, “Scientists Baffled by New Discovery” or some such wording πŸ™‚ Now they have found a big hole in the universe billions of light years across, a hole in the donut, so to speak. Ah, science evolves with human understanding, as does the science of the heart πŸ™‚

    Ya Haqq!

  2. The first year I taught Biology in an Islamic School I did not even dare to touch evolution. Second year I was a little braver, thanks to the support of a more open minded Principal. I was not prepared for the opposition from students and Islamic Studies teacher of how wrong I was to even suggest Muslims to consider evolution. It was just wrong. It was almost like I have committed a big sin. Harun Yahya was the scientist that they often refer to unfortunately.

  3. Irving, me too. The more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know.

    Saida, that’s a shame. The students entering my diploma program from science-stream backgrounds are ignorant of evolution. How does one teach biology with explaining evolution? I wonder, does Harun Yahya reject plate tectonics and an old Earth too?

    The underlying problem is seeking validation of religion from science, which is misguided. When science appears to clash with our beliefs, it must be denounced; when it seems to support our beliefs, it is used as ‘proof’. This is granting to science more authority and scope than it deserves.

  4. The problem is that we Muslim cannot agree to disagree and accepted things as it is. We need an arena we we can sit and start talking about many different issues that plaguing our ummah. Until we can do that than many issues will remain under the rug and whenever we talk about it, it will just be another heated arguments or debate where we all go home all upset and frustrated.
    Science has to be taken as it is, just another field of study, no more no less. Sometimes scientists say things that are right sometimes they make mistakes. Religion is faith and need no validation from human.

  5. Of course you are right Saida, that religion is faith and needs no validation from humans, but it is the ancient myths that surround our egotistical thinking that give religion a bad name. All humans are descended from a common ancestor of the ape, not from the apes themselves, and all mammals evolved from the sea. We were sea creatures once. The majesty of the real infinite creation of Allah, which is the study of science in my view, is reduced to man-made myths, and that is a real pity.

    Ya Haqq!

  6. Thank you for writing about this, and for reiterating that science and religion are not, nor have they ever esoterically been, incompatible.

    The Harun Yahyas and the L. Ron Hubbards of the world are really a dime a dozen.

    The infinite knowledge is with Allah. The knowledge of the finite is with Him, too.

    I just wish I could tap into that extra 90% of my brain power that sits (sleeps) dormant. Suggestions?

  7. It’s impossible to study or teach Biology without refering to Evolution and Darwin. The problem arises when, ‘evolution’ and Darwinism is taken to mean the non existence of God. Through experience, most Muslim students never want to hear about evolution, simply because of what they seem to think it implies.

    It’s best for Muslims and Muslim students to study ‘evolution’ and Darwinsim and to have a proper and better undersatnding of it. It’s then, one can have the great appreciation and undersatnding that’s within the Holly Quran.

  8. Positive science is overrated: As you explain it is far from explaining everything and allowing us to know everything that we need. But the point about the theory of evolution is the mindset of its advocates, which is one without any acknowledgment of God. The evolution of human culture over the millenia was possible only through the management provided by human reason and consciousness. Like that any evolution of life on earth or any evolution of the universe could have come into existence only through a conscious and constantly intervening God.

    As for Harun Yahya, I don’t know whether critics like you or advocates like those scientists who are friends and assistants of Harun Yahya are right. It is beyond me to know. But whateverhis faults, he is not wrong in challenging the religion of science and evolution.

  9. Also, brother, Harun Yahya does not reject old earth. You seem to have not read him enough to pass such a definite and categorical judgment. I have not read him much either but I know that he is not a biblical young earth creationist.

    When I read Harun Yahya for the first time, my shaking faith was restored a lot. The way that evolution is taught in schools is very positivistic, and thanks to the theory most scientists, books and teachers (that I have read) make things seem as if the idea of God is just a big foolishness. I would not blame Harun Yahya for helping me save my Islamic faith from the rival religion of science and evolution.

  10. Mustahsin, I agree with you that the way evolution is sometimes taught in schools is antagonistic to God, and I can only imagine in militantly secular Turkey it is even more so. A better Islamic response to this would be to clarify the difference between science and metaphysics, that science is a constant work-in-progress of how things work, while religion is a revealed and complete explanation of why things are. They are no more opposed to one another than science and art, even though no one has found scientific proof for great art. They are separate disciplines.

    Again I agree that many in “the West” don’t see it that way, and, like Dawkins, use evolution as some kind of God-killer. But just because they are wrong doesn’t mean Yahya’s paranoid accusations of conspiracy and Satanic ruses are appropriate. The scientific community is not conspiratorial, it is rather extremely transparent and open to all.

    I hope it is clear that I am not a “believer” in evolution as a origin myth for our species. I stopped “believing in science” when all the dinosaurs of my youth were deconstructed, reassembled, and renamed. What became of the stegosaurus, the brontosaurus, the diplodocus, the creatures I spent untold hours reading and fantasizing about? I will never forgive them πŸ˜‰

    Seriously, there are many aspects of evolutionary theory that are not satisfactorily worked out, the inadequacy of random selection at the top of the list. But God created the world through ways and means and science is the discovery of those ways and means. I don’t see how Yahya’s screeds are contributing to finding the true ways and means of God’s creation.

  11. I see, brother Gregory. From the little that I have read and know, I agree that Harun Yahya often makes very simplistic arguments and does not seem to be intense enough in thought. I hope that Harun Yahya’s simplistic arguments give way to a better evaluation of the theory of evolution among Muslim scientists in the future.

  12. Brother, above you might have made a rather mistaken comment about the level of secularism in Turkey in a reply to me. “Militantly secular” sounds too harsh. The Turkish military is led by secularist generals and surely there is a vast minority of militantly secular-minded individuals in our society, but the religious situation here is not worse than the situation in the west from my impression.

    Here is a piece of news which says that Sweden is planning to forbid even private faith schools to teach a faith as the truth. Look at this comment of the author of the blog: “The decision looks like a really startling attack on the right of parents to have their children taught what they would like.”

    Turkey is not worse, not more militantly secular and not more repressive of religion than this liberal country called Sweden. Although, Muslims cannot set up religious schools, there is a small amount of religious education in schools which mostly teach Islam as the truth, at least for the time being. There is a “presidency of religious affairs” which is run mostly by religious Muslims. You might have heard that the secular state established that presidency to control religion. Yes, that’s true but not the whole story. The institution is very far from being just an organ of the secular state.

    Another affiliated institution of the state called “Turk Diyanet Vakfi” has even been producing a vast knowledge-mine in the form of “an Encyclopedia of Islam” in Turkish. Most of its authors are academics in the faculties of theology in Turkish universities, and it is obvious from their articles that they are mostly pious people themselves.

    So, I don’t think the west is less militant in secularism than in our country. πŸ™‚

  13. Oh, I didn’t know you were Turkish! I mentioned Turkey because of HY. Part of my impressions of Turkey are from the stories of my master Shaykh Nazim Adil Naqshbandi Haqqani, who was imprisoned repeatedly for calling azan in Arabic back in the old days. I’m glad to hear more about the situation these days from someone living there now. Thank you!

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