Can Islam be reconciled with science?
guardian.co.uk, Monday 23 November 2009 11.30 GMT larger | smaller Article history
With 2009 drawing to a close there are only another five or so weeks left to ask if science and religion are compatible. There has been a surfeit of navel-gazing from scholars, clerics, scientists and academics on the issue this year, brought on in no small part by anniversaries celebrating Darwin and his most famous work, On the Origin of Species. I hope in 2010 we can turn our attention and energy to discussions that are more fruitful and less circuitous.
Until I took the job of religious affairs correspondent at this paper, it never occurred to me that anyone would talk about Islam and science in the same breath. One is based on belief, which is subjective, while the other is based on fact, which is empirical. Two years on and I still don't see why Islam, or any other religion for that matter, needs to be compatible with science or why its followers need to promote the idea that it is. Fashion? Keeping up with the Joneses? An attempt to show the world that Islam is compatible with some of the big issues of the Noughties – science, democracy and human rights? Islam and science should be kept separate because it is mostly, but not always, when the two overlap that some individuals question scientific facts or use religion to explain science, as if scriptures were somehow prescient of scientific discovery.
The danger of viewing science through a religious filter can be seen in this article from Hassan Ali El-Najjar. He writes that the Qur'an foresaw everything from the Big Bang to the colour of human skin.
An article from a scholar called Zakir Naik, who is better known in Muslim communities than El-Najjar, reveals a similar approach. He quotes scripture to prove scientific discoveries and concludes, more than once, how amazing the scientific accuracy of the Qur'an is. I can almost imagine him doing a high-five – or breathing a sigh of relief. As a bonus feature I've included an amusing, if slightly terrifying, video of Naik slugging it out with William Campbell about which holy book has the best science. But these examples show how people like to prove science is compatible with Islam, not the other way around, and that Islam is responsible for science and allowed it to emerge.
The inherent difficulty in attempting to reconcile Islam with science lies in the doctrine itself. Islam says God is the creator of all things and that everything – everything – flows from the creator. Muslims believe the Qur'an to be divine, the word of God. If that is the bedrock of your faith and everything starts from these points then what you will do, as Naik and El-Najjar have done, is pick out appropriate verses from the Qur'an or examples of hadith that prove science to be a result of divine intervention. To do otherwise would, presumably, be regarded by some as blasphemy or heresy.
At the evolution conference I heard Muslim scientists and academics say that, for their part, there was no contradiction between their religious identity and their day job. One did not exclude the other because the two were kept separate. It got a little depressing, not to mention wearing, to hear over and over how the two were not incompatible only to hear in a later session that Egyptian and Lebanese high school students did not accept the evidence for evolution because of their religious beliefs. There are many spheres where religion should not get involved – science is one of them. When I was in Alexandria one scientist observed: "Never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty and the pig likes it." He was talking about arguing with creationists but I think the saying applies here also.
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