Islam and science

On thinking that Muslims are ignorant and contribute little to science

Maybe it will sounds so hateful but as a Muslim I think most of the Muslims are ignorant and uneducated,our religion is about love and kindness but most of the Muslims are so hateful,they treats womens bad,they treat animals badly,they have no respect for others,they are judging Christians Jews and Gays,but they don't do anything for love and kindness,they think heaven is only for Muslims,they don't do anything for science and art,do you think Allah proud of this?

In 2017 Iran produced more scientific research (if we count published scientific papers) than Switzerland, Poland, Sweden, Belgium or Denmark. Indonesia’s scientific output went from 1262 papers in 2007 to 18683 papers in 2017. Your ideas about Muslims not contributing to science are rather outdated. In the century starting with 2100 Muslims could easily be producing over half of all the science produced in the world if we judge by present trends.

Rather than comparing Muslims to some imaginary ideal, compare Muslims to how they would be if they were not Muslims. Of course Muslims have their problems, but if you compare them to non-Muslims of the same country, you will see that they are actually similar to or better than the non-Muslims. Egypt’s Coptic Christians are in no way nicer, kinder or more pluralistic than Egypt’s Muslims. India’s Hindus are no better than its Muslims. Turkey’s secularists are no better than Turkey’s devout Muslims.

The problem is not with Islam but with their local cultures. Culture takes time to change and things have greatly improved over the past 100 years. Indonesia went from having 6500 university students in 1950 to having 4.2 million university students in 2009. This is going to lead to tremendous cultural change over time.

There are over 100,000 British converts to Islam in Britain. Do you think that by becoming Muslim they magically start to treat animals and women badly and become less kind toward others? If you have met many converts to Islam in the West (like I have) then you will know that they continue to remain authentically European/Western. They continue to care about the things they cared about before Islam (things like animal rights) while becoming much better people due to their increased spirituality and their decreased worldliness.

When it comes to good non-Muslims, they become even better with Islam.

As for Muslims thinking that only Muslims go to Paradise, there are tons of Jews and Christians who think the same of their own religion. And there are many Muslims who believe that the good and faithful people from other religions will also go to Paradise.

Islam’s Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science

Nidhal Guessoum’s Islam’s Quantum Question (originally published in French in 2009, published in English in 2011) is well worth reading, mainly for its detailed refutation of various pseudo-scientific defenses of Islam and the Quran that have been offered by others. His detailed critique of Iʿjāz literature and its supporters (such as Zaghloul El-Naggar), who purport to show scientific “miracles” found in the Quran and hadith using the flimsiest of evidence, will hopefully help bring the discussion on Islam and science to a higher and less embarrassing plane in the Muslim world.

Guessoum’s refutation of misguided Muslim arguments against the theory of evolution (such as those of Harun Yahya and Seyyed Hussein Nasr) and his overview of the scientific support for evolution are also highly valuable.

The book is marred by Guessoum’s attempts at coming up with “scientific” explanations for miracles. He suggests that Jesus’s healing of the blind may have actually been the placebo effect, seemingly finding it the most scientifically satisfactory explanation. This rather naive reasoning is symptomatic of the fact that Guessoum offers very little in the way of synthesis, despite the subtitle’s promised “reconciliation”. The book is largely overview and refutation, with little in the way of creative theological problem-solving.

Guessoum follows Aristotle and Ibn Rushd in conceiving of nature as a principle that stands above God–what I will call the nature supremacist view. When Mother Nature says something (miracles do not happen), and God says something else (miracles happen), the plain meaning of God’s words is to be ignored to please Nature. Thus Guessoum finds it more satisfactory to believe that the stick of Moses turning into a snake was actually an illusion rather than a fact of reality. Guessoum’s theology is therefore secularized and defensive; he has to find flimsy scientific-sounding excuses (the placebo effect, quantum mechanical indeterminacy) to explain away Quranic statements about divine action in order to be more scientifically “authentic”.

A respect for Islam’s traditional theology and an effort to reconcile it with modern science is largely absent from the book. Guessoum seems to think it beneath him to take the plain sense of the Quran literally. Like Ziauddin Sardar (whom he admires and whose thought he covers in some detail), he thinks that a person as intelligent and well-educated as himself could never be a traditionalist. Guessoum writes:

I commented that the reconciliation between the two depends strongly on the reading (literal vs. interpretative) that one adopts for the religious texts. The more literal the person is, the more problems she/he will find in harmonising science with Islam.1

That is only the case for Guessoum himself–and only because he has accepted to be driven into the nature supremacist corner. There is an alternative that he is wholly unaware of: the Ghazalian worldview. Guessoum is dismissive toward al-Ghazali (who is “orthodox” and therefore automatically persona non grata to Guessoum), unaware that al-Ghazali’s universe-as-simulation metaphor (which Guessoum cites and summarily discards) provides for a better reconciliation of Islam and science than his Aristotle-and-Ibn Rushd-inspired nature-supremacist worldview.

The Ghazalian worldview accepts the plain sense of the Quran while remaining utterly rationalist and empiricist toward the natural world. It is more faithful to the Quran because it does not try to explain anything in it away in the service of Mother Nature, and it is more faithful to science because it does not abuse concepts borrowed from fields like quantum mechanics to support mystical explanations. It is both as God-centered as any mystical view of the universe and as scientific as any atheist scientist may desire.

In the Ghazalian worldview, since we free our conception of God from the chains of nature supremacism, the literal meaning of the Quran stops giving us trouble. God caused the Red Sea to part? That is problematic to Guessoum and Guessoum’s imaginary literalist since he must come up with an explanation that pleases Mother Nature almost as a deity alongside God. But in the Ghazalian view explaining it is the simplest thing in the world: the person in charge of a simulation can make any change to it he wants. He can cause it to run according to natural laws that he can suspend whenever he wishes. There is no need for quantum mechanical or psychological explanations of this miracle because nature is not a god alongside God, nature is merely a projection, a mirage, upheld by God. Trying to find scientific explanations for miracles is as silly as a video game character trying to find explanations for miraculous events inside the video game using the game’s logic that they see around them, wholly unaware that the video game is actually hosted on a computer and that the miraculous event was just a number that switched inside the computer’s RAM. By being unaware that there is one logic to the inside of the game and another, far more sophisticated, logic to the outside of it, all explanations our character comes up with will be hopelessly inadequate. Only once the creator of the game sends a revelation into the game telling the character that there is an outside infrastructure to the game will the character be able to finally understand the miracle. The miracle had no basis within the game’s logic because it followed a different logic, a foreign, outer logic.

The parting of the Red Sea had no need for scientific intermediaries because scientific factors are how God normally does things; when He abnormally does things as in the case of miracles, He is acting unscientifically. Science merely describes God’s normal ways of operating this simulation. So trying to come up with scientific explanations for miracles is to think that God has to bow down to Mother Nature and do things her way rather than His way.

According to Guessoum, and I hope I am not being too harsh here, a self-respecting and scientifically-minded Muslim must believe that God has no choice but to act according to the laws of nature. Why? What is so special about nature that God must bow down to it? What a low opinion to have about God! Guessoum could argue that God acts according to nature by choice, but there is no suggestion in the book that he has such a conception. He appears to think of God and nature as two equally powerful deities, apparently thinking this is the only way we can “reconcile” the two and remain scientifically respectable.

I respect Guessoum’s right to have his own theology. But I do not respect his apparent thinking that his secularized and defensive theology is the only intelligent and rationalist one. This could of course simply be due to his lack of knowledge of the details and sophistication of Islamic theology. See my essay on reconciling Islam and Darwinian evolution for more on the Ghazalian worldview and how it fits perfectly within a rationalist worldview.

Selection bias and cultural intertia

He discusses a 2007 conference on “Quranic Healing” organized in Abu Dhabi and attended by many university professors and professionals. The keynote speaker called for integrating “Quranic healing” into medicine in university curricula. Topics discussed included the effect of Quran recitation on water and the scientific basis for the evil eye.

Reading such reports, I had difficulty reminding myself that all this was being presented in the twenty-first-century conferences and not in dark medieval gatherings.2

There is a selection bias here: only the minority of Muslim professors and professionals who find “Quranic healing” interesting would have been interested in attending such a conference. This tells us nothing about the potential majority of elite Muslims who would have found such a conference absurd. That conference could either be (1) a sign that Muslims are still medieval in their thinking on some matters or (2) one of the last gasps of the dying breed of Muslim professors and professionals who engage in such silly abuses of religion and science.

Guessoum expresses many aspects of what I call “Muslim middle class horror syndrome”; the horror of middle class Muslims at what we might call ordinary Muslims. He decries the fact that a Quran memorization competition at his son’s school (in the UAE) attracted the interest of all the parents while a science fair barely attracted a few of them. The Quran competition only focused on memorization, not understanding, and the parents apparently could not care less about comprehension as long as memorization took place.

“Islam” might be a completely irrelevant variable here from a social science perspective. Children of doctors and other highly educated professionals, regardless of their parents’ religiosity, are going to enjoy having parents that are going to be as open-minded and interested in science education as Guessoum. And children of uneducated parents are going to not have parents that are interested in science education. It just so happens that in the UAE, most children are the children of uneducated parents.

To put it another way, Islamic beliefs never prevented children born to highly-educated parents from reading and taking in dozens of modern scientific books. Guessoum, who had such an upbringing, somehow thinks he is unique. I doubt he is. With or without Islam, children who come from families predisposed to love knowledge and learning will get a wide, modern education. The idea that there are highly intelligent Muslims who refuse to read scientific books (as Guessoum’s theory of the ailment of Islamic cultures would predict) is completely a figment of the imagination; there are no such Muslims.

Now, I do not deny that the Arab/Islamic world suffers from far more superstition and anti-scientific attitudes than, say, Sweden. But this may simply represent cultural inertia. The number of people getting a university degree in the Middle East has increased by orders of magnitude in the past 50 years, and this cannot help but slowly change their cultures. It is just that change takes time.

We should therefore look at the attitudes of devout Muslim children versus their parents to find out whether Islam is preventing progress as their culture changes or not. I am very much of the opinion that Islam is quite irrelevant here.

To put it another way: Islam never prevented someone from being a rationalist. It did not do that in 850 CE, and it does not do that today. Islam can be used as an excuse for irrationalism, but it can also be used as an excuse for rationalism. It is quite amazing that, seeing the extremely diverse worldviews of Islam’s different scholars, one can hold onto the view that Islam somehow hampers rationalism. The existence and celebrity status of rationalists like Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī should be sufficient evidence to show that a person predisposed to rationalism will find rationalism through Islam. It is humans themselves who make Islam rationalist or irrationalist as their own personal and cultural tendencies make them. Islam may not be a causal factor here–it may simply be a victim.

Another support for my argument is this: In the Middle East, secularists who reject Islam and proudly embrace theories like evolution as alternatives to the Islamic worldview are going to be just as ignorant about real science as Muslims of equal education / socio-economic status. They will follow a narrow-minded, make-believe science that is almost half made up of a secularist metaphysics. This means that it is the culture that is the problem, not the religion. Even if religion is abandoned, ignorance and narrow-mindedness remains because of cultural inertia. I do not have data to back this up, but my experience of the Middle East strongly supports this view.

The solution is going to be slow and will take much time. If each generation is slightly more rationalist than the one before it, then we can consider that progress. Egypt’s scientific output has increased from about 2800 research papers in 1996 to 17,000 in 2017. That is a tremendous increase in scientific output that at least partly reflects increased funding and engagement, and will likely have important ramifications for Egyptian culture. We see the same pattern almost everywhere else in Muslim majority countries: Pakistan went from 890 papers in 1996 to 15800 in 2017, Iran publishes more science than Belgium, Sweden or Poland (data from Scimago Journal & Country Rank).

The anti-Ghazali prejudice

While his treatment of al-Ghazali is friendlier than many others, he too submits to the Orientalist myth that al-Ghazali had a harmful effect on philosophy. He writes:

He remains an icon of Islamic classical scholarship, although for philosophy and science his legacy and influence were minimal, if not negative.3

Recent Western scholarship has shown that al-Ghazali wasn’t just a non-enemy of philosophy; he actually tried to integrate philosophy with spirituality and Islamic law. See Frank Griffel’s Al-Ghazali’s Philosophical Theology and Kenneth Garden’s The First Islamic Reviver. Guessoum’s understanding of al-Ghazali is therefore outdated and unaware of recent scholarship.

Wahhabism, Ibn Taymiyya and Salafism

I am neither a Salafi nor follower of Ibn Taymiyya but I am forced here to defend them against Guessoum’s treatment. He conflates Wahhabism with Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings. Unfortunately it looks like it will take decades before we can rescue Ibn Taymiyya’s image from these caricatures. Guessoum really likes Ibn Rushd’s assertion that there can never be conflict between rational knowledge and scripture–a concept that was in fact very strongly defended by Ibn Taymiyya as well. As a modern Muslim, I find Ibn Taymiyya’s version of the argument superior to Ibn Rushd. Ibn Rushd continues to hold onto philosophical arrogance–the belief that when scripture and philosophy conflict, philosophy should be used to explain away scripture.

Ibn Taymiyya has the opposite, and wiser and more modern (some would say postmodern) view. Rather than arrogantly thinking that we are always superior to scripture, we should acknowledge that scripture is superior to us. When there is a seeming conflict between scripture and philosophy (I include science in this), rather than naively explaining away the conflict, we should look deeper and consider the possibility that it is our seemingly rational arguments that are at fault. A good example is the question of Darwinian evolution. Past reformers tried to reconcile Islam and Darwinian evolution by explaining away Islam’s views on creation. As I show in my essay on Islam and evolution, now that we have progressed further in our knowledge, we can actually fully support scripture’s views while maintaining rationality. It was rationality that was at fault in the past, not scripture. As our rationality improved, we realized that scripture had it right all along.

A wise person takes a lesson from this: we should strongly resist the desire to explain away scripture when there is a seeming conflict between it and rationality. We should always keep in mind that future generations may solve the conflict without being forced to throw away the plain meaning of scripture.

Ibn Taymiyya, despite his faults, was a wonderfully intelligent, open-minded and rationalistic scholar. To those of us wishing for a more intelligent and empirical Islamic law, Ibn Taymiyya is a much-needed breath of fresh air compared to the scholars who came before him (for example in his rejection of the triple divorce, in his consideration of the common good as a positive thing in its own right). Those interested in a sophisticated view of Ibn Taymiyya should check out Ibn Taymiyya and his Times (edited by Yossef Rapoport and Shahab Ahmed, see my review of it here).

Guessoum writes the following gross mischaracterization of Salafis (who, according to him, are the same as Wahhabis, but perhaps he was simplifying for the sake of his readers):

And Salafis often nonchalantly dismiss scientific and other truths whenever they appear to conflict with their literal understanding of Islamic texts or with injunctions found in the Qur’an and in the Hadith. No effort at interpretation is ever made to reconcile such truths; the Texts come first – complete with the readings and understandings of the Salaf.4

In reality Salafism is a diverse doctrine with an important non-Wahhabi element. Some of the most ardent Salafi followers of Ibn Taymiyya are in fact far more rationalistic in their understanding of Islam than many other Muslims (due to their critical approach to the opinions of previous scholars and toward hadith). As for Salafis rejecting science, if we ignore Wahhabi propagandists then I doubt there is any such pattern.

Did Muslims invent science?

Guessoum mentions Ziauddin Sardar’s defense of Muslims as originators of science and rightly does not agree with it. Despite his high respect for Sardar, he feels free to criticize his often politically motivated statements about Islam and the supposed intrinsic racism of the West, something I was pleased to see. Sardar unfortunately often acts as a propagandist capitalizing on fashionable Western trends, the current fashion being the doctrine that while all cultures and civilizations are somehow equally worthy, Western culture and civilization is inherently evil. For my previous criticism of Sardar see my essay An Islamic defense of free speech (a critique of Ziauddin Sardar’s views on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses).

Guessoum says that modern science is a recent phenomenon. He gives a number of the attributes of science, such as objectivity and a focus on experimentation. I believe the relationship of medieval Muslims with science deserved further discussion. First, let me propose a simple definition of science that captures its modern spirit and shows why medieval Muslims did not really have science as we understand it:

Science is autonomous consensus-seeking about explanations of the natural world.

An explanation is only scientific if it there is autonomous consensus about it among humans. Autonomous consensus means for many people to reach the same conclusion despite the almost-complete lack of pressure on them to reach that conclusion. If you have people in the United States, China and Egypt study the same phenomenon and reach the same conclusion about its explanation even though no one is forcing them to agree, then we call that conclusion scientific. Of course, this process can lead to false results, but the point is that as the process is carried out, it uncovers its own falsehoods and corrects them.

Guessoum says that an essential aspect of science is methodological naturalism (the insistence on natural, rather than supernatural, explanations). I believe this may not be necessary because autonomous consensus-seeking automatically, over the centuries, leads to methodological naturalism. Humans necessarily do not all share the same faith or the same liking for supernatural explanations. Therefore when humans seek consensus, they necessarily must discard supernatural explanations one by one until only the natural remains. In other words, discarding supernatural explanations is a side-effect of autonomous consensus-seeking, it is not an essential part of it. You simply cannot have humans from different cities and countries all come to the same autonomous consensus on some supernatural explanation because that requires equality of faith and theology, something that never exists. But they can come to autonomous consensus about natural explanations, since no faith or theology is needed for this. Therefore the seeking of consensus about the natural world automatically causes the supernatural to fade away over time until only the natural remains.

Now, medieval Muslims did not really have science because, while many brilliant minds sought explanations of the natural world (thus possessing one aspect of science), they did not have any concept of the importance of autonomous consensus-seeking, which is the essential element of modern science. They worked independently to understand the natural world, but they did not have sufficient self-awareness to generalize their methods into an agreed-upon process for uncovering the workings of the natural world. Al-Biruni defended science’s inductive method, but his method was never generally accepted or practiced. It took centuries of development before humans had sufficient self-awareness to think of science as a thing in itself. This self-awareness only started in the late 16th century with people like Francis Bacon.

Saying medieval Muslims had science therefore discards an essential aspect of its development. We should instead say that medieval Muslims had elements of modern science while lacking its essential quality: that of being able to see science as a thing in itself, a process of consensus-seeking for uncovering facts about the natural world. Muslim “science” was un-self-aware science. Self-awareness is essential to modern science. Therefore trying to drag the concept of modern science into the medieval era, as people like Ziauddin Sardar try to do, only muddies the waters. It is also an insult to the ingenuity and hard work of Europeans who were able to see science as a thing in itself.

It is true that Muslims contributed two essential things to science: the concepts of academic freedom and the doctoral dissertation that comes with it (see George Makdisi’s books). Christianity is a hierarchical religion that had little respect for independent initiative among scholars. Europe literally imported academic freedom from Islamic civilization where it was considered essential to the validity of the rulings of legal scholars (muftis). This was a foreign element in European universities that caused great conflict at first. Originally European universities were little more than servants of the Church and subservient to its authority. But Islamic academic freedom continually weakened the Church’s authority over the universities. Eventually, modern science was born out of this atmosphere.

Islam may have been essential to the development of modern science, but Islam did not have modern science. It only provided some of its building blocks. It took Europe centuries to sufficiently develop these building blocks into what became modern science. While ignoring Islam’s contribution to the development of science is an injustice, ignoring Europe’s contribution to its development is also an injustice.

The “Islamization of knowledge”

One of the best contributions of the book is Guessoum’s critical appraisal of the “Islamization of knowledge” fad of the 1980’s. This ill-defined program for reviving the Islamic world was based on the assumption that the modern sciences need to be re-built with Islamic concepts at their heart. This program was opposed by Ziauddin Sardar, who still subscribes to the equally silly post-modern idea that there is something inherently dangerous, un-objective and un-Islamic about modern science. Sardar’s modest proposal for solving Islam’s supposed science problem is the somewhat insane suggestion that we should throw out all of modern science’s axioms about the universe, nature, time and humanity to replace them with Islamic ones.

Both the Islamization of knowledge program and Sardar’s are little more than hasty reactions to the West’s dominance. Both subscribe to the utopian idea that there is some magical fairy land of knowledge that can be attained once we somehow (nobody knows exactly how) combine Islam and science.

The main underpinning of these two sides of the same coin is elitism: they come from a minority of intellectuals who think their services are needed to give the rest of the unwashed Muslim masses the keys to some utopia of knowledge. They are unable to realize, or refuse to admit, that every single Muslim intellectual and scientist will already be viewing the world just as they themselves do. Every Muslim intellectual and scientist will be forced to integrate Islamic ethics within their scientific and philosophical worldviews merely by existing and doing their jobs.

Sardar also thinks that the hundreds of thousands of non-Muslim scientists out there are ignorant of ethical concerns. Science is inherently supposed to be “violent”, somehow these scientists are blind to the fact while he is not. Isn’t being so special wonderful?

Theistic science and metaphysical pluralism

Guessoum gives an overview of the concept of theistic science, the idea that science should be or can be practiced in a non-secularized way. The problem it responds to is the metaphysical intolerance of some atheists who falsely believe that science leaves no room for religion. But in our answer to this mindset we should not hold onto yet another form of metaphysical intolerance. We should first point out that all science has some metaphysical underpinnings (even if it is atheist metaphysics). Next, we should call for metaphysical pluralism: we do not dehumanize others regardless of their metaphysics, and we respect them as our cooperators in our seeking of autonomous consensus regarding natural phenomena, even if our metaphysics differ.

Consensus-seeking can be carried out regarding both natural phenomena and metaphysics. When it comes to natural phenomena, it is clear that all humanity is capable of hoping to reach consensus. But when it comes to metaphysics, we know that it is impossible for consensus to exist. There will always be Muslims, Christians, agnostics and atheists.

What does that entail? For those of sufficient humanism and insight, it entails metaphysical pluralism. All humans enjoy a divine spirit, an inviolable dignity, that gives them the right to be partakers in consensus-seeking: both physical and metaphysical. That means we should not attack individuals who propose godless metaphysics (even if we criticize their theories). We must not attack the persons, but we can critique their thinking. We must not try to use force, arguing that theism must be accepted by all. We must instead call for pluralism: all humans have the right to seek the truth on their own terms.

The only thing that we fight against is metaphysical intolerance: when militant atheists deny us the right to have our own metaphysics. Through metaphysical pluralism we can have intelligent discussions with those who disagree with us without dehumanizing them and refusing them the right to their independence of conscience.

It is true that atheist metaphysics can have very dangerous consequences (think the metaphysics of the Bolsheviks that gave them the right to summarily execute suspected dissidents). But the same applies to religious metaphysics; the religious too can use their metaphysics to support dangerous and inhuman doctrines. Therefore it is rather lacking in self-awareness to argue that theistic metaphysics is always more constructive and life-affirming than non-theistic ones. Muslims, Christians, agnostics and atheists can all reach a humanist metaphysics that transcends religious differences. We can, for example, all agree on the rule “Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.”

Non-theists, atheist or agnostic, remain human and continue to enjoy their God-given inviolability and dignity. We must leave it to them to accept their own metaphysics: there is no compulsion in faith/creed/religion, as the Quran tells us. If there is no metaphysical compulsion, then this means there is metaphysical freedom. People should be free to come up with their own metaphysics, and we should be free to come up with our own, and both sides should be free to critique the other’s metaphysics. Problems only arise in cases of metaphysical imperialism and intolerance.

Of course, disagreements on metaphysics can lead to severe practical differences, as in the argument over very-late-term abortions. In such cases, as the spirit of Islamic law teaches us, the lesser evil should be chosen. And the lesser evil is tolerance, even if it leads to what some consider horrible deaths. In a Western society where the law permits such abortions, the lesser evil is to tolerate the law while working peacefully to persuade others to change it, as most people seem to recognize. The alternative would be a civil war between supporters of the law and its critics, leading to far greater evils.

Conclusion

Nidhal Guessoum’s Islam’s Quantum Question is a good contribution to the discussion on Islam and science. While there is much in it that can be criticized, it can still perform the function the writer hand in mind for it; helping expose the weaknesses in the way the relationship between science and religion is envisioned in the Middle East.

On Islam’s view of psychology and scientific reductionism

What do you think of theory of psychology like Myers-Briggs Type Indicator? Is it worth it to study it to understand human personality or is it just a mere fun and entertainment? Also, how does Islam view the majority of theory of psychology which was born in Western? Thank you. I love your blog!

Islamic theology embraces science because it considers this universe a simulation-like thing that is designed to work according to scientific principles (as I explain in my essay Al-Ghazali’s Matrix and the Divine Template – PDF file). So whatever is established by science will also be automatically confirmed by Islamic theology.

Psychology is like any other science. Whatever objective and verifiable results it discovers will be accepted by Islam. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is not firmly established (see the criticisms section on Wikipedia), so Islam’s view of it will have to take these criticisms into account.

Psychology has what is called a “replication crisis” where studies conducted to verify previous studies often come to different results. For this reason psychology is not as respectable as the other sciences and its results should always be treated with skepticism unless some result is validated by many studies.

There is, however, the issue of scientific reductionism which is likely what led to your question. Science tends to treat humans as if they were nothing more than “clever apes”, animals who happen to be intelligent and use language. This view operates under the belief that science can work out everything there is to know about humans through scientific studies.

Islam is opposed to that view. It will accept all empirical and verifiable results of the sciences, but similar to Christian philosophy it views humans as “embodied spirits” not clever apes. We all have an “inner ape” that can be studied by science; this refers to the parts of our biology and psychology that are under the control of physical factors like genes. Islam fully accepts this.

But Islam and Christianity both go a step beyond that: Humans also have uniquely human part that is layered on top of the ape part and that controls it. The uniquely human part has self-consciousness, free will and inviolable dignity.  There is nothing wrong with the biological and evolutionary study of humans, but there is something wrong with suggesting that that is all there is to humans. We believe that humans can transcend their physical limits and overcome the inner ape’s instincts in order to do what is better, more just and more admirable.

The view of Islam and Christianity is that humans have inner apes and potential inner saints. The perfect human in both Islam and Christianity is the one who strives always to embody the divine attributes that are fit for a human to have (generosity, fairness, mercy, compassion, empathy). We believe that all humans have been given a nature (what Islam calls a fiṭra and which is also mentioned by Christians like Thomas Aquinas) that seeks to transcend itself by communion with God and the embodiment of His attributes. This, needless to say, is a far more beautiful and humane worldview than what scientific reductionism believes about humans.

If someone uses psychology or other fields of science to build a theory that reduces humans to nothing more than clever animals, then that is rejected by both Islam and Christianity. But that is not science anyway; there is no proof that humans are merely animals. It is just an unproven conjecture that some people like. As for the respectable, non-conjectural parts of science that are supported by studies, they are accepted by modern Islamic theology and the Christian theology of thinkers like Alister McGrath.

The Islamic Case for Scientific Empiricism and Skepticism toward Supernatural Phenomena

In answer to questions regarding people observing miracles

I would explore all possible scientific explanations for seemingly miraculous events before thinking of supernatural causes. Even if there is no scientific explanation now, one may find such an explanation one day. As I mention in my essays on why God allows evil to exist and on reconciling Islam and the theory of evolution, one of God’s self-imposed rules is the principle of plausible deniability: God never performs anything provably supernatural for us to see.  God always wants Himself to be hidden from us. That is what His dual attributes of al-Ẓāhir al-Bāṭin (The Clearly Visible, the Hidden) refer to. God is everywhere to be seen for a person who has faith in Him. But He is also completely hidden from direct observation.

We hear stories about some person’s friend’s relative who saw a clear and obvious miracle but miraculously failed to take a video of it. Rather than believing such stories, if we were to take the Quran seriously, we would be as skeptical about them as an atheist is. We fully believe in the miracles mentioned in the Quran, but we also believe the Quran when it says God will no longer show us any miracles that force us to believe in Him.

God is involved in our lives every moment of every day, but, and this is a very important point, He never provably involves Himself in our lives. He will always leave sufficient room for doubt so that when He answers a prayer we can always later say it was actually just an accident that the prayer came true. God does not want us to see Him or see effects of His actions directly. He wants our faith in Him to be a completely free and unforced choice. He wants us to proactively appreciate Him and love Him. He does not want us to passively be forced by external evidence to submit to Him.

I occasionally get messages from Muslims asking what “proof” there is that God exists and that Islam is the true religion. They have the mistaken idea that it is the job of Islamic scholars to prove Islam for them. They got it backward: It is their job to seek God and seek proofs of the correctness of Islam. Islamic scholars can help, but ultimately the business of faith is a personal business between each person and God. God has zero need for people. A person who fails to do their homework of proactively seeking God has no one to blame but themselves on the Day of Judgment.

The Quran and the Shape of the Earth: Is It Round or Flat?

There is some propaganda on the Internet about the Quran suggesting the earth is flat. They do not mention that respected and highly orthodox Islamic scholars like Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Qayyim all believed the earth to be round. They also refer to a fatwa by Ibn Baaz (a follower of Wahhabism, a version of Islam probably followed by less than 1% of the world’s Muslims) who said that no Muslim has the right to say that the earth is round. To anti-Islam propagandists the opinion and thinking of 99% of Muslims can be dismissed in favor of the fringe 1% since it helps validate their prejudices against Islam when they can focus only on the most negative examples of Muslims they can find.

Sheikh Yasir Qadhi writes:

I was in a discussion yesterday with a young Muslim struggling with his faith. He mentioned that he had read from sources critical to Islam that the Quran clearly contradicts known facts and represents the world-view of its time (7th century CE). And of the most blatant examples, according to him, was that the Quran clearly preaches that the world is flat. Now, I have said and firmly believe that the genre of 'scientific miracles in the Quran' that we all grew up reading is in fact a dangerous genre, because it reads in 'facts' where no such facts exist, and because it posits one's faith on a purely scientific basis (so that when 'science', which is ever-evolving, might seem to contradict the Quran, this will lead to a weakness of faith). Nonetheless, to claim that the Quran preaches that the world is flat is an outrageous claim. In fact there is unanimous consensus amongst medieval Muslim scholars to the contrary.

Ibn Hazm (d. 1064 CE), wrote over a thousand years ago in his book al-Fisal, "I do not know of a single scholar worth the title of scholar who claims other than that the earth is round. Indeed the evidences in the Quran and Sunnah are numerous to this effect" [al-Fisal, v. 2 p. 78].

Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328 CE), someone who is typically accused of literalism, wrote that there is unanimous consensus of all the scholars of Islam that the world is round, and that reality and perception also proves this, for, as he writes, it is well known that the Sun sets on different peoples at different times, and does not set on the whole world at the same time. In fact, writes Ibn Taymiyya, it is truly an ignorant person who claims that the earth is not round. [Majmu al-Fatawa, v. 6, p. 586]. And there are many others scholars, such as al-Razi, who wrote on this subject, and I do not know of any medieval scholar who held another view.

It is true that most of the Quranic verses on this issue are vague; there is no strong proof one way or another. There are verses like the following which could be referring to a flat earth or they may just be using literary language to speak of God’s active and highly thoughtful and considerate involvement in the design of the earth for the specific benefit of humans:

15:19 And the earth We have spread out (like a carpet); set thereon mountains firm and immovable; and produced therein all kinds of things in due balance.

20:53 He Who has, made for you the earth like a carpet spread out; has enabled you to go about therein by roads (and channels); and has sent down water from the sky.” With it have We produced diverse pairs of plants each separate from the others.

43:10 (Yea, the same that) has made for you the earth (like a carpet) spread out, and has made for you roads (and channels) therein, in order that ye may find guidance (on the way);

50:7 And the earth- We have spread it out, and set thereon mountains standing firm, and produced therein every kind of beautiful growth (in pairs)

The Quran says:

"He created the heavens and the earth in true (proportions): He wraps the night up in the day, and wraps the day up in the night." (Surah az-Zumar 5)

The word used for “wrap” is kawwara, which is used in Arabic to refer to wrapping something around a spherical thing, such as wrapping a turban around the head. The Arabic word for ball is kura, from the same root. In Arabic all words belonging to the same root have a similar theme to them; when the Quran says the night is wrapped around the day and uses kawwara, this creates the image of darkness overcoming a spherical thing in the mind. It is extremely silly to say there is no suggestion of the earth’s roundness in this verse.

The Quran also uses daḥāhā (”he threw it in a rolling motion”) in verse 79:30  to refer to God creating earth in space. The Meccan children used to play a game with stones similar to marbles that they called al-madāḥi (from the same root as daḥāhā). The root of this word brings up the image of a stone rolling, which is again in consonance with a round earth.

In another place, 41:11, it speaks of interstellar dust gathering to form the earth. It also speaks of the expansion of the universe:

We constructed the universe through power, and We are expanding it. (Verse 51:47)

A fair-minded reader of the Quran will find in it some incredibly suggestive hints toward its truth (such as the strange mention of the expansion of the universe) while not finding anything in it that clearly and unequivocally says the earth is flat. A person who starts out by thinking the earth is flat can certainly re-interpret everything in the Quran to make it support their theory. But such a person’s opinion stands against the opinion of the vast majority of scholars, who also studied the Quran and found it to support a round earth theory.

The flat earth issue in Islam is therefore made up of a fringe group of Islamic scholars, atheists and anti-Islam propagandists saying the earth is flat, and 99% of the world’s Muslims since the Middle Ages saying the earth is round.

Did Islamic scholars impede the development of science? A questionable meme

Scholar by Ludwig Deutsch (1895)

Ali Paya (an Iranian professor of philosophy) writes in a 2016 article regarding al-Ghazali’s saying that Islamic jurisprudence is a science that is superior to the non-religious sciences:

Such an attitude, which can be seen both among fuqahā’ and mystics (Ghazzali belonged to both groups) has had a continuous and seriously negative impact upon the healthy development of science and technology in Islamic culture’s ecosystem.1

Is it really surprising that religious scholars should think that their field is more important than other fields? And where is the evidence that their attitude “has had a continuous and seriously negative impact upon the healthy development of science and technology in Islamic culture’s ecosystem”?

Imagine if there had been no religious scholars at all in the Islamic areas. Would their absence have removed this supposed negative influence on the development of science? I would say the opposite is much more likely. Their activities could encouraged intellectual exploration in the following ways:

  • Since the works of Islamic scholars were by far the largest genre of literary production in the Islamic world, their activities may have been essential for the establishment of a book production culture. This culture, in turn, may have enabled non-religious scholars, philosophers and naturalists to get involved in literary production since, thanks to the Islamic scholars, a market had been established that could help them produce and sell their books.
  • Islamic scholars had a need for linguistic knowledge, helping encourage the creation of the most advanced linguistic literature ever written until Europe caught up in the past few centuries. By helping create an independent, non-religious field of knowledge that gained wide acceptance and respect, Islamic scholars helped make secular knowledge respectable and even desirable.
  • Certain Islamic scholars had a strong interest in logic and philosophy, helping maintain interest in these topics and spreading them through their books. Al-Ghazali himself helped popularize the use of Greek logic in Islamic legal theory and theology.

As far as I can tell, the theory that Islamic scholars held back scientific development is nothing but armchair theorizing. It is obvious to certain type of thinker that religious scholars should have a negative influence in this regard. But without strong empirical evidence, this should be treated as groundless hypothesizing; Islamic scholars may have been essential to all intellectual developments the Middle East enjoyed until recently.

It is true that Islamic scholars have at times opposed philosophy and science. But even more scholars have embraced these things and even promoted them. Without a statistical analysis of the number of scholars who tried to impede intellectual progress versus the number who tried to encourage, we know nothing more than the fact that some scholars tried to impede intellectual progress and some scholars tried to encourage it.

For propaganda reasons, there are many (not speaking of Paya) who like to focus on the rare Islamic clerics who espouse anti-modern attitudes while ignoring the far greater number of clerics who fully embrace modern science and knowledge.

When it comes to history, blaming the presence of a certain influence is always a dangerous business because there is no way to conduct experiments to find out whether the blame is really justified. Unless someone goes back in history, removes all or most of the Islamic scholars, then looks to see if centuries later scientific progress happens earlier or later, they should not presume to voice strong opinions on this matter (unless they find another way of empirically testing their hypothesis). For all that we know, the Islamic world may have been far more undeveloped by 1800 had it not been for the influence of Islamic scholars. And there is good reason to believe this, because there are no sustainable civilizations that lack a strong religious basis. Once the religious influence is removed, the civilization enters a phase of slow-motion collapse (low fertility rates being a very good indicator of the civilization’s unsustainbility, as is the case in all modern secularized nations). The presence and activity of Islamic scholars helped maintain Islam’s relevance through time, helping maintain its power over the Islamic world. Had they not done that, Islam could have fallen into irrelevance as happened to Greco-Roman religion.

Of course, Islamic scholars could have done more to promote science. But we can say the same regarding just about anyone.

Why is seeking knowledge important in Islam?

Why is seeking knowledge important in Islam and how does seeking knowledge not only religiously brings us closer to Allah swt?

The Quran says:

25. If they disbelieve you, those before them also disbelieved. Their messengers came to them with the clear proofs, with the Psalms, and with the Enlightening Scripture. 26. Then I seized those who disbelieved—so how was My rejection? 27. Have you not seen that God sends down water from the sky? With it We produce fruits of various colors. And in the mountains are streaks of white and red—varying in their hue—and pitch-black. 28. Likewise, human beings, animals, and livestock come in various colors. From among His servants, it is the learned who (truly) fear God. God is Almighty, Oft-Forgiving. 29. Those who recite the Book of God, and perform the prayer, and spend of what We have provided for them, secretly and publicly, expect a trade that will not fail.1

Exalted is God, the True King. Do not be hasty with the Quran before its inspiration to you is concluded, and say, “My Lord, increase me in knowledge.”2

In fact, it is clear signs in the hearts of those given knowledge. No one renounce Our signs except the unjust.3

And in another place it says, regarding the uneducated Bedouins:

The Desert-Arabs are the most steeped in disbelief and hypocrisy, and the most likely to ignore the limits that God revealed to His Messenger. God is Knowing and Wise.4

The Desert-Arabs say, “We have believed.” Say, “You have not believed; but say, ‘We have submitted,’ for faith has not yet entered into your hearts. But if you obey God and His Messenger, He will not diminish any of your deeds. God is Forgiving and Merciful.”5

The picture that the Quran draws is that those who lack knowledge are more likely to fall into error and sinful behaviors, and that increased knowledge helps a person become better and more pious.

As for non-religious knowledge, it helps us appreciate the Creator’s greatness to know more about His creations.

190. In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, are signs for people of understanding. 191. Those who remember God while standing, and sitting, and on their sides; and they reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth: “Our Lord, You did not create this in vain, glory to You, so protect us from the punishment of the Fire.”6

Do they not consider that God, Who created the heavens and the earth, is Able to create the likes of them? He has assigned for them a term, in which there is no doubt. But the wrongdoers persist in denying the truth.7

In verse 21:30, the Quran refers to two facts of the physical world, one from physics, the other from biology:

Do the disbelievers not see that the heavens and the earth were one mass, and We tore them apart? And that We made from water every living thing? Will they then not believe?

For a person who believes in God, the above verse seems to refer to the Big Bang hypothesis, which is the accepted theory for how the universe started. The Quran even refers to the expansion of the universe that was discovered in the last century:

We constructed the universe with power, and We are expanding it.8

While these facts of physics, biology, etc. are not sufficient to constitute proof, they are sufficient to constitute āyāt (“signs”, “pointers”). They are not proofs of God’s existence and greatness, by the point to Him and His power, they suggest it, and for the person who humbles his or her heart to God, they act as strengtheners for their faith and their appreciation of God’s presence and greatness.

The Egyptian scholar Muhammad al-Ghazali (1917-1996) says:

The Quran, in pointing to God's existence, is a universe that speaks, the same way that this universe is a silent Quran.

For those of us who have submitted to God and love Him, the more we learn about the universe the closer we feel to Him, because we know it is all His creation, and that He is in charge of it.

Secular knowledge helps us know God better and also helps improve our lives in various ways (you can read a scientific book about food and in this way make better diet choices). It is quite obvious that more knowledge is better than less knowledge.

And as for religious knowledge, it helps us avoid errors and know the best ways of pleasing God, which is the purpose of our lives.

For a discussion of Islam and science see my essay: God, Evolution and Abiogenesis: The Topological Theory for the Origin of Life and Species