The power of science is so amazing that it pushes religious people to take one of two paths when it comes to their beliefs about the world and what their sacred texts have to say about it. Either one has to both reject what we learned through the scientific method and have faith that what they believe to be Revelation is the Truth and everything else is the devil’s deception, or they relegate what they see in their sacred texts to be allegories to teach us life’s lessons. Many followers of the Jewish and Christian traditions seem to have fallen entrapped into one of these two paths. We now have two main encampments: young earth creationists, or sacred scripture allegorists. There are even an increasing number of believers who have been taken by powerful scientific theories, such as that of evolution, and have now begun to reject the literality of the story of Adam and Eve as a real event. Unfortunately, Muslims are increasingly joining their Abrahamic brothers and sisters as they try to cope with how to deal with the seemingly outward contradiction between religion and science.
In the case of science deniers, one has to examine the reasons behind their seemingly irrational rejection. If one believes in the literal truth of their sacred text, and that it all came from God either through literal revelation or inspiration, then it follows that nothing in it will be false. Even if something may not seem to make much sense, it must be the Truth, because it came from God and therefore cannot have its validity questioned. Furthermore, belief that the entire text came from God means one cannot pick and choose what they believe and what they can deny. For when it comes to religious scripture, denial of the part is equivalent to denial of the whole. Hence, if what one believes to be God’s word tells them something about the world, that makes anything contrary to it a falsehood no matter how convincing it might be. In a sense, it becomes as what many believe it to be a matter of shutting off the intellect. Thus is the consequence of being exclusively exoteric in approaching Revelation.
For those believers who could not reject science, while still having faith in God’s word, reconciliation between the two was in order. But due to the limited understanding of both the scientific process and sacred scripture, the reconciliation came in the form of accepting what we learn through science to be the Truth in its literal sense, and scripture became a collection of allegories and various exaggerated stories that are meant to provide lessons and wisdoms to live by. Revelation for those believers having taken this form can no longer be a collection of injunctions and literal commandments. Rather, it is more like a novel one reads and discusses in their English class as they negate the external meanings and try to decipher the indications for what is said. In this way it is all relative, and to negate the external in search for alternative possibilities being indicated means having a sound intellect. Thus is the consequence of being exclusively esoteric in approaching Revelation.
Seeing that both approaches are extreme in their nature, we end up with absurd consequences. Strict exotericism results in denial of experience and human intellect, while strict esotericism makes Revelation merely a collection of allegories and wise tales that are not rooted in reality per se. Either way cannot be true since the former denies us the quality that makes us human, while the latter denies one of the central functions of Revelation.
When it comes to how Revelation is viewed in Islam, i.e. the Quran, it is upheld as the literal and unaltered word revealed from God to his Prophet and Messenger Muhammad peace and blessings be upon him. Even when you examine the Hadith literature where the sayings of the Prophet peace be upon him are recorded, one can easily notice the difference in patterns of speech and choice of words when they are compared with the Quran. The question of how to approach the Quran can be answered by saying that along with a deep understanding of the Arabic language and its various ancillary sciences, as well as the different contexts of revelation, it is a sophisticated combination of exotericism and esotericism.
What is really interesting about the Quranic approach regarding the specifics of the universe with respect to how it came about and what mechanisms are at play that make it function the way it does, we find the Quran leaving the matter for us to look into. In fact, the Quran constantly goes back to nature and tells man to go and reflect upon it through observation, which is the first step in the scientific method. But when asked about the specifics of natural phenomena, the Quran simply redirects the questioners’ attention to the religious concern behind the phenomena and implicitly leaves the specifics for man to discover. For example, in Surah Al Baqara we find the answer to the companions of the Prophet peace be upon him when they asked him about how the moon phases change by telling them that they are there to keep track of their months and when they begin and end:
They ask you concerning the new moon. Say: They are times appointed for (the benefit of) men, and (for) the pilgrimage
Al Baqara, Chapter 2, Verse 189
In fact, this matter in Islam does not just stop with the Quran, because it even extends to the Hadith literature. A narration that is related in Sahih Muslim has the Prophet peace be upon him when he first arrived in Medina wondering about the counter-intuitive action of the farmers when they were cross-pollinating their palm trees. The companions at the time decided not to cross-pollinate as they usually do, which resulted in a bad yield and quality of crop that year. The Prophet peace be upon him passed by and wondered what went wrong, and they told him that it was his wondering that led them to think they will get a better yield if they stopped the manual cross-pollination. He replied with the famous statement: “you know best about the matters of your world!”
But let us come back to the Quran again. Despite having remained silent to a large degree on the matters dealing with the technical details of the physical world, there are a few very interesting verses and even full passages that outline physical phenomena. These verses typically give the non-Muslim a few reasons to scratch their head thinking about how an illiterate man that came over 1420 years ago could have known such details that only became known as a result of our modern technological advancements. The verses dealing with human embryology come to mind as an example.
Despite the wondrous nature of a few passages found in the Quran from a phenomenological perspective, this does not mean one can go to it and start looking for scientific explanations of the world. The Quran is NOT a book of science. The purpose of the Quran is to be a form of direct communication between God and man, and the presence of the verses that drive the movement of the “Scientific Miracles of the Quran” are to simply identify who the Quran came from. Moreover, although some passages are classified as scientifically miraculous, others pose a serious problem from a scientific perspective.
According to the Quran, Adam peace be upon him was created by God as a unique creation, from whom all humanity came from. But according to the current scientific understanding, there was no Adam and Eve. Rather, there was a gradual process of evolution that took millions of years to finally give rise to homo sapiens, which are descendants from a common ancestor shared by all life on this planet. The two narratives are incompatible, which means as a Muslim, one has to reject the scientific one in favour of the Quranic account. This presents an apparent problem: how can a Muslim be selective in their use of science to “prove” that the Quran is the true word of God, when science can be used by a non-Muslim to do just the opposite?
Before delving into this matter, we must first distinguish between readily observable phenomenons, and theories explaining those phenomenons. Furthermore, we must also distinguish between the essence of phenomenon and its manifestation. For example, the manifestation of the moon is that it is a round body in the sky visible on a clear evening and changes phases throughout a 28-day cycle. It is a beautiful object that is constantly used in romantic novels and poetry and has influenced human culture and expression quite significantly. However, the essence of the moon is a cold, lifeless, dark and round large rock that is full of holes possibly resulting from the bombardment of multiple comets. Moreover, the light we see coming from it is not in fact coming from it, but is just a reflection of the light originating from the sun and hitting it. In other words, as opposed to its manifestation, there is really nothing beautiful or romantic to be said about the essence of the moon.
Where does this come in with the Quran and science? Science is the process of discovering the essence of phenomena and devising theories behind how they work, which can lead to manipulating the direction these phenomena take. The Quran on the other hand, as well as the Hadith literature, deals more with the manifestation of the phenomena since that is the reality of our human experience. The discovery of the essence of nature and its underlying workings are left for us to work on and understand through science. When it comes to scientific theories that seek to explain the origin of the universe and life on this planet, and how it all progressed over the past 13.8 billion years, it must be kept in mind that this is not the same as explaining the mechanisms of a disease or how we can come up with more advanced technology. Moreover, we must distinguish between forward-inducing and reverse-inducing theories, because it seems that the only theories that blatantly contradict the Quran and Islamic teachings about the world are the logically fallacious reverse-induced ones, i.e. when one says that humans are a higher evolved species that happened to be lucky in the intellect department.
The relationship between Islam and science is quite complicated and therefore cannot be directly described simply as a contradiction or a non-contradiction. While Islam encompasses multiple levels of reality and confirms human experience, science is more limited in its pursuits than many would like to believe it to be. Unfortunately, the success of the scientific method combined with conflation of concepts and inability to discern where science ends and philosophy begins, as well as the delusion of rationality that in reality is nothing more than a clever use of sophistry, have all resulted in a state of confusion for many believers, and hubris for others who worship science.