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THE QURANIC APPROACH TO SCIENCE

In order to understand the relationship between Islam and science, the following analogy may be apposite:

For an author to write a book, he should first have the knowledge of what he will write. That is, the general meaning of the book should exist in the author’s mind. Then, before setting out to write the book, he designs the general meaning: he gives it more definite form in his mind and then starts writing according to this form. To write a book means, by using necessary material things, moulding the meaning or content into letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, and chapters, and thus making it known by others. However, if the author does not will to write it, he will keep it in his mind. This means that even if he does not write the book, the book will continue to have a kind of existence. That is, it will continue to exist in its author’s mind as meaning. After the book is written, people read it, understand it and thus the book acquires another kind of existence in their minds and memories. Even if the book is lost or withdrawn, it will continue to exist in both the mind of the author and the memories of the readers.

To cite another example, for a palace to be built, first an architect conceives it and then gives form to his conception. Afterwards, he makes a plan of the palace, according to which the palace will be built. Building means the materialization of the architect’s conception of the palace in floors, rooms, doors, windows, and so on, by using the necessary material. Even if the palace is destroyed years later, it will continue to exist in the architect’s mind and in the memories of those who saw it.

The universe is like a book written by God or a palace built by Him, to make Himself known by conscious beings, primarily including mankind. The universe essentially exists in God’s Knowledge in meaning. Creation means, through His Will, God Almighty’s specifying or giving a distinct character and form to that meaning in His Knowledge as species, races, families or individuals, and then, through His Power, clothing each in matter and making each visible in the material realm contained in time and space. That is, the Divine Will specifies and forms and the Divine Power clothes and makes visible. After a thing ceases to exist, it continues to live both in God’s Knowledge and in memories and through its offspring, if it has any. For example, when a flower dies, it continues to exist in God’s Knowledge, in memories, and in its seeds.

We see that everything has five stages or degrees of existence. Essentially, it exists in the Creator’s Knowledge as meaning. Even if God Almighty did not create it, it would continue to exist in His Knowledge as meaning. Thus, that meaning constitutes the essential existence of everything. The second stage or degree of a thing’s existence is that it exists in the Divine Will as a form or ‘plan’. Then comes the stage of a thing’s material existence in the material realm. This is followed by its existence in memories and, if it has any, through its offspring. The fifth stage is its eternal existence in the other world. God Almighty will ‘use’ the wreck of this world in the construction of the other one, where animals will continue their existence, each species through a representative of its own, while each human being will find an eternal life which will have been designed for him according to his living in this world.

Now it must be clear what kind of a relationship there is between science and Islam or the Qur’an. First of all, the universe, the subject-matter of the sciences, is the realm where God’s Names are manifested and therefore has some sort of sanctity. Everything in it is a letter from God Almighty inviting us to study it to have knowledge of Him. Thus, the universe is the collection of those letters or, as Muslim sages call it, the Divine Book of Creation, issuing, primarily, from the Divine Attributes of Will and Power. As for the Qur’an, issuing from the Divine Will of Speech, it is the counterpart of the universe in written form. If we call the universe the Qur’an of Creation (al-Qur’an al-Takwini), we may call the Qur’an the Recorded Qur’an (al-Qur’an al-Tadwini). Just as there can be no conflict between a palace and the paper written to describe it, there can also be no conflict between the universe and the Qur’an, which are two expressions of the same truth.

Similarly, man is also a Divine book corresponding to the Qur’an and the universe. It is because of this that the term used to signify the sentences of the Qur’an-ayah-also means events taking place within the souls of men and phenomena in the world of nature.’ Man’s life is so mysteriously interrelated to the natural phenomena and events that, according to Ibn Sina (Avicenna), one who discerns these phenomena can draw hundred-percent-true conclusions about the future of the world; that is to say, the laws of history can be deduced from what is going on in nature.

What does ‘reading’ mean?

It is interesting that the first revelation of the Qur’an was:

Read: in and with the name of your Lord Who created. He created man of an embryo suspended. Read: and your Lord is the Most Munificent, Who taught by the Pen, taught man that he knew not. (96.1-3)

It is quite significant that the first command of God to His Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, was ‘read’, when there was not yet the Book to read. This means that there is another book or, rather, there are two books, counterparts to the Book which was to be revealed. These two books are the universe and man. A believer should approach the study of the universe and man without prejudice. It is also significant that the verses of the Qur’an and the phenomena in the universe and in man-material and psychological-are both called ‘signs’. The imperative ‘Read!’ is followed, not by a direct object or an adverbial, but by ‘in and with the name of your Lord Who created’. This signifies:

  • ‘Reading’ the universe-studying it-has principles of its own, like, for example, observation and experiment.

  • The word translated as Lord is Rabb, among whose meanings is ‘educator, upbringer, sustainer, giver of a certain pattern, and giver of a particular nature to each entity.’ Man’s nature includes free will, whereas every other entity acts according to the primordial nature assigned to it, what modern science refers to in the words ‘nature’ and the ‘laws of nature’. What man is commanded to do is to discover these ‘laws’.

  • Every act of man, including his scientific studies, should be performed in the name of God, and therefore be an act of worship. That is the only limit which the Qur’an or Islam has put on science. Any act so performed cannot be against God’s commandments. For example, in the pursuit of scientific knowledge as worship, no one could harm mankind, nor put that knowledge in the form of a deadly weapon in the hands of an irresponsible minority. If done only in the name of God, by people conscious of always being supervised by God and who will be called to account before a Supreme Tribunal for all their actions in the world, science could change the world into a garden of Eden.

The Qur’an orders man to read at a time when there was nothing yet to read, this means he is commanded to read-study-the universe itself as the book of creation of which the Qur’an is the counterpart in letters or words. Man has to observe the universe and perceive its meaning and content, and as he perceives it he comes to know more deeply the beauty and splendor of the Creator’s system and the infinitude of His Might. Thus, it is incumbent upon man to penetrate into the manifold meanings of the universe, discover the Divine laws of nature and found a world where science and faith complement each other so that man will be able to perform his function as God’s vicegerent on earth and attain true bliss in both worlds.

Thus, as Seyyed Hossein Nasr emphasizes (Man and Nature (1976), London, pp. 94-5), revelation to man is inseparable from the cosmic revelation which is also a book of God. Islam, by refusing to separate man from nature and the study of nature from gnosis or its metaphysical dimension, has preserved an integral view of the universe and sees in the arteries of the cosmic and natural order the flow of Divine grace. From the bosom of nature man seeks to transcend nature and nature can be an aid in this process provided man learns to contemplate it as a mirror reflecting a higher reality. This is the reason why one finds in Islam an elaborate hierarchy of knowledge integrated by the principle of Divine Unity-’natural’, juridical, social and theological sciences and also metaphysical ones-and why so many Muslim scientists like Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Ak Shamsaddin, and Ibrahim Haqqi of Erzurum, besides being well-versed in religious sciences, were either practicing Sufis or were intellectually affiliated to the gnostic schools of Islam. A man like Ibn Sina could be a physician and Peripatetic philosopher and yet expound his Oriental philosophy which sought knowledge through illumination. Nasir al-Din al-Tusi was the leading mathematician and astronomer of his day and the author of an outstanding treatise on the metaphysical dimension of Islam. Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, who is one of the most outstanding figures in Islamic jurisprudence, history and Qur’anic interpretation, wrote eleven centuries ago about how the winds fertilize clouds so that rain falls.

Such examples could be multiplied but these suffice to demonstrate that in Islam observation of nature and contemplation of it has always represented a very important aspect of the spiritual journey of a Muslim. Furthermore, there has been in Islam an intimate connection between sciences and other fields of Islamic studies. This connection is to be found in the Qur’an itself, which, as the Divine Scripture of Islam, corresponds to the macrocosmic revelation which is the universe.

There are many other verses in the Qur’an which shed light upon scientific facts, and invite everyone to study. Certainly, the day will come when God will have shown mankind His signs in the outer world, as well as in their own inner worlds and it will be manifest to them that the Qur’an is the truth:

 We shall show them Our signs in the outer world and in their own selves until it will be manifest to them that it (the Qur’an) is the truth (48.53). 

Humankind will concentrate more on sciences in the future and the Qur’an, which is the counterpart in letters of the universe, the realm where God’s Names are manisfested, will prove itself to be God’s Revelation.


Recommended Reading:
Two different fields for science and religion?

Last Updated on October 26, 2000

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