Science and the Qur'an

Does the Qur'an contain scientific knowledge?

By Brian Whitaker

In recent years traditional arguments for a divine origin of the Qur'an have often been supplemented by claims that the Qur'an is a "scientific miracle". The basic idea is that its verses contain information, usually of a scientific nature, that could not have been known to humans in the time of the Prophet - in which case the information must surely have come from God. Expounding further on this idea, the Institute of Islamic Information and Education says:

Within the Qur'an are recorded facts about ancient times that were unknown to Muhammad's contemporaries and even to historians in the first half of the 20th century. In scores of verses, we also find references to scientific wonders, some only recently discovered or confirmed, regarding the universe, biology, embryology, astronomy, physics, geography, meteorology, medicine, history, oceanography, etc. [1] 

Since the 1980s, the "scientific miracle" of the Qur'an has become a major tool for Islamic proselytising and appears to have met with considerable success. It has also given many Muslims a renewed sense of pride in their religion. In the eyes of others, though, it has done much to discredit Islam.

The origins of "Qur'anic science" can be traced back to a French doctor, Maurice Bucaille, who served as family physician to King Faisal of Saudi Arabia in the early 1970s. Bucaille wrote a book, The Bible, The Qur'an and Science, which was published in 1976. In it, he argued that while the Bible contains many scientific errors, the Qur'an was remarkably prescient: references to the Big Bang, black holes and space travel can all be found in its verses. Bucaille died in 1988 but his name lives on: the practice of searching the Qur'an for advance knowledge of scientific discoveries became known as "Bucailleism".

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani physicist, comments:

Bucaille's method is simple. He asks his readers to ponder on some Qur'anic verse and then, from a variety of meanings that could be assigned to the verse, he pulls out one which is consistent with some scientific fact ... To this end, he marshals an impressive number of Qur'anic references to bees, spiders, birds, plants and vegetables of different kinds, animal milk, embryos, and human reproduction. [2]

One obvious weakness of this approach is that it only operates retrospectively: the scientific "knowledge" in the Qur'an does not become apparent until after it has been established by science. Hoodbhoy adds: "In Bucaille's book there is not a single prediction of any physical fact which is unknown up to now, but which could be tested against observation and experiment in the future." [3]

One of the key Bucailleist figures of the 1980s was a Yemeni sheikh, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, who worked at King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia and began seeking out western scientists who were visiting the kingdom, with the aim of getting them to say positive things about scientific "knowledge" in the Qur'an. Zindani's technique was described by Daniel Golden in an article for the Wall Street Journal:

His breakthrough came when one of his assistants, Mustafa Abdul Basit Ahmed, presented a leech to Keith Moore, a University of Toronto professor and author of a widely used embryology textbook.

Mr Ahmed wanted to show that a verse from the Qur'an, which states that God made man as a leech, was an apt simile to describe early human gestation as seen under a microscope. Mr Ahmed says Prof Moore was bowled over by the resemblance between the leech and the early embryo. Since the Qur'an predated microscopes, Prof Moore, son of a Protestant clergyman, concluded that God had revealed the Qur'an to Muhammad. [4]

Moore was so impressed that in 1983 he produced an "Islamic edition" of his embryology textbook, The Developing Human, which he described as containing the same material as the original version but with the addition of "numerous references to statements in the Qur'an and Sunnah about human embryology". In a foreword to the book, Moore wrote:

For the past three years, I have worked with the Embryology Committee of King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, helping them interpret the many statements in the Qur'an and Sunnah referring to human reproduction and prenatal development. 

At first I was astonished by the accuracy of the statements that were recorded in the 7th century AD, before the science of embryology was established. Although I was aware of the glorious history of Muslim scientists in the 10th century AD, and some of their contributions to medicine, I knew nothing about the religious facts and beliefs contained in the Qur'an and Sunnah.

It is important for Islamic and other students to understand the meaning of these Qur'anic statements about human development, based on current scientific knowledge. [5] 

Sheikh Zindani left King Abdulaziz University but in 1984 secured Saudi funding to establish the "Commission on Scientific Signs in the Qur'an and Sunnah". Mustafa Abdul Basit Ahmed - the man who had presented the leech to Professor Moore - was then employed by the commission at $3,000 a month to travel around North America cultivating scientists, according to Golden.

The commission drew the scientists to its conferences with first-class plane tickets for them and their wives, rooms at the best hotels, $1,000 honoraria, and banquets with Muslim leaders - such as a palace dinner in Islamabad with Pakistani President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq ...

During the course of their trips, scientists were presented with verses from the Qur'an to consider in the light of their expertise. Zindani then interviewed them about the verses in front of a video camera, pushing them to acknowledge signs of divine inspiration. Golden spoke to several who felt they had been tricked or manipulated. Here is one account:

Marine scientist William Hay, then at the University of Colorado, was assigned a passage likening the minds of unbelievers to 'the darkness in a deep sea ... covered by waves, above which are waves.' As the videotape rolled, Mr Zindani pressed Prof Hay to admit that Muhammad couldn't have known about internal waves caused by varying densities in ocean depths. 

When Prof Hay suggested Muhammad could have learned about the phenomenon from sailors, Mr Zindani insisted that the prophet never visited a seaport.

Prof Hay, a Methodist, says he then raised other hypotheses that Mr Zindani also dismissed. Finally, Prof Hay conceded that the inspiration for the reference to internal waves 'must be the divine being', a statement now trumpeted on Islamic websites.

"I fell into that trap and then warned other people to watch out for it," says Prof Hay, now at a German marine institute.

Years later, many of the comments from scientists targeted by Zindani are still circulated on the internet. [6] Zindani, who had ties to Osama bin Laden long before he became notorious, eventually returned to Yemen where he became a prominent figure in the conservative/Islamist Islah party and founded Iman University, a Yemeni religious institution with about 6,000 students. Thanks to the university's research efforts, Zindani claims to have developed a herbal cure for HIV/AIDS. Since 2004, he has been listed by the US as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, mainly because of his connections with Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. [7]

Hunting for scientific foreknowledge in the Qur'an is an activity that almost anyone can take part in. It doesn't require any theological expertise, and digital versions of the text have made searching easier than it used to be. There's also a fair chance that somewhere among the Qur'an's 6,000-plus verses something can be found that could, conceivably, with some stretching of the imagination, be interpreted as referring to a recent scientific discovery. Consequently, the internet is full of examples that people have supposedly found.

These searches often appear to bear fruit because of ambiguities or obscurities in the language of the Qur'an. The vocabulary of seventh-century Arabic had developed to suit the needs of the time but in the absence of precise scientific terminology figurative expressions or approximations often had to be used. The planets, for instance, are described in the Qur'an as "swimming" in space. [8] This imprecision creates ambiguities which allow people to read things into the text that may or may not have been intended. The ambiguities also allow sceptics to argue that if God had wanted to impart scientific knowledge through the Qur'an He might have spelled it out more clearly.

Similar claims of foreknowledge are made for other religions. For example, a verse from Hindu scripture - "What does not exist cannot come into existence, and what exists cannot be destroyed" [9] - has been interpreted as referring to the law of conservation of matter and energy in physics. But this can be a risky business, as Hoodbhoy points out: "Science is quite shameless in its abandonment of old theories and espousal of new ones." Hindus used to claim their scripture was full of evidence supporting the Steady State theory of cosmology - until scientists abandoned the Steady State theory in favour of the Big Bank theory. Needless to say, Hindus soon found other scriptural passages "which were in perfect accord with the newer theory and again proudly acclaimed as a triumph of ancient wisdom". [10]

A few examples illustrate how the search-and-ye-shall-find technique works in the Qur'an. An article on the True Islam website talks about the ozone layer and begins by explaining its importance in shielding the Earth from harmful rays. "The discovery of the ozone layer," it continues, "took place many centuries after the Qur'an was revealed, nevertheless, there is mention in the Qur'an about this protective layer that shields us against the sun's harmful rays." Then comes the all-important verse:

Until he reached the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had provided no shield against it [i.e. the sun]. [11] 

For those who don't immediately see that this refers to a hole in the ozone layer, the writer explains:

Five implications are drawn from this verse:

1. The word "shield" implies that there is something harmful from the sun, because if there was no harm to come from the sun, there would be no need for a shield.

2. In earlier interpretations of the Quarn [sic] the word "shield" was taken to mean mountains or hills, but mountains and hills do not shield us from the sun's rays ultra violet rays unless we live all our lives inside one!

3. The phrasing of the verse indicates that the people mentioned as having no shield are in fact the exception and that for the rest of mankind there exists a shield.

4. The words "We had provided no shield" indicate that the shield is a natural one (of God's making) and not a man-made one. This automatically eliminates the suggestion of houses and other man-made shelters.

5. The verse indicates the presence of a people, and thus areas, that are not shielded. This is in line with the current knowledge concerning the existence of holes in the ozone layer. It is generally thought that these holes have always existed. The matter has suddenly acquired an alarming nature because the size of these holes are greatly being enlarged as a result of man's pollution of the planet.

The only phenomenon that is able to accommodate all these five implications is the ozone layer. [12] 

A possibly more significant observation about the quoted verse is that it seems to assume there is an actual spot, somewhere on Earth and yet to be discovered by science, where the sun rises. A few verses earlier, the Qur'an also talks of the place where the sun sets. It is described as having "a spring of murky water" with people nearby. [13]

Meanwhile, an item on the Islam Guide website looks at the Qur'an's knowledge of geology:

A book entitled Earth is a basic reference textbook in many universities around the world. One of its two authors is Professor Emeritus Frank Press. He was the Science Adviser to former US President Jimmy Carter, and for 12 years was the President of the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC. His book says that mountains have underlying roots. These roots are deeply embedded in the ground, thus, mountains have a shape like a peg. [14] 

The swift transition here from "root" to "peg" provides the cue for a Qur'anic verse:

Have We not made the earth as a bed, and the mountains as pegs? [15] 

Islam Guide adds: "The history of science tells us that the theory of mountains having deep roots was introduced only in the latter half of the nineteenth century." So, is this an example of the Qur'an revealing information that could not have been known in the Prophet's lifetime or a case of wishful thinking? Some mountains do have roots and some of those roots can be considered as peg-shaped, but there is no strong reason for supposing this is what the verse alludes to.

We also now know that the Earth's abundant supplies of iron originated in outer space - created by fusion in extremely hot stars. Numerous Islamic websites claim to have found prior knowledge of this in the Qur'an, citing a phrase which can be translated as saying "We [i.e. God] sent down iron". [16] An article on the Religion of Islam website comments:

This shows that iron did not form on the Earth, but was carried from Supernovas, and was 'sent down', as stated in the verse. It is clear that this fact could not have been known in the 7th century, when the Quran was revealed. 

Nevertheless, this fact is related in the Quran, the Word of God, Who encompasses all things in His infinite knowledge. The fact that the verse specifically mentions iron is quite astounding, considering that these discoveries were made at the end of the 20th century. [17] 

However, that is not the only possible interpretation of the Qur'anic verse. It could also mean that God "revealed" iron and its many uses to mankind, or simply that He "provided" it for mankind. [18] The website does acknowledge these other possibilities but dismisses them by saying that the relevant verb (anzalna in Arabic) occurs in the Qur'an only when used in its literal "sending down" sense. This is incorrect. Other verses in the Qur'an state that God "sent down" clothing, food and eight kinds of cattle - and nobody has suggested that any of them originated in a supernova. [19]

Needless to say, when articles of this sort appear on the internet other articles appear, pulling them apart. There are also anti-Islam websites that highlight what they claim to be scientific errors in the Qur'an. Others point out that the Qur'an is not alone in its apparent foresight. Yemeni atheist Ahmad Saeed said: "Whenever I have discussions about the Qur'an [people] say: 'But how can an illiterate person find out about all these scientific discoveries and miracles 1,400 years ago?' I tell them that Star Trek also foresaw how the future is going to look, so why don't you believe in Star Trek instead?"

Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, a convert to Islam who has engaged in public debates with several high-profile atheists, describes the "scientific miracles" narrative as an intellectual embarrassment and suggests that while it does attract many to Islam it also drives others away:

Millions of booklets and pamphlets have been printed that make the claim that there are scientific miracles in the Qur'an, and countless non-Muslims have converted to Islam as a result ... Famous popularisers such as Dr Zakir Naik and Yusuf Estes have also used the scientific miracles narrative to verify the Divine nature of the Qur'an. 

Due to this intense popularisation over the past few decades, there is now a growing counter movement that attempts to demystify the so-called scientific statements, and they seem to be more nuanced, with a growing popularity. A significant number of apostates from Islam (many of whom I have had private conversations with) cite the counter movement's work as a causal factor in deciding to leave the religion. [20]


Footnotes

1. Institute of Islamic Information and Education: “The Authenticity of the Quran” 

2. Hoodbhoy, Pervez: Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality. London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1991. p67.

3. Hoodbhoy, op cit. p 68.

4. Golden, Daniel: "Western Scholars Play Key Role In Touting 'Science' of the Quran." Wall Street Journal, 23 January 2002. 

5. Dr Moore's "The Developing Human with Islamic Additions" textbook.
The Islam Papers, 1 November 2013. 

6. See, for example, Zindani's video, "This is Truth

7. "United States Designates bin Laden Loyalist." US Treasury Department, 24 February 2004. 

8. Qur'an 21:33

9. Bhagavad Gita, 2:16.

10. Hoodbhoy, op cit. pp 66-67.

11. Qur'an 18:90

12. "Life on Earth." 

13. Qur'an 18:86

14. "The Quran on Mountains

15. Quran, 78:6-7

16. Quran 57:25

17. "The Miracle of Iron

18. A variety of translations of this verse can be found here

19. Clothing: Qur'an 7:26; food: 10:59, 45:05, 2:57, 7:160; cattle: 39:06

20. "Does the Qur'an contain scientific miracles?" Blog post by Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, 21 August 2013.