The heated debate about whether religion and science are complimentary or not has been raging for years. Several theologians, philosophers, and scientists have put forward different views on this subject. In this article, we focus on the relation between religion and science from the Islamic perspective, and try to answer the question if the two disciplines are complimentary to one another or fundamentally opposed to one another with the help of verses from the Qur’an, the Hadith and views of different scholars.
Before analyzing the relationship between these two disciplines, it is necessary to understand what they are. To this end, we should first start by defining what religion and science are.
Religion is a belief system and way of life that attributes all power and order to the Supreme Being, God, Who has offered guidance to human beings through His books and Messengers. The goal of religion is the success of human beings, both on the Earth and in the hereafter. Science is knowledge about the universe, based on experiments, observations and facts that can be proven. Its goal is to explain the relationship between particular events. According to these definitions and goals, religion and science seem to be two different disciplines. Increasingly, in recent centuries, they have been perceived as being two conflicting disciplines, as they seem to disagree on some scientific theories, such as evolution.
At this point, a question arises. Are science and religion really contradictory to one another and how is this situation perceived in Islam? From an Islamic perspective, religion and science are not in conflict with one another. First of all, the universe is a book written by God and is a collection of Divine signs; therefore science and religion cannot be conflicting disciplines. Rather, they are two different expressions of the same truth.
In the Qur’an there are about 750 verses that urge humanity to gain knowledge and which are related to knowledge. Even in the very first verses sent to humanity, God begins His revelation with the actions of reading and writing:
Read! In the name of your Lord, Who created. He created man, from a clot (of congealed blood). Read, by your Most Generous Lord, Who taught by the pen. He taught man what he did not know. (96:1-5)
Now let us look what Carl Sagan said in his book, Cosmos: “Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic.” Muslims believe that the Qur’an contains everything, but not to the same degree. This fact is pointed out in the following verse:
With Him are the keys of the Unseen. None but He knows them. And He knows what is in the land and the sea. Not a leaf falls but with His Knowledge, not a grain amid the darkness of the Earth, nothing of wet or dry but (it is noted) in a Manifest Book. (6:59)
The Qur’an pursues four purposes:
a.existence and unity of God,
d.concentration on worship of God and justice.
While realizing these purposes, it draws our attention to the acts of God in the universe, His art that is displayed throughout creation, the manifestations of His names and attributes and the magnificent perfect order and harmony that there is in existence. In the Qur’an, God gives examples about some scientific facts, natural events, and even more, He indicates some scientific and technological wonders, such as airplanes, electricity, motor vehicles, and means of radio and telecommunication. At this point, let us look at the verses that are related to science, scientific knowledge, and the importance of gaining scientific knowledge.
The Verses that Urge Us to Gain Knowledge
Say: Are those who know and those who do not know alike? It is those who are endued with understanding that receive admonition. (39:9)
And so amongst men and crawling creatures and cattle, they are of various colors. Those truly fear God, among His Servants, who have knowledge: for God is Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving. (35:28)
And such are the Parables We set forth for mankind, but only those understand them who have knowledge. (29:43)
Qur’anic Verses Related to Scientific Facts
The Big Bang and the Beginning of Life:
Have the unbelievers not beheld that the Heavens and the Earth were a solid mass, then We separated them? (21:30)
The Expansion of the Universe Theory:
And it is We who have built the universe with our power; and, verily, it is We who are steadily expanding it. And We made the Earth habitable; a perfect design. (51:47-48) Embryology:
We have created man from an extract of clay. Then We placed him as (a drop of) sperm in a place of rest, firmly fixed. Then We made the sperm into a clot of congealed blood; then made from the clot a lump of flesh; then made the lump of flesh into bones, and clothed the bones with flesh, then we fashioned him into another creation. So blessed be God, the best to create. Then after that, you will surely die. Then, on the Day of Judgment, you will surely be raised up. (23:12-16)
Does man think that we cannot assemble his bones? Yes indeed, we are able to put together in perfect order the very tips of his fingers. (75:3-4)
Hadith on Seeking Knowledge
“The seeking of knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim.” (Ibn Maja)
“The word of wisdom is the lost property of the Believer. So wherever he finds it he has a better right to it.” (Tirmidhi)
“Whoever goes out to seek knowledge is on God’s path until he returns.” (Tirmidhi)
What Can Science Explain
Scientists simply observe things happening in the universe, sometimes just with the naked eye, and sometimes with the help of tools. When they see something which happens always in an unchanged way then they say that this is a law. An example of such a law is that everything with a mass will fall if left in the air; this happens with no exceptions, therefore it is a natural law. This is not a feature of the Earth only; every object with a mass applies a force to any other object with a mass. This becomes a universal law by which we can explain many things, from why a rock falls to the orbits of planets. But the problem of why two objects in space apply a force to one another is not on the agenda for scientists. Actually, it is not a question that you can find an answer to by scientific methods. This is a law of the universe; yet its reason may not be found in the observable universe. If the cause of this law is not in the observable universe then there is no way an explanation can be found by scientific methods. Some people have the incorrect belief that the theory of relativity explains gravity. The theory of relativity does not assume that objects apply force to each other. In brief and simple words this theory states that space-time is curved at the points where mass exists. Objects move along the geodesics (shortest paths) of space-time. And geodesics pass through the center of the masses; that is why objects tend to move toward each other. This is just a very difficult way of saying the same thing. The question “why do objects travel along the geodesics?” is exactly the same question that we asked above. The theory of relativity does not explain why gravitation exists; it just offers a different way of looking at the problem. Gravitation is just one example of many natural laws; all of these laws cannot answer the question why.
Science Cannot Answer “Why”
The observable universe is three-dimensional. But the universe as a whole is at least four-dimensional. If a natural law has a cause in the fourth dimension, a dimension to which we have no access, we cannot understand it. We can demonstrate this by an example, helping us to understand what we mean. Think of a metallic plane on which there are some creatures that are like electrons, which have no interaction with the third dimension, nor do they have any sense of it. All they can see is the two-dimensional plane where they live. Assume that a person is shooting at the plane, periodically opening holes at regular intervals. Observing that these holes are being opened periodically and at an equal distance, these creatures, if intelligent enough, will begin to see an unchanging pattern. And they may even give it a name, like “the law of holes.” They may calculate exactly where and when the next holes will appear, but they will never understand why these holes are being made or why they are being made in an unchanging pattern. Our idea of universal laws is much the same. We find the laws, we name them, but we will never be able to understand why they exist, or why they work in a mathematically describable way.
The Universe and Its Laws in the Qur’an
The Qur’an introduces the universe as a masterpiece created by God. The Qur’an actually challenges human beings to find any flaws in creation. While talking about the creation of The Heavens it states: “. . . then look again, can you see any disorder?” (67:3). The idea that God created the universe, putting in laws and then left it to its own devices is rejected by the Qur’an. “Verily your Lord is God, who created the Heavens and the Earth in six days, then He established Himself on the Throne (of authority) regulating and governing all things” (10:3). According to the Qur’an, the laws of nature are the commands that God has given to everything in nature. God is in control of the universe every single moment. Natural laws in the terminology of Islam are called Sunnatullah. Sunna means unchanging work. If a person gets up at 6 o’clock in the morning every day without exception, we say that getting up at 6 is his Sunna. Sunnatullah means the Sunna of God, the unchanging work of God. The Qur’an states “There is no altering (the laws of) God’s creation.” (30:30).
This means that there is no change in natural laws. If we think in simpler terms, when a rock left in the air falls, we can say that God made it fall. So everything being done according to natural laws is in fact being done by God, from a falling rock to the creation of a human being from a single cell. There is nothing supernatural going on in the creation of a human being, but this does not mean that it is not God who creates it. It means that God creates it by His routine work (His Sunna). In fact, the act of God creating a human being through His Sunna is more amazing than the supernatural creation of a human being out of nothing. So, in this context, the word miracle in Islam has a different meaning than what is understood by some people in the West. Some people define a miracle as the work of God, but in Islam everything is the work of God. A miracle is therefore defined as an unusual work of God. When we correctly understand the concept of Sunnatullah, then we will not have any difficulty understanding the following verse of the Qur’an, which has troubled many Muslims.
“God has created you and your handiwork (what ever you do)”(37:96). Mu‘tazilites, one of the misguided sects of Islam, do not take this verse literally. They say, “If we want to walk, then we walk, God does not create our actions. We create our own actions.” By saying this they go against one of the basic claims of the Qur’an. That is, they do not accept the fact that there is no creator other than God and that God does not accept any intercessors. Why should we not take credit for our actions? Surely it is we who decide how and when to move. But, consider the simple action of moving our arm. When we decide to move our arm, an enormous amount of communication takes place between our brain and our arm. The amount of energy which will be used in every cell of our muscles-of which there are thousands-how much each muscle should be stretched or loosened, all will be calculated in the brain and transferred to the muscles. If we try to write all the communication between our brain and our arm, all the calculations happening in the brain for the simple act of moving our arm may take up an entire book. And all of this happens with the help of many natural laws (Sunnatullah) and in less than a second. We are unaware of all of these calculations. So how can we claim responsibility for this? All we are responsible for is the desire to move our arm. Said Nursi gives the following wonderful example to illustrate our argument: Think of a very skillful electrician. He builds an electrical terminal to produce electricity. Then he wires an entire city with cable, and puts a lamp at every corner of every street. Then he connects all these wires to the terminal passing through a single switch. He makes one of his assistants responsible for turning the switch on at night. In the evening when dark falls on the city, the assistant turns the switch on, and suddenly the entire city is lit. Now the assistant cannot take any credit for enlightening the city, but if he does not turn on the switch he will be responsible for leaving the city in the dark. Every one of our actions is more complex than the enlightening of this city. We are merely the assistant that flips the switch.
Finally, let us conclude with remarks from two thinkers: Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. (Albert Einstein)
Minds should be enlightened by science, while hearts need to be illuminated by religion. (Said Nursi)