Are Science and Islam Compatible?

Interview with Bruno Guiderdoni
Are Science
Dr Bruno Guiderdoni
Dr Bruno Guiderdoni
Dr. Bruno Abd-al-Haqq Guiderdoni is the director of the Observatory of Lyon (France). His main research field is in galaxy formation and evolution. He has published more than 100 papers and has organized several international conferences on these issues. Guiderdoni is one of the referent experts on Islam in France and has published 50 papers on Islamic theology and mysticism. He was in charge of a French television program called Knowing Islam from 1993 to 1999 and is now the director of the Islamic Institute for Advanced Studies.

IslamOnline.net's Motaz Al-Khateeb interviewed Guiderdoni on his views regarding the interaction between science and Islam.

* IOL: What is your opinion on the issue of scientific miracles in the Qur'an?

- Guiderdoni: It's a difficult issue that turns out to be very important in the context of the Islamic world now. If you look at web pages on Islam, for instance, most of them start with a description of the scientific miracles of the Qur'an. So it's not an issue that can be neglected. It has to be addressed, and considered as something significant, because it helps us to address the issue of the interface and interaction of science and faith.

This is an issue that is not new in Islam. In the Middle Ages, or what was, for us, the golden era of Islam, Islamic philosophers such as Al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd had already addressed this issue of the interface, or articulation, between science and religion. I'm using the word "articulation" because it's specifically the word that was used by Ibn Rushd. Al-Ghazali was addressing this issue too.

Both believed deeply in the unity of truth in the Islamic faith. Truth is one. Ultimately, there cannot be a "scientific truth" that would be different from a "religious truth." Thus, if there are differences in the statements of science and the statements of religion, these differences are only apparent. They can be overcome.

Once this is said, it must be added that there was actually some disagreement between Al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd, because they disagreed on the location of the borderline between science and religion. Al-Ghazali claimed that, in case of apparent disagreement, it is usually the fault of the scientists who go beyond the limits of science when they claim things about the action of God in the world, the nature of fundamental reality, and so on. Whereas for Ibn Rushd, if there is a contradiction between the statements of religion and the statements of science, one has to come back to the Holy Book and make new, more valid, "interpretations" of the text that do not contradict the sound results of science.

As you can see, these ideas are quite modern. However, we are not in the same situation. Religion has somewhat changed from this time, at least in the understanding we have, but science has changed a lot in a few centuries. This is the reason why the issue of the "articulation" between science and faith has to be considered with a fresher eye.

So now I come back to your question about scientific miracles in the Qur'an. We as Muslims believe there cannot be any difference between scientific and religious truths in their essence. But, of course, the approach of science and the approach of religion are quite different. The scientific method is different from the religious quest, and this has to be taken into account.

The scientific method is sometimes summarized as the "trial and error" method. You try a theory, and if it doesn't work with the observations or experiments, you reflect on the causes of the problem, you make new assumptions to make the theory closer to the observations, and you try this modified theory, and so on. You improve your theory and you increase the level of your knowledge on the world simply because you know more and more about theories that do not work! As you may know, the notion of scientific truth is difficult to define. Theories prove to be true at some time, because they are in agreement with the known facts, and then new scientific facts come, which have to be included in a broader and better theory. What we can identify with great certainty is the scientific process that leads us to the growth of knowledge. It is a fact that we know more than we used to know in the Middle Ages, or even in the 19th century, because of this capitalization of knowledge. This is the scientific approach.

As far as the religious approach is concerned, I would like to recall that the primary purpose of revelation is salvation. God teaches the human beings things that cannot be reached by human intelligence alone. This is very clear in the first verses that were revealed by God:

[Read in the name of your Lord Who created. He created man from a clot. Read and your Lord is Most Honorable, Who taught (to write) with the pen. Taught man what he knew not] (Al-`Alaq 96:1-5).

And of course we cannot know anything about the attributes and qualities of God, the metaphysical structure of reality, or the afterlife, if revelation does not come to teach us about these things. This teaching is the main purpose of revelation. And God has spoken the truth in His noble Book, the Holy Qur'an, which is the miraculous foundation of Islam. This is the first miracle that Muslims have to believe in.

You can easily understand why I feel very skeptical about the approach that consists in trying to prove the truth of the Qur'an from the truth of science. That is, to confirm the beauty, the deepness, and the highness of the verses of the Qur'an from a scientific perspective. It seems to me that we are not doing things in the correct order.

Of course, it is obvious that, in the Qur'an, God alludes to facts of nature. The facts He alludes to cannot be wrong. God has perfect knowledge of reality, so it's not surprising that He alludes to the moon and sun, to stars, the earth, the ocean, life, and the awe the cosmos produces in us. As a scientist, I find these allusions absolutely fascinating and very profound. They feed my own spiritual life, and pop up in my mind when I look at the sky or contemplate natural phenomena.

But is it necessary to go to the point where we would like to consider scientific statements, that is, quantitative statements based on theories and experiments, in the Qur'an? Do we need that to prove the truth of the Qur'an? Shouldn't we recognize that the truth of the Qur'an is present in each verse and radiates its spiritual light? I share the admiration of those who contemplate the beauty of the description of the world in the Qur'an. And I do not see what is added to this truth and beauty by those who try to make a new science from the Qur'an.

For instance, trying to measure the value of the velocity of light in the verses of the Qur'an is something that has been fashionable in the last years, as it can be seen in web pages about this point. The underlying assumption of this attempt is that angels are made with mere photons, the specific elementary particles described by modern physics. I am afraid the people who are doing so might loose the spiritual perspective about the revelation. Angels are creatures of the upper realms of creation and they do not belong to this physical cosmos.

The Qur'an prompts us to look at the world and to recognize God's hand in the marvels of the world. We can recognize the intelligence in the natural phenomena of the world, because we have something of this intelligence in us. God has put some of His intelligence in the human being. So there is a kind of resonance between our intelligence, given by God, and the intelligence that God has put in the world by creating the harmony and the regularity of the cosmos. This makes me understand why the world is understandable, which is one of the greatest mysteries. Einstein used to say that the most mysterious thing of the world is the fact that the world is understandable; that we can describe it by mathematics. For a believer, this is something obvious: we see the intelligence that God has put in the world.

The point is that we have to look at the world to recognize this intelligence. We have to contemplate the cosmos, the galaxies, the stars, our planet, meteorological phenomena, animal and vegetal species, and so on, to learn from God, love Him and worship Him. God asks us to measure the velocity of light in the world to glorify Him.

So I would say that we have to feed our spiritual life with the Qur'an. We have to listen to the Qur'an's advice, and to look at the verses that prompt us to recognize God's signs in the world. In doing so, we get knowledge from God through two channels: the marvels of the Qur'an and the marvels of the world. All these marvels come from God's speech.

My feeling is that the interest that currently goes to the scientific miracles in the Qur'an should go to the study of the world through science. This was one of the duties of the Muslims of the golden age, because they were very proud with their faith. So we should find again this spirit of exploration of the world.

* IOL: When people discuss the scientific miracles in the Qur'an, they talk about religious truth or Qur'anic truth and scientific truth. What is the relationship between the two and what is scientific truth?

- Guiderdoni:Truth is something that is difficult to define. As a believer, I would say that, first, the Truth is one of God's most beautiful names, Al-Haqq. So, for me, it is a duty to serve God according to this specific name.

I don't consider truth to be a concept or something complicated. Truth is the ultimate reality. I hope I will know truth by contemplating God. And I like to define the truth of a religion by its ability to bring the believers to this contemplation of God, the only absolute Truth.

If you look at truth in religions, you find so many statements. Christians, Jews, or Hindus claim things that are so different from what Muslims are saying. For instance, Christians say that Jesus Christ is God's son, whereas Muslims say that he is a "word from Allah." Christians are Christians precisely because they say that Jesus Christ is God's son. So these are statements that are quite different. But it is fascinating to consider that Christians and Muslims are waiting for Jesus Christ's return, and they are hoping to recognize him, in spite of these differences.

I think that Christians are pursuing their quest for salvation and Muslims are pursuing their quest for salvation. What makes salvation is the purity of the heart that worships the unique God and nothing else. So, in a sense, both religions are true, because they endeavor to bring their believers to the ultimate Truth, which is God. This is my own definition of religious truth. As a consequence, we should keep the teachings and rituals of our religions, because these are useful tools to walk along the path towards the contemplation of the ultimate Truth. For me, there is no doubt in the fact that I have to walk on the path of Islam to get closer to God, in sha' Allah.

As God says in the Holy Qur'an (al-Ma'ida, 5:48), each religion is a precious gift that has been given by God through revelation. We should keep this gift because it is the map that is necessary for us to travel along the spiritual path, to know the meanings of the things, and ultimately to contemplate God's face. We are looking for answers, which will come, in sha' Allah, in the afterlife.

This is my own definition of religious truth. It means that we should be quite humble in this approach, and know that truth is too high to be encapsulated in a single formula. God wants us to worship Him and know Him through the various names and the various statements that are given in revelation. For me, this is the meaning of takbir (saying "Allah is the Greatest"). It means we have to go beyond the ideas that we make about God, because God is higher.

As far as scientific truth is concerned, I have to recall that it is always defined in the context of a theory. Scientific truth is the ability of a theory to explain and predict observational and experimental facts. The facts themselves have a meaning only in the context of a given theory. Scientific facts are not plain facts such as "This morning I woke up and had my breakfast," for instance. Scientific facts are sophisticated facts such as, "The moon turns around the earth in this duration and at this distance that are measured in such a way" and so on. So these theories are human creations. It turns out that it's quite difficult to specify the truth of a scientific theory. On this issue, there is a significant contribution of a philosopher called Karl Popper in the last century. He reflected on what was called "the logic of scientific discovery," that is, when can we infer, from a philosophical viewpoint, that a given theory is wrong or true? Popper argues that it is not possible to prove that a theory is right. It is only possible to prove that a theory is wrong by contradicting it with facts. A theory is a scientific theory when it is "testable," he says. That is, [it is a theory] when it predict facts with a sufficient level of precision. These predictions can be compared with facts. If the facts do not agree with the theory, the theory is considered as false (that is, it is a "false scientific theory"). Otherwise, the theory is only "corroborated" by facts, but it can never be considered "true," because new facts may come in the future that will eventually contradict the theory.

A theory is scientific only if it is possible to test it against the facts and to prove it wrong. Popper says that scientific theories should be "falsifiable." If a theory is always right, whatever the facts are, it is not a scientific theory! Take the story of psychoanalysis, for instance. Karl Popper was very critical about psychoanalysis because it finds an explanation for everything. Just a joke to explain the situation in Popper's mind: psychoanalysis explains that, if you don't love your mother, you have problems, but if you do love your mother, you also have problems, so you have problems in either case. For Karl Popper, psychoanalysis was not a scientific theory. On the contrary, the Newtonian theory of gravitation is a scientific theory, because it predicts very accurate values for the motion of a stone, or of the moon, in the gravity field of the earth, and these values can be compared with measurements.

It turns out that this theory has been "falsified" (proved wrong) after the works of Einstein. Einstein showed that the Newtonian theory has to be encapsulated in a broader theory, the theory of general relativity. General relativity predicts that light rays are curved in gravity fields, whereas, for Newtonian relativity, light rays are only straight lines. When light rays were measured by Eddington in a well-known observation, it turned out that they are curved. The predictions of the Newtonian theory proved to be wrong and the predictions of general relativity are still corroborated by facts; that is, general relativity is falsifiable, but still "unfalsified." No test has shown yet that the theory of general relativity is wrong, even if the theory may be wrong ultimately. However, it's a scientific theory because it predicts specific facts. This is the notion that we have for scientific truth.

Scientific truth is open to progress. We are improving our knowledge. So we cannot define scientific truth, but we can define the growth of scientific knowledge. It is very interesting to see how science increases. Paradoxically, when we have more and more knowledge, the borderlines between the known and the unknown also grow, and we face new questions and new puzzles. Even if there is a lot of success in the scientific exploration of the cosmos by the humankind, we don't know whether this exploration will go further and further. We don't know whether our mind is able to grasp the whole of physical reality because there is no promise about that. When I read the Qur'an, I don't see the promise about the ability of the human mind to understand everything in nature.

But I read the promise about the possibility to know God. This is somewhat paradoxical because God is infinite and we are finite. But this is God's promise, wa wa'd Allah haqq [the promise of God is true].

* IOL: There are certain approaches that are being taken to prove the religious scriptures, the Qur'an, the Bible, the Torah, etc., through scientific proof. What is your opinion on these approaches being taken?

- Guiderdoni:I think that it is only a kind of blind submission to science. God knows reality. In His revelation, there are allusions to this reality, but it does not go beyond this point. It is a very dangerous plan that we would like to prove that one religion is better than the others. It may be an attractive agenda, but by doing so, we are going to submit the winning religion to the judgment of science. Science appears as the ultimate judge for truth, which it is not, as I tried to explain previously. This is not the correct order of things, because the physical has to be submitted to the metaphysical, not the opposite.

So I am quite skeptical and a bit concerned about this fashionable approach. I hope that a more serious study of science as it is actually practiced, of the philosophy of science, of the interaction of science with societies, will help people to distinguish between the scientific and the religious approaches. The word "distinguish" implies that things are different, but they are not completely separated, because, of course, complete separation is not in the Islamic mind, which is looking for unity, or tawhid.

Each practice has its own rules and its own laws, and, with great humility, I would like to protect religion from this kind of misunderstanding where religion is submitted to the approval of scientists or the judgment of science. There is the whole dimension of spiritual life that is completely neglected by this scientific approach that is just interested in "scientific facts." We are not looking for facts in religion. We are looking for our inner transformation, for the improvement of our societies, and for the fruits which will come, in sha' Allah, in the Hereafter.

* IOL: You are French and you have converted, or reverted, to Islam. Is it possible for science to be a reason for entering into faith?

- Guiderdoni:It may be like that. I would say that this is "makr Allah" [the cunning of Allah]. Who knows what brings people to faith? Sometimes it just occurs: we wake up with faith. Sometimes, it is through marriage that people go into Islam, and then they discover spiritual life. The interest for science can be a way to Islam too. I think it is clear that it may also be a barrier, if one limits the understanding of Islam to the scientific viewpoint. Many Western intellectuals, including me, are attracted by Islam simply because they see the miraculous light of truth that radiates from it. These people are not sensitive to the discourse on "scientific miracles." We have exhausted, in some sense, the materialistic discourse on the "power of science" to describe reality. We are looking for spirituality and metaphysics. We are looking for answers to very profound questions: Why am I here? What is my destiny? What can I do for the good of the human kind?

These questions are the trigger for the conversion, that is, for the "come back" to Islam. When you come into Islam, you have the very strong feeling of coming back home. That feeling is just astonishing. It is the voice of the fitrah (state of natural innocence) that is in everybody, and that is still alive in us in spite of the materialistic education that people are getting in Europe or in the West in general. The fitrah is there, and the spiritual need of people cannot be fulfilled except by a religion. Islam is the religion of the fitrah.

The religions that are present in the West have undergone the influence of materialistic forces for centuries, and they have somewhat lost the metaphysical transparency of the fitrah that is present in Islam. This is the reason why more and more Westerners are attracted by Islam. Many more would be attracted if there were not such events as the violence that we are seeing now on our screens. Of course, the story of the West is also full of violence. On one side, the genuine Islam is very attractive, and on the other side some Muslims are doing wrong things, even evil, in the name of Islam. It is something that is very disturbing for me. When I embraced Islam 20 years ago, such problems were not as strong as they are now. This is something that is puzzling, as much as human freedom is mysterious, because we are free to do good or evil.

The Islamic faith has this capability to encapsulate all the aspects of life, and to bring a message of unity, not only to a world that is so fragmented now, but also to each of us, because we are also quite fragmented in our lives. Islam is a powerful way of unification, and we have to be unified if we want to understand and contemplate the world and eventually work in it to improve our societies.

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