The Debate on Scientific Interpretation of Qur’an

Between Contemporary Advocates and Opponents
(Part 1/2)
Back in the 1950s, a heated battle and debate took place in Egyptian newspapers between two groups of Muslim scholars on this issue.
Scientific Interpretation of The Holy Qur'an

In our modern age, a new type of Quranic interpretation has become popular, known by the term "Scientific Interpretation of the Quran."

What is meant by this term is the kind of interpretation which benefits from "modern cosmic sciences", and uses its facts and theories to highlight the objectives of the Quran, and explain its true meanings.

"Cosmic Sciences" include natural sciences, earth sciences (geology), chemistry, life sciences (biology) of plants and animals, medicine, and anatomy, and physiology, mathematical science, and all similar and related sciences.

"Cosmic Sciences" may also include some human and social sciences such as psychology, sociology, economics, geography and others.

Those who pursue this type of interpretation and are its passionate advocates are often cosmologists and natural scientists, not the scholars of religion or Shariah (Islamic law).

As for the scholars of religion and Shariah, they differ among themselves on the permissibility of this type of interpretation, especially how lawful it is.

Back in the 1950s, a heated battle and debate took place in Egyptian newspapers between two groups of Muslim scholars on this issue, and I believe that the disagreement still exists till now between its advocates and opponents.

Prior to that era, prominent Muslim scholars and researchers were also divided between advocates and opponents, though the number of opponents dominated the scene.

Sheikh Shaltout’s Opposition to Scientific Interpretation of Qur’an

The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Mahmoud Shaltout, may Allah have mercy on him, was one of the opponents of the scientific interpretation of the Quran. In the preface of his exegesis, he denounced a group of intellectuals who acquired some scientific knowledge and learned - or were taught – some scientific and philosophical theories then undertook the interpretation of verses of the Noble Quran based on their modern culture. Commenting on their actions, the Sheikh said:

“They read the Quran, and found that Allah (SWT) said: 'Nothing have We omitted from the Book, and they (all) shall be gathered to their Lord in the end.'[1]? They misinterpreted this verse, believing it gives them liberty to discover new meanings in the Quran. So they interpreted the Quran based on contemporary scientific theories, and they related its noble verses to the foundations of scientific sciences assuming that by doing that they would be serving the legacy of the Quran and helping to raise the status of Islam, and they gave their writings a lot of promotion in scientific and cultural circles.

They approached the Quran with this wrong methodology, and they corrupted their relation with the Quran as it led them to a way of thinking which the Quran does not need, and which does not match the purpose of its revelation from Allah.

This approach to the Quran is no doubt incorrect as Allah did not reveal the Quran to people for it to be a book on scientific theories, specialized arts and other different types of knowledge.

There is no doubt that this approach is incorrect as it makes its followers and adherents interpret the Quran an artificial interpretation that contradicts the essence of inimitability that sound judgment rejects.

Moreover, it is incorrect because it makes the Quran subject to change with changes in science through time and place, as sciences do not know stability nor a final decision or opinion. Today's authentic invention might become tomorrow's void superstition.

Therefore, if we attempt to apply the Quranic interpretation to non-constant scientific issues, we would be subjecting the Quran also to change and would be responsible for mistakes made, and would put ourselves in an awkward position to defend the Quran.

Lets then preserve the Quran’s greatness and nobleness, and maintain its sacredness and grandeur. We should understand that hints to the secrets of creation and natural phenomena mentioned in the Quran are meant to encourage reflection, research and analysis so that people increase in faith.

We believe that the Quran is not at variance with the pure innate nature of mankind, and that the noble Quran does not contradict – and will not contradict -  any scientific fact which human minds accept.

In a hadith, people asked: "'O Messenger of Allah! How is it that the moon first looks thin like a thread, then it grows until it becomes full and round, but then again it starts to decrease and becomes thin as it was before. It never remains in one form?’ And in response, Allah revealed this verse:

(They ask you concerning the new moons. Say: they are but signs to mark fixed periods of time in (the affairs of) men, and for pilgrimage. It is no virtue if you enter your houses from the back; it is virtue if you fear Allah. Enter houses through the proper doors and fear Allah that you may prosper.) (Al-Baqarah, 2: 189)

One also finds in the Quran Allah's response to the companions' question about the Spirit in the following verse: "They ask you concerning the Spirit. Say: "The Spirit (come) by command of my Lord of knowledge, it is only a little that is communicated to you (O men!)" (Al-Israa 17: 85). Does this not stand as explicit evidence that the Quran is not a book of scientific interpretations but one of guidance, reform and legislation?[2]

Sheikh Amin Al-Khouly & Others  Opposing the scientific interpretation of the Qur’an

The Holy Quran isn't at variance with the pure innate nature of mankind, and it doesn't contradict – and won't contradict - with any scientific fact which human minds accept.

Another scholar opposed to the scientific interpretation of the Quran is Sheikh Amin Al-Khouly, a prominent Muslim scholar, as stated in his research titled “Tafsir: Milestones in His Life & His Current Methodology.”

In this research, he presented Al-Shatibi’s opinion who objected to those attempting to take the Quran away from its methodology of addressing the Arabs with what they understood within the framework of the sciences and of knowledge they were familiar with. Al-Khouly responded to those who claim that the Quran comprises the knowledge of predecessors and successors in religious and worldly matters, in addition to legal and rational knowledge!

The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Mohammad Mostafa Al-Maraghi, is of this same opinion which he stated in his preface to the book titled "Islam and Modern Medicine" by Dr. Abd El-Aziz Pasha Ismail.[3]

This is also the opinion of Dr. Abd Al-Halim Mahmoud, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Mashadd, Sheikh Abu-Bakr Dhikry, which they stated in the preface of their abridged interpretation of the Quran published by the magazine "Nur Al-Islam", the mouthpiece of scholars of preaching and guidance at Al-Azhar.

The Opposition to Scientific Interpretation of Sheikh Sayyid Qutub

Sayyid Qutub, the author of "Al-Dhilal", may Allah have mercy upon him, follows a similar approach in his interpretation of the verse, "They ask you concerning the new moons"[4] as he says in his eloquent style:

“I am indeed astonished by the naivety of those passionate for the Glorious Quran who deliberately attempt to add to it that which is not part of it, trying to interpret its verses in a way which was not intended in the first place. They try to extract from it some branches in the sciences of medicine, chemistry and astronomy ... in order to raise the status of the Holy Quran!

The Noble Quran is a comprehensive book in its content, and its message goes far beyond all these sciences as it is man himself who discovers this knowledge and benefits from it. Among the characteristics of the human intellect is to research, experiment and implement. The Quran in this regard is concerned with the self-development of man's personality, conscience, mind and way of thinking. The Quran also addresses the development of the structure of his community to allow him to make good use of these potentials within him.

After shaping a sound human being capable of imagination, thinking and feeling, and after shaping the society which facilitates his activity, the Quran leaves him to research and experiment, to make mistakes and yield correct results in the fields of science, research and experimentation as the Quran has already guaranteed for mankind the sound standards of imagination, contemplation and thinking.

We should therefore not subject the eternal truth mentioned in the Quran about the universe - in its approach to present a correct understanding of the nature of creation and its relation to the Creator and the harmony between its different parts - to the assumptions and theories produced by human minds, and not even what we call “scientific facts” reached through what we consider to be conclusive experiments.

The Quranic truths are final, conclusive and absolute facts. As for conclusions reached through human research, whatever tools are used, they are neither final nor conclusive facts, as they are restricted with the constraints of the experiments performed, their conditions and tools… It is therefore a methodological mistake – based on of the scientific method itself - to subject the final absolute Quranic facts to incomplete facts reached through human knowledge.

That was related to “scientific facts”… As for “scientific” theories and hypotheses, the matter is clearer. This includes all astronomical theories, all theories on the creation of man and his evolution stages, all theories on human psychology and behavior … and all theories on sociology and its different phases. According even to human standards, these theories are not scientific facts but hypotheses and assumptions. They are beneficial in terms of interpreting cosmic, biological, psychological and social phenomena till a subsequent theory is capable to interpret more of these phenomena or interpret them with more precision! Therefore, these theories are subject to change, modification, increase and decrease. They are also subject to be turned upside down due to the invention of new research tools or newer interpretations of a collection of old observations.

Every attempt to relate general scientific signs in the Quran to changing modern scientific discoveries, or even non-absolute scientific facts as mentioned earlier, involves a basic methodological error, in addition to three meanings that are inappropriate to be related to the Quran:

First: An internal defeat in the minds of the followers of this approach which makes them think that science is supreme and that the Quran is its follower. For this reason, they try to prove the validity of the Quran through the use of science, or infer to the Quran through science. Whereas the Quran is a comprehensive book in its topic and conclusive in its facts, science is still today contradicting what it proved yesterday as “facts”, and all scientific discoveries are neither final nor absolute as they are constrained with man’s environment, understanding and tools, which all leads to the inability of producing one final absolute fact.

Second: A misunderstanding of the nature and role of the Quran. The Quran is the absolute final truth that addresses the development of man’s life according to human nature, in a way that is in harmony with the nature of this universe and its divine laws so that he is not in conflict with the environment which surrounds him. The Quran actually encourages man to get to know the universe and discover some of its secrets, and use some of its laws being God’s caliph on earth. These laws of nature are discovered through observation, research, experimentation and application guided by the mind God gave him to use, and not to simply receive ready material information.

Third: A continuous renewed interpretation of the Quranic text in an unnatural way to allow chasing and following the ever-changing scientific theories and hypotheses. All of this does not befit the reverence of the Holy Quran and it involves a methodological error as mentioned above.

(To be continued)

[1] Surah Al-Anaam (6: 38)

[2] Introduction of Sheikh Shaltout’s Tafsir, pages 11-14, Dar Al-Shorouk, Egypt. Also published in "Risalat Al-Islam" magazine.

[3] This was also mentioned by Dr. Dhahabi in the second part of his book (Tafsir and Tafsir Scholars) (At-Tafsir Wal-Mufasirun), pages 495-496; the edition of Al-Mukhtar Al-Islami, 1985 published by Wahbah Bookshop.

[4] 189, The Cow

Part 1/5 of translation of Chapter 4 (The Scientific Interpretation of the The Quran) of Sheikh Al-Qaradawi’s book “How to Deal with the Glorious Quran?” (Kayfa Nataamal Maa Al-Quran Al-Azeem), Fifth Edition, 2006, Published by Dar-Al-Shorouk, Cairo, Egypt.
Translated by: Shahira Mahran.
Related Links:
Are The Quran and Science Compatible? Book Review
Evolution & Islam: Another Interpretation
Near-Death Experiences: An Islamic Perspective
The “God Particle” From an Islamic Perspective
Aliens, Alternate Dimensions, and Allah
Dr. Yusuf Al-Qaradawi is the President of The International Union for Muslim Scholars (IUMS) and the Head of the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR). He has been active in the field of da`wah and the Islamic movement for more than half a century.

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