How Islam Engages Science: An interview with Nidhal Guessoum

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At Science for the Church, our focus is on the relationship between science and Christian faith. We also engage with other perspectives, including those found in religions that share a belief in one God. The second largest religion in the world is Islam with about 1.8 billion followers worldwide and 2.5 million in the United States. Writing a book on science and religions (in the plural) introduced me to one of the key thought leaders on Islam and science, Algerian-born astrophysicist and NASA scientist Nidhal Guessoum. In my interview with him, you may be fascinated to learn that Islamic leaders grapple with some of the same anti-science attitudes that Christian leaders face. Conversely, Islam, like Christianity, also has strong warrants from its sacred text (the Qur’an) for engaging with science.

What are the key issues in the relationship of Islam and science?

The most glaring issue is evolution, particularly human evolution, and to what extent it can be accommodated in Islamic theology. Although a few intellectuals have accepted the (modern) theory of evolution from its inception, the majority of Muslims, both laymen and scholars, still reject it. We have seen a gradual increase in the visibility of Muslim scientists and thinkers who accept and defend the theory (and facts) of evolution; on the other hand, a new brand of Muslim creationism has recently emerged. The topic is still a thorny issue.

A larger issue in my view is naturalism, philosophical naturalism of course, but also methodological naturalism, which is widely shunned and resisted, even though it is de facto how most, if not all, Muslim scientists operate—no one invokes God or supernatural agents when proposing an explanation for an experimental result or when modeling a physical, chemical, or biological phenomenon. Methodological naturalism is resisted, if not explicitly rejected, because it creates difficulties, if not clear clashes, with miracles. The dominant theological school in Islam has (at least since the times of Ghazali, who died in 1111) been Ash`arism, which espouses “occasionalism,” the idea that God recreates the world at every instant and with each physical process. Causality and rigid laws of nature are replaced by “God’s habits,” which God is free to supersede whenever He wishes, i.e., in cases of miracles, small or big.

What about anti-evolutionary voices, especially Adnan Oktar (whose pen name is Harun Yahya)?

Adnan Oktar is in jail, sentenced to 1075 years in January 2021 for various crimes, including forming a criminal enterprise, financial fraud, and sexual abuse. Still, his website continues to influence some. In dozens of languages, and with many pictures of Oktar and countless old articles, it promotes creationism and conspiracy theories. However, he has lost credibility among many Muslims, particularly the cognoscenti. For several years, he was ranked among the top 100 Muslims in the annual “500 Most Influential Muslims,” until the editors discovered his lifestyle.

A more radical, yet very popular new Muslim creationist is Eyad Qunaibi, a Jordanian professor of pharmacology, who—while having published nothing on evolution—has produced dozens of videos against the theory on his YouTube channel, which has over 1 million subscribers.

Can nature lead us to understand God? More specifically is there a natural theology in Islam? If so, what is its effect on Muslim engagement with science? 

The Islamic tradition has put strong emphasis on the idea that natural phenomena, due to their beauty and regularity, point toward God. The argument from design can be found in the Qur’an and the writings of many Muslim scholars; Ghazali devoted an entire book to it, picking one phenomenon after another (on earth, in the heavens, among animals, in humans) and showing how their beauty and wonder can only be a sign of God’s might and wisdom.

The Qur’an also encourages Muslims not just to contemplate all those phenomena but to explore the earth and the heavens—again to appreciate God’s creation. To some extent, one may consider this as a form of natural theology, at least partially. I say “partially” because it is never developed apart from the Scripture (the Qur’an), but only as part of a larger framework of faith.

Science has long been strongly encouraged in Islam, both because it leads to God and because it helps people live better (find cures, provide bountiful harvests, etc.). Historically, in Islamic civilization, science did not find itself in conflict with faith/religion—though philosophy did—and so the “engagement” problem did not arise until the Enlightenment.

Are there practical ways that leaders of mosques and Islamic cultural centers can bring together Islam and science for the average Muslim?

Science should become a regular matter of discussion in mosques and Islamic cultural centers, just as social and political matters are and continue to be. Scientists, particularly Muslim ones, should be invited regularly to mosques and cultural centers to explain various topics and developments and to answer people’s questions. Very often, negative views on various matters are based on faulty knowledge. As I tell my audiences, the first goal should always be to know things correctly and properly; taking a stand then becomes easier and more meaningful.

Mosques and Islamic cultural centers can also adopt green policies, i.e., building and consumption systems that conserve water (particularly in the way ritual washing, or ablutions, are performed) and energy (lighting, heating, and cooling). Solar panels should be used extensively, trees should be planted in all communal places, wherever possible, etc. All this can show that science, in its various forms, and Islam can be friends, not foes.

Thank you, Dr. Guessoum, for these insights! Greg

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