Can "Modern Science" be found in the Quran?
A general rebuttal of this Muslim polemic by Andy Bannister
Every so often on newsgroups like soc.religion.islam and in other circles a particular argument surfaces. This is the claim that within the pages of the Quran, modern science can be found. Everything from comets to astronomy, embryology to geology, all this and more are claimed to be found in various Suras. And then it is argued that because Muhammad could not have known this science, the Quran must be divine.
Rebuttals to this argument usually consist of debating the particular point of science being advanced (see for example some of the excellent work by Andrew Vargo which can be seen elsewhere on the Answering Islam site). Whilst this is easy enough to do, it becomes somewhat irksome having to do it again and again. Therefore in this short paper, I have tried to produce a rebuttal of the very concept of modern science in the Quran. I believe that the polemic itself contains inherent logical flaws, and I hope that the points in this paper can be used whether embryology, geology, or any other point of science is being claimed as proving the Quran.
The paper arose out of a debate on the soc.religion.islam newsgroup about rivers and oceans, hence some references to that subject.
Anyway, here are six inherent flaws in the "modern science proves the Quran" argument:
|1||Those who pursue the argument leave no room for alternative interpretations|
|2||The argument as it stands makes Allah out to be weak|
|3||The argument is a modern polemic|
||At the end of the day, the "modern science proves the Quran" argument does not find science in the Quran, rather it uses science to judge the Quran|
|5||Selective interpretation can be used to prove anything|
|6||Applying the argument means that the Quran is no longer authoritative|
I hope that people find this paper of use. What I found both fascinating and encouraging was some of the responses that Muslims made to it. I had several who actually agreed with what I had said, and disagreed with their fellows who had been trying to use this polemic to promote the Quran. For example, a Muslim called AbdulraHman Lomax wrote of point 4 above "this is, in fact, the reason why our scholars generally reject the efforts to proclaim science in the Qur'an" and concluded his reply to my post with the words "Basically, *Andy is right.*".
Finally, for those who are interested, here are the links to the original debate in the archives of the soc.religion.islam newsgroup:
Please feel free to use and/or distribute any part of this paper. If you have any comments or suggestions, then do please email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1) Those who pursue the argument leave no room for alternative interpretations
The very nature of the Quran means that Muslims often have alternative interpretations of what a particular verse means. There is nothing wrong with this; exegesis is often a difficult, tricky business, especially when we do not know the exact historical context in which a particular verse was revealed. For example, consider Dhu Al-Qarnayn/Zul-qarnain in the Quran. Muslims are divided over who this mysterious traveller, referred to in Sura 18, actually is. Some (e.g. Yusuf Ali) believed him to be Alexander the Great, others disagree and have other theories as to his identity, such as Cyrus the Great. There is plenty of room for healthy debate.
However, those who preach the "modern science proves the Quran" argument are not relying upon what a particular verse says, but upon their interpretation. In fact, it might be better to rename their position as the "Belief that an interpretation of the Quran contains modern science demonstrates that it is from Allah." No verse in the Quran has yet been found to contain outright science (see point 2 below for more on this).
Consider Sura 25:53 which was what started this particular thread on the soc.religion.islam newsgroup:
"It is He Who has let free the two bodies of flowing water: One palatable and sweet, and the other salt and bitter; yet has He made a barrier between them, a partition that is forbidden to be passed." (Sura 25:53; Yusuf Ali)
Now the Muslim with whom I was debating (subsequently backed up by several others) argued that:
"the above verse of Quran clearly refers to the meeting between big rivers and the larger seas and oceans, where the river in some cases goes in the sea water for miles without mixing between the two entities of water. it is a well recognized phenomenon these days by scientist, also, the Quran clearly and undeniably points out to the reason for that, sweetness of one and saltiness of the other, in modern scientific terms, its differences in specific gravity between the two entities, which is also the explanation provided by modern scientist." (Suleiman, in thread "Scientific facts and Quran", soc.religion.islam, 4-Nov-99; online source)
However, when you compare the various English translations of the Quran, you begin to see that the verse is not talking about rivers, but bodies of water, according to the Arabic (I have a Muslim to thank for pointing this out to me):
YUSUFALI: It is He Who has let free the two bodies of flowing water: One palatable and sweet, and the other salt and bitter; yet has He made a barrier between them, a partition that is forbidden to be passed.
PICKTHAL: And He it is Who hath given independence to the two seas (though they meet); one palatable, sweet, and the other saltish, bitter; and hath set a bar and a forbidding ban between them.
SHAKIR: And He it is Who has made two seas to flow freely, the one sweet that subdues thirst by its sweetness, and the other salt that burns by its saltness; and between the two He has made a barrier and inviolable obstruction.
Now in order for a "modern scientific" interpretation to work, one has to insist these are not two seas or sheets of water, but that one is a river. The Arabic does not make that distinction. Why is this important? Because in order to find modern science in this verse, Suleiman et al have to insist that one body of water is a river (fresh water) and that one is an ocean (salt water). They can then introduce the idea of rivers of fresh water flowing into the seas and not mixing. Now, laying aside the issue of whether (as I would claim) or not (as Suleiman et al would claim) these two waters mix, there is a more fundamental issue. If the Arabic does not specify one is a river, then there is a much simpler interpretation:
|1||The first "sea" or "body
of water" or "bahr" (in Arabic) in
question is the Red Sea (close to Mecca and Medina) and
known to Muhammad, which is salt water.
|2||The second "sea" or "body
of water" or "bahr" in question could be
any local sheet of fresh water (plenty of oases to
|3||These two "seas" or "bodies
of water" or "bahr" are separated by land;
this is the impassable barrier.
|4||Hence Sura 25:53 was actually a comment by Muhammad on the wondrous miracle (as he saw it), that Allah has seen fit to separate fresh and salt water.|
This interpretation has a number of advantages going for it over the position put forward by Suleiman and others who would claim a modern scientific miracle in this verse. The advantages are:
|i||Suleiman claimed that Muhammad had
probably never seen a river flow into the sea (he "lived
thousands of miles away from rivers and seas"
according to Suleimans first post on 4-Nov-99) If
Suleiman is correct in this statement, then this fits my
latter interpretation above, as in Muhammads mind
fresh water and salt water did not meet.
|ii||It means that Sura 25:53 is applicable
both to the time the verse was written (circa 600AD) and
today; the Muslims who first read it could understand it
and praise God for his provision, as can Muslims today.
The alternative interpretation requires that this verse
was meaningless for 1,300 years until those of us with
the advantage of modern science could probably explain
its meaning. Therefore the Quran was not relevant
to all men at all time.
|iii||It explains why Muhammad wrote Sura 25:53. Despite having no concept of rivers/oceans and mixing/non-mixing, he would, however, understand the importance of fresh water, and it is perfectly understandable why he sees a supply of fresh water, separate from undrinkable salt water, to be an example of Allahs provision and therefore worthy of mention.|
In order to use Sura 25:53 to support the "modern science proves the Quran" position, then this latter interpretation needs to be rejected in favour of the former, with no real arguments in favour of the former interpretation other than it must be right because it is a miracle! (Note: Suleimans interpretation does not show that the Quran contains a miracle, merely that his interpretation of it is something special).
2) The argument as it stands makes Allah out to be weak
If Allah was going to use science to prove the Quran, then why not do it in a way that does not depend upon clever exegesis from the supporters of that argument? Rather, Allah could have done it in a way that was indisputable. For instance, why not predict TV with a verse such as: "Say: Men shall watch images that move in a small box that stands in the corner of their dwelling." Or the moon landings: "Say: Lo! And men shall walk upon the face of the moon, and plant a flag thereon." Do you see? Verses such as these could have no argument against them, unlike the current situation, which requires a) a somewhat tortured exegesis of these "miracle verses" and b) a categorical insistence by those who interpret them that theirs and theirs alone is the right interpretation (often ignoring over 1,000 years of what previous Muslim scholars and interpreters have said.)
You see, elsewhere in the Quran, when it speaks about a subject it is crystal clear. Consider Sura 3:2:
"Allah! There is no god but He,-the Living, the Self-Subsisting, Eternal. " (Yusuf Ali)
Nobody could argue other than that this verse is claiming that Allah is the only god, who is living, self-subsisting, and eternal. It is very clear as to what it means. If a "scientific miracle" exists in the Quran, then it would be a wonderful proof of the divine authorship that Muslims claim for it. Yet apparently this miracle is buried away, requiring clever exegesis and interpretation to find it. Somehow this doesnt add up, does it? If Allah had meant for there to be science in the Quran, it would have been written clearly.
3) The argument is a modern polemic
I find it very interesting that the "modern science proves the Quran" argument is a recent one. Can anybody find a Muslim scholar putting this argument forward five hundred years ago? Or two hundred years ago? Or even one hundred years ago? Answer: probably not. And the reason is that it is a modern polemic. You see science is not a recent thing, yet this argument is. Why? Because it is only recently that Muslims have found that people have begun questioning the Quran, rather than accepting it blindly. The need has arisen for more proofs of its "divine authorship", proofs that might appeal to a scientific, Western mind-set, as Islam has sought to make inroads in the west. And so this argument has arisen.
An interesting thought is this; that whilst the "modern science proves the Quran" argument being a modern polemic does not prove it wrong per se, it does pose Muslims who seek to use it with an interesting problem. And the problem is this; that if they are not careful, they will bind the Quran to one era. You see, if Allah intended to place science in the Quran as a sign, then presumably one hundred years from now, Muslims must still be able to find "modern" science. Yet science will have progressed. So consider:
Now, as the "modern science proves the Quran" argument has become so popular in the last 30 years, verses have been quoted at a massive rate. Let us assume that 20 new verses per year are put forward as containing science. That means (given the 30 years figure) over 90% of such verses have already been used up, and in less than 5 years time, there will be no more source material. Do you see what this means? Looking back in 10 years time, over Muslim history from 700AD - 2010AD, people will see that the Quran allegedly spoke to modern science from 1970 - 2002 and then fell silent on the subject; that revelation ran out. What does this tell us? That the "modern science proves the Quran" argument is a modern polemic, limited to a small time frame, that will soon burn itself out as the source material dries up.
4) At the end of the day, the "modern science proves the Quran" polemic does not find science in the Quran, rather it uses science to judge the Quran
The arguments in the soc.religion.islam newsgroup over the exact meaning of Sura 18:86 prove this point marvellously. Here is that particular passage again:
"Until, when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it set in a spring of murky water: Near it he found a People: We said: "O Zul-qarnain! (thou hast authority,) either to punish them, or to treat them with kindness."" (Yusuf Ali)
Now of course no Muslim would claim that this verse was supposed to contain science. Why? Because we, at the beginning of the 21st century, know full well that a man cannot reach the place where the sun sets. Why, given a fast enough aeroplane, one can even "chase" the sunset (or indeed overtake it). And of course we know full well that the sun certainly does not reside in muddy puddles, lakes, or in any other body of water. Fine. But here comes the rub: what Muslims have done in using this polemic is to use science to judge the Quran. Those verses that appear to be scientific are proclaimed as a miracle, those verses that appear to contradict it are stated to be metaphysical, or metaphoric, or whatever. For example:
Do you see the problem? Muslims claim that the Quran is Gods final revelation, containing guidance for living and all that is true. Yet those who pursue the "modern science proves the Quran" argument inherently contradict this fundamental tenet of Islam. Logically, they have to claim that science, not the Quran, is the ultimate truth, and use the former to judge the latter.
5) Selective interpretation can be used to prove anything
As I explained in point 4 above, the "modern science proves the Quran" argument relies upon selective exegesis, picking up and using those verses that seem useful, and ignoring those that cause difficulties. By exactly the same method one can prove anything. Suppose I want to convince people that I am a prophet with the ability to foresee the future. Now I first wrote this paper at the time of an important England/Scotland football match that took place here in the UK on the 14 November 1999. Imagine that before the match, I had made three statements:
Now after the match (which, incidentally, England won 2-0), I simply say: "Statements 2 and 3 were metaphoric, I never intended them to be taken literally. However, in statement 1, I was talking about fact. Therefore I am a prophet!" It does not take a genius to see the fundamental flaw in this reasoning. Yet those who preach the "modern science proves the Quran" argument rely on exactly this reasoning; show them dozens of verses in the Quran that appear to contradict science (the one I often point out is Sura 18:86, quoted above), and they will claim: "Its fictional, a story" or "Its metaphysical" or any number of other possibilities. When it comes to correct and proper exegesis, the end cannot be used to justify the means.
6) Applying the argument means that the Quran is no longer authoritative
If some Muslims wish to argue that the Quran contains modern science and is therefore a miracle, then there is a further problem. The logical extent of their argument is that the Quran is no longer authoritative. Let us suppose for example that Sura 25:53 does talk about the science of oceans. However, it is only one sentence. In order to find out more about this subject, we need to step outside of the Quran, as it is not authoritative. There are a wealth of journals, books, and scientific papers that we could read to find out more than the Quran teaches on this subject. This then leads naturally to the question: if we can learn more about one subject in the Quran by reading externally, then why not others? How can Muslims claim that the Quran contains all the guidance mankind needs for living? Perhaps we need to read elsewhere? How do they know that the Quran teaches us all we need to know about Gods nature? Or about how he wants us to live? Perhaps they need to read elsewhere to get the full picture? And so on. The "modern science proves the Quran" argument destroys the authority of the Quran.
It is impossible to argue a position in isolation. There are always consequences, implications of the position you choose to hold or preach. And this is true of the "modern science proves the Quran" argument. For many Muslims it sounds very nice and neat in theory, and if it were true it would indeed be a proof of the Quran. However, for a Muslim who chooses to use the polemic, the logical consequences are dire; it is restrictive, it demotes God, it sets up science as a higher standard than the Quran, it doesnt prove anything at the end of the day, and above all, it removes the Qurans authority over anything. As a polemic it is both weak and dangerous, and as such I believe best avoided by Muslims.
Quran and Science
Papers by Andy Bannister
Answering Islam Home Page