Part 1: Should you reinterpret Islam to fit science?
Over the years there have been numerous attacks by Darwinists on the beliefs of theists in general and Muslims in particular. Among the charges they make is that Darwin’s theory does away with the need for God, yet we still believe; the story of Adam and Eve is a myth yet we still believe; Islam needs to be discarded or reformed to be in line with Darwinism, yet we still believe!
It is easy to fall for their narrative. Most would simply accept what they are told and just follow the crowd. No one wants to be the odd one out. The idea that Darwin’s theory is an unquestionable fact and that God doesn’t exist because of the discovery of evolution are popular. You will find these ideas repeated on social media, in documentaries, best-selling science books and even some well-known celebrities push this narrative. All people, religious or not, should agree that accepting something without critically analysing it is blind following, and that is not a good thing.
By reading this short series you will learn that there is a big difference between the general public and critical, academic understanding of the following three areas:
- Science leads to certainty;
- Darwin’s theory of evolution is indisputable;
- Darwin’s theory of evolution leads to Atheism.
In popular culture the statements above are seen as true, however from a purely academic point of view these are false. We will deal with each one of these in this series, inshā’Allāh.
Claim 1: Science leads to certainty
Although there is a lot of philosophical discussion on what science is, there is no clear agreement on a precise definition. Nonetheless, a basic understanding is that scientists follow a process comprising the steps below:
- Identifying a problem
- Constructing a hypothesis
- Testing the hypothesis by observation and experiment
- If the hypothesis fails, go back and amend the hypothesis or discard it and come up with a new hypothesis
- If it is successful, publish findings and get other scientists to test it (this is known as peer review)
- If the peer review is successful the hypothesis is elevated to the status of a theory
The end product of this scientific process is a theory, this is the highest level of certainty that science can achieve. A common misconception is that scientific facts or laws are weightier than a theory, but that simply is not the case.
Scientific theories use observations, facts, laws and sometimes mathematical proofs, but it is theories that are the real desired end result of the scientific method. There is obviously more to science than what we have discussed so far, but this is enough to understand the basic elements of the scientific method.
Scientific theories, no matter how successful, can still change because there can always be a new observation that can go against the previous conclusion. Consider a scientist who is trying to figure out what colour swans are. They spend 20 years travelling across the world and document thousands of swans all of which are white. They therefore make the conclusion ‘all swans are white’. One day they see a black swan. Their theory that all swans are white is therefore shown to be false. This Black Swan problem (formally known as the problem of induction) is a textbook example within the philosophy of science and it is the reason why philosophers accept that science cannot give us eternal truths. At any given moment the amount of knowledge scientists have is finite and there is an endless number of things they do not know. Believing this does not make one anti-science, it is just the way things are.
Imagine how much progress we would make if scientists were not allowed to challenge past conclusions; there would be none. Science is not a collection of eternal truths and was never meant to be. Although the general public links science to truth, philosophers of science do not. This is why many philosophy of science books give people such warnings:
“Science is revisable. Hence, to talk of scientific ‘proof’ is dangerous, because the term fosters the idea of conclusions that are graven in stone.”
Observations vs science
Someone may argue not all science changes as we know that fossils of dinosaurs exist, stars exist, water is H2O, DNA is a code, and no future observation can undermine these hard facts. These facts are observations but they aren’t science or scientific facts per se. Something can be considered science only when through the process of the scientific method observations are used to construct and test hypotheses and theories. Observations in and of themselves are not science, they are just simply, observations. Observations can be used to construct science, but they can also be used to construct pseudoscience. For example, the existence of stars can be used within the legitimate scientific field of astronomy. It can also be used by ‘holy men’ to make predictions within the field of astrology. Science is much more than just observations. Therefore, to claim observations are science would be a category mistake.
But science ‘works’
Another way it can be claimed that we know science is giving us truth is because it works. Many philosophers have worked hard to point out that it does not logically follow that just because something ‘works’, it is true. The phlogiston theory is an apt example to prove this point. Early chemists postulated the theory that within all combustible objects was a substance called phlogiston. When a combustible object burned, it would release phlogiston. The more combustible a material was, the more phlogiston it contained. The theory worked so well that in 1772 Dan Rutherford used it to explain the discovery of nitrogen. However, phlogiston was later found to be a false theory; phlogiston as a substance did not exist.
We get another example at the beginning of the 20th century. Physics looked neat and tidy with its Newtonian model of the universe. No one had challenged it for over 200 years as it was ‘working’ well and producing fantastic results. However, quantum mechanics and General Relativity shattered the Newtonian view of the world. Newtonian mechanics assumed time and space to be fixed entities, for example, but Albert Einstein showed these were relative and dynamic. Eventually, after a period of upheaval General Relativity replaced the classical Newtonian model of the universe.
These are some of many examples to show that a theory can work and produce astonishing results, and yet later be found to be false—to be replaced by another theory, for example. The history of science is littered with false theories that were once thought to be true because of their predictive success. Interestingly philosophers point out that there are cases in which wrong aspects of wrong theories are responsible for novel predictive success. The lesson is obvious: just because something works, it does not mean it is true. This fact has long been recognised by philosophers and historians of science:
“Historically, there are many cases of theories that we now believe to be false but that were empirically quite successful.”
Science is supposed to change
Scientific U-turns do not care about who is sitting in the passenger seat. Even things which seemed obvious, undeniable and taken for granted can be overturned. Every aspect of science, and even the sub-theories that make up the bigger theories in every field can revise their conclusions. The history of science has shown us this trend, so to speak of ‘scientific facts’ as immutable is not accurate. It is also impractical. All scientific theories are works in progress and ‘approximate models’.
If someone claims there is such a thing as absolute scientific truths, then how would they explain the fact that quantum mechanics and General Relativity, which are both accepted by physicists, contradict each other at a fundamental level? They both cannot be true in an absolute sense. Knowing this, physicists assume both to be working models and give neither the label of being absolutely true. The idea that ‘scientific facts’ are final is therefore misleading, impractical and dangerous for scientific progress. Historians and philosophers of science have been vocal in their opposition to the use of such language.
Should we change Islam to fit ‘science’?
Some atheists mock religious scripture for its inability to represent the supposed ‘hard truths’ of science. There are many online and offline discussions on science versus religious orthodoxy. However, in light of the discussion above, we have created a false dichotomy of religion versus science. It is not as simple as accepting one over the other. Science is the application of reason to the natural world. It seeks to understand how the world works. The Qur’ān also refers to natural phenomena, and inevitably there have been times of convergence and conflicts between the Qur’ān and science.
When a conflict does arise, there is no reason to claim the Qur’ān is wrong. To do so would be to assume that scientific conclusions are true in an absolute sense and will not change; this is patently false. History has shown that science revises its conclusions, philosophy shows why it does so. Science does not give us truth rather it gifts us instrumentally useful theories.
If a scientific theory conflicts with the Qur’ān (after attempting to reconcile the two) it does not mean the Qur’ān is wrong, nor does it mean that we should reject the science. There are good independent arguments to justify the Qur’ān’s claim of being God’s word (see the book The Eternal Challenge, for example). Muslims have reasons to believe what the Qur’ān says is true. Muslims can accept the science that conflicts with the Qur’ān (such as aspects of Darwinian evolution) as the current best-working model, but understand that it is not true in a literal and absolute sense. Muslims can accept all prevailing scientific theories as working models for their respective domains and at the same time accept the Qur’ān as being true.
It is important to note that scientific knowledge and Divine revelation have two different natures. One is from the limited human mind perceiving a limited number of observations, whilst the other is from God. God has the picture, we have just a pixel of knowledge. Muslims can accept both science and the Qur’ān as sources of knowledge, however they would not give a scientific theory a heavier weight in terms of knowledge than the Qur’ān when a conflict does arise because the reasons to trust the Qur’ān are far superior, and, they know that any scientific theory—the pinnacle of scientific output—can be (and more likely will be) revised.
An interesting example in the last century where there was a direct contradiction between the Qur’ān and science, showed the science change to be in line with the Qur’ān. Until the 1950s, physicists, including Einstein, believed that the universe was eternal; all the data at the time supported this, and this belief conflicted with the Qur’ān. The Qur’ān explicitly states that this observable creation had a beginning. Those who think science gives us eternal truths may have used this situation to say the Qur’ān is wrong and therefore it cannot be God’s word. However, newer observations using more advanced telescopes made physicists drop the ‘steady state’ model (eternal universe) and replace that with the Big Bang model (universe with a beginning). So, science came into line with the Qur’ān.
Yet, this does not mean that the Qur’ān is a book of science nor has it ever claimed to be. It is a book of signs. The Qur’ān does not give any details concerning natural phenomena. Most of the things it refers to can be understood and verified with the naked eye. The main objective of the verses that point towards the natural world is to make us think and reflect, highlighting God’s power, majesty and wisdom. Their role does not include elucidating scientific details.
Science can change over time; however, the fact that natural phenomena have a power and wisdom behind them is a timeless reality. The upshot of all this is that the false dichotomy between the Qur’ān and science that some atheists posit does not work. The Qur’ān is not undermined by science and neither do Muslims undermine science, even if it at times certain theories conflict with their beliefs if taken beyond their domains of utility.
What about interpretations?
It is important to distinguish between conflicts in sources of knowledge per se and conflicts between statements, beliefs, interpretations or conclusions drawn from a source of knowledge. All that we have mentioned above holds true for when a scientific theory conflicts with the Qur’ān in principle, but the actual underlying intellectual principles at play warrant mentioning. It may be imprecise to generalise and say “we take the Qur’ān over science” because the everyday understanding of those two words could mean many different things.
Sometimes, when someone says ‘science’, as mentioned above, they could mean an empirical observation or mathematical deduction, rather than science per se. Likewise, when someone says ‘Qur’ān’, they could mean their interpretation of a particular verse, or a conclusion drawn from one, rather than the Qur’ān’s intended meanings itself (the process of discovering the intended meanings of the Qur’ān, Usūl al-Tafsīr, is outside the scope of this series).
Therefore, the underlying principle at play is to prioritise that which is known with a higher degree of certainty over that which is known with a lower degree of certainty, when there is a conflict. This applies whether this is from empirical observations or from revelation. Consider the following examples.
1) An apparent conflict between two conclusions drawn from empirical observations. You may conclude that your BMW engine, due to its faultless performance over the last 100,000 miles, will go on forever if looked after. This is a conclusion based on one engine running over 100,000 miles. However, this conflicts with a general conclusion known from the experience of millions of engines over perhaps billions of miles, that eventually all mechanical parts are prone to decay and decomposition. In this case, the latter trumps the former in terms of the level of certainty we can give to it.
2) An apparent conflict between two revealed texts. In the Qur’ān, there are countless explicit statements stating with complete unambiguity that God is undeniably One, without partner, utterly and absolutely unique. However, the plural is sometimes used to refer to Him and His actions. In this case, the latter is understood and interpreted to be in line with the former, and the plural is thus intended as a “plural of majesty”.
3) A conclusion drawn from revealed texts trumping a conclusion drawn from empirical observation. The Qur’ān and Sunnah confirm certain facts about the origin of human beings: Ādam (peace be upon him) had no parents; and all human beings are descended from him. On the other hand, a theory of evolution may use empirical observations to draw conclusions contrary to that. The weight of certainty of the former conclusions are far greater than the latter, and the higher certainty conclusion trumps the lower certainty one.
4) A conclusion drawn from empirical observation trumping a conclusion drawn from a revealed text. Multiple empirical observations and measurements show us that the earth is spherical, for example (something known by Muslim scholars for centuries). However, an individual scholar may interpret from some non-explicit texts that the earth is flat. In this case, that individual’s conclusion is trumped by the conclusion which is known with a higher level of certainty, which so happens to be drawn from empirical observation.
This is why it could be misleading to generalise and say “we take the Qur’ān over science”, because, although it is correct in principle, when talking about them as sources of knowledge per se, it is actually an example of the underlying principle in operation: taking that which is more certain to interpret that which is less certain. Ultimately both the Qur’ān and observable reality are from Allāh, as manifestations of His will and decree, so it is impossible for there to be a genuine contradiction between conclusions known with certainty from the two, if understood correctly.
Common beliefs and misconceptions in the public imagination about science providing truth betray a lack of understanding of the intellectual foundations of science itself. Whilst empirical observation is one thing, the pinnacle of science—theory—is a constantly changing working model. Conflicts can never occur actually between two universal truths which are known with certainty; however conflicting theories can both be accepted as the best working models within their respective domains (like General Relativity and quantum mechanics).
If there is a genuine conflict between a scientific theory and the Qur’ān, it would be intellectually dishonest and fallacious to overturn that which is known with a higher certainty, due to that which is postulated with a lesser degree of certainty.
In the next article in this series, we will discuss how this applies to Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the difference between the empirically observable fact of evolution, and the various scientific theories that are drawn from it.
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 Gauch Jr, H. (2002). Scientific Method in Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511815034
 Gillian Barker, Philip Kitcher, 2013, Philosophy of Science: A New Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2014, p. 17.
 Carrier, Martin, What is wrong with the miracle argument?, 1991, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 22(1), 23–36.
 Samir Okasha. Philosophy of Science, A Very Short Introduction, 2002 Oxford University Press. P. 77.
 The phrase ‘apparent’ is important because there is no genuine conflict between revealed texts that have not been reconciled by scholars.
 This methodology is laid out in the Qur’ān itself: “It is He who has sent down to you, [O Muhammad], the Book; in it are unambiguous verses – they are the foundation of the Book – and others unspecific. As for those in whose hearts is deviation [from truth], they will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation [suitable to them]. And no one knows its [true] interpretation except Allāh. But those firm in knowledge say, “We believe in it. All [of it] is from our Lord.” And no one will be reminded except those of understanding.” [3:7]
 Ibn Taymiyya quotes a unanimous consensus (ijmā’) that the earth and sky around it was a sphere. https://islamqa.info/en/answers/118698/consensus-that-the-earth-is-round
 It is easy for people to make emotionally charged arguments using Qur’ān or scientific observations, thinking their invoking the source will give power to their specific interpretation or conclusion, but the principles mentioned above—developed by Muslim scholars historically and adopted by the rest of the world—allows us to probe arguments more successfully.
Subboor is a public speaker, debater and writer. He focuses on engaging with New Atheism and has also traveled extensively across the globe teaching Muslims how to articulate Islam to non-Muslims. He specialises in the philosophy of science with a focus on Darwin’s theory of evolution. He has debated many prominent atheists over the years, including professors, atheist activists and internet personalities, on the topics of science, God’s existence and Darwinism. He is currently a PhD candidate specialising in the philosophy of biology.