Are Science and Islam Compatible?
Interview with Bruno Guiderdoni
Interview conducted by Motaz Al-Khateeb
(Motaz Al-Khateeb is the Contemporary Issues editor of Islamonline.net’s Arabic website. He is also the producer of Al-Jazeera’s Shari'ah and Life program, which has as its most frequent guest speaker Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradawi. Your emails to Motaz will be forwarded to him by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dr. Bruno Guiderdoni is director of research at the Paris Institute of Astrophysics. His main research field is in galaxy formation and evolution. He has published more than 80 papers and has organized several international conferences on these issues. Guiderdoni is one of the referent experts on Islam in France and has published 30 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 (IOL) 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. It's very important in the context of the Islamic world now because if you look at web pages, for instance, on Islam, 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 something important because it helps us address the issue of the interface and interaction of science and Islam.
This is an issue which is not new in Islam. In the Middle Ages, or what was the Middle Ages for us, the classical period of Islam was a great period, a golden era of Islam. Islamic philosophers such as Al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), had already addressed this story of articulation of the interface 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 story too, and both believed deeply in the unity of truth of the Islamic faith.
Truth is one. There cannot be a scientific truth that would be different than a religious truth. And they both agreed on the uniqueness of truth and if there are differences — apparent differences in the statements of scientific truth and the statements of religious truth — these differences are only apparent. They can be overcome. There is some disagreement between Al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd because they disagreed on the borderline between science and religion.
Al-Ghazali claimed that it is usually the fault of a scientist who goes beyond the limits of science when they claim things about the nature of reality, the actions of God, and so on. Whereas for Ibn Rushd … if there is a contradiction between the statements of religion and the statements of science, you have to come back to the text and make a valid interpretation of the text. So you see the ideas are quite modern because we are not in the same situation. Of course science has changed a lot. Religion has somewhat changed, but science has changed a lot since that time.
So now I come back to your question about scientific miracles in the Qur'an. Of course, we as Muslims believe there cannot be any difference between scientific and religious truth in their essence. But, of course, the approach of science and the approach of religion are quite different. There is a scientific method and there is a religious way — a religious spiritual life, which is different to the scientific method.
The scientific method is a method. It is called in English trial and error because you try a theory, and if it doesn't work, you try another theory and so on and you improve your theory and you capitalize. You capitalize on your knowledge and you increase the level of knowledge. And as you may know, the notion of scientific truth is difficult to define because you never know whether a theory is absolutely true, or probably true, because theories prove to be true at some time and then new scientific facts come and then they are included in the theory. What we can decide with great certainty is the growth of knowledge. That is a fact that we know more than we used to know in the Middle Ages, or even in the 19th century. So this is the scientific approach.
As far as the religious approach is concerned, I would say that the purpose of revelation is salvation: the fact that God teaches a human things which 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).
He taught humans what a human being does not know. And of course we cannot know everything about the afterlife, about the metaphysical structure of reality, about the attributes and qualities if it is not the revelation that teaches us about these things. And this is the main purpose of revelation. And God has spoken the truth in His noble book which is the Qur'an, which is the miracle, the foundation of Islam. This is the first miracle which Muslims have to believe in.
So I feel very skeptical about this approach which consists of trying to prove the truth of the Qur'an from the truth of science; to confirm the duty of the Qur'an, the deepness of the verses of the Qur'an, from the scientific perspective.
It is possible that in the Qur'an, God alludes to facts. 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, to the sun, to stars, the earth, the ocean, life, and all the mysteries. And as a scientist I find these allusions absolutely fascinating and very profound, and it feeds my own spiritual life.
But is it necessary to go to the point that we would like to consider these statements in the Qur'an? Do we need that to prove the truth of the Qur'an? For us the truth of the Qur'an is there in each verse. So I'm quite skeptical, not for those who admire the beauty of the description of the world in the Qur'an, I admire this beauty too. But toward those who try to make a new science from the Qur'an.
For instance, trying to measure the computed value of the velocity of light in the verses of the Qur'an is something which has been fashionable in the last year on web pages about this point. The people who are doing so are losing the spiritual perspective about the revelation.
The Qur'an prompts us to look at the world and to recognize God's hand in the marvels of the world, in the science of the world, and to recognize the intelligence in the science of the world, in the natural phenomena, because we have something of this intelligence in us. Because there is something about intelligence in our creation. 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. And this makes me understand why the world is understandable, which is one of the most mysterious things. Why is the world understandable?
Einstein used to say that the mystery of the world is the fact that the world is understandable but that we can't describe it by mathematics. For a believer, this is something obvious; this is the intelligence that God has put in the world, the fact that we have to look at the world to recognize this intelligence, and we have to measure the velocity of life in the world. We have to be convinced of the cosmos, the galaxy, our planet, natural species, and so on, and if we restrict ourselves to this approach in the Qur'an, we are losing something of God's creation.
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 to recognize the signs of the world. So this is the marvel of the Qur'an and the marvel of the world, and these marvels come from God's speech. The interest that goes to the scientific miracles in the Qur'an should come through a study of science and to a study of the world. This was one of the duties of a Muslim of the golden age because they were very proud of 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 which is difficult to define. As a believer, I would say that for me, truth is firstly 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. I hope I will know truth by contemplating God. And so I like to define the truth of religion by the ability to bring the believers to this contemplation.
If you look at religions and truth, in Islam you will find that Muslims will claim things that are different than what Christians are saying or the Jews are saying or the Hindus are saying. Muslims say that Jesus Christ is the "wisdom of Allah"; they don't say that he is the son of God. Whereas Christians would say he is the son of God, and they are Christians because of that. So these are statements which are quite different. But something which fascinates me is the fact that, in spite of these differences, Christians and Muslims are waiting for Jesus Christ's return and hoping that we can recognize him, in spite of these differences.
So there are different statements. But I think that Christians have a quest for salvation and the Muslims have a quest for salvation and that it is purity of the heart that makes salvation. So in a sense, both religions are true because they endeavor to bring their believers to the level of the ultimate truth which is God. And so this is my definition of religious truth; that we should keep our religions, we should keep our teachings or what's true in our religions, because these are useful tools to go along the path and to work on the path towards the contemplation of the ultimate truth.
So I am not saying we should abandon all religions. On the contrary, this is a precious gift which has been given by God through revelation. We should keep that because this is the map that is necessary for us to travel along the path and to contemplate ultimately God's faith and know the meanings of the things we are looking for answers to, which will come, Insha' Allah, in the afterlife.
This is my definition of religious truth. It means that we should be quite humble in this approach and to know that truth is too high to be encapsulated in a single formula, and that God wants us to worship Him and know Him for the various names and the various statements which are given in revelation. For me this is the meaning of Takbir (saying "Allah is Greatest"). It means we have to go beyond the ideas that we make about God because God is higher. So this is religious truth.
As far as scientific truth is concerned, that's obvious too because scientific truth is always defined in the context of a theory. You define theories in contexts which are interrelated and scientific truth is equating the theory to fact. But the facts themselves have a meaning in a given theory; some facts are not scientific facts. Scientific facts are not the plain facts such as "This morning I woke up and had an omelet," for instance. This is not a scientific fact. Fact is something like "The moon turns around the earth in such and such duration and this has been measured very precisely" and so on. And so these theories are things which are human creation and it turns out that it's quite difficult to find out the truth of a scientific theory.
There is a significant contribution of a philosopher called Karl Popper in the last century and he reflected on what's called the logic of scientific discovery. He said that from a philosophical viewpoint, one can infer that some theories are wrong; some theories are true, and so on. And it turns out that in his books, which are quite thick and difficult; Popper argues that it is not possible to prove that a theory is right. It is almost possible to prove that a theory is wrong by contradicting it with facts. So a theory is a scientific theory when it is testable, he says.
[Also], theory is measured, and if it doesn't work, the theory is dead. And if a theory is scientific then it is possible to test it. If a theory is always right it is not a scientific theory.
Take the story of psychoanalysis, for instance. Karl Popper was very critical about psychoanalysis because it claims 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. So it's a joke, but for Karl Popper, psychoanalysis was not scientific theory; whereas the Newtonian theory of gravitation is a scientific theory because it predicts very accurate values for the motion of a stone in the gravity field of the earth, or the motion of the moon in the gravity field of the earth.
It turns out that this theory has been falsified (proved wrong) by the works of Albert Einstein. He showed that this theory has to be encapsulated in a further theory which is the theory of relativity. And the predictions of the Newtonian theory proved to be wrong and the predictions of the Einsteinian theory are still unfalsified. All the tests have not proven the theory wrong. The theory may be wrong ultimately but it's a scientific theory because it predicts fact; it predicts specific behavior, and this is the notion that we have for scientific truth.
The fact that it's difficult to prove, difficult to define, and is something that can be tested. We are not claiming that religious facts are going to be tested. We are not testing religion. We don't want to compare religion. Each believer has to go with their own religion and go on the way towards God, and this is ultimately the contemplation of God. But here we find the uncertainty of these questions.
But for scientific truth, it is something that is more open to progress. We are improving our knowledge. So we cannot define scientific truth but we can define growth of scientific knowledge. Paradoxically, when we have more and more knowledge, the border lines between the known and unknown also grow.
So it is very interesting to see how science increases. And science is not closed because it's always open to other questions which are very difficult and very deep and very profound. And even if there is a lot of success in the scientific exploration of the cosmos by 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 in it 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. This is the promise and the promise of Allah 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 is blind submission to science.
God knows reality. In His revelations 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, which is not the correct order of things, because the physical is submitted to the metaphysical, not the opposite.
So I am quite skeptical and a bit concerned about this approach and I hope that the further study of science, of the philosophy of science, of the interaction of science, will help people to distinguish between the two approaches. [The word] distinguish [implies] that things are different. I am not claiming that things are completely separated because, of course, complete separation is not in the Islamic mind, which is looking for unity or Tawheed.
Each practice has its own rules and its own laws, and I would like to protect religion from misunderstanding, especially the kind of misunderstanding where religion is submitted to the approval of science or the judgment of science. There is a whole dimension of spiritual life that is very profound and very elevated in religion that is completely destroyed by this scientific approach which is just looking for fact. We are not looking for fact in religion. We are looking for inner transformation and for the fruits which will come, Insha' 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 (the cunning) of Allah. Who knows what brings you to faith? Sometimes it just occurs. Sometimes it is just [through marriage] that people go into Islam and then they discover spiritual life. Interest for science can be a way for Islam. I think it is clear and it may be also a barrier if one limits the understanding of Islam to the scientific aspect. I think [for] some Western intellectuals, Islam goes beyond this form of scientific interaction. It is just the fact that we have exhausted, in some sense, materialism and the power of science to describe reality, [and have been given] the impression that there is something beyond the apparent. We are looking for spirituality. We are looking for 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 humanity]?
And these questions are the triggers for the conversion — for the coming back to Islam — because it is the impression when you first come to Islam that you have come back home. That feeling is just astonishing. It may confirm the interests of science. I think that the deepest thing is the voice of the fitrah (state of natural innocence) which is in everybody and 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 in a religion.
The religions which are present in the West have undergone the influence of the materialistic force for centuries and they have somewhat lost the usual transparency which is present in Islam. This is the reason why more and more Westerners are attracted to Islam. Many more would be attracted if it were not for such events as the violence that we are seeing now on our screens. On one side, the true Islam is very attractive, on the other side, some Muslims have done wrong things, even evil, and this is something which is very disturbing for me. When I embraced Islam 20 years ago, such problems were not present. But I feel that now we are attracted by Islam and don't understand why people can do something [evil] in the name of Islam. This is something which is mysterious as much as human freedom is mysterious because we are free to do good and to do evil.
I think that the Islamic faith has this capability to encapsulate all these aspects of life and to give unity to a world which is so fragmented now. But not only for the world but also for us, because we are also quite fragmented in our activities; life is like that. Islam is a powerful way of unification and we have to be unified if we want to understand and contemplate the world.
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