Task Force Essay: ‘Islam’ and ‘Science’: Freedom, Justice and Meaning

November 10th, 2015 | by MuslimScience

by Farid Panjwani
Director, Center for Research and Evaluation in Muslim Education (CREME),
UCL Institute of Education, United Kingdom

The main question this task force is engaged with is:

Can Islam’s theological teachings be reconciled with cutting edge discoveries in the world of science?
I will begin by raising some queries about the main question itself.

Why is there a need to reconcile ‘Islam’s theological teachings’ with ‘cutting edge discoveries of science’? What understandings of science and Islam are presumed by such a need? What are Islam’s theological teachings? Which discoveries of science are being considered? What would reconciliation mean given that science and theology are both dynamic and their discoveries and conclusions change over time? In this short paper, I will engage with only the first and the second questions.110

Two sides are in need of reconciliation when they are in conflict, which often means some common ground over which the two seek exclusive ownership. For example, two countries may get into conflict over the ownership of a piece of land. Reconciliation occurs when a settlement is reached.

It would seem then that the assumption underlying the question being grappled here is of a shared ‘space’ (e.g. the question about the creation of the universe or human beings, epistemological authority, causation) over which both science and Islam claim ownership and are in conflict over it because of their differing responses. Reconciliation would mean finding a way to settle the ownership of this space.

But, is this presumption of a shared space between science and Islam correct? I propose that we engage with this underlying assumption.

The assumption of a shared space can be demonstrated with the example of the theory of evolution. The Quran, like some other religious texts, has a narrative about the origin of human beings. For many Muslims, this narrative is a factual account whereby the creation of human beings is seen to be the result of God’s direct act. For centuries, the now contested space was occupied by this narrative (though some alternatives always lingered around; for example, the ideas about spontaneous generation found in Ibn Tufayl’s [d. 1185] work Hayy ibn Yaqzan). However, in the nineteenth century, a new contestant for the question of human origins emerged in the form of the theory of evolution – at least for those who held the Quranic narrative to be a factual description.

Since then, the question of human creation has become a contested territory to articulate various positions between Islam and science. Those who believe in the conflictual relation, use this issue to claim that there is a wide gulf between modern scientific [often equated with atheistic] mode of thinking and Islamic way of thinking. Those seeking reconciliation between science and Islam offer ways of fitting evolution into an Islamic context. For example, in one approach, an Islamic appropriation of evolution is sought by invoking ideas from various Muslim writers from al-Jahiz to al-Rumi (Shanavaz, 2011). In another approach, the idea of Adam is reinterpreted, proposing that it refers to the first living cell and not to the finished human form. God created life and then the evolutionary mechanism took over. Those advocating reconciliation between science and Islam often aim at the integration of Islam and religion, albeit on Islamic terms, sometimes going as far as to claim that modern scientific findings were all mentioned in the sacred texts of Islam.

Common to these different approaches is the assumption that there is a space that both Islam and Science share and that one can either have a conflict or reconciliation between the two. I would like to propose that there is a need to rethink the assumption that there is a shared space between Islam and science.

We can start with terms: science and Islam. Though the names give an impression of a stable and concrete object of reference, both of these concepts are abstractions. There is no such thing as science or Islam that we can be observed empirically. These refer to discourses and practice which have changed over a period of time and which have been given different meanings by different people. If so, we should only expect a context specific understanding of the relationship between the two. It is for this reason that Brooke (1991) is persuasive when he observes that,

Popular generalizations about that relationship [i.e. between science and religion], whether couched in terms of war or peace, simply do not stand up to serious investigation. There is no such thing as the relationship between science and religion. It is what different individuals and communities have made of it in a plethora of different contexts. Not only has the problematic interface between them shifted over time, but there is also a high degree of artificiality in abstracting the science and religion of earlier centuries to see how they were related (p. 321).

If both science and Islam refer to discourses, one way to investigate their relationship is to analyse the use of the language in the scientific and Islamic narratives. Let us read two passages:

When we compare the individuals of the same variety or sub-variety of our older cultivated plants and animals, one of the first points which strike us is, that they generally differ more from each other than do the individuals of any one species or variety in a state of nature. And if we reflect on the vast diversity of the plants and animals which have been cultivated, and which have varied during all ages under the most different climates and treatment, we are driven to conclude that this great variability is due to our domestic productions having been raised under conditions of life not so uniform as, and somewhat different from, those to which the parent species had been exposed under nature. …It seems clear that organic beings must be exposed during several generations to new conditions to cause any great amount of variation; and that, when the organisation has once begun to vary, it generally continues varying for many generations.

[Charles Darwin in ‘On the Origins of Species’ (1859)]

And, indeed, We have created you, and then formed you; and then We said to the angels, “Prostrate yourselves to Adam” – so they prostrated themselves, except Iblis, who was not among those who prostrated themselves. And God said: “What prevented you from prostrating yourself, when I commanded you?” He answered: “I am better than him: You created me from fire, and him You created of clay”. God said: “Down with you, then from here for it is not for you to show arrogance here!… And as for you: “O Adam, inherit, you and your wife, the Paradise, eat of what you desire, but do not approach this tree, lest you be of evil doers.”

[The Quran, 7:11-13; 19]

The strikingly different ways in which the Quran and Darwin speak about the supposedly shared space should   make us pause. The language of the Origins of Species is empirical, falsifiable and invites observation. It seeks to draw logical conclusions from premises. The language of the Quran uses terms that do not have concrete referents in the physical world. It reads more like a moral and spiritual tale than a description of physical events. It is hard to see how it can be falsified.

Could it be that the Quran is not seeking to give facts or a scientific theory of creation, rather its discourse may have a different socio-cultural function; in Darwin and the Quran are we not seeing a scientific and a poetic use of language, respectively? 124

The question of the creation of human beings – and for that matter other relevant questions, which serve as a flashpoint between Islam and science – has at least two different dimensions. There is a dimension of material understanding of the facts of human life and there is the dimension of the significance of the facts. These two dimensions belong to different ‘forms of life’ – science and religion. The idea of a form of life comes from Wittgenstein and is notoriously difficult to pin down. A plausible way to put it is that a form of life is the social, historical and intellectual context or matrix that enables language to function and within which a particular language use has a meaning. For example, terms like ‘away goals’, ‘bicycle kick’ and ‘penalty shoot-out’ have meaning in the realm of football, which for this purpose can be seen as a form of life, but would not help in understanding a game of chess, another form of life, where terms like ‘opening gambit’, ‘stalemate’ and ‘grandmaster’ make sense.

The dimension of physical facts and their understanding is the domain of science. Here scientific method should be applied free of any religious consideration, leading to the production of scientific knowledge. Darwin’s language use is a reflection of this form of life. The dimension of significance belongs to religion (and philosophy, history and literature) and it is where the Quranic narrative has much to offer. It is evocative and imaginative; its ideal is not empirical verification but to provide, to those who believe in it, a sense of meaning to experience. The domain of religion should be the problem of meaning to which it should endeavour to provide solutions that the believers may find persuasive, inspiring and spiritually fulfilling. In evolving such responses, it should take account of the best scientific answers available but its main purpose should not be to reply to or reconcile with these answers but to employ them to respond to the ‘problem of life’.

To see scientific mode of thinking in a ‘culture free’ way is not alien to Muslim intellectual tradition. The scientific and philosophic disciplines were seen in the Muslim contexts as rational and universal, both by their proponents and opponents. Ibn Khaldun, the famous 14th century historian notes that:

The intellectual sciences are natural to man, in as much as he is a thinking being. They are not restricted to any particular religious group. They are studied by the people of all religious groups who are equally qualified to learn them and to do research in them. [Quoted in Dhanani, 2002]

The above may give the impression that we are leaning towards the idea of ‘Non-Overlapping Magisteria’ proposed by Stephen Jay Gould, arguing that science and religion do not have much to do with each other. This impression is true as far as scientific method is concerned. But, science is a broader activity than method, and involves ways in which scientific questions and hypothesis are generated as well as the ways in which the resulting knowledge is employed in society.

Both the production of scientific problems – what gets researched and what does not – and the application of scientific knowledge are deeply value laden, embedded in wider culture and have consequence for the worth of science and quality of life of people. We cannot understand science simply as a culture-free method but must also bring in the ways in which scientific problems are formulated and how the resulting knowledge is applied, at the level of individual psychology as well as at the societal level.

This complicates any easy separation of science and religion. Religion has a proper and legitimate role in the discourses at both these levels, i.e. production of scientific questions and application of scientific knowledge. It can and ought to bring the question of ethics, justice and meaning to these matters. This critical role of religion is particularly important in the contemporary context where both the production of scientific problems and the application of scientific knowledge have to take into account market forces, financial considerations and socio-political contexts. Religion that engages with ethical problems has the potential to inspire moral courage to raise the issue of justice: it must ask whose problems become the concerns of science and who benefits from the resulting knowledge. As Reiss suggests, we should note: ‘how one makes practical decisions about scientific matters in a world with a multiplicity of values, religious and otherwise. And here religion has a place at the table.’ (Reiss, 2014, p. 1653).

Concluding remarks

The paper started by seeking to rethink the commonly held assumption about a shared space between science and religion. It was argued that science and religion should be seen as two different forms of life and as such the idea of a common space needs to be challenged. As far as scientific method and its subject matter is concerned, there is no shared space; scientific methods have epistemological independence and should be applied free of any religious consideration. At the same time it was observed that science is not only about method but also extends into the production of scientific problem and the use of scientific knowledge. At both of these levels, religion has a legitimate place on the table of dialogue.

In the final analysis, the relationship between science and religion is not just a theoretical issue. It is also a practical issue of socio-political and cultural conditions and what relationships are possible within them. For both the independence and dialogue to occur, a society needs a high degree of political freedoms, particularly of freedom of speech. Without such freedom, the most magnificent articulation of this relationship would not mean much. Thus, any discussion of science and religion must simultaneously be seen as a discussion of politics and freedom.



Brooke, J. H. (1991) Science and religion: Some historical perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dhanani (2002) Islam. In Ferngren, G. (ed.) Science and Religion: Historical Introduction. Baltimore & London: The John Hopkins University Press.

Reiss, M. (2014) What significance Does Christianity Have for Science Education? In Mathews, M. R. (Ed.) International Handbook of research in History, Philosophy and Science Teaching. London: Springer, pp. 1637-1662.

Shanavas, T. O. (2011) The Islamic Theory of Evolution. Brainbow Press

124 Readers of the Origins of Species may recall that there are places in the book, particularly at the very end, where the language is more poetic and hence they might object that the choice of the above passage accentuates the difference. While it is true that the conclusive lines are elegant and in a sense poetic, they are nevertheless scientific, the poetic style, coming as it does at the end of the book has clear reference to facts and conclusions in the earlier parts of the book. A similar point can be made about the Quran as well, i.e. it too has several different registers of language. Again, while this observation is correct, except for one or two occasions, when referring to natural phenomenon, the Quranic language remains evocative and didactic rather than precise and descriptive. It is in referring to social issues – inheritance, marital relationship and others – that a more precise and descriptive language can be noted.

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