Weird science

According to some Muslim scholars, everything from genetics to robotics and space travel is described in the Quran. What nonsense.

 

Science has acquired a new meaning in certain Muslim circles. When classical Muslim scholars declared that "whosoever does not know astronomy or anatomy is deficient in the knowledge of God", they were emphasising the importance of the scientific spirit in Islam and encouraging the pursuit of empirical science. But today, to a significant section of Muslims, science includes the discovery of "scientific miracles" in the Quran.

The Quran does contain many verses that point towards nature, and constantly asks its readers to reflect on the wonders of the cosmos. "Travel throughout the earth and see how He brings life into being" (29:20) is a piece of advice we frequently find in the Muslim sacred text. "Behold," we read elsewhere, "in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for men of understanding . . ." (3:190).

But these verses do not have any specific scientific content - they simply urge believers to study nature and reflect on the awe-inspiring diversity and complexity of the universe. The emphasis in many of these verses, such as "The sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed; and the stars and the trees both prostrate in adoration; and the heavens He has raised high, and He has set up the balance" (55:5-7), is on the general predictability of physical phenomena.

It requires considerable mental gymnastics and distortions to find scientific facts or theories in these verses. Yet, this height of folly is a global craze in Muslim societies, as is a popular literature known as ijaz, or "scientific miracles of the Quran". Islamic bookshops are littered with this literature, television preachers talk endlessly about how many different scientific theories can be found in the Quran, and numerous websites are devoted to explaining the phenomenon. It can seem as if ijaz literature has taken total control of the Muslim imagination.

"Almost everything, from relativity, quantum mechanics, Big Bang theory, black holes and pulsars, genetics, embryology, modern geology, thermodynamics, even the laser and hydrogen fuel cells, have been 'found' in the Quran," says Nidhal Guessoum, professor of astrophysics at the American University of Sharjah. Whereas centuries ago, Muslim mathematicians discovered algebra (and led the world in countless fields of knowledge), some of today's believers look to the Quran for equations to yield the value of the speed of light or the age of the universe, and other bewildering feats.

The tendency to read science in the Quran has a long history. In the 1950s, for example, when the US and the Soviet Union were competing to put a man in space, pamphlets appeared in India and Pakistan in which Quranic verses on the all-powerful nature of God were quoted to "prove" that manned space flight would never happen. However, for the current manifestation of ijaz, we need to thank not writers from the madrasas of the Middle East, but two western professors - neither man a Muslim.

It began in 1976, with the publication of The Bible, the Quran and Science by Maurice Bucaille, a French surgeon who had served the Saudi monarchy and acquired his basic knowledge of the Quran in the kingdom. He set out to examine "the holy scriptures in the light of modern knowledge", focusing on astronomy, the earth, and the animal and vegetable kingdoms. His conclusion was that "it is impossible not to admit the existence of scientific errors in the Bible". In contrast: "The Quran most definitely did not contain a single proposition at variance with the most firmly established modern knowledge." Many Muslims embraced Bucaille's thesis as proof of the divine origins of the Quran.

Ijaz literature received a further boost almost a decade later with the publication of the paper Highlights of Human Embryology in the Quran and the Hadith by Keith Moore, a Canadian professor of anatomy who was then teaching in Saudi Arabia. Moore illustrated certain verses from the Quran with clinical drawings and textbook descriptions. For example, the verse "We created man from a drop of mingled fluid" (76:2) is explained by Moore as referring to the mixture of a small quantity of sperm with the oocyte and its follicular fluid.

He was quite a performer, and stunned the gathering at the seventh Saudi Medical Meeting, held in 1982 in Dam mam. He read out the Quranic verses: "We have created man from the essence of clay, then We placed him as a drop of fluid in a safe place, then We made that drop into a clinging form, and made the form into a lump of flesh, and We made the lump into bones, and We clothed these bones with flesh, and We made him into other forms . . ." (23:12-14).

Moore then shaped some Plasticine to resemble an embryo at 28 days and dug his teeth into it. The chewed Plasticine, he claimed, was an exact copy of the embryo, with his teeth marks resembling the embryo's somites (the vertebral column and musculature). He displayed photographs to show that bones begin to form in the embryo at six weeks, and muscles attach to them. By the seventh week, the bones give a human shape to the embryo; ears and eyes begin to form by the fourth week and are visible by the sixth. All these developments, Moore claimed, fit the Quranic description exactly.

Both Bucaille and Moore played on the inferiority complex of influential Saudis, suggesting that the Quran was a scientific treatise and proof that Muslims were modern long before the modern world and modern science. The Saudi government poured millions into ijaz literature. The Commission on Scientific Signs in the Quran and Sunnah was established. The first international conference on the subject was held in Islamabad, in 1987. Moore's paper was included in an illustrated study: Human Development As Described in the Quran and Sunnah. The field has been growing exponentially ever since.

Guessoum, who is about to publish a book on ijaz literature, says that most works on scientific miracles follow a set pattern. They start with a verse of the Quran and look for concordance between scientific results and Quranic statements. For example, one would start from the verse "So verily I swear by the stars that run and hide . . ." (81:15-16) and quickly declare that it refers to black holes, or take the verse "[I swear by] the Moon in her fullness; that ye shall journey on from stage to stage" (84:18-19) and decide it refers to space travel. And so on. "What is meant to be allegorical and poetic is transformed into products of science," Guessoum says.

These days, the biggest propagator of ijaz literature is Harun Yahya (real name Adnan Oktar), a Turkish creationist. He has published scores of pamphlets and books that are heavily subsidised and sold very cheaply. The latest, Miracles of the Quran, explains the verses of the Quran "in such a way as to leave no room for doubt or question marks". The author suggests that the verse "We have sent down iron in which there lies great force and which has many uses for mankind" (57:25) is a "significant scientific miracle", because "modern astronomical findings have disclosed that iron found in our world has come from the giant stars in outer space". The verse "Glory be to Him Who created all the pair of things that the earth produces" (36:36) is claimed to predict anti-matter.

But these inanities are not limited to crackpots. "Even respected university professors believe this nonsense," Guessoum says. "In my own university, around 70 per cent of science professors subscribe to the view that the Quran is full of scientific content, facts as well as theories." Indeed, many respected scientists have contributed to the literature. Prime among these is The Geological Concepts of Mountains in the Quran (1991). Written by the Egyptian scientist Zaghloul el-Naggar, who held the chair of geology at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, the book has gone through numerous editions. It was so successful that el-Naggar gave up teaching to become the chair of the Committee of Scientific Notions in the Glorious Quran, established by the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs in Cairo. Today, he lectures on "geology in the Quran" and CDs of his talks sell out.

The latest tome on the subject is The Computer Universe: a Scientific Rendering of the Holy Quran by P A Wahid, the former dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at Kerala Agricultural University. In the book, he develops a model of science in the Quran and purports to explain the existence of angels ("intelligent robots in Allah's kingdom"), the Divine Master Plan, and how the Quran predicted the advent of chemistry and biology. Ehsan Masood, who writes on science in developing countries for Nature, recounts how he "once met a former chief scientist to a defence ministry who told me excitedly he was refining a research paper that would use mathematics to prove the existence of angels".

 

All their own creation

 

The underlying message of these books is that all the science you need is in the Quran - no need to get your hands dirty in a lab or work within mainstream theories. But there is an overt message, too: works such as those of Wahid and el-Naggar are aggressively anti-evolution. Many more Muslim scientists, says Guessoum, are "scientists by day and creationists by night".

Creationism is not at all a natural Muslim position. In the early 10th century, Muhammad al-Nakhshabi wrote in The Book of the Yield: "While man has sprung from sentient creatures, these have sprung from plants, and these in turn from combined substances." In Life of Hai by the 12th-century Andalusian philosopher ibn Tufayl, evolution is strongly emphasised. Hai is "spontaneously generated", emerges from the slime, evolves through various stages and discovers the power of reason to shape his world and to understand the universe. In contrast, creationism has taken hold over the past decade in Muslim societies - Turkey, for example, came last, just behind the US, in a recent survey of 34 countries on public acceptance of evolution.

Ijaz literature goes hand in hand with creationism, though Masood says that Muslim creationists are strongly influenced by their American Christian counterparts: "The two groups genuinely believe that the destiny of Islam and Christianity is to work together to defeat evolution and that this alliance is the answer to the clash of civilisations."

Yahya's lavishly illustrated tome Atlas of Creation is widely distributed. In Turkey, it anonymously turned up in numerous schools and libraries. Last year, it was sent unsolicited to schools across France, prompting the education ministry to proscribe the volume. The Atlas blames everything, from Nazism to terrorism, on evolution. "It contains lie upon lie upon lie," says Jean Staune, visiting lecturer in philosophy of sciences at the HEC School of Management in Paris, who has made a special study of Harun Yahya's works. "It denigrates the faith which it purports to support."

And we can say the same about all literature, popular or academic, that purports to discover "scientific miracles" in the Quran.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession

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The English question

The political community that is England is neither stable nor settled. But something is stirring among Chesterton’s secret people.

From the late 18th century to the early 20th, Britain’s political class wrestled with an Irish Question: how could the British state govern “John Bull’s Other Island” in a way that kept the native Irish quiescent, without jeopardising its own security? When Ireland was partitioned in 1921 the question disappeared from the British political agenda – only to reappear in another guise during the Troubles in Northern Ireland half a century later. It was not laid to rest until the Belfast Agreement of 1998. More recently, politicians and commentators on both sides of the border have had to come to terms with an increasingly intractable Scottish Question: how should the ancient and once independent Scottish nation relate to the other nations of the United Kingdom and to the Westminster parliament? As the convoluted debate provoked by the coming EU referendum shows, a more nebulous English Question now looms in the wings.

Like the Irish and Scottish Questions, it is the child of a complex history. England became a united kingdom in Anglo-Saxon times. It faced external enemies, notably invading Danes, but its kings ruled their own territory with an iron hand. The Norman Conquest substituted francophone rulers and a francophone nobility for these Anglo-Saxon kings; the new elite spoke French, sent their sons to France to be educated and polished and, in many cases, owned territory in France. Simon de Montfort, once credited with founding the English parliament, was a French nobleman as well as an English one. But the kingdom remained united. The Celtic people who had once inhabited what is now England were driven out by the Anglo-Saxons; Lloegr, the Welsh word for England, means “the lost land”. It stayed lost after the Conquest; and indeed, the Norman rulers of England pushed further into Wales than their Anglo-Saxon predecessors had done.

United did not mean peaceful or stable. Henry II, William the Conqueror’s great-grandson, ruled a vast Continental empire stretching from the English Channel to the Pyrenees, as well as England. Inept kings, uppity barons, an aggressive church, restive peasants, a century-long war with France and bitter dynastic rivalries undermined his achievement. But there was no English equivalent to the powerful, de facto independent duchies of Burgundy or Aquitaine in what is now France, or to the medley of principalities, city states and bishoprics that divided Germans and Italians from each other until well into the 19th century. That was still true after the Welshman Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and seized the English crown as Henry VII. His son (who became Henry VIII) was not content with keeping England united. Having broken with the Catholic Church when the Pope refused to annul his first marriage, he made himself head of the Church in England and proclaimed that the realm of England was an “empire”, free from all external authority.

From the upheavals of Henry’s reign and the subtle compromises of his daughter Elizabeth’s emerged the Church of England – an institutional and theological third way between the Catholicism of Rome, on the one hand, and the Protestantism of John Calvin’s Geneva and Martin Luther’s Germany on the other. The Church of England has spoken to and for the English people ever since. Sometimes it has spoken feebly and complacently, as in the 18th century. At other times it has been outspoken and brave, as in the Second World War, when William Temple was the archbishop of Canterbury, and during the 1980s, when a Church of England commission excoriated the Thatcher era’s “crude exaltation” of “individual self-interest”. Despite (or perhaps because of) the subtle compromises embodied in it, the Anglican Church has been prone to schism. “High Church” Anglicans have stressed its Catholic inheritance; followers of the “low” Church have insisted on its Protestantism. Two charismatic High Anglican priests – John Henry Newman and Henry Edward Manning – converted to Catholicism and ended as cardinals.

Yet these schisms did not affect the laity or diminish the Church’s role in English life. From the end of the English civil wars in 1660 to the late 19th century, England was ruled by the Anglican landed class, the most relaxed and confident governing class in Europe. A bien-pensant, easygoing and undogmatic latitudinarianism shaped relations between church and state. Doctrinal precision was tiresome, even a little vulgar. Wherever possible, differences were fudged: the very Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church are a fudge. There were exceptions. Gladstone’s restless, sometimes tormented religiosity and baffling combination of high ideals with low cunning could hardly have been less easygoing. And as the 19th century wore on, Protestant dissenters, Catholics and even Jews and unbelievers were slowly incorporated into the political nation. Joseph Chamberlain, who did more to make the political weather than any other leader in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and contrived to split both the Liberal and the Conservative parties, was a Unitarian, contemptuous of fudge.

However, the style and mood of English governance were still quintessentially Anglican. Fudge prevailed. Trollope’s political novels are a hymn to fudging. Disraeli, ethnically Jewish, though baptised into the Church of England, was a fudger to his fingertips. In his low-cunning moods, even Gladstone was not above fudging. After the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707 the monarchy itself rested on a mountain of fudge: the monarch was an Anglican in England, but a Presbyterian in Scotland. The English and Scottish parliaments were merged into a British parliament, but because England was far more populous and far richer than Scotland, it was the English parliament writ large, and embodied English constitutional doctrine. Equally, the Scots became junior partners in a new British empire, ultimately controlled by the Anglican elite. It won the race for empire against France, but the stiff-necked, pernickety legalism of successive London governments drove its colonies on the seaboard of what is now the United States into revolt and eventual independence.

The Anglican elite learned their lesson. Thereafter, imperial governance was English governance writ large. From an early stage the colonies of settlement, later known as the “white dominions”, were, in effect, self-governing. At first sight, India, “the brightest jewel in the British crown”, was an exception. It was acquired by force and maintained, in the last resort, by force. The Great Rebellion of 1857, once known as the Indian Mutiny, was brutally suppressed. In the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, Brigadier General Dyer ordered his troops to fire on an unarmed and peaceful crowd; they went on firing until their ammunition was exhausted. But the most astonishing feature of the British Raj is that a tiny sliver of British soldiers and administrators somehow managed to govern a subcontinent populated by roughly 250 million subjects. Force alone could not have done this. The Raj depended on indirect rule, on adroit accommodation to local pressures. It would not have survived without the collaboration of Indian elites, and the price of collaboration was a willingness to temper the wind of imperial power to the shorn lamb of Indian hopes and fears.

***

 

The Anglo-British story echoed the Indian story. The political, administrative and financial elites in Westminster, Whitehall and the City of London viewed the kingdom they presided over through an Indian lens. British subjects in the mother country were treated like Indian subjects in the Raj. Force lurked in the background, but most of the time it stayed in the background. The Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which mounted cavalry charged into a crowd of as many as 80,000 people demonstrating for greater parliamentary representation at St Peter’s Field in Manchester, was a paler precursor of the Amritsar Massacre; the Rhondda township of Tonypandy, where hussars helped crush a “riot” by striking miners in 1910, lived on in the folk memory of the labour movement for decades. Yet these were exceptions, just as Amritsar was an exception.

Co-option, accommodation and collaboration between the governing elites and lesser elites beyond them were the real hallmarks of British governance. The French saying that there is more in common between two deputies, one of whom is a communist, than there is between two communists, one of whom is a deputy, also applied to Britain. In the cosy Westminster village, insurgent tribunes of the people, from the popular radical John Bright to the fulminating socialist Michael Foot, slowly morphed into grand and harmless old men. Outside the village, subjects were inescapably subjects, not citizens, just as their Indian counterparts were. Sovereignty, absolute and inalienable, belonged to the Crown-in-Parliament, not to the people. And the whole edifice was held together by layer upon layer of fudge.

Now the fudge is beginning to dissolve. The Raj disappeared long ago. The fate of steelworkers in South Wales depends on decisions by an Indian multinational whose headquarters are in Mumbai. The empire on which the sun never set is barely a memory. Unlike her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria, the present Queen is not an empress; she has to make do with leading the Commonwealth. In law, the Crown-in-Parliament remains absolutely sovereign and the peoples of the United Kingdom are still subjects, not citizens. But legal principles and political realities diverge. The Anglo-British state whose capital is London and whose parliament stands on the fringes of the Thames is no longer the sole institution that shapes and reflects the political will of the people over whom it presides. There are now four capital cities, four legislatures, four governments and four political systems in the United Kingdom.

The devolved administrations in the non-English nations of the kingdom control swaths of public policy. The parties that lead them vary enormously in ideology and history. The Scottish National Party, which has governed Scotland for nearly nine years, stands for an independent Scotland. In Wales, Labour has been the strongest party since devolution, but it and Plaid Cymru (the “Party of Wales”) have already formed one coalition and may well form another after the elections to the Welsh Assembly next month. No great changes are likely. Almost certainly Wales will continue to be a social-democratic candle in a naughty world. Since the Belfast Agreement, Northern Ireland has been governed by a power-sharing executive, representing both the republican tradition, embodied in Sinn Fein, and the loyalist tradition, embodied in the Democratic Unionist Party. The sovereign Westminster parliament has the legal right to repeal the devolution statutes, but doing so would amount to a revolution in our uncodified constitution and would destroy the Union.

England is a stranger at the feast. It towers above the others in wealth, in population and in political clout. It has almost 84 per cent of the UK population. Scotland has just under 8.5 per cent, Wales just under 5 per cent and Northern Ireland less than 3 per cent. Yet there is no English parliament or government. In times past, English people have often treated the words “English” and “British” as synonyms, but devolution to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish legislatures and administrations has made a nonsense of this lazy conflation.

***

England and the English now face the primordial questions that face all self-conscious political communities: “Who are we?”, “Who do we want to be?” At bottom, these questions are philosophical, in a profound sense moral, not economic or institutional. They have to do with the intangibles of culture and sentiment, not the outward forms that clothe them. In stable and settled political communities they are rarely discussed. They don’t need to be. But the political community that is England is neither stable nor settled. Fuelled in part by resentment of the alleged unfairness of the devolution process and in part by the psychic wound left by the end of the Anglo-British empire, an inchoate, grouchy English nationalism is now a force to be reckoned with. St George’s flags flying on 23 April; the extraordinary rise of Ukip; David Cameron’s panic-stricken attempt to “renegotiate” Britain’s role in the European Union – all tell the same story: the “secret people of England”, as G K Chesterton called them, are secret no longer.

But that is not an answer to my questions. It only shows that they are urgent. At the moment, two answers hold the field. The first – the answer embodied in the Cameron government’s “Project Fear” over the UK’s membership of the EU – is essentially deracinated. For the globetrotting super-rich, the financial services sector, the Bank of England and the managers of the Union state, England consists of London and the more salubrious parts of the south-east. The answer to the English Question is that there is no such question. The notion that the English have to decide who they are and who they want to be is a backward-looking fantasy. Globalisation has overwhelmed the specificities of English culture and experience. The English buy and sell in the global marketplace and they face global threats. Membership of an EU made safe for market fundamentalism offers the best available route to security and prosperity in an ever more globalised world.

The second answer – the answer implicit in Eurosceptic rhetoric – is romantically ­archaic. At its heart is a vision of England as a sea-girt and providential nation, cut off from the European mainland by a thousand years of history and a unique constitutional arrangement. It harks back to Shakespeare’s hymn to England as a “jewel set in the silver sea”; to Henry Newbolt’s poem “Drake’s Drum”, evoking the memory of gallant English mariners driving the top-heavy galleons of the Spanish Armada up the Channel to their doom; and to Nelson dying gloriously at Trafalgar at the climax of his greatest victory. It fortified Margaret Thatcher during the nail-biting weeks of the Falklands War; it inspired Enoch Powell’s passionate depiction of post-imperial England as the reincarnation of the England of Edward the Confessor: an England whose unity was “effortless and unconstrained” and which accepted the “unlimited supremacy of Crown-in-Parliament so naturally as not to be aware of it”. As Powell saw more clearly than anyone else, this vision rules out EU membership.

No one with progressive instincts can possibly be satisfied with either of these answers. The great question is whether there is a better one. I think there is, but I can’t pretend that it is easy or comfortable. It is republican in spirit – which does not entail getting rid of the monarchy, as the many Continental monarchies show. It embodies a tradition stretching back to England’s brief but inspiring republican experiment during the civil wars of the 17th century, and before that to Renaissance Italy and Republican Rome. Central to it is the notion of “neo-Roman liberty”: of liberty as freedom from domination, from dependence on another’s will. John Milton was its most eloquent English exponent, in prose and verse, but it also inspired Tom Paine’s contempt for hereditary rule and the “foppery” that went with it. In the 20th century its most engaging champion was R H Tawney, the ethical socialist, economic historian and foe of the “religion of inequality”, its “great God Mumbo-Jumbo” and the “servile respect for wealth and social position” it inculcated.

The goal is clear: a republican England in a republican Britain and a republican Britain in a republican Europe. The obstacles are formidable. As the founders of the American republic discovered, republican liberty entails federal union, combining diversity at the base with unity at the centre; and for that there are few takers. But Gramsci was right. Pessimism of the intellect should go hand in hand with optimism of the will. There is all too much pessimism of the intellect on the British left. It is time for some optimism of the will.

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom: an Essay on Britain, Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 08 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Tories at war