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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Hate crimes, social media, and the rise of the “hoax hoax”

When hate crimes rise, so do the number of people trying to discredit them.

The first thing 16-year-old Kiaira Manuel did when she saw a bold, underlined sign reading “COLORS ONLY” over one of her high school’s hallway water fountains was go to her school administrators.

“They said they were going to handle it, but so many things go unnoticed at this school and they just don’t care,” says the now 17-year-old, explaining her decision to post a picture of the sign on social media that night. “So this was taped above the water fountains at my school...” she innocuously captioned the image, which has now been shared over 1,500 times.

It took a day for someone to call her a liar. Twitter user @iH8Thots tweeted Manuel a message, which was then also shared hundreds of times on the site. “We go to the same school,” he wrote. “I watched you put that piece of paper up there and take the picture.” Manuel blocked the user, which was then seen as “proof” that his accusation was true.

These tweets were first posted in January – when the sign was stuck over the water fountain – but over the last few days, Manuel has fended off a fresh flood of people taking to social media to call her a liar. The timing is no accident. Since Donald Trump won the United States presidential election, there has reportedly been an increase in hate crime in America – with the Southern Poverty Law Center receiving 200 complaints in the last week. There has also, in turn, been a surge in people trying to discredit hate crimes, by loudly labelling them hoaxes on social media.

It doesn’t take a lot of research to unravel @iH8Thots’ claims. Less than a week after the incident, he and Manuel appeared on the comedy podcast Pod Awful to talk about their viral tweets. “You’re clearly a fucking troll,” says the host within a few minutes of speaking to @iH8Thots, even though he initially believed his story. @iH8Thots refuses to explain his side of events, is unsure of his own age, and calls his lawyer – who has, in the host’s words, “the voice of a child” – to defend him on air. When I asked – over Twitter’s direct messaging service – whether he would like to speak to me for this piece, he replied: “lol. fuck the media. journalists can go to hell”.

Before all of this, however, a cursory glance at the profile of @iH8Thots – a username that, translated from internet slang, seems to mean “I hate That Hoe Over There” – was enough to disprove his accusations. Manuel claims that when he first posted the tweet, his account said he was based in California, nearly 3,000 miles from her high school in Florida. His feed was full of similar trolling messages, and if you click on his account today, you will see a man in a gas mask holding a gun staring out from his profile picture, a design for a fascist flag of America as his header, and a timeline full of pro-Trump and anti-liberal tweets. Few people, however – both when the tweet first blew up and now it has reappeared – think to check.

Manuel’s experiences are part of a current trend on social media that I will tentatively call a “hoax hoax”. It goes like this. Someone posts evidence of a hate crime on social media. Someone else uses false evidence to out their post as a hoax. This, however, is the actual hoax. It is a lie claiming someone else lied – a hoax hoax.

This is happening on fake news websites and across social media. A Twitter account @DidntHappenUk was set up last month to expose people they believe to be lying on the social network. Despite offering no evidence for who is or isn’t telling the truth in any scenario, they have over 2,000 followers – with half of these gained over the last week since the election. “A nice display of left hand writing here,” they wrote above a picture of a swastika-laden racist message that was allegedly left on a Facebook user’s car.

“People think that, after the election, people are making up hoaxes to prove that there is hate in the world. It’s so stupid. People don’t do their research on these things and now I’m being used as a prime example for it,” Manuel says.

The problem is being exacerbated by police forces using social media to encourage victims to come forward. Twitter users jumped on the journalist Sarah Harvard when she claimed her friend’s Muslim sister had “a knife pulled on her” at her university and the campus police replied saying: “This has not been reported to police. If you are in contact with anyone involved, please encourage them to give us a call.” Though they meant well, their tweet was used as evidence that the event never happened at all. This is a problem because police reports are not the be-all and end-all of proving a claim’s veracity.

Manuel says her school administrators, for example, were reluctant to act when she reported the water fountain incident, and she felt they were dismissive of her concerns. “When I put it on social media it was forcing them to actually pay attention and actually do something about it,” she says. Contrary to what many might expect, then, some people – especially those who are disenfranchised – are compelled to turn to social media over the authorities.

“That’s why we put stuff as ‘Unproven’,” says Brooke Binkowski, the managing editor of the internet’s oldest fact-checking website, Snopes, which uses “True”, “False”, "Mixture", and "Unproven" buttons to label stories. They recently labelled a story about a Muslim woman told to hang herself with her hijab in Walmart as “Unproven” after the police said they had not heard about the attack.

“We didn’t want to say ‘False’ because there’s not much we can do if two people were involved and neither of them are talking and nobody saw it. Maybe she didn’t want to go to the police. All sorts of creepy people will start threatening people who do so. And the people who are doing it certainly aren’t going to say ‘We told her to hang herself by her hijab’.”

Snopes are a non-partisan site, and investigate claims based on how many people email them to ask about a story. “Inherently, fact-checking hate crime accusations is certainly sticky,” says Kim LaCapria, a content manager and political fact-checker at Snopes, when I ask whether there are any moral considerations around investigating hate crimes. “There's definitely the idea out there it's wrong to question people who we agree with that have been purportedly attacked, but folks on the other side of the aisle clamour for a look into claims' veracity.”

It is important to note that there are undeniably hate crime hoaxes – something the right often calls “false flags” – occurring, though Binkowski says they are “extremely rare”. The conservative news website Breitbart – which has found fans among white supremacists – concludes that there have been 100 in the last ten years, a remarkably low rate of ten a year (especially considering the site’s agenda) and nothing compared to the 2,241 racially or religiously aggravated offences that occurred in the UK in the two weeks after the EU referendum. The right is also guilty of false flags, recently purporting a man was attacked because he was a Trump supporter when the incident actually stemmed from a traffic altercation.

Still, when false flag hate crimes do happen, they are seized by the right as evidence that no hate crimes are happening at all. Who can forget when, earlier this year, an openly gay pastor was forced to admit he had iced the word “Fag” onto a cake himself, and had lied that it was done by a Whole Foods employee? Just last week, a student at the University of Louisiana admitted to fabricating a story about having her hijab ripped off by two Trump supporters (it is worth noting, however, that some people may recant their stories out of fear).

It is crucial that we, as social media users, fact-check things before we share them so they can’t be used for another agenda. Just because fake hate crimes are rare doesn’t mean it’s wrong to scrutinise things you see on social media. Questioning one particular post that seems a little off is not the same as denying that hate crimes are happening.

“Even if it feels uncharitable to consider the veracity of a claim, it's important for information to be credible and not to add to the spread of bad information inside a political bubble of one's own making,” says LaCapria. “Liberals are most definitely not immune to spreading bad information or getting angry when their claims get debunked, but it doesn't help anyone's cause when a popular story inevitably proves false.”

It can be very distressing, however, for a victim to be accused of carrying out a hoax, and Manuel ended up blocking over 600 people on Twitter. “People started attacking me and calling me ‘n****r’ and all of these derogatory terms,” she says. “Two days ago, after this all blew back up, I got 50 messages in a row from one person who said he was watching me, and said my first name and last name and said my information had been leaked. That’s really frightening.”

While fact-checking, it is crucial to not cause unnecessary distress. But how?

“Even a simple ‘I haven’t verified this yet’ or ‘If this is true, it’s worth paying attention to’ marks the story as unvetted but allows people to share,” says LaCapria. “Critical thinking is important; if something sounds completely implausible, it probably didn't happen the way the person is telling social media it did. There are two good subreddits – r/thathappened and r/quityourbullshit – that just take a second (sometimes mocking) look at viral social media claims. Although users aren't always kind, they can be very good at pinpointing holes in stories.” Another, r/hatecrimehoaxes has also become popular after the election. 

Binkowski also points out that many hoaxes fall apart at the first sign of scrutiny. “They usually make it easy because they can’t handle the pressure and feel guilty so come out and recant,” she says. “Everyone should read from a variety of sources, even ones you don’t agree with. A lot of people yell at us because they think we are trying to be the be-all and end-all but we just want to be the starting point."

For Manuel, everyone being better at fact-checking would have saved her a lot of pain. At the time of writing, her Twitter mentions are still being flooded with offensive messages. In order to combat both hoaxes and hoax hoaxes, then, everyone must attempt to be non-partisan in scrutinising social media claims. 

"Even if you don’t have much time, if you read something on some site that doesn’t quite ring true or seems too perfect, then Google it, just Google it,” says Binkowski. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.