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

André Carrilho
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The army of one

How the writings of an al-Qaeda strategist inspired the spate of small-cell terror attacks in Britain and other Western countries.

Again. The attack on London Bridge and Borough Market on  3 June has claimed seven lives, with many more people still receiving intensive care for critical injuries. Within hours of the terrorist attack – the third within as many months in England – Islamic State released a statement claiming responsibility, as it did for the two outrages in the UK that immediately preceded it. At least one of the three attackers, Khuram Butt, had a long history of extremist activism and associations in Britain. He was a member of one of the Islamist networks that emerged during the 1990s and then proliferated after the al-Qaeda attacks of 11 September 2001. Although most of the preachers who founded these groups – such as Omar Bakri Muhammad, in the case of Butt and al-Muhajiroun – are no longer in the country, their legacy endures.

Bakri founded al-Muhajiroun (meaning “the emigrants”) in 1996. Now outlawed, it was a radical group committed to the re-establishment of a caliphate. After Bakri was finally excluded from the UK in 2005 (he is now in prison in Lebanon), he was succeeded by Anjem Choudary, the well-known British jihadist who assumed leadership of the network. From its inception, al-Muhajiroun embraced ever greater extremism, declaring support for Osama Bin Laden, for the 9/11 attacks and for al-Qaeda. Scores of its members have been convicted of terrorist offences. Choudary was sentenced to five and a half years in prison in September 2016 for supporting IS.

Several individuals from his network have travelled to Syria in recent years. Among them are Abu Rahin Aziz, originally from Luton, who became involved in active attack planning for IS operations against the West. He was killed in a US drone strike on Raqqa in 2015. Another prominent member of the group, Abu Rumaysah from London, moved his wife and five children to IS-held territory. Along with another British member of the group, Mohammad Ridha Alhak, Rumaysah is believed to have appeared in execution videos for IS.

Those who have remained at home can be found on the edges of terrorist plots. Butt, a 27-year-old British national born in Pakistan, was featured in a recent Channel 4 documentary about British supporters of Islamic State. He glorified and revelled in the barbarism of IS.

Butt will not be the last British jihadist to carry out a terrorist outrage in this country. The London Bridge attack may have seemed chaotic and amateurish but that is the jihadists’ purpose. And behind even the most unsophisticated attack is a considered strategic theory of global jihad, the antecedents of which are long and extend from Afghanistan into Yemen and Syria.

***

Al-Qaeda concentrated on carrying out the 11 September 2001 attacks with such tunnel vision that it gave little consideration to what might come next. The group reasoned that the US would be forced to respond to the atrocity, as Bill Clinton had done in 1998 after groups affiliated with Osama Bin Laden bombed US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The Clinton administration launched a series of retaliatory cruise missile strikes against sites associated with Bin Laden in Sudan and Afghanistan. But the response was otherwise muted.

Nonetheless, al-Qaeda had learned an important lesson. Push the US hard enough and the president will be forced to act – which is what al-Qaeda wanted. What the group had not anticipated was the ferocity of American resolve.

As the Taliban melted away after the US invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 – and with much of its leadership captured, or killed, or on the run – al-Qaeda feared it had overreached. What good had the 9/11 attacks achieved if the global jihad movement would now crumble?

This provoked an intense debate within the movement about its future. Two competing schools of thought arose, which were considered mutually exclusive until Islamic State’s emergence brought them together.

The first view came from a theorist called Abu Bakr Naji (this is a pen name). Naji argued that al-Qaeda should promote an asymmetry of fear by adopting especially brutal and gruesome tactics. He believed Western societies were ultimately weak and lacked the resolve to endure the long war. Instead, he reasoned, jihadists should continue to escalate their depravity and barbarism. This would in turn allow them to re-establish formal control over territory as the Taliban had done, creating safe havens and launchpads for future attacks.

Naji’s view was robustly opposed by another theorist, Abu Musab al-Suri (a nom de guerre for Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, a Syrian strategist within al-Qaeda). He argued that the American response to 9/11 was too severe and that the group would never be able to regain the freedom it had enjoyed under the Taliban. The global jihadi movement would have to embrace the new reality.

According to the Norwegian scholar Brynjar Lia, who has written an authoritative biography of Suri, he opposed the 9/11 attacks precisely because he feared al-Qaeda would be unable to withstand the ferocity of the US response. When it eventually came, Suri felt vindicated.

It reaffirmed a long-standing view of his that the global jihad movement could succeed only if it was decentralised. Suri had begun to advocate decentralisation in the early 1990s, arguing that formal hierarchies did not well serve the jihadist cause. At the time, militant groups were being rounded up in Egypt, Libya and Algeria because their members congregated in large structures.

The most formative influence on Suri’s views, however, was the uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian city of Hama in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He wrote about the experience in a 900-page book, The Islamic Jihadi Revolution in ­Syria. The uprising was brutally repressed by President Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar al-Assad. Too much centralisation and formal structuring had caused the revolution to be lost, Suri reasoned. What the movement needed was smaller and more autonomous cells, which could wage a form of low-intensity guerrilla warfare, grinding down the local populations.

Although Suri had been formulating his ideas since the early 1990s, it was only after 9/11 that they coalesced into a coherent theory. Towards the end of 2004, he published his seminal work, The Global Islamic Resistance Call, which outlined his vision for the future of the global jihad movement.

Suri took a more strategic view of terrorism and its outcomes than Bin Laden or his al-Qaeda network. They obsessed about “spectacular”, large-scale attacks such as the 1998 twin embassy bombings, 9/11, the Madrid bombings, or the 7 July 2005 attacks in London. Suri welcomed the successful execution of these attacks but above all what he wanted was continuous, low-level action of the kind we are now experiencing in Britain. Despite overt displays of resilience and camaraderie, these have succeeded in making the public more fearful and angry.

“The jihad of individual or cell terrorism, using the methods of urban or rural guerrilla warfare, is fundamental for exhausting the enemy and causing him to collapse and withdraw,” Suri wrote in The Global Islamic Resistance Call.

To justify indiscriminate attacks on civilians, he invoked verse 8:60 of the Quran, which states: “And prepare against them whatever you are able of power and of steeds of war by which you may terrify the enemy of Allah and your enemy and others besides them.” The passage is often invoked by jihadi theorists to rationalise acts of mass and indiscriminate terror. “This generous verse has ordered preparation for the purpose of terrorising the assailants’ and God’s enemies among the infidels and their servants,” Suri wrote.

He interpreted its invocation to “terrify the enemy” broadly, arguing that “terrorism is a religious duty, and assassination is a Prophetic tradition”.

This is what is known as the doctrine of the “army of one”. The idea is simple: individuals are empowered to carry out deadly and destructive attacks without an overriding command-and-control structure. Having no command structure makes their attacks harder to intercept and oppress. The reality is, the antecedents of the threat we face in Britain today were first theorised in the mountains of the Hindu Kush more than a decade ago.

***

Al-Qaeda’s central leadership favoured Suri’s doctrine, believing that Naji’s approach was too fantastical. What Suri offered was a simpler, more tangible vision of how the global jihad movement should proceed.

However, it was al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen (known as AQAP) that capitalised most on this doctrine. Under the spiritual tutelage of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric who was eventually killed in an US drone strike, an aggressive doctrine of global jihad was launched.

What made Awlaki so dangerous was not just his charismatic appeal, but his experience of living in the West. He understood the motivation of Western Muslims and knew how to radicalise them.

AQAP published a magazine called Inspire, a precursor to the glossy IS magazine Dabiq, which has glorified as well as inspired attacks against the West. Inspire published Abu Musab al-Suri in English translation. Much of his work is untranslated and remains lost in Arabic texts, making it inaccessible to many Western Muslims. AQAP changed this by bringing the most devastating sections of his writing directly to readers in the West.

Most importantly, Inspire created and promoted a programme of Open Source Jihad (OSJ), which is the strategy of inspiring lone-actor attacks. It offered simple instructions for launching unsophisticated attacks on civilians: pipe bombs, stabbings and vehicle-based assaults.

The impact was considerable. According to original research by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens in his forthcoming book on Awlaki, between 2009 and 2016, of a total 212 terrorism cases in the United States, 66 plots could be directly linked to the cleric in one form or another. Put another way, Awlaki was responsible for or inspired almost one-third of all terrorism cases in the US over a seven-year period.

“In this section, the OSJ [Open Source Jihad], we give our readers suggestions on how to wage their individual jihad,” is how Inspire magazine described its OSJ programme. “It allows Muslims to train at home instead of risking [sic] a dangerous travel abroad.” Awlaki explained that this was “a disaster for the repressive imperialistic nations . . . America’s worst nightmare”.

Its effects were felt not only in the United States. In May 2010, Roshonara Choudhry, a then 21-year-old university dropout, attempted to murder Stephen Timms, the Labour MP for East Ham at his constituency surgery in London, because he had voted in favour of the Western war in Iraq. During her trial, Choudhry explained how she had been motivated to stab Timms during a constituency surgery after she became a devotee of Awlaki and his OSJ programme.

The murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in May 2013 was another Awlaki-inspired plot. Rigby was attacked on the streets of Woolwich, south-east London. His attackers first rammed him with a vehicle and then stabbed him with knives.

Documents seized by the United States following the raid in which Osama Bin Laden was killed show that the al-Qaeda leader was uneasy about AQAP’s strategy. He felt that attacks using vehicles against civilians were wrong as well as amateurish. And he believed they were so brutal that they would reduce support for violent jihad.

***

Islamic State has never worried about public opinion. It emerged in 2003 after the invasion of Iraq, in a period when the murderous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, was leading the organisation. Unlike al-Qaeda’s central leadership, which found itself on the defensive in Afghanistan, Zarqawi, who revelled in barbarism, was presented with an opportunity to confront some of the group’s biggest enemies – America and Britain – in the heart of the Arab world.

In these circumstances, he favoured Naji’s nihilistic doctrine of brutality. His methods have been played out in Syria and Iraq, producing especially egregious acts of barbarism against the local populations over which IS has ruled. Yet, for the group’s attacks in the West, it continues to embrace Suri’s model of decentralisation.

IS has produced significant amounts of literature promoting gruesome attacks in its followers’ home countries. In its Rumiyah (Rome) magazine, one infographic promotes truck attacks, describing their use as “just terror”. It advises readers to acquire a vehicle that is “large in size, heavy in weight” and which has a “slightly raised chassis and bumper”. Among its suggested targets are “congested streets, outdoor markets and large outdoor festivals”.

Another infographic disseminated by the group on social media advises supporters to “kill the civilians of the crusaders, run over them by vehicles [sic]”.

The Nice attack in 2016 which killed 86 people demonstrated just how effective a relatively unsophisticated plot carried out by a lone actor can be. This is one of the ways in which terrorism works: a successful attack gives confidence to others, inspiring and emboldening imitators. The wave of terrorism that is now sweeping the UK is born of this.

Terrorists will take encouragement from others and we have seen comparable spikes in attacks across the European continent, with the French and Germans enduring periods of similar activity.

***

None of this occurs in a vacuum. For many years we allowed radical preachers such as Omar Bakri Muhammad, Anjem Choudary, Abu Hamza and others to preach on the streets and in the mosques of Britain. They spread a deadly message of separateness, telling young Muslims not to identify as British. In many cases, they invoked the very same verses of the Quran as al-Qaeda theorists such as Abu Musab al-Suri in order to spread their message.

A leaflet produced and distributed in 2006 by the same network from which Khuram Butt emerged brazenly glorified terrorism of the kind he unleashed in London. “Jihad against the Kuffar [infidels], the enemies of Allah, puts fear in their hearts and terrifies them,” it stated. “This will give Islam victory, humiliate its enemy and put happiness into the hearts of believers.”

Al-Muhajiroun frequently celebrated terrorist atrocities at home and abroad. What we have, therefore, is a culture in which young men are growing up in Britain who are divorced from our society and its values. They are invested in the fortunes of foreign conflicts instead, exposing us to the turbulence of distant wars. Once it was Yemen and Anwar al-Awlaki who posed the greatest threat to Britain, when al-Qaeda regrouped and established a base there. Yet the potency of his message sharply tailed off after he was killed in 2011.

There is a lesson to learn. The message of leaders and movements, however ideological, still requires them to have an active presence. When they are killed, or pushed back through military action, their potency is much reduced.

In recent times, Islamic State has been able to project a message of momentum and success. Now that the group is suffering significant setbacks in Mosul – where it has practically lost the entire city – its prestige is diminished. Its de facto capital in Raqqa, Syria, is also being slowly encircled by coalition troops.

As with the efforts in Iraq, reclaiming the city will be difficult and dangerous, but Raqqa will fall. In the meantime, attacks from the “army of one” will only intensify and increase in frequency, yet this is a critical phase through which we must pass if the overall threat from IS and other such groups is to be defeated decisively. Our security can only be built over their ruins.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special

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