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

All Photos: The Perth Mermaids
Show Hide image

Meet the mermaids trying to defend the coral reefs from climate change

Speaking up for the ocean is taking professional mermaids to the heart of Australia's fiercest political debate.

The tale of a woman who swaps her voice for legs might not always appear empowering. But the legacy of Disney’s Ariel has a new twist. Around the world young people are speaking up for the ocean by diving into it – as mermaids.

Recreational mermaiding has found its feet in recent years. Mass-produced tails are increasingly affordable, the dolphin kick is a great work-out, and MerCons (Mermaid Conventions) are on the rise. The appeal of fashion and free-diving are big parts of its attraction – but so is a love of fish, with some professionals putting conservation at the heart of their work.

This is particularly true in Australia, where climate change is decimating underwater life. Almost half of the Great Barrier Reef is thought to have died in the last 18 months. “I remember crying at how magical it was and how angry I was at what we were doing to it,” says Jessica Bell from Perth. “I just want to grab our government, shove their heads under there and say ‘Look at what we have, look at how special it is – can you see why we need to protect it at all costs!’"

Jess performs as a mermaid at the Aquarium of Western Australia, together with her friend Amelia Lassetter. The two met studying art at university, where they hand-crafted their first tail. Disney's Little Mermaid film was definitely an inspiration here, yet that is far from their whole story: “Don't get me wrong, we love Disney, but this is about so much more for us,” says Jess, “it is our livelihood. It is connected to our art, fitness and mental health; we connect with people from all over the world; we inspire children; we give the ocean a voice.”

The artists use their mermaid alter-egos to help children celebrate the sea and all things in it. That means wearing 15kg silicone tails that look like Anglefish (and feel like squid to touch). It means biodegradable glitter and learning to swim like a dolphin. But it also means blisters, back strain and chest infections. Holding your breath underwater can be life-threatening without proper instruction, and accidentally swallowing remains of the aquarium’s rotting fish-food is a hazard of the job. 

By far the most challenging part of their work, however, is spreading the word about the problems the oceans face. “Many people don’t know exactly what coral bleaching is, or that coral is a living animal, as opposed to a plant.” says Jess, “Others are unaware of what an important cornerstone of the ocean ecosystem coral reefs are – or simply don’t seem to care.”

In fact, talking about the reef’s destruction is taking the mermaids to the heart of Australia’s most polarised political issue: climate change.

The environmental minister Josh Frydenberg recently described Unesco's decision to leave the reef off its “In Danger” list as a “big win” for the centre-right Australian government. But environmentalists beg to differ, saying the plan downplays Australia's responsibility to cut its own CO2 emissions: “The political response to the enormous damage being done to the coral and the marine life on our Great Barrier Reef has been vastly inadequate and doesn’t reflect the urgent threat a warming planet poses to the ecosystem,” says Geoff Cousins, president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Of primary concern are plans to dig Australia’s biggest ever coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin. This scheme will see increased industrial traffic across the nearby reef and unleash decades of pollution. The result is a situation in which climate change has become so highly charged that “some organisations prefer not to talk about it,” says Josh Meadows from Environmental Justice Australia.

Where does this leave professional mermaids? The word mermaid is derived from the “mere” meaning water and “maid” meaning servant, explains Jess. “So we are like the guardian or servants of the ocean. We are literally half fish, half human; a bridge of understanding between land and sea.”

Balancing this impulse with the politics of their employers is not always easy. “There are some aquariums in the world that are extremely commercial and not interested in rocking the boat whatsoever,” says Jess. “Yet there are others that have really great conservation messages, such as the government-run Great Barrier Reef HQ.”

Some aquariums have also focused on cultivating an interest in how the oceans work at a young age – which is where mermaids can play a part. The challenge, Jess explains, is to explain climate change to kids without scaring them, boring them, or leaving them racked with guilt: “Younger children don’t understand climate change, but they do understand animals and plants and can be engaged by them."

This was the case for Amelia, Jess's fellow mermaid. As a child, she used to collect coral off the beach and think it was beautiful. Then one day her mother told her that what she had found was actually the skeleton of coral that used to be alive. "She was shocked," Jess says.

Thankfully their efforts, alongside those of the wider environmental community, are showing signs of success. A recent poll from the Climate Institute revealed that 66 per cent of Australians have a high level of concern about climate change, while the campaign against the Adani mine is fast becoming the environmental issue of the day.

There is of course still much more to be done, with the legal team at Environmental Justice Australia calling on the government to set even stronger goals to cut climate pollution and to stop supporting new mines. Yet however hard it can be, and however “trivial or childish” they may appear to some, the mermaids are resolved to continue their role. “Sometimes we feel helpless," Jess says. "But we always come full circle and are determined to do our part to help." 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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