How does the Qur'an approach to science?
In order to understand the relationship between Islam and science, the following
analogy may be apposite:
For an author to write a book, he should first have the knowledge of what
he will write. That is, the general meaning of the book should exist in the
author’s mind. Then, before setting out to write the book, he designs the general
meaning: he gives it more definite form in his mind and then starts writing
according to this form. To write a book means, by using necessary material things,
moulding the meaning or content into letters, words, sentences, paragraphs,
and chapters, and thus making it known by others. However, if the author does
not will to write it, he will keep it in his mind. This means that even if he
does not write the book, the book will continue to have a kind of existence.
That is, it will continue to exist in its author’s mind as meaning. After the
book is written, people read it, understand it and thus the book acquires another
kind of existence in their minds and memories. Even if the book is lost or withdrawn,
it will continue to exist in both the mind of the author and the memories of
To cite another example, for a palace to be built, first an architect conceives
it and then gives form to his conception. Afterwards, he makes a plan of the
palace, according to which the palace will be built. Building means the materialization
of the architect’s conception of the palace in floors, rooms, doors, windows,
and so on, by using the necessary material. Even if the palace is destroyed
years later, it will continue to exist in the architect’s mind and in the memories
of those who saw it.
The universe is like a book written by God or a palace built by Him, to make
Himself known by conscious beings, primarily including mankind. The universe
essentially exists in God’s Knowledge in meaning. Creation means, through His
Will, God Almighty’s specifying or giving a distinct character and form to that
meaning in His Knowledge as species, races, families or individuals, and then,
through His Power, clothing each in matter and making each visible in the material
realm contained in time and space. That is, the Divine Will specifies and forms
and the Divine Power clothes and makes visible. After a thing ceases to exist,
it continues to live both in God’s Knowledge and in memories and through its
offspring, if it has any. For example, when a flower dies, it continues to exist
in God’s Knowledge, in memories, and in its seeds.
We see that everything has five stages or degrees of existence. Essentially,
it exists in the Creator’s Knowledge as meaning. Even if God Almighty did not
create it, it would continue to exist in His Knowledge as meaning. Thus, that
meaning constitutes the essential existence of everything. The second stage
or degree of a thing’s existence is that it exists in the Divine Will as a form
or ‘plan’. Then comes the stage of a thing’s material existence in the material
realm. This is followed by its existence in memories and, if it has any, through
its offspring. The fifth stage is its eternal existence in the other world.
God Almighty will ‘use’ the wreck of this world in the construction of the other
one, where animals will continue their existence, each species through a representative
of its own, while each human being will find an eternal life which will have
been designed for him according to his living in this world.
Now it must be clear what kind of a relationship there is between science
and Islam or the Qur’an. First of all, the universe, the subject-matter of the
sciences, is the realm where God’s Names are manifested and therefore has some
sort of sanctity. Everything in it is a letter from God Almighty inviting us
to study it to have knowledge of Him. Thus, the universe is the collection of
those letters or, as Muslim sages call it, the Divine Book of Creation, issuing,
primarily, from the Divine Attributes of Will and Power. As for the Qur’an,
issuing from the Divine Will of Speech, it is the counterpart of the universe
in written form. If we call the universe the Qur’an of Creation (al-Qur’an al-Takwini),
we may call the Qur’an the Recorded Qur’an (al-Qur’an al-Tadwini). Just as there
can be no conflict between a palace and the paper written to describe it, there
can also be no conflict between the universe and the Qur’an, which are two expressions
of the same truth.
Similarly, man is also a Divine book corresponding to the Qur’an and the
universe. It is because of this that the term used to signify the sentences
of the Qur’an—ayah—also means events taking place within the souls of men and
phenomena in the world of nature.’ Man’s life is so mysteriously interrelated
to the natural phenomena and events that, according to Ibn Sina (Avicenna),
one who discerns these phenomena can draw hundred-percent-true conclusions about
the future of the world; that is to say, the laws of history can be deduced
from what is going on in nature.
What does ‘reading’ mean?
It is interesting that the first revelation of the Qur’an was:
Read: in and with the name of your Lord Who created. He created man of an
embryo suspended. Read: and your Lord is the Most Munificent, Who taught by
the Pen, taught man that he knew not. (96.1-3)
It is quite significant that the first command of God to His Messenger, the
unlettered Prophet, was ‘read’, when there was not yet the Book to read. This
means that there is another book or, rather, there are two books, counterparts
to the Book which was to be revealed. These two books are the universe and man.
A believer should approach the study of the universe and man without prejudice.
It is also significant that the verses of the Qur’an and the phenomena in the
universe and in man—material and psychological—are both called ‘signs’. The
imperative ‘Read!’ is followed, not by a direct object or an adverbial, but
by ‘in and with the name of your Lord Who created’. This signifies:
• ‘Reading’ the universe—studying it—has principles of its own, like, for
example, observation and experiment.
• The word translated as Lord is Rabb, among whose meanings is ‘educator,
upbringer, sustainer, giver of a certain pattern, and giver of a particular
nature to each entity.’ Man’s nature includes free will, whereas every other
entity acts according to the primordial nature assigned to it, what modern science
refers to in the words ‘nature’ and the ‘laws of nature’. What man is commanded
to do is to discover these ‘laws’.
• Every act of man, including his scientific studies, should be performed
in the name of God, and therefore be an act of worship. That is the only limit
which the Qur’an or Islam has put on science. Any act so performed cannot be
against God’s commandments. For example, in the pursuit of scientific knowledge
as worship, no one could harm mankind, nor put that knowledge in the form of
a deadly weapon in the hands of an irresponsible minority. If done only in the
name of God, by people conscious of always being supervised by God and who will
be called to account before a Supreme Tribunal for all their actions in the
world, science could change the world into a garden of Eden.
The Qur’an orders man to read at a time when there was nothing yet to read,
this means he is commanded to read—study—the universe itself as the book of
creation of which the Qur’an is the counterpart in letters or words. Man has
to observe the universe and perceive its meaning and content, and as he perceives
it he comes to know more deeply the beauty and splendor of the Creator’s system
and the infinitude of His Might. Thus, it is incumbent upon man to penetrate
into the manifold meanings of the universe, discover the Divine laws of nature
and found a world where science and faith complement each other so that man
will be able to perform his function as God’s vicegerent on earth and attain
true bliss in both worlds.
Thus, as Seyyed Hossein Nasr emphasizes (Man and Nature (1976), London, pp.
94–5), revelation to man is inseparable from the cosmic revelation which is
also a book of God. Islam, by refusing to separate man from nature and the study
of nature from gnosis or its metaphysical dimension, has preserved an integral
view of the universe and sees in the arteries of the cosmic and natural order
the flow of Divine grace. From the bosom of nature man seeks to transcend nature
and nature can be an aid in this process provided man learns to contemplate
it as a mirror reflecting a higher reality. This is the reason why one finds
in Islam an elaborate hierarchy of knowledge integrated by the principle of
Divine Unity—’natural’, juridical, social and theological sciences and also
metaphysical ones—and why so many Muslim scientists like Ibn Sina (Avicenna),
Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Ak Shamsaddin, and Ibrahim Haqqi of Erzurum, besides being
well-versed in religious sciences, were either practicing Sufis or were intellectually
affiliated to the gnostic schools of Islam. A man like Ibn Sina could be a physician
and Peripatetic philosopher and yet expound his Oriental philosophy which sought
knowledge through illumination. Nasir al-Din al-Tusi was the leading mathematician
and astronomer of his day and the author of an outstanding treatise on the metaphysical
dimension of Islam. Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, who is one of the most outstanding
figures in Islamic jurisprudence, history and Qur’anic interpretation, wrote
eleven centuries ago about how the winds fertilize clouds so that rain falls.