Between Two Masters: Qur’an or Science? – Ziauddin Sardar

Suggested Reading by the Muslim Times: The very book that this article criticizes: The Bible, the Qu’ran and Science: The Holy Scriptures Examined in the Light of Modern Knowledge. We believe moderation and balance is the key. One can go wrong in either direction, overly zealot or naive or overly critical or cynical.

Source of the article: Ziauddin Sardar’s website

The headline in the Bulletin of the Islamic Medical Association of South Africa announces a staggering discovery. Canadian scholar confirms Quran and Ahadith on Human Embryology (1). The story tells us that a certain Dr Keith Moore, Chairman of the anatomy department of the University of Torontos School of Medicine, has discovered the happy marriage between the Islamic revelation and contemporary human developmental anatomy. I am amazed at the scientific accuracy of these statements which were made in the seventh centuryIt is quite reasonable for Muslims to believe that these verses are revelations from God, Moore is reported to have said.

What has Keith Moore discovered that has excited the Muslim doctors, scientists and scholars so much? His paper, Highlights of human embryology in the Koran and the Hadith, was first presented at the Seventh Saudi Medical Meeting, and has since then been reprinted in a number of places (2). It simply reads modern biology into certain Quranic verses, describing the development of a foetus and illustrating them with clinical drawings and text book descriptions. For example, the Quranic verse, verily, we fashioned man from a small quantity of mingled liquids (Nut-fatin Imthjin) (76:2) is explained by Moore as referring to the mixture of a small quantity of sperms with the oocyte and its associated follicular fluid, or the male and female sexual secretion. The resulting mixed drop, made up of the ovum and penetrating sperm, becomes the zygote, the precursor of the embryo. Similarly, explanation, for example, is given of the following verses, Verily, we created man from a product of wet earth; then placed him as a drop (of seed) (Nutfatun) in a safe lodging; then fashioned We the drop a clot (alaga), then fashioned We the clot a little lump, (Mudgha) then fashioned We the little lump bones (Izam), then clothed the bones with flesh and then produced it as another creation. So blessed be Allah, the best Creator! (23:12-14). Reading these verses, Moore made some clay models and showed them to be similar to the description of the verses. He starts with an embryo at 28 days and shows that by the sixth week bones begin to form and muscles appear on the embryo. By the seventh week the bones give a human shape to the embryo. The ears and eyes begin to form in the fourth week and are visible by the sixth, or 42 days after the zygote has been formed. All these developments are in conformity with the Quranic description, Moore tells us.

So what does all this prove? Does it confirm the Divine origins of the Quran? Or does it merely tell us that the Quran is a treasure chest of scientific facts? What is the function of the exercise? This incident throws considerable light on the state of the Muslim mind: its acute inferiority complex; its obsession with science and by extension with modernity; and its pathological concern with seeing the Quran as the end of knowledge rather than as a text that provides an ethical framework for the pursuit of knowledge. On the surface, such attempts to legitimise modern science by equating it with the Quran, or to prove the divine origins of the Quran by showing that it contains scientifically valid facts, appear harmless, indeed, even commendable exercises. However, when pursued on a nave basis, as is often done by Muslim scholars, such methods can be dangerous; and when undertaken deliberately, be it sincerely, often by non-Muslim scholars, it can have mischievous consequences.

The inference drawn by comparing the Quran and science is two-fold: if the facts and theories mentioned in the Quran, which was revealed 1400 years ago, are supported by modern science, the Divine nature of the Quran is confirmed, (if confirmation is indeed what we are looking for); and conversely, if modern scientific facts and theories find a reflection in the Quran, then modern science must also have the same universal and eternal validity as the Quran. My counter arguments is simple and though it will be discussed in detail towards the end, suffice it to say now that the Quran, which is a book of guidance, does not need confirmation from any other source. For Muslims, it is a priori valid and eternal. Any attempt at reading science in the Quran makes the eternal scripture subservient to science; and it elevates science to the level where it becomes the arbitrator of what is and what is not Truth. It further enforces the mythical notion that scientific theories are neutral, universal and eternally valid. Moreover, trying to read science in the allegorical, metaphorical and symbolic verses of the Quran often stretches analogical reasoning beyond its limits and leads to absurd and in some cases, to quite contradictory conclusions not intended by the Quran. It is apologia of the worst type.

Apologetic Muslim authors trying to prove that the Quran is very scientific and modern often start by stating that the Quran places great emphasis, and indeed it does, on the pursuit of knowledge and the use of reason. Some 750 verses, almost one-eighth of the Quran, in contrast to only 250 legislative verse, exhorts the believers to study nature, reflect, make the best use of reason, make scientific enterprise an integral part of the community life. It is further pointed out that the Quran mentions several scientific facts and theories, all of which are supported by the most recent discoveries and advances.

This type of apologetic literature, trying to give scientific legitimation to the Quran, goes back to the early sixties. In fact, one of the earliest pamphlets came out of Cairo: On Cosmic Verses in the Quran by Muhammad Jamaluddin El-Fandy (3). El-Fandy has a sense of religious superiority that manifests itself in his attempts to prove that every astronomical discovery and scientific theory (that is in the 1950s) has already been mentioned in the Quran. He considers the Quran as the best example of scientific expression (an unsuitable claim as the ideal form of scientific expression is a mathematical equation; and there certainly are no equations in the Quran). Thus, from almost any Quranic verse referring to any astronomical phenomenon, El-Fandy can draw modern astronomical parallels and comparisons. For example, from the verse, all is He who raised the heavens without any pillars that you can see, and neither can the night outstrip the day, and each revolve in an orbit, al-Fandy draws the following inference:

If we consider the sky a name given to anything which is over our heads, then it will surely mean the entire universe which surrounds us and which begins with the space around the earth followed by the planets, the sun and other stars found in the depth of space, in our galaxy or in other galaxies. All these heavenly bodies move in their orbits. This is the sky. It is created by Allah and each body in the space is similar to the brick in its lofty structure. All these heavenly bodies split one after the other and are held in their relative positions by centrifugal force and universal gravity. The gravity and this centrifugal force, produced by rotation in semi-circular orbits or ellipses, could be treated as actually built pillars. Although we may not detect such forces with our eyes, yet that does not mean that they are not there in any case, since we can measure and give their specifications correctly. If anyone of us is granted a suitable sense in addition to the normal ones we have, he will be able to feel these (tubes of forces) exactly as we can feel any material body with our normal senses. (4).
El-Fandy does not stop here. He goes on to argue that the atmosphere can be
regarded as a pillar and that light itself is like a pillar, with the colours of the

spectrum being minor pillars! In the other verses of the Quran, El-Fandy finds evidence for the creation of red giants, white dwarfs, existence of ether (?), the evolution of the planets and the big bang theory. And there is more: science supports the Quranic claim, writes al-Fandy, that life exists on other planets. After quoting numerous verse, including, And they Lord best knows those who are in the heavens and the earth and to Him submit whosoever is in the heavens and the earth, he ventures to describe what aliens may look like (here it is not clear whether he is drawing inferences from the Quran or science):

If we try to define the shape or form which developed races living outside our planet will have, we should, in this case, and without inviting complication s act on the assumption that nature has made no dissimilarity whatsoever in its method. Accordingly, such creatures, in their attempt to make good show, share with us the following:

1. The bodys reliance on an inner osteology made of hard material.
2. The existence of a main centre for nerves (the brain) which communicates with various parts of the body directives (thenerves).
3. The best shelter for the brain which exists inside a safe movable organ either in the fore or the top part of the body
4. Creatures dependence upon legs used in motion.
5. The existence of a mouth for speaking and feeding (5)

All this is not just bad science. It makes a mockery of the Quran. However, compared to many others, El-Fandy is quite sane. Azizul Hasan Abbasi, a Pakistani neuropsychiatrist, manages to find in the Quran modern cures for diabetes, tuberculosis, stomach ulcers, rheumatism, arthritis, blood pressure, asthma, dysentery and paralysis! (6).

In recent years, this rather banal comparative approach to science and Islam has been legitimised by the French surgeon, Maurice Bucaille. His book, The Bible, the Quran and Science (7) is essential reading for Muslims with larger than life inferiority complexes and has been translated into almost every Muslim language, from Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu to Indonesian. Bucaille sets out to do a detailed and thorough analysis of the holy scriptures in the light of modern knowledge. He focuses on four topics: astronomy, the earth, animal and vegetable kingdom and human reproduction. The methodology followed is the well established one of quoting the Quranic verse and then giving a scientific commentary on them. Bucaille tries to be more objective and takes pains to point out that the Quran contains scientific information that was not available at the time of revelation and, in fact, some of the information contained in it is contrary to what people believed at the time of the Prophet. After going through the standard motions of examining verses about the orbit of the moon and the sun, the water cycle, the reproduction procedure, he concludes:

The Quran most definitely did not contain a single proposition at variance with the most firmly established modern knowledge, nor did it contain any of the ideas current at the time on the subjects it describes. Furthermore, however, a large number of facts are mentioned in the Quran which were not discovered until modern times. So many in fact, that on November 9, 1976, the present author was able to read before the French Academy of Medicine a paper on the Physiological and Embyological data in the Quran. The data like many others on differing subjects constituted a veritable challenge to human explanation in view of what we know about the history of the various sciences through the ages. Modern mans findings concerning the absence of scientific error are therefore in complete agreement with the Muslims exegetes conception of the Quran as a Book of Revelation. It is a consideration which implies that God could not express an erroneous idea.

The bible, of course, did not meet the stringent criteria of modern knowledge and the clear-cut conclusion of Bucaille is that it is impossible not to admit the existence of scientific errors in the Bible. However, all this simply states the obvious with a sense of real discovery: the Muslim belief that the Quran, as the Word of Allah, cannot contain any errors and that the Bible, as it exists today, is not true Divine revelation.

But where Bucaille stops, Bucaillism takes over. A number of recent studies have tried to look further for scientific facts and theories in the Quran. Thus Shamsul Haq, for example, manages to find the seeds of the theory of relativity and quantum ma=echanics in the Quran and produces Quranic evidence to support the Big Bang Theory (The Quran and Modern Cosmology Science and Technology in the Islamic World 1 (1) 47-52 (1983). M Manzoor-I-Khuda manages to find the theory of the development of the biosphere, the water cycles of life on earth in the Quran (Creation and the Cosmos in Islamic Scientific Thought and Muslim Achievements in Science, proceedings of the International Conference on Science in Islamic Polity, Islamabad, 1983, Vol 1, p96-113). Moore notwithstanding, the entire field of embryology has been discovered several times in the Quran.

After all this scientific data and support for numerous theories, it seems that the Quran has not left anything out. And to enforce the point that scientific equations are not missing from the Book of Guidance, Rashad Khalifas statistical analysis (Miracle of the Quran Islamic Productions International, St. Louis, Missouri, 1973) even provides that. Khalifa focuses on Quranic initials letters which appear at the beginning of some surahs (chapters) and feeds the frequency of occurrence of each letter into a computer. The letters are : Alif (A), Ha (H), Ra , Sin (S), Sad (S), Ta (T), Ayn (A), Qaf (Q), Kaf (K), Lam (L), Mim (M), Nun (N), Ha (H), and Ya (Y). His additional data includes the total number of letters in each of 114 Surahs of the Quran and the number of verse in each Surah. He manipulates the data to calculate the percentage value and average frequency of occurrence for each of the 14 letters in each verse of the Quran. For the multi-lettered Quranic initials, such as Ta Ha, Ta Sin and Ya Sin, he calculates the absolute frequency of occurrence, percentage of the frequency value for each of the 114 Surahs, and the average occurrence per verse for each of the multi-lettered Quranic initials in each sura. Finally he arranges all the Surahs of the Quran in the ascending order of the absolute frequency of occurrence of each Quranic initial and percentage frequency of occurrence for each of the 14 sets of Quranic initials. What does Khalifa find? That the chapters which begin with the Quranic initials also contain the highest frequency of the specific letters used at the beginning of the Surah. For example, Surah Qaf contains the highest frequency of the letter qaf than any other Surah of the Quran or there is not one Surah in the Quran where all three values of nun are higher than their counterparts in the non-initialled Surah, al-Qqalam. The analysis for Quranci initials Alif Lam Mim which occur in four Makkan and two Medinan Surahs shows that the four Makkan Surahs are superior to all Makkan Surahs in the overall frequency of Alif Lam Mim.

So what can we conclude from this? In Khalifa’s own words:
“The Qur’anic initials as a whole have shown us that every word, indeed every letter, in the Qur’an was carefully calculated. The Qur’an itself states this fact very clearly in the first verse of Surah HudPlacement of the Qur’anic initials in their specific locations proves the existence of advance knowledge of the distribution pattern of the alphabet throughout the Qur’an. No one can claim that such advance knowledge is attainable by man; any man.

To translate this into physical, tangible evidence, the computer was asked to calculate the number of manipulations one should master in order to write a mathematically controlled book such as the Qur’an. The composition of the Qur’an involves 114 chapters where 14 alphabet letters were distributed according to specific combinations. According to the well known mathematical formula, the number of manipulations involved in this case equals 11414This value, 626,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,(626b septillions) is certainly beyond the capacity of any creature, including today’s most sophisticated computers. When we look at this number we can readily appreciate the divine statement in Surah Al-Isra (The Night Journey), verse 88 – Say, if all the humans and all the jinns banded together in order to produce a verse like this, they will surely fail. Furthermore, this is the number of controlled manipulations of a specific distribution pattern of the alphabet, without placing them in useful sentences. To place these mathematically distributed alphabetic letters in useful sentences is another complete job”

On the basis of his analysis, Khalifa can also prove that the present order of recording the Qur’anic chapters is divinely inspired, the locations of revelation of the Qur’anic chapters, whether Makkan or Medinan, can be proved to be correct, the Qur’an’s specific way of dividing each Surah into verses is divinely prescribed (“the average per verse value is a highly significant property throughout the Qur’an”), that the opening statement “Bismillah r-Rahmani-r-Rahim” (In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful) is an integral part of each Surah, except Surah Al-Tawba and even the particular way of spelling certain words in the Qur’an has a mathematical significance.

All this adds nothing to the sum of our knowledge. It does, however equate Qur’anic truth with the mathematical ‘truth’ and makes the Qur’an appear more and more like a contemporary data-base. From here, it appears, the next logical stop ought to be to present the Qur’an as a scientific text book. And Afzalur Rahman (Qur’anic Sciences, The Muslim schools Trust, London 1981) has obliged us with exactly that. Rahman, whose knowledge of science as well as his understanding of the Qur’an is on a par with a child at nursery school: “The Qur’an provides a complete picture of the material universe and what is beyond in a scientific and rational manner, appealing to the scientific and rational manner, appealing to the scientific mind as well as to the ordinary layman.” He finds almost every secondary school science subject, from heat, light, sound to even electricity, in the Qur’an and presents them as a long list of subject headings with appropriate Qu’ranic quotations. The book is meant to be used in schools (and probably is) and prepare the next generation of Muslims scientists!

The only thing now left for Bucaillism is to be institutionalised and introduced in the school curricula. Muhammad Abdus Sami and Muslim Sajjad (Planning Curricula for Natural Sciences: The Islamic Perspective, Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad, 1983) have produced a plan to accomplish this goal. Every chapter of every textbook on physics, chemistry, biology and Zoology should contain the appropriate verse from the Qur’an. But unlike Rahman, the two Pakistani scientists foresee some problems: for example, how are we going to treat the theory of evolution? “This theory seeks to provide essentially a rational belief in God.” Maybe there are, after all, a few things in science that do not tally with what the Qur’an tells us!

Bucaillism appeals particularly to the older generation of Muslim scientists, scholars and intellectuals because of its psychological message value. It reinforces their faith in the Qur’an and Islam on the one hand, and confirms their belief in the superiority and universal validity of western science, on the other. Their naivete is well reflected by Candide: “all is well in this best of all possible worlds.”

However, the dangers inherent in Bucaillism are very grave. There is the obvious fact that it generates a strangely dumbfounding theology – as all scientific knowledge is contained in the Qur’an, simply studying the Qur’an from a scientific perspective will reveal everything and lead to new theories and discoveries. While the Qur’an obviously contains some passing references to natural facts, it is by no means a textbook of science. It is a book of guidance. It provides motivation and only motivation, for the pursuit of knowledge. Knowledge begins with the Qur’an and does not end with it.

But, more importantly, by equating the Qur’an with science, Bucaillism elevates science to the realm of the sacred and makes Divine Revelation subject to the verification of western science. Apart form the fact that the Qur’an needs no justification from modern science, Bucaillism opens the Qur’an to the counter argument of Popper’s criteria of refutation: would the Qur’an be proved false and written off just as Bucaille writes off the Bible, if a particular scientific fact does not tally with it or if a particular fact mentioned in the Qur’an is refuted by modern science? And what if a particular theory, which is “confirmed” by the Qur’an and is in vogue today is abandoned tomorrow for another theory that presents an opposite picture? Does that mean that the Qur’an is valid today but will not be valid tomorrow?

Moreover, by raising science to the level of sacred knowledge, Bucaillism effectively undermines any criticism of science. Because the pursuit of knowledge is so strongly emphasised in the Qur’an, most Muslim scientists already possess a sense of reverence towards modern science. Bucaillism takes this reverence to a new level: a whole generation of Muslim scientists do not just accept all science as Good and True, but attack anyone who shows a critical or sceptical attitude towards science. Furthermore, the belief in a universally beneficial science leads to a pestiferous kind of fatalism: since science is universal and for the benefit of all humankind, it will eventually make its way to Muslim societies and serve their needs!

Science is not the pursuit of Truth and its “discoveries”, and “facts” do not, and cannot have the same validity as the verse of the Qur’an. Science is a problem solving enterprise: it is a method, a technique, for solving problems within a given paradigm and worldview. Just as Abdus Sami and Sajjad find that the theory of evolution is a rational attempt to undermine belief in God, a great deal in the modern system of science is an exercise in control and domination of nature and men. When Bacon said that nature yields her secrets under torture, he made torture and suppression an integral and legitimate part of modern science. Science, as it exists and is practised today, is designed to keep a particular culture and its worldview dominant. Reading the verses of the Qur’an into modern science is not going to change its essential character and style.

That there is something magically objective and neutral about the Scientific Method is a cruel hoax; and bias-free observation is a myth. Nothing “out there” can be perceived without filtering it through our worldview and culture. Scientists too often modify their observation with their own ideas and prejudices, values and norms of their society. Not just observation but experimentation too cannot be made in a cultural vacuum, but have meaning and significance solely in the framework of a theory itself set in the conceptual picture of a worldview. Putting a theory into a mathematical code does not strip the value content of a proposition of modern science. On the contrary, the nature of mathematics is such that its application to the world through science is purely fortuitous. Mathematical propositions, including the geometric propositions of Euclid, are a priori analytic – that is to say, that their status is determined merely by analysing the term of the proposition. That one plus one equals two can be determined as conforming to the principle that one plus one means two. That some theories can be codified in mathematical expression is a matter of scientific convenience. The laws of nature are not expressed in mathematical formulae, in indelible ink across the heavens; they are manufactured in ballpoints in laboratories and institutes.

The fact that some of these manufactured laws and theories agree with what the Qur’an says is not in itself of any significance. It is a non-statement. The Qur’an promotes the pursuit of knowledge within a framework of values: it is these values which should be the focus of our attention and which should shape our scientific activity. Only by turning these values into a living reality can we truly be honest to the Qur’an and fulfil our obligations towards it.


1. April 1985.
2. Including, Africa Events May 1985.
3. The Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, 1961.
6. The Quran and Mental Hygiene, Karachi, undated.
7. Seghers, Paris, 1976; and North American Trust Publication, Indianapolis, 1978.

This essay appeared in Inquiry Vol 2 No 8 37-41 August 1985


About the author

Currently, Ziauddin Sardar is Chair of the Muslim Institute, a learned, fellowship society that promotes knowledge and debate, and editor of Critical Muslim, an innovative quarterly on contemporary Muslim ideas and
thought. He is also the Director of the Centre of Postnormal Policy and Futures Studies, East West Chicago, and the editor of its journal East West Affairs.

He has been described as a ‘critical
 polymath’ and works across a number of
 disciplines ranging from Islamic studies and
 futures studies to science policy, literary
 criticism, information science to cultural
relations, art criticism and critical theory.
 He was born in Pakistan in 1951 and grew up
 in Hackney, East London.

Ziauddin Sardar has worked as science 
journalist for Nature and New Scientist and
 as a television reporter for London Weekend
 Television. He was a columnist on the New
 Statesman for a number of years and has
 served as a Commissioner for the Equality and
 Human Rights Commission and as a member of 
the Interim National Security Forum.
 Ziauddin Sardar has published over 45 books

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s