Islam and Science: concordance or Conflict? By Prof. Abdus Salam 1/5
This speech was delivered by Professor Abdus Salam (1926-1996), Nobel Laureate in Physics (1979), in Paris at the UNESCO House on April 27, 1984 at the invitation of the Organisation “Islam and the West.” The Secretary General of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, Dr. Habib Chatti, inaugurated the meeting. The format of the meeting was to invite two representatives of Islam and two Western representatives to speak comparatively. Thus, on the Muslim side were Professor Salam and Dr. Hussein AlJazaeri, former Minister of Health of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and then-regional director of the World Health Organisation. From the Western side they were Professor Louis Leprince-Ringuet, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the Ecole Polytechnique and Professor Jean Bernard, President of the French Academy of Sciences and Director of the Leukaemia Research Institute.
The Holy Qur’an and Science
Let me say at the outset that I am both a believer as well as a practising Muslim. I am a Muslim because I believe in the spiritual message of the Holy Qur’an. As a scientist, the Qur’an speaks to me in that it emphasises reflection on the Laws of Nature, with examples drawn from cosmology, physics, biology and medicine, as signs for all men. Says the Qur’an:
“Can they not look up to the clouds, how they are created; and to the Heaven how it is upraised; and the mountains how they are rooted, and to the earth how it is outspread?”1
“Verily in the creation of the Heavens and of the Earth, and in the alternation of the night and of the day, are there signs for men of understanding. They who, standing, sitting or reclining, bear Allah in mind and reflect on the creation of the Heavens and of the earth, saying: ‘O our Lord! Thou has not created this in vain.’”2
The Qur’an emphasises the superiority of the ‘alim—the man possessed of knowledge and insight, asking: How can those, not possessing these attributes, ever be equals of those who do? Seven hundred and fifty verses of the Qur’an (almost one-eighth of the Book) exhort believers to study nature, to reflect, to make the best use of reason in their search for the ultimate and to make the acquiring of knowledge and scientific comprehension part of the community’s life.
The Holy Prophetsa of Islam emphasised that the quest for knowledge and sciences is obligatory upon every Muslim, man and woman. He enjoined his followers to seek knowledge even if they had to travel to China in its search. Here clearly he had scientific rather than religious knowledge in mind, as well as an emphasis on the internationalism of the scientific quest.
This is the first premise on scientific knowledge with which any fundamentalist thinking in Islam must begin. Add to this the second premise, eloquently stated by Maurice Bucaille in his perceptive essay on the Bible, the Qur’an and science. There is not a single verse in the Qur’an where natural phenomena are described and which contradicts what we know for certain from our discoveries in sciences.
Add to this the third premise: in the whole of Islamic history there has never been an incident like that of Galileo or Giordano Bruno. Persecution there has been; denunciation, even excommunication (takfeer) over doctrinal differences, but never for scientific beliefs. And paradoxically, the first Inquisition (Mihna) in Islam came to be instituted, not by the orthodox theologians, but by the so-called rationalists, the Mu’tazzala—theologians themselves—who prided themselves on the use of reason. The saintly Ahmad ibn Hanbal was one of those subjected to the lash of their fury.3
By Professor Abdus Salam, to be continued…
1. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Ghashiyah, Verses 18-21. The English translation by Maulawi Sher Ali for these verses reads as follows: “Do they not then look at the camel, how it is created? And at the heaven, how it is raised high? And at the mountains, how they are set up? And at the earth, how it is spread out?” However, Tafseer-e-Kabeer notes under this verse that the word for camel has also been interpreted by some scholars as “clouds,” and evidently Dr. Salam was following this line of translation. [Editor]
2. Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-E-‘Imran, Verses 191-192. The English translation by Maulawi Sher Ali for these verses reads as follows: “In the creation of the heavens and the earth and in the alternation of the night and the day there are indeed Signs for men of understanding; Those who remember Allah while standing, sitting, and lying on their sides, and ponder over the creation of the heavens and the earth: ‘Our Lord, Thou hast not created this in vain.’”
3. A.J. Arberry, Revelation and Reason in Islam, (London: George Allen & Unwin,1957), 19.