Islam & Science: The principles of Islamic faith 2/5

The presumed difficulty that Islam faces in its relationship with reason, was recently summarized, with great talent and large impact, by the famous lecture given by Pope Benedict XVI in Regensburg, on September the 18th, 2006, in front of an audience of “representatives of science” — the detail has its importance for the issue we are addressing here. In an attempt to propose a new vision to secularized Europe, the Holy Father explained what he considered the specific feature of Christianity. For him, it is not surprising that modern science and reasonable behaviours developed in countries where Christianity was predominant. As a matter of fact, this lecture triggered strong reactions in the Islamic world because Islam was used as a sort of counter-example, a religion in which the absence of reason and the presence of violence are interwoven.

According to the Pope, “For Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.” After this Regensburg lecture, there were exchanges between the Islamic world and the Holy See, requests for apologies on one side, and statements that the lecture was misunderstood on the other side. Here, I would like to address the issue raised by the Holy Father very much where he left it, and to answer positively to the calls for dialogue that were eventually heard on both sides.

As a matter of fact, I think the issue stems from the idea we have about God. When the Pope writes, after many other authors, “for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent”, he understands this sentence in the following way: “For Muslims, God is only transcendent”. Is the God of Islam different from the God of Christianity? It is not the Muslims’ opinion. For them, Allah, a word that etymologically means “The God”, is not the name of the Muslims’ God. It is the Arabic name of the One God, the God of all humanity, worshipped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

For Islam, as much as for Judaism and Christianity, God is absolutely transcendent and He is perfectly immanent too. It means that He cannot be known by any of our categories, and simultaneously, He is close to us, He acts in the world, He knows and loves us, He lets Him be known and be loved by us. As the Koran says, “Nothing is similar to Him, and He is the One who perfectly hears and knows.” God gathers aspects that are contradictory: “He is the First and the Last, the Apparent and the Hidden.” And “He is closer to us than our jugular vein.” This coexistence of these two aspects is necessary, in a monotheistic religion, to prevent our idea about God from becoming an idol. In Islamic terms, one would say that the tawhid, the statement of the Oneness of God, simultaneously requires the tanzih, the statement that God is like nothing else, and the tanshbih, the comparison of names, attributes and actions of God with those of the world. A God who is only transcendent is an abstract concept, and a God who is only immanent is nothing else than a form of cosmic energy.

One can readily understand that the issue of the intelligibility of God’s attributes and actions, and the extension of the domain where reason can apply to know religion and to know science, strongly depend on the balance between transcendence and immanence. It is true that extreme standpoints did exist in the Islamic thinking, in one direction or another. However, the main stream defended the simultaneous existence of these two aspects, and the fact that, immanence is possible because God is so transcendent that His transcendence is unaffected by His presence in the world, close to us.

God created the world. This sentence means that the world is not self-sufficient. The world may not have been there. But it actually is there, and the explanation provided by religions is that the being of the world is given by another Being, who is not “a being” like the others, but rather the action of being itself. God also revealed Himself in the world through specific moments in which infinity gets in contact with the finite, eternity with the temporal. These moments give birth to new religions that, in the Islamic perspective, are only new adaptations of the same universal truth to new peoples (and to the “languages” of these peoples). And God has a specific contact with each of the human beings, whom he cares after, and inspires.

Islam is the third come of the monotheistic religions in the wake of the promise made to Abraham by God, after Judaism and Christianity. Remember this story of the Book of Genesis, when Abraham obeys God’s order and leaves his wife Hagar and his son Ishmael in the desert. For Muslims, the place where Hagar and Ishmael were left is the valley of Bakka, where a temple that was given by God to Adam after the Fall from Eden, used to be located before the Deluge. Later, Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt the temple, a small cubic building covered by a black veil, now in the great mosque of Makka. This building is empty, and only inhabited by the sakina, a mysterious and sacred presence of God, which is quite paradoxical, because God is everywhere, and still he specifically manifests in some places.

Islam brings the renewal of this Abrahamic faith, through a new revelation, that is, an initial miracle that founds a new relation of a part of the human kind with God. This initial miracle is the revelation of a text, the Holy Koran, to a human being, Prophet Muhammad, who was born in Makka at the end of the 6th century. The revelation started during the Night of Destiny, and lasted twenty years till the Prophet’s death in 632. What exactly is this miracle? For Muslims, the miracle is the fact that not only the meanings of the Holy Koran come from God, but also the choice of the words, sentences, and chapters, in a given human language, the Arabic language, in such a way that the divine speech can be heard, pronounced, and understood by the human. As a faithful messenger, Muhammad did not add nor cut a single word of the Holy Reading or Proclamation (the meaning of the word Koran) that subsequently became a Book, and acquired its final appearance under Uthman’s caliphate (644—656). Of course, the Arabic language almost breaks down under the weight of the divine speech. There are subtleties, the use of an uncommon vocabulary, separated letters that may convey mysterious information. The Arabic words frequently have several meanings, and the task of the commentators is to highlight the richness of the teachings that a single verse can bring forth. The Prophet himself mentioned the multiplicity of the meanings of the Koran by saying that “each verse has an outer meaning and an inner meaning, a juridical meaning and a place of ascension”, that is, a direct spiritual influence on the reader. This plurality of meanings makes the task of the translator quite uneasy, because this plurality does not transfer directly into other languages, and especially into European languages. Another fascinating aspect of the Koran is the fact that it gathers messages about the divine names, attributes and actions, prescriptions and prohibitions from God, stories of the prophets, descriptions of this lower world and of the hereafter, ethical advice, and chronicles of the life of the first Islamic community around the Prophet. But all these chains are more or less mixed up, or interlaced, in each of the 114 chapters, in such a way that the internal coherence can be found only after reading and re-reading the text, which progressively sheds light on itself.

The miracle of the descent of the Koran reproduces the miracle of creation. God creates things though His speech, with His order: “Be! (kun)” The creatures receive their existence from God through this ontological order. God subsequently unveils hidden knowledge, again though His speech, with another of His orders: “Read! (iqra’)”, the first word of the Koran given to Prophet Muhammad. This instruction speaks to the reader, the human being who uses its intelligence to understand the Holy Text. As a consequence, the Koran is like a second creation, a book where God shows his signs or verses (âyât), very much as we contemplate God’s signs (âyât) in the entities and phenomena of the first creation. God unveiled the Book of Religion (kitâb at-tadwîn) very much as He created the Book of Existence (kitâb at-takwîn). The issue of the relationship of faith with science specifically deals with the coherence between the first and the second book. This topic of the Liber Scripturae and the Liber mundi is expressed in similar terms in other faiths.

Islam manifests itself as the renewal of the faith of Abraham, as a new adaptation of the same universal truth that was given to Adam, first human being, first sinner, first repentant, first forgiven human, and first prophet. Muhammad comes as the last prophet, after a long chain that includes many prophets of the Bible, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Moses, David and Solomon, as well as John the Baptist and Jesus. The Koran also includes stories about other prophets that are not known by the biblical tradition, and were sent to the Arabs, or maybe to other peoples in Asia. Hence the fundamental formula of Islam, the so-called profession of faith, or shahada that is the first of the five pillars of Islam: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is God’s messenger”. The message is the Koran, a message from God that prompts the Muslims to be faithful to their own spiritual vocation.  The second pillar of Islam is the canonical prayer performed five times a day, at specific moments linked to cosmic events: before sunrise, after noon, in the middle of the afternoon, after sunset and when night is dark. The third pillar is alms-giving on accumulated wealth. The fourth pillar is ritual fasting during the month of Ramadan (the month during which the first verses of the Koran were revealed), from the first light of the day to sunset. And finally, the fifth and last pillar is the pilgrimage to the House of God, the kaaba, and some places around Makka. These five pillars constitute reference points for the actions of worship. This is the most important part of the religious law, or sharî’a. The sharî’a also includes a description of many aspects of the social life. There are only few Koranic verses that actually deal with social organization, but, in the time of the first Islamic community, the presence of the Prophet allowed it to solve all issues. Later, when Islam became the religion of a vast empire, it became necessary to have a more complete codification of the religious law, and the so-called classical sharî’a was slowly constituted. Muslims now need to re-examine this issue in a context that is much more complex, in societies which are shaped by science and technology, globalization, exchanges of people and information, and the presence of many minorities. It is a great challenge, and a strong “effort of interpretation” or ijtihâd, is necessary.

Jews and Christians were present in Arabia during the time of the Koranic revelation, and the Koran alludes to the exchanges that they had with Prophet Muhammad. It turned out that these exchanges had the following outcome: The majority of the Jews and Christians did not acknowledge Prophet Muhammad, and Islam became a religion clearly and completely separated from Judaism and Christianity. The main difference with Judaism is the fact that Islam, like Christianity, is a religion that is explicitly universal. Its message speaks to all the human kind, whereas Judaism is linked to a given people. The main difference with Christianity is the disagreement about the nature of Jesus. Jesus is present in the Koran as an “Islamic prophet” who came to bring the message on the Oneness of God. But he is a very unusual Prophet. He was born miraculously from Maria the Virgin, who herself was protected against any sin. The angel Gabriel announced Jesus’ birth to Maria. For Muslims, Jesus is the Christ, al-Masîh, the anointed by the Lord. He spoke out with wisdom just after his birth, and made miracles with God’s permission. He miraculously escaped from death and he is still alive, beside God. Muslims say that Jesus is a Spirit of God (Ruh Allah) and a Word from God (Kalimat Allah), but they do not say that Jesus is God’s son. If they were to say so, they would be Christians, and Islam would be only one more Christian church. As a consequence, for Islam, there is no incarnation, no Trinity, no crucifixion and no redemption (and in any case, no primeval sin that would make redemption of the human kind necessary). It is true that Jews differ from Christians also about the figure of Jesus. Apart from this central figure, the three monotheistic religions have a lot in common: the One God, the creation of the world, the creation of the human being “according to God’s image and likeness” (we Muslims say: “according to the form of the Merciful”), the call for spiritual life, for helping the poor, and the belief that the human being, despite his sins, can improve and be saved. Finally, it is fair to say that, even if Jesus currently separates Jews, Christians and Muslims, he will eventually reunite them, in a horizon that is at the end of times. Muslims consider that Jesus is “the sign of the ultimate hour”, and that he will come to gather the believers of all religions. As a matter of fact, Christians say the same thing about Jesus, and Jews wait for the Messiah. It is a great mystery that these believers who say things that are so different about the Messiah will eventually recognize and follow him.

According to the constant teaching of the Islamic tradition, and because of the specific status of the Holy Text of Islam as the fundamental axis of revelation, faith is intimately linked to knowledge. A famous Koranic verse [Koran 15:99] prescribes: “worship your Lord till certainty”, and many Prophetic sayings strongly recommend the pursuit of knowledge as a religious duty “incumbent to all Muslims”. The Prophet himself used to say: “ My Lord, increase my knowledge”. Of course, this knowledge consists in knowing God through revelation. But it is clear too that all sorts of knowledge that can be in some way connected to God, and that help the religious and mundane life of society, are good and have to be pursued. Clearly, when the Prophet recommended that his companions search for knowledge as far as China, he did not alluded primarily to religious knowledge.

Human beings have a “faculty of knowing” that is described in the Koran according to a three-fold aspect: “And it is God who brought you forth from your mothers’ wombs, and He appointed you for hearing, sight, and inner vision”. [Koran 16:78] Hearing is our faculty of accepting and obeying the textual indication, that is the Koran and the Prophetic tradition which are the two primary sources of religious knowledge; sight is our ability to ponder and reflect upon the phenomena, and is closely related to the rational pursuit of knowledge; and the inner vision symbolically located in the heart is the possibility of receiving knowledge directly from God, through spiritual unveiling. As a consequence of these three facets, the nature of knowledge is also three-fold: It is religious through the study of the Holy Scriptures and the submission to their prescriptions and prohibitions, rational through the investigation of the world and reflection upon it, and mystical through inner enlightenment directly granted by God to whom ever He wishes among His servants.

Moreover, there is a well-known story about the independence of natural rules with respect to religious teaching. Farmers who used to grow date palms asked the Prophet whether it was necessary to graft these date palms. The Prophet answered “no”, and they followed his advice. They then complained that the date crops were very bad. The Prophet answered that he was only a human like them. He said “You are more knowledgeable than I in the best interests of this world of yours”. This is a very important story. There is a domain in which religion simply has nothing to say, a domain that is neutral with respect to the ritual end ethical teachings of revelation. However, because Islam does not separate the intellectual aspects of life from ethical concerns, the only knowledge that should be avoided is useless knowledge, which, in this Islamic prospect, is this type of knowledge that closes our eyes to the treasures of our own spiritual vocation.

To summarize, the descent of the Koran, in which God unveils His transcendence and His immanence, provides the Muslims with a way to celebrate God’s mystery as well as to approach His intelligibility. This intelligibility requires the use of reason encapsulated in a broader perspective of knowledge. Through His explanations and promises, God chooses to be partly bound by the categories of reason, out of His Mercy and Love for the world. But reason itself is unable to approach all the Truth, because Truth is not only conceptual. It also involves all the being. In the Islamic perspective, the “intellect” precisely includes the practice of reason, and the lucidity to understand where reason ceases to be efficient in this quest. The question of the exact extension of the domain of reason has been debated, and I will now try to illustrate the type of debates that took place in Islamic thinking.

By Bruno Guiderdoni.