Friday, September 12, 2014

Science and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Islam

Summer is the perfect time to enjoy nature and contemplate its wonder. And, while it is summer vacation and Ramadan, I’m sure we are all looking for ways to keep our brains fresh. Thus I thought I would share a khutbah about nature, and science in general, and their connection to Islam, and also how the study of science can enrich our spiritual development as Muslims.
Islam has a special connection to nature. The very symbol of our religion is the moon because our practices are tied to the lunar calendar. Qur’an also refers to nature frequently as evidence of and tribute to Allah’s creation. For example, in Surat Ash-Shams (91, Ayat 1-6), Allah refers to daily natural phenomena:
I swear by the sun and its broad light/ and by the moon when it follows/ and by the day when it shows its brightness/ and by the night when it envelops/ and by the sky, and the One who built it/ and by the earth, and the one who spread it.
Nature is a common theme in Quran. Many surahs mention aspects of nature – plants, animals, water, earth, and celestial bodies – when conveying the greatness of Allah’s creation. It emphasizes that human beings are not the only proof of Allah’s presence.
One thing that I have found remarkable in my study of Quran is that the Message actually alludes to some aspects of nature that people were not aware of at all in the 7th century. For example:
·      Surat Al-Room (30), Aya 8 – “Allah did not create the heavens and the earth and what is between them but with a just cause and for an appointed time.” We now know that our world has a finite lifespan. Our planet was born when our Sun formed about 4.6 billion years ago, and we estimate that the sun will burn for about another 5 billion years, after which our planet will die as well.
·      Allah says in Surat Al-Anbiya (21), Aya 30, “We created from water every living thing.” We now know that all life, as we know it, is made from water.
·      In Surat Al-‘Alaq (96), Allah says, “man was created from a clot of blood.” Back then, the process of fetal development from a single cell in the womb was completely unknown, and yet here it is referenced in the Quran.
·      And one of my favorite passages, from Surat Al-Ana’am (6), Aya 38: “[Every] creature moving on earth, [every] bird flying on its two wings, they are all communities like you. We have not missed anything in the book. Then, to their Lord all of them shall be gathered.” Here Allah tells us that other animals have rich communities of which we know nothing, that the world we inhabit extends far beyond what we encounter in daily life – and furthermore, that every creature on earth returns to Allah just as we do. Think of everything we now understand about ecological interactions between animals in their communities – this was something that Arabs did not contemplate before the revelation of the Quran.  
These descriptions, apart from being beautiful, give us another great advantage: they are all symbolic. We need not read them literally. Quranic references to science and nature are subject to new interpretation as new evidence comes to light. There is nothing in the Quran that is not commensurate with the scientific evidence we find today in the fossil record, in the rock record, in our microscopes and telescopes. And we will continue to find new meaning in the Quran as our scientific knowledge expands.
Throughout the Quran, Allah encourages us to seek knowledge and truth about the world around us and everything in it as part of our worship of Allah. In Surat Al-Baqara (2), Aya 164, Allah tells us to observe natural phenomena and find signs of Allah’s presence:
Surely, in the creation of heavens and earth, and the alternation of night and day, and the ships that sail in the sea, carrying that which benefits men, and in the water Allah sent down from the sky, then revived with it the earth after it was dead, and in every creature He has scattered on it, and in turning of winds, and in the clouds employed to serve between heaven and earth, there are signs for those who have sense.”
Many times Allah says in Quran that there are signs in nature for “people of wisdom,” “those who have faith,” “people who believe,” “people who understand” (3:190, 45:3-5). Clearly, Allah wants us to use our capacity for observation and logic to understand the world around us. Indeed, the Prophet once said, “An hour’s study of nature is better than a year of prayer.”
If you ever need proof of Allah’s presence, just look outside. All of nature is a miracle. It has an order and a purpose, just as we do. We are part of nature. We grow a certain way. We function a certain way. Every creature on Earth lives its life a certain way. The weather changes and the seasons pass due to specific forces. In all of this harmony and order, I see a miracle. To me, this is as much proof of Allah’s existence as the Quran itself.
Now to be clear, the Quran is not a source of scientific knowledge. It is a source of revelation, with references and allusions to the world we inhabit. It can help us understand the world in the context of our faith. The Quran is a book of guidance, not scientific facts. Quran tells us to seek knowledge, to be curious about our world, and to always strive to understand the world Allah has created so that we may improve our lives and deepen our appreciation for everything on Earth and in the heavens.
Studying nature has another benefit – it teaches humility. In Surat Ghaafir (40), Aya 57, Allah says, “Certainly, the creation of the heavens and the earth is greater than the creation of human beings, but most human beings do not understand.” By studying the natural world, in its infinite vastness and complexity, we are reminded of how small we are in comparison to the rest of the Earth, to the Universe… and also how remarkably intricate we are as human beings… how improbable and how wonderful it is that we have come to be as we are. And that we are wholly responsible for our unique knowledge and abilities. We can use our capacities to improve this world, or to destroy it, and to help or destroy each other. It is a ceaseless struggle that we all face as individuals, as families, as communities and nations, and as a race. And for this struggle, scientific knowledge is absolutely critical.

The very first verse of Quran that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad, who was illiterate, instructed him to read: “Read in the name of your God who created everything”… and later “Who imparted knowledge by means of the pen/ He taught man what he did not know” (Surat Al-Alaq, 96, Ayas 1, 4, 5). The first command from Allah was to read, because Allah makes us knowledgeable. Seeking knowledge is a part of being Muslim. It is inherent in our practice of our religion – in order to practice Islam, we must learn to read and recite Quran; we must learn the history of Islam and especially the story of the Prophet and his early followers; and we must constantly ask ourselves how we can translate Islam into our daily lives.
Seeking knowledge is also a rich part of our heritage as Muslims. For over 800 years after the rise of Islam, Muslim cities were hubs of scholarly study and exchange. This period is known as the “Golden Age of Islam.” Muslims made major contributions in almost every field and even invented new areas of study. A few examples:
·      Muslims built scientific libraries, universities, and hospitals throughout their empires.
·      Muslims invented the concept of the scientific method and made mathematics the language of science. They revolutionized mathematics, geometry, and astronomy.
·      Muslims also made major advances in chemistry, medicine, optics, geography, navigation, and city planning. They created a rich culture of literature, music, art, and architecture. Muslims also invented a slew of ingenious devices for all sorts of purposes. The Islamic World was the epitome of learning and culture in its heyday.
For various reasons, the Golden Age of Islam declined, and the Islamic world has never been the same. But we must not forget this rich part of our history. We should continue it. We are blessed with wonderful resources, especially in regard to education. We should treat education – not just Islamic education, but in all matters – as a critical part of our spiritual development.
            The Prophet Muhammad once told his followers, “We should question as much as Ibrahim did when he asked God, ‘My Lord, show me how you give life to the dead (referring to Surat Al-Baqara, 2, Aya 260).’” The Prophet encouraged Muslims to be inquisitive and to seek knowledge.  The Quran also says in Surat Al-Mujaadila (58), Aya 11, that “Allah will elevate those who have believed and [those who have] sought knowledge.” Surat Ta-Ha (20), Aya 114, even instructs Muslims to say as a prayer, “My Lord, give me more knowledge.” Repeatedly, the Message tells us that pursuit of knowledge is an integral part of practicing Islam and worshiping Allah.
So when you go to school, or read a book, or listen to the news, or even look up at the sky… that is part of being Muslim. Ask questions. Never stop wondering. Seek new knowledge about anything and everything. And I especially encourage you to seek knowledge about science, and the natural world, as part of your worship of Islam. I will conclude with a quote from Ziauddin Sardar in his book, Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam (p. 357):
‘Just as the spirit of Islam in history was defined by its scientific enterprise, so the future of Muslim societies is dependent on their relationship with science and learning. Without science and technology, Muslim culture is, and will remain, truncated and unbalanced. Given that scientific knowledge is a form of worship, a way to understand God’s creation and His will, and an obligation as important as prayer, I would argue that Muslim worship is incomplete without science.’

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