Misconception 1: “Science and the Quran never conflict.”

Some Muslims claim that the Quran is 100% “scientifically accurate.” Again, it is easy to understand why Muslims would say this. Science is seen as a perfect representation of reality and the Quran is the speech of the One who created that reality. Therefore, logically, there should be perfect accord between the two.

The problem with this, however, is that science is not a perfect representation of reality. You do not have to be a Kuhnian postmodernist to accept this. Even the scientific community acknowledges that much of science is provisional in nature, meaning that science is always updating and evolving as new facts are discovered.

For example, the most scientifically robust theory we have today is Quantum Field Theory (QFT). Yet, physicists believe that QFT is either completely false or, at best, an imperfect approximation of a more complete, more accurate theory (one that can take into account the force of gravity).

Few, if any, scientists today would claim that they know the absolute truth in their field of research. (Scientists with a Popperian bent might even say science can never know the truth 100% but only disconfirm competing hypotheses.) In short, science is incomplete, and often it is wrong. What scientists hold as fact one day is often overturned the next.

As a concrete example, physicists in the early twentieth century believed that the universe was in a steady state of infinite size and age. Only in the 1930s did scientists begin to seriously consider a Big Bang theory of the development of the cosmos. Of course, the idea of an eternal universe contradicts the Quran, which describes a finite point of Creation. Had Muslims in the early 1900s, for example, decided to reinterpret the relevant verses of the Quran in order to accommodate the eternal steady-state model of the universe that was in vogue at the time, they would have had to backtrack three or four decades later when the Big Bang theory was popularized. In the same light, how can we be sure that the contemporary science used by some to reinterpret Quran and Islamic theology today will not similarly be overturned in three or four decades’ time? Given the tumultuous history of science, this is much more likely than not.

In the end, contrary to what some may mistakenly believe, science is not a perfect representation of reality, at least not today and perhaps never. Given the perfection of Allah’s speech, it would be inappropriate to make broad pronouncements on the Quran’s compatibility with something man-made, like science, which is inherently imperfect, tenuous, and constantly in flux.

Does this mean that we should not reflect on the Quran and ponder verses in light of different ideas found in science? Of course we can. Some Muslims certainly experience a boost in their iman by doing this and that should not be undermined. But, ultimately, the concern is when that personal reflection turns into a tafsir that one shares with others or, worse, becomes a broader philosophy about “the Quran and science.” This is problematic because, like any reflection on the Quran, publicly interpreting the Quran ought to follow the well-established norms of exegesis, i.e., tafsir, and adab with the Divine Address. We should heed the profound words of Allah’s Messenger (s):

“Whoever speaks of the Book of Allah from his own opinion is in error, even if correct.” [Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi]

[From my essay: 3 Common Misconceptions About Scientific Miracles in the Quran]