Misconception 2: “The Quran is not a science textbook.”

This is true, of course. The Quran is certainly not a science textbook. But, when some Muslims make this claim, they implicitly mean something else.

As we have seen, there are Muslims who overemphasize the compatibility of science and the Quran, claiming that science and the Quran never conflict. On the other hand, of the Muslims who declare that “the Quran is not a science textbook,” some of them mean to say that the Quran (and religion, in general) have nothing to say about the world at large. To borrow the term used by biologist Stephen Jay Gould, these Muslims believe science and religion to occupy “non-overlapping magisteria,” i.e., distinct and separate domains of authority and applicability. In other words, science’s authority lies in answering questions about the world around us while religion’s authority lies in answering questions about morality, spirituality, and the “meaning of it all,” and neither should meddle in the business of the other.

This, however, is a mischaracterization as far as the Quran is concerned for the simple reason that the Quran speaks about the world around us at length. It is true that the Quran does not use modern scientific language. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that the Quran is replete with statements about the world and history. Some choice examples:

1. The createdness of the universe.
2. The existence of Angels and their activity in the world.
3. The existence of Jinn and their activity in the world.
4. The existence of consciousness absent a functioning brain (e.g., souls).
5. The resurrection of organisms after death and bodily decomposition.
6. The existence of Heaven and Hell.
7. The Night Journey and Ascension.
8. The various prophetic miracles (e.g., splitting of the moon, parting of the sea, raising the dead, etc.).
9. The extraordinarily long lives of certain perons (e.g., Nuh, the youth of the cave) [29:14, 18:11].
10. The Throne and Footstool of the Almighty.
11. The seven heavens (e.g., [65.12] and many others).
12. The rejection of the amana, or moral trust, by the heavens, earth, and mountains [33:72].
13. The creatures singing praises of their Lord and communicating with prophets.
14. The creation of Adam in Paradise.
15. The capabilities of Sulayman.
16. The existence of Magic and the “Evil Eye.”
17. The existence of life in the grave.
18. The annihilation of certain peoples by God due to their unrepentant criminality.
19. The reality of barakah, or blessing/sanctity.

These examples were deliberately chosen to contrast with modern science and history. It should be noted that many verses in the Quran also mention everyday phenomena like rainfall, the development of the human embryo, the movement of celestial bodies, etc.

Reading these verses and many others like them, what should Muslims living in this scientific age conclude? Are all these verses — all of which, on a plain reading, conflict with modern science — just colorful metaphors and fables intended to be understood purely for their moral/spiritual import? (Hopefully most Muslims do not believe this.) Or, perhaps, all these verses refer to miracles and/or the Ghayb (i.e., “Unseen”) and, therefore, remain outside the domain of science and empirical knowledge? Or some combination thereof?

Clearly, not all listed things fall under the heading of “miraculous.” And, it is questionable whether everything falls under the broad heading of the Ghayb. It is a common assumption among modern Muslims that the boundaries demarcating the Ghayb perfectly coincide with the limits of empirical science, which is all too convenient given the overarching belief in non-overlapping magisteria.

To put it another way, it would be an amazing coincidence if the classical Islamic categories of “ghayb” (‘unseen’) and “hiss” (roughly, “the perceptible”) for example, perfectly aligned with modern Western notions of the “empirical” and “scientific observation.” For example, would subatomic particles like the Higgs boson be considered part of the Ghayb in the same way that jinn are Unseen? Certainly, the Higgs boson is invisible to all our senses, and only recently has data from particle colliders provided hints of its existence. But, no eye has ever seen the Higgs boson, and, as a matter of fact, no eye ever will.

The difficulty in categorizing such entities is revealing of the underlying problem. We lack a consistent categorization to apply across all entities, a principled categorization that is consistent with classical understandings but also accommodates modern science. I emphasize “principled” because simply stipulating that “whatever is invisible to modern science is de facto Ghayb” is toothless. This is because science, again, is continuously changing. What once was invisible to science may not be in the future. And, we would think that categorizing an entity as Unseen has to do with the inherent nature of the entity itself rather than merely being contingent on what random scientists are doing in their field at any given time!

Of course, I would not attempt to formulate such a categorization scheme myself, nor do I have an interest in doing so. We can leave that to qualified theologians.

That being said, what I see as important here is that, when we read the Quran, we realize that we are learning a great deal about the fundamental nature of the universe. In fact, we learn much more significant and penetrating facts than science could ever produce.

My observation is that, living in modern times, many Muslims do not viscerally feel the reality of the things on this list in the same way they feel the reality of entities acknowledged by science, even when the latter are as far removed from their daily experience as heaven, hell, miracles, etc.

For example, you have Muslims who have no science education, have never read a scientific paper in their lives, have never been to a science lab, yet have utmost conviction (yaqin) in, say, the theory of evolution or the reality of atoms, while having less than yaqin when it comes to angels, jinn, the barzakh, etc. The aim here is not to impeach the value of science or question its legitimacy. Nonetheless, such attitudes we increasingly find in the Ummah are symptomatic of the fractured nature of modern Muslim ontology and epistemology.

So, what is the takeaway message? Ultimately, we must do away with the notion of non-overlapping magisteria. As we have seen, the Quran contains vasts amount of knowledge regarding the universe and how it works. As soon as we say that only science has the epistemological authority to describe the world in which we live, realities detailed in the Quran wittingly or unwittingly take a back seat in our minds, relegated to a lower level of veridicality than entities sanctioned by science. It is not difficult to imagine the deeply negative spiritual consequences that can result from this.

Practically speaking, we should personally strive to internalize the revelatory thrust of the Quran (and Sunnah), to cultivate that visceral sense of “realness” and yaqin when we read, for example, that there is a personage actively trying to sabotage and conspire against us (Iblis) or that the mountains, the heavens, the earth, and everything in them (i.e., everything around us in day to day life, even if inanimate and seemingly unconscious) sing the praises of Allah (34:10, 17:44) or that everything that happens to us, no matter how miniscule or quotidian, happens because of Allah’s willing it so.

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