2012 Dialogue Between Dr Joseph Noor and Nicholas Christie (an Atheist and Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University Palisades, New York 10964, USA).
I read the Cape Times article. Too bad. It is nonetheless intriguing (to me) that a subset of scientists familiar with the evidence for evolution conclude that anything like the God (or Allah) of contemporary religions actually exists.
If any of what we now understand about how evolution occurs is correct, God not only didn’t guide what happened. It couldn’t have done so, no matter how omnipotent we suppose God to be. All natural systems involve interactions and feedbacks. So the only way for God to get to a preferred outcome is to control everything – essentially a supernatural universe. In a supernatural universe, you don’t even get to decide what to eat for breakfast.
This then leads some to conclude that humans arose through natural selection and that God played no role beyond starting the clock 13.75 billion years ago or perhaps life between 3.5 and 3.8 billion years ago. The problem with that idea is that there is no basis for claiming that after playing no role in how it all unfolded, God would then a few hundred to thousand years ago take interest in the individuals of a particular species temporarily inhabiting an irrelevant planet in an observable universe of around 1022 stars. Also, if the existence of God boils down to needing an explanation for the origin of the universe of life, we’re on pretty shaky ground.
Another favored argument – that God is needed to account for morality – fails on multiple grounds. Morality quite obviously arose with the emergence of civilization, and in spite of religion not because of it. Perceptions of morality vary from one tradition to another. Much of what would be regarded as essential in Islamic cultures, for example, would be regarded in Christian cultures as backward and in many cases evil. Many Muslims regard Christians as infidels. Our perception of morality therefore has nothing to do with God. It is whatever each society decides it ought to be.
I am therefore interested in your perspective. Attached is a 1700-word version of what I regard as the essential arguments, written for a lay American audience.
Hi Nicholas, Please see Dr Joseph Noor’s response to your message below:
My reply includes a response to the essential arguments of atheism.
Chapter 4, verse 82 (4-82) which reads, ‘Will they (the sceptics) not reflect on this Quran? If it was from any other than God, they would surely have found therein many a discrepancy’, prompted my research. The Quran invites examination; it adopts the scientific approach. The book is therefore provable and testable, and it challenges the reader.
There are several arguments to prove the Quran’s divine nature, one being its knowledge of the unknown. Twenty percent of the book is dedicated to science. The many ultra-modern scientific truths expressed in the book (the Quran appeared in the seventh century when such information was completely non-existent), has no human explanation on account of the time during which they were formulated. The reader, on the basis of these stunning disclosures, is driven to invoke some kind of superior intelligence to explain such data. The Quranic statements are not ambiguous like the prophecies of Nostradamus, but are expressed in precise scientific terms. These predications are dealt with in Document X.
What about evolution, the issue of whether it is blind or directed? Again the Quran reveals its superior knowledge of the subject. The book lays down the fundamental principles of evolution and describes its various phases, chemical evolution, biological evolution, man’s pre-human evolutionary stages and the appearance of modern man. Once again the purpose is to convey to the reader that he is dealing with an omniscient being. Every time a deep truth of the universe is revealed, “bits of” doubt of the sceptic disappears. The mind-set of the truth seeker slowly changes and finally there is acceptance. Belief in Quranic terms is therefore evidence-based, dynamic and develops over time.
The Arabic word, “Rabb”, translated as Lord is inadequate. It also refers to the one that provides a thing with the potential and guides it, allowing it to move from stage to stage until it reaches its goal of relative completion. It is clear from the definition that everything begins in a simple and imperfect state, passes through phases towards a particular destination. In terms of Quranic principles, the laws of nature are immutable and all natural processes are subject to these laws. It follows that evolution proceeds under the guidance of the “Rabb” in accordance with His natural laws. This raises the apparent dilemma as pointed out by you of a supernatural deity that controls everything. I have grappled with this problem myself. If God created the laws of nature in the beginning and evolution is governed by fixed natural laws, then what need is there for an intervening God?
There are fundamental limits to what man can know. By no means should this deter him from questioning and probing, as long as he realises that certain segments of reality will always elude him. Let me develop this argument based on the Quran – how God directs natural processes. The Quran informs us that God communicates with his creation. There are different levels of communication. For instance the level of communication with inspired men is different from that of insects. In 16-68 the book invites contemplation on how the evolver (Rabb) inspired the bee. The Quran then reveals information about the wonderful instincts about the bee, information which at that stage belonged to a future era. Since the Quran preaches evolution and uses the word Rabb (and not any of its other many titles) in this particular passage, it is logical that the bee evolved from simpler primitive ancestors.
By what mechanism does God communicate with His creatures? The Quran employs the Arabic word ‘malaika’ which signifies mode of expression. The word has two meanings: force or energy and communication. Interaction between living things depends on sensory organs which gather information from the animal’s surroundings and transmits it to the brain where it is processed. The mechanism that underlies communication of different species shares certain features. Light and sound for example are forms of energy which are converted to electromagnetic waves by the organism’s sensory nerves before reaching the brain. Verse 77-1 describes the essential features of electromagnetic waves while 35-1 reveals how the forces operate on a microscopic scale. Combining such information, there is no principle in the Quran that prevents God from using the laws of physics which He Himself has willed into being to generate the correct energies. Such energies are then (in the conventional manner) converted to electromagnetic waves which tinker with the animal’s biological machinery (in our example the bee). This in turn initiates events that ultimately lead to the evolution of the bee. In this way communication between the creator and the created can be brought within the scope of physics.
The moral issue
The supreme challenge would be to subject the Quran to rigorous scientific scrutiny. If the uneducated Muhammad who supposedly fabricated the Quran lived in the seventh century and uttered more than a hundred scientific predictions several centuries ahead of his time, then it should certainly be easy to falsify such claims. Thus far not a single prediction has been shown to be outdated, let alone incorrect. This poses a serious problem for the sceptic. The Quran challenges its opponents to provide a rational alternative explanation for the advanced concepts it contains if the divine did not reveal it.
The abysmal state of contemporary Muslim countries is a direct result of forsaking Quranic principles. They have constructed a religion which is far removed from the timeless sublime message of the Quran. Can one blame God, who blessed mankind with a manual of how to attain success in every field, for its rejection? Man has been granted a free will and a brain and must suffer the God-willed consequences of his own choices.
It seems to me from what you write that the Quran errs fundamentally on this same point. There is a difference between the physical laws underpinning interactions and outcomes – the states that a system may assume as a result of those interactions. What you describe at some length is a supernatural universe in which outcomes are prescribed. That is manifestly NOT the universe that we inhabit.
The concept of some universal morality – which Islam appears to share with Christianity – is manifestly false. What we regard as morality varies greatly from one place and time to another. Societal rules are not restricted to humans or even to primates. MANY species live in ordered communities. Our asserted uniqueness simply doesn’t square with available facts.
Your assertion that “no prediction [of the Quran] has been shown to be outdated” is patently false. Such statements reflect selective reading. Were the Quran as far ahead of its time as you claim, the Middle East would long have been the principal center of research in science and technology. It isn’t. It lags far behind.
You say that “the Quran challenges its opponents to provide a rational alternative explanation for the advanced concepts it contains if the divine did not reveal it.” The answer is rather simple isn’t it? Evolution by natural selection.
You say that contemporary Muslim countries have forsaken Quranic principles. This is hard to square with the evidence. Instead, it is the insistence of many countries to impose a rigid interpretation of the Quran – Sharia law for example – that is responsible more than anything for setting those same countries back hundreds of years.
In short, all of religion is an elaborate invention – an attempt to account for our place in the natural world; a response to a strong human desire for comfort, meaning, empowerment and hope; and a mechanism for imposing order. Unfortunately, none of it holds up to any objective scrutiny, least of all the Islamic version (based on what you write).
Dr Joseph Noor wrote:
I hope you are enjoying your holiday in Cape Town. Allow me to clear up a few points. You say that the Quran is the cause that the Middle East lags far behind as far as science and technology is concerned. The principle reason is that their religious practices are based on tradition and/or a gross misinterpretation of the Quran. Examples are; punishing by stoning to death for sexual offences, killing of apostates, intolerance and so on. These are not Quranic injunctions; in fact many of them are exactly the opposite of what the book enjoins.
I specifically made the point that the majority of Muslims have constructed a religion which is far removed from the rational, scientific and practical message of the Quran. The West may be rejecting the Quran but they nevertheless follow its commands to research and investigate creation and hence their technological superiority.
The barbaric Arab nation who responded to the true message of the Quran ignited the greatest intellectual revolution in human history and which eventually lead to the renaissance.
Your response to my assertion that the Quran is faultless, ‘reflects selective reading’ is without foundation-you have not studied the Quran. This brings me to my next point.
A crucial part of my argument that God exists, is the Quran’s knowledge of the unknown. For me this is direct evidence of an omniscient being. I realise that this is an extra ordinary claim and as Carl Sagan said, this demands extra ordinary evidence. Your lack of interest of the details of these claims perplexes me.
Can I suggest the following, to direct our discussion in a definite direction. Our key difference concerns the existence of God. It is fruitless arguing about details and we have not even established whether God exists or not. It is like debating the mechanism of evolution and one party does not even believe in evolution.
If you are able to provide a reasonable explanation for the many ultra-modern concepts expressed in the Quran, my argument would be shattered and that would be the end of the debate. If you fail to account for these predictions, then you have a problem.
Whatever the outcome, we may continue our dialogue of whether evolution is directed or blind.
Nicholas Christie wrote:
There appears to be a very real disagreement as to what the true meaning of the Quran is. The number of countries intent on imposing a less than enlightened reading of the text strikes me as appreciably greater than the number of countries adopting a more moderate stance (yours perhaps). And I see no prospect of that changing any time soon. Islam is about as backward and dangerous a religion as exists anywhere on the planet.
Claims of ‘knowledge of the unknown’ are selective reading/ wishful thinking – indeed, oxymoronic. Knowledge, by definition, is what is known. There is simply no way that a text more than 1000 years old can compete with contemporary knowledge, and I think that it is foolish to suppose that it might.
It isn’t possible to establish either the existence of God or the non-existence. However, I think that that is the wrong issue. If much of what people believe ABOUT God is demonstrably false – and that is in fact the case – the question of God’s existence is moot.
Yes, I am perfectly aware that many people insist that evolution takes place with God’s guidance. That’s fine as an assertion. It just doesn’t have much to do with our scientific understanding of how evolution actually occurs. The only way to maintain the idea of guidance is to throw out virtually all of the science. See point three.
The clear conclusion is the opposite of the one you reach. God in all of its forms is a human invention, mythology, an expression of culture, an outdated and thoroughly discredited attempt to make sense of the unknown, a tool for managing life’s challenges, an instrument of subjugation. People believe what they have grown up to believe. Had you be born in the United States you would likely be a Christian. And were you raised in India, you would be a Hindu. Science, in comparison, applies the same way everywhere.
I am not on holiday in Cape Town. I am on sabbatical leave, regrettably for only another month.
Nicholas Christie wrote:
The West isn’t doing anything, let alone rejecting the Quran. The formal stance of the United States is tolerance of all beliefs.
Approximately 2% of the US population is Muslim, including my own brother-in-law and his entire family. They are fine people.
I am presenting you with my personal view, but one that is informed by a career as a professional scientist.
About 93% of leading scientists in the United States are non-theist, compared with around 4-5% of the general population.
The mismatch is remarkable, and informative.
I reject all religion on the same grounds (and not merely Islam):
Much of what people believe conflicts with compelling scientific evidence. I see little justification for beliefs that are demonstrably false.
I regret the institutionalized ignorance, prejudice and bigotry that religion engenders, no matter how well-meaning those responsible may be.
And I object to the manner in which people of faith seek to impose their beliefs on the law and public policy.
This is a huge problem in the United States, in spite of the country’s formal establishment as a secular nation.
Nothing in what you write changes my opinion because it is an argument based upon the supposed self-evident inspiration of God in the Quran.
Christian Chapman insists that the Bible is also the literal word of God.
Dr Joseph Noor wrote:
In your introductory note relating to the conversation with Chapman you say: … “A timescale and length scale that would have been unimaginable in the 7th century” Let me quote you a relevant Quranic verse: “Has there not been an endless span of time before man appeared – a time when he had no ‘self-realisation’ of any kind?”
Combining this verse with others, it refers to the time interval that preceded modern man when the advanced human qualities had not evolved yet. In addition, the verse draws attention to events lying far in the past. It introduces, contrary to tradition belief, the concept of ‘big time’. The passage also indirectly alludes to the principle of change over long periods, an idea that was incomprehensible in the West up till relatively recently. The same point comes up again, Nicholas – You have not looked at the Quran – It lays there the fundamental secrets of the universe. I will read the conversation with Chapman.
Nicholas Christie wrote:
This is a great example of wishful thinking.
It’s not clear whether the sentence refers to individuals or to humans more generally.
There is no sense of human origins in the passage, only that we owe God for giving us life out of nothingness.
And from this you infer a reference to the concept of evolution? That strikes me as quite a reach.
If this is your best ‘evidence’ or even representative evidence, I regret that I am not especially impressed.
Dr Joseph Noor wrote:
The idea was not to impress you, but to illustrate the Quran’s awareness of immense time intervals. As stated earlier, there are several verses in the Quran which refer to evolution. The book does not describe evolution in a textbook style but lays down the principles that govern it. Let me give you a few examples: “God has raised you up from the earth in a form of a tree.“ (71-17). Within the context, the Quran expresses the tree-like pattern of evolution. A related verse is the following: “There is not an animal that walks the earth, nor a bird that flies on its wings that does not resemble yourselves in structure, behaviour and evolutionary origin” (6-38).Combining these two verses, the book conveys the relationship of all living organisms and their descent from a common ancestor. The ascent of man on revolutionary scale is alluded to in 71-14.“He (God) it is who evolved you in gradual stages, forms and appearances and different environments”. According to this verse man has undergone various transformations induced by diverse environmental conditions.
The verses that describe a particular concept are all related and every passage must be interpreted as such. For instance in 17-71 above, the earth refers to our ultimate origin from the chemical constituents present in the earth – this deduction is derived from several other verses which describe the chemical phases of evolution. Note: There is no manipulation of meanings. The keywords in each passage (of the original Arabic text) are listed on the appropriate page in Document X. One wonders how an ancient language such as Arabic captures the precise meanings of the most modern concepts in science.
Nicholas Christie wrote:
The statement that you sent can be interpreted in a host of different ways. And though I have not read the Quran, as you observe, I have little doubt that many passages are open to interpretation, just as the Bible is open to interpretation.
You personally accept that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. Anyone who has bothered to consider the facts reaches the same conclusion. Evolution is about as fundamental to modern biology, and medicine, as one can imagine – but apparently not to the Islamic Medical Association. They asked you to leave their convention because you had the temerity to discuss what you regard as Quranic evidence for evolution. Apparently, the IMA doesn’t read the Quran the same way as you do.
So you can claim whatever you wish about how the Quran foreshadows scientific discovery, but because more than one reading is possible, your interpretation provides no evidence for God’s role in the preparation of the Quran. This is unsurprising. As we have discussed, the mechanisms by which evolution occurs are inconsistent with a personal relationship with a creator. And in this regard, Islam makes no more sense than Christianity.
You disagree. You grew up as a Muslim. And like the small fraction of western scientists who insist upon the reality of Christianity or Judaism, you adopt whatever compromises are needed to smooth over inconsistencies. Had you been born elsewhere, you might feel just as strongly about Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism, etc. as you do about Islam. Religion is an expression of culture. And you illustrate vividly just how hard it is to escape from the culture into which each of us was born.
Dr Joseph Noor wrote:
Hope you are well. You are attempting to explain away the futuristic information in the Quran by invoking the “interpretation argument”.
If a divine being composed the Quran, measures should be in place which guard against conflicting interpretations; indeed there are. These are a few examples from the Quran:
- Chapter 3 verse 7 lays down the critical principal how the book should be interpreted. In short, this basic rule of interpretation constrains the reader to remain within rational bounds. It does not allow interpretations according to one’s whims and fancies. Most Muslims ignore or are unaware of this important rule.
- The Arabic language: If the Quran claims to be a timeless universal book, its words should possess inexhaustible yet precise meanings to accommodate new concepts and ideas, a necessary quality to express fresh scientific truth as knowledge advances. Arabic is the perfect medium for scientific discourse
- The complementary natures of the verses: the moment the reader attaches an incorrect meaning to a particular verse, it will contradict principles elsewhere in the book. This compels the reader to reconsider his view. Correct interpretations on the other hand, complement passages dealing with the same subject. In this way the Quran guides the truth seeker to extract the correct meaning. Of course many verses are open to interpretation, but they are supportive not contradictory. The rule of interpretation dictates that any view must conform to the decisive verses i.e. those verses that are unquestioned truths e.g. the mortality of human beings, the immutability of the laws of nature and so on.
There is no way the Quran can be manipulated to support opposing ideas e.g. creationism versus evolution. The book clearly advocates a creative process that is evolutionary in nature.
Apart from expressing key concepts in evolution, it takes you on an extraordinary (evolutionary) journey, from the initial singularity, the violent temperatures in the beginning, the expansion of space, the various phases of cosmic evolution, and the early hot, hazy and gaseous universe, the creation of atoms in the stars, the origin and evolution of life till the end of time.
It is blindingly obvious from the armour of text, that evolution is the means whereby the divine implemented His majestic creation. You can point out to creationists the inconsistency, absurdity and blatant contradictions of their interpretation, to no avail. No amount of evidence (Quranic or scientific) will convince them, as their belief is based on a deep emotional commitment. You had a somewhat similar experience with Chapman.
Your argument of “more than one reading is possible” may have some merit if there were only a few scientific verses in the Quran.
However, there are several hundred passages which cover the major disciplines of science – the book ventures into the intricacies of modern cosmology, astronomy, evolution, genetics, embryology, ET existence and so on. It describes the essential features of cells, DNA, supernovae, black holes, electromagnetic radiation etc.
As the barrage of information bombards the sceptic and he realises that such data was not in the vocabulary of the age (as recent as 2 centuries ago let alone the 7th century), he seeks alternative explanations to silence his inner voice.
Let us examine some of these counter arguments.
- The Quran is already 1400 years old, plenty of time to have tampered with its text to accommodate new discoveries. There are many thousands of Qurans in circulation, each one an exact replica of the original. How was its purity preserved? This is how the Quran responds: “Certainly We have revealed the reminder (the Quran) and We shall certainly guard it against all corruption” (verse 15-9). By what mechanism would the purity of the text be guaranteed? The following verse gives the answer: “We have made the Quran easy to understand and remember” (15-17). The Arabic grammar has been constructed in such a way that memorization of its entire content would be easy. The fact that any youngster, regardless of his mother tongue, can commit to memory the entire Quran in a short period of time, perhaps two to three years, is exceptional. To make this possible implies that the author of the Quran must have had intimate knowledge of how the brain handles language. If all the Qurans had to be destroyed, identical copies would be easily reproducible by memory. This should take care of the “tampering argument “
- Another popular form of criticism is that of manipulation. There is no deliberate alteration, but words are given meanings so as to force agreement between the Quran and modern science. A somewhat similar line of reasoning is your argument that there are various (conflicting) interpretations of the text. The Quran reacts to the manipulation theory in the following manner: “He has allowed no crookedness in (the Quran) to obscure its meaning” (18-1). As discussed above, the uniqueness of the Arabic language, the rule of interpretation, the complimentary nature of relevant verses and the fact that Islamic scholars, based on Quranic knowledge, correctly predicted the spherical shape of the earth, the connection between stars and life on earth, evolution, the physiology of milk production etc. centuries before such secrets were undiscovered, leaves no room for manipulation.
- Other arguments to account for the Quran’s knowledge include conspiracy theories- maybe Mohammed was assisted or maybe he copied from Greek literature, and so on. Again the sceptic is surprised. The book is remarkable in that it anticipates all forms of criticism and dismisses them with irrefutable arguments. Thus none of the arguments levelled against the Quran have any substance as the next verse testifies: “Such as would call Gods messages (Quran) into question without (real) evidence” (41-13).
What is the Quran’s approach to other revealed books such as the Bible, Torah and Gita? The book acknowledges the authenticity of all previous revelations in their original form. However, such books have undeniably undergone textual changes at the hands of man, hence their obscure scientific nature. The Quran does not claim to represent a new religion, but is a “confirmation of what went before (previous revelation)” (12-109). Although past revealed messages were fundamentally the same, the details varied and the message was limited since it depended on the cultural needs and level of development at the time of its delivery. As man developed, human societies became more complex and globalisation took place, a stage was reached when man was fit to receive a universal message, applicable under all situations and all times, the Quran. Thus the Quran is the culmination of progressive revelation through the ages, a complete code of life that would be preserved for all time.
The Quran recognises the diversity of religion and culture and lays down the rules and regulations of how to peacefully coexist with other societies including irreligious groups. Verse2-256, amongst others, echoes this freedom of expression and freedom of religion… “Let there be no compulsion in religion”. From a Quranic perspective, it is not important what religion you belong to, but rather the nature of your deeds. Maybe, Nicolas, this short discussion provides a better insight into the Quran.
Nicholas Christie wrote:
I greatly appreciate further elaboration on the Quran. If the Quran represents the word of God, it is obviously a work of great importance. Nonetheless, I respond as follows on several points:
1) “Thus the Quran is the culmination of progressive revelation through the ages, a complete code of life that would be preserved for all time.” The main difficulty, surely, with a document that claims to be a ‘complete code of life … for all time’ is that the civilization in which we live has changed appreciably, and so have the challenges that we face – whether we like it or not. So a book that celebrates stasis is destined to impede progress and to become less relevant as the centuries roll by.
2) “There are several hundred passages which cover the major disciplines of science – the book ventures into the intricacies of modern cosmology, astronomy, evolution, genetics, embryology, ET existence and so on. It describes the essential features of cells, DNA, supernovae, black holes, electromagnetic radiation etc.” If the Quran pre-empts scientific discovery, as you suggest it does, what specific scientific discoveries are mentioned in the Quran that are yet to be re-discovered? In a text “for all time”, there must be a great many. How does the debate about dark matter and dark energy turn out? What is the outcome of contemporary medical research aimed at developing cures to an array of diseases? What is the ultimate fate of the human species?
You say that “any youngster, regardless of his mother tongue, can commit to memory the entire Quran in a short period of time, perhaps two to three years.” So there must be a great many who are intimately familiar with every verse. Yet the Nobel Prize has been awarded to only TWO Muslim scientists: Abdus Salam (physics, 1979) and Ahmed Zewail (chemistry, 1999). It seems therefore that it isn’t possible to anticipate future discoveries based on close reading of the Quran.
Instead, supposed insights about the “the intricacies of modern cosmology, astronomy, evolution, genetics, embryology, ET existence and so on” must be read into the Quran once the answers are known.
3) You say that the Quran “clearly advocates a creative process that is evolutionary in nature.” Yet evolution – as it is understood by contemporary science – isn’t “creative”. Evolution is an emergent phenomenon – the development of complexity in relation to survival and reproductive success. Evolution isn’t directed towards some desired outcome.
4) “Chapter 3 verse 7 lays down the critical principal how the book should be interpreted. In short, this basic rule of interpretation constrains the reader to remain within rational bounds. It does not allow interpretations according to one’s whims and fancies.” Yet “most Muslims ignore or [are] unaware of this important rule.” In other words, in spite of committing every verse to memory, and dedicating their lives to a strict reading of the Quran, most Muslims are either remarkably poor students of orthodoxy or they deliberately misrepresent what the Quran says. In practice, it seems to me that “whims and fancies” play a substantially greater role in the interpretation of the Quran than you care to admit.
5) Your final point is perhaps the most outrageous. “The Quran recognises the diversity of religion and culture and lays down the rules and regulations of how to peacefully coexist with other societies including irreligious groups. …… From a Quranic perspective, it is not important what religion you belong to, but rather the nature of your deeds.” Yet Islamic law demands the execution of apostates. Dozens of people are beheaded annually in Saudi Arabia for this supposed crime.
In summary: It is rather obvious, to me, that the Quran can be interpreted in more than one way – just as the Bible is subject to different understandings. The supposed timelessness of the Quran is among its most serious flaws. It impedes progress and accounts for the general backwardness of the Muslim world. Claims of scientific insight more than a millennium ahead of its time are little more than wishful thinking. Like all scripture, the Quran isn’t the word of God. It is an expression of the culture of a particular place and time. You strike me as a substantially more intelligent fellow than Christian Chapman. Yet you share Mr Chapman’s principal flaw: you cling tenaciously to the teachings of an ancient book that has long since ceased to have any value. Thanks again.
Dr Joseph Noor wrote:
Thanks for your response.
- The Quran does not “celebrate stasis”. As indicated before, an essential feature of the Quran is its dynamic nature- it can never be outdated. The Quranic democracy is rooted in a set of permanent values (justice, tolerance, individual rights, women’s rights etc.). But within this basic framework the state may in accordance with ordinary democratic principles alter, amend and introduce new laws. This allows scope for change in a progressive society to meet the demands of conditions prevailing at a given time. There are many passages which support this. The book is already 1400 years old yet I have not come across a single verse which is not applicable in a modern society.
So a book with fixed wording, and a single proper interpretation, is nonetheless able to adjust to the times. Isn’t that trying to have it both ways?
How can you speak of justice, tolerance, individual rights, women’s rights and democratic principles, when the almost universal characteristic of Muslim nations is intolerance, the trampling of individual rights, Medieval rules with respect to women, and repressive dictatorships and monarchies?
- Scientific discoveries are yet to be discovered: The Quran is not a text book about science. If details are expected, it would require libraries of information. Consider the following 2 rhetorical Quranic questions: “Do you not then see that God has subjected whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the Earth (to His laws so that they are of use to you)”? (31-20) and (2-28): “How can you deny the existence of God seeing that you were lifeless (matter), and He gave you the faculty of growth, of sensation and intellect?“ Man has been granted the faculty of intellect and the universe has been made accessible to human reason allowing exploration and discovery. The Quran does not spell out details- it is a book of guidance in all spheres of human activity, scientific, social, political, moral, physical etc. Let us restrict ourselves to science and provide a few examples to illustrate the point.
The Quran doesn’t spell out the details. It foreshadows scientific discoveries in a manner that can only be appreciated once the discoveries have been made. Your rationale strikes me as incredibly circular.
I was NEVER lifeless. I have only ever been alive, and so have you.
I was not ‘granted’ the faculty of growth, sensation and intellect. Those are human characteristics that emerged through evolution by natural selection. No role of any god is indicated. Indeed, the manner in which evolution takes place PRECLUDES divine intervention – for reasons that I have explained. It is among my arguments for the non-existence of a god remotely like that of any contemporary religion.
- The fact that all scientific predications in the Quran have thus far been validated should give scientists the confidence to trust its knowledge, predictions and its usage as a guiding tool in research. If scholars in the middle ages – who for centuries believed in a fantastic creation story and a static earth – centred universe, had been aware of the Quran as a reliable source of futuristic knowledge ( verses on evolution, the axial and orbital rotation of the earth), imagine the extra amount of progress science would have made. We might have saved a few hundred years. Einstein would have been saved the embarrassment of sticking to his incorrect belief of a static universe (the Quran foreshadows the modern notion of a dynamic and expanding universe). The earlier discovery of an expanding universe would have been a mindblowing revelation for Einstein and the rest of the scientific community.
Yet the scientific predictions of the Quran aren’t really predictions at all, are they?
- The fate of the universe: There are 3 possibilities; The Big Chill, The Big Crunch and The Big Rip. Science is unsure of the future of the cosmos; however, new data seems to favour The Big Rip. In the midst of this uncertainty the Quran forecasts The Big Crunch. According to the Quran the universe is currently expanding (51-47). In the distant future the expansion will be reversed (21-104); the universe will pass through a reversal of its expansion phase. It will become gaseous once more (44-10), matter will be blasted into its constituent atoms and sub-atomic particles (56-5) and finally it will collapse into the same state it emerged from (86-11). Gravity is the key factor in The Big Crunch. Since gravity: a) is attractive in nature (77-25), b) determines the lifespan of celestial bodies and hence the universe (13-2) and c) is exceedingly powerful in a black hole (15-16), it will pull the universe inwards, so to speak, causing it to collapse.
The concept of universe expansion relates to the space between galaxies. At the time the Quran was written, it was not appreciated by ANYONE that the universe might be larger than what we now regard as our home galaxy. Indeed, the dimensions of that galaxy were also unknown and greatly under-estimated. The Milky Way is neither expanding nor contracting.
- Dark Matter: Verses 19-65 and 32-4 state that God created the celestial bodies and what is between them. The “in between” bit refers to matter present between stars and planets of which the postulated dark matter is an essential component.
Again, you are reading into the text insights that cannot possibly be claimed from what is written.
If the above information proceeded from an all-knowing being, it would prove valuable in this line of research. The researcher would be in a better position where to focus and concentrate his efforts compared to the uninformed.
- Medical research: The Quran defines death as the irreversible loss of capacity to breathe (56-83, 84, and 85) and to sustain consciousness (39-42). Respiration and consciousness are in essence the function of the brain stem, the key organ in determining brain death. If it could be established that consciousness and breathing of a dying person will no longer return, then according to these verses, even if the heart and other organs are still functioning, the patient may be pronounced dead and his organs salvaged. Thus the Quran
provides guidelines for modern medical dilemmas.
This is your field, not mine. However, I think that more or less anyone would agree that breathing is essential to life. This is hardly a great insight.
- Ultimate faith of the human species: Contemplate the following verses: “(O men) you are bound to move from stage to stage in this world” (84-19). In verse 70-41 it is stated, “He can if He so will (in accordance with His universal plan) cause you to become extinct and bring forth a new creation in your place”. The author of the Quran is addressing a people who have developed adequate language skills i.e. humans like us, that He may replace them with a new kind. Verse 14-20 says,“Well we are able to change them without substitution or replace them through (a process) of contention with a (people) that have a better moral and physical potential”. These verses raise the distinct possibility of an on-going evolutionary process that may lead to a new conscious being which may replace “ordinary man”. More likely we will retain our basic body plan in spite of variations so that in the distant future our common earthly origin will still be recognisable. The Quran describes the red giant phase of our sun in verse 75-9, 55-37 and 81-1. This will be the fate of the sun about 5 billion years from now. Since it is pointless that such an event will take place in the absence of conscious observers, we may deduce that intelligent beings will still be around that time. The same logic applies to the end of the universe.
If the Quran was actually able to predict the theory of evolution, it wouldn’t insist that God was responsible. Evolution isn’t about BETTER – with respect to either moral or physical potential. The rules that govern natural selection are ever changing. Better this week may be decidedly unfavorable next week.
- Extra-terrestrial Existence: Preparing the reader to identify with the concept and providing relevant information that extra-terrestrial life is very likely, the Quran proceeds with the following statement: “Amongst His signs is the origin and evolution of the heavens and the Earth and the living creatures which He has scattered throughout them”(42-29); and unambiguous statement of the existence of ET life. The living creatures according to the Arabic term are creeping & crawling beasts like fish, insects, tetrapods and walking animals which may include a hominid-type species. In other verses there are references to multiple solar systems, Earth-like worlds and beings which possess the faculty of discernment and speech who most likely inhabit the Earth-like planets. These passages should be a great encouragement for scientists employed at the SETI institute.
God didn’t ‘scatter’ living creatures anywhere if our understanding of how evolution takes place is correct. Whatever extra-terrestrial life is discovered, you will claim that it was ‘predicted’. And to the extent that it doesn’t match the above statement, you will say that that is because that particular discovery has not yet been made.
- Forces of nature: The Quran declares: “The hidden forces of nature We created (in the beginning, long) before (the creation of man), out of intense heat” (15-27). Is the common origin of the forces of nature from heat not an indication that scientists should continue their search for the ultimate unification of the four forces, being the grand object of physics?
May I suggest that the ‘hidden forces of nature’ refers more obliquely to all of the stuff that wasn’t understood in the 7th century.
- Are the constants of nature constant? Recently there have been serious theoretical speculations that the fundamental constants may vary – there are no definite answers as yet. The Quran addresses the issue as follows: “Thou will find no change in the working of the divine laws” (35-43). A similar statement appears in 30-30. The book stresses the immutability of the laws of nature. Even if they do change, it would not be random, but would happen according to another law. Verse 51-47 states that the foundation of the universe was built according to specified conditions. This implies that the values of the forces of nature, the speed of light, the mass of the electron, etc. were fixed by God. It is a question of divine choice. Science will never be able to devise a theory that will predict or fully explain the observed values of the fundamental constants. All such attempts thus far have been unsuccessful.
The Quran hardly provides an explanation for the value of certain constants. And perhaps that is a silly question. Some questions aren’t worth asking.
- Memorisation of the Quran: At any given time since the Quran appeared, there have always been thousands of Muslims memorising the book. But memorisation does not imply understanding it. If you have a 10- year-old daughter, it will be relatively easy to commit to memory the entire Quran without understanding a single word. Memorisation ensured that the original message was committed to memory in its pure form and that the message remained in-tact till the present day. Copies which do contain errors (deliberate or unintentional) are instantly recognised by any person who knows the Quran by heart and thus easily eliminated. This prevents erroneous copies from finding their way into circulation, effectively disallowing the corruption of the original text. There may be a number of Muslim sects, but there is only one Arabic Quran.
If the only purpose of memorization is to ensure exact replication of the Quran, that is hardly a valid reason for continuing to commit the whole thing to memory.
- Evolution- blind or directed? – Previously discussed.
‘Directed’ evolution isn’t evolution. Evolution is a process, a phenomenon, not only a statement of history.
- Rule of Interpretation- misunderstanding the Quran. Most Muslims do not research the Quran, and those who do, the majority thoughtlessly accept the translation of previous commentators. There are many reasons for this phenomenon which I deal with in my book. To give you some idea – in virtually all Islamic institutions much time is dedicated to memorising the Arabic Quran, not critically examining it in the student’s mother tongue. Non-Quranic literature such as apparent sayings of Muhammad which are filled with superstition, deranged science fiction and nonsense are extensively discussed and vigorously propagated as dogma. Converts to Islam have incorporated their irrational beliefs into Islam and so on.
It is incredibly convenient, isn’t it, to claim that there is only one true reading, YOUR reading?
- Execution of apostates: This links up with the previous point. I can bury you under Quranic verses which emphasise freedom of religion and that no human is allowed to sit in judgement of another’s belief. The book states that difference in belief will be addressed by God. Only an all-knower is able to take into consideration the multitude of factors that shape a particular belief and to what extent a person is guilty of hypocrisy or whether that belief is genuine although irrational. Intellectual dissention is a God-willed phenomenon and should be recognised as such.
Yet the interpretation of Islamic law in so many countries is so wholly different from what you imply.
The Quran states: “Those who study the book, study it as it should be studied. They are the ones that believe therein. Those who reject faith therein, the loss is their own” (2-121). The “loss” is the backwardness as you call it, division of Islam into various sects, the resulting infighting, senseless killings of innocent beings (apostates), all at the expense of the true message of the Quran.
Yes Nicolas, I do cling to the Quran since it is progressive, intellectually satisfying, consistent with reality and human nature – and above all, it is thrilling to know it is from the Lord of the universe based on irrefutable evidence and rational arguments presented in the Quran.
Preparing the discussions we had for your scrutiny to load onto my website, I discovered a blunder. My secretary failed to show me your last previous reply.
Anyway, I am not going to burden you with a comprehensive response, just a few important remarks. The central weakness of your argument in criticizing the Quran is that you have not studied the book yourself. The result is an incorrect understanding of its verses.
Let me give you one example to demonstrate the point. In your reply to the fate and expansion of the universe alluded to in the Quran, you assume that at the time the Quran appeared, no one knew that the universe might be larger than our home galaxy. From this assumption you deduce that the Quran must be referring to the expansion of the Milky Way galaxy (and not the universe) which of course as you stated is neither expanding nor contracting.
In 41-10 the Quran describes the early universe as hot, hazy and gaseous; the gases were then fashioned into multiple cosmic systems (2-29). It is further clear that such systems refer to multiple solar systems (71-15) and galaxies. The Quran describes the essential features of a galaxies in a number of verses: galaxies are groups of stars (79-1, 2, 3); the stars move in their individual orbits (21-33 and 36-38) at various speeds (79-1, 2, 3); they are separated by large distances (55-7) with material being present between the stars (32-4 and 19-65).
The structure of galaxies is maintained by gravity (55-5, 77-25 and 13-2).According to the Quran therefore, the universe consists of “multiple” galaxies-they do not contract or expand, but are stabilized by gravitational effects. Let me develop the argument. The universe began as a singularity devoid of space; the singularity then parted creating space (21-30). In 51-47 it is stated that the foundation of the universe (in Quranic terms the entire creation) necessitated the divine input of skill and energy, and that the universe is expanding. 15-27 refers to the violently hot temperatures in the beginning while 41-10 describes the temperature of the universe at a later stage of development as merely hot. This implies that the universe has moved from extensively hot to hot, meaning that it is cooling. This of course is consistent with an expanding universe. 86-11 eloquently states that space is expanding and curving and not galaxies. Note how the verses complement each other.
Your understanding of the Quran’s verse is therefore dead wrong. The basic problem with your reasoning is your shallow reading of isolated verses. The depth, subtlety and scientific accuracy of the Quran can only be appreciated if all verses concerning a particular topic are considered together. The same logic applies to all your other answers.
I sincerely hope that you read my book, Document X, Direct Evidence of God’s Existences so that you can familiarize yourself with Quranic principles and correctly understand its sublime scientific message.
Concerning the material I want to post on the website, I plan to select key aspects of our discussions, which I will submit to you for your review.
I look forward to your feedback.
Nicholas Christie wrote:
Your point about my not having studied the Quran is a valid one. Yet the counterargument is equally valid. None of what you claim about the Quran withstands scrutiny. Nor does it matter much what the Quran or any other holy book says. My gripe is not with the Quran per se. It is with the entire edifice of organized religion. When much of what people – including Muslims – believe turns out to be inconsistent with what we have learned about the natural world, there is little point (in my view) splitting hairs about what some ancient text means.
The remainder of your message goes over points that you have already made. If the Quran were clear on the existence of more than one galaxy, then all Muslims would have known this for more than one thousand years. That they didn’t know this, that the discovery of other galaxies a century ago was in fact a surprise, strikes me as a problem for your argument. Your statements about what was known about gravity prior to Newton are equally problematic. All of your arguments run into this same difficulty. You are reading into the Quran interpretations that could not be made without hindsight. You are unable to predict discoveries that have not yet been made, but that you will claim in the decades ahead are also to be found in the Quran.
I think that it is rather clear who is ‘dead wrong’. Yet I understand perfectly well why you persist. You do so for the very same reason that all religious people insist on their beliefs, even as what each person believes is inconsistent with the equally deeply held beliefs of others. You find belief in something helpful, perhaps necessary. In that case, it doesn’t matter much whether there is any basis for any of it.
Given that you know more about science than the average person, you might consider the following. Is there any circumstance in which you would agree that you are wrong? And if there isn’t, doesn’t that strike you as problematic? The single characteristic that sets science apart from every other form of inquiry is a readiness to discard ideas that don’t work.
Joseph Noor wrote:
Let me respond to your main points:
- The Quran does not withstand scientific scrutiny: Yet you admit that you have not studied it. The basis for my belief as stated previously, is precisely that the Quran does withstand the rigors of today’s scientific method.
- I am reading into Quranic interpretation that could not be made without hindsight: Think for a moment, as stated before, there are approximately 700 verses on science in the Quran. These describe visionary concepts and principles of the various branches of science. To guard against manipulation, I have listed key Arabic words in the original text at the bottom of the pages of my book and their English meanings as described in official Arabic dictionaries. The Arabic language is unique in the sense that meanings are based on a fixed root system, which ensures preservation of meaning; their meanings are inexhaustible yet precise (these are some of the reasons why Arabic was the preferred medium of expression to convey the message of the Quran). Translations of the Arabic text can sometimes be misleading and impoverished especially if the translator lacks knowledge in a particular field. To illustrate: the Arabic word “Rabb” is usually translated as lord which is one of the titles of the superior being. But in Arabic it also alludes to the one that nourishes or provides a thing with the potential allowing it to move from stage to stage (in an ascending manner) until it reaches its goal of relative completion. The second example is that of create, commonly understood to bring something into existence or to make. Again the Arabic meaning is more superior; it also means to fashion and shape over extended periods and includes the idea of a thing fitting into a scheme or to adapt. As you know, to fashion, shape and adapt are key elements of the evolutionary process. It is clear from these definitions that things begin their existence in a simple imperfect state, pass through various phases until it reaches its goal of completion. Thus Lord can be translated as evolver and create as evolve. Against this short background, how on earth is it possible for me or any mortal to tamper with the subtle and intricate Arabic words (without “noticing”) so as to “force” agreement between science and the Quran and build a consistent case of the major events of creation.
Sure, I have been accused of misinterpretation by Muslims themselves, but not a single individual has pinpointed a single “misinterpretation” or responded to my challenge.
- You use the example of gravity and assume that it could not have been known before the Quran appeared. The Arabic word in the Quran means to grip, draw or attract and in this verse the drawing action is exerted by the earth. Furthermore, these meanings are developed in other verses which describe the phenomenon as curved space time. It should be obvious that these meanings refer to the phenomenon of gravity; what else!
- Your next point concerns the alleged inconsistency between reality and what people believe. The Quran is about reality – everything it teaches squares with rationality, established modern science and the laws of nature.
- Muslims in the course of history should have known about recently discovered concepts and they don’t:
If what I claim is true, that is, that the Quran reveals the deep mysteries of the universe, it is very likely that Muslim scholars who studied the Quran intensely should have made impressive discoveries in science and indeed they have. Your deficient knowledge in this regard is apparent. It does not require a serious researcher to conclude that through the ages western writers have perpetrated a gross falsehood – they have rewritten history. But that is another subject. Suffice to say that most scientists seriously lack knowledge of the true historical picture even in their own field. For example, what scientist is aware that it was not Galileo but an Arab astronomer who was the true inventor of the telescope, the most important tool in astronomy (more than a century before Galileo). Christain Hoigins is said to have invented the pendulum clock in the17th century, but it was the unsung hero Ibn Yunus before Hoigins who masterminded the pendulum, which measures time by oscillation. Ibn Musa alludes in his work on “Astral Motion and the Force of Attraction” to the laws of universal gravity, forestalling Newton. I have in my possession a manuscript written by an Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun in which he lays out the principles of evolution and traces our origins to ape-like ancestors – again well before Darwin. I could go on and on.
- Could I be wrong in my interpretation of verses and so incorrectly infer the divine nature of the Quran?
I am a human being and fallibility is a human feature. However, thus far no one has demonstrated that the Quran is the outcome of human imagination. To the contrary, the evidence and arguments from the Quran proving its divinity are overwhelming and powerful.
Lastly, your “gripe” with organized religion:
I can appreciate your attitude towards religious structures, but to base your opinion (whether God exists or the Quran is the word of God) on how people practice their faith will lead to erroneous conclusions. This applies to the majority of atheists; they do not study the source of the (Islamic) religion, the Quran. For example if it could be shown that the Quran distorts human origins or provides inaccurate information about the natural world, then you have a case but until such time, you haven’t. If you think it is not necessary to reply, may I post our entire discussion on my website?
Nicholas Christie wrote:
I don’t need to read the Quran. You are doing an excellent job of explaining what the Quran says! Based upon YOUR testimony, it is a rather clear case of confirmation bias – reading into the Quran interpretations that could only be known NOW, after the fact, and not more than 1,000 years ago. Much is likely to be discovered over the coming decade or so. We have no way of telling what those discoveries will be. You in particular don’t know. Yet you will claim, in some future email, that all of it is in the Quran because you will read those new discoveries into the Quran precisely as you are doing today – confirmation bias.
The central argument against the existence of the God of contemporary religions is that our supposed relationship with that God is inconsistent with what we have learned through science about our origins. We were not created. Evolution wasn’t guided. We don’t exist for a purpose. There is no basis for claiming a personal relationship with that God. At the length scales and timescales of the universe, as they are currently understood, we are irrelevant. So, if we combine a total lack of evidence with demonstrably false beliefs, that seems to me to provide a poor basis for accepting any religious teachings. The fact that different people insist upon beliefs that are mutually inconsistent doesn’t by itself disprove the existence of God. It does show that deep belief has no bearing on whether something is true. That you are Muslim is an accident of birth, nothing more.
Again, it isn’t necessary to read the Quran (or any holy book) to observe that Islamic cultures are preferentially backward, repressive, lacking in simple justice, patriarchal and in many cases, plain evil. So why would any thinking person choose to perpetuate mythology that is both false and deeply destructive? Apparently, you!
I have responded already to your request to post our email exchange. You have yet to supply what I requested: the exact text that you’d like to post.
I am in New York for the next few days, and in Australia without regular access to email for the first half of August.