All over the world, no matter what the cultural or language differences, science is more or less guided by scientific principles—except in many Islamic countries, where it is guided by the Koran. This is the ultimate story about science and religion.
Cairo, Egypt: “There is no conflict between Islam and science,” Zaghloul El-Naggar declares as we sit in the parlor of his villa in Maadi, an affluent suburb of Cairo. “Science is inquisition. It’s running after the unknown. Islam encourages seeking knowledge. It’s considered an act of worship.”
In recent times, though, knowledge in Egypt has waned. And who is accountable for the decline?
El-Naggar has no doubts. “We are not behind because of Islam,” he says. “We are behind because of what the Americans and the British have done to us.”
He hands me three short volumes he has written about the relationship of science and Islam. These include The Geological Concept of Mountains in the Holy Koran, and Treasures in the Sunnah, A Scientific Approach, parts one and two, along with a translation of the Koran, whose title page he has signed, although his name does not appear as a translator.
In Treasures in the Sunnah, El-Naggar interprets holy verses: the hadiths, sayings of the Prophet, and the sunnah, or customs. There are scientific signs in more than one thousand verses of the Koran, according to El-Naggar, and in many sayings of the Prophet, although these signs often do not speak in a direct scientific way. Instead, the verses give man’s mind the room to work until it arrives at certain conclusions. A common device of Islamic science is to cite examples of how the Koran anticipated modern science, intuiting hard facts without modern equipment or technology. In Treasures of the Sunnah, El-Naggar quotes scripture:
“and each of them (i.e., the moon and the sun) floats along in (its own) orbit.” “The Messenger of Allah,” El-Naggar writes, “talked about all these cosmic facts in such accurate scientific style at a period of time when people thought that Earth was flat and stationary. This is definitely one of the signs, which testifies to the truthfulness of the message of Muhammad.”
Elsewhere, he notes the Prophet’s references to “the seven earths”; El-Naggar claims that geologists say that Earth’s crust consists of seven zones. In another passage, the Prophet said that there were 360 joints in the body, and other Islamic researchers claim that medical science backs up the figure. Such knowledge, the thinking goes, could only have been given by God.
Critics are quick to point out that Islamic scientists tend to use each other as sources, creating an illusion that the work has been validated by research. The existence of 360 joints, in fact, is not accepted in medical communities; rather, the number varies from person to person, with an average of 307. These days most geologists divide Earth’s crust into 15 major zones, or tectonic plates.
El-Naggar even sees moral meaning in the earthquake that triggered the 2005 tsunami and washed away nearly a quarter of a million lives. Plate tectonics and global warming be damned: God had expressed his wrath over the sins of the West. Why, then, had God punished Southeast Asia rather than Los Angeles or the coast of Florida? His answer: Because the lands that were hit had tolerated the immoral behavior of tourists.
The influence and popularity of El-Naggar—as a frequent guest on Arab satellite television, he reaches an audience of millions—does not sit well with Gamal Soltan, a political scientist at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a Cairo-based think tank.
“This tendency to use their knowledge of science to ‘prove’ that the religious interpretations of life are correct is really corrupting,”
he tells me. Soltan, who got his doctorate at the University of Northern Illinois, works in a small office that’s pungent with tobacco smoke; journals and newspapers lie stacked on his desk and floor.
“Their methodology is bad,” he says. Soltan explains that Islamic scientists start with a conclusion (the Koran says the body has 360 joints) and then work toward proving that conclusion. To reach the necessary answer they will, in this instance, count things that some orthopedists might not call a joint. “They’re sure about everything, about how the universe was created, who created it, and they just need to control nature rather than interpret it,” Soltan adds. “But the driving force behind any scientific pursuit is that the truth is still out there.”
Researchers who don’t agree with Islamic thinking “avoid questions or research agendas” that could put them in opposition to authorities—thus steering clear of intellectual debate. In other words, if you are a scientist who is not an Islamic extremist, you simply direct your work toward what is useful. Scientists who contradict the Koran “would have to keep a low profile.” When pressed for examples, Soltan does not elaborate.
As Soltan points out,
“Cairo University has not received Western professors since the 1950s, and because of the turmoil in the country, many professors who didn’t like the regime were excluded from the university.”
What about, say, evolutionary biology or Darwinism? I ask. (Evolution is taught in Egyptian schools, although it is banned in Saudi Arabia and Sudan.)
“If you are asking if Adam came from a monkey, no,” Badawy responds. “Man did not come from a monkey. If I am religious, if I agree with Islam, then I have to respect all of the ideas of Islam. And one of these ideas is the creation of the human from Adam and Eve. If I am a scientist, I have to believe that.”
But from the point of view of a scientist, is it not just a story? I ask. He tells me that if I were writing an article saying that Adam and Eve is a big lie, it will not be accepted until I can prove it.
“Nobody can just write what he thinks without proof. But we have real proof that the story of Adam as the first man is true.”
He looks at me with disbelief: “It’s written in the Koran.”
“It’s a custom here, and in the rest of the Arab world, to marry cousins, even first cousins,” she tells me, though the practice is becoming less common. “Of course, that means they share a lot of genes from common sets of grandparents.”
In other fields, pure research does not get support; in medical genetics, even practically applicable knowledge can spark conflicts with Islamic culture.
“Taking a blood sample to study abnormalities is not a problem,” Chaabouni says. “That’s just investigation. The problem is when you take the results of research into the clinic and try to give genetic counseling to patients. Then you have people who won’t accept the idea that they have to stop having children or that they shouldn’t marry their cousin.”
“Science needs stability, democracy, freedom of expression,” says Senator Adnan Badran, who has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Michigan State University, as we drink Turkish coffee at his office. “You must have an environment that’s conducive to free thinking, to inquiry. If you don’t, you’ll never be able to release the mind’s potential. It’s a very bleak story, a very disappointing story, about the state of science and technology in the Arab region.”
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