New Age Islam
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Islam and Science ( 22 Apr 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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By C M Naim for

I was surprised and saddened to find the article, “THE QURAN AND MOTIONS OF THE SUN AND MOON” by Prof. Zafar Ahsan of Aligarh Muslim University in your most recent mailing (19 Apr 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com), and to learn that it was written exclusively for New Age Islam. It is not a scientific article—more an article of faith—and its logic is full of holes. Below I shall show how, using just a few passages from it. I shall put in bold the passage from the article; my own comments will be otherwise.

Prof. Zafar Ahsan: Throughout the last fourteen centuries, no book has been read so widely nor has shaped the human mind as The Quran. The Quran is the book of Allah, the Wise and Worthy of all Praise. There is only one version of The Quran. It is the only religious book that was never altered since its revelation to Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) about fourteen hundred years ago. This is a fact which even the critics of Islam admit. Before studying The Quran it must be realized that, unlike all other writings, this is a unique book with a supreme author. Its contents are not confined to a particular theme or style, but contain the foundations of the entire system of life. The word Quran means “to recite” or “to collect”. Thus The Quran is a complete code covering all aspects of life, whether spiritual, intellectual, social, economic or scientific. These messages are spread throughout The Quran in a variety of ways.

C M Naim: The assertions in the first sentence are not based on any empirical datum; they are merely comforting self-congratulatory claims by a believer, who has no information on general literacy among the Muslims during the same 14 centuries, not to mention literacy in Arabic language alone. We know that in India, for example, there was no version even in Persian until the 18th century when Shah Waliullah prepared one, followed soon after by two of his sons who prepared two separate literal Urdu versions. Compare that situation with the matters related to the Bible, where the big issue very early on was to make the Gospels available in vernaculars and where thanks to movable type and printing press general literacy increased radically long before anything approaching it took place in the Muslim lands.

Now consider the third sentence above. We know that one definitive version of the text was prepared and all others were destroyed. That would logically suggest that for whatever reason there were indeed significant variations very early. Yes, we have had one intact or preserved text since it was established, but it did not come about without a process of selection, rejection, and affirmation at some stage after the Prophet’s death.

Does the Qur’an have an “author”? Is that author Allah? Is it not the Prophet’s words in some sense? Were the ideas revealed or the words? These and similar issues were raised and debated by Muslims long ago, and are still alive in some circles. The issue is not so simple, and it serves no purpose to raise it in the article. Nor does that meaningless claim that the Qur’an “is a complete code covering all aspects of life, whether spiritual, intellectual, social, economic or scientific.” it is the kind of thinking that Allama Maududi encouraged, for whom Islam was more an ideology than religion. What the author means by “intellectual” is not clear; apparently it is not the same as economic and scientific. The absence of “ethical and moral” is noticeable too in his list, unless they are subsumed under “spiritual.”

Prof. Zafar Ahsan: Allah is the Creator of everything that is present in the universe, so what are the philosophical reasons behind this creation. We have to think about these reasons. Verse 2 above states the process of creation of human being; and the truth and exact knowledge involved in any process of creation is just the definition of science.

C M Naim: Philosophical reasons? God had “philosophical reasons” for creating this Universe? And how do we jump from “philosophical” in the first sentence to “science” in the next? Do the two words mean the same thing? The Qur’an’s concern, in my simple view, is to underscore the “why?” question by repeatedly telling the reader that the Creation was not in vain—it was for a purpose or purposes. To seek in it answers to “how?” questions would be of no use except to satisfy some ideological impulse.

Prof. Zafar Ahsan: Ibne Shatir, a twelfth century mathematician and astronomer, gave a hypothesis that the earth was not at the centre of the universe and it was the sun which was at the centre of the universe and the planets were moving around the sun. He proved it by trigonometry (cf., e/Astro.htm). Later on this theory was restated by Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543) to Europeans and even today the credit is given to Copernicus.

C M Naim: Did Ibn-i-Shatir claim that his discovery was based on what he studied in the Qur’an? Why did he use trigonometry and not tafseer? Did he claim that his discovery established the truth of the holy book? If the answer is in the negative in all three instances then we should worry about our own anxiety to make the truth of the Qur’an dependent on scientific discoveries. Apparently for eleven hundred years no Muslim came to what Ibn-i-Shatir concluded despite reading the Qur’an every day? Why? And why was it that Ibn-i-Shatir’s idea did not bring about a revolutionary change in Astronomy or Cosmography in the so-called Muslim lands for many more centuries? Who was the Muslim Gallileo, if Ibn-i-Shatir was the original of Copernicus?

Further, Is there any evidence that Copernicus stole Ibn-i-Shatir’s idea? Is it absolutely impossible that he could have come to the discovery independently? And is the Muslim astronomer totally ignored in the West?

Here is what Marshall G. S. Hodgson, the late great scholar of Islam and Muslim societies—he in fact spent some years at Aligarh—wrote about Ibn-i-Shatir way back in 1958, placing him in the line from the great Nasiruddin Tusi concerning the problem of orbits of the moon and of Mercury: “Ibn-al-Shatir of Damascus worked on both these problems and finally came up with a solution at least for the moon’s orbit which satisfied him. This turns out to have been essentially the same as that proposed more than a century later by Copernicus. (It is interesting, moreover, that recent scholars regard Copernicus’ solution for the lunar orbit to have been the soundest part of his work on planetary orbits and perhaps technically the most crucial element in it; for his heliocentric system as such, with its many perfect circles, was, of course, scientifically quite unsound.” (The Venture of Islam, vol. 2, p. 476.) A footnote further mentions the names of three Western scholars who were then working on Ibn-al-Shatir and other Muslim astronomers.

Prof. Zafar Ahsan: A learned reader will always find in The Quran, the scientific truths and realities; and we confidently hope and expect that as the knowledge in various fields advance, other Quranic statements will likewise prove true.

C M Naim: According to the above prescription, “learned” Muslim readers must first learn their science from Western sources, wait for Western scholars to make scientific discoveries and unwittingly prove the truth of various Quranic statements, then just sit back and bask in borrowed glory of one kind or another without making any effort of their own. How wonderful! How very Saudi! Just appropriate what others create. Like the translations quoted in the article. Their source is indicated as: The Holy Quran - English translation of the meanings and commentary. Revised and Edited by The Presidency of Islamic Researches, Ifta, Call and Guidance. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Fahad Complex for the Printing of the Holy Quran. P.O.Box 3561, Al-Madinah al-Munawwarah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (1413 Hijri). Note that there is no one mentioned as the actual translator, though we do have a high and mighty revising organization. The sad reality is that an extraordinary piece of learning created by Abdullah Yusuf Ali in 1934 has been appropriated as their own by the Saudis, who first brought out a “new revised edition” in 1989 and have now gone ahead and done more damage to the original in this “revised and edited” version. Why bother to do a new translation when other’s work is available to make our own—in the name of some ideology.

For those interested in the question of Science in Muslim societies, the initial step should be Pervez Hoodbhoy’s pointed study, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality (with a foreword by Dr. Abdus Salam), published in 1991. But the two may not be acceptable as “true” Muslims.

C. M. NAIM is Professor Emeritus of Urdu at the University of Chicago. Besides being an acclaimed columnist, he has written extensively on Urdu language and literature and has translated widely from Urdu fiction and poetry.


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