by Abdulrahman El-Sayed
A recent article in the International Journal of Cardiology entitled “The heart and cardiovascular system in Qur’an and Hadith” analyzes the concept of the heart in Islam with regards to cardiac physiology and cardiovascular disease in the biomedical context, and discusses relevant historical Muslim scholarship about health and disease. Received by the Muslim community with much celebration, this article represents the latest in an attempt to couch Islamic thought in light of modern science.
Our current historical context places a particularly strong emphasis on science as an objective means to test the validity of ideas. Epistemologically, what is science? It is a systematic means of asking questions about the natural world. Scientists make observations about phenomena and fit their understanding of those phenomena into falsifiable frameworks, which are then used to generate hypotheses. These hypotheses educate controlled experiments, allowing for more observations. Rinse and repeat. A scientific theory, thus, must 1) be based on observation, and therefore 2) be falsifiable (i.e., have the potential to be proved wrong by observation of something to the contrary). Science, therefore, is fundamentally limited in scope to the observable.
Unfortunately, the temptation to use science to validate Islam often entraps Muslims with poor understandings of either concept. Given the twin requirements on scientific theory that I outlined above (observable and falsifiable), a cursory consideration of the nature of religion would confirm that science simply doesn’t possess the means to assess it. A metaphysical creator (Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala – exalted is he) is, by definition, unobservable. That’s why the second page of the Qur’an will tell you that the Book is a guide for those who believe in “ghayb.” Roughly translated, ghayb means unseen, or unperceivable–literally unobservable. If Allah is fundamentally unobservable (which is why faith is challenging – if we could all see, touch, hear, smell, or taste Allah, then there would be no question of belief in Him), then He and His actions are non-falsifiable, and therefore completely out of the realm of scientific assessment. The same is true for any metaphysical aspect of faith teachings – such as the spiritual quality of the heart.
Articles like the one discussed above, when triumphantly declared as testaments to the greatness of Islam, highlight a certain uneasiness our community has with inherent beliefs in our religion. We seem to believe that somehow when “big bad science” says that there’s wisdom or miracles in the Qur’an, it makes it truer.
The fundamental danger of this approach of using science as an “objective” validation tool for the Qu’ran is that scientifically-based theories are, by definition, falsifiable, and therefore fallible: theories that were as sacrosanct as gravity have been shattered (falsified) with one simple experiment. Insofar as there are untruths in current scientific theories (and there are – those very untruths are what keep the scientific community in business), and they disagree with descriptions of phenomena in the Qu’ran, which does one who uses science as a validation of the Qur’an believe?
Moreover, our reliance on science as a crutch for our weakness in faith has another harmful externality: it incentivizes poor quality science. Much of the article in question conflates the spiritual heart discussed most often in Muslim scholarship, with the physiological heart of the biomedical literature. Insofar as a metaphysical, the spiritual heart is unobservable and non-falsifiable, it sits completely outside of the bounds of scientific assessment, and therefore, is not appropriate for a biomedical journal. For this reason, conflating religion with science reflects poorly on the part of Muslims with regard to the scientific community.
Rather than using science to interpret Islam, our scholarly community must think more critically about using Islam to interpret scientific findings. Unfortunately, many who trumpet “the scientific miracles of the Qur’an” will also flatly and unabashedly deny the existence of data supporting evolution. While this remains a massively contentious debate across theistic communities, Muslims cannot retreat to stereotyped evangelical Christian opinions. Our religious scholars must consider how Islam might interpret objectively-observed and falsifiable evidence for the processes of genetic drift and non-random adaptation. Rather than jump to stereotyped, knee-jerk opinions (effectively blindly condemning the theory), how can we use Islamic exegesis to interpret these increasingly well-supported scientific data? How can we understand these findings within the context of Islam’s teachings about creation, life, and change? These questions are particularly relevant to biomedical ethical dilemmas such as abortion, stem-cell research, and so forth.
Much of the framework upon which modern scientific reasoning is built was developed by Muslims during the early history of our religion. These early scientists however, recognized the strengths and limits of their approach—Muslims today must approach science with the same zeal as well as the same recognition.
“[Those] who remember Allah while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], “Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You [above such a thing]; then protect us from the punishment of the Fire.” (3:191)