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When Science Reads the Qur’an

"Born of a prince". Illustration by Rashid-ad-Din's Gami' at-Tawarih

It is called tafsīr ‘ilmī in Arabic and it breaks a centuries-old tradition dominated by a tendency to absolutize the interpretation established by the Forebears

This article was published in Oasis 23. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2021-12-06 09:01:58

It is called tafsīr ‘ilmī in Arabic and it breaks a centuries-old tradition dominated by a tendency to absolutize the interpretation established by the Forebears. Freeing itself from the traditional commentary, this type of exegesis favours readings that also borrow from other disciplines and seeks (with bizarre results) to demonstrate that the contents of the Revelation are in agreement with the discoveries of science



The year 1798 is considered to be a watershed in the Middle East’s history. Indeed, Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign and the European political, economic and cultural influence that followed it brought the Arab-Muslim peoples face to face with Europe’s surprising development, thereby sparking a still-ensuing debate about the causes for the Muslim world’s technological and scientific lag. The West was then in the full throes of the Industrial Revolution and its economic and military strength and cultural dynamism were to permit it gradually to impose its sway over a large part of the dār al-Islām, the Muslim territories.



Many Muslim intellectuals of the era identified precisely Europe’s scientific and technological superiority as the main reason for its supremacy. This conviction helped to fuel that sense of inadequacy that some have called the “catching up syndrome”[1] i.e. the desire to get onto an equal footing with the West by taking possession of its forms of knowledge and technology. Taking possession of foreign forms of knowledge and institutions nevertheless pre-supposed some advance reflection on the nature of the acquisitions to be assimilated and whether they were in accordance with Islam. Indeed, not everyone viewed their adoption positively: there were those who maintained the need for it, without reservation; those who viewed modern science with diffidence on account of its Western origins and still others who abhorred it, considering it a source of Islam’s corruption. In fact, it was a question of establishing whether the European sciences were imbued with the values of their society of origin and were therefore exclusively the heritage of their culture or whether, conversely, they had a universal validity and could be imported without threatening Islam’s integrity.






The Philosophical Debate



The question of the relationship between Islam and science became the main object of reflection for many Muslim thinkers, particularly after the debate that took place in 1883 between the Pan-Islamic ideologue and activist, Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (d. 1897) and the French philosopher, Ernest Renan (d. 1892). To the latter’s accusations that Islam was an obscurantist religion opposed to science,[2] al-Afghānī replied by asserting that, if interpreted correctly, Islam not only would not have obstructed the Muslim peoples’ development but would have allowed them to bridge the political, economic and cultural gap separating them from European societies. Al-Afghānī’s ideas about the nexus between reforming Islam and developing Muslim societies were taken up by his disciple Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905) and by the latter’s disciple, Rashīd Ridā (d. 1935) and became the modern Islamic world’s common heritage. It is therefore evident that the sciences’ importation from the West was not a purely technical matter in the sense of being limited to material exchanges between the two shores of the Mediterranean but ended up, rather, touching the doctrinal foundations of Islam and the religious affiliation of Muslims. The debate about the relationship between Muslim societies and science therefore also had important repercussions in the field of the Islamic tradition’s interpretation and Qur’anic exegesis.



It was in this context that one of the most innovative forms of Qur’anic interpretation – the scientific commentary or al-tafsīr al-‘ilmī – had its origin in Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century. This kind of exegesis breaks a centuries-old tradition dominated by a tendency to absolutize the interpretation established by the Forebears and testifies to the will to be free of the traditional commentary in favour of interpretations that also borrow from other disciplines, starting with the modern sciences.






Concordist Exegesis



Tafsīr ‘ilmī is a concordist kind of exegesis that seeks to demonstrate that the contents of the Revelation are in agreement with the discoveries of science. More precisely, it is the “scientific explanation of the [Qur’an’s] signs (āyāt) according to the fundamentals of modern science (‘ilm hadīth), which [fundamentals] make the signs’ scientific content clear.”[3] This form of interpretation is based on the doctrine of the Qur’an’s “scientific inimitability” (i‘jāz ‘ilmī), according to which Islam’s Holy Book would not only be perfect and inimitable from the literary point of view but would also have anticipated some scientific discoveries, revealing them to an illiterate prophet.[4] Although not a novelty in the history of Islamic thought, the extension of the traditional notion of i‘jāz to the Qur’an’s scientific content particularly took root during the twentieth century when modern science progressively achieved that place of honour in the Muslim world that had for many centuries been monopolised by rhetoric. The success enjoyed by the concept of “scientific inimitability” and the form of Qur’anic exegesis that was its consequence may evidently be traced to contemporary humanity’s difficulty in accepting an aesthetic criterion (i.e. style) as the sole proof of the Book’s divine origin and thus to its need to seek a legitimation also in the realm of scientific reason.






Restrictionists, Encyclopaedists and Moderates



 The scientific approach to the Qur’an is very controversial and although it is widespread in all the Muslim-majority countries, its legitimacy is hotly debated. Those who have helped to fuel this debate include Zaghlūl al-Najjār (b. 1933), a scientific exegete of Egyptian origin who has spent his entire life fighting to show the accord between the Qur’an and modern science.



This author has identified three positions held by the ulama and has classified them according to the latters’ propensity for or aversion towards this form of exegesis. There would be the restrictionists, who are profoundly opposed to any kind of exegesis starting from premises other than those of the consolidated tradition. Then there would be the encyclopaedists, who tend to consider the Qur’an like a scientific manual and, lastly, the moderates, who promote a limited form of scientific exegesis, the function of which would not be so much to teach the sciences as to remind believers of the Creator’s omnipotence.



For the restrictionists, scientific exegesis is not legitimate because it offers an interpretation of the Qur’an that is founded on personal judgment (tafsīr bi-l-ra’y) rather than the tradition (tafsīr bi-l-ma’thūr). In this respect, they quote two of the Prophet’s sayings (the same ones that would, however, lend weight to the moderates’ opposing thesis) in which Muhammad would have exhorted his followers not to provide personal interpretations: “Whoever expresses an opinion on the Qur’an according to his own judgment (ra’y), is in error, even if he grasps the sign’s meaning”[5] and “Whoever, without any knowledge (bi-ghayr ‘ilm), expresses an opinion on the Qur’an, will have the place in the Fire that he deserves.”[6]



The moderates reply that the restrictionists would not have understood the exact meaning of the term “ra’y.” In the first saying, this would allude to those who let themselves be guided by the human passions rather than by clear proof when interpreting. As for the second saying, the moderates go on to explain, this does not unconditionally ban recourse to human reason when interpreting the Book but would, rather, implicitly establish one of the requirements that those who dedicate themselves to Qur’anic commentary must satisfy, thereby dissuading those who “do not have any knowledge” of the Text or of the disciplines studying it from approaching an exegesis of God’s Word.[7]



The concept of the Qur’an’s inimitability would also carry weight in the debate over whether or not scientific exegesis is legitimate. The restrictionists limit i‘jāz to the linguistic context, basing their approach on the famous verse in which God invites men “Then bring you ten suras the like of it forged” (11:13) and challenging them to better the Qur’an in terms of eloquence, form and style. They maintain that even were the Qur’an to contain scientifically inimitable aspects, humankind would not be able to understand the truth of them, by virtue of its inability (‘ajz) to meet the Qur’an’s challenge. The Book is clear about this: “If men and jinn banded together to produce the like of this [Qur’an], they would never produce its like, not though they backed one another” (17:88).



The moderates respond that the inimitability cannot be limited solely to the literary form but must also include content (in this case, scientific content) because the Qur’anic message is universal and addressed to all men throughout history. Unlike the linguistic-stylistic inimitability, which is only perceived by Arabic speakers, scientific inimitability can also be grasped by those who do not speak Arabic but are well versed in the sciences.



The restrictionists further add that the Qur’an’s immutable nature and the principle that what is invariable over time cannot be analysed in the light of variable data would also render tafsīr ‘ilmī illicit. Science produces provisional systems that are subject to progress whereas the Qur’an is God’s eternal and immutable word. Thus the Qur’an is superior to science and the latter can only be subordinate to it.



The moderates reject the criticism, playing on the divine origin that the holy Book and the Book of the universe have in common.[8] This is what is known as the “compatibility” theory,[9] according to which there can be no inconsistency between the word of God and the creation and, therefore, no inconsistency between any of the sciences that study either subject, either. Should a scientific commentary happen to contradict the Qur’an, it would be science that would have to review its position because the Qur’anic “signs” have primacy over the scientific systems.






Scientific Exegetes at Work



Contrary to what one might think, the scientific exegetes are neither theologians nor professional exegetes but, rather, intellectuals with a scientific training who (often self-taught) measure themselves against the traditional exegetic knowledge. They are geologists, physicists, biologists, engineers and doctors who, at a certain point in their career, allow themselves to be tempted to look for scientific references in the Qur’an’s text. In theory, the scientific exegete would only be qualified to interpret those verses of the Qur’an that contain references relating to his area of specialization. In practice, however, this rule is often disregarded and one can find scientific comments that involve various disciplines, ranging from embryology to geology to engineering and generating the most unlikely interpretations.



Although the verses of the Qur’an dedicated to nature’s manifestations and to the animal world sparked the interest of exegetes right from the start, it is certainly the passages relating to the origin and development of human beings that most lend themselves to the scientific method of exegesis. The most significant passages on this theme (22:5; 23:12-14; 32:8-9; 75:37-38; 76:2; 80:18-19; 86:5-7; and 96:2) have been read in the light of embryology’s discoveries and the scientific exegetes claim they are able to identify the embryo’s phases of development in the Qur’an. For example, Zaghlūl al-Najjār identifies seven of these phases in the sura entitled “The Believers:”



We created man of an extraction of clay, then We set him, a drop, in a receptacle secure, then We created of the drop a clot then We created of the clot a tissue then We created of the tissue bones then We garmented the bones in flesh; thereafter We produced him as another creature (23:12-14).



The first of these phases is that of the so-called “drop,” deriving from the Arabic term nutfa, which would contain a reference to the male and female gametes (khaliyyat al-takāthur). This “sperm-drop” becomes a “mingling” (nutfa amshāj) (76:2) at that moment when the male and female liquids unite to form a zygote.[10] This scientific truth, explains al-Najjār, would also be corroborated by a saying reported under Ibn Hanbal’s authority: “A Jew passed by the Messenger of God, intent on speaking with his companions. A Quraishite said to the Jew, ‘This man goes about saying that he is a prophet.’ The Jew replied, ‘Let us ask him something that only a prophet can know. Muhammad! Where does man come from?’ The Messenger of God replied, ‘Jew, man comes from the man’s drop of liquid and from the woman’s drop of liquid’.”[11] This first phase of the embryo’s formation, explains al-Najjār, would last fifteen days. It would begin with fertilisation (ikhsāb) and would end with the implantation phase (marhalat al-gharas or marhalat al-harath).



This point marks the beginning of the second phase[12] of the embryo’s formation, that of the blood clot or marhalat al-‘alaq. This would last from the fifteenth to the twenty-fourth day after conception and would correspond to the moment when the “mingled drop of liquid” (now implanted in the wall of the uterus) coagulates. And it is precisely in the Qur’anic term “alaq” that the scientific miracle would reside. The three meanings of the Arabic root ‘-l-q would describe the peculiar features that embryology sees as distinguishing the embryo at this stage. Indeed, the verb “‘alaqa” means “to be hung” or “to hang”, whilst the noun “‘alaq” means “leech” or “sucker” but also “blood clot”. During this phase, explains the exegete, the embryo firmly hangs from the wall of the uterus to which it sticks like a sucker: it has acquired a new form similar to that of a leech (dūdat al-‘alaq) and, like the latter, feeds from the blood of the body to which it sticks. Recent scientific discoveries would, moreover, allow the foetus to be compared with a blood clot because the cardiovascular system begins to form during this phase.



The sura of “The Believers” would then announce the third phase[13] of the embryo’s development (marhalat al-mudgha): “then [We created] of the clot a tissue (mudgha)” (23:14). The exegete places this phase between the end of the fourth week and the beginning of the sixth week of pregnancy, when masses known as somites begin to appear in the “(blood) clot.” These increase in volume until they form a mass of flesh. Such a mass would appear in a form that is reminiscent of a “piece of chewed meat” (qit‘at lahm mamdūgha) still bearing the mark of the teeth, like a piece of chewing gum (‘alak). This particular form would find expression in the Qur’anic term “mudgha,” which means, literally, “mouthful” or “chewing gum” but has also assumed the meaning of “embryo” in contemporary language.



The subsequent phases of development would coincide with the phase when the bones form (inshā’ haykal ‘uzmī), the phase of muscle formation (kisā’ bi-l-lahm) and the phase of foetal growth:[14] “then We created of the tissue bones then We garmented the bones in flesh; thereafter We produced him as another creature.” The first of these begins during the seventh week of pregnancy and would correspond to the process that science calls osteogenesis. As for the phase of muscle formation mentioned in the Qur’an, this would correspond to what is called myogenesis in scientific terms.



Finally, there remains the phase of foetal growth (marhalat al-nash’a). This last phase, explains the exegete, lends itself to various interpretations according to the various meanings of the term “nash’a,” which can mean growth and development or birth and genesis. If one only considers the first two meanings, one could think of this phase as the process of rapid growth that the foetus undertakes from the ninth week of pregnancy onwards. However, al-Najjār is inclined to take all the meanings into account and thus the verse “thereafter We produced him as another creature (ansha’nā-hu)” would allude to the moment when God breathes His spirit into the foetus. That means that, during the first phases, the embryo’s life is similar to that of plants, which are alive but without a soul, whereas the foetus has a soul. The exegetes maintain that they can identify the precise soul-acquisition moment as that when the foetus develops sleep patterns and its movements are the result of a precise act of will and not merely a reflex. A connection, that between sleep and soul-acquisition, that would be ratified in the sura of “The Companies:” “God takes the souls at the time of their death, and that which has not died, in its sleep” (39:42).






The Birth of a Pseudo-Science



Initially intended to encourage Muslims to acquire the scientific and technological skills that would have allowed them to free themselves of Western influence, tafsīr ‘ilmī actually reveals a sense of cultural inferiority vis à vis the West. In the first place, the claim to have established a relationship (in reality, forced, most of the time) between the Qur’an’s verses and scientific discoveries conflicts with the very notion of inimitability, understood as the impossibility of reproducing an element of the Qur’an. Indeed, if a scientifically demonstrable theory can explain part of the Book’s contents, thereby making it liable to separate production by humans, then, by force of logic, such content can no longer be considered inimitable.



In the second place, the inimitability of a Qur’anic passage from a scientific point of view can only be pointed out a posteriori, when the discoveries have become an established fact. This form of exegesis therefore does not allow new scientific or technological knowledge to be produced but simply attests that a discovery does not contradict the Qur’an and that the latter enjoys superiority over science. Indeed, should there be a contradiction between the two, it is always science that must revise its position. The case of Sheikh Ibn Bāz, the Grand Mufti in Saudi Arabia from 1993 to 1999 and ideologue of reference for Salafi Islam, is illustrative in this respect. In one of his books, he cites certain verses of the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet in order to demonstrate that the sun rotates around the motionless earth and he charges with unbelief those who assert, conversely, that it is the earth that rotates around the sun.[15] Thus the Qur’an becomes a tool serving to endorse or invalidate scientific discourse a posteriori, supporting or rejecting potentially falsifiable theories each time: something that nevertheless ends up putting the claimed eternal truth of its doctrine at risk.



These exegetical efforts are, in addition, symptomatic of the desire to create an “Islamic,” Qur’an-based science that challenges “Western” science. Indeed, a science that is based exclusively on an epistemology of Western origin, that does not include Islamic metaphysics amongst its premises and does not contemplate divine intervention in the universe cannot, by definition, be “Islamic.” It must, however, be noted that all the efforts that the scientist-exegetes have made to give birth to a religiously oriented science have proved to be failures and have only produced a sort of pseudo-science.



Despite tafsīr ‘ilmī’s dubious plausibility, scientific interpretation is a steadily growing phenomenon – many universities in the Islamic world have at least one chair dedicated to this type of study – and it is common at all levels of society, from Turkey to Egypt and, indeed, the Indian sub-continent. This quite independently of any given country’s stage of technological progress, level of education or degree of secularization.



 * A more extensive version of this article has been published in the journal Islamochristiana 41 (2015), pp. 109-128.



The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation







[1] Muzaffar Iqbal, Islam and Science (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2002), pp. 202-203.



[2] Ernest Renan, L’Islam et la science (L’Archange Minotaure, Apt, 2005), p. 41.



[3] Salāh al-Khālidī, Ta‘rīf al-dārisīn bi-manāhij al-mufassirīn, (Dār al-qalam-Dār al-shāmiyya-Dār al-bashar, Damascus-Beirut-Jeddah, 1429/20083), p. 566.



[4] ‘Abd al-Majīd al-Zindānī, Su‘ād Yıldırım, Shaykh Muhammad al-Amīn Walad Muhammad, Ta’sīl al-i‘jāz al-‘ilmī fī al-Qur’ān wa al-Sunna (Hay’at al-i‘jāz al-‘ilmī fī al-Qur’ān wa al-Sunna, Mecca, 1421/20002), pp. 17-18.



[5] Al-Tirmidhī, Jāmi‘, Kitāb tafsīr al-Qur’ān, Bāb mā jā’ fī al-ladhī yufassiru al-Qur’ān bi-rā’y-hi, no. 2896.



[6] Ibid., no. 2895.



[7] Zaghlūl al-Najjār, Madkhal ilā dirāsāt al-i‘jāz al-‘ilmī, (Dār al-ma‘arifa, Beirut, 1430/2009), pp. 85-86.



[8] Ibid. p. 117.



[9] Kurt A. Wood, “The Scientific Exegesis of the Qur’ān: a Systematic Look,” MAAS Journal of Islamic Science 5, 1989, no. 2, pp. 88-89.



[10] Zaghlūl al-Najjār, Khalq al-insān fī al-Qur’ān al-karīm (Dār al-ma‘rifa, Beirut, 1429/20082), p. 350-357.



[11] Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, no. 465.



[12] Zaghlūl al-Najjār, Khalq al-insān fī al-Qur’ān al-karīm, pp. 464-468.



[13] Ibid. pp. 320-324.



[14] Ibid. pp. 325-340.



[15] ‘Abd al-‘Azīz bin Bāz, Al-adilla al-naqliyya wa al-hissiyya ‘lā imkān al-su‘ūd ilā al-kawākib wa ‘alā jariān al-shams wa al-qamar wa sukūn al-ard (Maktabat al-Riyād al-hadītha, 1402/19822), pp. 21-23

To cite this article

Printed version:
Chiara Pellegrino, “When Science Reads the Qur’an”, Oasis, year XII, n. 23, July 2016, pp. 64-72.

Online version:
Chiara Pellegrino, “When Science Reads the Qur’an”, Oasis [online], published on 29th July 2016, URL: