By way of illustration, consider a book written by Robert R. The astronomer and science historian was shocked to find that Ptolemy, the greatest astronomer of antiquity, had calculated the positions of stars and then published them in his famous star catalogue, the Almagest, as though they were actual observations.
This “deliberate deceit” so incensed Newton that he gave his 1977 book on the subject the incendiary title The Crime of Claudius Ptolemy.
efore debunking the notion that the Koran is a scientific textbook, it is worth noting not only that Islamic civilization was the center of science and learning from about the eighth to the twelfth century (as has previously been discussed in these pages; see “Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science,” Winter 2011), but also that Islamic civilization contributed to the rise of the modern scientific method.
There is of course no single method to modern science, but its general approach is nonetheless distinguishable from pre-modern science.
he movement seeking to propagate the claim that the Koran contains direct references or allusions to natural phenomena and scientific theories beyond the ken of the contemporaries of the Prophet Muhammad received much of its impetus from the influential 1976 book The Bible, The Qur’an and Science by the French physician Maurice Bucaille (translated into English by Alastair D. Bucaille argues that the Koran has a greater internal consistency than the Bible and that the metaphors in the Bible have become quainter with the advancement of scientific knowledge while the metaphors in the Koran have become more meaningful.
Bucaille also argues that certain phrases in the Koran seem to allude to modern scientific discoveries, and considers this to be a miraculous testimony to the Book’s Divine origin.
The effort to harmonize modern technical knowledge and practice with Islamic teaching is part of a project known as the “Islamization of knowledge,” and is quite popular among Muslim intellectuals today.
The most visible area of this intellectual work has been in the world of finance, with the development of so-called “Islamic banking.” A wide variety of venture-capital investments, joint-development projects, and partnership financing have been devised to avoid the appearance of charging interest, a practice forbidden by traditional Muslim jurisprudence.
In contrast to the pre-modern understanding of science that often elevated what we now call philosophy over what we have come to know as science, and long preceding the advent of modern science, Islamic scholars were inspired by the Koran’s teaching that the physical world is the perfect creation of the infallible Creator and by its instructions to observe and study nature: [Blessed be] He Who created the seven heavens one above another: No want of proportion wilt thou see in the Creation of (Allah) Most Gracious. It is this inductive process that the Koran encourages with its repeated injunctions to look at the signs in the heavens and on earth, to think and contemplate, and to travel through the world in search of knowledge.
I have no problem with the view that the Koran is perfectly consistent with a scientific understanding of the world, or with the belief that its Divine Author, being the Author of Nature itself, understands the natural world perfectly well.
I do have a problem with the view that scientific theories are the standard by which the teachings of the Koran should be judged, or vice versa.
Given the spread of this movement, it is worth distinguishing the claim that the teachings of Islam have been conducive to the development of the methods of science from the extravagant notion that particular scientific findings are foretold and validated by the Koran.
It is my view that the Koran is a book of guidance rather than a book of science, and its references to the natural world are meant to be inspirational rather than demonstrative.