Science: A Matter of Reality

Auron ka hai Payaam aur, mera Payaam aur hai, / Ishq key dardmand ka tarz-e-kalaam aur hai! (Iqbal) If to most people, religion was, and continues to be, a jumble of mysteries, science is all too human an effort to deal with reality as it exists in the real world – a world that our…

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Auron ka hai Payaam aur, mera Payaam aur hai, / Ishq key dardmand ka tarz-e-kalaam aur hai! (Iqbal) If to most people, religion was, and continues to be, a jumble of mysteries, science is all too human an effort to deal with reality as it exists in the real world – a world that our senses and our mind have the ability to probe and to unravel. But if people wrapped “religion” in all kinds of mysteries which an ordinary human being could not unravel or understand, and which therefore needed the services of an exclusive priestly cast, class or hierarchy, science to most people was equally an enigma. Human beings went through all kinds of hardships trying to figure out what science really was and how to deal with it. But in Islam things were pretty much self-evident from the very beginning. Reality in Islam was of two kinds: that to which our senses had access and that to which they did not. In other words, the reality we see and the reality we don’t. That side, aspect or part of reality which we cannot directly access using our senses, the Qur’an calls Al-Ghaib – that which is absent or hidden. The Qur’an makes belief in the Unseen a prerequisite for being able to benefit from the divine guidance of the Qur’an. This must naturally lead to the conclusion that there must be two ways to know reality: (a) a human way and (b) a divine way. And that is the seemingly dualistic solution Islam offers to the problem of reality. First, the divine way to know reality is Wahy, which is revelation from above. Second, the basically human approach to reality is science, which is discovery from below as it were. The logic was most simple. Human beings must discover for themselves all that can be discovered using the senses and using all the knowledge tools, skills and instrumentation that they could innovate, marshal and mobilize for that purpose.   “READ!”: ISLAM’S VERY FIRST COMMANDMENT And in Islam that is where knowledge begins – at the ground level. And the divine revelation – the First Commandment of Islam: Iqra’ or Read! – took care of that part or aspect of human knowledge: learn to read – in the widest possible sense of that expression – if you want to be knowledgeable about God’s creation. Become literate. Become as highly educated as you possibly can.  “Go to China if you must in order to get knowledge,” is often presented as a Hadith. Utlubul ‘ilma wa lau bisseen, are the actual words that are quoted in that context as Hadith. Hadith or not, weak or strong, what a miraculous set of words indeed! For, everyone knows China at that time had a thing or two to teach the world in practically every sphere of human education and advancement. Here is yet another way for the validation of Hadith that scholars of Hadith must consider: its robustness through time and changing circumstances.   EDUCATION A KEY INGREDIENT OF ISLAM So, in a sense, earthly or worldly education became a prerequisite, a foundation stone and an important ingredient of Islam. So, in Islam science is not an alien or hostile force but rather the seed money with which humanity must begin its journey in life – a journey that ultimately must lead to God. But not everything is knowable through science. Not all at once. Not all in the same place or time. For, science is a prolonged period of trial and error. Scientific knowledge is agonizingly cumulative and incremental. It can be painfully slow and frustrating. So, divine mercy, Allah’s Rahmat, intervenes and gives human beings a start-up kit that contains the basic essentials of truth about reality. It is a package that they need in order to live a good life on earth and at the same time ensure a good life for themselves in the next world. So, the divine revelation of Islam starts people out on a path of truth that humanity, left to itself, would take thousands of years of trial and error to discover using science alone.   SCIENCE AND REVELATION And together, they constitute but one unified reality: Islam. “Religion,” as most people know and use that expression, is a package mostly of human creation. One of its chief characteristics is that it tends to run counter to science, logic and evidence of the senses at every opportunity it gets. That is why “religion” often wraps itself up in protective cloaks such as “supernatural” or “conundrum” or “enigma” or “metaphysics” or “transcendental” – all of these concepts being practically the opposite of Islam. Because, according to the Qur’an, things are clear, open, logical, wise, simple, easy, rational and eminently sensible. The Qur’an deals with Aayaat and Bayyniaat – clear, open and self-evident signs and realities and not with dogmas and mysteries. What a contrast! And what a miracle! What Islam is really after, however, is direct revelation from God Almighty – Wahy. While “religion” may run into all kinds of difficulties with reality, and therefore science, which may be said to be the objective and verifiable way of knowing reality, Wahy is simply the divine version of reality coming directly from God. And it will always be, to the extent we can understand it, in tune with the spirit and facts of science. Islam, therefore, is Wahy or direct divine revelation about reality in its final, complete and immutable form. It is the complete package. Science on the other hands is an incomplete, fluid and growing collection of human gropings toward reality. That is why Islam insists that Wahy is the common heritage of humanity. God sent Wahy to all people in all ages, until it was time to send down the final version of truth in the form the Qur’an. The Qur’an is now the answer to all of human questions for all times and for all people in all places on earth.   QUR’AN: GUIDANCE FOR ALL TIME The Qur’an confirms and validates all the other Wahy and revelations that came before it. And it offers humanity a complete package of knowledge and guidance that will remain contemporary until the end of time. And what an amazing miracle this is in itself. Does anyone know any example of anything like this anywhere? One small crumb that fell from this divine table of the Qur’an is what science – both social and physical – has come to practice in the form of “literature review,” in which new ideas and findings are contextualized using old and established ideas and facts. Does anyone even know that it was we Muslims – it was the Qur’an – that invented that game: the practice of doing systematic literature review in all matters of serious science to ground future discoveries and knowledge in the foundations of past findings and research? That means, far from being opposed to one another, science and Wahy must be, and are, complementary to one another. That means science gives you bits and pieces of knowledge piecemeal, and over a protracted period of time, and following a painstaking process of tentative exploration, making some kind of hypotheses, looking for data to test your hypotheses, validating your knowledge and proposing and modifying all kinds of theories based on your data or your logic. Wahy, on the other hand, gives you much larger slices of truth in the form of one or two simple Aayats from the Qur’an. The world can take any number of lifetimes to come to grips with the basic validity, meaning and implications of those Aayats using the method of science.   THE MIRACLE OF WASHING HANDS For example, the Qur’an told people to wash their hands. This was 1400 years ago. Ever since, to Muslims around the world, washing hands was a daily routine. But the matter was far more complex and challenging for many other people in the world. Most Europeans, for example, had a strong aversion to the use of water for washing themselves. To what extent a supposed Christian ethos played a role in it, I am not going to go into at this time. But it was not until the mid-1990s that American science – American Society for Microbiology (ASM) – finally discovered that washing hands was a good idea. Did they give Islam, Muslims and the Qur’an any credit for that idea? Not to my knowledge. Did the Muslims ask them for credit? Not to my knowledge. Do Muslims understand or care about what I am saying? Only God knows! But was American science nearly 1400 years behind Islam in recognizing the importance of washing hands to human health and hygiene? Of course, it was. Does it mean that it took the world of science a 1000 years longer to “discover” what Islam had already given through Wahy or revelation to a nation of nomadic desert dwellers and illiterates? Absolutely! Now, that is what I call a miracle!