Islam's Quantum Question : Reconciling Muslim Traditional and Modern science

By Nidhal Guessoum. London: I.B. Tauris, 2011. xxvi+404 pp. $26.00 (paper).

Dr. Nidhal Guessoum attempts an ambitious project to disentangle the matrix of science and Islam, while also pointing out several obstacles that lie in its path for progression in Islam’s Quantum Question. Guessoum ties together a lot of stranded topics from the nature of science, its interaction with Islam in contemporary times, and the relationship between scientists and theologians today. He definitely exposes a lot of problems in how science is being abused and ignored under the name of Islam. However, in engaging with these different ideas, it becomes obvious he loses certain contributions from the theological traditions while subtly giving more credence to science. 

He highlights his objective, which involves “reopening attitudes” (xxvi) and synthesizing Islam and science through a not-so-overly liberal “quantum model of harmony” (14). On completing the book the reader will definitely get a sense of breadth, which includes several topics on the subject such as the nature of science, discussion of Islamic science, miracles in the Qur’an, cosmologies, evolution, and the anthropic principle. However, the depth of the book is primarily, but not only, stretched to works of famous Muslim thinkers of the past century, such as Ziauddin Sardar, Mehdi Golshani, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and William Chittick, and occasionally into works of classical scholars like Ibn Rushd (Averroes), whom Guessoum clearly admires. 

Guessoum’s science cannot be questioned as he clearly knows his scientific material. Accordingly, one of the greatest strengths of the book is in his criticism of the abuse of science that is forced into or onto a Qur’anic paradigm. His biggest criticism, is aimed at Zaghloul El-Naggar, though not the only one, and who he doesn’t fail to assert is in a very high-ranking position in academia, who justifies scientific facts based on verses in the Qur’an and hadith literature (145). He clearly expresses his concerns that “most of the advocates of this method [scientific miracles in the Qur’an] are highly educated people, and despite the objectionable nature of most of their propositions, they are sincere, if badly in error, in what they think are genuine assertions” (147). In his aggressive critique of scientific miracles he even leaves a refutation of a Qur’anically determined value of the speed of light in his appendix (361). He sources the problem of how certain scientists are misreading the Qur’anic verse “how nothing is left out of this book” [6:38] by extending the claim to all disciplines (147). He concludes that the solution is a Rushdian one (similar to a Galilean one) which cannot involve a conflict between speech of God and work and maintains intelligent readings of the Qur’an (175). 

One of the best chapters involves his extended criticisms of contemporary writers who have contributed to the discussion of reclaiming “Islamic science”. He focuses on thinkers of the Perennial school which include the likes of Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Osman Bakar, who argue that science has become secularized and thus a historical anomaly (112), something which Guessoum disagrees with and deems a superficial “Gnostic enterprise” (136). On the opposite spectrum he reviews the universalist or secularist schools (his labels) which are fronted by Dr. Abdus Salam and Professor Pervez Hoodhboy (136). This school argues that there is no such thing as a science belonging to any particular country, race, or religion (i.e., Islamic science), as the scientific paradigm for truth is independent from such labels (133). Guessoum doesn’t completely agree with this school either and seems to lean towards the criticisms of a third school, the Ijmali school fronted by Ziauddin Sardar, who argues that the universalist school doesn’t have an Islamic ontology and thus falls short of upholding Islamic ethics in the practice of science (135). However, Guessoum also levels his concerns against the Ijmalis. He firstly clarifies Ziauddin’s perception of science as evil with the difference between science and technology—the latter, he says, “is always a mixture of science, policy, social environment and circumstances” (138). Furthermore, Ziauddin also notes that scientific ijma (consensus) should be widened to all lay Muslims, to which Guessoum clearly expresses his rebuke (176). 

Guessoum also highlights how theologians who are untrained in science can make equally invalid assertions. For instance, after explaining the evidence for evolution and its nuances (277–86), Guessoum regards Nuh Keller’s statement that evolution is unfalsifiable as untrue (277). On another occasion he discusses the problems with the fatwa that was issued against the Pokemon (the cartoon) culture due to it being “a Jewish-influence Japanese cultural virus”, which also instills the idea of evolution into Muslim children that diminishes their faith (272). He then takes on the late Ramadan Al-Bouti’s view on evolution, a highly regarded theologian, as flawed and “biased and pre-directed” (305). Guessoum also mentions Abdus-Sabour Chahine, a contemporary religious scholar who also wrote on evolution, and exposes some of the scientific errors in his works (322). He goes further with criticizing Harun Yahya culture, neither theologian nor a scientist, under the banner of Muslim creationism while highlighting the weaknesses in his works (314–20). It is due to these claims he dedicated a whole chapter to evolution along with its nuances (323), and the issues with its engagement with the Muslim world, which he regards as “a major cultural blockage in the Muslim world” (273).

It is undeniable that Guessoum has thoroughly investigated his science as well as the nuances in the current affairs of science. However, the work is not short of criticism. Guessoum’s weakness in Islamic scholarship becomes clearly highlighted when he either neglects tradition or misunderstands the tradition. Firstly, it is hard to miss how tradition for Guessoum is a narrowly selected list of Muslim thinkers or groups who had any form of involvement with either science or philosophy but not necessarily theology. So one will clearly and frequently read the names of Ibn Rushd, Ghazali, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina but never of theologians like Imam Nawawi or Ibn Hajar Asqalani. This point is not a valid criticism in of itself but it becomes important for the second point, which is that in discussing controversial areas like evolution no mention is ever made of the evidence of the explicit hadiths and the relevancy of their authenticities in weighing the outcome for the discussion. For this reason I particularly named the aforementioned hadith experts whom Guessoum makes no mention of. Thirdly, Guessoum’s weakness in understanding traditional scholarship, in this case Islamic philosophy, is clear when he starts mentioning evolutionary thinkers of the classical era in a Darwinian paradigm, by referencing works of Ibn Khaldun and Ikhwan al-Safa’ (305–8). While he notes the idea of the Great Chain of Being, an earlier hierarchical classification of existence, as a competing conception to Darwinian evolution of these classical works, he leans towards the latter based on a single reference which he cites seven times 

Without reading further into the matter, he misses out on authors who did specialize in Islamic philosophy like Tjitze Boer, who clearly highlights the mistaken conceptions imposing evolution on works of classical thinkers in his The History of Philosophy in Islam (published in 1903). 

Overall, Guessoum raises very important issues for Muslim theologians and scientists alike. These include exposing ignorance of science among certain individuals and groups, the abuse of science under theological claims and also unchecked authourity of the theological hold over science. However, one also gets a sense of an uneven landscape between science and theology in this work. Guessoum gives a lot of credit to science, and rightfully so, but he definitely does neglect traditional scholarship (outside of Islamic science) as if that has no bearing on the subject. Furthermore, one feels that it is theology that needs to be reformed to fit the demands of science when he expresses opinions like, “they [the community at large] need to engage with the Muslim theologians and scholars and convince them that science today has much to say on topics they have monopolised for too long” (341), which gives the impression that science should be the moderating operator of theology. 

In conclusion, the distinction between theologian and theology is akin to scientist and science, and such distinctions need be carefully handled. I do believe that Guessoum sincerely and effectively engages with the claims of selective theologians and scientists alike. However, the same cannot be said of theology and science. The rich tradition of theology was not proportionally engaged to that of science and this is the area where the book could be improved on.