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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.
For modern scientists, Ptolemy’s actions might indeed seem criminal: although of course predictions from theory often precede observations, as in the famous example of Einstein predicting that starlight would bend around the Sun to a greater degree than predicted by Newtonian physics, it would be considered an affront to scientific practice to use calculated values in place of ones that had already been actually observed.
However, rather than thinking of Ptolemy as a criminal, it makes more sense to think of him as a creature of his times, or perhaps a victim of his epistemology.
Today, many Muslims can be found in the fields of medicine and engineering.
Even the ultraconservative Muslims who long for a return to the ethical norms of the seventh century see no need to abandon cell phones to do so, and even the most extreme of Islamic extremists envies the high-tech oil-extraction techniques and the weaponry of the West.
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.Modern science is not a body of facts, but a process for the study of the natural world.Because of human fallibility, that process yields a constantly changing set of conclusions about how this world operates.Muslims, both conservative and liberal, issue fatwas (legal opinions) over the Internet without any hesitation over the technology they employ and with no fear that it may be haram (prohibited).However, although contemporary Muslims tend not to be averse to science or technology, their strong belief in the compatibility of science and Islam may leave them vulnerable to dubious efforts to equate the two.Organizations like the Commission on Scientific Signs in the Quran and Sunnah (based in Saudi Arabia), and books with titles like Allah’s Miracles in the Quran and Scientific Miracles in the Prophetic Sunnah have further promoted this pseudo-scholarly movement.These ideas are now widely available online, in You Tube videos, on countless websites and blogs, and in discussion forums.Moreover, this new movement to seek out science in the Koran is contrary to the scientific method and, in ignoring the Koran’s warning against confusing allegory with basic facts (3:7), is contrary to Islamic teaching.As a 2002 article in the Wall Street Journal described, these ideas have become popular among fringe Muslim scholars and students.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.