In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
The latest advances in science can help deepen our understanding and appreciation of the timeless wisdom in the Quran, as long as we adhere to a sound methodology based upon normative principles of interpretation. In fact, our advanced scientific understanding of the world highlights the miraculous nature of the Quran in precisely describing cosmological phenomena long before humans were made aware of them.
The Quran and the natural laws of the universe are timeless from our perspective. This fact has serious consequences, as our understanding of any timeless phenomena will always be limited. Here, faith is necessary for mankind to endure in this journey through life. Whereas some people might think faith naturally fuels superstition, Ibrahim demonstrated otherwise when his faith made him pursue a deeper understanding of timeless phenomenon.
The method of Ibrahim is profound as it provides guidance for distinguishing the timeless from the timed, while acknowledging that abstraction is unavoidable. An abstraction in the Quranic context is a verse about the natural world that remains vague and not yet clearly visualized. Only later on, as our scientific understanding of the world advances, might we actually recognize what the verse is really saying.
Abstraction in general occurs when we look at two different phenomenon that are vastly different in scale. The enormous phenomena appears abstract when compared to the smaller one. For example, it is inevitable that our understanding of Allah, the greatest of all things in existence, must be abstract to a certain degree. Nevertheless, enough is revealed to us about Allah to help us believe, function, and make sense of our world. The balance between this abstraction and clarity is best demonstrated in the verse:
لَّا تُدْرِكُهُ الْأَبْصَارُ وَهُوَ يُدْرِكُ الْأَبْصَارَ ۖ وَهُوَ اللَّطِيفُ الْخَبِيرُ
Vision perceives Him not, but He perceives all vision, for He is the Subtle, the Aware. There has come to you insight from your Lord. Whoever will see does so for the benefit of his soul, and whoever is blind will harm it. And say: I am not a guardian over you.
Surat Al-An’am 6:103-104
Since Allah is infinite and timeless, it follows that He is also the most abstract. Even so, He can be known and understood by humans to the extent that it is possible for our finite minds. Everything we can observe was created by Him and follows their natural patterns that He set for them. Even though we cannot fully realize Allah in our minds, we can understand and recognize some of His attributes.
Understanding the attributes of Allah is important for us to be able to recognize these patterns and natural laws. The genius of Ibrahim was that he distinguished the timeless truths from the timed occurrences, the eternal phenomena from the temporal phenomena, and concluded that Allah cannot be seen, yet He is consistent in dealing with the creation. Hence, there are timeless values humans must adhere to that conform to the laws and patterns of nature.
On a lesser scale than Allah, the laws of the universe themselves are abstract as they are more enormous and far more reaching than us mere humans:
لَخَلْقُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ أَكْبَرُ مِنْ خَلْقِ النَّاسِ وَلَٰكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ
The creation of the heavens and earth is greater than the creation of mankind, but most of the people do not know.
Surat Ghafir 40:57
A question arises when we encounter an abstraction in the Quran: what can we do when the reality mentioned in an abstract verse cannot be understood in a meaningful way? The nature of monotheism is that its underlying principles are eternal truths. This makes it very tempting to try to explain everything in nature by reference to scripture, yet the Quran says otherwise. The abstract, or unclear (mutashabihat), verses have been distinguished from the decisively clear (muhkamat) verses. The clear verses communicate the core values of the faith while the abstract verses are those whose deeper meaning may not be readily understood:
هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ ۖ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ ۗ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّهُ
It is He who has revealed to you the Book within which are verses that are clear, they are the foundation of the Book, and others are unclear. As for those in whose hearts is deviation, they will follow that which is unclear, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation. And no one knows its true interpretation except Allah.
Surat Ali Imran 3:7
This verse establishes a fundamental point when interpreting the Quran. The clear verses, which state the normative values, beliefs, and practices of Islam, must be understood first before turning to the less clear verses. Furthermore, Muslims need to unite around the clear verses and not allow the less clear verses to become a source of contention and disunity. From this interpretive principle, Muslim theologians developed the habit of not overly explaining these less clear verses, sometimes referring to this as “suspension” (tawqeef) or “not asking the how” (bi la takyeef).
On the other hand, we know that everything mentioned in the Quran serves a purpose, even if its wisdom is not readily clear to us at first. If an abstract verse cannot be explained by the Quran itself, then why are the verses there? How can we understand their purpose?
It is through the intellectual method of Ibrahim that divine revelation, nature, and our values are compatible. An abstract verse acts as a trigger to prompt us, in our curiosity, to investigate and reconcile the verse with a scientific understanding of the physical world. After all, the revelation of Islam and everything else in the world come from the same source.
However, this only works when our journey of discovery is conducted completely in the natural world. We should not try to interpret the abstract verses in a particular way and force that understanding onto the natural world without regard to rational principles, lest we be among those who cause dissension by resorting to unfounded interpretations. When it comes to nature as mentioned in the unclear verses, real clarification can only come about by scientific investigation.
Abstractions in scripture can possibly lead us to a greater understanding of nature and subsequently the Creator Himself, as well help advance and facilitate our lives through scientific progress, as long as stick to the sound methodology of Ibrahim that reconciles revelation and reason.
Examples of abstractions in the Quran
Abstract verses that discuss nature are abundant in the Quran, but one of the most notable is the following:
ثُمَّ اسْتَوَىٰ إِلَى السَّمَاءِ وَهِيَ دُخَانٌ فَقَالَ لَهَا وَلِلْأَرْضِ ائْتِيَا طَوْعًا أَوْ كَرْهًا قَالَتَا أَتَيْنَا طَائِعِينَ
Then He directed Himself to the heaven while it was smoke and said to it and to the earth: Come willingly or by compulsion. They said: We have come willingly.
Surat Fussilat 41:11
This verse serves as a trigger to inspire our natural curiosity about the origins of the universe in which we live. Two facts are mentioned in the verse that previous generations could not have understood in the way we do today. First, the heavens used to be “smoke” or “dust” before they came into being. And second, all of the laws of the universe were formed shortly after the heavens were formed from dust.
Almost all modern cosmological theories accept that cosmic dust was the initial state that preceded the formation of the universe we see now. Anyone familiar with recent advances in physics would know about the most expensive scientific instrument in history, the Large Hadron Collider, designed to discover new particles that can shed light on the formation of the universe. In 2013, Peter Higgs won the Nobel prize after the collider successfully demonstrated the existence of the Higgs boson particle, which validated a theory based on a very brief transit time between creation and the formation of the laws that govern our lives.
In this example, the verse itself is an abstraction, an unclear description of a natural phenomenon that only later becomes clear after a scientific investigation into the primordial cosmos. The earlier generations could not have possibly known these facts about the universe, as mentioned in the verse, the way we know them today.
Another verse describing the beginning of the universe eludes to a scientific discovery made generations later:
أَوَلَمْ يَرَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا أَنَّ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ كَانَتَا رَتْقًا فَفَتَقْنَاهُمَا ۖ وَجَعَلْنَا مِنَ الْمَاءِ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ حَيٍّ ۖ أَفَلَا يُؤْمِنُونَ
Have those who disbelieved not considered that the heavens and the earth were a joined entity, and We separated them and made from water every living thing? Then will they not believe?
Surat Al-Anbiya 21:30
Today, almost all theories trace the origins of the universe to the initial singularity, a single point from which all matter and mass emerged. Again the earlier generations of Quran interpreters could not understood the verse with such clarity until great leaps of scientific progress were made.
In each abstract verse, the purpose is to prompt investigation and discovery of the natural world, the same curiosity that led Ibrahim to realize that the all things divine and natural come from the Creator. A truly deeper understanding of what is mentioned in the verses might not come until generations have gone by and new facts about the universe are discovered. As such, when we encounter an abstraction of nature in the Quran, we may have to suspend our interpretation of it while at the same time searching the creation for its hidden meaning.
What we need to realize is that, in the case of these abstract verses about nature, we should seek the answer by studying nature itself rather than the commentaries of previous scholars. Normally, we seek answers in the commentaries of the Quran regarding its meanings, rulings, implications, and so on. But when it comes to nature, phenomena that earlier generations could not have known about, we will find the answer by the scientific method.
Some leaders in the Muslim community have urged caution regarding scientific investigation out of fear that people will jump to the wrong conclusions and thereby instill doubt in the less educated. This conservative approach takes for granted the method of Ibrahim by which he was perfectly comfortable reconciling reason and revelation. If he saw a discrepancy, he knew that the discrepancy was only in his personal understanding and not in reality itself.
By reviving the method of Ibrahim, the Muslims can renew their place in the world as the leader of both spiritual and scientific knowledge. Humanity is in great need of insight in religion and science, insight that Muslims can potentially provide. After all, the whole body of science is based upon a proper understanding of Ibrahim’s methodology.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.