Islam and Science – Sayed Khalil Tabatabai


20 Dec 2013

Medicine, Evolution

Sayed Khalil Tabatabai

In this undated video, Dr. Sayed Khalil Tabatabai discusses science as related to the Qurʾān.  The lecture is not a discussion of iʿjāz ʿilmī, although he does touch on it.  Rather, he focuses on the Qurʾān as a book of spiritual guidance.  Tabatabai opens by discussing a ḥadīth (narrative about the sayings and activities of the Prophet Muḥammad) that is often discussed in the context of iʿjāz.  This ḥadīth says one wing of a fly carries disease, and the other its cure.  He contrasts it to the Qurʾān by noting that ḥadīth are fallible because they are based on human transmission.  Thus, he says, the it should be ignored as it is not authentic.

Tabatabai suggests that references to science and knowledge are in the Qurʾān to encourage people.  He states that the Qurʾānic text provides many levels of meaning, from the most apparent to more hidden meanings, and that our understanding of the text can change over time, since God’s text cannot be limited.

The discussion includes brief mention of Muslim scientists like Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (ca. 970—1037 CE) and ʿAbbas Ibn Firnās (ca. 810-887 CE), both of whom he associates with conceptions of flying.

The lecture provides a number of Qurʾānic verses that discuss knowledge, which Tabatabai then explicates.  In this context he mentions a number of fields, touching on them only briefly rather than in depth.  For instance, he suggests that verse 3:191, which encourages reflection on the creation of heaven and earth, encourages one to think about “the law of intelligent design”.  Verse 51:20-21, which says there are signs for those who are sure, and in your own souls, he says encourages the study of anatomy and physiology.  Without referring to any Qurʾānic text, he says that wars are to be discouraged, because they retard scientific progress.  He also notes that wherever Muslims are not scientifically advancing, it is because they are not fully practicing Islam, not because Islam is holding them back in some way.

This lecture was one of a series of lectures held at the Imām Hussain Charitable Foundation in Montréal, Québec, Canada, with which Dr. Tabatabai, who is a native of Iraq, has been associated.  This is a Shīʿa foundation, and so there may be some terms, such as ahl al-baīt (literally, people of the house, referring to the family of the Prophet Muḥammad, and especially his descendents through the line of ʿAlī  and Fāṭima) that may be unfamiliar.


The material on Islam is within the bounds of what Muslims have historically understood as acceptable.  It should be noted that some of the constructions of the hidden realm, common among Shīʿa Muslims, may not be acceptable to all contemporary Sunni Muslims.

Although Tabatabai does not discuss many details, and does debunk some of the more flagrant forms of iʿjāz, he also presents as factual ideas like intelligent design, which are not accepted by the majority of scholars.  He suggests the acceptance of iʿjāz as proof that the Qurʾān has a divine source, and notes that if the scientific material on which that proof is based changes, this should not be interpreted as disproving the Qurʾān, but rather suggesting that human knowledge and understanding of the text are limited.

Most of the presentation is accurate to the extent that religious historians would accept, except for the mention of Ibn Firnās being the first person to attempt to fly.  Such attempts had been made since the Greeks (at least, according to Greek mythology), so claims for him being the first are inaccurate.