Reacting to Dr. Zakir Naik’s Scientific Miracles #1
20 Oct 2017
Cosmology, Miracles / I'jaz
This video says it is the first in a series on Qurʾānic scientific miracle narratives. Its format is that of a discussion between Mohammed Hijab, on whose channel the video is curated, and Abu Safiyyah [Ustadh Abu Safiyyah Mohammed Osman]. It follows closely on the heels of two earlier videos, one talking with Subboor Ahmad about evolution and another with Hamza Tzortzis about his “layered” approach to working with science in the Qurʾān. It demonstrates applying a limited scope of premodern scholarship on Qurʾānic exegesis, called tafsīr, none of which is cited in full in the video or its description, to some cosmological discussions that are found in a wide array of tafsīr ʿilmii or iʿjāz ʿilmii literature.
Although the title of the video suggests a critique, there is little careful analysis here and none that would suggest anything other than an acceptance of science narratives in the Qurʾān. The video has been critiqued by Stop Spamming; the evaluation of that critique is on the Portal here.
Because the video is presented as a discussion between colleagues, the organization of the material is at times lacking, and the two speakers sometimes speak over one another in their enthusiasm. Although they attempt to present their discussion as “academic” and “honest”, the topics they discuss have been addressed in academic sources before, none of which they reference. Neither of the two speakers presents why viewers should accept what they say any more than the ideas of any other random Arabic speaker. Abu Safiyyah, who reads from his computer frequently, does not indicate his sources well. Hijab, who seems to be of Egyptian descent, often conflates “Islam” and the Qurʾān, as if there is no source for Muslim scholarship beyond the Qurʾān. This suggests he does not have a strong background in scholarly discussions of Islam.
The video opens by defining “observational science” and differentiating it from “theory”. They discuss the purported changes in the theory of gravity, and suggest that observational science is “stronger” than theories. They indicate that the purpose of their presentation is to create an “air tight argument” that can be used when proselytizing. Abu Safiyyah notes his major interpretive limitation: that one cannot say for certain what God meant in any particular verse (aya). They state that the Qurʾān was not revealed to be a book of scientific theory, but to guide Muslims toward the afterlife. And then they continue with the discussion of reading science out of the Qurʾān.
Hijab states, “if you take science as a good yardstick for truth, then the Qurʾān is the most closely correlated ancient religion to the scientific discourse. … People today could, yani, from their own … perspective, … they could interpret the Qurʾān in a scientific way. They’re in their rights to do that. So long as they don’t say unequivocally this is what Allah [meant].” Hijab and Abu Safiyyah suggest that this makes it easier for a scientist to accept the Qurʾān than the Bible, using the derogatory phrase “Bible thumper” for their construction of a Christian.
The discussion here seems to be operating in two directions at once. One interpretive suggestion is made that if the science is undisputed, then the interpretation is allowed, apparently no matter whether prior exegetes have interpreted the verse this way before or not. Hijab and Abu Safiyyah use this to permit the discussion of smoke as being related to the Big Bang. The other interpretive mode is that if one cannot find prior scholarly Qurʾānic interpretation using something resembling that scientific material, then the scientific interpretation should not be used “for propagating Islam”. Hijab and Abu Safiyyah use this to disallow the discussion of the expansion of the universe and plasma connecting various parts of the universe. In neither case is there any information about how a non-scientist is supposed to decide how confident to be about the science, since understandings may change based on new observations. And in no case is any scientific information presented or discussed. Hijab and Abu Safiyyah accept as given that the science for these statements is accurate.
Qurʾānic verses mentioned (although for most of these, the speakers did not provide verse references):
21.30, 51.47, 67.3, 2.29, 41.11-12
Period(s) in which universe/earth were created: 7.54, 9.36, 10.3, 11.7, 25.59, 32.4, 41.9, 41.12, 50.38, 57.4
Discussion of the length of a day: 32.5, 70.4
Topics discussed include the Big Bang, the expansion of the universe, the universe being made from smoke, and how long it took to create the universe.
It is unclear who the intended audience is for this video. Those who do not understand Arabic will have difficulty following the discussion, as the speakers break into and out of Arabic freely, as fluent speakers sometimes do. For instance, Hajib often uses the word “yani”, which might be roughly understood as “that is”. Many of the terms they are discussing from the Qurʾān are unclear unless one knows the Arabic Qurʾān well. Spelling some of the key terms on the screen would have eliminated this problem.
Mohammed Hijab, like Subboor Ahmad and Hamza Tzortzis, has appeared in many videos debating in “The Speaker’s Corner” of Hyde Park in London. They are active in iERA, a Muslim missionary group that dates to about 2009, founded by followers of Zakir Naik. The video should be understood in this context of dawah, that is, calling people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, to a specific understanding of Islam. On one of his own channels, Abu Safiyyah gives his credentials as “Ustadh Abu Safiyyah graduated from Madinah Islamic University [in Saudi Arabia] with a BA Hons in Hadith & Islamic Sciences. The Shaykh has numerous Ijazat in various disciplines as well as a prominent list of teachers. He currently resides in London, UK.”
The clips of Zakir Naik are from his “Qur’an and Modern Science” lecture at Chennai, India, on 12 January 2008.
Islam: Although the speakers repeatedly state they are trying to be “academically honest”, there is no discussion here of where they have found the tafsīr material they present, or how others might understand it. There is little discussion of how these tafsīr narratives vary over time and space. As such, there is little reason to accept this material as some kind of complete understanding of the Qurʾān. It also must be noted that Mohammed Hijab often conflates the text of the Qurʾān with “Islam”, whatever he understands that to be. The Arabic text of the Qurʾān is understood as a major source of Islam as a whole, but it has never been the entirety of that material. In this sense, although the video frequently makes claims about being “academically honest”, the speakers, particularly Hijab, do not thoroughly understand academic discussions of religion or Islam.
Science: There is the suggestion here that somehow every individual, of whatever religious faith (or no religious faith) must somehow maintain complete coherence in the various parts of their life, so that as a scientist is working, their religious beliefs somehow come into play. For many individuals, there is little effort to create this kind of coherence: when they are at work, thinking about science, they give little thought to religion and vice versa. This is well know in the academic study of religion. The scientific method has little to say about metaphysical issues that religion typically addresses. The entire discussion here is framed to fit this construction, perhaps because of the popularity of Muslim preachers presenting these scientific “miracles” as some sort of proof, rather than allowing the coincidence of meanings to operate on the level of believers’ faith (or not).
History: As has been pointed out in Stop Spamming’s critique of this video, the labelling here of Maurice Bucaille as a “Egyptologist” is completely wrong. There have been multiple scholarly surveys of Bucaille’s work, including the influence of his discussions on Zakir Naik.