Science and Religion

Does Faith Constrain Progress and Use of Science

Salman Ahmed Shaikh

Does faith require abandoning reason, reflecting on the matter, searching for physical answers and finding physical solutions? As per religion, using material means, experimentally proven knowledge and medication is not problematic. For instance, in psychological disorders and problems, the cure needs to be searched in medication rather than spiritual exercises alone.

Religion is not just concerned with psychological and spiritual medication and meditation. It is concerned essentially with the question of why life and for what purpose. The religious answer based on historically transmitted knowledge is that we are created by the Creator and Who will reward us justly in the afterlife. The afterlife will actualize the cause and effect in ethical matters and establish absolute justice which we desire for every action and intention. Qur’an repeatedly reminds of the blessings of Allah in the form of matter and mind which we use for our comforts and cures. After using the matter and mind which exists not because of our efforts, how rational and ethical it is that we remain not only thankless, but negate the one Who is to be thanked altogether.

The sole purpose of religion is not to be a psychological panacea or just a little bit more numerous, better and different social set of norms. It is concerned with questions of why life and for what purpose. Both matter and mind exist without us creating them. We merely use them without being the original creators of those things.

Internal to us, we have an urge to find meaning to life and our existence. Our consciousness asks for a suitable explanation. Have we come to exist by chance? It is highly unlikely given the extremely accurate conditions required in numerous factors for the life to exist. The human mind suggests that there should be a Creator for everything which is not its own creator. Therefore, faith in God is not based on speculative conjecture of ‘god of the gaps’. Taking a position that there must be a Creator of this universe is a logical answer instead of believing in existence due to blind random forces.

To complement our internal urge to believe in a Creator, we are also provided guidance external to us. Allah has introduced Himself through His books and messengers (pbut). Qur’an, the most authentic and the last divine book in presenting basic premise of Islam focuses our attention on some aspects of nature. Modern science instead of undermining faith has actually found nothing inconsistent about these statements with established facts of science.

Nowhere in Islam, is it said that one should replace physical efforts with mere supplication. Islam urges Muslims to explore and use nature for societal well-being and pursue economic sustenance. Tremendous advances in science happened in the heyday of Muslim civilization which stopped partly due to genocide and massacre carried out in Crusades and in the invasion of Baghdad by Mongols. Those who took science further in West were also mostly religious people for a long period of time.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a noted Physicist, asks that if Salat-e-Istasqa is performed, then why it does not rain often? He wrote: “The equations of fluid flow, not the number of earnest supplicants or quality of their prayers, determine weather outcomes.” The answer is that Salat-e-Istisqa is a voluntary prayer to ask Allah’s blessings. Collective performance of this prayer is not the replacement of physical efforts or understanding of physical phenomena. It only serves as a moment of reflection and reminder for the people who pray. For instance, when Qur’an says that Allah provides sustenance, it does not imply that we sit idle and do not engage in Kasb-e-Halal (legitimate economic enterprise). Likewise, if physical efforts or physical understanding can help in dealing with physical problems, then all efforts towards these ends shall be undertaken.

The real and fruitful jurisdiction of science is to understand matter for its effective use by developing working and functional hypotheses, testing them and refining them to achieve this objective. Stephen Hawking explains:

“Any physical theory is always provisional, in the sense that it is only a hypothesis: you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory.[i]

Norman Campbell in his book “What is Science” writes that at no time, can it be claimed that science has reached the final and conclusive stage of reality in the analysis. This is not even claimed in the most contemporary sciences. It is accepted that for any law, which seems plausible currently, it is still possible that the causal relation it explains is subject to change in future. He further writes that there certainly are problems and even practical ones where science cannot help us decide one way or the other. In serving people’s needs, one of the biggest hurdles is that these limitations of science are not well understood. When sometimes science has been undermined or overlooked, it has happened because the scope of science has been unduly broadened to areas where it does not belong to and this has caused damage to the cause of science.

Albert Einstein in his essay ‘Religion and Science: Irreconcilable?’ writes: “The function of setting up goals and passing statements of value transcends its domain”. He further writes: “The independent and fundamental definitions regarding goals and values remain beyond science’s reach.” Also, Norman Campbell in his book ‘What is Science’ states that like all bodies of knowledge, science has it limits and there are some external problems, whose nature is such that science cannot help in resolving them. This should never be overlooked. Despite helping us to understand the external world, science cannot give us even a clue as to how we should use a particular force or energy[ii].

Stephen Hawking once said: “I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look around carefully before they cross the road.” Religious faith does not mean that after accepting faith, one can walk on water, fly in the air or defy physical limits in any other sense. Religion concerns moral content in choices made with free will. Repeatedly, Qur’an asks people to strive for knowledge, discovery, exploration and virtuous livelihood. Nowhere there is a restriction on planning or in using material resources bestowed by the Creator.

Islam and science are not at odds as commonly perceived. According to World Values Survey Sixth Wave results, 32.73% Muslim respondents completely agreed that science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier, and more comfortable as compared to 24.89% others citing the same opinion. The opinion was asked of respondents on a 10-point rating scale where 1 represented completely disagreed and 10 represented completely agreed. It is interesting to note that 80.13% Muslim respondents chose response between 6 to 10 on the scale as compared to 78.25% others choosing the similar response.


[i] Hawking, S. W. (1996), “The Illustrated: A Brief History of Time”. London: Bantam.

[ii] Campbell, N. R. (1952). “What is Science?”. New York: Dover Publications.


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