The Role of Faith and Science in the Development of Civilisations

This article is taken from a talk at the ‘Islam, Science and Scientism: International Conference’ at the British Muslim Heritage Centre in Manchester, UK, on the 27th – 28th April 2013.

Speech written and delievered by Professor Adel Sharif UK

Bismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm

Good afternoon. I am absolutely delighted to be here to talk about a very close subject to my heart is faith and science. I am an engineer using scientific knowledge and inspired part by faith for the service of the society. I am fortunately to be preceded by two distinguished speakers who helped me a lot actually to avoid some of their background definitions, but to me when I refer here to the science, to me is all organized knowledge in any discipline is science, and that applies to not just the natural or physical sciences but also to every organized knowledge in a formal for discipline that can be used for this political management and so on.

And also in my own subject I think it’s also reasonable to try to find a link between the faith I am committed to and practice and science and convert it to something useful. Is there a link between faith and science in general? And interestingly, the first chapter, or the first verse relieved to Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu alayhi wa sallam) in the Qur’an says: “Read in the Name of the Lord and Cherisher { اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ} and then he goes on to say; “He who had taught the use of the pen, taught men that which is known not.” And I think that’s a fundamental starting point that it was mentioned briefly in the previous talks and I will try to give more example on this, fundamentally about the knowledge;

  • Do we create knowledge?
  • Or we discover knowledge?

And I think needs some reflection that most scientist would agree that we can only discover knowledge. There is also another verse of the Qur’an, the most conscious of Allah are the knowledgeable .The scientist, but when I say the scientist here, I am talking about the general meaning (إِنَّمَا يَخْشَى اللَّهَ مِنْ عِبَادِهِ الْعُلَمَاءُ). But also I will go down to what other people said. Interestingly Albert Einstein said “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”, and it’s blind faith. But I humbly said here that science with faith is vision. And will try to explain or fully provide some examples through the talk whether what is the case.

Interestingly this process being around for a long time, being around 50,000 – 60,000, maybe less than a hundred thousand years, and during this process we have involved or developed or progressed from the hunter age at the very beginning to where we are now, which I believe is the information age. And interestingly looking to that diagram graph it is shows that time scale with the period of each age is getting shorter. But if you look at for example on the right hand of the y-axis scale it is increasing our capabilities, tools, critical mass really help making those sort of leaps and progress, which shows where we standing today the information age which really give us for the first time access to all the knowledge; previous and current, made the world or has made the world is almost like a small village. It gave us tools which we never thought, we have never dreamt of having.

It is also true to say that we may not be the most genius or the most clever compared to previous people but we certainly have more tools than they had. And we certainly have more capability of doing more things that they did it. It is also part of that critical part of that capabilities is the critical mass. We have more people now looking to the same problem, certainly will find the solution quicker. And I have even personal experiences of this and it is also true that, if you want a solution to a problem or quicker solution to a problem make it everybody else’s problem, because when its own your problem you might not be able to solve it forever. When it is everyone else’s problem there might be a solution, and certainly will be a quicker solution.

But this information age where we are now, where will take us to? We all have the inspiration the hope all theories, all ideologies looked to that what we call sustainable age. Whether it is from the non-believer’s point of view or whether the believer’s point of view they call it for example The Kingdom of God on Earth or the State of God on Earth or the sustainable age, we all human have those inspirations to reach the stage or a humanity, reach the stage where we achieve that sort of social justice, fairness, prosperity, environmentally friendly society, sustainable society. We all have the inspirations. Even if we don’t live or even we believe we don’t live to that stage but we all have the desire to contribute to that stage and the question whether we will reach that sustainable age or not. I am great believer we will but when that’s also depends on us.

As I said I am pleased I was preceded by two distinguished speakers who told us what knowledge is and all the process associated with acquiring knowledge and the rest of it. But also as I said science is organised knowledge and this is definition by the philosopher Herbert Spencer which I agree obviously our second speakers elaborated more and gave more elaboration on the what we mean by, how this process, how this organised knowledge comes. But this knowledge actually is used to be truth, so we are not talking about, when we talk about knowledge we are talking about truth, we are not talking about knowledge that which is not truth. But again as we heard and you know that knowledge acquisition involved very complex process, which is deception, learning, communication association reasoning and so on. And then goes back to what we just said earlier: Do we create knowledge or we can only or we only acquire or discover knowledge? I think it is reasonable and it is fair to say that no I don’t think any scientist would claim that they create knowledge. Otherwise, every scientist will create his/her knowledge and will be in such a mess.

So we all agree knowledge is out there. We can only discover it, but also this tell us something very interesting this knowledge must come from one source because if the knowledge come from different sources then we have contradictions and inconsistency and I found from science that the laws I applied in the lab the same laws can be applied in the ocean, the same laws can applied in every corner of the universe. So this consistency of the knowledge of the truth it must come from one source.

What’s the meaning of knowledge from the religious point of view and I am really giving example here to Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. Any Christianity, Catholism or Evangelism knowledge is one if seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, fair enough. But there is no elaboration, we need to know actually what, obviously it is a gift and it is a very important gift. Hindus scriptures present two kind of knowledge, second hand knowledge which is one obtained from books, here say a knowledge when out of direct experience, inspiration, revelation, imagination. We didn’t hear because that’s very important process in gaining a new knowledge.

Interestingly in Islam the word “ilm علم ” is giving great significance, the all knowing, Al-Alim العلم . So the Qur’an is saying that knowledge comes from God obviously. Islamic scholars, theologists, jurists, as well as scientists; natural, pure scientist, you name it, they all called it or added title to the word title; ālim which means knowledgeable. So here when I am refer to the science, I refer to that sort of broader context of organised knowledge, the structure and the discipline.

Science and belief. We all know belief is subjective personal basis for individual behaviour, while we know the truth is an objective state independent of an individual. Doesn’t matter what we think about, if it is truth, it is a truth. But belief we can have whichever belief we have. Interestingly philosophy has traditionally defined knowledge as justified true belief. Because the whole concept of philosophy is based on the truth; looking for the fact, searching for the truth. So the relationship between belief and knowledge is that a belief is the knowledge, if it is true. So if the belief is consistent with the truth it is therefore is knowledge. A false belief therefore is not considered to be knowledge even if it is sincere. Since we said earlier that science is organised knowledge, then a true belief is knowledge and therefore it is a science. And that’s really using scientist’s definitions of knowledge and science.

Now if we want to come to that subject of science and faith here. Science is the system where beliefs are derived from objective methodologies, observations, experimentations, and proof of it. But also we have to accept that all methods of proof whether it is experimentation, observation, hearing, seeing can be quantified, but there is one thing cannot be quantified scientifically is feeling. There is not yet to have a scientific methodology to quantify feeling. And this also put us into the context of a definite foundations of the personality; physical, intellectual, moral and spiritual. So scientific methodologies alone cannot capture all those elements of the personality. Religion is the system of beliefs based on faith. Again, as we said, and if the belief is true it is therefore knowledge and then science and faith are consistent. Because it is knowledge, it is organized knowledge. This excludes interpretations; we are talking about here the truth. Because what we heard for example people interpreting the Qur’an, but that’s their own interpretation, that’s not necessarily mean that it’s a truth. The ultimate truth remained to be for example to be discovered. So that does not exclude that the truth is missing. And this is literally what was summarised by Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu alayhi sallam) sayings. He said a: الدين طاعة الخالق وخدمة المخلوق . Faith or religion is a submission to God and it is service to his creation.

In my position as an engineer using scientific knowledge I can see that actually quite consistent with science and technology, because science for me is knowledge, making me more aware of God and accepting the fact of the existence of God and at the same time technology is a tool to serve the humankind or mankind. So to me this is quite consistent but obviously different interpretations. And again as I said, this is my own view that therefore I see science and technology that they are quite consistent with faith, and they are both true beliefs. Because a scientist will not do, the scientific process unless he believes that it is a truth, otherwise he wouldn’t go and waste your time obviously unless you talk about hypothetical or some purely ethical predictions, but again they must start on sound principles.

We have obviously heard about knowledge, definition of knowledge, but actually, to me also there are levels of knowledge. How we know about a new knowledge, how we see new knowledge, how we acquire new knowledge, how we come to learn about new knowledge. To me there are three levels of new knowledge to us. One is miracles. The definition here from the Oxford dictionary: an event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs and extremely outstanding or unusual event thing or accomplishment. But to me it can also be an external event that follows natural laws and principles which have not discovered yet. Why? Because it is stated clearly in the Qur’an, and I must say here the Qur’an is not a science book. It contains scientific facts, but it is scientific, it means it is consistent. Because the characteristic of a scientific book in any subject it must be consistent. So the events that follow because again in the Qur’an says: “Everything happens with the reason” and we believe as a scientist everything must have a reason and that what we are in search of that reasons which we haven’t discovered. Why we are here? What’s the purpose of creation? We haven’t found answers to those questions, but doesn’t mean actually those answers will never have their answers, that those questions will never have an answer. We haven’t been able to provide the answer but as we evolve and as our tools become as we have more capabilities and tools and that what’s Allah said(سَنُرِيهِمْ آيَاتِنَا فِي الْآفَاقِ). It means it is continuous process because there is a limit to how much we know. And there is a limit to how much we can comprehend. So those are principles once they are known, and I give very simple example on these: if somebody a hundred years ago talk about mobile phone or the iPhone, it would be a miracle, but because the principles now known to us mobile phone is not a miracle. Imagine if anybody to drive his Ferrari and pass on by one of the companion of Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu alayhi wasallam), just imagine that sort of dream or vision. You would be thinking this is a dream? But to us today driving a car or going around is not a miracle, because the principles are known. And there are so many examples here of miracles which is we haven’t found the reason yet and probably many years to come before you find reason whether there is the virgin birth of Mary, whether there is the crossing of the sea of Moses, what a many of the extraordinary events which we heard about or sometimes even saw in our own life.

There is another level of knowledge which is the lower level – discovery. Making known, revelation, disclosing a new knowledge and that’s a very different from the existing knowledge. A new discovery, where this come from? And who it come about it. Does it come to everybody? The answer is no. Because it needs a prepared mind. There is something determined that process. Non-believers call it “pure chance”. And they say interestingly “pure chance favours the prepared mind”. And I really stood there thinking that if it is the chance, it should not have a choice. Because if it has a choice then it is not a chance anymore. So how could it be a chance and favours the prepared mind. And there are many examples of a new knowledge. Discovery of gravity, discovery of electricity, discovery of penicillin, discovery of all discoveries are a new knowledge.

There is a third lower level of new knowledge. And will be a forth level, invention; use existing knowledge known knowledge to making new products, new process and so on. Cars for example, telephones, computers, chairs, everything we have, this is invention, these are not discoveries. And there is also lower level of that knowledge what you call it incremental knowledge. And that’s what a scientific community all these publication we do, all these understanding, all this experimentation sometimes provide incremental understanding. And incremental increase of that knowledge, so you can’t just say is all one, no. Its different levels.

Obviously, and we heard from Robert first the relationship has not been very sweet between science and faith or science and religion for obvious reasons. There is a conflict, some group which see a conflict. There is non-compatibility. Also this is view taken by many scientists in our day today. And don’t blame them to certain extent. There is also the view of independence that treating each as quite separate realms of enquiry. There are people who leading that campaign. And there is also the dialogue but also there is the integration between faith and religion, aiming to unify both fields into a single discourse. Obviously, I am in favour of the integration. And why? Why would there be or there need to be an integration between faith and science? What’s the point? What I found in my research of the topic that interestingly one of the most important characteristic of the believer is believing in the unseen:
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم (الم (١) ذَلِكَ الْكِتَابُ لَا رَيْبَ فِيهِ هُدًى لِلْمُتَّقِينَ (٢) الَّذِينَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِالْغَيْبِ) “This is the book, in its guide and ensure without doubt to those who are most lover of Allah, who believe in unseen .” What’s this to do with science? Because the intellectual curiosity is discovering the unknown. So if I believe there is unknown, there is something out there I haven’t discovered. I have every reason to believe I would discovered one day. But I am not left alone in this process interestingly. The second verse tells me that the one who is the believer and most fear of Allah, Allah will make a way for him out and will provide for him from where he does not expect.
وَمَن يَتَّقِ اللَّهَ يَجْعَل لَّهُ مَخْرَجًا وَيَرْزُقْهُ مِنْ حَيْثُ لَا يَحْتَسِبُ} } For me as a scientist, what I need from that’s faith or that God, I want new knowledge. ( وَقُلْ رَبِّ زِدْنِي عِلْمًا).

Say if we came to the point obviously I am not saying for everyone, but those who believe that, this knowledge is out there created by God how to access it and then suddenly I found this which give me the reason to qualify to access this knowledge. I have become much more confident and comfortable. And these goes back what I said earlier, that faith with science is a vision. So now I am certain, if I have a problem to solve and I know there is solution out there I am more confident than anyone else or than the other side. Then somebody might ask the question said: but this is not a fair God. How could for example; God gives you but doesn’t give someone else. Because actually it’s you don’t believe it, you don’t believe there is something out there. So how could you find it, it is nothing to do with God, is to do with the personal belief. The idea of the faith is believing in the unknown, in acquiring a new knowledge believing in the unknown. So it is nothing to do with the fairness of God, is to do with our own understanding of things around us. But the same time actually I came across also invention is looking to what everyone is looking at, but seeing what no one else is seeing.

Again it’s kind of inspiration. No one on Earth can be in control of inspiration. And no one can tell you how to be inspired, it is your own way of interacting with the world around you and use the knowledge and use your faith. And as I said earlier discovery is happening by pure chance, but chance favours the prepared mind which I mentioned this earlier.

Now I want to move on and give examples of faith. I will go quickly through examples of faith and inspired discoveries and inventions. Well I am going to skip this, but I must say I came from Iraq which obviously for most of you is a cradle of civilisation and interestingly if you try to find a linkage between faith and civilisation we all know about Abraham who lived in the Ur of the Chaldees. Because of the time, I am going to move quickly. We heard obviously the contribution of Islamic Civilisation to science and again when we say Islamic Civilisation we are not talking about here a specific race, so it is not can an Arab or a Persian or a Turkish, but it is the contribution of all Muslims or non-Muslims who even lived in that part because the centre activity throughout the history moved from one place to the other. So just to be clear that when we say Islamic, there are Christians, there were Christians, there were Jews who contributed to that civilisation. Similarly there were Arabs and non-Arabs contributed to that and that’s the centre of activity was Baghdad at that time and the place called “The House of Wisdom” during the Abbasid Caliphate Al-Ma’mun.

We have examples of faith inspired discoveries and invention. Al-Khwārizmī and we all know and we have a scientist here who specialize in subject tell us more about Al-Khwārizmī in the next two days of the next talks of conference. You all know the word “Algorism” is now actually named after the Al-Khwārizmī who lived in my birthplace Kufa which again I would like one day this place to become known again to the world for its good contribution. We have another example of faith-inspired discoveries and invention and I said why I said the faith can inspire because Al-Khwārizmī was told at that time one of the things in the Islamic history and Islamic thought is heritage and it is a complex process and the Qur’an left no way or place for interpretation. Sometimes goes by the division, by the fractions and during that time Al-Khwārizmī is the religious scholar as well as mathematician and a scientist and as an astrologist, and an astronomer and he was told to find the way to make things easy for people to calculate the amount of a heritage for each person and he invented the algebra and the algebraic equation and even then twelve hundred years ago was to solve the quadratic equation and find the solution to quadratic equation. Which is some people will now struggle to understand how to drive the solution and obviously, there was an interest to find about the direction of Ka’bah and some other things.

So religious scholars were curious to find to put the knowledge into practice and to use. And I was really surprised to hear unless he invented completely differently by our second speaker that he said there was no science during the first period of the Muslim Ummah, because I don’t know what he refers the natural, physical, experimental science or you know the structural knowledge which is applied to various fields of life. But that’s we can discuss during the discussion session. Again, we have another example of Jabir bin Hayyan and his famous reference to his teacher or scholar Ja’far al-Sadiq, Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq and he is obviously arguably the father of chemistry although this is obviously debatable among all scholars. Again, we have Ibn al-Haytham and the rest I am not going to go through them.

We have example of Western civilization and again I will go quickly through some of the famous name in Christianity, in Christian-European who inspired to me by the faith more than anything else and we have great scientist, I mean we have Albert Einstein, any interestingly I want to say the answers simply the provide as God but again the time is not enough to go through these details. We have Newton, he was very committed to faith and he said actually once he was challenged about the view of the oneness of Allah or of the unity of Allah, he replied he said he could write more on the subject, but the principles are not known for people to understand it. And obviously he has his famous saying: “The gravity explains the motions of the planet, but it does not and cannot explain who set the planets in motion. Obviously that a subject which is not beyond todays discussion.

I want just try to summarize with the one minute reflect my own experience with faith and science. And you all familiar with “Millennium goal”. Without going through them. There are eight, and those set on two thousand and expectation that by 2015 we would achieve the eight of them. An interestingly when look of those aims or those goals of the “Millennium goals” we found actually water, energy and food, plays an important role. And these for me where I place myself to use my faith and the knowledge the scientific knowledge, whether we can come up with the solution to those three challenging problems. Again time does not permit to explain the diagram completely, I will go immediately to the verse in the Qur’an, which is interestingly come, from the chapter “The Merciful” “Al-Rahman “, and in verse nineteen it says:
(مَرَجَ الْبَحْرَيْنِ يَلْتَقِيَانِ * بَيْنَهُمَا بَرْزَخٌ لَا يَبْغِيَانِ)ِ “When two sea meet there is a barrier between them,” that’s what the Qur’an said.

But interestingly when I am looking to the Arabic words, because I understand the language, it is much more general than just the sea and the fresh water. When it says maraj mean dense, mean that every two solution of different densities there is a barrier between them, which means in scientific term in physical term when there is a barrier between any two bodies it means there must be a potential energy to prevent them from getting together. When there is a barrier between here this room and the outside, which is the wall, in order for me to go through the wall I have to spend more energy than the potential of the wall itself. Which means there is a potential energy in the wall. When there is a barrier between dense solution and less dense solution it means there is a potential energy. The question can we convert that potential energy into something useful and the answer is yes. And that’s coming really almost like a battery which is the base of most of our inventions and processes. Where we can use any two solutions of different densities when we extract power and use that power for what as for electricity or for water or putting the two together for food. And that’s what example of faith inspired activities scientific activities where we can put science scientific knowledge with the understanding of your faith and their expression of faith to use something useful.

I will conclude here, to say to me there is no conflict between faith and science. But the same time God cannot be explained by equations and numbers. And that I think is fundamental point. If scientist try to explain God by equations it doesn’t work like these, because mathematics, and we have a mathematician here and I am sure there are many in the audience, mathematics cannot quantify feeling, cannot even tell us the picture only ethnology and recently some development and maths tell us the vision as well. Maths can give us numbers but does not give us you know. Science obviously cannot provide the answer to all questions, I am just concluding. Our current understanding of both of science and religion and are not complete i.e. we do not have the ultimate truth on both. Hence the learning journey should go on. Again to me is the faith inspires science that would allow us to enhance our understanding of both and advance the human mission. I believe the human mission will reach its goal and achieving the sustainable age and if I conclude here with final personal statement I believe is the inspiration of my faith and events in my home country Iraq as well as the opportunity given to me in my host country the UK, which allowed me to put the knowledge I acquired in my subjects whether it is water, energy and food for the benefit of humanity and a whole being of mankind.

Thank you.