The Scientific Exegesis of The Qur'an: 
A Case Study in  Relating Science and Scripture


Rohm and Haas Company
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From: PSCF 45 (June 1993): 90-95.

The "scientific exegesis" approach to the Qur'an, which is currently very popular in the Muslim world, has enough similarities to certain Christian approaches to the Bible that it can afford Christians insight into our own situation. In this paper the themes and theses of Qur'anic scientific exegesis are detailed, noting the apologetic motivations behind them. Next the problems with this approach, both on an exegetical and a philosophical level, are presented, highlighting especially the scientism underlying it. The article concludes that inward and outward apologetic concerns are poorly served by a scientific exegesis approach.

Those Christians who have, as I, lived for a time in the Muslim world know that few Muslims share the modern Western shyness about religion as a topic of conversation. Muslims are almost uniformly happy to talk about what they perceive as the superiority of Islam over all other religions, including, of course, Christianity. In modern Islamic apologetics, on a popular level, if not always in more scholarly works, science plays an important role. Perhaps the best known proponent of this kind of apologetic approach is the French surgeon Maurice Bucaille, a convert to Islam in his middle age, whose first book, The Bible, the Qur'an and Science,1 has been translated into roughly a dozen languages and has been a longstanding best-seller in the Muslim world since its initial publication in 1976.

In this book Bucaille argues that, while the Bible is full of scientific and other errors, the Qur'an is replete with accurate scientific descriptions which were not known at the time of its writing (7th century A.D.), descriptions which prove its divine origin. Although this kind of approach is not particularly new in Islam,2 the force of Bucaille's writings and perhaps his Western background have made him very popular in wide segments of the Muslim world, to the point that one magazine associated with resurgent Islam has called him a "renowned exegete" of the Qur'an,3 while some Muslim detractors complain about "Bucaillism."4

One irony of Bucaille's approach is that in his analysis he uses exegetical methods quite different from those of classical Islam, methods which would probably in fact be destructive to Islam if applied systematically. For example, his discussion of the Bible draws heavily on modern Western anti-supernaturalist treatments of the Bible, based on evolutionary models of the development of religion. These models are at odds not only with Biblical teachings, but even more with Qur'anic teachings about revelation.5 This higher critical approach, often used on the Bible, is (somewhat arbitrarily) not applied to the Qur'an. With regard to the Qur'an, Bucaille proposes new meanings for Qur'anic words to bring them into accord with modern scientific knowledge, without requiring any standard philological justification.6 To Bucaille's many admirers, the apologetic ends evidently seem sufficient to justify the means used in this kind of "scientific exegesis."

In this paper I propose to take a broad look at the scientific exegesis of the Qur'an, in the hope that it will be instructive to evangelical Christians. Being essentially a critique of a tradition other than our own, it is removed enough from us that we can look at it without much emotional involvement. At the same time, there are enough parallels with our own situation that we might hope to draw some practical lessons from the study.

Important Similarities and Differences Between the Traditions

As monotheistic religions, Islam and Christianity share a number of common features. For the purposes of this study, perhaps the most important similarities concern the relationship of God's Word and God's world. For both religions, at least according to traditional understandings, God has spoken in an authoritative Scripture. But this same God is also the Creator of the universe. Since God's written word and the created order have one Author, there ought to be some kind of compatibility between them.

The two traditions also have some parallel hermeneutical methods and challenges. Classical Islam and evangelical Christianity are both committed to interpreting their respective Scriptures according to similar grammatico-historical methods. Furthermore, in both traditions Scripture is set in a cultural setting (or settings, in the case of the Bible) very different from those of the 20th century. This leads to certain tensions both in understanding Scripture and in applying it to modern life. Though the precise situations vary from place to place, there is a universal necessity to continually interact with Scripture in the face of modern questions and concerns.

At the same time, there are also profound differences between the traditions. With regard to the doctrine of Scripture, for instance, the Muslim idea of inspiration is fundamentally different from the Biblical picture. This difference is illustrated by the fact that for Muslims, the "Logos," the eternally existent Word, is the Qur'an, while for Christians the Logos is the person of Jesus himself. While the Bible is understood by Christians to have both human and divine elements, the Qur'an is held to be purely divine, without any human element whatsoever. Thus Muslims hold to a sort of "dictation" theory of Scripture. This, incidentally, makes Muslim apologetics a somewhat more fragile enterprise than Christian apologeticsˇfor to admit the Qur'an contains any human element automatically discredits it.

The Qur'an differs from the Bible in that it is set in a monocultural context, seventh-century Arabia, rather than in a variety of cultures, places and times. While the Qur'an has many stories about past prophets, including many biblical characters, its stories are essentially ahistorical, and it lacks the overall historical emphasis of the Bible. The Qur'an also does not have the range of literary genres within it that the Bible does.

Another important difference between the traditions is that Muslims believe deeply in the inherent rationality of true religion. This idea, which often underlies the Muslim discomfort with certain Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, follows naturally from the Muslim rejection of the idea of total depravity. For Muslims, man is naturally born Muslim (i.e. submissive to God), and his intellect is not fallen. In practice this conviction may lead Muslims to more optimism and less suspicion of human intellectual constructs than Christians might have.

Theses of the Scientific ExegetesˇWith Christian Parallels

  1. The "compatibility" thesis: There are no contradictions between God's Word and modern science.

This is really a starting presupposition, rather than a demonstrable thesis. It is based on the conviction noted above that God is author of both the cosmos and His word. The main alternatives to this presupposition are "conflict" or "compartmental" approaches which would fail to take seriously either science or Scripture. Thus this compatibility thesis seems to be an eminently reasonable operating principle for the believer. It is voiced explicitly in many Muslim writings, although it is often, as in Bucaille's books, presented as a criterion for proving divine inspiration, or as a demonstrated thesis, rather than as a presupposition.7

One practical issue that arises from this presupposition is how apparent science-Scripture conflicts are to be handled. Are my understandings of both Scripture and science open to question and revision, or in practice is only one of these understandings open to change? Christian "scientific creationism" can be viewed as an approach where only the scientific understanding is questioned.8 In Muslim writings, the issue is often resolved by reinterpreting the Qur'an to fit science. This is generally painless, since most Qur'anic references to natural phenomena are phenomenological descriptions, i.e. based on the appearances of things, aimed at reminding the believer of God's great power or some other attribute. Their "scientific" interpretation can freely change with changing scientific notions, since this is incidental to the purpose of the passage.9 Furthermore, the Qur'anic passages are not as detailed as the Biblical creation and flood narratives, for instance, and do not tend to have doctrinal significance.

Practically, how are apparent science-Scripture 
conflicts to be handled? 
Are my understandings of both Scripture and science 
open to question and revision, 
or in practice is only one of these understandings open to change?

Because the compatibility thesis makes no reference to the amount of scientific information to be found in Scripture, it is not really a thesis of a full-fledged scientific exegesisˇit does not go far enough. It is, however, consistent with a number of possible approaches to exegesis:

 ˇa compartmental approach which completely decouples "spiritual" and "scientific" kinds of knowledge, limiting Scripture to the former;

ˇa phenomenological approach to the text which seeks to understand the Scriptural texts referring to natural phenomena in the context of the common knowledge bank of the original recipients of the word; and

ˇa scientific exegesis approach which seeks detailed scientific information in Scriptural texts.

The concordist approach, as I define it here, 
goes far beyond simply treating science and Scripture 
as compatible or complementary. It sees them, at least in some areas, 
teaching substantially the same thing.

2. The "concordist" thesis: Scripture contains scientific teachings, in the 20th century Western sense.

The concordist approach, as I define it here, goes far beyond simply treating science and Scripture as compatible or complementary. It sees them, at least in some areas, teaching substantially the same thing. Thus the references to natural phenomena in Scripture are regarded as scientific statements, in the modern sense of the word "scientific," rather than as merely phenomenological descriptions which have no scientific intent. That is, these passages are held to contain scientific teachings in addition to teachings about more "religious" subjects. In the case of passages about origins, the demarcation between the scientific and the religious is somewhat fuzzy, and it is not surprising that these passages are often approached in a concordist spirit. But some Muslims approach all Qur'anic passages referring to natural phenomena, even those which appeal to common things as examples of God's power or other attributes, in this way. For example, the Tunisian physicist Bashir Torki sees in the Qur'anic references to the "seven earths" an allusion to the seven Bravais crystal lattices,10 while references to the succession of night and day and the earth are viewed by the Egyptian El Fandy as teaching the rotation of the earth on its axis and the flattening of the earth at the poles.11 In one extreme example, even an explicitly symbolic passage likening God to a lamp in a niche is seen as an allusion to an incandescent light bulb.12

The whole debate whether Genesis 1 teaches  
a "Gap theory"  or seven 24 hour days  or a "day-age" 
approach  already presupposes a concordist approach to the text.

As an example of a more moderate concordist approach, the Moroccan paleontologist ElKbir Saaidi attempts a synthesis of scientific and Qur'anic teachings about human origins.13 He is willing to allow a substantial amount of biological evolution, including for man, yet insists, based on Qur'anic passages, on a separate origin for man. Since the Qur'anic passages about the "fall" of Adam and Eve imply a literal fall from somewhere, he speculates that humanity was evolved on another planet, then was transported later by God to Earth (the fall), to join the rest of the plants and animals. Saaidi is moderate in the sense that he does not generally see detailed scientific descriptions in the Qur'anic passages, and seems to seek to minimize the amount of reinterpretation of both Scripture and science which is necessary to achieve harmony between the two. If there is apparent conflict, his tendency is to make science bend to fit his understanding of Scripture, rather than the other way around.

There are obvious parallels here with the scientific creationism movement in evangelical Christianity. What is perhaps useful to note is that the underlying concordist assumption, that the early chapters of Genesis provide a scientific description of the mechanism of creation, is shared by far more people than simply those holding to seven 24 hour days of creation. The whole debate whether Genesis 1 teaches a "Gap theory" or seven 24 hour days or a "day-age" approach already presupposes a concordist approach to the text.14 The heat generated in some evangelical circles by those proposing a more literary or "framework" approach to the text indicates how deeply ingrained concordist assumptions run. This suggests that we have, to a larger extent than we might realize, bought into a scientistic way of thinking which holds that it is the scientific questions and descriptions which are the really important ones.

3.  The "veiled reference" thesis: Scripture contains references which can only fully be understood by modern science.

We have all heard of Biblical verses predicting helicopters, nuclear weapons, and Christmas trees, and some Muslim writers have been able to find equally spectacular predictions in the Qur'an. Among the subjects found by some in certain Qur'anic verses are the incandescent light bulb, the atom bomb, the Sargasso sea, the Hubble expansion of the universe,15 UFO's, the electronic structure of atoms,16 special relativity,17 airplanes, X-rays,18 anti-matter, and black holes.19 In all these entertaining examples it is important to note that, whereas in the concordist approach to origins mentioned above science is often made to fit Scripture, here Scripture is being made to fit science. While both approaches share the concordist assumption that there is a great deal of scientific content in Scripture, in the veiled reference approach this implicit scientism is taken further in that modern science becomes indispensable for a full understanding of the "true" meaning of the text.

The more extreme of these Qur'anic "predictions" seem to embarrass even those who are more moderate practitioners of the art. Yet the popularity of this approach should not be underestimated. It seems to have been a major factor in the conversion of Maurice Bucaille to Islam, and he makes it one of the major theses of his best-selling book: "Modern scientific knowledge therefore allows us to understand certain verses of the Qur'an which, until now, it has been impossible to interpret."20 Though Bucaille is relatively restrained in finding scientific predictions in the Qur'an, he nevertheless touches on human reproduction and embryology, the origin of life, the water cycle, the orbits of the sun and moon, space travel, protogalactic nebulae, and the physiology of digestion.

In the "veiled reference" approach, this implicit scientism 
is taken further in that modern science becomes indispensable 
for a full understanding of the "true" meaning of the text.

It is clear that the veiled reference approach, in its moderate form at least, is quite acceptable to most of the Muslim communityˇdespite its tendency towards eisegesis, or reading into the text, in violation of well-established rules for Qur'anic interpretation.21 This can only be understood in the light of its perceived apologetic benefits. The veiled reference thesis therefore goes hand in hand with the last thesis, the "verification" thesis.

4. The "verification" thesis: Modern science proves/verifies the divine origin of Scripture.

This thesis, even when it is not made explicit, is the driving force for the "veiled reference" approach to Scripture. Bucaille, for one, states it plainly in his conclusion:22

In view of the state of knowledge in Muhammad's day, it is inconceivable that many of the statements in the Qur'an which are connected with science could have been the work of a man. It is moreover, perfectly legitimate, not only to regard the Qur'an as the expression of a Revelation, but also to award it a very special place on account of the guarantee of authenticity it provides and the presence in it of scientific statements which, when studied today, appear as a challenge to human explanation.

Although Bucaille's works are given regularly to non-Muslims and ostensibly aim at convincing skeptics, the primary apologetic benefit seems to be derived by Muslims. Bucaille's fame as an Qur'anic exegete suggests that the Muslim community feels uneasy about the impact of Western science and technology on its way of life, both on an intellectual and a societal level. If Bucaille breaks some hermeneutical rules, the repercussions seem minor and on the whole the apologetic ends justify the means.

Critiques of Scientific Exegesis

Scientific exegesis suffers from serious problems both on hermeneutical and philosophical levels. On the hermeneutical level, i.e. in terms of the detailed process of interpreting particular texts, I have already noted a strong tendency toward eisegesis. At best, this is a sloppy habit which evidences a lack of respect for Scripture, a failure to take it seriously as God's word to us. At worst, the process can lead to all kinds of doctrinal error when it is applied to other passages, which is surely one reason why hermeneutics as a discipline was developed in both the Muslim and Christian traditions.

The products of the scientific exegesis process may also produce consequences other than those intended. Detailed harmonizations of science with particular passages may cause Scripture to be discredited if science changes. As one Muslim critic points out, "What if a particular theory, which is 'confirmed' by the Qur'an, is in vogue today but abandoned tomorrow for another theory which presents an opposite picture? Does that mean that the Qur'an is valid today but will not be valid tomorrow?"23 Worse, perhaps, is the danger that we may miss the major teachings and thrusts of a key passage of Scripture by asking the wrong questions of it and focusing on relatively unimportant scientific details. A comparison of scientific creationist treatments of Genesis with more standard approaches would seem to bear this out.24 The biblical doctrine of creation is truncated when we approach Scripture from a too narrowly scientific mindset.

Worse, perhaps,  is the danger that we may miss the 
major teachings and thrusts of a key passage of Scripture 
by asking the wrong questions of it and focusing on 
relatively unimportant scientific details.

On a philosophical level, I have already mentioned that a deep-rooted scientism underlies the scientific exegesis approach. The questions asked of the text give science too much importance, and tend to set science up as a judge of Scripture rather than allowing Scripture to judge our scientism.25 Furthermore the tentative and cultural components of science are generally not recognized, which ultimately does both science and Scripture a disservice.

A few perceptive Muslim thinkers have addressed the larger cultural issues facing the Muslim community in its love/hate relationship with Western science and technology. For Sayyed Hussein Nasr, for instance, Islam and the modern West have such fundamental differences in world view that attempting a straightforward fusion of Western science and Islam can only do violence to the latter:26

Faced with the challenge of the modern sciences which are the fruit of a totally different conception of the world, the Muslims must bring into light the Islamic conception of the cosmos if they are to avoid the dangerous dichotomy which results from a superficial "harmony" between the Islamic perspective and the modern sciences to be seen so often in the writings of modern Muslim apologists. If the modern sciences are going to be anything other than an artificial "tail" grafted upon the body of Islam or even an alien element, the ingestion of which may endanger the very life of the Islamic world, the Muslims must find the universal Islamic criteria in the light of which the validity of all the sciences must be judged.

Clearly Christians in the West face a similar dilemma, as we are called to think, speak, and act biblically in what is increasingly a post-Christian culture. While attempts at "superficial harmony" between a biblical world view and science may have a short-term popular appeal, in the end our inward and outward apologetic concerns are poorly served by this kind of approach. We who are both Christians and scientists need to ask God for grace to surmount the scientistic tendencies that affect everyone in our culture, and also to better get the word out as to options for dealing with these issues which are ultimately more faithful both to science and to biblical values.




1 Maurice Bucaille, La Bible, Le Coran, et la Science, (Paris: Seghers, 1976); published in English as The Bible, the Qur'an, and Science, (Indianapolis, Indiana, USA: North American Trust Publishers, 1979); quotes are from the third, revised and expanded (English) edition (Paris: Seghers, no date). See also his L'Hommeˇd'oś Vient-il? (Paris: Seghers, 1981; published in English as What is the Origin of Man? (Paris: Seghers, 1982).

2 One of the first modern critics of scientific exegesis, Sheikh Amin al-Khuli, traces the origin of this kind of approach as far back as Al-Ghazali (11th century A.D.), and the first criticisms of it to Shataibi a few hundred years later ("L'Exegese scientifique du Coran d'apres le Cheikh Amin al-Kholi," Melanges de l'Institut Dominicain des Etudes Orientales (Cairo)), 4, 269 (1957). During this era the Muslim world was engaged in a much broader debate about the proper way to relate Islam and classical Greek philosophy and science; cf. books such as W. Montgomery Watt, The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazali (1953), G. F. Hourani, Averroes on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy (1961), and S. H. Nasr, Three Muslim Sages (1964).

3 The title given to Maurice Bucaille in a byline in the Islamic Press Agency's magazine Arabia (London), (32), (April 1984) p.77.

4 Ziauddin Sardar, "Between Two Masters: Qur'an or Science?," Inquiry (London), (August 1985) p. 37.

5 While there is a certain progressive character to Biblical revelation, the Qur'an teaches that there have been a long series of prophets, including Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus, each of them proclaiming the same religion of Islam. Western approaches which question the historicity of these men, or which view Hebrew monotheism as something developed gradually out of polytheism, flatly contradict Qur'anic teachings.

6 For example Qur'an 96:1,2 is usually translated something like "The Lord... created man out of a clot of congealed blood" (all Qur'anic quotations, unless specified otherwise, are from Yusuf Ali's translation, The Holy Qur'an, Translation and Commentary (United States: American Trust Publications, 1977)). In Bucaille's book the word calaqa, "a blood clot," is redefined to mean "something which clings" to bring the passage more in line with embryology (Bucaille, The Bible, The Qur'an and Science, p. 212, 217-218). Likewise the passage (16:66) saying milk "comes from between excretions and blood" (or, in other translations, "excrement and blood") is transformed to read "[milk comes from] a conjunction between the contents of the intestine and the blood" (Bucaille, p. 209-210).

7 Bucaille (p.17) claims Augustine "formally established the principle║ [that]║ corroboration between the scriptures and science was a necessary element to the authenticity of the sacred text║ Islam has always assumed that the data contained in the Holy Scriptures were in agreement with scientific fact."

8 Sometimes the doctrine of the "inerrancy" of Scripture is assumed to imply that only the scientific understandings are open to question. However, more thoughtful advocates of inerrancy, such as Mois╚s Silva (Has the Church Misread the Bible? (Grand Rapids, MI, Academie (Zondervan) 1987), p. 4, argue that our understandings of both science and Scripture need to be open to revision. Silva points out that the inerrancy of Scripture in no way implies the inerrancy of exegesis.

9 For example, Qur'an 51:47, "With power and skill did we construct the firmament: For it is we who create the vastness of space" is translated as "The heaven, we have built it with power, verily we are expanding it," which is then taken as a reference to the Hubble expansion of the universe (Bucaille, p. 173). Likewise "Have we not made the earth an expanse and the mountains stakes" is said to refer to the thicker crust of the Earth underneath mountainous regions (Bucaille, p. 173).

10 Bashir Torki, L'Islam, la R╚ligion de la Science (Tunis, 1979), pp 128-138.

11 Muhammad Jamaluddin El-Fandy, On Cosmic Verses in the Qur'an (Cairo, Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs), pp. 73-74.

12 Malek Bennabi, Le Ph╚nom╦ne Coranique, 2nd Ed., (Dar al-thuraya, n.d.), pp. 192ff.

13 El Kbir Saaidi, Le Coran, l'Evolution et L'Origine de l'Homme (Rabat, Morocco: Al-Maarif Al-Jadida, 1985).

14 For another recent example, see "The Days of Creation: Hours or Eons?," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, v. 42 No.1, (March 1990) p. 15.

15 Bennabi, loc.cit.

16 Torki, op.cit.

17 Zahir Ahmad, "Qur'an and Space Science," Science and Technology in the Islamic World, 4 (4), (Oct.-Dec. 1986) pp. 213-216.

18 Muhammad Al Araby Al Azuzy, Topical Concordance to Qur'an (Beirut: 1956), English translation by A. Whitehouse (n.d.), pp. 32, 90.

19 Safdar Jang Rajpoot, "Qur'an and Cosmology," Science and Technology in the Islamic World, 2 (2), (1984) p. 67.

20 Maurice Bucaille, The Bible, the Qur'an and Science, p. 268.

21 Yusuf Ali, in his introduction to the Qur'an (op.cit., p. x), notes these principles. With respect to reading new meanings into Qur'anic words, he notes "the early commentators and philologists went into these matters with a very comprehensive grasp, and we must accept their conclusions║ .we must not devise new verbal meanings."

22 Maurice Bucaille, The Bible, the Qur'an and Science, p. 269.

23 Ziauddin Sardar, op.cit., p. 41.

24 Compare, for instance, the content of Henry Morris' Biblical Cosmology and Modern Science (Nutley, N.J., Craig Press, 1970), which claims to summarize "the full scope of Biblical Cosmology," with more standard works on Creation such as James Houston, I Believe in the Creator (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 1980); or books on Genesis, such as H. Blocher's In the Beginning (InterVarsity Press).

25Evangelical hermeneutics have been profoundly shaped by the "Baconianism" of such thinkers as Newton, Locke, and the Scottish realist philosophers of the 18th century. He sees the Baconian approach in Paley's natural theology, Charles Hodge's Systematic Theology, and Charles Finney's approach to evangelism. See Mark Noll, "Who Sets the Stage for Understanding Scripture?," Christianity Today, May 23, 1980, p. 14.

26 Sayyed Hussein Nasr, Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962), p. xx.