2. The Qur’an as a Book of Guidance
The aforementioned outlook towards the scientific dimension of the Qur’an has been under fire even from the old times. Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi (d. 790/1388), one of the early opponents of this view, argues that our virtuous predecessors were more knowledgeable about the Qur’an than we are, and they did not talk about these kind of sciences, and this is an indication that they did not consider the Qur’an to contain such matters.13 Al-Shatibi relates the Qur’anic verse:
…We have not neglected anything in the Book….(6:38)
to the accountable duties and acts of worship, and identifies the word “Book” in this verse with the “Guarded Tablet” (mentioned in the verse 85:22).
The aforementioned view has been criticized by some well-known scholars of recent times, too. Their argument can be summarized as follows:
It is not right to interpret the Qur’anic words in a way that was not known to the Arabs of the Prophet’s era.
The Qur’an was not revealed to teach us science and technology; rather, it is a book of guidance. Therefore it is beyond its aim to talk about natural and physical sciences. The meaning of the aforementioned verses (i.e., 6:35 and 16:82) is that the Qur’an contains whatever is needed for our guidance and felicity (in this world and in the Hereafter).
Science has not reached its ultimate stage of progress. Therefore, it is not right to interpret the Qur’an in accordance with changeable theories. A certain theory becomes very popular during a period, and then it is replaced by another one. The Ptolemaic system was popular for a long time and then it was discarded. It is wrong to assume that the Holy Qur’an supports contradictory theories. Prominent Muslim scientists of the past, like Ibn Sina, al-Biruni, al-Tusi, Ibn al-Haytham,…too, did not seek scientific formulas in the Qur’an, though they had a true conviction in it and were very knowledgeable about it. Besides, if we could find the trace of all scientific theories and formulas in the Qur’an, what we would have is no more than a scientific encyclopedia like other available encyclopedias. The adaptation of the Holy Qur’an to unstable theories of science has this danger, too, that it threatens the stability of the Qur’anic facts and opens the door for unacceptable interpretations.
It is Allah’s will that human beings discover the secrets of nature through the use of their senses and intellect. If the Holy Qur’an contained all of the sciences of nature, human intellect would remain idle and human freedom would be meaningless. As Shaykh Muhammad ‘Abduh has said:
If it were upon the Prophet to explain the natural and astronomical sciences, that would be the end of the activity of human senses and intellect, and that would spoil human freedom…. Yes, the Prophet advised people briefly to use their senses and intellect on whatever improves the welfare, broadens their knowledge, and in the end advances their souls…. Therefore, the doors for these sciences are intellect and experimentation not tradition and religious sciences.14