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Apr 28, 2017

The World is Scripture

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Umeyye Isra Yazicioglu

Umeyye Isra Yazicioglu

Saint Joseph's University

Umeyye Isra Yazicioglu's areas of expertise include classical and modern Qur’anic interpretation, Islamic theology, Islamic mysticism, and Christian-Muslim relations.

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The World is Scripture

Revelation in an Age of Science

How many signs in the heavens and the earth do they pass by, turning away from them? 
 - Qur’an 12:105

The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. 
 - Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in Physics


Understanding the universe is a core human need. For some people, modern science seems to be our best resource for meeting this need. After all, science provides us detailed physical descriptions of the world, including our own bodies. Consider, for instance, the following excerpt from a recent National Geographic special issue on the human body, under the heading “Endocrine System”:

Serving as master controllers for much of our metabolism are the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus is a region of the brain, not an organ on its own, but it nevertheless produces and releases hormones that control other glands. Some of these hormones stimulate action—such as growth—while others inhibit these same targets. 

Why the opposing actions? The two responses illustrate the yin-yang genius of the endocrine system. Once a body response gets going—the growth of a child’s bones, for example—there will come a time, such as adulthood, when that action has to stop. The hypothalamus is a master of balance, keeping the body in tune and on time.1

Part of what is presented in this excerpt is factual (and useful): a child’s bones grow until a certain time, and that growth stops at adulthood. The scientific data also show a correlation between the hormones released from a cluster of cells and bone growth. But modern science interprets these data in an attempt to meet our need for understanding. It explains this purposeful process of bone growth, for instance, by saying that small blobs of gray matter (labeled the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland) masterfully balance bone growth. But does that really explain the agency behind this purposeful process? Can this gray matter really understand and balance proper bone growth? Can it care about us and purposefully act for our well-being? Describing a cell cluster as a “master of balance” and making a reference to “the genius of the endocrine system” are not explanations—unless we are willing to grant that these cells are geniuses that choose to compassionately work hard for us. Assigning agency and knowledge to unconscious cells is not a neutral observation, but rather an interpretation based on a naturalist approach. When cleared of such interpretations, what science offers us is a mere description of the fact that very purposeful and masterful things are taking place inside us. Such a description is no doubt helpful, but it does not give us an understanding of the world.2

For an understanding of existence, we can look to religion, and especially scripture. Indeed, the Qur’an claims to reveal the reality of the world to those who are willing and able to see the signs. However, Quranic Revelation points at the right questions to ask about reality, and challenges us to observe our experiences and deliberate about them. Through revelation, we can transform our observations and deepest questions about the world into an understanding that is enlightening and satisfying.

The Qur’anic perspective makes us rethink our assumptions about the sacred and the mundane. Faith is not blind or disconnected from how we understand the universe. Modern science may help us discern patterns, make sound predictions, and make use of nature, but it is not a tool to understand the world due to its naturalistic and materialistic limitations. The breakthrough of the Qur’an is to show us how the universe itself is scripture, expressing meaningful messages about its Eternal Maker.

We wake up in the morning, and the sun is shining. The sunshine nourishes us, both physically and emotionally. Does the sun know our need, and rise and set for us? We wash our face with water. Water not only cleanses us, but it also nurtures us as well as all the plants and other living beings. How, and why, does this inanimate liquid provide sustenance for life? We eat, and we are energized. How is it that inanimate food molecules and our body harmonize and cooperate to give us energy? We care for our children, whom we love despite all the burdens of parenting. What makes us take on such a burden, and even celebrate it? Answering such questions about existence is a profound human need.

Similarly, we wonder about the fact that what we consider bad and good are enmeshed within each other in the world. The memory that served us so well begins to fail us with old age, and the people we love the most sometimes become our biggest challenge. What do we make of all this? Transience also poses a vexing question. The beauty and abundance of life seem to be deeply contradicted by the transience that engulfs all life sooner or later. We feel haunted by the impending decay of life.

Science on its own does not offer us an understanding or an explanation for such questions and enigmas. In fact, modern science is often used to claim that the universe is governed by impersonal laws and unconscious natural factors that possess no knowledge or compassion, but that through some unknown means work in our favor.3 One reason such a worldview is considered objective and true is because modern science has been successful in making predictions and providing remedies. The earlier excerpt regarding the endocrine system, for instance, contains empirical data that can be used to predict bone growth and suggest medical remedies for its failure. Such usefulness of modern science is often seen as a proof of its naturalistic claims. Yet, utility does not necessarily indicate understanding. 

The contemporary religious scholar and philosopher Jacob Needleman offers a helpful metaphor for clarifying the difference between utility and truth:

Imagine that a certain man comes upon a gun. He has never before seen or heard of such a thing. Nor, we must imagine, does he have any need to kill for food or defense. He picks up the gun, turns it around, knocks it against a stone. What is this object? He takes it home and experiments with it. To his delight he finds that when he holds it by the barrel he can crush things and break them better than with his wooden mallet. To him, the gun is a hammer. That is his idea, his theory, so to say, and his theory works. When others ask him what that strange object is, he can prove his answer through the test of experience.4

In this parable, the man never discovered “the proper nature” of the gun because he never asked a question regarding its true nature. This is why, “when an idea or theory ‘works’ it always does so relative to what we are asking of reality. If we have narrow intentions, our discoveries—no matter how ingenious—can never be bigger than those intentions.”5 Modern science is built on experiment and provides utility, but that does not justify the materialistic and naturalistic claims about reality with which it is usually associated.6

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The Qur’an offers us a way to see how things in the universe are not acting on their own. It shows how both the growth and the decay in the world is pointing to an infinite reality.7 And it does so constantly calling us to observe, reflect, question and use both our faculty of reason and our heart. 

According to the Qur’an, the universe is speaking. It is a collection of signs pointing beyond the flux of this finite world to an infinite source of power and beauty. A flower that blossoms and withers away carries a message: through its burst into life, its orderly structure, its beauty, and its death, it is talking about its Eternal Maker, the source of life, power, and beauty. The universe is speaking of the One who speaks through scripture. 

Let us consider a parable from a noteworthy Quranic exegete and theologian, Said Nursi, who talks about both the universe and scripture as forms of divine speech. In the parable, two people enter a royal competition in which the task is to write the best commentary on an important Arabic text that was written in beautiful calligraphy with precious jewelery. One contestant is an expert chemist and engineer who does not know any Arabic and does not even realize this is a text. He focuses on analyzing the chemistry of the paper, the ink, and the shapes and patterns on the page. The other man, who is familiar with Arabic, recognizes that it is an extremely important text, and writes a report explaining its profound meanings. When the two bring their work before the king, he sees that the first man has worked very hard but missed the entire point. Thus, the king rebukes him for demeaning a profound text by reducing it to meaningless shapes.8

The text in the parable represents the universe, and the two men represent two ways of interpreting the universe. The chemist represents the materialist-naturalist approach, often adopted by modern science and by many of us in our superficial mode of looking at the world. We treat the world as an entity that simply exists on its own and has no meaning beyond itself—as does the chemist, who looks at a page of writing and sees only ink and shapes. This approach yields the idea that the world is without purpose and is therefore pointless. The second man in the parable represents the Qur’anic, or believer’s, approach to the universe. The Qur’an shows that the universe itself is a meaningful text or speech that points beyond itself to its Eternal Maker, just as the script on the paper points to  meaning beyond  ink and shapes. Thus the universe is perceived for what it is, i.e. sacred scripture, revealing the beautiful qualities (al-asmā' al-ĥusnāof its Maker.9The question, therefore, is not whether or not we should study the universe, but whether we are willing to consider those dimensions of the universe that  point to the unseen beyond. And it is through the signs (āyāt) of the Qur’an, that we can understand the universe as scripture or divine speech.

For a very brief example of how the Qur’an teaches us to read the universe, consider these verses:

Behold, in the heavens as well as on earth there are indeed signs for all who are willing to believe. And, in your own nature. And in [that of] all the animals which He scatters [over the earth] there are signs for people who are endowed with inner certainty. And in the succession of night and day, and in the means of subsistence which God sends down from the skies, giving life thereby to the earth after it had been lifeless, and in the change of the winds. These signs of God do We convey unto you, setting forth the truth. In what other tiding, if not in God’s signs, will they, then, believe? (Qur’an 45:3–6)

These verses ask us to recognize how nature points to its Creator by drawing attention to how things often display qualities beyond their capacity. For example, with rain, lifeless earth springs to life. Superficially—and without divine guidance—we tend to misinterpret the fact that rain and life consistently accompany each other, and we think that rain is the cause of life. But these verses call us to be attentive to the purposes behind phenomena. It rains so that sustenance is provided for living things; similarly, winds are steered so that rain is sent down. The Qur’an enables us to read the event of the dead earth coming to life with rain as a sign that  points us to the source of life and knowledge that lie beyond the ‘natural’ event. The Qur’an reveals that the rain does not just fall; it is sent down with purpose, and thus it gives us the news of a Wise and Powerful Life Giver. The rain, then, is speaking; it is declaring the beautiful names of God.10