Scientific Exegesis of the Qur'an-A Viable Project?

By Mir, Mustansir | Islam & Science, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Scientific Exegesis of the Qur'an-A Viable Project?


Mir, Mustansir, Islam & Science


A number of modern Muslim writers see the Qur'an as containing information or knowledge of a scientific nature. They have, accordingly, argued for the viability of what is called tafsir 'ilmi, or scientific exegesis of the Qur'an. This paper presents and analyzes the case for and the case against tafsir 'ilmi. The principal conclusion reached is that, while the case for such tafsir is, at present, rather weak, a credible tafsir 'ilmi may come into existence if it is authentically anchored in the larger Islamic tradition.

Keywords: Scientific exegesis of the Qur'an; tafsir; history of scientific tafasir; al-Ghazali, al-Suyuti, al-Razi; science and religion; revelation.

Introduction

Historically, several approaches in the field of tafsir can be said to be well established. Tafsir riwa'i takes transmitted report (riwayah) as its staple; tafsir kalami focuses on theological issues; tafsir fiqhi deals with legal matters; tafsir nahwi discusses issues of grammar; and tafsir adabi treats matters of language and style. But while certain trends in the classical Islamic tradition can be termed scientific or 'ilmi, and while certain prominent Muslim scholars--like Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209), and Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 1505)--may be cited as supporting the idea of scientific exegesis of the Qur'an, tafsir 'ilmi is obviously not a historically well established area; only in modern times has a relatively sustained attempt been made to establish it as an independent discipline, on a par with other types of tafsir. A spate of works in several languages has appeared, and continues to appear, attempting to prove that the Qur'an contains information or knowledge of a scientific nature--"scientific" in the sense in which the word is used primarily in the domain of natural sciences. These works range from general statements of the nature and scope of tafsir 'ilmi to treatments of individual scientific subjects in light of the Qur'an. (1)

The Case for Scientific Exegesis of the Qur'an

The historical absence of a well-defined field of tafsir 'ilmi would seem to cast suspicion on the project that such tafsir represents, for such tafsir, one is tempted to think, lacks the sanction of tradition. A fourfold response may address such suspicion.

1. As noted above, tafsir 'ilmi is not completely unattested in the classical period of Islam.

2. Knowledge develops in response to real and concrete needs. Tafsir kalami, for example, arose to meet the need to come to grips with serious theological issues. Today, the dominance of science and the scientific worldview would seem to encourage, even necessitate, the cultivation of tafsir 'ilmi.

3. The Qur'an calls itself a book of guidance (huda), and it is safe to assert that the phrase "Qur'an-as-huda" aptly describes the essential character of the Islamic scripture. To limit the range of Qur'anic huda to certain types of guidance would be arbitrary, a more reasonable view being that the Qur'an contains huda of all types, not excluding scientific huda. Arguably, taking the Qur'an as a source of, for example, legal knowledge represents only one of the several possible understandings of the Qur'an, and scientific exegesis could represent another possible and equally valid understanding. (2)

4. In a number of verses, the Qur'an draws attention to a variety of natural phenomena. It refers to the order, balance, and system that characterize the universe, to the harmonious relationship among the various sectors of nature, and to the general predictability of the world's physical phenomena (al-Furqan: 2; al-Rahman: 5-7; al-Mulk: 3). At times, it offers specific detail, as when it refers to the various stages through which the fetus passes (al-Hajj: 5; al-Mu'minun: 12-14; al-Ghafir: 67). Similarly, the Qur'anic concept of zawjan (Ya Sin: 36 and elsewhere) refers to the principle of the complementarity of opposites that appears to characterize much of existence. …

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