Religion and science seem to be at loggerheads again. This time it is evolution that takes centre stage - the creation of our species on Earth - and it appears aggressive atheism is desperate to turn a theory into 'fact'.
Recently there have been impassioned debate on this area on two high-profile TV programmes: one an Al Jazeera interview with atheist Richard Dawkins by Muslim political commentator Mehdi Hasan and the other a BBC Big Questions debate over whether it is time for all religions to accept evolution as fact. Many of my co-religionists are left bemused, if not downright confused, by all this kerfuffle.
Why fight on two dissimilar subjects?
In its heyday, Islam brought about harmony between religion and science. With, among other things, the demise of Islamic scholarship, science clashed with religion during the European Renaissance. After this co-existence for many centuries, we are now entering an era of science led by intolerant atheism.
Is a confrontation between religion (I exclude 'dogmatism' here) and science necessary? Having a background in both science and religion, I do not think so. We do not have to battle over things that are dissimilar in terms of reference and remit. Let me say why.
Science is about 'how': it tries to find natural 'facts' through ideas, theory, postulation, experiment and empirical evidence. It is not meant to find 'truth'. Science is based on statistical probabilities and experimental evidence; during this process of discovery, it is prone to errors. A scientific approach cannot find for sure whether our universe was created or self-made, for example. As our knowledge expands, many 'established' scientific theories have been thrown away. Scientific giants understood this and accepted the 'new' knowledge with humility.
On the other hand, religion is about 'why': it gives meaning to our life through a metaphysical approach, searching for ultimate 'truth'. Religion's emphasis is on morality and behaviour. Believers are asked to keep an open mind, observe, question, reflect, contemplate and then act. A verse from the Qur'an (chapter 3, verse 190) is intuitive - "Surely in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are signs for people of understanding".
Science explores and scientists differ. On the issue of human evolution even Darwin's supporters could not agree, because some thought that "the mental capacities and the moral sensibilities of humans could not be explained by natural selection". This is understandable. Our individual life on Earth is infinitesimal compared to the age of our known universe; our personal sphere is also minuscule compared to the expanse of the universe we are in. To pretend that we would be able to know the 'truth' of our life and about the universe would be sheer arrogance.
This does not mean we surrender to our 'fate' and sit back; not at all. We, as human beings, are not a mere physical entity but have 'moral sensitivities' and a spiritual dimension. We are born with an inquisitive, creative mind that is full of imagination and innovation. We see, hear and observe things and ask questions. Do we get all the answers? No. We are not supposed to; if we did all our uniqueness would disappear and we would end up being dull and stagnant. That is the mystery of human life.
As an experimental physicist until my mid-30s, asking questions and throwing challenges were part of my research. This did not deter me from getting closer to my (Muslim) faith. I have always been fascinated by the life of many ancient scholars from China, Greece or India, who were religious saints and scientists at the same time. I am enthralled by many pre-Renaissance Muslim scientists and scholars like Al-Khwarizmi and Ibn Sina, who were pioneers in science and at the same time devoutly religious and spiritual. I am still amazed to see this tradition of harmony between science and religion in the personality of scientific giants like Newton and Einstein. Their thirst for knowledge was matched by their humility.
Belief in or denial of God is the main issue
Religion is essentially about primary belief in one Living God; the rest follows from this premise. In Islamic belief God has 99 'attributes' e.g. His Omniscience or Omnipotence. The Abrahamic religions are adamant on monotheism. Yes, there is no way of experimentally proving God's presence, but there are coherent evidences in support of this belief, such as a) all the Prophets who were known to be extremely honest and trustworthy in their life informing us of God, b) numerous signs (ayat, in Arabic) within and around us and in the cosmos testify His presence. These arguments cannot just be brushed aside as irrational or non-progressive.
The benefit of a resolute belief in God has a positive impact on life: it has created a myriad of highly-motivated, spiritually-uplifted and self-regulated selfless individuals who have spent or even sacrificed their life for the good of others. The belief in God and a sense of accountability in the Hereafter is a catalyst to those actions.
Then there is the classical argument: imagine there is no God. Believers do not lose anything on Earth. But imagine there is one, what happens to deniers in the Hereafter?
It is true that religion was and can be misused to foster division, hatred and cruelty; but history is the evidence that most wars, destruction, ethnic cleansing and killings were the result of manipulative politics or selfish use of religions, rather than the inherent faiths in and of themselves.
Let us comprehend the complexity of body, mind, soul and spirit
There is obviously a common ground between the two approaches, the spiritual and the scientific. All living beings have phases or evolution in their life from birth to death. Without a doubt there is biological evolution in the world of low-level living beings, including many animals. Our 'evolution' in a mother's womb, from a zygote into a fully-fledged baby, is mentioned in the Qur'an - "And certainly We created man of an extract of clay, then We made him a small seed in a firm resting-place, then We made the seed a clot, then We made the clot a lump, then We made the lump bones, then We clothed the bones with flesh, then We caused it to grow into another creation, so blessed be Allah, the best of the creators" (chapter 23, verses 12-14).
So, religion is not irrational. It asks us to think very seriously about our place on this planet. Just because we are physically similar with some primates, I believe we cannot conclude that humans have evolved from them. Yes, gorillas and chimpanzees are biologically closest to humans and their DNA sequences are very similar, but that does not necessarily 'prove' that a highly intelligent and spiritual man evolved from them. Even with very close DNA-similarity between two twin siblings we see incredible differences between their personality, ability and creativity.
The human mind may operate faster than light, but it cannot fully understand the mysteries of our universe and our life. It is time we step back and try to comprehend the highly coherent and intelligent universe and the 'whole' of our existence. It is also time religious adherents practice their critical autonomy to continuously enhance their knowledge and understanding of our natural world. As for Muslims, I can only say that our belief and reason (aql, in Arabic) are intertwined; we should be the first to use this gift of reasoning.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist and parenting consultant (www.amanaparenting.com). Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MAbdulBari