Are Science and Religion Actually Not as at Odds As We Think?

In today’s world, one of the most debated topics is the relationship between science and religion, which often clash. For example, the popular question of natural evolution versus guided evolution has been hotly debated for centuries. Yet, science and religion can come together, as is taught in Islam. On March 7th, I had the opportunity to attend the seventh annual Qur’an and Science Symposium, which was held at the Bait-ur-Rahman Mosque in Silver Spring, Maryland by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. The symposium offered new understandings of the relationship between science and religion, and also broadened my view on the role that each plays in the world. 

The symposium featured many scientists, such as Dr. Abdul Naseer Malmi Kakkada, a postdoctoral fellow at University of Texas at Austin studying biophysics, Dr. Mohamed Alburaki, a honey bee specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Naila Razzaq, a PhD candidate at Yale University studying early Mediterranean religions. I had attended symposiums before, but as an aspiring doctor, this one impressed me tremendously. I was amazed to learn  how languages can reveal a lot about evolution, since each language is connected to another in a giant web of languages from every region around the world. This is apparent in children; they will learn their mother’s tongue quickly, no matter where they are from in the world, from Monaco to Honolulu. It then surprised me further when, Dr. Zia Shah, a physician who focuses on sleep disorders and pulmonary medicine in New York and editor of the Muslim Times, stated that because of these evidences, there must have been an evolution from Arabic to create so many languages, and that Arabic would initially have been created by God, as shown through different scriptures, like the Holy Qur’an. With each presentation, I was amazed to see how science and religion really do connect, and what roles they play in our world. At the end, I left the symposium with a greater understanding of not only Islam, but of the different aspects of science and how important research is towards understanding the world around us. 

Where was God in this theory of evolution? How did religion fit into the picture? Was evolution truly natural or was it “guided”? How did animals go from single-celled organisms to the diversity of life we know today?

In science, we strive to understand the world around us through different disciplines: everything from physics to astronomy to the life sciences. Yet, they all work under one guiding principle: the scientific method. This method dictates that one must come up with an educated guess, or hypothesis, about why something acts the way it does, or what will happen if an object is manipulated, etc. and that it must be testable and verifiable (i.e. an experiment must be able to be replicated by another independent researcher) in order to contribute towards advancing science. Let’s take a look at one topic that I mentioned earlier, evolution. Evolution was first studied by Lamarck in the 19th century, who proposed that life forms were created spontaneously over the generations. Then, in 1858, the famous English naturalist Charles Darwin took part on a voyage on the Beagle, when he sailed to the Galapagos Islands, and formulated his theory of natural selection; that evolution selected only the animals fittest to survive, whether it was the bacteria that had the most resistance to antibiotics, or the lion that was the strongest out of the pride. From then on, scientists worked to further understand evolution, eventually discovering analogous and homologous characteristics, for example. 

Yet, with the development of these exciting new discoveries, there arose many questions from members of various religions. Where was God in this theory of evolution? How did religion fit into the picture? Was evolution truly natural or was it “guided”? How did animals go from single-celled organisms to the diversity of life we know today? It seemed religion and science were irreconcilable – at least, until one looked towards Islam’s perspective on evolution. In the Holy Qur’an, it is stated that humans evolved in stages. The first stage was when humans were but lifeless material. The second stage was where humans were in their physical form, but still thought like animals. In the third stage, humans learned how to think; in the fourth stage, they learned how to exist as a society. Thus, this does agree with Darwin’s theory of evolution in the sense that animals and humans did evolve over time. 

Although the debate between science and religion continues, I now have a better understanding of how they come together, and that the role of religion is to provide a spiritual basis for what we see in the world, and the role of science is to provide the physical evidence for phenomena. Muslims across denominations need to understand this more than ever to move ahead. Through more symposiums, presentations, and conferences, I hope we can all further increase our understanding on how science and religion connect.