On Monday, January 5, 2016, Mohamed Ghilan interviewed Shaykh Sa’eed Fodeh to get his input on a couple of issues related to Islamic theology. Shaykh Fodeh is arguably the most prominent Muslim theologian in the Ash’ari School living today and a master of the Kalam tradition, having authored an extensive list of over 80 works in the discipline. He lives in Amman, Jordan.
This conversation is divided into two parts. Part one is on the divisions within the Muslim community in America, and more generally in the West, along theological fault lines, where the camp of Salafis under the banner of Imam Ibn Taymiyyah face off against the camp of Traditionalists under the banner of Imam Al Ghazali. Part two is a discussion on the relationship between rationalism and empiricism and how this relates to Islam, science and atheism. The following is an English translation of part one of their conversation:
Mohamed Ghilan: Many people speak about the social and political reasons that could drive someone to question the existence of God and the validity of religion as something rooted in revelation. However, the question I would like to pose to you is about whether humans have an intellectual tendency towards empirical validations of propositions as opposed to rational ones.
Shaykh Sa'eed Fodeh: The empirical method of investigation in itself does not lead to atheism. But if what is being proposed here is that it is impossible to have objective knowledge of anything except through the path of empiricism, then of course one would be led to question whether God exists or not. One may refer to their feelings and what is called “religious experiences” as proof that there is or is not a God. But these do not count as evidence in the rational way evidence is accepted. What I am trying to say is that if you limit yourself to the senses and adopt Scientism as your position, you will find this quite deficient in providing proof for God. In fact, this approach can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, and the only conclusion it can give on this question is bewilderment. You cannot even begin to address such a question. Hence, most of those who adopt the empirical approach to investigating the questions of existence to the exclusion of all other approaches will tell you they are agnostic. When restricted to it, the method in itself does not provide them with direct evidence that proves or disproves the existence of God.
The human being by nature recognizes through the intellect that not everything in existence must necessarily be subject to empirical experience. There are many things in existence that you cannot empirically experience, but you can reach through rational inquiry. You may later find you could empirically test them or not, but that does not validate their existence in the proper sense.
MG: Then how do would you respond to someone who tells you that what is called a rational capacity is really an amalgamation of empirical experiences one has had from the time they were born?
SF: There are many people who say that. But take for example pure mathematics and theoretical physics. The proofs provided in these fields are not empirical in nature. They are rational proofs before they are empirical ones. When Einstein proposed his theories, they were not derived from empirical investigations per se. On the contrary, it was empirical investigations that confirmed his theories afterwards. Dirac proposed the existence of the positron, which was empirically confirmed after around 14 years. Whoever claims that rational capacities only form after empirical experiences, or that it is restricted or limited by empirical experience, I would implore them to review their history about the rational capacities of the intellect. Rational capacities are broader than that. Empirical investigation is a condition for confirming rational judgment over physical properties of items that are subject to the scientific method, but it is not a condition for generating that rational judgment in the first place.
We are still finding since the days of David Hume and even before him that despite all the adjustments made to the empiricist mode of thought to temper it that those who adopt it are unable to explain many phenomena. I am not referring to spiritual or purely rational phenomena. I mean that in many instances they are unable to examine even physical phenomena if they were truly restricted to empiricism. Thomas Kuhn spoke about how scientific revolutions are driven by the buildup of empirical evidence. In fact, what is really taking place is an intellectual reversion to rationalism, where scientists are trying to rationally explain how to make sense of the empirical evidence that was collected thus far. Take cosmology for instance. They went from Newtonian physics to the theory of relativity, then to quantum physics. Yet, there does not appear to be a close and necessary relationship between these theories. Kuhn would say these represent scientific revolutions. But they were not. These theories, and others in science, are products of rational evaluations that were not bound by the empirical evidence in the sense that they were subjected by it. Rather, rationalism came from above to make sense of the empiricists’ investigations. It was a type of metaphysical evaluation.
MG: The point about metaphysics brings up a question about the relationship between the Quran and science. Is there a historical precedent to what is known as the “Scientific Miracles of the Quran” where Muslim scholars who interpreted the Quran talked about them, or is this a relatively modern movement?
SF: Scholars have actually addressed this from early on, and Imam Ash’Shatibi among others had various stances against such claims. This used to come up in different ways where some have claimed the Quran contained verses that revealed the essential physical features of certain things in the world. But in modern times when scientific discoveries have become more numerous, some people started to pay attention to certain indications in the Quran that may appear to coincide with these discoveries. Nevertheless, this has historical precedence. For example, despite the prevalent belief during his time that it was flat, Imam Ar’Razi asserted that the Earth was round based on his understanding of the Quran before this was proven empirically. Ibn Hazm also did the same and bolstered his position that the Earth was round using some mathematical and geometrical proofs.
My point is that the attempt to take some texts from the Quran or the Hadith and interpret them in a scientific light has always been around. However, the question here is whether it can be considered a “miracle”. Did God explicitly challenge people with these verses on scientific grounds? Did God challenge the Arabs who did not know anything about the origin of the universe, or about the Big Bang theory, or any scientific theories of the like? The question is not about whether some verses in the Quran allow for a meaning that coincides with scientific knowledge. Did God speak to the people around the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ or the first three generations of Muslims with the expectation that they should understand it in the way that we are attempting today? Or are there depths of meaning in the Quran that can be grasped by different people from different generations depending on their knowledge? And can we take a current scientific theory and claim that it matches with certain verses in the Quran?
MG: The danger here is that we could say today that some verses coincide with some prevalent scientific theories, only to find out in 50 years after more research that what theories we matched up with the Quran turned out to be wrong. This is bound to put us an embarrassing position.
SF: I am totally with you. In principle, attempts to explain certain verses in light of current scientific knowledge have always been made. However, there are many restrictions. This is why scholars who deal with the exegesis of the Quran since the time of Imam Ash’Shatibi have stated that it is not permissible to interpret a verse of the Quran in light of a scientific discovery unless this discovery is unequivocal and absolute. It is essentially a mistake to interpret the Quran using information that could change. Doing so will weaken the Quran and the reality of Islam itself. This is why a number of conditions were placed in the beginning to govern how the Quran can be interpreted. But as you know, not everyone stays within the limits of interpretation, which is why we get such divergent opinions.
I remember when I was young some scholars used to speak about shadows when they were commenting on the verse “Have you not considered the work of your Lord how He extends the shade?” [25:45]. One said this indicates that when light is emitted from the sun it bends when it passes through the Earth’s atmosphere, which in turn makes the shadow shorter than it should actually be. I heard this from somebody over 30 years ago and I remember at the time that it was a nice take on the verse. But the question still remains: how far can we go down this road? Is such an interpretation really valid?
Exegesis of the Quran is a very restricted matter, and when it comes to science, one can only use unequivocal objective facts, not theories, and only when the language allows for such a meaning to be inferred from a verse. This is how I understand this issue and God knows best.