Islam, science, and awe
Every time I post a picture about the cosmos on my Twitter or Facebook accounts, I get this reply in unison: “Subhan Allah,” which in Arabic means “Glory to God.”
This does not surprise me at all, as I know how deep-rooted in the Muslim psyche—as well as in the Qur’an—is the idea that cosmic and even natural phenomena simply reflect God’s power and ingenuity.
Abdus Salam in 1987 retrieved from the Dutch National Archive
Many Muslim thinkers, including Abdus Salam, the first Muslim to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics (in 1979), have noted that some 750 verses of the Qur’an (about one eighth of it) mention natural or cosmic phenomena, always pointing to God. One example is the passage that Salam quoted in his Nobel banquet speech: “Thou seest not, in the creation of the All-merciful any imperfection. Return thy gaze, seest thou any fissure? Then Return thy gaze, again and again. Thy gaze comes back to thee dazzled, aweary” (Q 67:3). Another example: “Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding …” (Q 3:190).
Interestingly, the word “awe” does not have an equivalent in Arabic (the main language in the Islamic culture, classical and contemporary). Querying translation dictionaries for “awe,” one gets words that actually mean “apprehension” or even “fright.” On the other hand, the feeling that is most often expressed in the Islamic culture in such situations is Khushu`, which is typically translated as “reverence,” but is much deeper as it represents one’s religious state during formal prayers: putting oneself in the presence of God, with as much attempt to ignore everything else in those moments. I find the two expressions (in English and in Arabic) of that feeling or state of mind in the face of cosmic amazement quite instructive and mutually enriching.
In the last century, and with the development of modern astronomy, cosmology, big telescopes, and space instruments, we have explored more of the universe, and our amazement has grown exponentially: we have discovered that our “world” is but one galaxy (the Milky Way) among at least two trillion galaxies, each with an average of about 100 billion stars, most of which have one or more planet(s) around them. We have also realized that this universe and all its phenomena are based on laws that are both magnificently simple and fine-tuned, providing additional sources and layers of awe for both scientists and laymen!
A new type of spirituality
Through these discoveries and new views of the cosmos and nature, a new type of spirituality has emerged, such that many scientists who do not believe in the existence of a Creator—much less in any spiritual relationship with him—have expressed a new form of spirituality, one that is based in cosmic and scientific awe.
Perhaps the greatest scientist who has expressed such views is Einstein, who said, “[The scientist’s] religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection” (in The Quotable Einstein, 1996, ed. Alice Calaprice, Princeton Univ. Press, p. 151).
Similarly, Carl Sagan, who was a non-believer, wrote: “A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths” (in Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1994, p. 52). And elsewhere he wrote: “I would suggest that science is, at least in my part, informed worship” (in The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, 2006, p. 48). Imagine: an unbelieving scientist who describes science as a form of worship!
A third example of that kind of view is what Joel Primack and his wife Nancy Abrams (both non-theists), wrote in their excellent book The View from the Center of the Universe (2006, pp. 276-277): “[A God which is] disconnected from this amazing universe that science is revealing would be a God entirely of the imagination … [but] a God [which] arises from our scientific understanding is not entirely created by us. Such a God runs deeper than humankind’s imagination and is speaking in some way for the universe itself.”
These views are then echoed by Sir John Templeton, who said, “It is impossible to be a scientist, to work at the frontier (of cosmic discovery) without being awed by the elegance, ingenuity, and harmony of law-like order in nature …” (in Sir John Templeton: Supporting Scientific Research For Spiritual Discoveries, by Robert Herrmann, 2004, p. 151).
The important idea that I want to stress is that this type of “worship” is actually part and parcel of religious practice. Prophet Muhammad commented on the afore-cited verse 3:190, which encourages the believers to reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: “Woe to those who read this verse and do not reflect upon its content.”
This call to explore and reflect was answered by many scientists during the golden age of the Islamic civilization. The illustrious astronomer Al-Battani (Albategnius 850-929) wrote: “By focusing attention, observation, and extensive thought on astronomical phenomena, one is able to prove the unicity of God and to recognize the extent of the Creator’s might as well as His wide wisdom and delicate design.” (in Az-Zij as-Sabi`, Dar Sader, 1899, p. 6).
Worship can come from both “inner spirituality” (the “usual” meditative form) and “outer spirituality,” which is the feeling of awe that arises from the contemplation and exploration of this magnificent universe of ours. Through the pursuit of discovery and knowledge, science can help us combine spirit and reason, inner and outer contemplation.
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