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Monday, August 27, 2012

How Muslims misrepresent Western science as supporting the Koran

I have been receiving thousands of hits, many from Muslim countries, trying to research the recent Arabic newspaper articles about supposed scientists who converted to Islam after realizing the "truth" of the Koran through their studies.

In 2002, the Wall Street Journal wrote about this phenomenon, and that article explains much of what we are seeing today. One of their schemes was to invite scientists, along with honorariums and other perks, to answer questions about their fields and try to manipulate them into saying that the Koran's descriptions match what they say.

Oh, and one of the founders of this initiative happened to be good friends with Osama bin Laden.

Joe Leigh Simpson, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, is a church-going Presbyterian.

But thanks to a few conferences he attended back in the 1980s, he is known in parts of the Muslim world as a champion of the doctrine that the Quran, Islam's holy book, is historically and scientifically correct in every detail. Dr. Simpson now says he made some comments that sound "silly and embarrassing" taken out of context, but no matter: Mideast television shows, Muslim books and Web sites still quote him as saying the Quran must have been "derived from God," because it foresaw modern discoveries in embryology and genetics.

Dr. Simpson is just one of several non-Muslim scientists who have found themselves caught up in the publicity machine of a fast-growing branch of Islamic fundamentalism.

Dubbed "Bucailleism," after the French surgeon Maurice Bucaille, who articulated it in an influential 1976 book, the doctrine is in some ways the Muslim counterpart to Christian creationism. But while creationism rejects much of modern science, Bucailleism embraces it. It holds that the Quran prophesied the Big Bang theory, space travel and other contemporary scientific breakthroughs. By the same token, it argues, the Bible makes lots of scientific errors, and so is less reliable as the word of God. Muslims believe the Quran to be God's revelations to the prophet Muhammad, as told to him by an angel.

Before the planets and stars, modern science has largely concluded, the universe was probably a cloud of dust and gas. The Quran presaged that conclusion in the seventh century, Bucailleists argue, in a text saying Allah "comprehended in his design the sky, and it had been as smoke." The discovery of black holes in space? Foreseen in the passage, "Heaven is opened and becomes as gates."

While disdained by most mainstream scholars, Bucailleism has had an important role in attracting converts to Islam and in keeping young, Western-leaning adherents faithful. Widely taught in Islamic secondary schools, the doctrine fosters pride in Muslim heritage, and reconciles conflicts that students may feel between their religious beliefs and secular careers in engineering or computers.

Says Zaghloul El-Naggar, an Egyptian geologist who touts the doctrine on a popular weekly television program shown in the Arab world: "One of the main convincing evidences to people to accept Islam is the large number of scientific facts in the Quran."

Bucailleism has been propelled by a well-funded campaign led by Prof. El-Naggar's onetime protege, Sheikh Abdul Majeed Zindani, a charismatic Yemeni academic and politician. Founder and former secretary-general of the Commission on Scientific Signs in the Quran and Sunnah, based in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Zindani organized conferences where Dr. Simpson and other scientists appeared and were videotaped.

Mr. Zindani also is a friend and mentor to another Bucailleism devotee of Yemeni descent: Osama bin Laden. The world's most wanted man has regularly sought Mr. Zindani's guidance on whether planned terrorist actions are in accord with Islam, says Yossef Bodansky, biographer of Mr. bin Laden and staff director of a U.S. congressional task force on terrorism. "Zindani is one of the people closest to bin Laden," says Mr. Bodansky, who attributes the book's findings to interviews with various intelligence agencies, current and former terrorists and others.

Bucailleism began gaining momentum around 1980, when Mr. Zindani became director of a team at King Abdulaziz University that sought out Western scientists visiting Saudi Arabia. His breakthrough came when one of his assistants, Mustafa Abdul Basit Ahmed, presented a leech to Keith Moore, a University of Toronto professor and author of a widely used embryology textbook.

Mr. Ahmed wanted to show that a verse from the Quran, which states that God made man as a leech, was an apt simile to describe early human gestation as seen under a microscope. Mr. Ahmed says Prof. Moore was bowled over by the resemblance between the leech and the early embryo. Since the Quran predated microscopes, Prof. Moore, son of a Protestant clergyman, concluded that God had revealed the Quran to Muhammad. Prof. Moore has disseminated this view not only on Mr. Zindani's videos but in many lectures, panel discussions and articles.

Prof. Moore sanctioned a special 1983 edition of his textbook, "The Developing Human," for the Islamic world, that was co-written by Mr. Zindani. It alternates chapters of standard science with Mr. Zindani's "Islamic additions" on the Quran. In its acknowledgments, among "distinguished scholars" who gave "full support in their personal and official capacities," Mr. Zindani lists Sheikh Osama bin Laden, alongside Dr. Simpson and other Western scientists. Prof. El-Naggar, the Egyptian geology professor who taught Mr. Zindani, says Mr. bin Laden became intrigued by Bucailleism in his college days after hearing Mr. Zindani lecture, and helped pay for the book's publication.

Now a professor emeritus, Prof. Moore declined to be interviewed. Reached in Toronto, he said he was busy revising his textbook and that "it's been 10 or 11 years since I was involved in the Quran."

In 1984, after being denied a permanent position at King Abdulaziz, Mr. Zindani turned to the Muslim World League, a nonprofit organization primarily funded by the Saudi government. The World League provided financial support to establish the Commission on Scientific Signs. Mr. Ahmed, who moved to Chicago in 1983, was put on its payroll at $3,000 a month, and traveled from coast to coast cultivating U.S. and Canadian scientists.

The commission drew the scientists to its conferences with first-class plane tickets for them and their wives, rooms at the best hotels, $1,000 honoraria, and banquets with Muslim leaders -- such as a palace dinner in Islamabad with Pakistani President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq shortly before he was killed in a plane crash. Mr. Ahmed also gave at least one scientist a crystal clock.

Mr. Ahmed, who left the commission in 1996 and now operates an Islamic elementary school in Pennsylvania, says he reassured the scientists that the commission was "completely neutral" and welcomed information contradicting the Quran. The scientists soon learned differently. Each one was given a verse from the Quran to examine in light of his expertise. Then Mr. Zindani would interview him on videotape, pushing him to concede divine inspiration.

Marine scientist William Hay, then at the University of Colorado, was assigned a passage likening the minds of unbelievers to "the darkness in a deep sea ... covered by waves, above which are waves." As the videotape rolled, Mr. Zindani pressed Prof. Hay to admit that Muhammad couldn't have known about internal waves caused by varying densities in ocean depths. When Prof. Hay suggested Muhammad could have learned about the phenomenon from sailors, Mr. Zindani insisted that the prophet never visited a seaport.

Prof. Hay, a Methodist, says he then raised other hypotheses that Mr. Zindani also dismissed. Finally, Prof. Hay conceded that the inspiration for the reference to internal waves "must be the divine being," a statement now trumpeted on Islamic Web sites.

"I fell into that trap and then warned other people to watch out for it," says Prof. Hay, now at a German marine institute.

Similar prodding failed to sway geologist Allison "Pete" Palmer, who was working for the Geological Society of America. He stuck to his position that Muhammad could have gleaned his science from Middle Eastern oral history, not revelation. On one video, Mr. Zindani acknowledges that Mr. Palmer still needs "someone to point the truth out to him," but contends that the geologist was "astonished" by the accuracy of the Quran. Mr. Palmer says that's an overstatement. Still, he has fond memories of Mr. Zindani, whom he calls "just a lovely guy." He and the other American scientists say they had no idea of Mr. Zindani's ties to Mr. bin Laden. And in any case the U.S. didn't regard Mr. bin Laden as an outlaw at that time.

...University of Pennsylvania historian S. Nomanul Haq, a leading critic of Bucailleism, says the notion of inheriting traits from ancestors was commonplace in Muhammad's time. He attributes the rise of Bucailleism to a "deep, deep inferiority complex" among Muslims humiliated by colonialism and bidding to recapture faded glories of Islamic science.

According to its current secretary general, Hassan A.A. Bahafzallah, ...the commission raises about $250,000 a year from individuals and businesses, besides its subsidy from the Muslim World League. It has operated five conferences since 1986, most recently in Beirut in 2000, each costing about $100,000.

The legacy of those conferences lives on. Among other products, the commission distributes a videotape, "This is the Truth," which intersperses Mr. Zindani's interviews with non-Muslim scientists and his commentary -- including the prophecy that unbelievers "will be exposed to a fire in which every time their skin is burnt, we will replace them with new skins."
At the risk of making this post way too long, it is worthwhile to read this critique of the aforementioned Keith Moore's use of the Koran by PZ Myers:

I’ve run into this particular phenomenon many times: the True Believer in some musty ancient mythology tells me that his superstition is true, because it accurately described some relatively modern discovery in science long before secular scientists worked it out. It’s always some appallingly stupid interpretation of a vaguely useless piece of text that wouldn’t have made any sense until it was retrofitted to modern science. My particular field of developmental biology has been particularly afflicted with this nonsense, thanks to one man, Dr. Keith L. Moore, of the University of Toronto. He’s the author or co-author on several widely used textbooks in anatomy and embryology — and they are good and useful books! — but he’s also an idiot. He has published ridiculous claims that the Qur’an contains inexplicably detailed descriptions of the stages of human development, implying some sort of divine source of information.

I’ve mentioned this before. For instance, the old book claims that at one point the embryo looks like a piece of chewed gum, or mudghah, and Moore announces, “by golly, it does, sorta”, throwing away all the knowledge we have about the structure and appearance of the actual embryo, which is not a chewed lump. I’ve actually seen these kooks show pictures of a piece of gum and an embryo and declare that they are similar. It’s insane. It’s pareidolia run amuck and swamping out actual scientific information for the sake of propping up useless superstitions.

You may not have heard of him before, but I regularly get email from Muslims telling me that as a developmental biologist, I ought to follow Islam because of its insights into embryology, which don’t exist. Thanks, Dr Moore, you dumbass.

Well, now the Muslim cranks have another coup, having persuaded some other dumbasses to publish an appallingly bad paper in the International Journal of Cardiology, a credible peer-reviewed journal. Or, at least, formerly credible.

The paper is disgracefully bad. It’s basically a compendium of an assortment of references to anatomy and health from the Qur’an, endorsing them as accurate sources of information. For instance, the Qur’an prescribes three techniques for healing, “honey, cupping, and cauterization,” and gosh, we now know that “Honey contains the therapeutic contents sugars, vitamins, anti-microbials, among other things”!

Are you impressed yet?

Since this is a cardiology journal, the article also finds it necessary to waste the readers’ time with blather about blood and arteries. Here’s an example of the Prophet’s profound knowledge of the circulatory system.

Another great vessel mentioned in the Qur’an is the Al-Aatín or aorta “We would certainly have seized his right hand and cut off his Al-Watín,” [20]. Al-Watín has been translated into different, yet similar words, including “aorta”, “life-artery”, and simply “artery”. This verse is taken to mean that if the Prophet Mohammed was lying about the teachings of God, then God would have grabbed the Prophet Mohammad’s arm and cut a vital artery, certainly killing Mohammad. This verse confirms that 1. Blood was indeed viewed as a vehicle for life and 2. The artery directly leading from the heart is vital to survival. By analyzing the different translations and exegesis of Al-Watín, it can be safely assumed that it is the aorta that the author of the Qur’an is referring to in this verse.

Hmmm. So a warlike society that had many soldiers running about chopping into people with swords was aware that cutting major arteries would lead to rapid blood loss and death. I have no idea how they could have figured that out without an omniscient god whispering the explanation into the ears of priests.

The holy book also talks about heart disease, something else a readership of cardiologists would find interesting. Does this sound like well-informed medicine to you?

The Qur’an shares with the Hadeeth a metaphorical description of the heart as a possessor of emotional faculties, thus giving the heart many characteristics that modern science attributes to the brain. As is popularly stated in Islamic culture, every action is dependent upon intentions, and “…what counts is [to God] the intention of your hearts…”. These actions, whether “good” or “bad” determine the health of the heart, namely if it is a sound or diseased heart. A diseased heart is one filled with qualities such as doubt, hypocrisy, and ignorance among many others. Possessors of such qualities have a “hardened,” diseased heart. Other malaise qualities contributing to a diseased heart includes blasphemy, rejection of truth, deviation, sin, corruption, aggressiveness, negligence, fear, anger, and jealousy, among others.

The authors of the Qur’an and of this paper seem to have confused poetic metaphor with science.
Finally, read this compendium of scientific responses to the article in the cardiology journal.