Is Derrida in the Mosque? Muslim Apologists as Quintessential Deconstructionists
Among systems of thought, ideological evolution is far from uncommon. From the idealistic politician who promises never to change his views upon being elected to the simple farmer who wants to do things “the way things always were done”, the idea of change for the sake of change is opposed almost unanimously. This notion is exceptionally true in the world of classical religion, where eternal and timeless truths should be the tools of the trade. However, this is not true of many modern trends, as emphasized in schools of thought such as those inhabited by deconstructionist philosophers. In a manner akin to Pontius Pilate’s inquiry of Christ, these thinkers aim to ask “Quid est veritas?” by undermining the notion of veritas on a fundamental level. In response to this, Christianity has made many great strides towards defending itself, ultimately through pointing to the one who is truth itself. The idea of a supreme God as the source of truth and morality is appealed to by great thinkers throughout the religious thinkers of multiple faiths, such as Thomas Aquinas, Averroes, and Maimonides. In earlier centuries, this train of thought was echoed by scientific thinkers such as Isaac Newton. However, from the mid-19th century onwards, the role of philosophy and science as the handmaiden of religion was severed, as the intellectual establishment turned to a view of religion as an enemy of scientific progress. Further, the teachings of purportedly inspired religious texts were called into question by many scientific discoveries ranging from the age of the universe to the number of ribs in the different sexes. While treating the nature of the response to these challenges adequately is beyond the scope of this article, this historical vignette is important, for it shows the dialectical tension between religion and science. While Christianity has largely operated on the defensive in attempting to show the consonance between the Bible and modern religious findings, Islamic scholars have often gone on the offensive by attempting to demonstrate the prescience of the Qur’anic utterances. The purpose of this article is to analyze some of these claims, which operate on the premise that Muhammad could not possibly have known the scientific truths contained in the Qur’an apart from divine revelation. On the contrary, this article aims to demonstrate that this whole thesis is based on a deconstructionist assumption that language can be used without regard to historical context. As a consequence, these claims of foreknowledge fail the test of criticism, and call the inspiration of the Qur’an into question.
Religion and science-harmony, neutrality, or conflict?
Mankind’s search for the truth throughout the ages has taken on varied forms, from the austere realm of the monastery to the fast-paced but somewhat sterile view of the world embodied by modern laboratory science. The struggle over who ought to be the arbiter of truth has surely seen more peaceful days, when different fields of learning respected one another. In the modern age, the notion that studies of the natural world can coincide with theological and philosophical reflection is often challenged by both theologians and scientists alike. In prior centuries, the same conflict existed, but religious thinking was preferred over a more materialistic mindset. For example, Galileo challenged the validity of interpreting certain passages in the Bible in a geocentric manner. One such verse is Psalm 104:5, which states, “He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved.” The Copernican revolution had taken place, but some religious thinkers would not accommodate such an interpretation of the world because the Bible seemed to contradict that view. Because of that, Galileo and his views were condemned.
In more recent centuries, the tables have turned. As the intellectual heavyweights of the world have become increasingly skeptical of classical religion, it is the religious establishment that must answer the heresy trials of the church of the academic world. What can be said in response to this? While this issue is too lengthy to adequately address here, it is important to point out that ultimately when passages such as Psalm 104:5 are criticized, one must understand them within their historical and grammatical context. Thus, the term “foundation” is improperly understood when taken in the staunchly literalistic sense that was done by geocentric thinkers. Considering the Hebrew language and culture, it is clear that one can understand this phrase in a more simple sense, in considering the fact that our physical world is relatively stable, despite being ultimately quite motile. Again, delving into the details of this sort of argumentation is beyond the scope of this discussion. The important thing to grasp is that those who hold the Bible to be inspired by God must have an answer; is the passage in question in conflict with science because science has misinterpreted the data, or has the message of Scripture been misunderstood? The only other option would seem to be that advocated by those skeptical of the sacred book in question, which is that the scientific findings are proof of the man-made nature of the purportedly sacred book. Thus, in defending one’s faith, these matters are of paramount importance. It is to these matters that our attention is turned, in the context of the Islamic faith.
The conflict of the Qur’an and modern scientific understanding
Like Jews and Christians, Muslims hold that their God has revealed truth about the spiritual and physical aspects of the world through their sacred books. In understanding Islam, one critical challenge to the scientific understanding of the world provided from the Qur’an is the problem of embryological development. In discussing the nature of fetal development, several Suras in the Qur’an repeat a description of the nature of the growing baby using a specific word which when transliterated using Roman letters is ‘Alaqa. A typical Sura is 23:12-14, which reads:
"Verily We created man from a product of wet earth, then placed him as a drop of seed in a safe lodging, then We fashioned the drop a clot (‘alaqa), and of the clot (‘alaqa) We fashioned a lump, and of the lump We fashioned bones, and We clothed the bones (with) meat. Then We produced it as another creation."
As Dr. William Campbell documents in his book The Qur’an and the Bible in the Light of History and Science, the notion that the embryo is a clot is heavily dependent upon Greek philosophers such as Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen, for these thinkers made similar descriptions of the developing fetus. In this scenario of embryogenesis, the menstrual blood is not released during pregnancy because it comprises one aspect of the fetus’ body, while the more essential characteristics of the baby are derived from the sperm of the father. To cite one of these thinkers to elucidate this point, the following quotes from Hippocrates are collated in Campbell’s work:
“Sperm is a product which comes from the whole body of each parent, weak sperm coming from the weak parts, and strong sperm from the strong parts.” Section 8, p 321
Coagulation of Mother's blood
“The seed (embryo), then, is contained in a membrane ... Moreover, it grows because of its mother's blood, which descends to the womb. For once a woman conceives, she ceases to menstruate...” Section 14, p. 326
“At this stage, with the descent and coagulation of the mother's blood, flesh begins to be formed, with the umbilicus.” Section 14, p. 326
“As the flesh grows it is formed into distinct members by breath ... The bones grow hard ... moreover they send out branches like a tree ...” Section 17, p. 328
Thus, the argument is that this progression from semen to clot to bones as seen in Sura 23 is derived from the common but inaccurate medical understanding of ancient Greek thinkers. Of course, there are many Muslim doctors today who are well acquainted with the Qur’an and embryology. What has their response been?
Muslim apologists strike back-should scientists kneel in submission to the Qur’an?
As stated above, Dr. William Campbell has been one of the main critics of the inspiration of the Qur’an, especially with regard to the scientific claims contained therein. What is important to note is the basis for his writing The Qur’an in the Light of Science and the Bible, was in response to a book with a similar title. As a medical doctor, Campbell was offering a refutation of a book, The Bible, The Quran and Science, which was written by another medical doctor, Dr. Maurice Bucaille. Here, Dr. Bucaille states his reasons for seeing no conflict between the Qur’an and modern scientific understanding.
“ I had to stop and ask myself: If a man was the author of the Qur'an, how could he have written facts in the Seventh century A.D. that today are shown to be in keeping with modern scientific knowledge?....What human explanation can there be to this observation? In my opinion there is no explanation; there is no special reason why an inhabitant of the Arabian Peninsula should....have had scientific knowledge on certain subjects that was ten centuries ahead of our own.”
Instead of merely showing that the verses of the Qur’an do not say something that is enmeshed in the flaws of the medical understanding its time, Bucaille and others take the offensive in the argument and try to demonstrate that the Qur’an is not simply lacking in scientific error. No, their claim is based on the thought that many Suras contain scientific knowledge that was unattainable in the 7th century. So, how do they deal with the problem of embryology? Dr. William Campbell notes these arguments, and points out that the solution lies in refusing to translate ‘Alaqa as clot. Instead, Dr. Bucaille translates the word to be “thing which clings”, while another apologist, Dr. Keith Moore considers an even better translation to be “leech-like” substance. This seems to be especially apropos because the developing embryo does bear a superficial resemblance to a leech at one point.
What is Dr. Campbell’s rebuttal to this? He points out the consistent translation of ‘Alaqa as a clot in older versions of the Qur’an, and shows Islamic scholars treating ‘Alaqa as a clot. First, he collates the following translations of the Qur’an from multiple languages, and shows no precedence of translating ‘Alaqa as a leech-like substance or a thing that clings:
* French, un grumeau de sang (a small lump of blood) - Kasimirski, 1948 (last Ed. during life of author was 1887)
* a leech-like clot - Yusuf Ali, (translation of 1938) 1946
* a clot - Pickthall, (translation of 1940) 1977
* a clot - Maulana Muhammad Ali, 1951
* a clot - Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, 1971
* French, de caillot de sang (clot of blood) - Hamidullah, 1981
* French, un caillot de sang - Masson, 1967
* a clot of blood - N. J. Dawood, 1980 Approved by the Supreme Sunni and Shii Councils of the Republic of Lebanon
* Indonesian, segumpal darah (lump of or clot of blood) - Indonesian Department of Religious Affairs, 1984
* Farsi, khoon basteh (a clot of blood) - Mehdi Elahi Ghomshehi
* Chinese, xue kuai (blood clot)
* Malay, darah beku (blood clot)
Furthermore, Campbell documents hadiths and writings of thinkers such as Avicenna, who translate ‘Alaqa in a manner consistent with the classical usage of clot. What is the reply made by Muslim apologists such as Dr. Bucaille?
Campbell quotes Dr. Bucaille’s response:
“What is more likely to mislead the inquiring reader is, once again, the problem of vocabulary ...The majority of translations describe, for example, man's formation from a 'blood clot' or an 'adhesion'. A statement of this kind is totally unacceptable to scientists specializing in this field... This shows how great the importance of an association between linguistic and scientific knowledge is when it comes to grasping the meaning of Quranic statements on reproduction."
Overall, Campbell has stated his objections to inconsistencies, but I would argue that he has not contextualized them appropriately. While holding to inconsistencies is notable, the implications of doing so are unclear if the nature of doing so is not appropriately explained. To clarify the situation, our thoughts will turn to analyze this phenomenon in the context of modern philosophical developments. In doing so, the underlying basis this strategy will be revealed.
The cure is worse than the disease-the flaw of deconstructionist thinking
In calling the standard translation of ‘Alaqa into question, the Muslim apologist produces a rebuttal that seems intriguing. Indeed, how could such difficult aspects of biology be grasped by a simple illiterate Arab living in the 7th century? In a world where Christians tend to fly from defending their holy book from defense largely from fleeing debate, the boldness shown by these Muslim apologists is convicting, but how did they arrive at such boldness? In considering the solution offered by these defenders of the Qur’an, we do not encounter the work of philosophers such as Averroes and Avicenna. Instead, we are meeting the work of a modern day philosopher who was no Muslim-and his name is Jacques Derrida. Often called the founder of the deconstructionist school of thought, Derrida emphasized the importance of subjectivity in understanding literature, which challenged the relevance of studying literature within a particular mindset of the author, as a means to find the meaning of the text. Instead, he challenged the fixity of meaning by arguing that one cannot read a text as though it was a fixed thing. In his work entitled “Plato’s Pharmacy”, Derrida discussed the correct translation of the Greek word pharmakon. The discussion bears a striking similarity to the work of Muslim apologists on interpreting ‘Alaqa as a thing that hangs or a leech-like substance.
“We hope to display in the most striking manner the regular, ordered polysemy that has, through skewing, indetermination, or overdetermination, but without mistranslation, permitted the rendering of the same word by "remedy," "recipe," "poison," "drug," "philter," etc. It will also be seen to what extent the malleable unity of this concept, or rather its rules and the strange logic that links it with its signifier, has been dispersed, masked, obliterated, and rendered almost unreadable not only by the imprudence or empiricism of the translators, but first and foremost by the redoubtable, irreducible difficulty of translation. It is a difficulty inherent in its very principle, situated less in the passage from one language to another, from one philosophical language to another, than already, as we shall see, in the tradition between Greek and Greek; a violent difficulty in the transference of a non-philosopheme into a philosopheme. With this problem of translation we will thus be dealing with nothing less than the problem of the very passage into philosophy. (71-72)”
In Derrida’s work, the intellectual justification of pluralism is fulfilled, because any piece of literature is open to the active interpretation by the reader. In this process, the meaning of every word can be altered and will inevitably be altered by the background that the reader brings to the text. He argued that the word Pharmakon is not mistranslated when any of the multiple possible definitions are provided. Thus, objectivity is lost for the sake of the creative activity of the reader.
As a result, when we consider the argument that if one imposes a new meaning to words like ‘Alaqa one arrives at modern scientific truth, we must realize that the Muslim apologist is borrowing from the worldview of the deconstructionist. But in accepting that perspective to defend one aspect of the truth of Qur’an, the integrity of all truth is lost. As a result, the cure to the challenge against the historical interpretation of the Qur’an, which was based on a scientifically untrue Greek philosophy comes via a view of the Qur’an that is based on a modern philosophy that has no basis for supporting ultimate truth of any kind.
In analyzing the response to a scientific challenge to the inspiration of the Qur’an, we have seen that the argument for understanding the word ‘Alaqa in a manner that is outside of its historical context is a classic move made by deconstructionist thinkers. Of course, discussing embryonic development is only one aspect of Qur’anic teachings on the natural world. It is helpful to note in passing that other critical examples of Suras that are argued to have supernatural knowledge of scientific details include descriptions of water flow in oceans (Sura 55:19-20), the orbits of the planets (Sura 81:15-16), and even genetics (Sura 80:18-20). What is striking is in all of these cases the Muslim apologists arrive at apparently modern conclusions by deconstructing the text of the Qur’an, with no regard to historical interpretation or literary analyses. Because of this, a vast disconnect between Islam as a religion of truth and the deconstructionist thinking that defends it emerges, and calls the whole scheme into question. As our Muslim friends and colleagues try to defend the integrity of the Qur’an, we must humbly endeavor to demonstrate that the philosophical foundations behind such defenses are completely inconsistent with the particular claims of Islam as truth and beauty. Without such an approach, we will be divorced from our religion’s greatest principle of love. With it, we will shine as lights.
A Website Critical of the Qur’an and Science:
A website defending the Qur’an’s view of science: www.miraclesofthequran.com
The Qur’an in the Light of Science and the Bible-Dr. William Campbell
The Bible, The Quran and Science, by Dr. Maurice Bucaille.
The Qur’an in the Light of Science and the Bible-Dr. William Campbell
The Bible, The Quran and Science, by Dr. Maurice Bucaille.
Plato’s Pharmacy – Jacques Derrida