Religion and Science Relation: An Interview with Prof. Nidhal Guessoum

The relationship between religion and science has captured world wide attention from people in any way. Some believe that religion and science need to be put in different boxes because they work in different ways, but others believe that both of them need to be harmonized because they share the same goal. Bellow is the interview with Prof. Nidhal Guessoum, one of the speakers in the “The First International Conference on Knowledge and Values” conducted by CRCS, ICRS, and the 26th UGM anniversary committee. He is a professor of Physics at the American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) who had Ph. D. in Astrophysics from the University of California, San Diego, USA. He is also active in the area of popularization of science and the interface between science and religion.

CRCS: What is the relationship between religion and science?

Nidhal: There was a scientist named Ian Barbour. Through his book ‘when science meets religion’, he explains four things that happen when science meets religion. They are conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. What is important now is to establish the harmonized relation between the two (religion and science), and my proposition was that Ibn Rushd or Averroes, in his work on “how to find the proper relation between philosophy and religion, or philosophy and Islam”, proposes a very interesting idea that we can incorporate or adapt to, instead of philosophy and Islam and I assure that it can work very well.

CRCS: But why do many Muslims make a problem out of such relation and elevate it into a conflict?

Nidhal: It is Muslim who finds it as conflict or difficult. The problem that leads to conflict is literalism. It is when you read (Qur’an) verses or when you read hadith and you say this is what it means. It only means what is written in the words instead of trying to interpret or to find different meaning to it. But you always take the literal meaning of verses and hadith. It very often leads to conflict and many Muslims will say (that) we can not accept (this interpretation), and it becomes conflict.

CRCS: Is it the case of taking the Qur’an verses and hadith as holy so we must not take it for granted?

Nidhal: No, the verses are holy. The question is what do the verses mean, so that the interpretation is possible. So if you stick to literal level, then very often you will find difficulty or conflict. But if you understand that there is possibility of interpretation, then you can find a way to harmonize (between the religion and science)

CRCS: So do you think it is really important now to integrate religion and science?

Nidhal: Yes, at least to find proper relation (for it), so yes, I think it is definitely important.

CRCS: So then you don’t think that we should put religion and science in different boxes?

Nidhal: No, I don’t think that works, because many of us have all of these ideas, traditions, and cultures. For example, I am a scientist, but I am a Muslim, I am an Arab, I live in the west, I deal with western scientists. So, I can not say that they are in two different boxes. At one o’clock I have to pray, but at one fifty I have a lecture, and then at three I have to pray, and tomorrow I have to fast and after tomorrow I have a seminar, so you can not just divide our life like that, you have to find a way that, I am fine.

CRCS: Now, what do you think is the worst possibility if religion is not integrated with science?

Nidhal: Then we get what I call schizophrenia. That is having two identities or having two personalities. In the morning you are the lab scientist, you function as a scientist in the lab, and then in the evening you are a religious person in mosque or in your home and tomorrow morning you are again a rationalist, you use your brain but in the evening you use your heart and your spirit. So then you have two different personalities, and we can not do that because sometimes you find a situation where you are in the middle, just in between the two. If my son comes to me and says “my teacher is explaining to me that humans came out of primates”, in the morning, as a scientist I will explain it ‘this’ way, but if he talks to me in the evening, then as a Muslim I will explain ‘that’ way. And then my son is completely lost. He will be confused. So we have to harmonize both and find a way to be comfortable with them, which I think is not two different worlds, it is one world. It is like in one minute I am a Muslim because I am praying, but in the next minute I am a scientist. So then I have to use the left side of my brain. It is not like that.

CRCS: Okay, as a scholar, do you have some advises or something to say for student of CRCS in GMU (Gadjah Mada University)?

Nidhal: (jokingly he says), Read my book (Islam quantum questions)! That is a good advice, ha ha. I was joking, but it is a good idea to read the book. But that is not the main advice. The main advice is to really educate yourself and read as much as you can on all these topics (Whether) from muslim and non muslim perspectives. There has been a lot of work done on science and religion in general from non muslim. In the west there is a complete literature on this. But also there are some muslims who have done quite a bit of thought and proposition and it is important to be fully familiar with all this debates. For the students, this is the first step, to go on reading. There was a nice story in the arab world. It was a person hearing about a great poet somewhere there. He was a person who wanted to be a great poet. Then he went to see this great poet and asked him ‘what should I do to be a great poet like you? Give me your advice!” The great poet then said, “Go and memorize one thousand poems!” The young man then replied, “What? I want to be a great poet. I do not want to memorize. I want to make poetry!” The great poet said. “Go and memorize one thousand poems then come back to me”. “Okay, you are the master, you are the teacher. You must know what you are talking about. So let me go”. Then this young person went and memorized one thousand poems and he came back to the great poet. He then said. “Master, I have memorized one thousand poetries, now I want to make poetry.” The master then said “Okay, now you go and forget all these poems. Then you will be able to make poetry on your own”. It means that you can not make poetry, research, religious study or anything like that without having all these background. But once you have had the background, you can not keep repeating what others have done. You have to come out with your own ideas. It is then important to do two steps: hold the background and be independent. Then you can come out with new research and new ideas. I think it is the best advice to give to students in general. Learn as much as you can, then forget it, go and put your own ideas, but with the full knowledge of what has been done before. Without repeating but in the same time without saying crazy stuff that is ignorant to the background.

CRCS: We are here at CRCS learning more than just one religion. We also acknowledge that every religion has its own truth. Several people would argue that learning more than one religion and studying them from social and historical phenomenon is dangerous, because it can lead people to doubt their religion. What do you think about this?

Nidhal: Religion is not just something that you study as a social phenomenon. Religion is something that you accept and come to believe in as the explanation of existence and the way of life. So, it is up to the individual to come with their own explanation of why they are here and how they should live. You can not also limit religion as something that can be studied through social science. Religion is then like a proposal. Different religions make different proposals to you, and then you look and you say, ‘okay I like this’, or ‘I am more convinced with this’, or you can say, ‘okay I think I can take both of these’ and you move on. But you just do not consider religion as phenomenon, because if you do so, then you are limiting yourself to be a social scientist. What important is that you need to ask to yourself, “what do I believe regarding my life and decide what to do about that..” (NAM)

This post is also available in: Indonesian


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