In some of my recent talks about science and religion in Islam some Muslims in the audience asked me whether I thought there were scientific mistakes in the Quran.
I’ve answered such questions very diplomatically so far. I usually point out that all this depends on how you interpret the text, that Muslims have a number of different interpretive approaches available to them, and that being a nonreligious person, it was none of my business to try and sort out what is the “correct” interpretation. There are many passages in the Quran that make the most sense if you read them as reflecting scientific and medical ideas of antiquity. Ideas derived from Greek medicine, physics, and astronomy were part of the common intellectual background in the Mediterranean region when the Quran was put together. And from the perspective of modern science, these are mostly mistaken. Nevertheless, a liberal Muslim can decide to read such passages metaphorically, emphasizing whatever “spiritual message” was being conveyed by references to archaic concepts of nature.
I wonder, though, if this may be overly diplomatic. In matters of science especially, I’d like to see more Muslims take a more liberal direction. So I’d like Muslims to listen to what I say. And there’s no quicker way of ensuring most Muslims are not going to hear what I say than stating that the Quran contains mistakes or other signs of human composition. But if I’m honest, I have to admit that yes, the Quran is full of what are mistakes if taken at face value, and that I’m not impressed by tortured reinterpretations that try to salvage arbitrary spiritual meanings. That’s an important part of the reason why I don’t think the Quran is a divine text.
So I’m not really sure what is an appropriate balance to strike here. I’d like to impress upon Muslims that especially conservative religious views are problematic if you want to improve the climate for science in Muslim lands. But its hard to do that without coming across as attacking their religion, which immediately makes most people defensive. Sigh.