Colliding Epistemologies: Reflections on Nidhal Guessoum

Rüdiger Lohlker and Margareta Wetchy reflect on the physicist’s musings in a preview of J-RaT 7 (1/2021)

When one was to look for adjectives to adequately describe the current relationship between modern sciences and Islamic religious studies, words like ‘troubled’, ‘complicated’ and ‘uneasy’ might come to mind. While both sides strive for the acquisition and advancing of knowledge in their own paths and with their own methods, conversation between the two is scarce. The global pandemic that currently tests every government’s proficiency in communicating scientific facts makes the promotion of science and its value more pressing than ever.

We aim at giving up-to-date insights into – what we consider as – a fresh start to the dialogue between Islam and science. In doing so, we take up Nidhal Guessoum’s valuable contributions on the topic and look out for his approaches to science. What we hope to produce is a brief insight into how to start this renewed dialogue.

Nidhal Guessoum is professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.[1] He has (co-)authored numerous scientific articles and other publications in the field of physics and astronomy on positron astrophysics,[2] on gamma-ray bursts,[3] on pulse density distribution,[4] and on several related topics. Guessoum’s interests expand far beyond physics and astronomy and thereby cover ideas for renewing the education systems in the Gulf region and a new turn towards science and scientific thinking. As a believing Muslim, Guessoum seeks to include perspectives from Islamic religious studies into his considerations and especially addresses Muslim researchers in his publications. He may be understood as a well-versed, internationally acclaimed scientist cum believer who applies his undeniable scientific competence to a new way of reflecting on religious matters.

A variety of trends has spread especially in the Muslim world over the last few years and continues to dominate the local academic sphere. While rejecting most of these developments and criticizing them for being inherently un-scientific, Guessoum argues for the concept of ‘theistic science’ that, in brief, would account for a new world view, allows scientists to keep up with their personal religious beliefs, while at the same time adhering to principles and methods of modern science – one of his central goals.[5] With reference to what he calls a “growing trend”,[6] Guessoum thus states:

“Attempting to develop science with a theistic cloak is not necessarily going to destroy its pillars and its beautiful high constructs and achievements, if one does it with a full understanding of its various aspects, such as to distinguish the metaphysical facets from the methodological parts”.[7]

His re-conceptualized approach to science – what he calls ‘theistic science’ – will briefly be reviewed after discussing two of his publication formats: The Young Muslim’s Guide to Modern Science[8]and his Youtube videos on COVID-19.

Young Muslim’s Guide

One of his books is titled The Young Muslim’s Guide to Modern Science and is dedicated to “high schoolers, university students and teachers, and anyone wanting to understand what modern science says.”[9] In this Guide, he provides basic information about science and scientific ways of thinking. He discusses fundamental ideas such as the history of science, what it means to have scientific literacy, what scientific methods are, and why science can be criticized at times. Basic concepts of physics, astronomy, cosmology, and biology are introduced in one chapter and exemplarily illustrate what fundamental knowledge there is and where future research has to continue with its work. Several of these sections take on Islamic perspectives, specifically discuss the stance of science in today’s Muslim culture or towards certain theories in e.g. biology, and thereby primarily address a Muslim audience. With regards to the Islam-science relation, one could see the main purpose of this book to be two-fold: When Guessoum discusses questions such as the personal religious beliefs of researchers around the world or the stances towards science by Muslim thinkers in the past, he proves the numerous points of (legitimate and beneficial) contact between the two sides. When he discusses contemporary views on natural phenomena promoted by Muslim thinkers, he works at disentangling the points of contact where Islam (or any religion) and science wrongly got mixed. The Guide thus impressively proves that none of the two sides has to be chosen over the other, but that their realms may have to be redefined.

Guessoum not only shares his ideas and insights in traditional publication formats, such as the Guide, but actively seeks to address a younger audience with his Youtube videos.[10] Topics that he covers on his channel include the discussion and explanation of astrophysical phenomena, of new developments in science and current research, presentations of his favorite books, and of ways to determine dates in the Islamic calendar. The most pressing questions of our times are debated: climate crisis, technological and medical advances and new possibilities (and dangers) posed by them. Over the last few months, Nidhal Guessoum has published five videos on COVID-19 – on what the virus is, on how to prevent the virus from spreading, on how to learn and teach in times of COVID-19, on how a vaccine is being developed and on why there are doubts concerning these vaccines. In the following paragraphs, his videos on COVID-19 will briefly be analyzed with regard to how he seems to approach, understand and convey science and scientific thinking and what his intention is with these videos.

In his first video on the topic, Guessoum explicitly states that he was hesitant to publish these videos on the virus since he is not a medical professional or biologist and a great responsibility comes with speaking about this topic. Throughout his videos, he makes clear that reliable information from trustworthy sources and facts backed up by reliable scientific testing are the only way for the world to successfully fight the virus. In all his videos on the topic, one quickly understands that he pays great attention to using correct terminology, to backing up his arguments by using precise numbers and figures, and to explicitly stating what we have information on and what we do not have information on.

What seem to be the driving factors for Guessoum to contribute to the discussion and to publish on this topic is his overall goal of promoting scientific thinking and of setting up a scientific culture especially among the young generations in predominantly Muslim countries. While initially hesitating to publish these videos, as mentioned above, Guessoum also states that he feels the urge to advance “scientific literacy”.[11] He thus not only aims at giving reliable information on the current situation with COVID-19 and the correct dealing with it, but also uses the topic as an example to show how scientific methods generally work, what they can provide and what their limitations are, and how science and its findings are directly related to the life (and wellbeing) of every individual – as this crisis has impressively demonstrated to all of us.

Since Guessoum seeks to actively contribute to a renewed conversation between Islam and natural sciences, we shall briefly come back to this ‘troubled duo’. What might be pointed out as remarkable is that he does not seem to see the need to make references to Islamic traditions or religious belief systems in the videos reviewed above, but purely follows – what could be considered – commonly agreed-on methods of science and scientific thinking. We might thus assume that, in his view, religious thought and religious belief and modern sciences are not seen as two competing systems in this example – as our brief insight into the Guide has shown. His concept of theistic science allows him to uphold his personal religious belief while also pursuing his interests in modern sciences that help him – and others – to get to know and understand the world a little better every day. When we assume that he follows the concept of ‘theistic science’, he considers scientific methodology in the natural sciences as running parallel to religious sources and the methods of dealing with these, and not as running in the same lane.

To conclude this brief introduction to Nidhal Guessoum’s current works, we would like to highlight two aspects. Guessoum’s personal effort to bring back together two systems of thought that seem to have lost contact over the last few decades is very much unique in the contemporary Muslim world. He not only promotes adherence to highest scientific principles, but also ensures that Islamic traditions and beliefs are treated respectfully and from a well-educated and even sympathetic place. This might be crucial if one wants to win over at least the educated members of predominantly Muslim societies.

This article illustrates Guessoum’s approach to science – his ‘theistic version of science’. The fact that he did not draw on religious sources in the videos on COVID-19 might indicate that he views this topic as one that can be approached from a purely scientific viewpoint and one that does not require (or does not leave room for) the inclusion of religious perspectives. When looking into his Guide, as presented above, one might assume that his intention is to disentangle Islam and science that, according to the author, might have suffered from “erroneous mixing”.[12] Guessoum seems to say that both systems work towards progressing knowledge – and both can do so in their respective realms. What is so unique about his approach is the fact that it leaves sufficient room for both religious belief and science – at least as it seems -almost cool-headedly. It is for this reason that one can expect his work to leave positive marks in the academic – Muslim – sphere. 

This text is a shortened and slightly updated version of the article “Colliding Epistemologies: Reflecting on Nidhal Guessoum”, which will be published in JRAT 7 „Religion and Disease“ and will be accessable here.


Rüdiger Lohlker is professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Vienna (Austria) since 2003. He taught at several other universities before, worked as a data base consultant in Rabat (Morocco) on a project on Arabic manuscripts. His research focusses on the history of Islamic ideas, esp., Sufism, Islam and sciences, Salafism, Jihadism, and Islamic/Arabic online communication. (rüdiger.lohlker@univie.ac.at)

Margareta Wetchy works as an organizational assistant at the Research Centre Religion and Transformation at the University of Vienna. Her main research interests are contemporary social, cultural and political movements on the Arabian Peninsula and in Syria and Iraq. (vera.margareta.wetchy@univie.ac.at)


Sources:

Abukhaled, Marwan/Allen, Edward/Guessoum, Nidhal: “Testing Pulse Density Distribution for Terrestrial Gamma Ray Flashes”, in Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics 119vii (2014), pp. 5918–5930.

Guessoum, Nidhal: Personal website, http://www.nidhalguessoum.org/vvold/public_html/ sites/all/modules/ckeditor/ckfinder/userfiles/files/Nidhal%20Guessoum%20Short%20CV.pdf (date of last access: October 21, 2020).

Guessoum, Nidhal [نضال قسوم]. Youtube channel. https://www.youtube.com/c/NidhalGuessoum1/videos?view=0&sort=dd&flow=grid (date of last access: Sept 6, 2020).

Guessoum, Nidhal/Zitouni, Hannachi/Mochkovitch, Robert: “Detecting the Imprint of a Kilonova or Supernova in Short Gamma-Ray Burst Afterglows”, in Astronomy & Astrophysics 620 (2018), Article A131.

Guessoum, Nidhal: The Young Muslim’s Guide to Modern Science, Manchester: Beacon Books 2017.

Guessoum, Nidhal: “Positron Astrophysics and Areas of Relation to Low-Energy Positron Physics”, in The European Physical Journal D 68 (2014), Article No. 137.

Guessoum, Nidhal: Islam‘s Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science, London/New York: I. B. Tauris, 2011 (first published in French in 2009).

Zitoui, Hannachi/Guessoum, Nidhal/Azzam, W. J.: “Revisiting the Amati and Yonetoku correlations with Swift GRBs”, in Astrophysics and Space Science 351 (2014).


[1] http://www.nidhalguessoum.org/vvold/public_html/sites/all/modules/ckeditor/ckfinder/userfiles/files/Nidhal%20 Guessoum%20Short%20CV.pdf (date of last access October 21, 2020).

[2]     Guessoum, Positron astrophysics.

[3]     Zitoui/Guessoum/Azzam, Revisiting the Amati and Yonetoku correlations.

[4]     Abukhaled/Edward Allen/Guessoum, Testing pulse density distribution.

[5]     See the chapter on ‘theistic science’, Guessoum, Islam‘s Quantum Question, pp. 94–98. In his article from 2012, Guessoum reacts to reviewers of his book and clarifies that (1) theistic science is not his invention, and (2) that “[…] ‘theistic science’ is simply an interpretation of modern science […]” [original emphasis]; he thereby makes clear that the adoption of scientific methodology and theories comes first, and the addition of a theistic interpretation second (Guessoum, Nidhal Guessoum’s Reconciliation of Islam and Science, p. 378).

[6]     Guessoum, Islam‘s Quantum Question, p. 97.

[7]     Guessoum, Islam‘s Quantum Question, p. 175.

[8]     Guessoum, The Young Muslim‘s Guide to Modern Science, Manchester: Beacon Books, 2017.

[9]     Cf. the cover text of Guessoum, The Young Muslim‘s Guide.

[10]    His channel is named “Nidhal Guessoum نضال قسوم” and was set up on Dec 17, 2015 in the United Arab Emirates; to this date [Feb 2, 2021], his channel has 367,000 followers and he has published more than 190 videos.

[11]    Guessoum has published an article on the “[…] need for scientific literacy”; the article was published on Arab News on March 1, 2020.

[12] Guessoum, The Young Muslim‘s Guide to Modern Science, p. 3.


Picture via pixabay.com


RaT-Blog Nr. 10/2021

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