What We Talk About When We Talk About Iʿjāz, Stefano Bigliardi

SERRC —  December 15, 2014 — 11 Comments

Author Information: Stefano Bigliardi, Tecnológico de Monterrey, CSF, Mexico City; Center for Middle Eastern Studies, CMES, Lund University, stefano.bigliardi@cme.lu.se

Bigliardi, Stefano. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Iʿjāz.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 1 (2014): 38-45.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1PI

Please refer to:

8423042510_3da57a1c35_kImage credit: Sean Molin, via flickr

Recent conversations with Salman Hameed and Vika Gardner at the Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies (SSiMS, Hampshire College, Amherst, MA) about their ongoing project made me aware once again of the volume of iʿjāz-related material in the contemporary discourse over Islam and science, especially represented by videos uploaded on YouTube and other websites.

Classically, the term iʿjāz indicates the “invalidation of a challenge,” the impossibility of imitating the Qur’ān as to its content and form. In other words the term refers to the theological doctrine according to which a sign of the divinity of the Qur’ān is its incomparability or impossibility to be replicated; the like of the Qur’ān could not be produced even in a joint effort by human beings and supernatural ones.

This teaching is rooted in specific Qur’anic passages such as 17:88: “Say, ‘If mankind and the jinn[1] gathered in order to produce the like of this Qur’ān, they could not produce the like of it, even if they were to each other assistants.’”

In the contemporary debate over Islam and science, iʿjāz is mainly used as a short form for iʿjāz ʿilmī. The adjective ʿilmī derives from the substantive ʿilm that broadly refers to knowledge and can be interpreted as specifically referring to science. The expression iʿjāz ʿilmī can thus be translated as “scientific miracle” (or “scientific miraculousness”) of the Qur’ān and it denotes an exegetical trend rather than a specific theological teaching. In this piece I will use such expressions interchangeably.

In the iʿjāz ʿilmī the traditional doctrine of the inimitability of the Qur’ān is reformulated in terms of “scientific inimitability.” In other words, the exegetes who uphold and produce iʿjāz ʿilmī identify a correspondence between some passage of the Qur’ān and (what they perceive or present as) “scientific data” or “facts” to argue that such correspondence is proof of the divine origin of the Qur’ān itself.

The basic line of the argument is that, given that such accuracy (or the specific piece of information) could not be available to (or achieved by) neither the Prophet nor the scientifically best-informed people at the time of the revelation, the text clearly must have divine origin.

A “scientific miracle” therefore is not supernatural (an example of supernatural miracle can be Moses’ or his brother Aaron’s staff turning into a snake, mentioned both in the Old Testament[2] and in the Qur’ān[3]) but the structure of the argumentation with which “scientific” and supernatural miracles are illustrated is analogous.

In both cases we have an extraordinary, amazing occurrence (cf. the etymology of the term miracle, Lt. mirari “to be amazed”) that cannot or could not be performed (nor repeated) by human beings alone, and whose occurrence implies or demonstrates the existence and power of divinity.

By “occurrence” we should understand in this context the match Qur’anic passage-“scientific information” and not the specific content of the “scientific information” per se. In other words, the “scientific miracle” of the Qur’ān is not aimed at the description of natural phenomena as a miracle of God (albeit this kind of statement is also present at various levels of the debate over Islam and science as well, including iʿjāz). It should also be emphasised that the iʿjāz ʿilmī is not the attempt at explaining miraculous narratives as natural processes either (for example arguing that the parting of the Red Sea was a natural albeit extraordinary or unique hydrogeological phenomenon).[4]

The specific points made, or lines followed, by the advocates of iʿjāz ʿilmī vary according to what they present or perceive as “scientific.”

They may be classified as follows.

(a) The Qur’ān contains passages coinciding with scientific theories; for instance the theory of an expanding universe.

(b) The Qur’ān contains passages that describe natural phenomena currently ascertained by science but unknown at the time of revelation. For instance: the development of the foetus in the mother’s womb or planetary motion.

(c) The Qur’ān contains passages that accurately describe specific, circumscribed facts or events or occurrences currently ascertained by scientific investigation (possibly but not necessarily unknown at the time of the revelation). For instance: the preservation of the mummy of the Pharaoh who pursued Moses or the splitting of the Moon.[5]

(d) The Qur’ān contains passages that foretell contemporary scientific-technological developments or inventions. For example: aviation or the exploration of space.

(e) The Qur’ān displays numerical patterns that correspond to the numerical patterns exhibited by natural phenomena and/or occurring in scientific laws. This might be called numerological iʿjāz.

(f) Permanent or widespread natural phenomena (for example the shape of the continents or of an animal’s skeleton) match some proper symbols or terms of Islam, such as the shahāda (i.e. the declaration of one’s belief in the oneness of God and the acceptance of Muhammad as His Prophet), the name of God, or the positions of the prayer. No direct reference is made in this case to Qur’anic passages. We might call this “iʿjāz without Qur’ān.” The iʿjāz without Qur’ān seems to be a rather amateurish, homemade product; it requires minimal or even non-existent theological and scientific knowledge to be produced and its existence and emergence can be related to the increasing availability of computer programmes that allow easy manipulation of images.[6]

iʿjāz (ʿilmī) and scientific miracle of the Qur’ān (or “of Islam”) appear thus to be umbrella expressions under which different lines of exegesis can actually be pursued. Each interpreter can emphasise one or more of the points above. For instance, an advocate of the scientific miraculousness of the Qur’ān might highlight the accuracy of some descriptions in the Qur’ān but ignore (or even reject) numerological interpretations thereof. It should also be pointed out that the different lines can merge due to the nature of the (allegedly) scientific matter mentioned (that for instance may involve theoretical as well as factual elements that are not always separable).

A point frequently stated in the context of iʿjāz (but not exclusively in it) is that the Qur’ān invites observation of natural phenomena and to consider them as signs of God. The mention of natural phenomena as signs (Ar. āyāt) in the Qur’ān is a fact, however the advocates of iʿjāz may emphasise the frequency of such references as well as their accuracy. It can be debated if such point taken in isolation is sufficient to detect the presence of an iʿjāz-like discourse. One might also ask, especially after considering point (a): if an author believes (say) in biological evolution and he or she states that the Qur’ān supports it, or that it is in harmony with it, is that classifiable as an expression of  iʿjāz?  A possible response to such questions is that we may only talk of iʿjāz proper when it is explicitly stated or implied that there is a match between the Qur’ān and “science” and that such match demonstrates the divine origin of the Qur’ān.

The thesis of the scientific precision of the Qur’ān can be supported together with the thesis that Jewish and Christian scriptures are not as accurate or are even untenable from a logical or scientific perspective, due to the errors interpolated by the humans who have transmitted or manipulated such texts. In this sense iʿjāz ʿilmī can go hand in hand with the doctrine of taḥrīf, the “distortion” or “alteration” of Jewish and Christian scriptures. However this is not always the case.

Obviously an author or critic who deems worthless or ill founded the whole debate over the harmony of Islam/religion and science will be inclined to reject iʿjāz per se. Other authors might recognize that the match between scripture and information presented as scientific can be argued for with different degrees of quality when it comes both to textual exegesis and to the accuracy of scientific information. For instance arguing that the foetus develops in the mother’s womb is fairly accurate if compared to the statement that the Moon was split some 1,400 years ago as verified by NASA astronauts, which is simply untrue (unless, of course, you advocate a literal reading of the scriptures, believe in supernatural miracles, and add some conspiracy theory to the picture, but this would lead us too far from the scope of the present discussion). It is also admissible that some types of  iʿjāz as described in the typology above can hardly be reconciled with scientific information whatsoever (numerology and manipulated images of continents and skeletons cannot count as scientific information, not even as a simplified or popularized one).

Needless to say, recognizing that the information presented as scientific in iʿjāz can be more or less accurate is not tantamount to stating that iʿjāz can be a scientific enterprise proper, not even in limited cases.

Attempts at “scientifically” reading the Qur’ān date back at least to the efforts of the Egyptian Tantāwī Jawharī (1862-1940), author of Jewels in the Interpretation of the Holy Qur’ān, Containing Marvels of the Beauties of the Creation and Wonderfully Luminous Divine Signs in 26 volumes. However, as Majid Daneshgar has recently showed,[7] such reading is not necessarily tantamount to subscribing to the thesis of the “scientific miraculousness.” What Tantāwī Jawharī was rather engaged in, according to Daneshgar’s interpretation, is the understanding of Qur’anic verses through scientific data. It is however likely that an enthusiastic or unsophisticated reader might easily confuse the theoretical framework and purpose of the two interpretations.

Another term used almost interchangeably with iʿjāz (ʿilmī) is Bucailleism (or Bucaillism), from the name of the French physician Maurice Bucaille (1920-1998) who in his immensely popular book The Bible, the Quran and Science (1976) as well as in other writings and conferences expressed the idea of harmony between Qur’anic content and “scientific” data with unprecedented clarity and the aura of a Western convert and a successful medical doctor.

Bucaille especially stressed that the Qur’ān was astonishingly accurate about the causes of the death of the Pharaoh who pursued Moses during the exodus, whose mummy he was convinced to have identified among those conserved at the Egyptian museum in Cairo. Bucaille was also an advocate of the thesis of the corruption of Jewish and Christian scriptures, which he emphasises in his works. The identity of the mummy and the match with Qur’anic verses is presented in his main book as his own finding, but his works contain plenty of examples of a match between Qur’anic verses and scientific information that he might have taken from pre-existing texts (or perhaps learnt indirectly through conversations).

Having conducted some research on Bucaille I can state that we currently are not in a position to tell in detail which other works may have influenced the French author albeit it seems clear that he did rely on predecessors. However it should also be emphasised that  iʿjāz ʿilmī is not Bucaille’s invention, that the ideas he popularized in his writings included, but were not limited to, those of the “scientific miraculousness” of the Qur’ān, and also that Bucaille did not pursue all of the exegetical lines listed above: for example numerological speculations are absent from his writings.[8] For all these reasons the label “Bucaill(e)ism” should not be considered as completely accurate in a scholarly discussion.

Bucaille’s work inspired a flood of similar ones, usually produced by authors trained in natural science or engineering and with no formal theological training.  Iʿjāz and/or Bucailleism does not meet with unanimous consent in the Muslim world; for instance it has been criticised by Muslim interpreters (theologians and scientists alike) as leading to poor theology (i.e. to treating the Qur’ān as a scientific encyclopaedia), as the vehicle of pseudoscience or utterly untrue information, and as the expression of an unhealthy inferiority complex towards “Western” science.[9]  However it remains a popular genre that flourishes not only in print but also on TV and on the Internet. A contemporary successful advocate of iʿjāz is, for instance, the Egyptian geologist and TV personality Zaghloul El-Naggar (b. 1933) who even works within a Commission ad hoc funded, inter alia, by the Egyptian government.[10] Another advocate of iʿjāz is the Turkish religious leader and TV preacher Harun Yahya, who contributes to spread such ideas together with his vocal criticism of Darwinism.

Already in Islam and the Quest for Modern Science I have tried to reflect in depth about the phenomenon of iʿjāz and its nuances, taking it seriously rather than rejecting it right away and wholesale as academically worthless. I have tried to emphasise that Bucaille might still be deemed unscientific and unscholarly but that his ideas are not as simplistic and one-dimensional as his critics may present them. I have also pointed out that, whereas there is little doubt that iʿjāz is more often than not associated with pseudoscience or with the diffusion of simply untrue information wrapped in “scientific garb,” we still have no exact data available as to the way in which iʿjāz-related institutions and initiatives compete in specific countries and contexts for the allocation of funding, be it public or private. We can also not evaluate whether and up to what extent  iʿjāz really has the power to distract from science proper (for instance students at high school level) or whether it is rather a genre that is mainly consumed by audiences or readerships that would not be engaged in scientific enterprises anyways (at an active or politically decisional level). It is my hope that projects such as Hameed and Gardner’s one will provide us with more complete and solid data regarding such audiences and interactions.

Among the authors that I have personally been most engaged with, the one who shows the most articulate position in dealing critically and normatively with iʿjāz is Nidhal Guessoum. Guessoum is very critical of pseudoscience and untrue information, as it is to be expected from a physicist who is also very concerned with educational issues. However he empathically understands the kind of fascination that Bucailleism can exert on a scientifically uninformed mind (having gone through the same process in his youth), and he also points out the good intentions of most authors engaged in the production of the texts devoted to the genre. Moreover, Guessoum recognizes that different readerships can be convinced by different discourses, so that iʿjāz up to an extent might even prove harmless while reassuring some Muslim audiences.[11] When Guessoum advocates a moderate approach towards the interpretation of the Qur’ān in light of modern science I think he basically refers to two points: (a) that such interpretation should not be practiced exclusively; (b) that the scientific information should be accurate.

To these points I might add the following suggestions.

First, that the authors interested in developing a critical, normative, inside-the-debate point of view and interested in shifting from mere polemics to the proposal of articulated educational initiatives competing with  iʿjāz, should begin with a recognition of empirical data about the production and consumption of  iʿjāz itself. Hence a project like the one currently developed at SSiMS can prove significant to external observers of the debate and participants alike.

Second, in order to better articulate such proposals they should take into account the nuances of the material usually propagated under the label “scientific miracle of the Qur’ān” and the like, a variety that is probably not entirely clear to the producers and consumers themselves of  iʿjāz. The typology that I have sketched here can of course be further discussed an improved; however it might constitute a good starting point.[12]

Third, they should insist that iʿjāz albeit varying in content and quality is anyhow, by definition, something different and separate from science proper.

Fourth, they should emphasise that even “good” iʿjāz (i.e. iʿjāz based on fairly accurate scientific data as well as on a non-far-fetched textual exegesis) might be deemed astonishing, amazing, and surprising, but not demonstrative as to the divine origin of the Qur’ān, at least not in the same sense of a “scientific demonstration;” a category, one might argue, not applicable to religious matters (the category of “sign” in the sense of “something pointing at something else” seems more appropriate to me in this regard, and more consistent with Qur’anic lexicon). This should contribute to further dispelling the confusion between “scientific interpretation” and science proper. This last line should also be integrated by emphasis on the fact that the character of such signs, besides not being demonstrative in a strictly scientific sense, is not exclusively demonstrative either (one should not, for instance, forget the classical doctrine of iʿjāz).

Finally as I have pointed out both in Islam and the Quest for Modern Science as well as in the discussion in this collective,[13] albeit the adversaries of (“bad”)  iʿjāz might be more interested in “localized interventions” aimed at correcting with their writings (from time to time) the unscientific/pseudoscientific/untrue information that might be associated with specific  iʿjāz narratives, an author with a theological inclination interested in developing a theoretical framework useful to understand and criticise iʿjāz while at the same time developing a radically different approach to textual exegesis might fruitfully adopt what Damian Howard defines as a post-liberal, cultural-linguistic paradigm[14] that has already been adopted by Christian theology, and what I (perhaps less clearly) suggested in terms of a “Latourian approach.”


Bigliardi, Stefano. Islam and the Quest for Modern Science. Istanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 2014a.

Bigliardi, Stefano. “On Harmonizing Islam and Science: A Response to Edis and a Self-Criticism.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 6 (2014b): 56-68.

Daneshgar, Majid. “Tantāwī: Western-Eastern Discoveries Embedded in Islam.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no.12 (2014): 113-115.

Görke, Andreas. “Die Spaltung des Mondes in der modernen Koranexegese und im Internet.” Welt des Islams 50 (2010): 60-116.

Guessoum, Nidhal. “The Qur’an, Science, and the (Related) Contemporary Muslim Discourse.” Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 43, no. 2 (2008): 411-431.

Guessoum, Nidhal. Islam’s Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. London and New York. I.B. Tauris, 2011.

Howard, Damian. “Some Reflections on Stefano Bigliardi’s ‘On Harmonizing Islam and Science.’” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 10 (2014): 50-52.

Jansen, Johannes J. G. The Interpretation of the Koran in Modern Egypt. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1974.

[1] Cf. the English “genie;” inhabitants of the immaterial (or subtly material) world into which ours is plunged.

[2] Exodus 7:8-12.

[3] Q 7:107.

[4] Furthermore iʿjāz ʿilmī is not a theory according to which a scientist who is confronted with alternative theories should choose the most Qur’anic-compatible one, nor is it related with the discussion of religious guidelines for the ethics of scientific research.

[5] Some interpreters namely maintain that the Moon’s splitting evoked in Qur’ān 54:1 was a real event whose signs have been observed by NASA astronauts. In this case we have a miracle proper (i.e. a supernatural event) whose narrative allegedly matches current scientific observations (scientific miracle of the Qur’ān). But there is also a naturalistic interpretation of the event (i.e. the splitting is said to have happened according to natural laws) still framed in the iʿjāz ʿilmī discourse. For different interpretations see Görke 2010.

[6] It can be debated if we should group those cases in which specific configurations of circumscribed natural phenomena are said to recall or match symbols or terms proper of Islam under  iʿjāz (for instance when the name of God is said to appear in a sliced fruit or in the clouds). A distinct if analogous case, less apt to be categorized under  iʿjāz  but still relevant in the reconstruction of the contemporary landscape of the debate over Islam and science, is constituted by those cases in which supernatural (or at least highly anomalous) phenomena are said to recall symbols and terms proper of Islam, such as the case of the narrative, circulating on the Internet as early as 2009, of Qur’anic verses appearing on a baby’s skin in Dagestan (See: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/6401541/Koran-verses-appear-on-skin-of-miracle-Russian-baby.html. I am only mentioning this as an example for a more general category and I shall refrain from discussing the veracity of such narrative here). Finally, for the sake of completeness we should also mention the existence of the discussion of Qur’anic para- or pseudo-technology: it has been claimed for instance that the Qur’ān has special powers that can be intercepted, channelled, transmitted and used through technological devices (recalled in Guessoum 2011, 5-6).

[7] See Daneshgar 2014.

[8] See Bigliardi 2014a, 25-27 and 181-183.

[9] See Guessoum 2008 for a more detailed historical reconstruction and an overview of critical positions including Guessoum’s one. Regarding the “psychological” objection we should also observe that one might regard the matter the other way round, i.e., as a somewhat commendable opening of religion towards science; for instance Johannes J. G. Jansen pointed out: “(…) one cannot help admiring the courage of certain scientific exegetes of the Koran. Whereas in Christianity it took centuries before the Churches “admitted” certain scientific truths, often after bloody struggles, many modern Moslem scientific exegetes of the Koran boldly claim that the Koran, the backbone of Islam, already contains the modern sciences and their principles, and all this with a courage and vigour that deserves a nobler aim” (Jansen 1974, 54).

[10] See Bigliardi 2014a, 112-113. More knowledge about this Commission is still a desideratum.

[11] See Bigliardi 2014a, 154-155.

[12] The typology might even be corrected because of the discovery or development of new lines or arguments. For example I am personally not aware of the existence of any interpreters who claim the match between phonetic patterns in the Qur’ān and natural ones but it seems likely that they might eventually emerge.

[13] See Bigliardi 2014a, 199-203.

[14] See Howard 2014.

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