Iʿjāz, Conspiracy Theories and Ufology—Some Suggestions with a Touch of Latour, Stefano Bigliardi

SERRC —  November 7, 2015 — 3 Comments

Author Information: Stefano Bigliardi, Foundation for Interreligious and Intercultural Research and Dialogue, Geneva; Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University; ITESM Campus Santa Fe, Mexico City, stefano.bigliardi@cme.lu.se

Bigliardi, Stefano. “I’Jāz, Conspiracy Theories, and Ufology—Some Suggestions with a Touch of Latour.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 11 (2015): 1-7.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-2qe

Please refer to:

    Articles related to the broader discussion on Islam and science, hosted by the SERRC, are listed below the article. [a]


Image credit: Stefano Maffei, via flickr

During a brief research stay in Iran (2011), I happened to be exposed to a curious narrative. One of my generous hosts and guides was a person of high culture and relevant social standing who showed a surprisingly deep knowledge of the popular culture of my home country although he had never visited it nor did he speak Italian. During a conversation touching upon Italian politics and society he stated en passant that Edoardo Agnelli (1954-2000), son of FIAT industrialist Gianni Agnelli (1921-2003), had in fact not committed suicide. Edoardo, according to my Iranian friend, was a convert to Islam and he had been assassinated in a plot aimed at avoiding that a Muslim would inherit part of the family’s fortune. 

I listened to this tale in silent amazement. As an Italian I have always been more interested in the relationship between Italian governments and FIAT rather than in the personal vicissitudes of the members of the Agnelli family, within which, as far as I could remember, Edoardo Agnelli (whose very existence I had learnt about from the news on the day of his death) stood out as a melancholic intellectual figure, an outsider rather more interested in Hindu thought than in Islam. I remembered not having given a second thought to his tragic death, besides remarking that it was another episode in the saga of that extremely privileged but also somewhat unfortunate family.

The narrative about Edoardo Agnelli’s death I had just heard, I concluded, was most definitely a conspiracy theory. I was at the time familiar with several of them but not with this specific one, which reformulated or re-framed in a surprising way some rather marginal facts of my home country’s history. As far as I could judge, it actually killed two birds with the same stone, claiming conversion for a relatively important Western figure and confirming (in fact, drawing upon) the notorious and nefarious archetype of the “Jewish conspiracy” (something similar happens with some rumours around the death of Lady Diana Spencer). I registered it in my journal as well as in my memory as nothing more than a curiosity, one more specimen in my mental Wunderkammer, most likely to be useful on some convivial occasion. Later on I would learn that Edoardo Agnelli had visited Iran and that the narrative that I heard from my friend was actually promoted in an Iranian documentary. [1]

Let us approach the matter in a more scholarly fashion. Without any pretence of originality and exhaustiveness I offer and use, for the sake of this tentative piece, the following definitions:

1. A factoid is a piece of “factual” or “historical” information that is usually taken at face value, and passed on; factoids are not based on (and do not withstand) empirical and scientific verification. They are usually curious or intriguing or even unsettling. For instance: “Asian restaurants regularly serve rat meat disguised as some other meat dish”; [2]

2. An urban legend is a short, usually non-autobiographical (and possibly unsettling) narrative that can involve factoids. For instance: “A friend of a friend noticed something stuck within his molars while eating at an Asian restaurant and once at home he discovered it was a rat’s bone”;

3. A conspiracy theory is a complex narrative that refers to an occult agency, claiming that it is responsible both for a specific (cluster of) fact(oid)/s and for systematically covering it/them up, in its own interest, although occasionally committing mistakes: “Asian food lobbies promote and hide the usage of disguised rat meat, while corrupt governmental authorities turn a blind eye, although episodes such as that occurred to a friend of a friend and give us glimpses into what is really going on”.

As one can easily infer, factoids, urban legends and conspiracy theories do not completely overlap: not every factoid is an urban legend, not every urban legend revolves around a factoid, and they are not always further framed in a conspiracy theory. However the three can be encountered in the form of Chinese boxes (pun not intended) that I have just exemplified, and conspiracy theories definitely involve urban legends and factoids (the existence itself of the occult agency and the conspiracy). In some cases people entertain a belief in factoids without realizing that the only way of justifying them is to further subscribe to a conspiracy theory (for instance a scared parent might refuse vaccinations for their children on the basis of a “simple, legitimate suspicion” that they might “cause autism” without seeing that the supposed harmfulness of vaccines, given the fact that they have been successfully used for decades, can only be believed in if one subscribes the thesis of a major cover-up etc.).

Even if we accept that in some cases factoids, urban legends and conspiracy theories stem from intentional pranks, I think that more generally the issues at stake in their production and circulation are (scientific) education and communication, authority, and deep-seated feelings such as fear and hate (of science, of “foreign” communities, and so on). Also, the way in which conspiracy theories are argued seemingly entails an ambiguous relationship with scientific authority. Those who produce and endorse such theories usually present themselves as authoritative, even possibly as scientifically authoritative, but:

a. They usually step outside their professional and academic borders (for instance: a chemistry professor lecturing about alien abductions) and;

b. They usually reject the authority of others with a similar (if not stronger) scientific background who entertain different ideas with ad hominem arguments alluding to their supposed political/hidden agendas (for instance: “X is a physician but her opinion about such and such pill is unreliable because she is on a multinational’s payroll”).

Furthermore, conspiracy theories seem to be mainly based on and encourage a non-scientific form of reasoning, in which each and any element brought up in the discussion seems to strengthen the central thesis. If some fact(oid) seems to point at the conspiracy, it is taken as evident proof. Lack of proof is taken as evidence of the occult agency’s efficacy. Finally, conspiracy theories are definitely no recent invention but they seem to have found a congenial channel in the new media, where they constantly blossom and expand.

After frequent encounters with urban legends, factoids, and conspiracy theories, more as an element of my daily life of a 20th as well as 21st century human being than in my specific capacity as a scholar, I have come back to them over the past months while deepening the study of the message of some new religious movements, most notably those based on UFO narratives in which factoids, urban legends and conspiracy theories play an important role. I slowly seemed to notice some family resemblances that these narratives bear towards a piece of the debate over Islam and science that in 2011, at the time of the Iranian journey, I simply regarded it as the most popular and unscientific layer of that complex discussion—namely iʿjāz or the “scientific miracle” of the Qur’ān.

I have already attempted a rather detailed conceptual taxonomy of this cultural phenomenon in a piece for the SERRC (Bigliardi 2014a) and I will not repeat myself here. It suffices to recall that, according to the advocates of that multifaceted discourse, the divine origin of the Qur’ān would be demonstrated by the presence in it of scientific notions, described with such accuracy that neither the Prophet nor the scientifically best informed people of his times could have been aware of. One of the most critical voices of this phenomenon at the time I begun studying it was Taner Edis in his monograph An Illusion of Harmony (Edis 2007). Edis perceived well the notion that in (some sectors) iʿjāz overlaps with pseudoscience and that in any case it promotes and is based upon a misrepresentation of science as a “stamp collection”.

I am not trying to suggest lumping together the concepts of factoid, urban legend, conspiracy theory and iʿjāz. I am also still convinced that we lack significant quantitative as well as qualitative research regarding the production, diffusion and consumption of the discourse regarding the “scientific miracle” of the Qur’ān. Examinations such as Josep Lluís Mateo Dieste’s one (Mateo Dieste 2015) give us insights into the conceptual structure of iʿjāz (and in my opinion a deep, correct and innovative one).

However, I am wondering whether it wouldn’t be fruitful to join forces with experts in postmodern folklore and adopt their tools precisely in order to understand in an even more fine-grained way the cultural dynamics at work in the birth and growth of (contemporary) iʿjāz, thus refining, for instance, Edis’ suggestion to consider it in the framework of pseudoscience and fringe science, and Guessoum’s telling comparison of such phenomenon with a snowball that ended up incorporating more and more debris (Guessoum 2008).

More specifically, what occurs to me is a series of interesting analogies and overlaps:

1. Iʿjāz is often based on factoids referred to the “natural” world: for instance, that the circumambulation around the Ka’ba is also the direction in which most natural circular motions take place, e.g., the revolution of the solar system planets around the sun;

2. Iʿjāz is often based on/circulates through urban-legend like narratives, such as that NASA astronauts discovered proof of the Moon’s splitting, [3] or that Jacques Cousteau converted to Islam after discovering an oceanic current mentioned in the Qur’ān, or that a giant skeleton was discovered in Saudi Arabia that confirmed a hadith about Adam and his height.[4] Unlike urban legends of the kind exemplified above these narratives do not really contain unsettling elements; on the contrary, they are supposed to be edifying (for non-believers) and reassuring (for believers), however they do contain a mixture of unknown/extraordinary and known/scientific (e.g. the discovery of a rift on the Moon);

3. Iʿjāz narratives, while not directly constituted of conspiracy theories, seemingly encourage or entail “soft versions” of a conspiracy theory as a wider context in which to understand factoids and urban legends: for instance, that the French author Maurice Bucaille, a physician and the father of contemporary iʿjāz, was a convert to Islam but he never stated it overtly in order not to be ostracized by his medical colleagues and that a similar risk is run nowadays by similar figures (we do lack evidence of his conversion but this of course does not demonstrate the he was a convert who felt threatened);

4. Iʿjāz is seemingly borne out of, and contributes to dampening, a negative feeling; more specifically, a frustration stemming from the simplistic and deeply-sated conviction that contemporary science is “Western” and that Islam is in need of “scientific validation” (this is also an objection moved by Muslim critics of iʿjāz such as Ziauddin Sardar [5]);

5. Iʿjāz producers entertain with authority a relationship that recalls the above-mentioned one typical of conspiracy theories advocates: they are usually authors with a scientific background who actually write about fields they are not directly competent in.

6. Iʿjāz in its present form thrives in and through social media.

7. One of the greatest contemporary producers of iʿjāz, the Harun Yahya enterprise, also spreads blatant conspiracy theories in which the “Darwinists” are the occult agency behind each and every ill of contemporary society and tragic facts of history.

I am not claiming either that we should use these concepts to understand and explain the historical development of iʿjāz. For instance, I do not think that all the analogies apply to Tantāwī’s works and ideas as Majid Daneshgar has reconstructed them in a piece for the SERRC (Daneshgar 2014). Perhaps the elements I have just listed can be described as a relatively recent result of the encounter of iʿjāz with the new media. There are also significant differences such as the fact that iʿjāz, as Mateo Dieste’s article recently reminded us, is also promoted within academic institutions, while “conspiracists” tend to form their own societies and set up their own conferences. However, factoids and urban legends seem to have been going hand in hand with, or running parallel to, the discourse on Islam and science from its very beginning. For instance, an otherwise ground-breaking, brilliant Muslim thinker like Bediüzzaman Said Nursî (1877-1960), who can still inspire such an insightful theory like the interpretation of miracles by Isra Yazicioglu (Yazicioglu 2013), in his Damascus Sermon (1911, with later additions), refers to “Prince Bismarck”, described as “a famous European of the last century who was also a scholar and a philosopher”, and attributes to him, inter alia, the following statements without contextualization: “(…) I saw that the Qur’ān of Muhammad was far superior to all the other Books. I found wisdom in all its words. (…) Such a work cannot be the word of man” (Nursî 1996(2), 35).

Here, one cannot fail to notice elements analogous to those detectable in Edoardo Agnelli’s, Bucaille’s, or Cousteau’s narrative: conversion, or at least high appreciation of Islam, on behalf of a great “Western” personality. It is a historical factoid that easily turns into a narrative: the great personality converted, could not be open about it, etc…. Also Bucaille, with his allusive and non-scholarly writing style, paved the way for a “conspiracist” reading of his biographical vicissitudes; for instance, his monograph about the medical investigations of mummies in Cairo (Bucaille 1990), rather than being a factual and scientific book, is replete with details regarding academic quarrels and polemics with colleagues.

We finally arrive at Bruno Latour. UFO/alien-related narratives also belong to those areas of popular culture that at times overlap and at times border with factoids, urban legends, and conspiracy theories. In an interesting essay that reconstructs the way in which “contactees’” narratives about their supposed relationships with aliens and space crafts are produced and consumed, Pierre Lagrange refers to Latour’s interpretation of science:

In science, the source of the data must be clear, and the researchers must be able to put in a straight line all the maillons de la chaine (links in the chain). Conversely, what is important in religion is the meaning of the message for the listener. The message has meaning here and now for the reader, it is not simply the last representative of a large chain of mediations. The message must transform the reader rather than construct an external reality. In contrast, in science the message must remain the same all along; in religion, the message can change depending on the context, but its meaning should remain the same (Lagrange 2007, 187).

In other words, what Lagrange points out in the footprints of Latour is that those who read a scientific text should be able to “re-open” each and every “box”; Lagrange explains that this is not the case with ufological narratives that contain plenty of “un-openable black-boxes” (vaguely referred episodes, episodes referred to a “friend’s friend” etc.) and that are mainly aimed at inspiring and convincing their readers and thus very similar to religious discourse.

I am aware that Latour’s interpretation of science and religion is by itself controversial, but I find Lagrange’s usage of it rather insightful. It can be extended from contactees’ ufology to conspiracy theories as well as to iʿjāz, thus strengthening and confirming the intuition of a strong resemblance they all bear to religious discourse rather than to science proper. Factoids and urban legends can indeed be seen as the “black boxes” Lagrange mentions, and both conspiracy theories and iʿjāz are rather aimed at convincing than open to inspection. If we accept this interpretation, iʿjāz might be regarded, among all these “families” of discourses that share a common structure and occasionally intertwine, the one most explicitly aimed at inspiring (we should not forget it belongs to the more general field of apologetic discourses used in proselytizing) and in which, curiously, the above-mentioned black-boxes are actually presented as “scientific”.

On a final note I would like to point out that the suggestions I have just advanced do not simply stem from a taste for trivia or from the desire to abstractly hybridize academic subjects. We should not forget that the debate over Islam and contemporary science is also a pedagogical one—how should the pursuit of science be communicated in Muslim societies and schools? In my experience as a teacher of philosophy and critical thinking in a Mexican high school I realized the concrete impact of false pieces of information on my students’ beliefs and thus on their decision making in matters of sexual behaviour, political action, and self-orientation in studies.

Belief in factoids and urban legends can be relatively harmless but it includes dangerous cases such as the above-mentioned vaccine-autism connection; however, they are rather the symptom of a failure in the process in which knowledge is purchased and evaluated. More sophisticated conspiracy theories usually take a step further, coming with a series of misleading instructions regarding how to relate to sources of information, scientific authority, and the emergence itself of scientific knowledge. In this sense a better understanding of how they have infiltrated the discourse on Islam and science, of how they work, and how we can cope with them as educators, should be included in the agenda of all those who are interested in this debate.


Attivissimo, Paolo.. Luna? Sì, ci Siamo Andati! Le Risposte ai Dubbi Più Frequenti Sugli Sbarchi Lunari, 2009-2011. http://www.attivissimo.net/luna/luna-si-ci-siamo-andati/

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

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

Bucaille, Maurice. Mummies of the Pharaohs: Modern Medical Investigations. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1990.

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

Edis, Taner. An Illusion of Harmony. Science and Religion in Islam. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

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

Lagrange, Pierre. 2007. “Close Encounters of the French Kind: The Saucerian Construction of ‘Contacts’ and the Controversy over Its Reality in France.” In Alien Worlds: The Social and Religious Dimensions of UFO Phenomena. Edited by Diana G. Tumminia. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2007: 153-190. https://pierrelagrangesociologie.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/lagrange-closeencountersfrench-tuminia.pdf

Mateo Dieste, Josep Lluís. “Anthropocentrism and Divine Objectivity. Some Observations on the Logic Behind the ‘Scientific Miracle of the Qur’an’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4, no. 10 (2015): 8-9.

Nursî, Said. The Damascus Sermon. Second edition. Translated from the Turkish Hutbe-i Şâmiye by Şükran Vahid, 1996. http://www.malaysianur.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/THE-DAMASCUS-SERMON.pdf

Sardar, Ziauddin. “Between Two Masters: Qur’an or Science?”  Inquiry Vol 2, No 8 (1985): 37-41; http://ziauddinsardar.com/2011/02/quran-science/

Yazicioglu, Umeyye Isra. Understanding the Qur’anic Miracle Stories in the Modern Age. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013.

[1] After having been brought up both in an Iranian documentary and by Italian journalists the narrative of Edoardo Agnelli’s conversion, as well as the suspicion of assassination, have both been vehemently rejected by members of his family and acquaintances during public interviews and on a number of occasions. His travels to Iran and his interest in Islam are a fact. I could watch at least one documentary on YouTube entitled “The Great Martyr of Islam Edoardo Agnelli”. Such documentary seemed technically amateurish, as well as conjectural and allusive in character (mentioning for example a conversion certificate that had been seen by a diplomat but that eventually disappeared from the archives, etc.). When I talk about “conspiracy theory” I refer to the whole narrative regarding conversion, plot, and assassination as it currently circulates in the Internet (through the documentary, in blog entries, etc.) and as I have summarized it, and not to the specific conjecture about Edoardo Agnelli’s conversion that taken per se is not completely implausible. For those who understand Italian and are interested in getting at least an overview of the facts and the hypotheses I recommend “Edoardo Agnelli – L’ultimo volo” in the documentary series La storia siamo noi (2010), conducted by Gianni Minoli; available at: http://www.lastoriasiamonoi.rai.it/puntate/edoardo-agnelli/1203/default.aspx.

[2] No offence intended. I elaborate this example on the basis of urban legends I have often heard and I offer it precisely as an instance of an unfounded narrative based on a piece of false information, which draws upon racist feelings and preconceptions. I am personally a great fan of Asian restaurants (and not because I secretly appreciate rat meat).

[3] Interestingly this implicitly but clearly rules out a known conspiracy theory (or rather a family of conspiracy theories) that denies that American astronauts ever reached the Moon. For an overview of such theories, a refutation thereof, and also an interesting taxonomy of the different ones that clearly shows how they can be mutually exclusive, see Attivissimo 2009-2011.

[4] Professor Mohammed Basil Altaie brought this example of an urban legend circulating in the Internet to my attention, cf. Bigliardi 2014, 91.

[5] As early as thirty years ago he wrote about the “scientific miracle”: “So what does all this prove? Does it confirm the Divine origins of the Quran? Or does it merely tell us that the Quran is a treasure chest of scientific facts? What is the function of the exercise? This incident throws considerable light on the state of the Muslim mind: its acute inferiority complex.” And about Bucaille: “His book, The Bible, the Quran and Science is essential reading for Muslims with larger than life inferiority complexes” (Sardar 1985).

[a] Articles in the exchange on Islam and science on the SERRC:

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