Scholars Play Key Role In Touting 'Science' of the Quran
DANIEL GOLDEN Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Leigh Simpson, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor
College of Medicine in Houston, is a church-going Presbyterian.
thanks to a few conferences he attended back in the 1980s, he is
known in parts of the Muslim world as a champion of the doctrine
that the Quran, Islam's holy book, is historically and
scientifically correct in every detail. Dr. Simpson now says he
made some comments that sound "silly and embarrassing"
taken out of context, but no matter: Mideast television shows,
Muslim books and Web sites still quote him as saying the Quran
must have been "derived from God," because it foresaw
modern discoveries in embryology and genetics.
Simpson is just one of several non-Muslim scientists who have
found themselves caught up in the publicity machine of a
fast-growing branch of Islamic fundamentalism.
"Bucailleism," after the French surgeon Maurice
Bucaille, who articulated it in an influential 1976 book, the
doctrine is in some ways the Muslim counterpart to Christian
creationism. But while creationism rejects much of modern
science, Bucailleism embraces it. It holds that the Quran
prophesied the Big Bang theory, space travel and other
contemporary scientific breakthroughs. By the same token, it
argues, the Bible makes lots of scientific errors, and so is
less reliable as the word of God. Muslims believe the Quran to
be God's revelations to the prophet Muhammad, as told to him by
the planets and stars, modern science has largely concluded, the
universe was probably a cloud of dust and gas. The Quran
presaged that conclusion in the seventh century, Bucailleists
argue, in a text saying Allah "comprehended in his design
the sky, and it had been as smoke." The discovery of black
holes in space? Foreseen in the passage, "Heaven is opened
and becomes as gates."
disdained by most mainstream scholars, Bucailleism has had an
important role in attracting converts to Islam and in keeping
young, Western-leaning adherents faithful. Widely taught in
Islamic secondary schools, the doctrine fosters pride in Muslim
heritage, and reconciles conflicts that students may feel
between their religious beliefs and secular careers in
engineering or computers.
Conferences and Videotapes
"All over the Arab world,
in the universities, you will find people who hold onto this
line of thought more and more," says Muzaffar Iqbal,
president of Center for Islam and Science in Alberta, Canada.
"It has more credence there than creationism has here. In
the Muslim world, there is no organized opposition to it."
Zaghloul El-Naggar, an Egyptian geologist who touts the doctrine
on a popular weekly television program shown in the Arab world:
"One of the main convincing evidences to people to accept
Islam is the large number of scientific facts in the
has been propelled by a well-funded campaign led by Prof. El-Naggar's
onetime protege, Sheikh Abdul Majeed Zindani, a charismatic
Yemeni academic and politician. Founder and former
secretary-general of the Commission on Scientific Signs in the
Quran and Sunnah, based in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Zindani organized
conferences where Dr. Simpson and other scientists appeared and
A Friend of Osama
Mr. Zindani also is a friend
and mentor to another Bucailleism devotee of Yemeni descent:
Osama bin Laden. The world's most wanted man has regularly
sought Mr. Zindani's guidance on whether planned terrorist
actions are in accord with Islam, says Yossef Bodansky,
biographer of Mr. bin Laden and staff director of a U.S.
congressional task force on terrorism. "Zindani is one of
the people closest to bin Laden," says Mr. Bodansky, who
attributes the book's findings to interviews with various
intelligence agencies, current and former terrorists and others.
Mr. Zindani, who stepped down
as secretary general of the Commission on Scientific Signs in
1995, is now a leading figure in a Yemeni opposition party that
advocates an Islamic state. He isn't listed as a terrorist by
the U.S. government. He declined comment for this article,
saying through an intermediary that he is preoccupied with
political and academic affairs.
an interview last May in a magazine published by the Commission
on Scientific Signs, he said that when Muslims learn of the
scientific accuracy of the Quran, "they feel a kind of
honor, confidence and satisfaction that they are following a
true religion." The persuasiveness of the evidence, he
added, "is clear and obvious, as it is testified by a group
of eminent non-Muslim scholars in several fields."
began gaining momentum around 1980, when Mr. Zindani became
director of a team at King Abdulaziz University that sought out
Western scientists visiting Saudi Arabia. His breakthrough came
when one of his assistants, Mustafa Abdul Basit Ahmed, presented
a leech to Keith Moore, a University of Toronto professor and
author of a widely used embryology textbook.
Mr. Ahmed wanted to show that a
verse from the Quran, which states that God made man as a leech,
was an apt simile to describe early human gestation as seen
under a microscope. Mr. Ahmed says Prof. Moore was bowled over
by the resemblance between the leech and the early embryo. Since
the Quran predated microscopes, Prof. Moore, son of a Protestant
clergyman, concluded that God had revealed the Quran to
Muhammad. Prof. Moore has disseminated this view not only on Mr.
Zindani's videos but in many lectures, panel discussions and
Prof. Moore sanctioned a
special 1983 edition of his textbook, "The Developing
Human," for the Islamic world, that was co-written by Mr.
Zindani. It alternates chapters of standard science with Mr.
Zindani's "Islamic additions" on the Quran. In its
acknowledgments, among "distinguished scholars" who
gave "full support in their personal and official
capacities," Mr. Zindani lists Sheikh Osama bin Laden,
alongside Dr. Simpson and other Western scientists. Prof. El-Naggar,
the Egyptian geology professor who taught Mr. Zindani, says Mr.
bin Laden became intrigued by Bucailleism in his college days
after hearing Mr. Zindani lecture, and helped pay for the book's
a professor emeritus, Prof. Moore declined to be interviewed.
Reached in Toronto, he said he was busy revising his textbook
and that "it's been 10 or 11 years since I was involved in
In 1984, after being denied a
permanent position at King Abdulaziz, Mr. Zindani turned to the
Muslim World League, a nonprofit organization primarily funded
by the Saudi government. The World League provided financial
support to establish the Commission on Scientific Signs. Mr.
Ahmed, who moved to Chicago in 1983, was put on its payroll at
$3,000 a month, and traveled from coast to coast cultivating
U.S. and Canadian scientists.
commission drew the scientists to its conferences with
first-class plane tickets for them and their wives, rooms at the
best hotels, $1,000 honoraria, and banquets with Muslim leaders
-- such as a palace dinner in Islamabad with Pakistani President
Mohammed Zia ul-Haq shortly before he was killed in a plane
crash. Mr. Ahmed also gave at least one scientist a crystal
Mr. Ahmed, who left the
commission in 1996 and now operates an Islamic elementary school
in Pennsylvania, says he reassured the scientists that the
commission was "completely neutral" and welcomed
information contradicting the Quran. The scientists soon learned
differently. Each one was given a verse from the Quran to
examine in light of his expertise. Then Mr. Zindani would
interview him on videotape, pushing him to concede divine
scientist William Hay, then at the University of Colorado, was
assigned a passage likening the minds of unbelievers to
"the darkness in a deep sea ... covered by waves, above
which are waves." As the videotape rolled, Mr. Zindani
pressed Prof. Hay to admit that Muhammad couldn't have known
about internal waves caused by varying densities in ocean
depths. When Prof. Hay suggested Muhammad could have learned
about the phenomenon from sailors, Mr. Zindani insisted that the
prophet never visited a seaport.
Hay, a Methodist, says he then raised other hypotheses that Mr.
Zindani also dismissed. Finally, Prof. Hay conceded that the
inspiration for the reference to internal waves "must be
the divine being," a statement now trumpeted on Islamic Web
fell into that trap and then warned other people to watch out
for it," says Prof. Hay, now at a German marine institute.
prodding failed to sway geologist Allison "Pete"
Palmer, who was working for the Geological Society of America.
He stuck to his position that Muhammad could have gleaned his
science from Middle Eastern oral history, not revelation. On one
video, Mr. Zindani acknowledges that Mr. Palmer still needs
"someone to point the truth out to him," but contends
that the geologist was "astonished" by the accuracy of
the Quran. Mr. Palmer says that's an overstatement. Still, he
has fond memories of Mr. Zindani, whom he calls "just a
lovely guy." He and the other American scientists say they
had no idea of Mr. Zindani's ties to Mr. bin Laden. And in any
case the U.S. didn't regard Mr. bin Laden as an outlaw at that
Looking for Verification
Prof. Gerald Goeringer, an
embryologist retired from Georgetown University, says he urged
the commission to try some verification: hire an independent
scholar to see whether the Quran's statements could have been
taken from Aristotle, the Greek philosopher-scientist who
preceded the book by nearly 1,000 years. After his request was
denied, Prof. Goeringer says, he stopped going to the
conferences for fear of being associated with fanaticism.
was mutual manipulation," he says. "We got to go
places we wouldn't otherwise go to. They wanted to add some
respectability to what they were publishing."
Simpson -- who attended conferences in Saudi Arabia, Cairo and
Islamabad -- recalls being asked to analyze an anecdote from the
Sunnah, an Islamic holy book recording the acts and words of the
prophet, in view of modern genetics.
this passage -- apparently intended to discourage unjustified
accusations of adultery -- a Bedouin complained to Muhammad that
his wife had given birth to a black child. Muhammed inquired
about the nomad's camels, and was told that some were tinged
with red, but one was dusky in color. The prophet then likened
the child to the dusky camel, saying both could have inherited
their hues from ancestors.
the urging of conference organizers, Prof. Simpson attested that
this passage was consistent with the way recessive genes pass on
traits not obvious in parents. But he says that the parallels --
while striking -- aren't necessarily evidence of divine
of Pennsylvania historian S. Nomanul Haq, a leading critic of
Bucailleism, says the notion of inheriting traits from ancestors
was commonplace in Muhammad's time. He attributes the rise of
Bucailleism to a "deep, deep inferiority complex"
among Muslims humiliated by colonialism and bidding to recapture
faded glories of Islamic science.
in the holy city of Mecca, the Commission on Scientific Signs
has a branch office in an ornate, three-story building on the
outskirts of another Saudi city, Jidda. According to its current
secretary general, Hassan A.A. Bahafzallah, Mr. Zindani no
longer has any official ties to the commission, although he is
still invited to its events. Of Mr. Zindani's association with
Mr. bin Laden, he says, "All I know is that during the
jihad in Afghanistan, Zindani used to go and visit him."
Bahafzallah says the commission raises about $250,000 a year
from individuals and businesses, besides its subsidy from the
Muslim World League. It has operated five conferences since
1986, most recently in Beirut in 2000, each costing about
legacy of those conferences lives on. Among other products, the
commission distributes a videotape, "This is the
Truth," which intersperses Mr. Zindani's interviews with
non-Muslim scientists and his commentary -- including the
prophecy that unbelievers "will be exposed to a fire in
which every time their skin is burnt, we will replace them with
Islamic publishers and
organizations have distributed 800,000 copies of "A Brief
Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam," which reprints
large portions of the videotape's script, including the
testimonials of the scientists.
The script is also available on
Internet sites such as Islamicity.com, which had more than one
million visitors in November. Based in Culver City, Calif.,
Islamicity has been digitizing Mr. Zindani's lectures on Quranic
infallibility, according to Chief Executive Mohammed Abdul Aleem.
He visits local schools to talk about
"correspondences" between the Quran and modern
science. Bucailleism, Mr. Aleem says, "resonates very
strongly in the young and educated and especially I think among
Muslims who are going through universities in the U.S."