Western Scholars Play Key Role In Touting 'Science' of the Quran


Joe Leigh Simpson, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, is a church-going Presbyterian.  

But 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.  

Publicity Machine

Dr. 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.  

Dubbed "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 an angel.  

Before 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."  

While 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."

Says 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 Quran."  

Bucailleism 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 were videotaped.  

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.

In 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."  

Bucailleism 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 articles.

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 publication.

Now 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 the Quran."  

Cultivating Scientists

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.

The 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 clock.  

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 inspiration.

Marine 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.  

Prof. 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 sites.  

"I fell into that trap and then warned other people to watch out for it," says Prof. Hay, now at a German marine institute.  

Similar 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 time.  

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.

"It 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."  

Prof. 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.  

In 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.  

At 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 inspiration.  

University 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.  

Headquartered 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."  

Mr. 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 $100,000.  

The 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 new skins."  

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."






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