Hamza Tzortzis can learn

Tzortzis has learned that claiming miraculous knowledge in the Qu’ran has “become an intellectual embarrassment for Muslim apologists”. Progress!

Regrettably, the scientific miracles narrative has become an intellectual embarrassment for Muslim apologists, including myself. A few years ago I took some activists to Ireland to engage with the audience and speakers at the World Atheist Convention. Throughout the convention we had a stall outside the venue and as a result positively engaged with hundreds of atheists, including the popular atheist academics Professor P. Z. Myers and Professor Richard Dawkins.  During our impromptu conversation with Professor Myers we ended up talking about God’s existence and the Divine nature of the Qur’ān. The topic of embryology came up, and Professor Myers being an expert in the field challenged our narrative. He claimed that the Qur’ān did not predate modern scientific conclusions in the field. As a result of posting the video[8] of the engagement on-line we faced a huge intellectual backlash. We received innumerable amounts of emails by Muslims and non-Muslims. The Muslims were confused and had doubts, and the non-Muslims were bemused with the whole approach. Consequently, I decided to compile and write an extensive piece on the Qur’ān and embryology, with the intention to respond to popular and academic contentions.[9] During the process of writing I relied on students and scholars of Islamic thought to verify references and to provide feedback in areas where I had to rely on secondary and tertiary sources. Unfortunately they were not thorough and they seemed to have also relied on trusting other Muslim apologists. When the paper was published it was placed under a microscope by atheist activists.[10] Although they misrepresented some of the points, they raised some significant contentions. I have since removed the paper from my website. In retrospect if this never happened, I probably wouldn’t be writing this essay now. It is all a learning curve and an important part of developing intellectual integrity.

Of course, he now has a new strategy:

  1. The Qur’ān allows multiple and multi-level meanings.

  2. Our understanding of natural phenomena and science changes and improves with time.

  3. The Qur’ān is not inaccurate or wrong.

  4. In the case of any irreconcilable difference between a Qur’ānic assertion and a scientific one, the following must be done:

    • Find meanings within the verse to correlate with the scientific conclusion.

    • If no words can match the scientific conclusion then science is to be improved.

    • Find a non-scientific meaning. The verse itself may be pertaining to non-physical things, such as the unseen, spiritual or existential realities.

#1 and #2 are correct. #3 is assuming what they want to demonstrate. #4 is an exercise in rationalization, and cannot generate new knowledge; it’s an admission that science will drive progress and understanding, while the religious apologists will follow along behind and try to steal the credit.

Comments

  1. says

    This is progress. I’m not an accommodationist, at all, nearer to right is still wrong. He is starting from a premise that his holy book and reality are equally valid sources of information and must be reconciled. To most of us reading this, his problem is that it’s a false premise. I certainly think that. If he has integrity, he’ll keep going and get to that conclusion, too.

    *But* he is, as PZ says, basically conceding that’s *his* job, not science’s. Compare and contrast to the standard theist position that the burden of proof is on scientists, or (sonorous voice) there’s more to life than scientism. He’s very clearly presenting this as a problem *for Islamic scholarship*, not for science.

    There are, as most brands of Christianity have been forced to learn, many psychological trapdoors to escape down when your holy book turns out to be nonsense. Mr Tzortzis, if you’re reading this, you can save ten years of your life right now by jumping to ‘it’s poetry, look at the beautiful poem’.

    It’s not accommodationism to celebrate an example of a theist saying ‘my religion has a problem here, one we have to address carefully and thoughtfully’, it’s a cause for celebration.

  2. says

    #4 is an exercise in rationalization, and cannot generate new knowledge; it’s an admission that science will drive progress and understanding, while the religious apologists will follow along behind and try to steal the credit.

    This last one very forcefully reminds me of the rationale for the Muslims burning the library at Alexandria (The Christians burned it 3 centuries before, in 640 it was Caliph Omar’s turn):

    “they [the contents of the library] will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.”

  3. David Marjanović says

    I’m with comment 1.

    During the process of writing I relied on students and scholars of Islamic thought to verify references and to provide feedback in areas where I had to rely on secondary and tertiary sources. Unfortunately they were not thorough and they seemed to have also relied on trusting other Muslim apologists.

    That’s how they’ve been doing it since the very beginning! Tzortzis is beginning to understand that the argument from authority is a logical fallacy.

  4. doublereed says

    Wow, I can’t believe he wrote down #4 and said “yes, this makes sense.”

    To say that it’s an exercise in rationalization is too kind. You should not be able to explain the inexplicable. If you can explain anything then you don’t know anything. If you don’t know the answer to something, then your answer should be “I don’t know,” not a bunch of nonsensical bullshit.

  5. Russell Glasser says

    This, you see, is why we still argue with creationists. People say it’s a waste of time, that creationists can’t learn anything. And in this case, Hamza’s change of heart was pretty minor and he’s still going off saying wrong stuff.

    HOWEVER.

    There’s some crap he used to say that sounded superficially convincing to the rubes. And now he’s lost the ability to say it. That avenue is closed off to him. Furthermore, his public statement of error makes it damn hard for other creationists to use the same line in the future. From now on, you can always link his page and say “Look, even a major creationist like Hamza thinks the argument you just made is too dumb to use.”

    I’ve gotten tons of mileage out of the Answers in Genesis page “arguments not to use.” It takes the teeth out of many of the creationists’ favorite approaches.

  6. says

    Y’know, I found this really interesting. First off, it can’t be easy for someone so clearly blinded by his faith to have to make this kind of admission. Second, you have to imagine that some of those muslims who had questions for him will not find this a satisfactory answer, and (who knows) may lead them in the direction of fact over religious fiction. But most importantly, I love the way this reads. “All credit where it’s due, it turns out we were unprepared for intelligent answers from experts, and when they ripped us apart, we tried again to prove our point. This time, when they ripped us apart, we just decided to say that somewhere in the Qu’ran is an answer that perfectly explains this, just none of our scholars have figured it out yet…” That’s just… funny.

  7. says

    @Jemimacole #1

    I’m not an accommodationist, at all, nearer to right is still wrong.

    Just a nitpick: I know what you mean, but all our knowledge is wrong to some degree. Science is our tool to be less and less wrong about less and less things.

  8. aziraphale says

    His essay actually does a good and useful job in debunking some of the “miraculous knowledge in the Qu’ran” arguments. The fact that he goes on to assert the inerrancy of the Qu’ran (which he must do to remain a Muslim) may get him a wider readership among Muslims and possibly change some minds.

  9. busterggi says

    Substitute bible for koran and Christian for Muslim and you have a draft for a bill that any red state would love to pass as law.

  10. anuran says

    How about this one:
    The Quran, like the Torah, the Gospels, the Vedas, the US Constitution or the Pali Canon is a cultural foundational text. It’s a source of teaching stories (implicit in the case of the Constitution), a symbol of identity, a collection of framing narratives, a document of historical significance and any number of other things. Any actual miraculous nature is less important than its role as a tool, a tool which can be used for a variety of good or ill purposes.

    For ten points compare and contrast the use of the Gospels as inspirational tools by Albert Schweitzer and Cotton Mather or the Quran by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Jellaladin Rumi. For that matter, compare the use of the US Constitution by Antonin Scalia or Rand Paul and the ACLU or Franklin Roosevelt.

    In the case of the Quran there are extra layers. Most of the Muslim world has been colonized or at least under the thumb of European Christian powers for generations. I include America because when you’re on the wrong end of the Krag or Lewis gun the distinctions between North Americans and Europeans and Christian governments and officially secular governments which happen to have Protestant majorities who think of you as sub-human are a touch too fine to be fully appreciated. Political development was forbidden, often at gunpoint.

    The only independent institution which had much freedom and moral authority among the populations was the mosque. So Islam and its symbols became the repositories for political action, identity and international solidarity. This is how you got the rise of the Ayatollahs in Iran after the 1953 coup , the Taliban in Afghanistan (founded and funded by the US via the Pakistani ISI), the Brotherhood in Egypt, a good part of Wahabism and any number of black flag-waving movements throughout Asia and Muslim parts of Africa. It is significant that the biggest success in secular Muslim countries was Turkey, the remnant of the Ottoman Empire, never colonized, never a client of a Western Power.

    The symbols became the sole acceptable repository for nationalism, trans-national solidarity, resistance and identity. It is only natural that they were imbued with extra powers and significance, beyond what they might otherwise have had. They are the psychological weapons of distinction from the oppressor and of selfhood, independence and even existence. It would be surprising if people didn’t want their weapons to be as powerful (and dangerous) as they could make them.

  11. Sastra says

    Dr. Jerry Coyne puts it very eloquently: this is “making theological virtues out of scientific necessities.” Turns out that evolution happened after all and there’s just no way to deny it without looking foolish? Well, then, it’s not only the way God did it — but accepting evolution will strengthen your faith in God! Really. Couldn’t be more pleased. And if the embryology in the Quran is only metaphorical at best– good! Integrating this new information will help me be a better Muslim.

    Which is true on several fronts. The less testable claims you make the less vulnerable you are to any challenges. And the more you practice the virtue of coming up with endless excuses the more your faith is involved. Refusal to consider a hypothesis a hypothesis is pretty much faith-defining. You committed to believing — so believe, then, damn you! Do what it takes!

    Theism has a serious problem: it isn’t true. And Hamza Tzortzis has an Achille’s heel: he wants to be — he wants to think of himself — as honest. Former fundamentalist preacher Dan Barker turned atheist after he decided that he wanted to get deeper into apologetics and win over the really hard cases: the atheists. So, to do his job properly and convert them, he had to get into their arguments, study their complaints, understand why they were saying what they were saying. In other words, he had to skip over how other Christians explained atheism and discover how atheists themselves explained it.

    And don’t cheat: learn their best case. Then you can beat them on their own turf at their own game.

    Uh oh. Check back on that serious problem with theism. It will not go well. You either lose, learn to lie, or leniently leave it up to the individual and go all liberal.

  12. says

    Wow, I can’t believe he wrote down #4 and said “yes, this makes sense.”

    That’s because you haven’t assimilated point #3. They really, sincerely believe that the Qur’an can’t be wrong. So, if it appears as if it’s wrong, there must be some explanation. That’s why #4 makes sense to them.

    They’re not trying to demonstrate that the Qur’an is right. They’ve already accepted that it is. Now, they’re just trying to figure out how that gels with everything else they know. We need to get them to understand that #3 is not something you can just assume. Only then is serious, rational discussion possible.

  13. David Marjanović says

    Uh oh. Check back on that serious problem with theism. It will not go well.

    I think this is what immediately came to my mind. (I don’t have sound here.)

  14. says

    Beautiful. I wonder if he’ll go the road of “Of course the Quran is true, if only metaphorically” or “God uses evolution as part of His plan, wich is in accord with the Quran because it teaches us that everything is possible to God”?

    Any wich way, I predict a wonderful era of harmonious Christian/Muslim dialogue on how science can be reconciled with religion…

  15. says

    “they [the contents of the library] will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.”

    It was also convenient, as the philosopher who ran the Library was a political opponent – killing her was a bonus!

  16. says

    @ Hamza Tzortzis

    Mabrouk! Congratulations! You have come a long way.

    Perhaps I can be of help to you, even if you insist that you wish to pursue these issues from within Islam. I don’t know if you know about a person called Sir Syed Ahmad Khan?

    Not only did he write extensively about matters of (Islamic) religion, he was also a major promoter of science and education. He succeeded in what you are attempting, that is: in squaring the circle. (Or was that “circling the square”?). This by realising that, beyond the establishment of the Muslim Community, Mohammad’s endeavor was scientific.

    For centuries this scientific course was pursued, only to be overtaken by the rise of magical thinking and superstition. History plots this Islamic fascination with science and the incredible flowering of scientific achievement, only to see it wilt from about the time of Al-Ghazali’s attacks on Hellenism around 1100 (~H493).

    Are you quite sure that what you are chasing after has not been hijacked and corrupted?

  17. Nick Gotts says

    It was also convenient, as the philosopher who ran the Library was a political opponent – killing her was a bonus! Rutee Katreya

    Wrong century. Hypatia was killed by a Christian mob in 415 CE. The Muslim destruction of the library occurred between 640 CE and 645 CE (I’ve found four different dates, two in the same article!). The library at Alexandria was “destroyed” at least 3 times: accidentally by Julius Caesar in 47 BCE, when a fire he set in the harbour spread through the city, deliberately by a Christian mob in 391 CE (Hypatia was head of the Platonist school at Alexandria, not of the library AFAIK), and finally by the Caliph Omar in the early 640s. These multiple destructions were possible because the collection could be rebuilt, and was not always held in one place – the original collection was in the “Museo”, but there was a secondary collection in the temple of Serapis.

  18. David Marjanović says

    I think this is what immediately came to my mind.

    Yep, that’s it. I just listened.

    the “Museo”

    The museion, the temple to the muses.

  19. says

    @ Rutee Katreya #16

    It was also convenient, as the philosopher who ran the Library was a political opponent – killing her was a bonus!

    Caliph Omar starred in the sequel, not the original. Thank you Nick Gotts (#18) for the details.