Nidhal Guessoum, astrophysicist

An Islamic scholar is giving serious thought to something his colleagues typically ignore: the possibility of life on other planets. Interview by Danielle Venton

March 28, 2011

Photo courtesy of Nidhal Guessoum

Muslim scholars often turn to the heavens to ponder the divine, but rarely to contemplate aliens. Yet the ever-ballooning number of exoplanets, such as those found by NASA's Kepler space telescope, makes it unlikely that we're alone. If searches for extraterrestrial life are successful, humans may feel farther than ever from the center of the universe. How would the Islamic world react?

Nidhal Guessoum has some ideas. He's a Sunni Muslim and a physics professor at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Guessoum pushes for more acceptance of modern science among Muslims and, within the West, a greater acceptance of Islam. “The world has gotten so polarized,” he says. “If anyone wants to build a mosque, it becomes a national crisis.”

His latest book, Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science, was published in the U.S. in February 2011. He also contributes weekly to Irtiqa: A Science & Religion Blog.

In a session titled “Astronomical Pioneering: The Implications of Finding Other Worlds” at the February 2011 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., Guessoum spoke about Islam, science, and what finding alien life might mean to devout Muslims. Before his talk, he sat down with SciCom's Danielle Venton.

Are you devout?

I don't know if I'm devout; I am a believer. I believe there is another dimension to humans, that religious traditions help us understand our relation to nature, to each other and to the divine. I don't consider religions to be a set of dogmas—specific principles that people accept and that's the end. I think there is a large margin of evolution for religions themselves. But I think we cannot say that science and 'constructed knowledge' is the only way to understand what is out there.

You dedicated your new book, Islam's Quantum Question, to your sons and their generation. Why?

My two boys were entering their teenage years when I began to write the book. As teenagers, they are in flux, subjected to all kinds of ideas. My sons are fully bilingual in English and Arabic, with a little bit of French thrown in. They receive two signals, one from the modern world and one from the traditional. I had seen in too many people that this creates schizophrenia.

What do you mean?

When their world views don't harmonize, sometimes people embrace one view and reject the other, or embrace one during the day and the other at night. They say to themselves, “During the day I'm a scientist, during the night I'm a Muslim.” This is schizophrenia. Whenever they come across something new they don't know how to react, because they haven't developed harmonizing principles. Every new piece of information is a challenge to their model of the world. In science when a piece of data doesn't fit, you reject the model. But for Muslims, it's not an option. Rejecting the model means rejecting their identity. We need to find a way to help Muslims enter modernity without spiritual wreckage.

For whom is your book meant?

Two audiences: Muslims and Westerners. A large number of people in the West are eager to understand the Muslim world. The book explains how Muslims have reacted to modern science—the widespread rejection of evolution, for example, or the misunderstanding of the scientific philosophy.

"Muslims tend to think they are the epitome of creation. If we do find intelligent life, Islam and other religions will require some major reinterpretation."

Modern science leaves aside ideas of purpose, meaning, destiny, why we are here. These questions are fundamental for Muslims. They think these are the important questions, not natural interactions. When I try to explain the Muslim perspective, it doesn't mean I'm defending it. On the contrary, sometimes I have harsh words. I try to push and pull everybody in the direction of more understanding and acceptance of science.

How can science and religion harmonize?

We must recognize certain principles. First, science doesn't address everything. It leaves room for religion and philosophy. We should not tell people they need to abandon their beliefs to become modern.

Second, the West needs to realize Islam is not monolithic. It has existed for more than 1,400 years. If we go back [in time], we find a rich panorama of views from philosophers and scientists. There are many propositions that could be used to understand philosophy, science, the place of women, and so on. There is a menu of options for understanding, without being outside of Islam.

For example?

Early on, there were many different voices on creation: separate creation for different species, questions about whether species could change into other species. In the past few centuries, people have come to adopt the creationist perspective and believe this is the one Muslim viewpoint. But there are, in fact, several Islamic views on this and other subjects.

The Islamic discourse in the past century or more has become highly centered on the Qur’an. The first question I get from a Muslim audience, whatever I'm talking about—the age of the Earth, the age of humanity, biological evolution—is, “What does the Qur'an say?” If I say, “Well, it doesn't address it,” or, “It only speaks in very general terms,” sometimes people will get a bit antagonistic. They ask why we should look for information outside the holy book.

What advice do you give an aspiring Muslim scientist?

One of the problems is that by and large, Muslim scientists have not been taught the philosophy or history of science. If you don't understand those two dimensions of the enterprise of science, you don't understand science. What you understand is technique. Some people are technicians of science, not scientists.

Usually I insist on using the term “modern science,” not “science,” because it is different than the old sciences. Muslims always say to me, “Why do you make it sound like there is a problem between Islam and modern science? Muslim scientists were at the forefront for centuries!” But modern science is drastically different. It insists on naturalistic explanations and on falsifiability.

You will speak at a session about SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and its implications for Muslims. What would it mean if we found life on other planets?

Very few scholars have looked into this. In a way, it's not a major issue. The Muslim world simply hasn't made up its mind. But the people who have looked into this have two points of view. Some of the holy texts do mention in semi-vague ways that there are other creatures out there. So people say, “Sure, God has already said that he has created all kinds of things.”

What do some of these suggestive texts speak of?

They speak of other creatures, perhaps animals, in the cosmos. The Qur'an does not linger on this, but it does mention, in an expansive way, that even species in the heavens glorify God and will be accountable on the day of Judgment. But people have always just said, “Yes, this shows me the omnipotence and glorious capability of God.” But we haven't asked what this means about us being big, small, or important versus insignificant.

You see, a very serious issue is that Islam, and the holy book of Islam, seem to speak of humans as being central to creation. I refer to this as the “ultra-anthropic world view.” This places humans as, not only central to creation, but as the deputies or vice-regents of God. Muslims tend to think they are the epitome of creation.

SETI experts say that if we do find intelligent life, there is a very good chance it would be more advanced than us. If it is, then how on Earth, how in the cosmos, could we consider ourselves special anymore? I think the chance for this is remote, but if it occurs then I think Islam and other religions will require some major reinterpretation.

Do you think alien life is likely?

I have two minds about this, and I don't mind presenting my own uncertainty. I just came out of the Kepler session [at the AAAS meeting]. There are planets galore out there, with all kinds of characteristics. So there are going to be other Earth-like planets out there, there is no doubt in my mind.

Will there be primitive life? I'm unsure. I think there is a good chance that 100 years from now people will be asking, “How come we have discovered no life out there?” But the real prize would be intelligent life forms. I think the possibility of discovering advanced civilizations is slim. It wouldn't make a religious revolution in my mind or make me convert to anything. But I would be stunned if someone said, “We have a real signal.”

Considering that SETI searches are ongoing and we could find a signal tomorrow, is there anything Muslims should do to prepare?

I think Muslims have not considered these questions enough. We should at least think about them and consider our views of Islam in this light. It is always better to be prepared for a shock. If you have a very ill parent you can prepare yourself and ask, “What does this mean for the family? How will we react?” When it happens, you're not shocked. It doesn't disrupt the dynamics of the family. I lost my mother in a car accident when she was 55. Her death wasn't on my mind—it hadn't been, ever. I don't want that kind of shock to occur to Muslim culture. Even if tomorrow nothing happens, it will be a good exercise.

How do your colleagues react to you?

They realize I am not outside of Islam or post-Islam. At the same time, I'm certainly not mainstream. A bit liberal, perhaps a free-thinker, but not atheistic. People see me as perhaps a bit too prone to opening up questions and having very few, if any, dogmas. Some people think I take a risky route, walking a tightrope.

Why risky?

Not everything is accepted and tolerated. I can't afford to tell people, “I don't care what you say about me.” If someone labels me a heretic, my life changes.

There is an imam in London who also teaches physics and electrical engineering at a university. He wrote a few articles about evolution and Darwin. Very recently a religious scholar said people are not allowed to pray behind him, meaning he is not allowed to serve as an imam. He tried to justify himself, gave lectures to explain, and someone called for his death. It's a real case of someone who is trying to bridge our knowledge, and he gets himself a fatwa!

Do you fear this could happen to you?

It's possible. I guess it's a small measured risk. My book has now come out in English and French. I have a very rough draft of the Arabic translation; I'm still polishing it. We will see when it comes out.

Danielle Venton, a 2011 graduate of the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz, earned her bachelor's degree in biology from Humboldt State University. She spent time as a technology writer at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. She worked as a reporting intern at the Monterey County Herald,, and KUSP-88.9 FM public radio. She is now on a 6-month internship at High Country News in Paonia, Colorado.

© 2011 Danielle Venton