The great scientist Galileo Galilei is the perfect example of creative coexistence between science and religion. A devout Catholic and a fearless scientist, he is rightly regarded as the father of modern experimental science. In 1616 the Church put him on trial for supporting the view that the earth went round the Sun. He made a very important observation in his defense. He said that the Bible was not intended to tell us anything about scientific theories. Where the Bible came into conflict with common sense it was being allegorical.
Now, allegory is a statement, which carries a meaning different from the literal one such as the creation of the Universe in six days. All revealed Scriptures have this trait in common that they are heavily allegorical. It is our mistake that we take them to be literally true. Charles Darwin, too, suffered a great deal on this account. He firmly believed in the origin of life in the paradise, but mounting evidence for the evolution of life on earth made him accept the truth. Galileo's stand was vindicated in 1981 when the Vatican invited astronomers and physicists to advise the Church on cosmology.
It is relevant here to mention that Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, the most prominent Indian Philosopher in the twentieth century, echoes the same sentiment about the Upanisads. In the preface to his opus 'The Principal Upanisads' he cautions the reader to make a distinction between the message of Upanisads and their mythology which is liable to correction by advances in science. Among the revealed Scriptures, the Quran categorically affirms it (Al-Imran) and declares that only Allah knows the true interpretation of the allegorical verses.
This last point needs a little elaboration to emphasize its great importance in our understanding of the Scriptures in general and the Quran in particular. Verses 5-7 of Al-Imran say, " It is He who has revealed to you the Book. Some of its verses are precise in meaning ' they are the foundation of the Book ' and others allegorical. Those whose hearts are infected with disbelief follow the allegorical part, so as to create dissension and to interpret it. But no one knows its interpretation except Allah. Those who are well-grounded in knowledge say: We believe in it: it is all from our Lord. But only the wise take heed."
Three conclusions follow from these precise verses.
Allegorical verses are beyond human interpretation (of course there may be a personal one that need not be true).
Only the precise verses are to be followed in letter and spirit.
The reader of the Quran should be able to distinguish between these two types of verses.
It is difficult to miss the conclusion that free literal interpretation of the Scriptures is the root cause of fundamentalism and obscurantism in every religious community. And a debate on this issue is long overdue.