By: Harry Foundalis
I admit it wasn’t originally my intention to write this article. I was nearly forced to write it. The reason is that, earlier, I wrote a few more articles on the religion of Islam (here), which were read — among other people — by Muslims. Some of my Muslim readers wrote to me, and in the ensuing discussion many of them made a well known claim, which is one usually made exclusively by Muslims: that, supposedly, there are scientific facts revealed in the Qur’an, which have been discovered by scientists in recent times only; therefore this proves the divine origin of the Qur’an and the truth of their religion. Their claims vary, and include such statements as that Muhammad couldn’t have known such-and-such scientific facts in his time, or that the Qur’an contains no statements that conflict with modern science. Since my Muslim readers make such claims often, I resorted to writing this article so that by referring them to it I minimize the time needed to reply to each one of them individually.
I would like to start by pointing out that those Muslims who make the above claims violate the deepest and strongest foundational pillar of science; specifically, this one:
What Muslims do is the opposite: they have the “theory” that their Qur’an is Allah’s direct word (which was revealed and passed on to Muhammad’s mind, then dictated by him and written in the Qur’an), and then they try to find the data that — they think — support their theory. That’s an entirely unscientific endeavor. By doing so they show that they don’t understand science, the subject that they try to subjugate under their religious yoke.
In what follows I prefer to use the second person and talk directly to my Muslim readers, for whom, after all, this article was written.
So, my dear Muslim reader:
You adopt, as I just said, the wholly unscientific approach of trying to find data (verses in your Qur’an) that support your theory (that Allah is the author of your Qur’an). If you want to show that you’re not scientifically illiterate, and that you understand what you’re doing, I suggest that you follow the scientifically correct approach of first looking at the data (your Qur’anic verses) and then trying to see which theory best explains those data: theory #1, according to which Allah is the author of the Qur’an, or theory #2, according to which the author of the Qur’an is Muhammad, who produced the Qur’an out of his own mind, without Allah’s guidance. So I invite you to do this exercise with me: let’s examine together the data, and see which of the two theories explains them best. But I must warn you that if you want to have a scientific attitude (because science is our focus of discussion, right?) then you must be objective. To be objective means that you must not assume from the outset the thing that you are trying to prove, which is that Allah is the author of the Qur’an. It means that you must assume, even temporarily only, that you don’t know who the author of the Qur’an is, and that you try to find this out from what the Qur’an says, and from what we know today about Muhammad, and about the world that surrounds us. Can you do that? If you can, then you will be objective and your conclusion will be scientific. But I believe you can’t do it, because assuming — even for a second — that you don’t know who the author of the Qur’an is would be a sin for you. So if you really cannot, then this text is definitely not for you. You could be concerned with other things, such as praying and fasting, but not with trying to discover science in the Qur’an; because, before doing that, you must have understood what science is, and how it works.
However, if you agree with the scientific principle of objectivity, which means that we must not assume beforehand as true the thing we are trying to prove, but we must temporarily suspend our beliefs, must look at the evidence — the data — first, and on the basis of the evidence decide which theory explains it best, then let’s examine together some of the data in the Qur’an. Specifically, I would like us to examine the truth of the following idea first:
We’ll examine the above idea in the context of cosmology (how the world was made):
After that, we’ll examine some of the other claims made by my Muslim readers, most of which rely on another idea:
The topics that exemplify this idea are the following:
The above is like a table of contents of this page, so that clicking on those links you move directly to the topic. But I suggest that you read this text sequentially, because once I introduce some idea I might refer to it later, so the topics that follow are not self-contained.
We want to examine whether Allah is the author of the Qur’an (your theory), or whether a human being (Muhammad, most likely) is its author (another theory). So let’s look objectively at some data, that is, verses in the Qur’an that are related to the subject of cosmology (how the world was made, what is consists of, and so on), and see which of the two theories explains best the data.
My observation regarding cosmology is that what appears in the Qur’an is only what Muhammad had a direct experience of: primarily the “Heaven” and the Earth, and secondarily the Sun, Moon, and stars.
Image from the surface of the Earth: “heaven” and earth, as they would appear to an observer of the times when the Qur’an was written.
I put “heaven” in quotes in the previous sentence because, as I’m sure you know from your modern scientific knowledge, there is nothing like “heaven” in reality. What we see above our heads at daytime is the bluish color of the lower portion of the atmosphere that surrounds the Earth, as shown in the next image.
Image from satellite: the extra-thin curved bluish line between the Earth and the dark outer space is the atmosphere of the Earth.
That bluish color is caused by dust particles that scatter the sunlight, absorbing the colors of longer wavelengths (such as red, yellow, and green) and letting only the shorter-wavelength colors such as cyan and blue reach our eyes. At nighttime, since there is no sunlight, there is no such scattering, so we can see through the atmosphere and our sight reaches much farther, all the way to the stars of our galactic neighborhood. However, even the closest stars are far-far away, at least compared to the distances of the Moon and Sun. The Moon is the natural object which is closest to the Earth (please pay attention to this), being at a mean distance of 384,400 km.
The Earth (left) and the Moon (right), with their sizes and mutual distance all drawn to scale.
The Sun is farther away, at a mean distance of 149,000,000 km (149 million) away from us.
The Sun (left) and the Earth–Moon system (right), with
their sizes and mutual distance all drawn to scale.
But even the closest star (called “Proxima Centauri”) is really-really far away, at a distance of around 40,519,553,200,000 km (40 trillion). Thus, the closest star is so far away that it’s impossible to put it in a diagram like the previous ones and compare its distance with the distances that we just saw. To give you an idea, if the Sun–Earth distance is around 20 cm (as it appears in the above diagram on an average-sized computer screen), then the closest star must be placed more than 54 kilometers away!
All the stars that we see with the unaided eye are no more than 28,000 trillion km away (or: 28 quadrillion), but beyond those there are stars that we see only through telescopes, and which form our galaxy, the Milky Way.
Our galaxy probably looks like this, if we could see
it from afar.
If, in the above picture, we drew a circle surrounding all the stars that we can see with bare eye at night, that circle would be no more than 2 pixels wide. All the rest of the stars of the galaxy remain invisible (individually) to the eye, and become visible (some of them) only by use of telescope.
It is estimated that from here to the center of our galaxy it’s a distance of around 1,100 quadrillion kilometers, more or less. But still, our galaxy is only a small “island” in a universe full of other galaxies — billions of them. Some of the galaxies are close together, forming clusters (groups), and such clusters form even larger clusters, and so on. There is an estimated number of (at least) 200 billion galaxies in the universe.
A galactic cluster, in the constellation of Pisces. Each blob in this image is an entire galaxy.
In summary, there is nothing like “heaven” in reality. The “heaven” is only an illusion, caused by some properties of our planet’s atmosphere. And the closest object to us is the Moon. Farther away is the Sun (and the planets of our solar system); much-much farther away are the stars of our galaxy, and other galaxies are even farther. Now, what do we read in the Qur’an? What is our data?
We read that Allah himself says he is the creator of the Earth, the Heaven, the Sun, the Moon, and the stars. In verse 71:15 we are told: “Allah has created the seven heavens, one above another”.
First, I must note that modern science recognizes no such divisions of the sky. One of you, a young Muslim correspondent of mine, claimed that, supposedly, modern science divides the “heaven” into layers, such as the troposphere, stratosphere, ionosphere, and so on. Yes, science divides the Earth’s atmosphere into layers (five of them, actually, not seven). But Allah didn’t mean the Earth’s atmosphere by the word “heaven”, because the Sun and the Moon are in some part of the “seven heavens”, according to the Qur’an, and such astronomical objects are of course not in our Earth’s atmosphere. Moreover, in verse 37:6 Allah tells us that he put the stars in the lowest of the seven heavens:
37:6 “We have indeed decked the lowest heaven with an adornment, the stars.”
If the lowest heaven is decked with stars, surely the word “heaven” cannot refer to our atmosphere, right my dear Muslim reader? Let’s move on.
But here comes the disaster: if the stars are in the lowest (or nearest) heaven, what is there in the other heavens? Alas! The Moon is there! Here is the datum, in 71:16, as a continuation of 71:15:
71:15 “See ye not how Allah has created the seven heavens, one above another,”
71:16 “And made the moon a light in their midst, and made the sun as a (Glorious) lamp?” [transl.: Yusuf Ali]
71:16 “And hath made the moon a light therein, and made the sun a lamp?” [transl.: Pickthal]
71:16 “And made the moon therein a light, and made the sun a lamp?” [transl.: Shakir]
No, my dear Muslim, “I see not” what your book is talking about. If the Moon is a light somewhere among the (supposed) seven heavens, then it is necessarily at least as far away as the stars, which adorn the “lowest heaven”, the one nearest to us. Most probably, the Moon is not in the lowest heaven, because if it were there then the author of the Qur’an would have mentioned the Moon, too, together with the stars, when he informed us that he decorated the lowest heaven with stars, in 37:6. Is there any way to escape from this conclusion?
Does the Qur’an say that Allah put the stars on the lowest heaven?
Does the Qur’an say that the Moon is in the midst of the (supposed) seven heavens?
Do we conclude from this that the Moon must be at least as far away as the stars?
Does that last conclusion contradict modern scientific knowledge?
Before you find satisfactory answers for the previous questions, remember please that you must be objective. Do not try to figure out how to distort, twist, and “re-interpret” the data, so that they accommodate your theory that the Qur’an can have no error because it came out of Allah’s mind, because that’s exactly what we want to examine if it’s true. Put the data first, accept them for what they are, and then objectively conclude whatever follows naturally from them. Here is an example of “reinterpreting” the data: “By ‘seven heavens’ the Qur’an means starting from the Earth’s atmosphere and extending all the way to the rest of the universe!” My answer: First, in that case, as I said, you’ll have to explain why the stars are not just above our heads, in the “lowest heaven”, in the Earth’s troposphere (where the clouds are). And second, please read §1.5.1 further below, to see that “heaven” cannot refer to the “rest of the universe” in the Qur’an. Another example: “By ‘lowest’ the Qur’an means the farthest from us, because that is the heaven nearest to Allah!” My answer: Oh, I didn’t know that Allah is a physical entity, standing just outside our universe! (Let alone that “outside our universe” makes no physical sense.) Are you willing to admit that your Allah is physical? That is the concession that you’ll have to make if you claim that the stars are “near Allah”. In any case, just look at the other instances where the word “lowest” is used in the Qur’an, besides verse 37:6, to see what its meaning is. Don’t imagine new meanings of words whenever it suits you (that’s the “twisting of data” that I’m talking about) so that you accommodate your theory.
Evidence that corroborates the second theory is that the Qur’an never talks about things that today can be seen with the telescope, and can’t be seen with the unaided eye. Why doesn’t the Qur’an make even the slightest, most indirect reference to galaxies? If we think of the world (the universe) from a large-scale perspective — and certainly Allah is able to do that — then we’ll conclude it is made of galaxies. Why are galaxies conspicuously absent from such a supposedly “wise” text? You might answer that Allah should say things in such a way so that he was understood by the Bedouins of Muhammad’s time. Yes, but since Allah is “all-wise”, certainly he should be able to say things so that they were both understood by the Bedouins, and impress us today, making indirect reference to things that couldn’t be seen back then, such as galaxies, nebulas, planetary nebulas, pulsars, black holes, quasars, and a host of other astronomical objects. Allah wouldn’t have to talk about all of them; just an indirect (but clear) reference to one of them would persuade us today that the first of the above two theories is correct. Here, it is so easy that even I can do it: Allah could have said, “See ye not how we have created enormous swarms of stars, and made the swarms twisting and turning?” That should have sounded innocent enough to the Bedouins because, with a little bit of imagination, one can see the constellations of stars on the night sky as “twisting and turning”. But we, today, would have understood that by “twisting and turning swarms of stars” Allah was referring to galaxies; and I, personally, would immediately become a pious Muslim. However, Allah made no such astonishing statement, which would both pass unnoticed by the ancient Muslims, and impress us immensely today.
A twisting and turning swarm of stars, or galaxy; that’s the kind of objects the universe is filled with. How could Allah fail to allude to that fact?
Allah could have at least mentioned that stars are at vastly different distances, not all placed on one sphere (or one “heaven”). There are stars only 4 light years away from us, and there are stars 4 billion (4,000,000,000) light years away from us (and even further).
Allah could have mentioned that stars come in vastly different physical magnitudes. The diameter of a star (e.g., a neutron star) can be as little as a few kilometers across, or it can be so large as to engulf the orbit of planet Mars (e.g., the star Betelgeuse), or even of Jupiter. Thus, one star can be billions of times larger than another one (in diameter alone — whereas in volume it can be trillions of times larger).
Allah could have mentioned that stars exist for vastly different periods of time. One star (e.g., an extremely large star, a supergiant) might live for only 50,000 years before exploding as a supernova, whereas another star (an inconspicuous, tiny red dwarf) may keep shining for a trillion (1,000,000,000,000) years.
Allah could have chosen to mention any of thousands of facts (data) that we now know in astronomy. And, as I showed, even a mere human can find ways to say things so that they both sound “innocent” to the ancient listener, and astonishing to us today. Why did Allah — if he is the author of the Qur’an — choose to speak only about things that were known by Muhammad, and even known in the wrong way (“seven heavens”, Moon farther than stars)?
But there is more data. If you believe that the (wrong) idea that there are layers that make up the (nonexistent) “heaven” is original and unique to the Qur’an, you are wrong. Other, more ancient cultures, already believed such things. For example, the ancient Indians (who are not “people of the book”, mind you) had similar beliefs. Actually, what Indians believed makes more sense today than the Qur’anic story. The Indians separated each of the Earth, the atmosphere, and the rest of the world, into three layers. With 20/20 hindsight we can easily make this idea fit into today’s knowledge, quite nicely: the three layers of the Earth can be its core, mantle, and crust; the three layers of the atmosphere can be the troposphere, stratosphere, and ionosphere; and the three layers of the rest of the cosmos can be our solar system, our galaxy, and everything else outside our galaxy. See? With a bit of good will and imagination we can make the Indian story fit to reality better than the Qur’anic story with its gawky and too-many “seven heavens”. But the important idea is not which story matches better with reality; the important idea is that the Qur’anic story of “seven heavens” is not original. It was “stolen”, copied from other, earlier cultures, and possibly modified by the Qur’anic author’s imagination.
As for the position of the Moon among the other heavenly bodies, the ancient Greeks had understood it better than the author of your Qur’an. A thousand years before Muhammad’s birth, the Greek philosopher Plato had written: “The Moon, God set in the orbit nearest the Earth, and the Sun in the next, and the morning star [Venus] and the one called sacred to Hermes [Mercury] in orbits which they complete in the same time as the Sun.” (Plato, Timaeus, I vii 37–9.) Did you get that, my dear Muslim? Plato thought that the Moon is nearest the Earth — and he was right! The author of your Qur’an thought the stars are nearest the Earth, and the Moon is farther away. On the basis of this only, who appears to be wiser: the author of your Qur’an, or Plato?
For one last time, I’ll repeat my question: on the basis of the above observations, tell me, but objectively please: which of the above two theories explains best the data of the verses of the Qur’an that I quoted earlier? (Remember: first go the data, then come the theories!)
In Chapter 18 of the Qur’an (“Al Kahf” : “The Cave”), in verses 86–90, we read something that should cause great embarrassment to every sane and educated Muslim today.
First, I should tell you that I have read the entire chapter (actually I have read the entire Qur’an), and so I know what the context is. Well, there is no context, because Chapter 18 is an assemblage of unrelated pieces, which sound as if they came out of a mind that could not focus on one idea, and jumped from one unrelated thought to another. Specifically, in Chapter 18 Allah starts by talking about events related to “the cave” (1–25), gives some warnings and issues threats and promises (26–31), recounts an unrelated “parable of two men” (32–44), issues some more warnings and threats (45–59), and goes on with another unrelated story, in which a messenger of Allah’s (“one of Our servants”) takes Musa (Moses) on to a tour (60–82), and teaches him various things. Musa concludes that this person is very wise. By the way, among other “wise” things that Allah’s servant does is that he kills a boy in cold blood (18:74), because “his parents were believers and we feared lest he should make disobedience and ingratitude to come upon them” (18:80). Such is the unbelievably barbaric, stone-age morality of your book; but it is not my intention to comment here on the moral wretchedness of your Qur’an, which I’m sure you are unable to perceive. Then, in 18:83, the subject changes completely (for one more time, after all the above disconnected parts), and Allah starts talking about a traveler, called “Zul-qarnain” (or “Dhu’l-Qarneyn”, depending on how we transliterate from Arabic using Roman letters).
There, and specifically in verse 18:86, we learn where the Sun sets. Allah tells us that Zul-qarnain visited the point of the Earth in the West where the Sun sets, and he saw the Sun setting in a muddy spring; he also found some people nearby:
18:86 “Until, when he [Zul-qarnain] reached the setting of the sun, he found it set in a spring of murky water: Near it he found a People: We said: ‘O Zul-qarnain! (thou hast authority,) either to punish them, or to treat them with kindness.’ ”
Then in verses 18:89–90 we learn that Zul-qarnain traveled also to the East, and he saw that the Sun rises from another place over there, which is also inhabited by some other tribe of people:
18:89 “Then followed he (another) way,”
18:90 “Until, when he came to the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had provided no covering protection against the sun.” (That “We” is Allah, of course; so Allah gives us a direct account of what Zul-qarnain found there.)
Then Zul-qarnain goes on to other places, and the chapter finishes with another barrage of promises and threats of doom (91–110).
Now, I hope you understand that even little children today know that the Sun cannot dive into the Earth during sunset, nor can it rise from within the Earth during sunrise, for the simple reason that the Sun is a fiery ball much-much larger than the sphere of the Earth. If the Sun’s sphere is like a soccer ball, then the Earth is like the head of a pin. Can you imagine a fiery soccer ball diving into a pinhead? What sense can you make of verses 18:86–18:90?
Do you think the bright fellow in the picture is getting ready to dive into a muddy spring?
But before answering the above question, remember the scientific principle: you must not assume that your theory is correct, and then try to twist the data so that they fit in your theory. If you do so, you show your ignorance of science, and so you should stop talking about science in your holy book and do some fasting instead, or some other thing that you understand well. Here is an example of twisting the data: you might say, “Oh, but in verses 18:86–18:90 Allah was speaking not literally, but allegorically! Allah didn’t literally mean a muddy spring and some real people; this was all an allegory!” My answer: what evidence do you have that Allah was speaking allegorically? How can you know that everything else in the Qur’an is not an allegory? How can you know, for example, that when Allah says that an adulterer or fornicator (man or woman) must be flogged with 100 lashes (24:2) he means that literally, or when he doesn’t allow you to eat pork he also means it literally, but when he talks about muddy springs he means that allegorically? Your only motivation for interpreting the data of 18:86–18:90 as “an allegory” is your present-day knowledge that the idea that the Sun sets by diving into a muddy spring is plainly idiotic, combined with your theory that Allah is the author of the Qur’an. (Besides, an allegory of what? What is the real thing or situation that is allegorically referred to by verses 18:86–18:90?)
Thinking scientifically you must examine the data first, and then try to see objectively which of the following theories fits the data best:
Note please that among our “data” are the muddy spring (at the sunset location) and the tribes of people (at both locations). Those data tell us that the places of sunset and sunrise are places on the surface of the Earth, because muddy springs and tribes of people exist only on the surface of our planet. Also part of our data is our modern scientific knowledge, which tells us that the sunset and sunrise are only illusions, caused by the daily rotation of the Earth around its axis.
Try theory #1: is it ever possible that Allah didn’t know the true sizes of the Sun and Earth, and how they stand in relation to each other in space? Of course not. Then why did Allah speak such nonsense? To impress the Bedouins, but simultaneously to make us today laugh and question his sanity? That’s impossible. Theory #1 is untenable.
Now try theory #2: is it possible that Muhammad, without having any guidance from Allah, came up with such nonsense? Of course it is. The ancient peoples had no idea how large the Sun is. The ancient Greeks, for example, — at least one philosopher among them — thought that the Sun is as large as the area of Peloponnesus (the hand-like southern part of Greece; still better than Muhammad, of course, who thought the Sun fits to sink into a spring). Knowledge about these matters had not advanced at all until Muhammad’s time, and even later. In addition, Muhammad had no idea that the Earth is a sphere and that the Sun is another sphere, completely separate from the Earth. On the contrary, in verse 15:19 (“And the earth We have spread out (like a carpet); set thereon mountains firm and immovable; and produced therein all kinds of things in due balance.”) we get the impression that the author of the Qur’an (whoever he is: Allah himself, or an Allah who is actually Muhammad’s alter ego) thinks that the Earth is flat, spread out like a carpet. (Think please: who could have shown such ignorance? Allah or Muhammad?) If the author of the Qur’an thought that the Earth is spread out like a carpet, he must have considered it natural that the Sun meets the flat plane of the Earth somewhere in the west (sunset) and somewhere else in the east (sunrise). This wrong geometry fits perfectly to the knowledge of Muhammad (the illiterate), and not to the knowledge of Allah (the all-wise). If you want to know what Muhammad’s knowledge was, look no further than your ahadith, and specifically the following one from one of your most authoritative ancient Muslims authors, Sahih al-Bukhari:
Such was the miserable state of knowledge of your “Prophet”. He thought that the Sun has a soul, so that it can prostrate itself, ask permission, and so on; and that Allah would give “orders” to that anthropomorphic Sun! If you are a carpenter, do you ever give orders to the chairs that you make? If you are a construction worker, do you give orders to your bricks? Why, if you were the creator of the Sun, would you give orders to it? Such thoughts can be entertained today only by little children, and even children stop thinking such nonsense after they learn what the Sun is, in the first years of elementary school. In addition, as you know very well, the Sun does not “go” anywhere at the time of sunset. It is the Earth that turns; the Sun merely stays where it is. But Muhammad didn’t know that, and thought instead that the Sun needs to go somewhere (and even ask permission from Allah). If Muhammad was divinely inspired by Allah, why did he speak such factually wrong things, such plain nonsense, as we learn from Abu Dharr through Sahih al-Bukhari?
You may take the above excerpt from your ahadith also as data, because al-Bukhari is one of the most trustworthy Islamic sources. That hadith shows us what Muhammad really believed. But he didn’t even invent by himself what he believed. He wasn’t smart enough to come up with original ideas. Muhammad simply made a salad in his mind out of ideas that already existed in ancient cultures of that region of the world. For example, all ancient cultures believed that the Sun and Moon were gods who cruised along the dome of the sky. The ancient Egyptians believed that the sun-god Ra was born every morning, growing in strength until noon, and cruising the sky on a boat. At noon he would switch to another boat that carried him to the entrance to the nether world, where further boats carried him through the night. Does that bring to mind Muhammad’s wondering: “Do you know where the Sun goes (at the time of sunset)?”? Of course it does, because Muhammad’s knowledge about what happens to the Sun at night rested on mythological beliefs of ancient and pagan peoples, such as the Egyptians and Greeks. (In Greek mythology, too, the Sun was personified as a god, the god Helios, who, during the night hours crossed the sea — “Oceanus”, encircling the earth — in a boat from West to East.) So it is not surprising at all that Muhammad personified objects such as the Sun and the Moon, when his beliefs are compared against the background of legends and mythologies of peoples that surrounded him and his culture. This observation, however, should make every pious Muslim wonder: how could Muhammad ever be considered “divinely inspired” if he believed in such falsehoods?
In conclusion, theory #2 explains all our data (both the Qur’anic, and those that are in the above hadith) and makes perfect sense. At least that’s how it seems to me, thinking about the matter as objectively as I can. What is your view?
Also, no matter which theory (1 or 2 above) is correct, the idea that there are places of sunset and sunrise on the Earth is nonsense. That is, whether Allah said this nonsense (theory #1), or Muhammad said it (theory #2), it is nonsense anyway. Allow me to whisper it to your ear in different words, please: your Qur’an, in the above-mentioned verses, speaks nonsense, no matter who wrote it. There is no way to escape from this conclusion, no matter how much you would — understandably — want it. Verses 18:86–90 sound so silly today that they can make even little children laugh.
In verses 36:38–40 we read the following (my emphasis):
36:38 “And the sun runs his course for a period determined for him: that is the decree of (Him), the Exalted in Might, the All-Knowing. 36:39 And the Moon, — We have measured for her mansions (to traverse) till she returns like the old (and withered) lower part of a date-stalk. 36:40 It is not permitted to the Sun to catch up the Moon, nor can the Night outstrip the Day; each (just) swims along in (its own) orbit (according to Law).”
What? “It is not permitted to the Sun to catch up the Moon?” The above verse is either ridiculous or wrong, depending on whether we try to understand it from the modern perspective or from the Bedouins’ perspective, respectively. Here is why:
The orbit of the Moon (gray) around the Earth’s orbit
(blue circle) and around the Sun (red, center).
So, because according to what we know today it is just plain stupid to say that the Sun tries to catch up the Moon, there is only one possibility: that verse 36:40 was said that way for the Bedouins to make some sense of it. But in that case,... it’s wrong again!
Oh, no! The Sun caught up the Moon! (Or the Moon
caught up the Sun, depending on your perspective.)
Now, part of our data is that ancient peoples did not understand what happens during a solar eclipse. They thought that the Sun simply darkens, and they panicked. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus describes how two ancient armies, the Lydians and the Medians, stopped fighting and agreed to make peace, terrified during a solar eclipse that took place while they were engaged in battle (Herodotus: Histories, Book 1, §74). Ancient people could not understand that the dark region of the Sun during an eclipse is the Moon, which the Sun “catches up” and overtakes from the viewpoint of the observer on the Earth, contrary to the claim of verse 36:40. There is evidence that even Muhammad was terrified by a solar eclipse, as the following hadith tells us, again from the trustworthy source of Sahih al-Bukhari:
What we see is that, terrified and clueless as he was, Muhammad could not understand that during an eclipse the two heavenly bodies, Sun and Moon, catch up each other on the sky, from the Earth-bound observer’s viewpoint. He recorded his ignorance in the Qur’an.
And I want to ask you: if Muhammad was guided by Allah, why was he terrified like a schoolboy who thought that he saw a ghost? Today, are you terrified during a solar eclipse, knowing that it is just the natural phenomenon of the Sun going right behind the Moon? What’s so scary about that? You are not scared because you know what is going on. But if Muhammad was terrified, it was because he didn’t know. But how could your prophet not know, if he was a real prophet of Allah’s? How could he say that an eclipse is a sign that Allah sends, when we know exactly when an eclipse will happen, just as we know exactly when it will be Friday? Would you ever say that “Allah sends Fridays as signs”? No, it sounds stupid. Similarly, to say that “Allah sends eclipses as signs” is equally stupid, because we know exactly when there will be an eclipse. A “sign” is something that cannot be predicted by science or any person. But science predicts eclipses with absolute precision. How could your prophet sound so ignorant, so unguided by Allah?
Now, of course, we cannot be 100% sure that the above hadith is true. But, equally important, you should not reject it as false merely because you “don’t like it”, because what it says disturbs you. You cannot put your theory — that Muhammad was wise and would not say the above nonsense — ahead of the data (i.e., Sahih al-Bukhari’s excerpt). Muhammad was illiterate, and had the knowledge (or lack thereof) of ancient peoples about eclipses; those are your data. You may assign a less-than-100% certainty that the above hadith is true, but remember that all the ahadith of Sahih al-Bukhari have been given a high degree of trustworthiness by Muslim scholars. Merely “not liking” a hadith because of your personal preferences is a knee-jerk reaction, and a very unscientific one.
By the way, the continuation of that phrase in verse 36:40 is also wrong. It says: “nor can the Night outstrip the Day”. Yes, but in Arabia, in Muhammad’s latitudes. If you move to the far north, somewhere in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, the islands of northern Canada, or most of Greenland, you’ll witness the night outstripping the day (called a “polar night”), at some time in late November or early December (depending on your latitude, i.e., how far north you are). In those latitudes, during that time of the year, the night becomes longer and longer, and the day shorter and shorter, until the day vanishes, “outstripped” by the night. Night then lasts until some time in late January. The same phenomenon occurs practically anywhere in Antarctica, but around June and July.
This is not just a linguistic objection. It has serious implications in the lives of Muslims. Two of the so-called “pillars of Islam”, namely, praying and fasting, are based on the cycle of the Sun, i.e., on when the Sun rises and sets. What about Muslims who now live in very northern latitudes? In their places, the daytime can last for such a short or long time (or even vanish entirely, “outstripped” by the night, or persist for several 24-hour periods), that regulating fasting and praying according to the Sun is impossible. So, Muslims in such places resort to following the rhythms of the Sun in Arabia. (But not simultaneously with Arabia, because they might be in a very different time zone.) Why did Allah — if that’s the author of the Qur’an — establish such parochial rules, such rules that are good for some part of the world only? Didn’t Allah know that Islam would spread one day beyond Arabia?
Back to 36:40. How could Allah have said so many factually wrong things in so short a sentence?
And if Allah was trying to impress only illiterate Bedouins who knew nothing about what happens during solar eclipses or in polar latitudes of our planet, then why should we today take seriously a book written for those clueless people of that time? We are neither Bedouins, nor illiterate, nor do we live in the Dark Ages.
Given the above, don’t you think that the theory that Allah is the true author of the Qur’an is wrong? Don’t you think that the theory that the Qur’an was the product of Muhammad’s mind (without inspiration from Allah) explains better what we read in it? (Remember to be objective like a scientist: data from observations go first; explanatory theories follow, and depend on the data.)
In verse 21:30, as well as elsewhere in the Qur’an, we read what ancient peoples thought was the correct cosmology, which, however, has absolutely no relation to what today we know is true:
21:30 “Have not those who disbelieve known that the heavens and the earth were of one piece, then We parted them, and we made every living thing of water? Will they not then believe?”
No, sorry. They will not believe (in Islam, at least), because the idea that the “heavens” (which is an illusion, as we said in §1.1) and the Earth were united in one piece (which then God split asunder) is: (1) not original (the ancient Jews also believed the same thing, and it is described in Genesis of the Jewish Bible), and (2) false anyway, conflicting with everything we know today. How can something nonexistent as the “heavens” be thought of as united with the Earth? And if by “heavens” one understands “everything else in the universe except the Earth” (a silly idea, given the unimportance of the speck of dust that we call Earth in relation to the entire universe), then didn’t Allah know that around eight and a half billion years passed after the Big Bang and before the Earth was formed? How can Allah have said that “the heavens and the earth were of one piece” if for 8.5 billion years the Earth did not exist, but the “heavens” existed? (If “heavens” refers to the rest of the universe; but read §1.5.1, below, to see that “heavens” cannot refer to that.) Even I, a mere mortal, can do a better job: “Have not those who disbelieve known that the heavens existed before the Earth, for a time longer than you can imagine, then We formed the Sun and the Earth out of swirling dust from the heavens?” That wording definitely would not sound strange to the rational and cosmologically oh-so-sensitive Bedouin mind, would it? But it would certainly convert us all to Islam. Why did Allah choose such sloppy and inaccurate language in the Qur’an?
As for the phrase “and we made every living thing of water”, that, too, is incorrect. Living beings were not made of water. Water is important for the evolution and maintenance of life as we know it here on our planet, but so are several other chemicals that form the bodies of all living organisms. One of them is carbon. There is no living being that has no carbon in its body. If only the Qur’an could have mentioned carbon (you know, “coal”) as indispensable for life, all people today should convert to Islam, because that would be indisputable evidence of the deeper knowledge revealed in the Qur’an. Instead, the author of the Qur’an said that Allah “made every living thing of water”. Out of plain water, only water can arise, not life. Nor is it true that life evolved in the sea or lakes. Again, this is an ancient idea that was (1) not original, and (2) scientifically inaccurate. The ancient Jews believed that God created life first in the seas (just read the first few verses of Genesis); also the ancient Greek philosopher Anaximander (~ 6th C. BC) proposed that life originated in the water, and he stated this more than 1000 years before Muhammad was born. Today we believe that water played a vital role in the evolution of life, but to say that “we made every living thing of water” is scientifically inaccurate. Certainly Allah, in his infinite wisdom, could have chosen a scientifically more accurate phrase to express the idea that water is important for life. Here is one, for example: “and we made almost every living thing dependent on water”. (I said “almost” because there are some living things, namely bacteria, and more specifically some among those called “archaeobacteria”, that do not depend on water nor use it at all.)
Given the above, dear Muslim reader, and always thinking objectively, which of the following theories do you think is true?
I remind you that to think objectively means to temporarily abandon your conviction that theory #1 is correct, examine the data (what the Qur’an says, what ancient peoples believed, what we know today), and, based on the data, draw your conclusion about whether theory #1 or theory #2 explains the data best.
By the way, why is it that I can always say things more accurately than your Qur’an? It can’t be that I know more than Allah, because Allah is supposed to be infinitely wise. Then could it be that it’s because I benefit from modern knowledge, which is highly more accurate than Muhammad’s knowledge? But, in that case, doesn’t that imply that Muhammad did not draw his knowledge from Allah, but from his own culture, which in turn received it from other ancient cultures?
1.4.1 Deceptive translations of the Qur’an by present-day Muslim translators
Sometimes Muslims try to impress non-Muslims by giving their own, totally ad hoc and unjustified translations of the Qur’an. Such translations sound as if they agree with some key feature of modern science. But they are not just bad, but deceptive translations. For example, take verse 21:30, as stated above. See here for a deceptive translation of it, where it is given as follows (my emphasis):
21:30 “Do the unbelievers not realize that the heavens and the earth used to be one solid mass that we exploded into existence? And from water we made all living things. Would they believe?”
Excuse me? “that we exploded into existence”? Did anyone translate the Arabic words as “exploded” before there was knowledge of the Big Bang — which is wrongly imagined by non-scientists as an “explosion”? Please show me one such translation of the Qur’an, which was written before the mid-20th C., and uses the word “exploded”. Here is what well known translations of 21:30 say (again, my emphasis):
21:30 (translator: Yusuf Ali): “Do not the Unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together (as one unit of creation), before we clove them asunder? We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?”
21:30 (translator: Pickthal): “Have not those who disbelieve known that the heavens and the earth were of one piece, then We parted them, and we made every living thing of water? Will they not then believe?”
21:30 (translator: Shakir): “Do not those who disbelieve see that the heavens and the earth were closed up, but We have opened them; and We have made of water everything living, will they not then believe?”
Can someone please explain to the idiot who translated 21:30 as “one solid mass that we exploded into existence” that explosions were unknown in Muhammad’s time and place? Gunpowder was discovered only in the 9th C. by Chinese alchemists, whereas nitroglycerin and hence dynamite were manufactured in Europe in the 19th C. The only explosions that could occur in Muhammad’s time were the natural ones, of volcanoes. Unfortunately, southern Arabia has no volcanoes. Thus, the language of the Qur’an couldn’t possibly have a word for referring to an unknown, nonexistent concept.
In addition, the Big Bang event was nothing like an explosion — in spite of the “Bang” in it. In an explosion, thermal energy dissipates violently by expanding into an already existent space; in the Big Bang, space itself was distended, decreasing in curvature, without expanding into some other pre-existing space. That’s quite unlike an explosion, but whoever translated 21:30 as above (in red letters) obviously knew so little of physics that he thought Allah would refer to the Big Bang as an “explosion”.
The above is one such example, but not the only one. I think that the attempt to translate Qur’anic phrases in any way one wishes, so that they look like they’re in agreement with present-day knowledge, is a particularly stupid way to trick those who can’t read in Arabic. Do the believers not realize that in the West we don’t rely on the Imam’s or on X’s authority to learn something, but we search the Internet and expose such silly attempts at deception? Don’t those Muslims who act in such ways realize that they exhibit intelligence that proves insufficient for those people whom they want to trick? (I suppose not, because the dumb cannot perceive his dumbness.)
1.5 Our solar-system surroundings as seen with the eyes of a Bedouin
At various places in the Qur’an there are references to “heaven”. I propose to you that we read together those verses that refer to “heaven”, dear Muslim reader, and try to infer what the author of the Qur’an thought the heaven is, without us being influenced by present-day knowledge. You see, if you assume that the author of the Qur’an already knew what we know today, then you put the cart in front of the horse once again (the theory before the data). Forget what you know today about astronomy. Forget the fact that the blue sky that we see over our heads is not a real thing but an illusion, and come to the position of the ancient Bedouin, who crosses the Arabian desert atop his camel one sunny day, and raises his head skywards. What would he see? What would you see if you were in his position? You would see a blue dome, the sky, the “heaven”, the same object that seems to be traversed by the Sun at daytime, by the Moon usually at nighttime, and which is filled up with stars during nighttime. Look now how several verses in the Qur’an describe precisely that illusion, that nonexistent thing, the “heaven”:
21:32 “And We have made the heaven a guarded canopy and (yet) they turn aside from its signs.”
So, the heaven is a canopy, which means a roof over the heads of people. (Indeed, other translations use the word “roof”.) You, of course, know today that there is nothing like a roof over your head. But the Bedouin didn’t know. Therefore, I can think of two theories to explain the above verse, and also all those that will follow soon:
If theory #1 is correct, we conclude that Allah is talking to the Bedouin of those times, not to us today.
Let’s see which of the above two theories is best supported by the data. Remember, data for us is certainly what is included in the Qur’an (with 100% certainty), and to a lesser extent what is included in the ahadith (with less than 100% certainty).
Now, that canopy, the supposed roof that stands over our heads, Allah says that he holds it so that it doesn’t fall on earth! Here it is:
22:65 “Do you not see that Allah has made subservient to you whatsoever is in the earth and the ships running in the sea by His command? And He withholds the heaven from falling on the earth except with His permission; most surely Allah is Compassionate, Merciful to men.”
The phrase “except with His permission” might mean one of the following two things: (a) except when Allah determines that the Day of Judgment has come, or (b) except when it rains. So we have two theories here, (a) and (b). Theory (b) seems more reasonable to me, because elsewhere in the Qur’an we read that it is Allah who allows the rain to fall and water the crops, which is beneficial to people, and so this all ties in with what follows: “most surely Allah is Compassionate, Merciful to men.” And also, when looking at the rain from faraway it really looks as if the heaven is falling on earth at that place where it’s raining. In any case, we see that this canopy, the “heaven”, is withheld so that it doesn’t fall on earth (hence, on our heads) by Allah. Elsewhere, Allah boasts that the canopy, the roof, has no pillars that support it:
31:10 “He [Allah] created the heavens without any pillars that ye can see;”
If Allah knew that the Earth is a sphere, and that its atmosphere (responsible for the illusion of “heaven”) surrounds that sphere and is held around it by gravity, why would he boast that there are no pillars to support it? Pillars are used only to support ceilings, roofs, or other solid surfaces. But the atmosphere is no solid surface. And doesn’t 31:10 tell us that “heaven” means the atmosphere, and not the abstract notion of “rest of the universe except Earth”? If Allah meant this last idea by “heaven”, why did he need to boast about “no pillars” — isn’t that ridiculous? And how can the rest of the universe be prevented from falling on the Earth (22:65) — isn’t that astonishingly ridiculous?
Moreover, in verse 7:40 we learn that not only is the canopy of the heaven a physical thing, but that it even has gates! And people like me, who are unbelievers, will never pass through those heavenly gates. Here:
7:40 “Lo! they who deny Our revelations and scorn them, for them the gates of heaven will not be opened, nor will they enter the Garden until the camel goeth through the needle’s eye. Thus do We requite the guilty.”
As you see, the evidence is mounting that the author of the Qur’an thinks of the heaven as something physical. More evidence exists in verse 21:104, where the author thinks of the heaven as something that can be rolled up like an ancient scroll for writing:
21:104 “The Day when We shall roll up the heavens as a recorder rolls up a written scroll. As We began the first creation, We shall repeat it. (It is) a promise (binding) upon Us. Lo! We are to perform it.”
If you are a fan of the interpretation that the “heaven” is the rest of the universe except planet Earth, tell me please, what sense does it make to think of it as a scroll that can be rolled up?
But if you think of heaven in the way a Bedouin would think of it, then of course 21:104 makes sense: the heaven is a physical dome, a blue canopy over our heads (even with gates), and so it can be thought of as rolled up like a scroll. Sure, it makes sense; but to the ancient, illiterate minds, not to ours.
Further evidence (data) of the physicality of heaven exists in 78:19:
78:19 “And the heavens shall be opened as if there were doors”
How can the “heaven” as we understand it today be “opened”? Only physical, solid things open up. But the ancient Bedouins thought that the sky is exactly such a solid piece, so “opening it up” was a sensible thought in their minds. That the author of the Qur’an thinks of heaven as something physical is also evident from 50:6:
50:6 “Have they not then observed the heaven above them, how we have made it and adorned it, and there are not in it any rifts?”
Pardon me? “Rifts”? As in gaps? But only solid chunks of matter can have gaps! How can the air, the atmosphere of Earth, have gaps? And, given that the sky is filled with air, why should anyone admire the fact that it has no rifts? Unless the author of the Qur’an could not understand that the sky is simply air, and thought of it — as he repeatedly implied in other verses — as a solid blue dome.
In summary: according to the author of the Qur’an, the lowest “heaven” (the sky) is a solid blue dome, made of pieces that fit perfectly together (without rifts), a canopy over our heads that Allah holds so that it doesn’t fall on Earth, which is not supported by any pillars (wow! how could He ever do that!), has gates through which pass only pious people who died and go to the Garden, is flat because it will be rolled up like a scroll on Judgment Day, and is even decorated with little lights (the stars), as we shall see in §1.5.3!
Why does Allah — if he is the true author of the Qur’an, according to theory #1 — keep speaking in ways that show such total ignorance, which today would make even schoolchildren roll on the floor laughing?
In contrast, theory #2 doesn’t suffer from such problems. According to theory #2, Muhammad is simply projecting his incorrect knowledge about what he saw as “heaven” to Allah. He puts his knowledge into Allah’s mouth, making Allah sound as if Allah is saying false things, lies, sometimes even stupid things (“muddy springs”!). But in reality it is Muhammad who speaks. That’s what theory #2 says, and I don’t find any datum that contradicts this theory. If you can find any, dear Muslim reader, please make it known to me.
However, no matter which theory is correct (#1 or #2), you must admit that somebody is speaking nonsense in your book; somebody is saying sometimes false things (heaven as a canopy withheld by Allah so it doesn’t fall, rolled up like a scroll), sometimes laughably stupid things (Sun sets in a muddy spring on Earth). In other words, someone wrote rubbish. This conclusion is independent of the question of who the author of the Qur’an is.
Reading the various verses in the Qur’an that talk about objects that make up our solar system (Earth, Sun, Moon, etc.), a modern reader can’t avoid feeling somewhat strange upon seeing that, together with the other heavenly bodies, there is a persistent reference to “Day” and “Night”. From our modern perspective, day and night are completely uninteresting events in the context of cosmology. First of all, we understand they are conditions, not objects that require a creation, as many Qur’anic verses suggest. Once there is the Sun and a planet like Earth that rotates around its axis and thus shows half of itself to the Sun, inhabitants of the planet are bound to experience day & night — what can be more mundane and uninteresting that that, we’d think today. But ancient peoples didn’t have the correct model of a round Earth rotating around its axis in their minds. Moreover — and quite surprisingly for us — they couldn’t make the connection between Sun and daylight! They couldn’t “get it” that the Sun causes day, and the absence of Sun causes night. Instead, they observed “Day” starting to appear at some early time, whereas the Sun came out later, as a “crowning jewel” of “Day”. Likewise at sunset: they saw the Sun disappearing, but “Day” (the object) was still there for a while; so — naturally — they thought that the “Day” does not depend on the Sun, since it can exist even after the Sun is gone. From their perspective, the Sun didn’t cause the day but was merely a bright object cruising along the blue dome, the “heaven”, while “Day” was present. So in their view of things, ancient peoples treated “Day” and “Night” not as conditions but as objects that required creation, like all other objects. Here is a characteristic verse that tells us precisely that “Day” and “Night” were created, independently and before the creation of the Earth.
79:27 “Are you the harder to create, or is the heaven that He built? 79:28 He raised its canopy, and He hath given it order and perfection. 79:29 And He made dark the night thereof, and He brought forth the morning thereof. 79:30 And after that He spread the earth.”
Notice how the Sun doesn’t seem worthy of any mention in the above verses; Allah “raises” the canopy of the heaven (what sense does this really make if by “heaven” we understand “everything else in the universe except the Earth”?) and creates night and day on the heaven. Subsequently, Allah spreads the Earth. (And note please that if you want to create a sphere you don’t spread it, which is what you do if you create a flat, planar surface.) So the Day and Night are objects created, associated with heaven, but not associated with Earth, which comes afterwards. But what sense do the notions of day & night make in the absence of planet Earth?
Some Muslim readers might object that the Arabic word used in the original text doesn’t have to be translated as “after that” (as translators Pickthal and Shakir translate it), but as “moreover” (as Yusuf Ali translates it). But this doesn’t make any significant difference. Try to read the text using “moreover”: 79:29 “And he made dark the night thereof, and He brought forth the morning thereof. 79:30 Moreover, He spread the earth.” Still, day and night sound like two separately created objects. If you have the correct, modern model of our solar system in your mind, and you say that the Earth was created, what sense does it make to say that the day and night were also created? And even mention their creation in the text (79:29) before the creation of the Earth (79:30)? With the correct model in your mind, you should mention the Sun first, then the Earth, and then (possibly) the day and night, although that would be redundant. Verses 79:29–30 sound as if you were a carpenter and you say something like this: “And I made the dark surface, and the bright surface. Moreover, I spread out the table.” Would you ever say an incoherent thing like that? Would you talk about the making of surfaces before mentioning the object to which those surfaces belong? Worse, would you talk about creating the darkness and brightness when you, being a carpenter, know very well that darkness and brightness are not independent objects, but conditions, properties of the surfaces of your table, resulting from the position of some external bright object, such as a light bulb? Shouldn’t you know that darkness and brightness do not require creation, but what you need to talk about is where you put the table in relation to the light bulb? And why would you talk about “spreading” the table, when what you actually created is a sphere? How can you claim to be a carpenter, an expert in making furniture, and make it evident from your choice of words that you are clueless about your profession?
The verses of Chapter 79 are of course not the only ones that show a lack of understanding of what day and night is, and what causes them. Here is a verse showing again a separation between day & night on one hand, and the Sun and other heavenly bodies on the other hand:
7:54 “Lo! your Lord is Allah Who created the heavens and the earth in six Days, then He mounted the Throne. He covers the night with the day, which is in haste to follow it, and has made the sun and the moon and the stars subservient by His command. His verily is all creation and commandment. Blessed be Allah, the Lord of the Worlds!”
Can the “Lord of the Worlds” please speak in a way that shows he understands some fundamental features of his creation? Specifically, that the night and day are not independent creations, separate from one of the objects (the Sun) which he created? Why does he speak like an ignorant, illiterate person? If your answer is that he wanted to be understood by Bedouins, then my counter-answer is that Allah, being all-wise, could always choose to speak so that he was both understood by tribesmen, and also make sense to us today. A very simple way to do that in 7:54 is this one: “Lo! your Lord is Allah who created the heavens and the Earth in six Days. He has made the stars, the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon [in that order, please!], and has let the Sun to shine during the day, which is covered by the night after sunset, and the night in turn is covered by day in haste before sunrise. His verily is all creation [blah-blah, but I would prefer less boasting and bragging from a truly wise Allah].” I don’t think the extra-sensitive Bedouins would have a hard time to swallow the above, given that they swallowed far more difficult ideas, such as that their many other gods were false gods, and that Muhammad had a special direct communication channel with the one God, Allah. I mean, if you are so naïve and gullible(*) as to believe a person who says Allah talks to him in a cave through the angel Gabriel, and you believe him just because that person tells you so, then do you think it is that hard to accept the sentences I wrote in blue color? Would you have any difficulty to understand them? I don’t think so, unless you are truly retarded. And, in any case, since Allah is infinitely wise, he could find many different — and superior to my — ways for expressing the same ideas.
By the way, Allah could also avoid the phrase: “He mounted the Throne”. What “Throne”? Does Allah need a throne to sit on? A throne is a physical thing, especially if it is mounted somewhere. Does Allah have a physical body (with the necessary part that humans use when they sit somewhere), which he uses while sitting on a throne? What does this tell you about what the author of the Qur’an thought about Allah? (Think, and then re-read this quote from Sahih Al-Bukhari, to see what the author really thought about that throne and where it is located.)
As I mentioned, I don’t find it appropriate that Allah boasts about himself and asks to be blessed all the time (“Blessed be Allah, the Lord of the Worlds!”). Is this the example you want to follow? Boasting continually about what you have created? But I am not going to complain about your Quran’s distasteful moral advice here, because that subject belongs to a different article. Let’s go back to the subject of cosmology. Here are a few more verses that show the dissociation between day–night and Sun:
5:1 “All praise is due to Allah, who created the heavens and the earth, and made the darkness and the light; yet those who disbelieve set up equals with their Lord.” The “darkness and the light” were created by Allah, but the Sun — the main heavenly body responsible for the light and its absence — is nowhere to be seen in this verse.
21:33 “And He it is Who created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. They float, each in an orbit.”
36:40 “It is not permitted to the Sun to catch up the Moon, nor can the Night outstrip the Day: Each (just) swims along in (its own) orbit (according to Law).” If you understand that night and day are simply caused by the illumination of the Earth from the Sun, what sense does it make to boast about not permitting night to outstrip the day? How else could it be on a spherical body like the Earth?
41:37 “Among His Signs are the Night and the Day, and the Sun and the Moon. Do not prostrate to the sun and the moon, but prostrate to Allah, Who created them, if it is Him ye wish to serve.”
78:8 “And We have created you in pairs, 78:9 And have appointed your sleep for repose, 78:10 And have appointed the night as a cloak, 78:11 And have appointed the day for livelihood. 78:12 And We have built above you seven strong (heavens), 78:13 And have appointed a dazzling lamp, [i.e., the Sun]” Again, we see a dissociation: night and day in 78:10–11, but Sun in 78:13.
I don’t think I need to continue with more examples.
Looking again at all the above verses we have two theories, as before:
Which of the two theories explains better what we read in all the verses that I quoted? Which theory would you choose if you were a scientist, trained to look at the data first, without pre-selecting the theory that you’d emotionally wish to be true?
On one hand, in section §1.1 we saw that the “heaven” is a nonexistent entity, an illusion caused by the dust particles when those are lit by sunlight at daytime, scattering the blue light of the rainbow more than the other colors, thus giving to the sky the appearance of a blue dome. We can see that “dome” in the second of the pictures of this document (here). It is the atmosphere, a spherical “shell” that surrounds the Earth, only a few hundreds of miles high. Please take a note of this phrase: “only a few hundreds of miles high.” Specifically, the outer layer of the atmosphere where matter still behaves like a gas is called the “thermosphere”, and reaches only up to 700 km high (440 miles).
On the other hand, we also learned about the vast distances at which the stars are from the Earth. We saw that even the closest star — other than the Sun — which is called “Proxima Centauri” (“closest of the [constellation of] Centaurus”) in the skies of the southern hemisphere, is astonishingly far away, at a distance of 40,519,553,200,000 km. Here is a useful comparison: if the farthest layers of the Earth’s atmosphere were at a hair’s width away (at 0.08 of a millimeter), and this hair was located at Mecca, Saudi Arabia, then the closest star (Proxima Centauri) would be at London, UK! Such is the enormous difference between the one distance and the other.
And yet, in the Qur’an these two vastly different distances are confused and merged into one: the distance to the “nearest of the seven heavens”. Worse, the stars themselves — which, by human standards, are extremely large fire-balls made mostly of hydrogen and helium — are confused with the “shooting stars”, which are specks of dust (often as large as a grain of sand) that enter the Earth’s atmosphere and are ignited due to friction, leaving a fiery trail behind them that lasts no more than a few tenths of a second on the night sky. (See the picture that follows.)
A “shooting star” against the background of real stars
in the night sky. The bright line (“shooting star”) that exists for a
Here is the “wisdom” by which those vastly different distances and objects are confused:
37:6 Indeed, we have adorned the nearest heaven with an adornment of stars,
37:7 and as protection against every rebellious devil,
37:8 who may not listen to the exalted assembly [of angels] and are pelted from every side.
As usual, ideas are repeated ad nauseam in the Qur’an, and the above is no exception. So there is another chapter and verse where the same idea is repeated — just in case we didn’t digest it completely in Chapter 37. Here it is again, in Chapter 67:
67:5 And certainly we have beautified the nearest heaven with lamps, and we have made them as missiles for the devils, and we have prepared for them the punishment of the Flame.
What do we learn from the above verses? That the “nearest heaven”, the one closest to the Earth, is adorned with stars. (In §1.1 we saw that this implies that the Moon is at least as far away as the stars, so let’s not repeat this problem here.) The stars are there as mere ornamentation of the sky, but also to protect us against “every rebellious devil”! How do the stars protect us? By being “pelted from every side” against the rebellious devils!
In other words, the shooting stars — those specks of dust that enter the Earth’s atmosphere as our planet orbits the Sun — are confused in the Qur’an with real stars, which lie at truly “astronomical” distances away! Please note:
Who could have confused the two, vastly different objects, just because, to the Earth-bound observer, the shooting stars look like stars that are suddenly pelted in one direction?
Theory #1: Allah, the all-knowing, confused stars with shooting stars. Why? To impress Bedouins, again? This explanation has become really boring, you know. Theory #2: Muhammad, a person living in times when there was zero knowledge about the fact that stars and shooting stars cannot be more different and that they exist at vastly different distances from us, confused the two, because it looks like some stars are shot on the sky at unexpected times. Which theory makes more sense? You be the judge.
And, as an aside, think a bit of the humorous side of all this: the “rebellious devils” are trying, night after night, by the dozens, to come and cause harm to us. But we are protected by the “stars”. In spite of the huge number of failed attempts of those devils to harm us (because a fairly large number of shooting stars can be seen every night, as Muhammad for sure could notice), those bedeviled devils keep trying, again and again! The imagined devils cannot have more intelligence than that of in insect! How robotic, how plainly dumb can such “rebellious devils” be, to be trying and failing, night after night, learning nothing at all from a vast number of failures? Well, the right question actually is: how plainly dumb could a person be, who imagined that the supposed rebellious devils try and fail dozens of times every night, without seeing any problem with the logic of this idea of his (or of his culture)?
More evidence that the author of the Qur’an thinks of the stars as “little lights” (which are up there “for decoration” — see §1.5.3) exists in 81:2, in a sura that starts by describing events that will happen on Judgment Day:
81:1 When the sun is folded,
81:2 and when the stars fall, losing their luster,
81:3 and when the mountains are moved away, ...etc.
So, the stars will “fall”, and will be dimmed, losing their luster, like decorative Christmas lights that are turned off when the celebratory season is over. They will “fall” where, exactly? Objects fall on the surface of our planet Earth. How can stars, which are fireballs of enormous sizes (almost all the ones visible by the naked eye are larger than the Sun) fall on Earth, or anywhere else for that matter? The statement of 81:2 is of a magnitude of stupidity analogous to that of 18:86, which says that the Sun sets into a muddy spring. The only difference is that the reader needs just a little bit more of astronomical knowledge to understand the idiocy of 81:2.
In an exchange of messages that I had with a Muslim who had read parts of this document, I was trying to convey to him the idea that the Qur’an does not distinguish between stars and planets. The author of the Qur’an talks only about “stars”, giving the impression that he doesn’t know that those little lights on the night sky (which he thinks are there “for decoration” — see 37:6, 67:5) are of two very different kinds: stars, and planets. In the ensuing discussion I realized that my Muslim interlocutor, too, — just like the Qur’anic author — did not have a clue about what planets are! When I told him that the Qur’an does not refer at all to the concept of “planet”, he told me that, no, the Qur’an mentions planets in many verses, because it talks about the Sun and the Moon!
He knew that the Sun is a star (note that the author of the Qur’an doesn’t give us the slightest indication that he knows this), but he thought the Moon is a planet! From the words that he used I concluded that this was not simply an English language problem (that he didn’t know what the word “planet” refers to), but that he genuinely had no idea what the planets are.
Hard to believe, but true; such can be the ignorance of the person who relies on a religious book to know about the natural world. Now, the problem here is that by being ignorant, people like my Muslim interlocutor agree with what they read in the Qur’an! Think about it: one ignorance meets another; the ignorant reader agrees with the ignorant author, and even admires him for his wisdom!
Thus, after I became aware of the fact that to talk about the distinction between stars and planets I must assume that the reader knows what the planets are, and considering that the Muslim I just mentioned might represent my average Muslim reader, I thought it is necessary to explain here what a planet is. I ask those readers who already have this elementary knowledge to bear with me, considering that other readers, who lack this knowledge and for whom this text is mostly written, cannot otherwise appreciate the inadequacy and emptiness of the Qur’anic information.
So: today we say there are the following eight (8) planets orbiting the Sun:
Here are the eight planets placed next to each other, as if they are balls on a table, so as to understand how they differ in size:
Note that, up to 2006, Pluto (بلوتو) was considered to be the 9th planet. But in that year the International Astronomical Union decided that Pluto must be called a “dwarf planet”, because it doesn’t satisfy the definition of a planet.
But although we can arrange the planets and show them like balls on a table as in the previous figure, when we look at them with the unaided eye (as the observer of the 7th century would see them, without the help of a telescope or even binoculars), they look just like stars! See the picture that follows: planets can be easily confused with stars.
However, the ancient observers who had enough patience, and watched the night sky throughout the year, and even over several years, could see that the planets change their positions on the sky (contrary to stars). And that’s why they are called “planets”: from the Greek word “planétes” (πλανήτης), meaning “wanderer”; because they wander (move) on the sky. Also, stars twinkle due to small-scale irregularities in the Earth’s upper atmosphere;(*) whereas planets don’t twinkle, because they are extremely close to us compared to the stars, and their shapes are like tiny disks, not point-like as stars appear to us from the Earth.
But it looks like at least one ancient observer of the 7th century AD, preoccupied as he was with his wars against neighboring tribes, did not have enough patience to observe the sky and notice that some “stars” move from day to day, month to month, year to year, and that they don’t twinkle; nor did he have the ability to read about all this, as it was well-known: many ancient peoples (much more ancient than him) in the vicinity of Arabia, knew about the planets and their motions on the sky, including the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and many more. Other peoples at different parts of the world, such as the Chinese, Indians, various tribes of American Indians, and many more, had all the necessary knowledge and could tell the difference between a planet and a star. The author of the Qur’an, however, probably couldn’t; what is certain is that he didn’t give us the slightest indication that he could, since he used only one word: “star”. In fact, the “ontology” (the set of objects) of the Qur’anic astronomy recognizes only three kinds of entities in the sky:
(Plus, as I already mentioned, it doesn’t seem to know that the Sun is a star.) But reality is much more complex than that. Today we have the following, much richer ontology of objects that are (or can be) in the sky and belong to our solar system:
The above list seems just too sophisticated for a book like the Qur’an. Incidentally, it is interesting to remember that, before the destruction of the Library of Alexandria by the Muslim army of Amr ibn al `Aas in 642 AD, it is said that Amr asked Caliph Omar whether the books of the library should be preserved or destroyed. Omar answered thus: “If those books are in agreement with the Qur’an, we have no need of them; and if they are opposed to the Qur’an, [they are wrong, so] destroy them.” Thus, following Caliph Omar, the world could stay at this astoundingly “deep” level of astronomical knowledge : “Sun, Moon, and stars”.
One wonders who the author of the Qur’an could be, who could speak only of Sun, Moon, and stars: the All-Wise Allah, or someone illiterate, lacking even the knowledge of other peoples of his time?
The most detailed Qur’anic verses that tell us how Allah created the world, and what he created first, what next, and so on, are in Chapter 41 (“Fusilat”, or “Explained in detail”). In 41:9–12 we read the following (translation by Pickthal, with my emphasis, and with a few archaic words turned into more common and understandable ones [e.g.: “loth” → “unwillingly”]):
41:9 “Say (O Muhammad, unto the idolaters): Disbelieve ye verily in Him Who created the earth in two Days, and ascribe ye unto Him rivals? He (and none else) is the Lord of the Worlds.”
41:10 “He placed therein firm hills rising above it, and blessed it and measured therein its sustenance in four Days, alike for (all) who ask;”
41:11 “Then He turned to the heaven when it was smoke, and said unto it and unto the earth: Come both of you, willingly or unwillingly. They said: We come, obedient.”
41:12 “Then He ordained them seven heavens in two Days and inspired in each heaven its mandate; and We decked the nether heaven with lamps, and rendered it inviolable. That is the measuring of the Mighty, the Knower.”
I will refrain from complaining about the arithmetic, which sums up to 2+4+2=8 days (contrary to the 6 days of creation mentioned in several other verses in the Qur’an), because I want to grant the “benefit of doubt” to those Muslims who claim that the first 2 days must be merged into the next 4, thus yielding the sum of 4+2=6 days. All right, all right... we know Muhammad was illiterate, but it’s hard to believe he was worse than a first grader, who knows that two-plus-four-plus-two doesn’t add up to six. Of course, if it is really Allah speaking in verses 41:9–12, this is still a question: Why did Allah choose to speak in such a way so as to allow non-Muslims today to exclaim: “The author of the Qur’an didn’t even know basic arithmetic!”? Couldn’t Allah, being so wise, predict this and make the arithmetic in 41:9–12 sound more accurate and less like that of an illiterate person? But, anyway, let’s skip this moot point.
Nor will I insist in commenting much about the really-really childish: “Come both of you, willingly or unwillingly”, which Allah said to heaven and earth, and the equally childish: “They said: We come, obedient.” Can you imagine that you are, for example, an ironsmith, and that you speak to your hammer and anvil, giving them orders? And also imagine that the hammer and the anvil answer back to you, expressing their obedience? How old do you think a child can be today and still imagine talking to inanimate objects, and that those objects answer back? 10 years old? 11 years old, at most? I think that by 12 years of age, today, the children that I know find that talking to objects is just silly. And if you answer that the anthropomorphic view of heaven and earth in 41:9–12 is there by “poetic license”, then I’d reply that poems for grown-ups are one thing, and poems for children are quite another. A Western poem for children, for example, has the child talking to a star: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star / how I wonder what you are!” That’s how 41:11 sounds. Now, we grown-ups find that the “Twinkle, twinkle...” poem is cute, because we know it’s a poem for children only, and only children sing it. But the verse in 41:11 is — unfortunately — taken seriously by you, grown-up Muslims. Do you understand that by taking the “poem” of 41:11 seriously it makes you appear as if you have the mentality of a 10 year old (or less)?
But the above are mere details. What I really want to comment on is the total mess in the order in which Allah says he created things, an order that comes to a headlong collision with modern scientific knowledge; and about the duration of Allah’s creation, which also contradicts modern knowledge, in two ways. So, let’s see:
In verse 41:9 we learn that Allah created the Earth in two days.
In verse 41:10 we receive confirmation that the finishing-up of the creation of the Earth took some time, as it took Allah a total of four days to adorn the Earth with mountains, etc. So, let’s say that in the first four days of creation Allah was concerned with the Earth, no matter what other things he might be doing at the same time. That’s an unassailable conclusion from 41:9–10.
Verse 41:11 tells us that Allah “turned to the heaven”. Translators Pickthal and Shakir say “Then He turned to the heaven”, whereas Yusuf Ali says “Moreover He...” Whether the meaning is “then” or “moreover”, our datum is that the Earth was the first object that Allah created. If the meaning is “then”, then of course Allah finished with the Earth (in 4 days) and then turned to the heaven. But even if the meaning is “moreover”, still it cannot be that Allah created the heaven before the Earth, because in 41:11 he speaks to the heaven “when it was smoke”, i.e., unformed yet. Allah converts the unformed heaven into a formed structure of seven heavens in 41:12, in the next two days.
Let’s write our datum down again, so that it is fully appreciated: the Earth was the first object that Allah created. No matter how much the imagination is stretched and logic is twisted, we cannot conclude something different from the chronology given in 41:9-12. Beyond any doubt is that the heaven acquired its structure (of seven layers) in the last 2 of the total 6 days of creation, whereas the Earth with its mountains was already ready in the first 4 of the 6 days. Any objection to that?
Yes, modern science objects to that — completely, absolutely, and as certainly as an objection can be made. It is beyond any scientific doubt that the Earth is no older than around 4.5 billion years. The Sun is a little older than the Earth, as it was already partly formed at around 5 billion years ago. And, more important, much before that time, stars existed, both in our galaxy (the Milky Way) and in the many other galaxies of the universe. The universe itself has an age of around 13.7 billion years. So, the Earth was clearly not the first object that was created, and “heaven” (if we interpret that word to mean “everything else except the Earth” — although we saw what “heaven” really meant for the author of the Quran in §1.5.1) existed long before the Earth was formed; specifically, for around 9 billion years.
To argue against the above scientific knowledge today is as silly as to argue that the Earth is flat. We know that the age of the Earth cannot be greater than the age of the Sun, because when our solar system was in the process of formation the Sun gradually formed first at the center of the turning and swirling dust. (How do we know this? By seeing other planetary systems while they are being formed, with our telescopes.) That the age of the Sun is around 5 billion years is inferred by — among other ways — the percent of hydrogen that has been “burnt” (fused) into helium. Finally, the age of distant stars, and in particular of those that belong to other galaxies, is calculated by the time their light has been travelling through space. (The longer light travels, the more the wavelength of its photons is increased, and thus the color is shifted toward red.) Thus we know that the most distant objects of the universe that we can see (the “quasars”) have an age of around 13 billion years. That’s a long-long time before the Earth was formed. To sum it up:
That sounds like a blatant difference of opinions, doesn’t it? But there is more.
The second problem concerns the durations reported in the Qur’an. They conflict with modern scientific knowledge both absolutely and relatively. First, here’s what the absolute conflict is:
The Qur’an tells us that Allah created the world in six days (in several verses, and I said I am not going to argue that the verses in 41:9-12 describe a creation in eight days). The Jewish Bible has essentially the same duration of six days in its creation story (and the Bible is much older than the Qur’an, a datum that’s merely pointed out here), but the difference is that the Bible doesn’t explain what it means when it says “day”. (Of course, the simplest interpretation is that it means literally one period of time during which the sky is bright, because the Bible exhibits the same dissociation between the notion of “day” and the Sun as that of the author of the Qur’an, which was pointed out in §1.5.2; but let’s be generous and assume that a “day” is not just that, otherwise the two “holy books”, Qur’an and Bible, drop to the level of comics books for children.) Contrary to the Bible, in the Qur’an Allah attempts to tell to Muhammad how long an “Allah’s day” lasts, although Allah gives two different estimates. In verses 22:47 and 32:5 Allah says that a “day” for him is like 1000 years for people:
22:47 “And they ask you to hasten on the punishment, and Allah will by no means fail in His promise, and surely a day with your Lord is as a thousand years of what you number.”
32:5 “He regulates the affair from the heaven to the earth; then shall it ascend to Him in a day the measure of which is a thousand years of what you count.”
Notice that although 32:5 talks about a specific day, in contrast, 22:47 talks about “Allah’s day” in the abstract. So, from 22:47 we may conclude that when Allah says “day” in general he means a span of 1000 years. However, in verse 70:4 Allah muddles the issue a bit, as he talks about a specific type of day (the day it takes for angels and the spirit to ascend to him), which is equal to 50,000 years for people:
70:4 “To Him ascend the angels and the Spirit in a day the measure of which is fifty thousand years.”
There is no other verse in the Qur’an that tells us how long an “Allah’s day” is besides the verses listed above.
The problem is that even if we take the longer duration of 50,000 years for a day, then six days will add up to no more than 300,000 years. Of those, 4 x 50,000 = 200,000 years should be the time that Allah was creating the Earth and placing mountains on it. That, as an absolute number, is almost nothing compared to the around 4,500,000,000 years, which is the scientific estimate of Earth’s age. Given that mountains keep forming (they always do, they never stopped being formed), we should compare this large number, 4,500,000,000, against Qur’an’s 200,000 to see the magnitude of error. But even if we want to be generous and consider the initial period of Earth’s formation (without mountains, when the Earth’s surface was mainly molten rock), we still end up with an egregious error, comparing Qur’an’s 2 x 50,000 = 100,000 against around 500,000,000 in reality. And of course, if we consider the entire duration of the creation, then we must compare the Qur’an’s 300,000 against 13,700,000,000 years in reality. I will not even mention how ridiculous the Qur’an sounds if an “Allah’s day” is only 1,000 years (as 22:47 tells us), instead of 50,000. That’s called a “reality check” for the Qur’an, in absolute numbers.
But also in relative numbers, the conflict with science is not much easier to swallow. Whereas in the Qur’an the ratio of the creation of the Earth to the creation of the entire world (Earth and everything else) is 4 days / 6 days, i.e., 2/3, or ~0.666 (the symbol ~ means “approximately”), the true (scientific) value of the same ratio is the following number: 4,500,000,000 / 13,700,000,000 = ~0.328. That’s not even half of the Qur’anic ~0.666. Notice that this error — the relative one — is independent of how long a Qur’anic “day” is.
Given all the above data, we may now consider the following two theories (to explain the data):
Which of the two theories seems more plausible, dear Muslim reader? We must take into account that Allah is assumed to be infinitely wise, whereas Muhammad was illiterate. Regarding cosmology, Muhammad had the knowledge of his fellow ancient Arabs, who had some traditional beliefs that circulated in that region of the world, and which included the Jewish belief of a creation in six days. Given an infinitely wise mind on one hand, and an illiterate and uninspired one on the other hand, from which of the two minds would you expect such factual errors?
Notice also that, no matter who the true author of the Qur’an is, the above errors exist anyway. Whether Allah expressed them, or Muhammad, they constitute errors. Trying to explain them away with various arbitrary assumptions implies employing the unscientific attitude of first believing a theory as true, and then twisting the data and inventing new and arbitrary data in order to support the theory that you love so much. If you do that don’t bother talking about science please, because you don’t understand what it is.
To explain why the creation is reported in total disorder and disagreement with modern knowledge, theory #1 asserts that Allah was trying to please the Bedouins of Muhammad’s time. But would the oh-so-sensitive-in-cosmology ancient Bedouin feel disbelief against Muhammad if the Qur’an had said that stars were created before the Earth, that the creation lasted for as many “days” as are needed to agree with reality (i.e., current knowledge), and that the ratio of the duration of the creation of the Earth to the creation of the universe (“heaven”) was like ~1:3? What could go wrong with the Bedouins’ reaction to Muhammad, since they had already accepted such an incredible idea as that Muhammad was directly communicating with God? How can you be so sophisticated as to reject a revelation because of some numbers (which are just numbers anyway), and at the same time to be such an exemplar of naïveness and gullibility as to believe a man who tells you to reject your other gods and believe him because he talks to the only God? You can’t be extra smart and extra stupid at the same time, can you? Something doesn’t compute in theory #1.
To explain the data that we have from verses of the Qur’an that concern cosmology, and those from scientific observations, we have the following two theories:
If theory #1 is correct, then Allah surely enough succeeded in pleasing the illiterate Bedouins, but simultaneously succeeded in making young children of today “laugh their brains out” (as children say) with the stupidity and egregious errors of the Qur’anic “cosmology”.
Much fuss is made by Muslims today about the supposed knowledge of “embryology” (the development of the embryo in the mother’s womb) in the Qur’an. They ask how Muhammad could possibly possess such knowledge, which, moreover, they believe is correct. This section argues that Muhammad could indeed possess such knowledge, which is actually incorrect, and — worse! — is stolen from (plagiarizes) the writings of Galen, a famous ancient Greek medical doctor.
First, let’s see what kind of “embryological” information is included in the Qur’an.
In verse 22:5, we read the following:
22:5 “O mankind! if ye are in doubt concerning the Resurrection, then lo! We have created you from dust, then from a drop of seed, then from a clot, then from a little lump of flesh shapely and shapeless, that We may make (it) clear for you. [...]”
A similar description unfolds in verses 23:12–14:
23:12 “Verily We created man from a product of wet earth;”
23:13 “Then placed him as a drop (of seed) in a safe lodging;”
23:14 “Then fashioned We the drop a clot, then fashioned We the clot a little lump, then fashioned We the little lump bones, then clothed the bones with flesh, and then produced it as another creation. So blessed be Allah, the Best of creators!”
The above verses are usually accompanied by the explanation that the Arabic word for “clot” is alaqa, which can also mean “a lump of blood”. This is brought as solid evidence of the deep Qur’anic knowledge on embryology, and the question asked is: “How could Muhammad possibly know all that?”
My suggestion to Muslims is that they should stop asking this question, because the answer could be very, very embarrassing.
Muhammad could know very well what is described in 22:5 and 23:12–14 (which is wrong anyway, as we’ll soon see), in two different ways:
First, by direct observation. (This is the most embarrassing possibility for Muslims.) The ancient Islamic texts (the ahadith) describe several instances of horrible brutality performed to people by Muhammad — not directly by his own hand, but indirectly, by his “right hand” (his faithful Muslim men). I have talked extensively about those atrocities that reveal Muhammad’s brutal nature here, here, and here, so I won’t repeat them in this article. I will only mention one such case, in which the victim was a woman called Asma bint Marwan. She was a poet who wrote against Muhammad. In Muhammad’s code of ethics, if you insulted the self-proclaimed “Apostle of Allah” with words, you had to face the knife of one of his believers. Indeed, as described in ibn Ishaq:676, Asma bint Marwan was brutally murdered in her sleep by one of Muhammad’s religious zealots, while she had her five sons sleeping around her at home, one of them a baby suckling on her breast. Muhammad’s “right hand”, one by the name of Umayr, removed the baby from her breast and plunged his sword into her body. The next morning in the mosque, Muhammad, who was aware of the assassination, said: “You have helped Allah and His Apostle.” Umayr, obviously feeling remorse, said: “She had five sons; should I feel guilty?” “No,” Muhammad answered. “Killing her was as meaningless as two goats butting heads.” (!!!!!!)
If Muhammad thought that plunging a sword into a woman’s (and a mother’s!) body is “as meaningless as two goats butting heads”, then I don’t see why you, dear Muslim, regard it as “astonishing” that he knew what embryos look like. Indeed, an embryo looks like a blood clot (alaqa) only when you remove it by force from the woman’s uterus. But in reality the tiny embryo described in the 2nd stage of Qur’an’s verses 22:5 & 23:14 is not a bloody clot, but a collection of cells lacking blood, because the circulatory system hasn’t developed yet. The blood that Muhammad might have seen (if he opened up some other women’s bodies besides Asma bint Marwan’s) was the mother’s blood. This is an error that Allah shouldn’t have made, if Allah was indeed speaking in 22:5 & 23:14.
The second possibility for Muhammad’s source of knowledge is not as embarrassing as the previous one, but is still embarrassing. Specifically, the above Qur’anic verses sound eerily similar to a passage written four centuries earlier by the Greek medical doctor Galen (Γαληνός). Galen’s text follows on the left, Qur’an’s verses 23:13–14 on the right (ancient texts taken from this web page), and below them is the translation of each:
What I see is that both accounts divide the process of fetus formation into four stages. Qur’an’s stages are: (1) drop of seed (“nutfah”), (2) blood clot (“alaqa”), (3) little lump of flesh (“mudghah”), and (4) bones clothed with flesh (“another creation”). Galen’s stages are: (1) sperm form, (2) flesh-like with blood, (3) three main parts and a silhouette of the other parts, and (4) limbs (with bones) articulated, a fully formed child. There is another account of the “four stages” theory, given in verse 40:67 as follows: “He it is Who created you (1) from dust, then (2) from a drop (of seed) then (3) from a clot, then (4) bringeth you forth as a child,” Though the stages here differ, they remain four stages.
If two students of mine had given me the above texts in their exams, I would charge the one on the right for plagiarism and give him a big round zero (0) as a grade. His text sounds like a badly conceived summary, a caricature of the text on the left, which is more detailed, well thought-out, and well written. The author of the text on the left makes several references to his source (Hippocrates), which he names — as every scientific text should do — and even praises. In contrast, the author of the text on the right praises only himself (“So blessed be Allah, the Best of creators!”). What an immoral(*) show of bombastic arrogance! And what an enormous distance from what scientists today consider as morally correct scientific ethos!
Muslims make a lot of fuss about a certain medical doctor, Keith Moore, who, having been paid in the 1980’s by the Saudis in order to accept a position in an Arabic institution, claimed that modern embryology agrees with the four stages described in the Qur’an. Muslims speak of Moore as if he is the only scientist whose opinion matters. Never mind that there are thousands of other embryologists in the world, and that Moore himself rejected his early Islam-friendly opinions in a more recent book of his (after he returned to the West and stopped being paid in petro-dollars). What Muslims do not understand is that Moore’s earlier opinion did not support the Qur’an, but Galen, the ancient Greek doctor, who is the true author and originator of the idea of a four-stage embryonic development.
Interestingly, however, both Galen and — of course — the Qur’anic text that plagiarizes him are wrong regarding the first stage of the embryo. As every semi-literate person knows today, the first stage of the embryo is not the “form of the sperm” (or the “drop of seed” in Qur’anic parlance), but the woman’s fertilized ovum. Why do neither the Qur’an, nor of course its source, Galen, mention at all the woman’s ovum, which is just as important as the single sperm cell that fertilizes it?(*) Could it be because microscopes were developed only in the 17th century? But if Allah was the author of the Qur’an, he shouldn’t be hindered by the non-existence of microscopes! Don’t you agree? And don’t tell me again about those extra-sensitive Bedouins, because I’d accuse you of lower wit than even theirs. Would they really freak out if the Qur’an had said in 23:13 “Then We placed him as a pair of two seeds, from man and woman, in a safe lodging.” They didn’t freak out when Muhammad abolished their other gods; why should they do so upon hearing about “two seeds, from man and woman”? Don’t pretend to be dumb, my dear Muslim reader; you are intelligent, therefore you should be able to understand that Allah could talk in ways that would sound harmless to illiterate ancient Arabs, and at the same time make us unbelievers convert to Islam, because we would see immediately today that Muhammad’s information was revealed to him by a Higher Wisdom. Instead, the Qur’anic text is just as it should be if it were conceived of by an illiterate ancient Arab.
One question remains: if Muhammad plagiarized Galen, who lived four centuries before Muhammad, and since Muhammad was illiterate, how could Muhammad be aware of Galen’s theory of a four-stage embryonic development?
And yet, nothing remains a secret forever. In this page, the author of which is someone with the pen name of “Dr. Lactantius”, we read the following:
The numbers in square brackets refer to the sources of the above text, which the reader can examine after visiting the above-mentioned web page.
Whether the above is true or not, it certainly suggests a plausible way in which information from ancient Greek literature could have reached Muhammad, by way of hearsay, information which later Muhammad might have attributed to Allah, perhaps even genuinely believing that it comes from Allah, and not from his own mind. Yet that information is, as we saw, incomplete and inaccurate. Certainly it doesn’t look like the kind of “divine knowledge” that we’d expect from Allah.
So, given all the previous data, once again we have two theories to explain them:
As before, the question persists: given the evidence, and using your rational and objective judgment, which of the two theories appears more plausible to you?
Some verses of the Qur’an claim that all “fruits” of the earth, or living beings in general, exist in pairs: male and female. Some of those verses, although they obviously mean to talk about biological things (living beings) given the context in which they are embedded, are however so vague that — out of context — sound as if Allah is saying that all things (in the universe) come in pairs. Some Muslims grab the opportunity to claim that Allah must have meant things like matter & antimatter, pairs that have been discovered in quantum physics in the 20th century. This is a silly argument, logically argued against as follows: if Allah said “all things come in pairs” (without meaning all living beings, i.e., disregarding the context), then it should be all things; therefore it suffices to find one counter-example (something that does not belong to a pair) to invalidate the idea of “all things”. Indeed, as we’ll see, there are plenty of “things” in nature that do not belong to pairs. But even if we restrict the meaning to “all things biological”, i.e., all living beings, again we find that it’s not true that all living beings come in pairs of male and female. Let’s see the relevant verses (my emphasis):
13:3 “And He it is Who spread out the earth and placed therein firm hills and flowing streams, and of all fruits He placed therein two spouses (male and female). [...]”
36:34 “And We have placed
therein gardens of the date-palm and grapes, and We have caused springs
of water to gush forth therein,”
43:10 “Who made the earth a
resting-place for you, and placed roads for you therein, that haply ye
may find your way;”
51:48 “And the earth have We
laid out, how gracious is the Spreader (thereof)!”
Now let’s examine each verse carefully.
Verse 13:3 talks explicitly about “fruits”. Now, if “fruits” is meant literally, i.e., apples, pears, peaches, bananas, kiwis, etc., then this verse is evidently wrong, because none of the fruits just mentioned is either male or female. (When you eat an apple, you eat an apple, not a “male apple” or a “female apple” — I hope that’s obvious and part of common knowledge.) And if “fruits” is used figuratively to mean “plants” (by a figure of speech called “synecdoche”, as when we say “brain” to mean “very intelligent person”), then verse 13 is wrong again, because there are some plants that are neither male nor female; they don’t multiply sexually, but asexually, through a biological process called “apomixis”. Some such plants are extremely common. One of them is the humble dandelion (see picture), which, being so widespread throughout the world, must have existed just under Muhammad’s nose — except that he couldn’t “sniff” the fact that that lowly plant would stand as evidence against his verse 3 of sura 13.
The humble dandelion, Qur’an’s asexual nightmare
So we see that no matter which way we interpret “fruits” in 13:3, we find that verse to be contradicting reality. Either Allah was sloppy when he said “all fruits” come in pairs of male and female — a sloppiness not befitting an all-wise being like Allah — or somebody who had a very superficial knowledge of nature came up with 13:3 (guess who).
Moving on to verses 36:34–36, we see that (34) Allah talks about creating gardens with date-palm fruits, grapes, and waters, (35) for people to eat and not toil to make, asking them to be thankful, (36) glorifying himself for having created all the sexual pairs, those that grow out of the earth, i.e., the plants. This of course logically does not imply that all plants are sexual. Then the phrase “and of themselves” has been interpreted as referring to people by some interpreters, or referring to animals by other interpreters, because the animals move by themselves (well, at least most of them, barring some aquatic species that really behave like plants). Then follows “and of that which they don’t know.” The pronoun “they” here must refer to people, who can be the only ones who don’t know. But the word “that” has been used by some Muslims as a reference to such exotic things as subatomic particles, matter and anti-matter, and so on. This is a completely arbitrary interpretation, because all the discussion (the context) from 36:34 up to this point was about things of the earth; why should Allah make suddenly a conceptual jump and talk about nuclear physics? The phrase would then be incoherent, and you wouldn’t want your Allah to think incoherently. The phrase “and of that which they don’t know” is called a blanket statement, which means that it’s so general and vague that it can cover anything that can be forced under it. Why should our minds go to nuclear physics and not to ideas much more accessible to Muhammad, such as that there are living beings that come in male–female pairs and which Muhammad didn’t know of? If I were in Muhammad’s position, thinking shrewdly, and knowing that I know next to nothing, I would think that there might be other living things besides those that I know, so I should cover that possibility with a blanket statement, so that my “revelation” does not become obsolete by later knowledge. Why is this explanation not as satisfying as the other one, if we don’t already have the theory that Allah is the originator of the Qur’an? Objectively, either of the two interpretations seems equally plausible. And, frankly, if Allah’s purpose was to persuade us, present-day unbelievers, why did he use such an ambiguous and vague phrase? “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, says a dictum. To claim that “that which they don’t know” refers to nuclear physics is an extraordinary claim; the ambiguous phrase in 36:36 is anything but extraordinary evidence to support it.
An exactly parallel argumentation holds for verses 43:10–12: there is not enough evidence (let alone an extraordinary one) that the phrase “created all the pairs” refers to anything other than the male–female pairs that Muhammad could witness.
As for the verses of sura 51, although the context is again the earth (in 51:48), we read: “all things We have created by pairs” in 51:49. This is false no matter which way the word “things” is interpreted. If “things” refers to anything in the world, then there are many things that do not exist in pairs. I do not see the paired counterpart of the Grand Canyon, for example, or of hydrogen, gravity, Mars, Saturn, Sun, the real number π, the imaginary number i, the human feeling of sarcasm, and a host of other “things” that are one-of-a-kind. And if “things” refers to living beings, and therefore “pairs” refers to the male–female notion, then first, Allah is being sloppy in his language once again, saying “things” when he means “living beings”; and second, he is wrong, because there are plenty of living beings that do not come in pairs of male–female, such as the bacteria, many protists, fungi, and among animals, the rotifers — all of which are types of beings that escape the attention of someone who has only a superficial knowledge of the biological world.
As usual, two theories are available:
Which of the two theories makes better sense, explaining best the data?
There is a Qur’anic verse the context of which is not — strictly speaking — biology, but something like aviation and aerodynamics. But, lacking such a specific section in this article, and since the issue concerns birds, I’ll comment on it in the context of biology. So, there is the following verse in the Qur’an that explains to us what makes birds fly, or rather, who helps them be suspended in midair:
16:79 “Do they not look at the birds, held poised in the midst of (the air and) the sky? Nothing holds them up but (the power of) Allah. Verily in this are signs for those who believe.”
The author of the Qur’an makes a very strange statement, indeed. He doesn’t seem to know what it is that holds birds “in the midst of (the air and) sky”! Clueless, he attributes that to the power of Allah. But the answer is known to anyone who has a most rudimentary understanding of the medium of air (which was not well-understood in antiquity — it was conceived as “nothing”), and of the body structure of birds. And it doesn’t take scientific knowledge to understand the answer. Here, we prefer to give a “no comments” answer, by means of a short video that uses the words of a Bob Dylan song:
A wild duck stays nearly still in midair.
Of course, there is more to the answer than just “The wind blows, so the birds are lifted by it.” There is a bit of biology needed to fully comprehend why birds can fly but we can’t, even if we flap our arms fast, or even if we attach wing-like structures to our arms. The biological knowledge is that the bones of birds are hollow, which gives them a very small weight-to-volume ratio, and that’s what makes them lift themselves easily in the air, even if there is no wind blowing. But one doesn’t need to have such sophisticated knowledge to know that no God is needed to keep the birds poised in midair. The author of this text, having access to classes of school children of ages between 10 and 12 in the USA, asked several of them: “What makes birds fly in the air? Why can’t we fly, but they can?” The following answers were noteworthy (children’s answers in red, author’s further questioning in blue):
Perhaps the conclusion from the above discussions is that the less one knows, the more likely it is that one will see the flying of birds as an act of God. An illiterate person is prone to seeing God’s interventions everywhere, in every inexplicable phenomenon.
The confusion of identifying air with nothing seems to have pervaded ancient thought. A notable exception was ancient Greek thinkers, who elevated air into one of the four fundamental elements of nature (fire, air, water, earth — the theory of Empedocles, with ether adder later as a fifth element by Aristotle), and even earlier, as the only fundamental element (Anaximenes, 6th C. BC). But, generally, non-philosophers and the laypeople thought that what stands above solid objects on earth is nothing (see the book: “Nothing: A Very Short Introduction”, by Frank Close). This confusion lasted until the times of Galileo (17th C. AD) and the invention of the barometer. In summary, whereas philosophers and thinkers in general could understand the notion of air filling up space, laypeople and especially the illiterate among them identified the air with nothing.
That seems to explain the Qur’anic phrase: “Nothing holds them [birds] up” in verse 16:79 under the theory that the author of the Qur’an was Muhammad. But given the theory that Allah is the author of the Qur’an, verse 16:79 is hard to explain. Still, an attempt can be made, claiming that “(the power of) Allah” that holds birds in midair is the design of body structure of birds, which can be attributed ultimately to Allah. But, by this logic, everything can be attributed ultimately to Allah, so there is no reason why the reader of the Qur’an is asked to admire specifically the suspension of birds in the air in 16:79, and is expected to discover Allah in it.
Of importance is not only what the Qur’an talks about in the realm of biology, but also what it fails to talk about. What it omits is just as revealing as what it includes.
You see, if a knowledgeable individual examines the biological life of our planet today, he or she will be impressed more by what cannot be seen by the bare eye, rather than by what can be seen.
If we examined the living beings of Earth we should conclude that Earth is a planet inhabited primarily by bacteria, and on which some larger forms of life also exist.
The most stunning observation is that if we could put all the bacteria on one scale of a balance, and all other forms of life (animals, trees, etc.) on the other scale, then the balance would tip toward the side of the bacteria. The total mass of bacteria weighs more than all plants and animals put together!
The reason is that one gram of soil contains an average of 40,000,000 bacteria, and one milliliter of fresh water contains an average of 1,000,000 bacteria. The total number of bacteria of our planet is about 5 nonillion (5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000), forming a biomass that exceeds the biomass of all plants and animals (source).
But the Qur’an is completely mute regarding such stunning facts.
Why? Why isn’t the existence of bacteria even hinted at by the author of the Qur’an?
Could it be because the author of the Qur’an couldn’t see them?
No!... That can’t be true! Right? Because if the author of the Qur’an couldn’t see the all-important bacteria of our planet, then he couldn’t have been Allah. He must have been Muhammad; Muhammad, the illiterate nomad, who couldn’t imagine microscopes even in his wildest dreams, and thus couldn’t ever know about what he couldn’t see!
Why doesn’t the Qur’an mention the DNA, this molecule that turns out to be all-important in biology, and essentially determines how life is on our planet? Don’t give me again the dumb old argument about those extra-sensitive Bedouins, because you’ll force me to come up with a verse that would sound innocent to them, and yet reveal the DNA structure to us. I’ve done similar things numerous times in this text so far, so you wouldn’t risk insisting that I can’t do it again, would you? And I’m not even anywhere near as wise as Allah. Surely Allah could do it a zillion times better than me. So, tell me please, how can the Qur’an tell us anything interesting about biology when it omits referring even indirectly to the most important biological concept, the molecule that defines life, the DNA?
Why doesn’t the Qur’an mention anything about animals or plants that Muhammad couldn’t have known? Why, for example, doesn’t it mention the marsupials, such as the kangaroos? Could it be because the marsupials live in faraway continents, like Australia and South America, and Muhammad knew as much about kangaroos as kangaroos knew about Muhammad? And it’s not just the marsupials. Why does the Qur’an fail to refer even indirectly to anything like penguins (Antarctic, southern hemisphere), turkeys (North American), pumas (American), iguanas (Pacific), zebras (sub-Saharan), pandas (Chinese), eucalyptus trees (Australian), watermelons (sub-Saharan), bananas (Southeast Asian), tomatoes (South American), or potatoes (South American)? Instead, the Qur’an constantly talks about camels, dates, and grapes. Didn’t Allah know of any other animals and plants besides those that Muhammad could see? How “timeless” and “universal” can be a book the author of which does not give the slightest hint of fauna or flora that can be found outside of Arabia?
Why doesn’t the Qur’an refer even indirectly to the fact that living beings on Earth are not just plants and animals? Did you know that? There are living beings that are neither plants nor animals. Indeed, there are five “kingdoms” of living beings, of which the plants are one kingdom, and the animals another one; but there are three more kingdoms. One of them is the bacteria, mentioned earlier. A fourth kingdom is the protists, which include such tiny one-cell creatures as the amoeba and the paramecium, visible only with a microscope. (With the bare eye, a paramecium on a piece of glass looks like a barely visible dot, so tiny that you can’t understand it’s a living thing.) And the fifth kingdom is the fungi, which includes such things as the moulds and the mushrooms. Certainly Muhammad must have seen some mushrooms, but he knew so little that he couldn’t understand that the mushrooms are not plants. (Mushrooms lack chlorophyll, that’s why they’re not green; so they don’t synthesize nutrients from the sunlight — as plants do — but receive ready-made nutrients from decomposing organic material.) But Allah certainly knows that there are other living beings besides plants and animals on Earth. If the Qur’an was given to Muhammad by Allah, why does it sound as if Allah knows only about animals and plants?
I could continue like this with more examples, but I don’t want to tire you. The less you know about the biological world, the more you think that the Qur’an is fine in what it says about earthly biology. That’s because the less you know the more your mind is similar to the illiterate Muhammad’s mind, so the more you agree with him. On the contrary, the more you learn about biology, the better you see the gap between the simplistic, childish view of the Qur’an, and the complex reality. The more you know, the more distant your mind becomes from Muhammad’s mind, and the closer it gets to the all-wise Allah’s Mind. Don’t judge the Qur’an as an ignorant, illiterate person. Learn first, see how much there is in this world, see how much is omitted from the Qur’an, see how many miles away the complex reality is from the Qur’anic 10-year-old’s worldview, and only then issue your judgment. If you are ignorant and untrained in science, do me a favor please: simply close your arrogant mouth, open up your mind to scientific knowledge, and start reading and learning about the world and reality.
Suppose you spread a piece of dough on a table. You make the dough quite thin and flat — even flatter than those with which they make the Arabic pita, for example — and then you place a book on top of it. Assume that the dough is larger than the book, so there is some part of the dough that the book doesn’t cover.
Now you start pushing the book, very slowly, in one direction. What will you observe?
If the dough is neither too sticky (avoid adding butter), nor too slippery (avoid too much flour), it will remain flat under the book and move together with it, but it will be wrinkled in front of the book, in the direction of motion; behind the book, it might break up, so you’ll see holes forming in it.
That’s very similar to what happens in tectonic plate movements on Earth. The dough under the book is the tectonic plate. The wrinkles in front of the book (“front” in the direction of motion) are the mountains. And the holes behind the book are the volcanoes. In reality, of course, there is nothing corresponding to the book. The whole tectonic plate is the moving piece of dough. Where it meets other tectonic plates, mountains are formed; and where it breaks up, distancing itself from yet other tectonic plates, volcanoes erupt.
The tectonic plates of Earth
Now, at the points where mountains and volcanoes form, there are frequent and strong earthquakes, because the earth is unstable there. Everybody, I suppose, is familiar with the violent earthquakes of mountainous Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Tibet, Nepal, and so on, due to the strong collision of the Indian subcontinent against the rest of Asia; a collision that’s responsible for the formation of the Himalayas, which are still being formed and raised. The same is true in the Andes of South America, another mountainous and quake-prone region. In general, where there are mountains in formation, there are earthquakes.
Each black dot on this map is a place where an
earthquake occurred in the past century (British Geological Survey ©
Not all mountains shake, but if you want to avoid earthquakes, a good rule of thumb is: stay away from mountains. Go to Australia, for example, which stands in the middle of a tectonic plate, the Australian Plate; virtually no quakes there. Or go to Siberia, another vast flat expanse of land: no mountains, no earthquakes. Or go to the African Sahara, the Amazon Basin in South America, the Eastern U.S. and Canada, and so on — just take a look at the previous map if you want to find a safe place.
What does the Qur’an tell us?
Exactly the opposite. According to Qur’anic wisdom, Allah placed the mountains on Earth so that the earth doesn’t shake! Seriously, that’s what the Holy Book of Islam says. Here:
31:10 “He created the heavens without any pillars that ye can see; He set on the earth mountains standing firm, lest it should shake with you;”
Just as you read it: Allah put the mountains on the earth so that the earth doesn’t shake with “you” (the believers). In other words, in the Qur’an we have the following relation of cause-and-effect: the cause is the mountains; the effect is the stability of the earth. Does this comply with our modern knowledge of plate tectonics?
Modern science (as explained earlier with the analogy of the dough) tells us that the relation of cause and effect is different: the cause is the movement of tectonic plates; the effect is the formation of mountains (“wrinkles” on the Earth’s crust) and of course of volcanoes (which the Qur’an seems to be blissfully unaware of — I wonder why! ), an activity naturally accompanied by earthquakes. Thus, the mountains are not “stabilizing factors” that exist due to Allah’s benevolence to human beings (“lest [the earth] should shake with you”), but necessary and unavoidable results of tectonic plate motion. Just as the wrinkles of the dough, mountains will still form whether Allah likes it or not — unless Allah had placed us in an entirely different universe, with a wholly new and different set of laws of physics. But with our laws of physics, Allah has no choice: once there is tectonic plate motion, “wrinkles” will be created no matter what. And those “wrinkles” do not stop the earth from shaking, as mentioned earlier and as concluded from data, which show that the most earthquake-prone regions of the earth are the mountainous areas that exist at the borders of tectonic plate collision (see maps).
Of course, there are also the “old” mountains (such as the American Appalachians), which used to exist at old borders of tectonic plate collision, but after millions and millions of years the plates changed shape, and the old mountains are now found resting in non-earthquake prone regions. But that again doesn’t mean that old mountains are there in order to prevent earthquakes. It simply means that the mountains are “forgotten” now by earthquakes, weathering out slowly due to air and water erosion — just as wrinkles of the dough that you created in the past and then left alone, moving the book in a different direction.
Once again, two theories are available:
Which of the two theories makes more sense? Could Allah ever “not understand” what the cause and effect is? (Is there anything that Allah “doesn’t understand”?) Could Allah not know how volcanoes are intimately related to mountain formation? Or would it be more reasonable to assume that Muhammad was the one who reversed the relation of cause and effect (“putting the cart in front of the horse”), and of course neglected volcanoes because either he had never heard of them, or if he had then they were something entirely remote and “other-worldly” in his mind? It is up to you, dear Muslim reader, to decide — but objectively please.
At this point we come to examine claims — regarding the scientific value of the Qur’an — that sound more like looking at clouds and seeing shapes of objects in them; i.e., using the imagination to concoct information that is not actually said in the text. We already saw at least one such example: it was when the phrase “and of that which they don’t know” (36:36) was interpreted by some Muslims as supposedly referring to subatomic particles! (See it.) Here we’ll witness another example in which the Qur’anic words and phrases are twisted so that their meaning matches some knowledge that is claimed to be modern and scientific (though it is not).
The relevant verses are 25:53 and 55:19–20, which talk about “two seas”. Specifically:
25:53 “And He has set free the two seas; one is fresh and palatable and the other is salty and bitter; and He has put between them a formidable, inviolable barrier.”
55:19–20 “He let free the two seas, they meet together; He has built a barrier between them, they do not transgress.”
Verses 55:19–20 sound like a repetition of 25:53, except that they are less detailed: there is no mention of salty or fresh water. Perhaps verse 35:12 is also relevant, because it talks about salty and bitter seas, though not about a barrier between them:
35:12 “And the two seas are not alike: this, fresh, sweet, good to drink, this (other) bitter, salt.”
The above verses, and more specifically the first two, have been interpreted by seeing-shapes-in-the-clouds Muslims as referring to the following natural phenomenon: when the fresh water of a river flows into the salty water of a sea, a “barrier” of sorts is formed between the two bodies of water that have different salinity, a phenomenon that can be easily seen from above (e.g., a hill — see picture, below) and examined from up close (e.g., with a boat).
A river flowing into the sea. The border of the difference in salinity is clearly visible at the lower part of the picture.
Muslims love to speak in such terms: “Modern Science has discovered that in places where two different seas meet, there is a barrier between them. This barrier divides the two seas so that each sea has its own temperature, salinity and density.” This is otherwise known as the pycnocline in scientific jargon. Sometimes they interpret the Qur’anic verses as referring to the pycnocline where river meets sea, and other times where sea meets sea, such as the Mediterranean Sea meeting the Atlantic Ocean.
Except that... there are some holes in this reasoning. First of all, verse 25:53 cannot refer to a sea-meets-sea situation, such as the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, because it talks about one of the two being “fresh and palatable”. That should be the Atlantic, since it is the one with slightly lower salinity than the Mediterranean.(*) I advise Muslims not to drink from the water of the Atlantic to test whether it is fresh and palatable! Verse 25:53 can only refer to a river-meets-sea situation. But then, we don’t need “modern science” to tell us about it! The phenomenon can be readily seen, as mentioned, from atop a hill, and can be examined from up close. Ancient sailors knew about it. Aristotle, who lived 1000 years before Muhammad, made reference to it in these words: “The drinkable, sweet water, then, is light and is all of it drawn up: the salt water is heavy and remains behind [emphasis added].” Pearl divers in the Arabian Gulf also knew about it. In the salty waters of the Arabian Gulf there are springs of fresh water that lay about 4 to 6 meters below sea level. One such famous spring is `Ain Ighmisaâ which lies to the north-east of the city of Jubail, in Saudi Arabia. The Nile delta is so close to Muhammad’s old lands. Why do we need “modern science” to know about this phenomenon? And why shouldn’t Muhammad have heard of it, just as he had heard of so many other things in his life (including the works of Galen, as we saw earlier)?
As for verses 55:19–20, they sound like a reminder of verse 25:53, but as if the author forgot to mention the difference in salinity. Why should 55:19–20 refer to the Atlantic and the Mediterranean? This is where Muslims see shapes in clouds. It is a completely arbitrary interpretation to make reference specifically to the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. If such arbitrariness is fair game, then by the same token, I propose that 55:19–20 refers to the two bodies of water (or “water”) that ancient peoples thought that exist: the water of the sea, and the “water” of the sky. (Because the sky is blue, and water comes down from it when it rains, ancient peoples — such as the Hebrews, who say so in their Torah — thought that waters lie above the heavenly dome, and that God separated “the waters above” from “the waters below”.) The two “seas” meet (apparently only) at the horizon, where the sky “meets” the sea. This interpretation of 55:19–20 seems no more arbitrary than the Muslims’ favorite Atlantic + Mediterranean interpretation.
In addition, the said barrier is neither formidable nor inviolable. Soon after the fresh water meets the salty one, it mixes with it. (If it didn’t — if the barrier was truly formidable and inviolable — then the river waters would extend indefinitely into the sea and eventually replace it!) The barrier appears as “inviolable” to sailors because there is a constant flow of fresh water from the river. Before the old fresh water has the time to mix with the salty one, new fresh water arrives, and that’s what creates the illusion of a “barrier”. The latter is merely a region a few feet or meters wide (depending on the speed of the river water) where the two waters do get mixed.
Once again we see the same pattern: knowledge that was already known in antiquity (cf. the stages of an embryo) is presented by Muslims as newly discovered by “modern science”. If Allah wanted to impress us with knowledge of the seas and oceans, why didn’t he mention something that ancient sailors (of Muhammad’s time) couldn’t possibly have known? Why didn’t he say something like “And I made the sea so deep that even the tallest mountain can fit in it.” (Altitude of Mt. Everest: 8,848 m; depth of Pacific Ocean at the Marianna Trench: 10,994 m.) Or: “And in the depths of the oceans I put creatures larger than the elephant. I allowed the largest animal to live in the sea.” (The blue whale is the largest animal — not just of our times, but among all animals that have ever existed —source.) Why do we get from the author of the Qur’an only information that was known to people of Muhammad’s times?
Muslims who try hard to unearth “science” in the Qur’an have come up with the following claim, based on verse 96:15–16:
We see that two of the three well-known and accepted translators (Yusuf Ali and Pickthal) have translated the Arabic word ناصية as “forelock”, whereas the third one (Shakir) translated it as “forehead”.
The claim made by Muslims is that, whether “forelock” or “forehead”, verse 96:15–16 says that Allah will seize a certain liar by the front of the head; and that modern neuroscience has discovered that lies indeed originate in the frontal lobe of the brain (the prefrontal cortex in particular), which is situated behind the forehead! How could Muhammad ever know such a modern scientific finding! Ergo, the divine origin of the Qur’an is proven.
I’ll skip the moot point about what modern neuroscience has discovered about lies, because although some research shows that the frontal lobe plays a pivotal role in dealing with lies, there is also research showing that when the frontal lobe (specifically the anterior prefrontal cortex) is inhibited, the processing of lies improves (e.g., see here); which means, roughly, that with the frontal lobe out of the way, our lying ability gets better!; as well as other research showing that the entire brain participates when lying, not just the frontal lobe. But, even though neuroscience hasn’t come up with a final verdict yet, for the sake of argument, I’ll accept that the frontal lobe is the area of the brain that deals with lies, and I’ll examine the rest of the claim.
So, let’s see. I said that the Arabic word used in the Qur’an is: ناصية , and that it means “forelock”. Every well-educated Arabic speaker, and especially an Arab linguist, will tell you that ناصية means only “forelock” in the Qur’an, never “forehead”. (The “forehead” in Arabic is جبين , a very different word; as to why Shakir translated ناصية as “forehead”, see below for a possible explanation.) But what is a “forelock”? Here is a picture of one:
A typical forelock: the lock of hair falling over the forehead, usually of horses.
That’s what a “forelock” is: a lock of hair that partially covers the top-front of the face; nothing more, nothing less. In Modern Arabic, the word “forelock” (ناصية) can be used in a metaphorical sense, when saying, e.g., “the forelock of the tribe”, meaning “the most honored man in the tribe”; or: “the forelock of the language”, meaning “someone who is very clever in dealing with language”; etc. But that’s Modern Arabic, which has evolved from the classic language and has added meanings to words. In the Classic Arabic of the Qur’an, ناصية means only literally the forelock as shown in the picture, above.
And why does Allah (or is it Muhammad?) say that he will seize the liar by his forelock?
Because back in ancient Arabia it was a custom to grab horses by their forelocks and move them around. Even slaves could be guided like that. Grabbing someone or something by the forelock was a gesture that showed domination: the one who grabbed an animal or person like that was in a dominating position over that animal or person.
But that’s only the general cultural background. There is a specific cultural background here, which we need to understand in order to see the origin of the strange verse 96:15–16. The entire sura 96 of the Qur’an, which is very short (only 19 verses, created when Muhammad was in Makka) was “revealed” in order to condemn a specific person, Abu Jahl, who had a feud with Muhammad. Let me repeat this: Muhammad had a feud, a long-standing quarrel with Abu Jahl, a man who hated Muhammad and did nasty things to him. Then comes (supposedly) Allah, who sides with Muhammad, revealing the 19-verse-long sura 96 to him, which condemns Abu Jahl, threatening him that if he continues with his lies he will be grabbed by the forelock, like a horse or slave, and will face “the guards of the Hell” (96:18). (So much for the timelessness and eternal validity of the Qur’an, sura 96 of which is devoted to Muhammad’s personal feuds and problems, which ended 14 centuries ago.) How do we know all this, about Abu Jahl? Because the story is recounted in a hadith by Sahih Muslim. Here it is:
As we see, the entire sura 96 of the Qur’an is included in this hadith. Interestingly, the above hadith tells us that the last phrase of 96:19 (“But prostrate thyself and draw near [unto Allah]”) was not given by Muhammad but was added later by Ubaidullah! People felt free, back then, to make additions to the Qur’anic text. So much for the supposition that the Qur’an has been unaltered, directly given by Allah and only by Allah.
And why did Shakir translate the word ناصية as “forehead”? Most probably because he felt that a forelock cannot be literally lying and sinful. Shakir didn’t understand the poetic use of the adjectives “lying, sinful” when referring to a lock of hair, and didn’t want the verse to sound silly in its English translation. But, in my opinion, it is not silly at all to say that a forelock is lying and sinful; it can be said “by poetic license”.
In summary: the Arabic word ناصية means “forelock” and only “forelock” in the Classic Arabic language of the Qur’an, and has nothing to do with neuroscience and modern knowledge about areas of the brain that become active when telling lies. Attributing such wild interpretations to old Arabic words can only be the result of a desperate attempt to take the data, reinterpret them, and make them fit to our cherished theories — a wholly unscientific attitude. Whoever does this, shows a total lack of understanding of how science works.
It is a well-known fact that ancient peoples could not understand where the thoughts come from, which part of the body it is that does the thinking. Some ancient peoples, such as the Babylonians, Assyrians, Etruscans, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans, thought that the seat of thoughts is the liver (source)! However, more widespread and common was the idea that the seat of thoughts and of emotions is the heart. Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher who lived 1000 years before Muhammad, thought that the heart is the seat of intelligence, whereas the brain is a cooling chamber for the blood (source). So also believed the ancient Egyptians, who, in preparing the dead body for mummification, they removed the brain as a useless “stuffing” of the cranial cavity, whereas they concentrated their efforts in treating properly the heart, as the ancient historian Herodotus informs us (Histories, Book 2). Still, not all ancients were totally clueless. For example, Hippocrates, the most respected doctor of the antiquity, correctly thought that the seat of intelligence is the brain (source). But the predominant view was that thoughts and emotions are produced by the heart. Such views found their way into the English language, in which we have expressions such as “to memorize by heart”, or “it breaks my heart”, as well as words such as “heartfelt”.
I suppose every educated person living in the 21st century understands why the ancient peoples were so confused about the heart. When something suddenly frightens us, when suddenly we become very angry, or when we see (or imagine) the person we are deeply in love with, our hearts start beating faster, and we feel the faster and harder beating in our chests. But why? Very simple:
But the ancients could not know all this, because they ignored the dependence of the brain on oxygen, and hence on blood. When the brain thinks or feels anything (such as excitement, fear, anger, love, etc.), no part of it moves at all, so we don’t “feel” the brain. But it causes the heart to move faster (for the reason just explained), and that is what ancient people — who lacked modern knowledge — observed.
Now, guess what: the author of the Qur’an speaks exactly like an ancient person who thought that the seat of thoughts and of feelings is the heart! There are over 150 verses in various suras of the Qur’an that tell us that people think and feel with their hearts! And there is not a single verse telling us that the seat of thoughts and emotions is the brain (barring 96:15–16, which, as explained just previously, in §4.1, has to do with forelocks, and nothing to do with brains). Since the number of Qur’anic verses that refer to the heart and the chest as the seat of thoughts and emotions is too large, I will list here only a few of them, which are indicative enough (I chose the translation that is easiest to understand, but all translations say essentially the same thing; words in parentheses are inserted by the translator; I only emphasized the relevant words):
3:29 “Say: ‘Whether ye hide what is in your hearts or reveal it, Allah knows it all; [...]’ ” (Translator: Yusuf Ali)
3:103 “[...] and remember the favor of Allah on you when you were enemies, then He united your hearts so by His favor you became brethren; [...]” (Translator: Shakir)
11:5 “Lo! now they fold up their breasts that they may hide (their thoughts) from Him. At the very moment when they cover themselves with their clothing, Allah knoweth that which they keep hidden and that which they proclaim. Lo! He is Aware of what is in the breasts (of men).” (Translator: Pickthal)
16:106 “He who disbelieves in Allah after his having believed, not he who is compelled while his heart is at rest on account of faith, but he who opens his breast to disbelief-- on these is the wrath of Allah, and they shall have a grievous chastisement.” (Translator: Shakir)
22:46 “Have they not traveled in the land so that they should have hearts with which to understand, or ears with which to hear? For surely it is not the eyes that are blind, but blind are the hearts which are in the breasts.” (Translator: Shakir)
This last verse (22:46) is very revealing about which the seat of thinking is according to the Qur’anic author: “hearts with which to understand”, he says. And then, so as to dismiss any doubt about what he means by “hearts” (because someone with our modern knowledge might claim that “heart” in ancient Arabic meant also the “brain”), he tells us where the hearts are: “the hearts which are in the breasts(*)”!
How could the author of the Qur’an speak in ways that betray the total ignorance of the ancient world about where the seat of thinking, understanding, intelligence, and feelings is? Can that author ever be Allah? Does it not make so much more sense to conclude that we hear the voice of the 7th-century illiterate warlord of Arabia?
5. What the Author of the Qur’an Never Heard of
In the previous sections on Cosmology (§1) and Biology (§2), several concepts were mentioned that the Qur’anic author seems to have no idea that they exist. The examples of such concepts in Cosmology (and Astronomy) are so many that listing them here could fill an entire page (what with satellites, asteroids, comets, nebulae, neutron stars, black holes, galaxies, supernovae, globular clusters, open clusters, dark matter, dark energy, the expansion of the universe, the Big Bang, and on, and on...); and in Biology, examples of conspicuously absent concepts are the DNA, the cells, the bacteria, fungi, protists, dinosaurs, evolution by natural selection, mitosis, meiosis, any of thousands of animals and plants that are not found in Arabia, and a lot more. But there are other concepts that are missing from the Qur’an and do not belong to the scientific domains examined so far. Some such concepts are:
Why does the author of the Qur’an seem to know nothing about ice? Just put yourself in Muhammad’s position; would he ever be able to see ice, given the location of the world in which he spent his life waging wars? Not only would he be unable to see ice; he would be unable to imagine it even in his wildest dreams. If the author of the Qur’an is Muhammad, this explains perfectly the absence of any reference to ice. But if the author is Allah, why did He not mention it, even indirectly? Something like “solid water” would be enough to eliminate all this discussion about who the author of the Qur’an is. Why did Allah allow us to observe such serious omissions in his “perfect” book? How “perfect” is a book that has omissions, of any kind?
In the Qur’an, Allah speaks about “unbelievers” all the time. But it seems that the unbelievers for Allah always believe in some god or gods. If they are neither Christians nor Jews, then they must be polytheists. The possibility that there can be people who do not believe in any god does not seem to cross Allah’s mind. And yet, today the atheists and all those who are not affiliated to any religion (without necessarily stating they are atheists) constitute a sizable percent of the world’s population (from 10% to 22% according to this source). There are also the agnostics, who answer the question about whether any god exists by: “I don’t know”. Why did Allah have such a restricted understanding of what people’s beliefs about the supernatural can be?
Hurricanes, cyclones, and tornados, do not occur in Arabia. Should we be surprised that there is not a single mention to such weather phenomena in the Qur’an? By now, I think that’s exactly what we’d expect: if something never appears in Arabia (or did not appear, anyway, back in Muhammad’s time — such as atheism) we can be quite sure that it won’t be mentioned in the timeless and eternal book of Islam, which seems to have been written by a Bedouin for the Bedouins.
The previous are concepts found elsewhere in the world, but absent in Arabia. The reader should ponder why they are missing from the Qur’an. But there are other concepts, present everywhere in the world (including Arabia), but which a common, unsophisticated, and illiterate mind of the 7th C. AD could not understand, could not fathom, as they are beyond his mental horizon. Quite unsurprisingly, they, too, are missing from the Qur’an.
It is said that the fish lives its whole life completely unaware of the water. Something similar happened to people before the emergence of modern science, and especially before the times of Sir Isaac Newton. Why do all objects seem to “want” to go down? What is it that pulls us downwards? Today, we answer: “The force of gravity.” And we have a pretty good theory that explains it: it is Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, which is an improvement of Newton’s theory of gravity. But before the 17th century, nobody even thought of asking the question: “Why do all things fall down?” Like fish unaware of the water, people were unaware of gravity. The Qur’an seems to fall in that same category: blissfully unaware of something as ubiquitous and “normal” as gravity.
There seems to be no understanding of air in the Qur’an. Again, like the fish that does not perceive the water, most ancient people did not perceive the air as some “stuff”, but as “nothing”. This is made clear in verse 16:79 of the Qur’an, where its author marvels (or rather expects others to marvel) at how the birds are suspended “in the middle of the sky” (see §2.3): “Do they not see towards the birds controlled in the midst of the sky? None holds them up except Allah.” The fact that there is something that is called the air, which fills every “empty” space here on Earth, but becomes rarefied and soon ends completely if we move high enough above the Earth, never seems to be among the things the author of the Qur’an knows. Instead, rather than hinting at the end of the air and the existence of the vast void of the outer space, the Qur’anic author imagines “seven heavens” above the Earth (see §1.1), perhaps like blankets stacked on top of each other. (And Muhammad, in a hadith, even places the “throne of Allah” on top of the seventh heaven.) This is a very parochial, Earth-bound view of what exists “above” (or, more precisely, around) our planet.
Hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, fluorine, neon, sodium, magnesium, aluminium, silicon, phosphorus, sulfur, chlorine, argon, potassium, calcium, ... and the list goes on, up to uranium, the 92nd and last natural element. Of these, only a few are mentioned in the Qur’an, such as sulfur (as a basic ingredient of the environment for unbelievers in hell), gold (as what the believers will be given in paradise — never mind what they’ll do with it), and iron (the stuff of swords — essential instruments of Islamic persuasion, by Muhammad’s own admission). But they are never mentioned as elements of nature; just as some materials, along with water, wood, or milk, which are not elementary but composite. One does not expect the Qur’an to be a chemistry textbook. But a text created by the All-Wise Allah is expected to make at least some vague reference to the fact that not all materials are complex and composite. The knowledge about elementary materials is completely missing from the book of eternal wisdom.
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