By Vexen Crabtree 2012
The Qur'an is mostly concerned with making statements about God and its followers and detractors, and does not comment frequently on matters that can be directly or indirectly approached scientifically. As the Qur'an was written several hundred years after the Bible, it is of course makes far fewer blunders. But nonetheless, despite the fact that humanity had developed its knowledge of astronomy, the Qur'an makes many of the exact same errors that Christianity makes: especially with regards to the Earth being centralized at the center of the cosmos.
Qur'an 13:2, 31:10: "Allah is He Who raised the heavens without any pillars that you can see". At first glance this may be read as simple mythology; it isn't saying there are really pillars holding up the heavens. Hence, the correct doctrine that the Earth is a planet orbiting the sun with no particular place "above" the earth, is compatible. However, it says without pillars that you can see. This means there are pillars you can't see. Perhaps, a force such as gravity? There is no such force - the heavens aren't held up in any way at all; gravity formed the Earth - "the heavens" is simply our view of the universe's stars. Although this verse is not a direct contradiction of science, it was surely written by someone who didn't know what the structure of the Universe really was, or, by someone who writes poor analogies!
Qur'an 7:54, 13:3, 91:1-4: "He brings the night as a cover over the day". This is simply wrong; darkness is the absence of light. The sun isn't 'concealed' - it is still there, burning brightly, but at night we are simply facing away from it on the Earth. Light is composed of photons with a frequency that our eyes are receptive to; there is no "cover" for the day, it is simply a period where light from the sun can't get around the far side of the Earth. The light is blocked by the Earth but in exactly the opposite way to a "cover", which goes above, for if you draw a line from the sun to the dark side of the Earth, the light-block is underneath our feet, not a cover. It is simply a bad analogy. This verse was written by someone who did not understand the physical properties of light and dark nor the positioning and motions of the sun and the Earth.
Qur'an 6:96-97 says that (1) God created the stars so that Humans could navigate at night time, (2) created night so humans could rest and (3) made the moon in order to calculate the months (also 10:5). Most of the logic here is backwards. Criticisms are: (1) The stars were always an incredibly confusing and poor method of navigation; us human beings have invented many better ways than the one God purportedly made! And it seems ridiculous that an entire universe of stars was created so that a fledgling species for a while could use them to steer boats. (2) We evolved to rest at night alongside all other animals - we adapted to night, rather than night being designed for us (consider animals that live at the poles, with completely different circadian patterns). (3) The months could be divided up according to star rhythms, or even just be counts of numbers of days; the division is arbitrary and not important. To state that the moon fulfils a non-existent requirement shows, like the other things mentioned in these verses, an intellectual shallowness and scientific ignorance on behalf of the author of those verses.
Comets chase devils away: The Qur'an contains dozens of verses that explain that devils sometimes sneak close to the earth to steal things, or, to listen in on things; such devils/jinn/evil spirits, are then chased away by bright flaming fires in the sky (sometimes translated as 'missiles'). The stars are also positioned in the 'near heavens' as guards, ready to be turned into such missiles. See Qur'an 15:16-18, 21:32, 37:10, 41:12, 67:5 and 72:8-9. In Arabian mythology it was commonly said that comets are fiery missiles chasing away devils; so the Quran's text on this matter merely results from the influence of local culture from the time of the founding of Islam. In reality, comets are not stars, and they're certainly not protectors of the Earth given the devastation that can be caused when large ones hit the ground.
The Earth Does Not Move: 35:41 says God holds the Earth and the Heavens still, so that they do not move. But this verse is simply completely wrong; the Earth orbits the sun, and the sun and all other stars are themselves moving in mobile galaxies. Nothing is fixed.
The Sun orbits the Earth: "And He it is Who has created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon, each in an orbit floating" (Qur'an 21:33). This is affirmed in 14:33 and 36:38-40. Less directly, 91:1-2 says that the moon follows the sun. This only makes sense if you think that the sun and moon both orbit the Earth.
Stars are in the "near" heaven: See 37:6-8 and 41:12. The visible stars are not in any "near heaven" but spread throughout the whole universe, near and far. The author of this verse did not appreciate the true scale of the universe, nor knew where stars are.
The Earth is Flat:
18:84-86,89-90 tells the story of a traveller who first travels to the extreme West, where he finds the sun setting in a muddy spring, and then, he travels to the extreme East to the point where it rises from, and it rises upon a particular people who are stationed there. Needless to say, this story is quite confused. The sun wouldn't fit in a muddy pool, and certainly doesn't set into one! Nor is there any special people above whom the sun rises because it stays put, and we all take turns to face it as the Earth spins. A story in the Hadiths confirms this; Sahih Bukhari, vol. 4, book 54:421 has Muhammad explain that the sun may one day not get permission to rise in the East, and darkness will fall over the whole Earth. This is rubbish; the only way for the sun not to rise is for the Earth to stop spinning. In which case, only half the Earth will be without sunlight - the other half will be in permanent daytime. It seems lucky for Muhammad, when he dictated the Qur'an, that God also thought the Earth was flat!
To pray facing Mecca only makes true sense if the command was written by those who think the world is flat. On the surface of a sphere, only those in the immediate vicinity can really "face" a location. Everyone else is staring out to space or must angle themselves downwards in a very strange manner which no Muslims hold to be the correct way. See: How to Pray in Islam, According to the Qur'an: 6. Quran 2:144-9: Facing Mecca - A Nonsensical Instruction That Only Makes Practical Sense on a Flat Earth.
Qur'an 78:6 says the world is a "wide" expanse. It fails to mention that it is actually more like a spherical one. Likewise many verses like 15:19 are often translated as saying the world is "spread out" or "flat".
Things go 'up' into heaven - 57:4. Things actually go "up" into space.
36:40 warns us that the sun and moon both float in orbits; however, rather than spread confusion and error, the Qur'an could have explained to people the truth that the moon orbits the Earth, and the Earth orbits the sun. It comes nowhere near making such statements. But in the verse just mentioned... it does console all those who believe we on Earth are looking up at a sun and a moon in orbit around us, and tells us they can't overtake each other, and the daytime will not be overtaken by permanent night. Well, it seems the Qur'an has done as much as the Bible to harm our understanding of astronomy.
The Qur'an contains many clear statements that mankind was made from clay. These can be found in Qur'an 3:49 (a bird is made by clay by the power of God), 6:2, 7:12, 15:26, 17:61, 38:71,76. But that's not the whole story. In Qur'an 15:26 there are some strange additions; mankind was made in clay "that gives forth sound, of black mud fashioned in shape", or from a different translation, "from dry clay and black moulded loam" (Dawood). Clearly, this is not the wet Monmorillonite clay that may have played an important part in the history of the earth in helping in the formation of the first organic molecules. Unfortunately this "scientifically" correct statement in the Qur'an falls foul of technicalities: the role clay played in the ancient evolution of life was merely that of a catalyst, and life does not come "from" clay at all. And... the formation of life from organic chemicals involved so many steps over such a period of time, that almost any statement about creating life "from" something could be said to be true.
Coincidentally some of our most ancient religions and philosophies have held that mankind was 'made' from clay. Although there some serious caveats to mention before the poor reader starts going all medieval: (1) they do not mean the precise substance as described by science, (2) life doesn't come "from" clay, some types of clay merely acted as a catalyst, and (3) we merely translate (quite a few) ancient words as 'clay' which were themselves used to describe a variety of materials. Nonetheless it is still nice that by luck some pre-science beliefs do actually hit on correct-sounding statements, even if for the wrong reasons. Finally, the use of clay as a building material of the gods makes sense in terms of human experience because after all, clay is what us Humans created models and figurines out of.
5000 years ago in Sumeria: It was said that the god Enki created humans by forming their shape in clay by laying in it1 and the goddess Aruru created the wild man Enkidu "from a piece of clay moistened with her own spittle"2. The Epic of Atrahasis records that humans are made from a mixture of clay and divine blood and saliva for the purpose of working the soil on the Earth (pictured on the right, from the British Museum).3
Greek science, 2500 years ago: Anaximander of Miletus (~610BCE-546BCE) was an early scientist from Ionia in ancient Greece. "He proposed the spontaneous origin of life in mud, the first animals being fish covered with spines. Some descendants of these fishes eventually abandoned the water and moved to dry land, where they evolved into other animals"4. A pleasing precursor to the theory of evolution!
The Hebrew Scriptures, 6th centuryBCE: "The LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. [...] Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air" (Genesis 2:7,19).
The pagan Stoics, from the 3rd centuryBCE, believed that "a human being is partly fire, partly made of lower clay; in so far as he is fire [...], he is part of God"5. Our earthly component came from clay.
When the authors of the Qur'an spoke of mankind being made of clay there were simply repeating a common cultural guess which although close to an element of truth, was in its detail incorrect. Furthermore those verses in the Qur'an that say we are created from clay, actually contradict others. Qur'an 23:14 and 96:1-2 say that mankind is created from a clot of blood; and has bones form before flesh (when in reality, flesh comes first during foetal development). None of that is correct or in the correct order. Many verses such as 16:4, 36:77, 76:2 and 80:19 say instead that mankind is created from a "small seed", or a "drop of seed", or a drop of 'mingled' or 'mixed' drops of sexual discharge. These statements are untrue in detail and, of course, completely forget the female egg. The Qur'an also announces, rather strangely, a verse which few have ever convincingly made sense of:
“So let man see from what he is created! He is created from a water gushing forth, proceeding from between the backbone and the ribs.”
A few verses in the Qur'an say mountains are firm and immovable (Qur'an 15:19), but many more merely say they are "firm". 88:19 says they are "fixed firm". The authors of the Qur'an did not appreciate some of the slow-moving forces of nature such as plate tectonics.
Current edition: 2012 Nov 28
Last Modified: 2015 Apr 28
Parent page: Islam: A Critical Look at Contemporary Issues
All #tags used on this page - click for more:
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.
Budge, E. A. Wallis. (1857-1934)
(1921) The Babylonian Legends of the Creation.
(2004, Ed.) Jealous Gods & Chosen People: The Mythology of the Middle East. Hardback book. Published by Oxford University Press.
(1995) Cosmos. Paperback book. Originally published 1981 by McDonald & Co. Current version published by Abacus.