THE ALLEGED CONTEMPORARY ERRORS IN THE QUR’AN
AS EVIDENCE OF THE PROPHET’S AUTHORSHIP ______________________________________________
The discrepancies and differences between the statements in the Qur’an on the one hand and those in the Bible on the other in respect of the prophetic stories and other matters clearly militate against the theory of Muhammad’s (p.b.h.) having allegedly drawn on and reproduced the Biblical materials. To sustain the theory, therefore, the orientalists have recourse to a two-fold plea, namely, that Muhammad (p.b.h.) did not himself read the Bible but derived his information
about Judaism and Christianity from what he heard from others and that since his knowledge was thus only secondary, certain mistaken notions about these two systems prevailing at the time in certaiquarters have crept into the Qur’an. And as an extensi/on of this latter plea it has lately been suggested, mainly by Watt, that not only some mistaken notions about these two systems but also the prevailing mistaken notions about the world and the universe have been reproduced in the Qur’an. The utter untenability of the original assumption that Muhammad (p.b.h.) and for that matter any reasonable person, would have proceeded to challenge the correctness of the two established religious systems on the basis of mere hear-say knowledge or that he would have ventured to formulate and promulgate a new religion on the authority of what his alleged private “informants” or “tutors” prompted to him, has been shown in the previous chapter. The present chapter deals with the remaining aspect of the orientalists’ pleas, namely, the supposed mistakes about Judaism and Christianity and the so-called scientific errors in the Qur’an.
I. THE SUPPOSED MISTAKES ABOUT JUDAISM AND CHRISTIANITY ___________________________________________________
In dealing with this topic two things need to be borne in mind. In the first place, the Qur’an does not really treat Judaism and Christianity as independent religions but as deviations from and corruption of the message delivered by Allah’s prophets. Hence there was no question of its stating what the modern Jews and Christians think to be the correct articles of their faiths. The Qur’an is set to pointing out that what the Jews and the Christians believed and practised at the time were errors and that their scriptures had been altered and manipulated to accommodate those errors and incorrect beliefs. It also vigorously attempts to
THE ALLEGED CONTEMPORARY ERRORS IN THE QUR’AN 63
correct and rectify those errors. Secondly, it should also be borne in mind that what the modern Jews and Christians believe to be the correct doctrines of their faiths are not the same ·as those believed and practised by their predecessor Jews and Christians of the sixth and the seventh Christian century. Hence it is basically a wrong approach to say that the Qur’an’s description of certain of the beliefs and practices of Judaism and Christianity are “palpably” false. For, it is well-known that a number of “reforms” and modifications have been made in these faiths, particularly in Christianity, since the advent of Islam. The point would be clearer if it is noted that some serious Christian thinkers have lately advocated the abandonment of such doctrines as incarnation and divinity of Jesus (‘Is a) 1, the concept of the “Holy Ghost” as part of the Trinity,2 etc. If any of these suggested reformulating of the doctrines of Christianity takes place, a future Christian scholar would as easily be able to say that the statement that “Christ is God incarnate” is a “palpably” false notion about Christianity!
That exactly is what Muir and the others have done. Thus, while unjustly accusing the Qur’an of having reproduced what they consider mistakes and errors about Judaism and Christianity, they have not been able to avoid recognizing the fact that the alleged notions were those held by the contemporary followers of those faiths. Muir, for instance, places the blame squarely upon the “Catholics” and the Syrian Christians of the time; while Watt follows a cautious course and transfers the blame upon those whom he calls in his earlier work “nominally Christian Arabs”.3 In his latest work he further modifies the innuendo saying: “some people in Mecca wrongly supposed certain beliefs to be held by Jews and Christians” and that “these were beliefs held by the Meccans.”4 It must at once be noted that the beliefs and practices alluded to were not the suppositions of “some people in Mecca”, nor were the beliefs held by “the Meccans” as such, but by the Makkan, Arab and Syrian Christians in general and that in pointing out those aspects of their beliefs the Qur’an was not describing the tenets of Judaism and Christianity but was pointing out how the followers of those faiths had deviated from the original teachings of the Prophets .
As regards the specific instances of the alleged mistakes it is said that the Qur’an suggests that the Trinity “consists of Father, Son and Virgin Mary”,5 that
1 See for instanecJ. HICKS (ed.) The Myth of God Incarnate, London, 1977.
2 The protagonists of the Salvation Army advocate this.
3 WATT,M. at M., 28.
4 WATT, Muhammad’s Mecca, 2, 44, 55.
5 WATT, M. at M., 28.
64 THE QUR’AN AND THE ORIENTALISTS
io–,’o’,o..,.,, o t asserts that the Jews regarded Ezra (‘Uzayr) as son of God and that it denies that Jesus was crucified.
(a) Regarding the Trinity
It is to be noted that the Qur’an does nowhere state that the Trinity consists of “Father”, “Son” and “Virgin Mary”. Indeed it was none of the Qur’an’s business to identify the entities or “Persons” that constituted the Trinity. It simply denounces the concept as antithetical to and subversive of true monotheism. It is the orientalists’, more particularly Watt’s own supposition that the Qur’anic passage which refers to the Christians’ worship of Maryam and ‘Isa, besides Allah, “suggests that the Trinity consists”, etc. In fact Watt modifies his statement in his latest work where he refers to the Qur’anic statement somewhat more accurately, saying that it gives the idea that “Christians took Jesus and Mary to be ‘two gods apart from God”‘.1 The passage (5:116) in question runs as follows:
J 0 ~ L. ..!1~ Jt; ….UI 0 )~ .y ~I if( ) .) ).WI ._,.WJ …:,…1; ..;…i( ~ tf-/ .y.l ~ ~ ….UI Jt; ~I J …. ·~ J crol L. J;l 0f
“And when Allah will say: 0 ‘Isa, son of Maryam, did you say to men: Take me and my mother for two gods besides Allah? He will say: Glory be to you; it was not for me to say what I had no right to say ….. ” (5:116)2
Here the Qur’an simply disapproves the worship of ‘Isa and Maryam, besides Allah, and also exonerates ‘Isa from having so advised his followers. There is no allusion to the doctrine of the Trinity here. Significantly enough, where the Qur’an alludes to the concept of the Trinity, as in 4:171 and 5:73, it does not identify the entities that are supposed to constitute the Trinity. In fact the Qur’an treats the two subjects, the Trinity and the worship of human beings as gods or lords, as two distinct themes. This is very clear from 9:31 which disapproves the Christians’ and the Jews’ taking their monks and ascetics as “lords” apart from Allah. The passage runs as follows:
y. ‘)I .JI “) l…l>IJ 4)1 IJ~ ‘)I IJ/( L. J tf-/ .y.l e-•-·l\J ….UI 0 )~ .y 44) ~Y, J J t”‘ J~f IJ.b:JI .0§’_r.; L.s.-.;~
“They take their priests and anchorites as lords apart from Allah, and (also) the Messiah, son of Maryam. Yet they were not commanded but to worship One God. There is no god but He. Exalted is He from what they associate (with Him).” (9:31)
This passage is analogous to 5:116. Here again the worship of any other beings besides Allah is condemned. There is a tradition which explains how the
1 WATT, Muhammad’s Mecca, 2, 45.
2 Muhmmad ‘Ali’s translation with slight modification.
THE ALLEGED CONTEMPORARY ERRORS IN THE QUR’AN 65
Christians and the Jews treated their priests and monks as lords.1 But apart from that question, no one would say on the basis of this passage (9:31) that the Qur’an conceives of the Trinity to have been composed of the priests and monks as one element, ‘Isa as another and Allah as the third!
That ‘Isa is taken for god by the Christians is an admitted fact.
As regards the question of the worship of Maryam, it is a proven fact that not only the Christians of Arabia, but also many of them in the East and the West, particularly the Catholics, did and still do worship or adore her as possessing divine dignity. Watt ignores this fact presumably because it does not form part of the Protestant dogma. The point is ably explained by Muhammad ‘Ali who, in his note to the ‘ayah in question writes as follows:
“From the description of Mary being taken for god by the Christians, some Christian critics of the Qur’an conclude that the doctrine of the Trinity according to the Qur’an consists of three persons -God, Jesus and Mary. But this is an absolutely unwarranted conclusion. Mary is no doubt spoken of as being taken for an object of worship by the Christians; but the doctrine of the Trinity is not mentioned here, while the divinity of Mary is not mentioned where the Trinity is spoken of. The doctrine and practice of Mariolatry, as it is called by Protestant controversialists, is too well known. In the catechism of the Roman Church the following doctrines are to be found: ‘That she is truly the mother of God, and the second Eve, by whose means we have received blessing and life; that she is the mother of Pity and very specially our advocate; that her images are of the utmost utility.’ (Ency. Br., 11th ed. vol. 17, p. 813). It is also stated that her intercessions are directly appealed to in the Litany. And further, that there were certain women in Thrace, Scythia, and Arabia who were in the habit of worshipping the virgin as the goddess, the offer of a cake being one of the features of their worship. ‘From the time of the council of Ephesus (held in 431)’, says the same writer, ‘to exhibit figures of the virgin and child became the approved expression of orthodoxy …. Of the growth of the Marian cults, alike in the east and in the west, after the decision at Ephesus it would be impossible to trace the history …. Justinian in one of his laws bespeaks her advocacy for the Empire, and he inscribes the high altar in the new church of St. Sophia with her name. Narses looks to her directions on the field of battle. The Emperor Heracleus bears her image on his banner. John of Damascus speaks of her as the Sovereign lady to whom the whole creation has been made subject by her son. Peter Damain recognizes her as the most exalted of all creatures and apostrophizes her as deified and endowed with all power in heaven and in earth, yet not forgetful of our race.’ The Christian world had in fact felt ‘the need for a mediator to deal with the very mediator’, and thus Mary was raised to the throne of Divinity along with Jesus. The recent proclamation of the Pope relating to the bodily assumption of Mary supports this conclusion, and will raise a new question for the Christian world whether Trinity really consists of God, Jesus and Mary.”2
1 See for instance AL-TABARI, Tafsir, XIV,209,211; IBN KATHIR, Tafsir, IV,77 and Tirmidhi (ed. AHMAD MUHAMMAD SHAKIR), V, 278 (hadith 3095).
2 MUHAMMAD ‘ALI, The Holy Qur’an Arabic Text, English Translation and Commentary, revised edition, Lahore, 1985, pp. 275-276,note 751.
66 THE QUR’AN AND THE ORIENTALISTS
(b) Regarding Uzayr
As regards the Qur’anic statement about the Jews’ taking ‘Uzayr as son of God (9:30) Watt castigates it as the “chief error in the Qur’an in respect of Judaism” and asserts that “while it is true that the Old Testament uses the term ‘son of God’ for the Messiah who was expected, there is no evidence that it was ever applied to Ezra. “1
Of course there is no evidence in the extant Old Testament about it; but the Qur’an was not referring to what is written in the Old Testament about ‘Uzayr but to the belief and assertion of some of the Jews of the time who regarded ‘Uzayr as the son of God. In fact the ‘ayah in question, 9:30, starts with the expression: “And the Jews say” (~~~ ..:.Jt; J)· The commentator Al-Baydawi, to whom Watt refers a number of times in his book 2 makes it clear with reference to this ‘ayah that because the Old Testament was given its present form by ‘Uzayr, many of the Jews of the time considered him a “son of God” and that specially at Madina there was a group of Jews who held that belief. Al-Baydawi further points out that the ‘ayah in question was read out and recited as usual but no Madinan Jew came forward with a contradiction3• It is to be noted that this ‘ayah is unanimously regarded as Madinan. Hence the silence of the Jews of the place on the matter is suggestive enough, particularly as they were avowed critics of the Prophet.
Not only Al-Baydawi but also other commentators mention that the ‘ayah refers to the views of a particular group of the Jews. For instance, Al-Tabari gives a number of reports together with their chains of narrators specifically mentioning the leading Jews of Madina who considered ‘Uzayr a son of God. The most prominent of those Jews were Finhas, Sullam ibn Mishkam, Nu’man ibn Awfa, Sha’s ibn Qays and Malik ibn al-Sayf.4 Similarly Al-Qurtubi mentions the same fact and the same names adding that the expression “the Jews” occurring at the beginning of the ‘ayah means “some particular Jews”, just as the expression “people told them” (qala lahum al-nas) means not all the people of the world but some particular people. He further says that the Jewish sect who held that ‘Uzayr was God’s son had become extinct by his (Al-Qurtubi’s) time. 5
1 WATT, Muhammad’s Mecca, 45.
2 Ibid, 108, note 2 to Chapter 1 and notes 2 and 10 to Chapter III.
3 AL-BAYDAWI, Tafsir, I, second Egyptian impression, 1968, p. 412.
4 AL-TABARI, Tafsir, XIV, 201-204. ·
5 AL-QURTUBI, Tafsir, Pt.VIII, 116-117.
THE ALLEGED CONTEMPORARY ERRORS IN THE QUR’AN 67
Thus, in respect of neither Maryam nor ‘Uzayr is the Qur’anic statement an error or mistake. Nor could it be said that the Qur’an was reproducing the popular and prevailing errors and thus inveighing unjustly against Judaism and Christianity; for it refers to those beliefs as “errors” and points out the mistake in adhering to them. Hence if they did not really form part of the pristine religion of the Jews and the Christians, the Qur’an was only emphasizing the truth.
Nor does the Qur’an stop at pointing out those errors alone. It points out other errors too. Thus,
(a) as against the Jews’ insinuations and innuendo against Maryam it unequivocally asserts her chastity and purity of character.
(b) As against the doctrine of the Trinity it uncompromisingly asserts the absolute and immutable unity of God.
(c) As against the Jews’ and Christians’ notion of sonship of God it emphatically states that God does not have any “son” nor is He “Father” to anyone as such.
(d) As against the divinity of Jesus (‘Isa) it insists on his humanity and asserts that those who worship him as god are “unbelievers”.
Interestingly enough, none of the orientalists has hitherto ventured to suggest that these Qur’anic references to the prevailing beliefs of the Jews and Christians are also “palpable” mistakes in the Qur’an due to its having adopted those “erroneous” notions from “nominally Christian Arabs”, or “some people in Mecca”, or “the Meccans”! The fact is that the Qur’an refers to these latter beliefs of the Jews and the Christians that prevailed at the time as well as to the other prevailing beliefs and practices regarding Maryam and ‘Uzayr and disapproves of each and every item of them. The modern followers of the two religions have abandoned some of the old beliefs and practices and, on the basis of their reorientation, some of them now come forward with the suggestion that the Qur’anic references to some of the beliefs and practices of Judaism and Christianity are palpable mistakes and that therefore Muhammad (p.b.h.) did not himself read the Bible but gathered his information from hearsay. The point at issue, however, is not whether he himself read the Bible or did not read it. The issue is that the Qur’an, and therefore Muhammad (p.b.h.), denounce as errors the prevailing beliefs and practices of the Jews and Christians, including even those that are said to have been sanctioned by their holy scripture. Not only that. The Qur’an asserts that the extant Judaeo-Christian scripture is a corruption and modification of the original text.1 Clearly, the source of
1 See for a recent western scholar’s recognition of this fact, BART D. EHRMAN, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. The Effect of Early Christologital Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 1993.
68 THE QUR’AN AND THE ORIENTALISTS
knowledge and conviction must have been something other than either a direct or an indirect acquaintance with the contents of the Bible.
(c) Regarding Crucifixion
Similarly in its reference to the end of ‘Isa’s career the Qur’an does in no way reproduce a popular “mistake”. On the contrary, it asserts that the popular saying (qawluhum) about it is a mistake. The ‘ayah (4:157) which refers to the matter runs as follows:
._,; l_,.o.b:-10!.l.ll 01J ~ y .:f.JJ o_,l.,.:. L.. J •p L.. J ….UI J_,…..J t/-f ..:;.1 ~~I U,;; wl ~_,.; J • ~ o p L.. J Ji..ll t_ L:;”l )II ~ ,y “-! ~ L.. <l:..o ..!,.l.;. ~
“And as for their saying: We have killed the Messiah, son of Maryam, the Messenger of Allah; but they killed him not, nor did they crucify him, but it was made to appear to them as such. And certainly those who differ therein are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge about it except the pursuit of conjecture; and they killed him not for certain.” (4:157)
Clearly, the passage sets out to contradict their saying, i.e., the saying of the Jews; for the whole narration here is about the Jews. The contradiction is made in a very positive manner. It is stated that they did not kill him nor did they really crucify him. It is further stated that they, while claiming to have killed ‘Isa, entertained doubts about it. The allusion is here to their doubts about the identity of the individual they put on the cross.1 The passage then says that it was made to appear like that to them (shubbiha Jahum), i.e., ‘Isa’s having been crucified and killed in that manner was an incorrect impression or illusion to them and that they had no real knowledge of what actually happened but followed only a certain conjecture. The passage ends with an emphatic reiteration that “they killed him not for certain.”
It may be noted that even some early Christian sects did not believe that ‘Isa died on the cross. Thus the Basilidans thought that some one else was substituted for him on the cross. The Gospel of St. Barnabas supports the theory of substitution on the cross. Another view, that of the Diocetae, says that Jesus (‘Isa) had never a real physical or natural body, but only an apparent or phantom one, and that his crucifixion was only apparent, not real. A yet another view, that of the Marcionite Gospel, says that Jesus was not even born but merely appeared in human form. It cannot be said that in denying ‘Isa’s crucifixion and death on the cross the Qur’an adopts the view of any of the above mentioned Christian sects; for it categorically rejects the very basis of those views, namely, the divinity of ‘Isa and
1 See for instance AL-TABARI, Tafsir, Pt. VI, 16-17.
THE ALLEGED CONTEMPORARY ERRORS IN THE QUR’AN 69
the theory of his phantom body. Rather, in view of the doubts and differences prevailing over the matter, it categorically asserts the truth and positively contradicts the Jews’ assertion that they had killed him. The position is quite different from that of mere reproduction of a prevailing erroneous view. In fact, the Qur’anic statement is directed against the Jews as well as the Christians. It contradicts the former’s assertion that they had killed ‘Isa and that therefore he was not a Prophet because he suffered what is called an “accursed death”. Similarly, it rejects the Christian doctrine of the divinity of ‘Isa and that of “vicarious atonement” and its basis, the concept of “blood sacrifice”. The Qur’anic statement that “they killed him not for certain” finds support even in the Bible itself. Thus:
(1) Jesus had prayed to God the night before his arrest to be saved from the accursed death on the cross (Mark 14:36; Matt. 26:39; Luke 22:44) and that his prayer was heard, i.e., responded to. This means that he did not intend to die and that God did not allow his being subjected to the accursed death.
(2) There is nothing in the Gospels which may be taken to be an eye-witness account that the person crucified was dead when he was taken down from the cross or when he was placed in the sepulchre specially made for him.
(3) Pilate, who was in charge of the trial, appears to have grown sceptical about the justice of the whole proceedings and to have taken care to enable Jesus to escape death on the cross. The trial took place on Friday. Pilate purposely prolonged it and delivered judgement only three hours before sun-set, thus ensuring that Jesus could not be kept on the cross for more than a couple of hours at the most. For, with the sun-set the Sabbath day would ensue and the condemned persons would have to be brought down from the crosses. Pilate also took additional care to see that Jesus was given wine and vinegar mingled with myrrh to render him less sensitive to pain. Thus Jesus remained on the cross for not more than three hours (Mark 15:25;John 19:14). This was evidently too short a time for any person of normal constitution to die on a cross. Significantly enough, the two other persons who were crucified simultaneously are stated to have been alive when they were brought down from their crosses. Pilate himself did not believe that Jesus died in so short a time (Mark 15:44).
( 4) After being taken down from the cross the two other persons’ legs were crushed, but this measure was dispensed with, according to the Bible, in the case of Jesus (John 19:32,33).
70 THE QUR’AN AND THE ORIENTALISTS
(5) Jesus, after being brought down from the cross, was pierced in the side of his body and blood rushed out of it (John 19:34), which shows that he was still alive.
(6) Pilate readily granted Joseph of Arimaethia’s request and handed over Jesus’ “body” to him. He lavished care on Jesus and put him in a special tomb hewn in the side of a rock (Mark 15:46); which was evidently a manoeuvre to deceive Jesus’ enemies.
(7) On the third day the stone on the tomb’s opening was found to have been removed (Mark 16:4), which proves that it had been removed previously, probably on the first or second day of the internment.
(8) Mary Magdalene, when she looked into the sepulchre, did not find Jesus there. She saw him standing and at first supposed “him to be the gardener”. Then,
“17. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father, and Your Father; and to my God, and your God.
18. Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.
19. Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.
20. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.” (John 20:14-15, 17 -20)
(9) It was in the same body of flesh that the disciples saw Jesus, his wounds still deep enough for a man to thrust his hand in. (John 20:25-28)
(1 0) He was seen in the same flesh and bone. He still felt hunger and ate food as his disciples did.
“36. And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.
37. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit.
38. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? And why do thoughts arise in your hearts?
39. Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.
40. And when he had thus spoken, he showed them his hands and his feet.
41. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat?
42. And they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and of an honey-comb.
43. And he took it, and did eat before them.” (Luke 24:36-43)
(11) Jesus undertook a journey to Galilee where,his disciples saw him.
( Matt. 28:10-17)
THE ALLEGED CONTEMPORARY ERRORS IN THE QUR’AN 71
All these statements in the different Gospels strongly support the Qur’anic verdict: “they killed him not for certain.” Indeed the above mentioned Gospel statements clearly suggest that Jesus escaped death on the cross and therefore avoided being discovered by his enemies.
It is worth noting in this connection that recent research confirms that Jesus did not suffer death on the cross. Thus Barbara Thiering, an Australian scholar, has demonstrated convincingly, on a meticulous analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls, that Jesus did not die on the cross1• Almost simultaneously, two European scholars, Holger Kersten and Elmar E. Gruber, have assiduously pursued the story of the radio-carbon test carried out some years ago on the famous “Turin Shroud”2 and have shown that Jesus did not die on the cross.3 The end of Jesus is indeed a difficult historical and theological question; and it would not just be appropriate to cut it short, as Watt does,4 by calling the Qur’anic statement on it a popular error picked up from the bazaar gossips of Makka or Bosra.
II. THE ALLEGED SCIENTIFIC ERRORS ______________________________________
As an extension of the plea about errors in respect of Judaism and Christianity Watt has lately suggested that the Qur’an also reproduces the contemporary errors about the nature of the earth and the sky. The Qur’an, he says, addresses its first audience, the Arabs, in terms of their own world-picture and thus reproduces even points in which that picture was mistaken. In support of this statement he reproduces, in translation, some eight Qur’anic passages and says that they show that the prevailing notions of the earth being a flat space and the sky being a solid structure, “presumably of stone”, are reproduced in the Qur’an.5 Watt recognizes that different words are used in these passages to describe the earth and says that “all would be interpreted by the hearers in terms of their belief that the earth is flat.” He adds that “there is no special emphasis on flatness, since no one supposed that the earth would be otherwise. “6 He also suggests that such reproduction of contemporary errors was only natural, for, according to him, “it was not essential for god’s purpose that false ideas of this sort should be
1 BARBARA THIERING, Jesus the Man (first published 1993), Corgi edition, 1993. See especially the back-cover page.
2 The shroud discovered at Turin and believed to be the garment with which Jesus was covered when placed in the sepulchre.
3 HOLGER KERSTEN & ELMAR R. GRUBER, The Jesus Conspiracy The Turin Shroud and the Truth about the Resurrection, Element Books Ltd., Shaftesbury, 1994.
4 WATT, Muhammad’s Mecca, 45-46. ‘ Ibid., 5-6. 6 Ibid., 5.
72 THE QUR’AN AND THE ORIENTALISTS
corrected”, “since the Qur’anic message could be communicated to them [the Arabs] without correcting these beliefs.”1
Before proceeding to take into account the passages cited by Watt in support of his assumption it is necessary to note the implications of his last mentioned statement about the supposed compatibility of God’s purpose with the continuance of the prevailing scientific errors in the Qur’an. In making this statement Watt appears to reflect the modern Christian’s attitude to his own sacred scripture. This attitude is an outcome of a growing awareness since the nineteenth century of the existence of a number of scientific inaccuracies in the Biblical texts. In view of these inaccuracies the opinion first gained ground that there was an antagonism between science and religion. Gradually, however, the notion of a text of revelation communicated by God gave way to the notion of a text “inspired” by God but written down by human hands. The Biblical authors, it came to be assumed, might have introduced inaccuracies to the text arising from the language of the day or from ideas and traditions still honoured and prevalent at the time; but that did not detract from their being divinely inspired.2 “The scientific errors in the Bible”, states an eminent modern Christian thinker, “are the errors of mankind, for long ago man was like a child, as yet ignorant of science.”3
The modern Muslim, however, is neither in need of nor prepared for finding solace in such assumptions; for there is no discrepancy between scientific data and any of the Qur’anic statements. As will be seen presently, the interpretations put by Watt on the passages he cites are wrong. And it is surprising that in advancing his assumption he has not taken into account, not to speak of a umber of Arabic works on the subject,4 even such a best-seller in Europe as M. Bucaille’s La Bible, Le Coran et Ia Science which, appearing for the first time in 1976, had run into 12 editions within ten years5 and had been translated into at least three other European languages including English and seven Asian languages before Watt penned his above mentioned statement.
I Ibid., 2, 44.
2 The second Vatican Council (1962-1965) adopted a document which recognizes that the Books of the Old Testament contain material that is imperfect and obsolete. See M. Bucaille, What is the Oriigin of Man? The Answer of Science and the Holy Striptum, 4th edition, Seghers, Paris, 1988, p. 15.
3 Jean Guitton (1987), quoted in ibid., 10.
4 For instance MUHAMMAD WAFA AL-‘AMIRI, Al-‘lsharat al-‘Ilmiyyah Fi al-Qur’an, second impression, Cairo, 1401 (1981) and HANAFi AHMAD, AI-Tafsir al-‘Ilmii li ‘Ayat al-Kawniyyah Fi al-Qur’an, Cairo, n.d.
5 The 13th edition was published in Paris in 1987.
THE ALLEGED CONTEMPORARY ERRORS IN THE QUR’AN 73
The word ‘ard occurs in the Qur’an some 461 times. Most of the uses are in connection with a description of Allah’s absolute dominion over the entire universe and His power of creation. At a number of places the word clearly comes in the sense of country or dominion;1 while at other places it is used metaphorically to denote worldly life.2 The passages wherein it occurs with any description of its shape and nature may be divided into two categories. In one category it is mentioned in combination with or in comparison to the mountains and rivers. Here the emphasis is on how the earth has been made suitable and useful for man and other creatures. Here the listeners’ or readers’ attention is drawn mainly to the objects of nature and the land-surface falling within his immediate view. In other words, the earth in these passages means the land or land-surface falling within an observer’s immediate view, in contradistinction to the mountains and rivers, rather than the entire earth as a unit. In the second category of passages the word occurs in relation to the sun, the moon, the skies and the universe in general. Here the earth is spoken of as a unit and the description really gives an insight into its shape, position and even movement in space.
In view of this general nature of the Qur’anic use of the expression ‘ard Watt’s statement of the subject is partial and faulty in three main respects. In the first place, he concentrates on the passages of the first category and takes them to refer to the shape of the earth as a unit, which is not the case. Second, despite the diversity and differences in the descriptive expressions in the passages he cites he imposes on them all identical meanings because, as he says, the “first audience” of the Qur’an could not have supposed that the earth’s shape could have been otherwise than flat. A really objective approach would have suggested greater care in understanding the precise implications of the different expressions employed in the passages. Watt even neglects to note the significance of a passage in its entirety, omitting its material part from his translation. Third and more importantly, he does not at all take into consideration the second category of passages wherein the shape and position of the earth as a unit, as also those of the others planets and stars in the space, are indicated and which contain astounding scientific data not known to man at the time the Qur’an was revealed.
That the term ‘ard used in most of the passages cited means the land-surface falling within the observer’s immediate view, rather than the earth as a planet, is
1 For instance in 7:110; 14:13; 20:57; 20:63; 26:35; 28:57. Incidentally the word ‘earth’ seems to be an adaptation of ‘ard.
2 As in 9:38.
74 THE QUR’AN AND THE ORIENTALISTS
very clear from 88:19-20 and 78:6-7 which Watt cites. The two passages, together with Watt’s translations, run respectively as follows: .
..::….-.6… 4 ..}’ J \II Jl J ~ 4 J~l Jl J
“and [to] the mountains how they are set up? and [to] the earth how it is spread out?” (88:19-20)
bu) J~IJ bl..f..-uPJ\11 ~ ~f
“Did we not make the earth an expanse and the mountains pegs?” (78:6-7)
Clearly, at both the places ‘ard means the immediately visible plain land in contradistinction to “the mountains” that also are visible. For, if the earth as a whole is implied, the reference to the mountains distinct from it would be both incongruous and superfluous here. It is further noteworthy that the ‘ayah 78:7 speaks of mountains as “pegs”. Modern scientific knowledge confirms that mountains, like pegs have deep roots embedded in the ground and that these stabilize the earth’s crust.1 In another place the Qur’an very clearly says that Allah “has set firm mountains in the earth so that it would not shake with you.”2 The ‘ayahs 88:6-7 and 78:6-7 do in fact refer to these scientific facts and how Allah has set the earth’s surface and the mountains for making the earth suitable for human habitation. They do not speak about the earth’s shape. Watt has simply misunderstood and misinterpreted the ‘ayahs.
Let us now consider the material words in relation to ‘ard1 in all the passages cited. They are mentioned below together with Watt’s rendering of material words (italicized) in them.
(1) 79:30 = t….I>.J .;.lb ~ ..}’}liJ (dahaha) “spread out”.
(2) 88:20 = …::….-.6… 4 ..}’}11 Jl J (sutihat) “spread out”.
(3) 78:6 = bl..f..-uPJ\11 ~ ~f (mihada) “make an expanse”.
( 4) 51:48 = t….8) ..}’ J \IIJ i. (farashnaha) “laid flat”.
(5) 71:19 = lk~ uPJ\11 ~ ~ ….UIJ (bisata) “made an expanse”.
(6) 20:53 = 1-4–..}’J\11 ~ ~ (.S.iJI (mahda) “made a bed”.
(7) 13:3 = ..}’ J \II J..,o (.S.iJI yo J (madda) “spread out”.
(8) 2:22 =~I) ..}’J\11 ~ ~ (.S.iJI (fiarasha) “made a carpet”.
Needless to say, each one of these expressions like dabaha, su(i~at, etc., admits of a variety of meanings. Watt himself admits this fact in a general way not only with reference to these passages but also with regard to the others he has quoted
1See for instance Andre Cailleux, Anatomy of the earth, London, 1968, p. 220; Frank Press and Raymond Siever, Earth, Sanfrancisco, 1982, p. 413.
2 Q. 16:15.
THE ALLEGED CONTEMPORARY ERRORS IN THE QUR’AN 75
by saying at the outset of his work that he has so selected the translation as “best brings out the points being illustrated by the quotations.”1
Now, the very first expression in the series, dahaha, is noticeably distinctive and different in genre from the rest. Watt, following many other previous translators, renders it as “spread out”. But the exact and correct meaning of the term, keeping in view its root, rather provides a very positive Qur’anic evidence in support of the spherical shape of the earth. For daha means to “shape like an egg”, its noun being dahryah, which the Arabs still use to mean an egg.2
The second expression, sutihat, is equally significant. It is derived from sath (F)which means surface, outer layer, outer cover, roof, deck, plane, etc. Hence sath al-bahr means sea-level, sath ma’il means inclined plane, sathi means external, outward, superficial, etc. Keeping this original meaning of the root-word in view and approaching the Qur’anic statement at 88:20 with our modern knowledge that the interior of the earth is full of gaseous and liquid materials (lava) and that the land-surface is only an outer cover resembling the skin of an egg, and that it is also a plane, it would be seen how very appropriate, scientific and significant is the term sutihat used here in describing the land-surface of the earth, particularly after the description in the previous ‘ayah, 88:19, of how the mountains have been affixed. The Qur’anic statement at 88:20 may thus be very appropriately and more correctly rendered as: “(Do they not look) to the earth how it has been surfaced and planed?”
The third word in the series is mihad and it may be considered along with the sixth in the series, mahd in 20:53, because they both belong to the same root. The former means resting place, abode, bosom, cradle and, figuratively, fold (in which something rests). And A.J. Arberry has very correctly translated the expression at 78:6 as: “Have We not made the earth as a cradle?”3 In fact, this very word mihad occurs at six other places in the Qur’an,4 and at each of these places it clearly bears the meaning of an abode, a habitat, a resting place, etc. In any case, even without regard to what we know of the interior of the earth, to translate the expression as “made an expanse” would be quite remote from the original sense and would be inappropriate here.
1 WATT, Muhammad’s Mecca,2.
2 M. FATHI ‘UTHMAN, “AI-‘ard Fi al-Qur’an al-Karim”, Proceedings of the First Islamic Geographical Conference”, Riyadh, 1404/1984, Vol. IV, 127; A.M. SOLIMAN, Scientific Trends in the Qur’an, London (fa-Ha Publications), 1985, p.16.
3 A.J. ARBERRY, op.cit, 626.
4 Q. 2:206; 3:12; 3:197; 7:41; 13:18 and 38:56.
76 THE QUR’AN AND THE ORIENTALISTS
Similarly mahd means bed or cradle. It occurs at four other places in the Qur’an, once in connection with ‘art/ in 43:10 and thrice in connection with ‘Isa’s speaking to men even while in the cradle.1 And again, A.J. Arberry very consistently renders the term at both 43:10 and 20:53 as cradle. In fact, he translates the statements at both the places uniformly as: “He who appointed the earth to be a cradle for you.”2 Watt, on the other hand, is not so consistent. He translates the expression at 78:6 as “make an expanse” and at 20:53 as “made a bed”.
Similarly inconsistent is his translation of the fourth and eighth terms in the series, farashnaha and firashd. The primary meaning of farasha is to spread out as a bed, to pave, to cover, etc.; while firash means bed, mattress, bedspread, cushion, carpet, etc. Nevertheless, while Watt has translated this last expression at 2:22 as “made a bed”, he has rendered the word at 51:48 as “laid flat”, though the farthest manoeuvring that could legitimately be done here is to render it as “spread out as a bed” or “laid out as a bed”, but not quite as “laid flat”.
There remain two other words to consider, bisat and madda, the fifth and seventh respectively in the series. The same meaning of laying or spreading as a bed is appropriate for bisat, and Arberry has indeed translated the whole statement at 71:9 as: “And God has laid the earth for you as a carpet.”3 Watt, however, has rendered the expression as “made an expanse”. As regards the word madda, its primary meaning is “he extended” or “he expanded”. It may even mean “he spread out”, as Watt translates it. The term has been used in the Qur’an in several other senses. At 84:3-4 the expression is in its passive form, muddat, and it clearly bears the meaning of “is flattened”-“And when the earth shall be flattened and it will throw off what is in it and shall get emptied” ( J ..;_,.LA <.? J \II \j\ J …:…b:.; J 4..; L. ..:…Al~. This is a description of what will happen when the earth (world) will be brought to an end and the resurrection will take place. Hence the sense in which muddat is used here cannot be applied to the same term or its derivatives which speak about the normal situations of the earth and which therefore must bear a meaning other than “made flat” or “flattened”. Conversely, this passage is a pointer to the fact that prior to the event of the earth’s being brought to an end it is as a whole not flat.
1 Q. 3:40; 3:110 and 19:314.
2 A.J. ARBERRY, op.cit., 505 and 314.
‘ Ibid., 609.
THE ALLEGED CONTEMPORARY ERRORS IN THE QUR’AN 77
Leaving aside the differentials in meanings and accepting the renderings as “spread out”, “made an expanse”, etc., none of the eight statements cited does really say that the earth as a whole is a flat space; for the passages speak of the earth or land as it comes within the immediate view of the observer. Moreover, though the sense of making level or plane may be said to be common to all the terms, this sense does not in fact run counter to the spherical nature of the earth as a whole. The accepted geometrical and mathematical definition of “plane” is “surface such as that the straight line joining any points on it is touching on all points. “1 Hence, in spite of the earth as a whole being spherical, its surface is nonetheless level, plane, spread out or even flat. The inherent relativity of the expression madda or “spread out” applied to earth in such passages was indeed pointed out some eight centuries ago by Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (544-606 H./1150-1210 A.C.) who was quite conscious of the spherical nature of the earth. Referring to the term madda used at 13:3 and 15:19 he makes two points. He says that the object of these passages is to bring home the theme of the existence of the Creator. The reference has therefore to be to such objects as are visible and obvious to the listener. Hence the term ‘art/ in these passages has to be understood in the sense of the part of it which comes to the immediate view of the observer.2 Second, he points out that the earth “is an extremely large ball; but a part of a gigantic ball, when looked at it, you will see it as a plain surface. This being the case, the difficulty of which you speak ceases to exist. The proof of thisis the saying of Allah: (We have set the mountains as pegs (b\j) Jl:>rJIJ-78:7). He calls them pegs notwithstanding the fact that there may be extensive plain surfaces on top of them. So is the case here. “3 Far from reproducing or reflecting the erroneous world-view prevailing in seventh century Arabia the Qur’an indeed goes far beyond the scientific knowledge of the time and speaks of scientific facts and truths that have only recently been discovered by man. In fact, if Watt had looked carefully enough he would have seen that at least in three of the passages he has cited to support of his assumption there are such extraordinary facts as well as significant pointers to the spherical nature of the earth. Unfortunately, while quoting these passages in
1 Oxford Ad1Jam•d Learner’s Dictionary of Cumnt English, 19th impression, 1984, p. 636.
2 Al-Tafsir al-Kabir, XIX, 3.
3 Ibid, 170. The Arabic text runs as follows
. ..J_,; <#j,J..JI) J~’\’10” •)_f”; l.o Jij .!.IJ.\5″ ,)\5′ ljl )cS_,:..-..ll ~\5′ c.<} 4’u 4,11 u)o; ljl4;.-:o.J,;j> ,:,;>.. <…,k.JI ;_?JI) w..Ji <,~ J ;_f” .# ‘-“‘ .!.llill ..,_,…… >….P c_.k..-~ J–< .u ..;~ e:-“” }Lo~….o <“”} Jt.,..J’Jl Jw
78 THE QUR’AN AND THE ORIENTALISTS
translation he has omitted in two of these three passages those very portions that contain such facts. One of these passages is 13:3 which in its entirety runs as follows: J
‘+:]l J..lll ~ ~I .:_r->. Jj 4J j.u.-.;..1_;..!)1 JS’ .y J l}~f J ~IJJ 4J ~ J ..}> J \’I .M <.>..U\ yo J 0JA t_,.Al du..’l .. !.m J 01
“And He it is Who spread the earth, and made in it firm mountains and rivers. And of all fruits He has made pairs of two (of every kind). He makes the night cover the day. Surely there are signs in this for a people who reflect.” (Muhammad Ali’s translation with slight modification)
In this passage there are two significant statements. The first is: “And of all fruits He has made pairs of two (of every kind)”. The implication of this statement has become clear only in modern times with the discovery of sexes in plants and fruits, indeed of pairs in every thing.1 In fact the statement has long been translated in that sense.2 Needless to say that no one in the seventh Christian century did have any inkling of the concept of pairs or sexes in plants, fruits and other things; nor was it possible to comprehend the full significance of this Qur’anic statement before the scientific discoveries of modern times in this respect.
The second significant statement in the passage (13:3) is: “He makes the night cover the day.” Unmistakably, the sense here is that of the night gradually taking the place of the day-a phenomenon which is understandable only with reference to the spherical shape of the earth and its rotation;3 for, if it was uttered in the context of a flat earth, the statement would have been framed to convey the sense of the day and night alternating each other, not “covering the day with the night”, as indeed Arberry translates the clause.4 The second passage is 20:53 which runs as follows:
~ ..:.>~ .y 1,.,.\J) 4! L:>…r”f; ~\… ~L……..Ji.y J;fJ ~ 4J ~ ..!..lL J \-4-> ..}>J\’1 ~ ~ <.>..UI
“He Who made the earth a cradle for you and threaded for you in it routes; and sent down from the sky water. Thus We have produced thereby pairs of plants, each different from the other.”(20:53) The scientific truth about sexes in plants is stated here more pointedly and explicitly, thus supplementing the information contained in 13:3 noted above.
The third of the passages is 51:47-48. It runs as follows:
0 J.uWI ~ L-W) ..}> J \’IJ 0 .Y-” ,..J lil J ~4 \….~ ~L……..J\J
1 See also Q. 36:36 and 51:49 on this point.
2 See for instance M. Pickthall’s and A. Yusuf Ali’s translations and comments on this ‘ayah.
3 See below (text) for other Qur’anic references on this point.
4 ARBERRY, op.dt., 239.
THE ALLEGED CONTEMPORARY ERRORS IN THE QUR’AN 79
“And the sky We have made it with Hands; and verily We are Expanders (are in the process of expanding it). And the earth, We have laid it out, and how Excellent are the authors of laying out!”
Here the expression “and verily We are Expanders” (0 _,…… _,..J Ul J) is very significant. Watt has rendered this part of the statement as: “and it is we who make it of vast extent. “1 But it is to be noted that the construction is in the nominal form (a.,…… I u…,.,.) in contrast with the verbal (….,W u…,.,.) form of the immediately preceding expression, which is also in the past tense. It is a well-known rule of Arabic construction that the nominal form together with the emphatic lam is used to indicate a habitual or continual act or process of doing. Thus the correct translation of the expression would be: “And verily We are expanders” or “We do expand” or “We are in the process of expanding it”. Indeed, A.J. Arberry is just correct in rendering this part of the statement as “and We expand it wide.”2
Now, this statement assumes a great significance in the light of modern scientific information that the universe is expanding at a staggering speed. It says that everything in space (the skies) -the constellations together with their planets and satellites, etc., are all flying straight ahead at an unimaginable speed. The sun itself, together with its planets and their satellites as a whole are reckoned to be moving at the staggering speed of almost a million miles a day towards the constellation Lyra which itself is moving away at a similar speed! Thus the space, i.e. the sky, is continually expanding. In the light of this modern knowledge the Qur’anic statement “We have created the heaven, and indeed We do expand it” assumes a bewildering significance, besides being surprisingly precise.
Thus three of the eight passages cited by Watt to prove what he supposes to be scientific errors in the Qur’an contain at least four such facts as run directly counter to his assumption. Two of these facts relate to the shape of the earth and two relate to creation and the universe in general. These facts are: (a) that Allah has shaped the earth like an egg (dahaha); (b) that “He makes the night cover the day” (13:3), which is an indication of the spherical nature of the earth; (c) that plants and fruits, besides other objects, are created in pairs (of sexes) and (d) that the sky (space) is continually being expanded (51:47). There are indeed many other passages of scientific import in the Qur’an, specially relating to the origin and creation of man, nature and the universe.3 It is not feasible here to refer even
1 WATT, Muhammad’s Mecca, 6.
2 ARBERRY,op.cit., 545.
3 See for instance M. BUCAILLE, op.cit.
80 THE QUR’AN AND THE ORIENTALISTS
briefly to all of them. A few of them bearing on the question of the earth’s shape may, however, be mentioned here.
The most significant in this respect is the statement at 91:6 which says that the earth has been thrown (in its orbit? in the space?) like a ball. The statement runs as :
t…L:.J. L.. J J> J \JIJ –
“By the earth and He Who threw it (like a ball)” It may be noted that like the word dahaha (79:30) this word tahaha also has been rendered by many early scholars as “spread out”, “expanded”, etc. Significantly, however, both Al-Qurtubi and Al-Shawkani, while noticing the interpretations put on the word by the previous commentators, point out that the Arabs understood the word in the sense of going or moving away.1 The meaning is further clarified by the author of the Taj al-‘Arus who, while noticing the meanings put on the word by the early commentators, points out that the word means “throwing” something, for instance a ball (1+. I.S”J •.?0~ L:.J. J ).2 This expression thus agrees well with the meaning of dahaha as explained above and both indicate the spherical shape of the earth and its rotation in the space. It may further be noted that the statements immediately preceding 91:6, particularly 91:3-4, have a significant bearing on the point as they describe the relationship of day and night with the sun. The statements run as: t…~ 1~1 J..!IJ \….’)\.,. 1~1 J4-JIJ -“By the day as it reveals it (the sun). By the night as it conceals it.” These two statements make it quite clear that it is the action of the day and the night which brings to view the sun and conceals it, not that any movement of the sun causes day and night. The precision in the statements would be all the clearer if attention is paid to 91:1 wherein the sun is referred to . It simply states: “By the sun and its brightness” (t…l>….,;, J ~IJ). No action or verb is ascribed to it here. A little regard to such precise use of words would make it clear that they imply important scientific facts regarding the shape of the earth and its rotation.
The significance of the earth’s having been “thrown” (tahaha) becomes very clear if it is considered along with another very important Qur’anic statement relating to the origin of the earth itself and of life on it. It says that initially the sky and the earth were joined together in one mass, that subsequently they were separated and that every living being on the earth originated in water. The passage runs as follows:
1 AL-QURTUBI, Tafsi’r, XX, 74-75;AL-SHAWKANI, Tafsir, V, 449.
2 Taj al-‘Arus, X, 223. See also E.W. LANE, Arabic-English Lexicon, under tahw ( _,.J. ) and tahy (_,..1) where, besides the other meanings, it is noted:” bJ. is said when one throws down a man upon his face.” (Cambridge Islamic Texts Society print, 1984, Vol.II, 1832).
THE ALLEGED CONTEMPORARY ERRORS IN THE QUR’AN 81
0 y y. ~f <.? ~tf-J5’ ~WI ,y L:.l…… J l…..>\.:.A:;.O IZ.J L::;l) ,_;, J \riJ ..;..IJl……JI 0f IJ_,£ .:r..lll .1-r-l }
“Or, do the unbelievers not see that the heavens and the earth were joined in one mass, and then We clove them asunder, and made out of water every living being? Will they not then believe?” (21:30)
The significance of this passage has become clear only with the progress of scientific knowledge in modern times about the origin of our planet and of life on it. Another Qur’anic statement directly relating to the earth is 13:41 which says that it is gradually contracting, as is indeed established by modern research. The statement runs as follows:
. . . ~l)>f ,y ~ ,_;, J ’11 _;t; l.if IJ.I-r-l }
“Have they not realized that We bring the earth to contraction in its extremities?” (13:41)
As regards the night gradually merging into the day and vice-versa we have a number of other Qur’anic statements of which the following are very specific:
(a) J.liJ J4JI d _,; J J4JI J j.JI d _,; -“Thou causest the night to enter into the day and Thou causest the day to enter into the night.” (3:27)
(b) J.liJ J4JI d y. J J4JI J j.JI d y. .u.Ji 04 .!.ll~ –
“That is because Allah makes the night enter into the day and makes the day enter into the night. (22:61)
(c) J.ll J J4J! dY-J J4JI J J.ll dY-.u.Ji 0f; r-lf –
“Do you not see that Allah makes the night enter into the day and makes the day enter into the night?” (31:29)
(d) and (e)j.JI J J4J! dY-J J4JI J J.ll dY–
“He makes the night enter into the day and makes the day enter into the night.” (35:13 and 57:6)
(f) … J4JI….:.. tw J.ll ~ J.A J –
“And a sign for them is the night. We gradually withdraw from it the day.” (36:37)
These repeated statements of the Qur’an about the gradual merging of the day and the night into each other, and not each appearing suddenly on the surface of the earth as would have been the case if it were flat, are clear pointers to the spherical shape of the earth. Still clearer, however, is the following:
J.ll ~ )4-:)1 J~ ) J4J! ~ J.ll J~
“He makes the night roll over the day and He makes the day roll over the night.” (39:5).
It is to be emphasized that the word kawwara (whence yukawwiru) means to roll into a ball or to make round. In other words, the ‘!ryah says that the night and the day are a continuous process round the earth.
(b) Concerning the sky
The Qur’an refers not only to the earth and what it produces by Allah’s leave, it also draws man’s attention to the skies and the universe in order to bring home to him the theme of His Existence and Omnipotence. And in so doing it makes
82 THE QUR’AN AND THE ORIENTALISTS
statements of which the full significance and meaning are unfolding themselves only with the progress of our scientific knowledge. But as in the case of the earth, so in respect of the sky Watt states that the Qur’an only picks up the prevailing erroneous notion and conceives the sky to be something built of solid materials, “presumably of stone.”1 He bases his assertion on four out of the eight Qur’anic passages he cites in connection with what he imagines scientific errors in the Qur’an. These four passages, together with his translation of them, are as follows:
(a) 79:27-28 = U.l_,…,.i ~ cjJ u.~ ~L…..JI ~~ \.A.l..:. .w.i ~~~
“Are you harder to create or the heaven he built? He raised up its roof and ordered it.”
(b) 88:17~18 = ~J ~ ~L….-ll JIJ …:….A1.,.:. ~ ._k’)ll Jl 0JA J\,0(
“Will they not regard the camels, how they are formed? and the heaven how it is raised?”
(c) 51:47 = 0y–_,..J l..i\J ..~.,!~ u.~ ~L…..JIJ
“The heaven we have built with hands, and it is we who make it of vast extent.. .. ”
(d) 2:22 = ~~ ~L…..J\) W.\) <./’}~\ ~ J..>–11
(Your Lord) made for you the earth a carpet and the heaven an edifice … ”
In the above quoted passages there occur the expressions banaha, baynaha and bina’ respectively in (a), (c) and (d). Understandably, Watt has so translated them as would best illustrate the point he wants to make. But even accepting his rendering of the terms, it may be pointed out that the words “build” and “edifice” are not exclusively used in respect of solid objects. They may very well be applied to non-solids as well as abstract ideas and objects. At any rate, his translation of the expression wa ‘inna la-musi’un as “and we make it of vast extent” is not quite correct. The exact meaning of the expression, as pointed out above, is: “And We do expand it” or “We are in the process of expanding it.”
Now, knowing as we do at the present time that just as an atom is a “structure” or “edifice” “built” of certain elements, similarly the whole universe and its component parts, the innumerable systems (like the solar system) as a whole and each individually are very much a structure, a set-up, an integrated construction, an organism or, figuratively, even an “edifice”. Hence the terms “built”, “created”, “formed”, etc., may appropriately be applied to them, especially to the solar system, to which the earth and the neighbouring planets belong. The question is how one sees it, as Watt himself seems to recognize. The terms by themselves do not mean that the Qur’an conceives the sky to be something of a solid object.
1 W ATT, Muhammad’s Mecca, 5.
THE ALLEGED CONTEMPORARY ERRORS IN THE QUR’AN 83
Similarly the term samk in (c) , which Watt translates as “roof’, has other meanings as well as height, expansiveness, extensiveness and burj or zone of constellation.1 Of course the Qur’an does in other places refer to the sky as “the raised roof’ (al-saqf al-maifu’) and a “protected roof’ (saqfan mahfazan).3 The word saqf in Arabic originally means a cover or a roof over anything. The term is therefore appropriately applicable to the immediate sphere around our atmospheric belt, or the latter itself, for both of them are very much “protected” and “protecting” covers over us, the earth, and both of them, as will be seen presently, are included in al-sama’ or the sky as conceived in the Qur’an.
Apart from these four passages, however, there are many other statements in the Qur’an which Watt does not take into account but which show that its view of the sky is not so primitive as he thinks it to be. These other passages may be classified into three broad categories -(a) those that speak about the state of the sky at the beginning of the creation, (b) those that give an idea of the nature and contents of the sky as they are now and (c) those that speak about their state in the end.
As regards the state of the sky at the beginning of the creation, two passages are of special significance. The one, 41:11, says that at the beginning the sky was only “smoke” (or vaporous or gaseous-.:Jl>-~!..? J). The other, 21:30, states that the skies and the earth were initially one mass but they were subsequently cloven asunder.4 Modern scientists have different theories about the origin of the universe. Neither is the present writer competent to speak on the subject, nor is the present work a suitable place for a discussion on it. Speaking in general as a layman, however, two statements may safely be made in this connection. First, the various modern theories about the origin of the universe seem only to approximate the position stated so clearly in the Qur’an. Second, these Qur’anic statements go inconceivably beyond the notion about the sky prevalent in sixth-seventh century world.
The passages speaking about the nature and contents of the sky are more numerous. The most striking point in these passages is the plural form, al-samawat, which occurs some 190 times in the Qur’an, while in its singular form, al-sama’, it comes some 120 times. More interestingly, at least at nine places the Qur’an
1 See Lisan al-‘Arab under samk and Tad al-‘Aril.r, VII, 145.
2 Q. 52:5.
3 Q. 21:32.
4 See supra, p. 81.
The text runs as:
… L…At.a;;.;IZ; L:;lS’ … h’->1) ul)i……JI 011)_,£ .:.r..i.ll _, r-1}
84 TIIE QUR’AN AND TIIE ORIENTALISTS
specifically mentions that there are “seven skies”,1 one adjoining and corresponding to the other, tibaqa (lil.,b) or in layers.2 It is now a generally accepted view with the scientists that the universe consists of several staggeringly expansive spaces, some enumerating exactly seven, each corresponding to and adjoining the other and each with its own constellations and meteors! The “skies” or the “seven skies” spoken of in the Qur’an for about 200 times thus appear to assume a new significance and meaning in the light of this modern knowledge. For one thing, no person in the seventh century looking at the sky with bare eyes and imagining it to be something of a solid structure would venture to say so categorically and repeatedly that there are seven such structures, one above or beside the other. Nor was one in need of indulging in such unusual and, in the Prophet’s case, a definitely hazardous statement. In this respect too the Qur’an goes far beyond the seventh century notion about the sky.3
Equally significant are the statements about how the skies and objects therein are held in their respective positions. It is very clearly mentioned that while “raising” the sky Allah also set the “balance”.4 It is also mentioned that the sky is not such a structure as is rested on visible pillars. 5 Most important of all, it is stated that the skies (al-samawat) and the earth are sustained by Allah’s will. The statement runs as follows:
…. ·~if ..L>i if ~i 01 Wlj.) J ‘)Jj 0i ..j>}:liJ … :JIJL……JI ~ .J.ll 01
“Verily Allah holds the heavens and the earth, lest they should cease to be there; and if they ceased to be there, there is none except He Who could hold them.” (35:41)
The expression “holding” in respect of the “skies” as well as the earth is very significant. It means that neither is the earth rested on something “solid” nor are the skies so. In other words, the passage says that they are held in their respective positions without solid supports, that is in space, by Allah’s will and design
A third and bewildering fact mentioned about the sky, as mentioned earlier,6 is that it is in the process of continuous expansion. Modern scientific knowledge is surprisingly in line with this statement of the Qur’an. It may further be noted in this connection that the Qur’an also describes the seven skies as “seven ways” or tracks. Thus 23:17 states
1 Q. 2:29; 17:44; 23:17; 23:86; 41:12; 65:12; 67:3; 71:15 and 78:12.
2 Q. 67:3 and 71:15. The term tibaqa, though often translated as “one above the other), more correctly means “in layers” or “corresponding to one another”. See Lane’s Lexicon.
3 Watt quickly passes over this fact by saying: “There is also mention of seven heavens.”(Muhammad’s Mecca,5.)
4 Q. 55:7 = 01r.Jit”‘JJ4-JJ’L……JIJ
5 Q. 13:2 and 31:10.
6 Supra, pp. 78-79.
THE ALLEGED CONTEMPORARY ERRORS IN THE QUR’AN 85
.:Ji!S-._;.l>JI ,y L:S’ L.. J ~I)> t;-” ~} \.a6:. …lA.l J
“And We have created above you seven ways, and We are not unmindful of the creation.” (23:27)
The full significance of such statements in the Qur’an may be understood only in the light of modern scientific knowledge about the movement of the heavenly bodies.
Another significant fact about the skies mentioned in the Qur’an is that there are living beings in them, and not simply on this our planet, the earth. Thus 42:29 very distinctly states:
…. ‘-!b .y l…+,j ~ L.. J J> J ~IJ ..:..IJL……JI Jb:. .v~.t_l~ .y J
“And of His signs is the creation of the skies and the earth and what He has spread forth in both of them of living beings.”
There are other passages too that give the same impression.1 Finally, of the seven skies, the nearest in relation to us is described in the Qur’an as al-sama’ al-duf!Jd or the “nether sky”. More significantly, it is very specifically stated that this the “nether sky” is decorated with stars (kawakib) and incandescent lights (masabih). Thus 41:12, after referring to Allah’s having created the seven skies and set in each sky its order (U. r! ~\…… J5′ J ..s} J) adds:~~ l,;J.ll ~L..-ll ~j J -“and We decorated the nether sky with incandescent lights.”
The same thing is stated in 67:5, while 37:6 states: ~1_,501 ~..r. l,;J.ll ~L..-JI ~j L;l –
“Verily We have decorated the nether sky with the stars ….. ”
This feature is thus especial to the “nether sky” or the immediate sky. The reference here is obviously to the vast region of space in which the solar system and the neighbouring constellations exist. Modern scientific knowledge seems to be grappling with the nature and scope of the “nether sky” only. According to the present state of that knowledge, this “nether sky” is “roofed” by the “milky way” which contains at least one thousand billion stars, none of them being smaller than the sun!
With regard to this “nether sky” the notion of space is conveyed by the fact that the heavenly bodies -the sun, the moon, the stars -are described as having been set “in” (fi) it and that they are made to move in certain well regulated ways and for specified terms. Thus 13:2 states:
~~ J…. ~ i.f f'<>. J5′ _,..A)IJ ~~ .i”‘-” J –
“And He has subjected to order the sun and the moon; each runs (its course) for a term specified …. ” Similarly 36:38-40 states:
t! …lA.ll 0 _,.,. _;J \5′ ~ \s. .,? J jl . .:.. • L; yti _,..A) I J ~I y. ;JI .1-..u; .!llj 4J _,A.:..-..l i,f _r-; ~I J
1 See for instance Q. 16:49; 17:55; 19:93; 21:19; 23:71; 24:41; 27:65; 28:18; 30:26.
86 THE QUR’AN AND THE ORIENTALISTS
0 ~ .;.ill .j j5’ ) J4-JI d.\….. J..ll ‘1) _r-<)1 .!l y.lj 0! 4J ~ ~I ‘1
“The sun runs its course to a destination for it; that is the ordaining of the Almighty, the All-Knowing. And the moon We have set for it stations, till it reverts to the like of a withered palm-bough. It behoves not the sun to overtake the moon, neither does the night outstrip the day. And each swims in an orbit (space).”
Whatever interpretation one may like to put on the terms mustaqarr and falak in the above passage, the sense of motion and movement on the one hand, and that of space on the other, are all too clear from the expressions yajrii, tajrf and yusbi~un
That the term sama’ (sky) embraces the open space above (or around) us is clearly indicated by such passages as 16:79 and 30:48. The first passage states:
.. L…….JI y. J -.::.>l.f”‘–” _)..)1 Jl IJ.I-r-ll
“Do they not look at the birds subjected to order in the midst of the sky? …. ”
The second passage, 30:48, states:
….. ~ J.,? .. L…….JI .j ~~G…. _r.a c’-<)1 j.. .1–slJI ….Ui
“It is Allah Who sends the winds that raise the clouds. Thus He spreads them in the sky as He wills …. “‘
Coming to the group of passages that speak about the end, the most important thing to note is that the skies, along with the stars, the planets and all the other creation, will be brought to an end.
“That day We shall roll up the sky like the rolling up of the scroll of writings. As We began the first creation, We shall repeat it … “2
That day the sky will “disintegrate with clouds;3 it will come up with “visible smoke”;4 it “will be in a state of commotion”;5 it “will be rent asunder and turn red like paint”;6 it “will be like molten brass”;7the stars will be displaced and scattered8 and the sun and the moon will be joined together.9 Finally, a new world and new skies will be ushered in, as the Qur’an states:
…. d)L…….ll ) ,_;. }11 ~ ,_;. }11 J..y i Y-
“That day the earth will be exchanged for another earth, and the skies too.” (14:48)
1 The Qur’an sometimes also figuratively employs the term .ramd’ for rain. Such passages are not, however, relevant to the present discussion. 2 Q. 21:104 = … ‘”””” c;J.>. J} d.4 W”” ~ j-.JI .}£ ,L….JI ..s_,k t y.
3 Q. 25:25 = ~? >S:.”)I.JI JJ J rw.l4 ,L….J, ~ r _, J
4 Q. 44:10 =””‘ 0~-4 ,L….JI <)(; tY. ..,..Z;li
5 Q. 52:9 = ‘;y ,L….J, ;_,..; r _,
6 Q. 55:37 = 01.A..UilS” ;, J) .,:..;15:; ,L….JI .,;….i..!.;l bli
7 Q. 70:8 = J+..lllS” ,L….JI0~ tY.
8 Q. 82:1-2 = .:.>pi ..,.s”I}:Jibl J
9 Q. 75:9 = .r.iJIJ ..,…..WI~
THE AllEGED CONTEMPORARY ERRORS IN THE QUR’AN 87
Thus will be the end of the present state of the world and the universe and the beginning of a new life and a new world -the hereafter.
The process thus described belongs to the future, and Allah Alone knows when and how these will be effected. So far as modern science is concerned, it only speculates that the world may come to an end as a result of some serious disturbance and dislocation in the solar and planetary systems. It is thus not in disharmony with the Qur’anic statements noted above.
The expressions “folding up”, “rent asunder” and the like used in connection with the end of the skies may give an impression that these are objects susceptible of being “broken up”. Like the terms “edifice” (bina) and “roof’ (saqf), these expressions also may be interpreted without assuming the skies to be “solid” objects, particularly as the process described includes the stars, the planets and other heavenly bodies. Similarly, the existence of living beings in the skies does not mean that these latter should be solid objects; for, just as the earth is set in the sky (space), so there are other earths in the skies. The Qur’an very clearly states at 65:12:
… ~ J> J ’11 .:r J ..:.>IJL…… C::’ Jl>-L>.i.JI .u.Ji -“Allah is He Who created the seven skies, and of the earth the like of them.” (65:12)
Also, it should be noted that the other living beings may have other types of physique and constitution; so their places of habitation may be different in nature than that of ours. Again, since even human beings become “weightless” at a certain distance in the space and may move about therein without the “support” of “solid” objects, it would be wrong to assume on the basis of the existence of living beings in the skies that these latter are therefore “solid” things.
It should be clear from the above discussion that there are certain expressions in the Qur’an which, if approached with the primitive notion about the sky, would fit in with that notion, but they are very much appropriate to the modern concept of the sky and the universe. Above all, it should not be lost sight of that the present state of our knowledge is confined only to a part of what constitutes the “nether sky”, al-sama’ al-duniya. The region lying beyond this nearest sky with all its stars and planets, is simply beyond our knowledge. Even the scientists admit that what they have hitherto learnt about the extent and nature of the sky is only a microscopic particle in relation to what remains unknown of it. What lies beyond this known or supposedly known region is completely dark to us. In view of all these it would be simply presumptuous to assume that the Qur’anic statements about the sky are not in accord with modern scientific knowledge. At
88 THE QUR’AN AND THE ORIENTALISTS
At any rate, Watt’s assumption that the Qur’anic view of the sky is primitive, reflecting the state of knowledge in the seventh century is wrong in three main respects. He picks up only a few statements in the Qur’an, approaches them with the “primitive” notion and puts a very narrow construction on them. Second, he ignores a large number of other statements in the Qur’an that are surprisingly in accord with modern scientific information about the sky and the significance of which may be fully appreciated with the further progress of our knowledge. Third, he seems to assume that the modern scientists have the last word about the sky and that nothing remains to be known about it, which is not at all the case; for the scientists themselves admit that they have not fathomed even a particle of the vast and bewildering creation, the sky.