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Aug 17 2010

The Quran and the speed of light

I think I should make a policy, that if I received a similar very specific question by email twice, I should turn the first exchange into a blog post and link it as a reply to the same question in the future. I probably won’t be able to stick to this policy, but I’m doing it now for this message.

The claim: The Quran computes the value of the speed of light with unbelievable accuracy.

Sources: “Speed of Light“; “Quran and The Speed of Light?” (video)

Best rebuttal online: At Islam Watch.

My two cents:

This is a clear case of cherry picking numbers to sound plausible. They had to use some incredibly tortured logic to drag the number “12,000 lunar orbits” out of a fairly generic verse which, after all, makes no reference whatsoever to moons or distances or even the number 12. They are taking something vague and trying to make it specific, which after all is what all apologists do when they want to make a prophecy out of something that isn’t. If it hadn’t been the moon, they could have tried “1000 centuries of walking” or “1000 rotations of the earth” or “1000 earth orbits” — ANYTHING which gets them within the right order of magnitude to something specific.

Then that’s not enough to get them all that close, so they screw around with the numbers more. For instance, you’ll notice they use some extremely fuzzy math to claim that there are 86170 seconds in a day. There aren’t 86,170 seconds in a day, there are 86,400. If there were as much as 230 seconds difference every day, then we’d have a leap year every year.

They do all kinds of stupid math tricks just to line up some number with a lunar cycle to match a verse that doesn’t even say anything about lunar orbits, and then they claim that the Quran predicts the speed of light. Okay. If that’s the case, then why didn’t the ancient Muslims know what the speed of light was? Why is it never referenced anywhere? Why isn’t it calculated? Why, in fact, did no one think to calculate the speed of light from the Quran until long after Einstein Ole Rømer came along? [Edited -- thanks Curt!]

I’ll tell you why, because it’s nonsense. It’s applying known scientific facts, discovered by westerners, and giving credit to their holy book by retrofitting nonsensical numerology with cherry picked frames of reference.

How did the authors of the Quran have such fantastic futuristic knowledge, Muslims ask? It’s really simple when you recognize a few facts. The Quran is an ancient book written by people who had no knowledge of modern science, and in fact reads this way. A contemporary person who knows some science can make passages of the Quran superficially resemble scientific insights by manipulating verses that have nothing to do with science and trying to pigeonhole them into something resembling contemporary knowledge.

You could, if you were so inclined, do exactly the same thing with “The Canterbury Tales,” “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” or Lewis Carrol’s “Jabberwocky.”

32 comments

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  1. 1
    JT

    I would say additionally, that even if it did have an accurate measuring of the speed of light, so what?That could just mean there was a really smart guy way back then, who was ahead of his time.Where does the supernatural bit come in?

  2. 2
    Curt Cameron

    A nitpick, many people tried to measure the speed of light well before Einstein, at least back to the 1600s. James Clerk Maxwell put together his equations describing electricity and magnetism in 1861, and the speed of light falls out of these equations, and is a function of the electric permittivity and magnetic permeability constants.

  3. 3
    Simon

    The analysis of the first computation on the Islam Watch site is silly. If you want to see how far off you are in your computations, you divide the numbers, not subtract them. That gives you a result of around 1.12 in the first case, which isn't bad at all given the state of scientific knowledge at the time.I hate seeing atheists using bad logic to refute religious claims. We atheists have all the facts on our side; why should we resort to bad logic when the truth agrees with us? One only needs to do that when one is actually wrong.

    1. 3.1
      Joe

      Simon, well initiated response … and I agree this is horrific logic not to mention incorrect data as to no calculation of the velocity of light pre-Quran. I am amazed the massive amount of time we spend on blogging about this, (we want perfect eternal life and thus seek answers to such?, or we wish to eradicate the presence of accountability for our guilt-laden behaviors) Perhaps some entity or law demands free will or desires confusion? The constant scientific refuting of as the author put it “nonsense” seems so unnecessary and counter-productive (qualia of ones understanding is unique based on the reception of only partial cosmological data and their ability to analyze it) I have become too philosophical and I don’t have time to prove to the world(through blogs) of the mathematical formula proving a God exists or that probability of No God is astronomically implausible, but I feel I can … and should, but only to those with enough enlightenment to even comprehend such math and that have a belief or FAITH that such empirical repeatable formulation could possibly exist. Such an entity would give me inspiration that someone genuinely seeks a confirmation (why wouldn’t they?) and thus I would indulge. I know I am answering a post that is 3 years old so it may not be checked for a while but you can leave your email on a reply and I will be notified. I am extremely preoccupied in thought and creation (ADD or a great and marvelous gift from God) so I very infrequently check email but this is the most important subject that should be on the mind of millions so I will respond with my albeit already doubted mathematical logic.

  4. 4
    KaylaKaze

    Not to nitpick, but you're not entirely accurate on the length of a day:"A sidereal day is approximately 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4.091 seconds (23.93447 hours or 0.99726957 SI days), corresponding to the time it takes for the Earth to complete one rotation relative to the vernal equinox."while the actual length of a day in solar time varies throughout the year and averages to 24 hours.

  5. 5
    JT

    @KaylaKazeTwo questions I gots for you:1) What's the purpose of the leap year (day), then?2) What causes the earth's angular velocity to slow down, then speed up again?I get that due to the tides, etc, generally the rotation is slowing overall, but it's the speeding-back-up part I don't understand.

  6. 6
    Guillaume

    "The Bible is more historically acurate than any other holy book", "The Quran has real science in it", "It says in the Bible that the Earth is round", etc. Funny how little theists like science (or history!) usually but how they make such claims to legitimize their faith.

  7. 7
    Justin B.

    It's really astonishing that some people find claims of fantastic scientific insights in ancient religious texts believable.

  8. 8
    Deviant and Fragile

    Just my two cents…My take on this sort of thing is a symptom of cognitive dissonance. People get taught to believe the quran has been send from heaven, literally by allah. But science tells different things. And it is darn hard to invalidate those discoveries. That's when cognitive dissonance kicks in. They are turning tricks to to keep their original ideas intact. I must honestly say, that because I'm from holland some sentences are difficult to understand (even though my blog is also written in english. Or maybe it is an attempt)on this site. What I'm trying to say is, that I can totally be beside the mark here.

  9. 9
    JD

    @JTSignificant geological events, such as the 2004 earthquake that caused the tsunamis, can cause earth's rotation to speed up (marginallY).

  10. 10
    Ithonicfury

    "Those angels take their orders from a Preserved Tablet somewhere in outer space, and not from God's Throne. They commute to and from this Preserved Tablet to get their orders from God. In the following verse, the Quran describes how angels travel when they commute to and from this Tablet. And the speed at which they commute to and from this Tablet turned out to be the known speed of light:"Huh, that explains why a lot of muslims still live in the 1500's, the angels are limited to the speed of light, and Allah must be over 250 light years away. Seems like a crappy system, but hey, I'm not god…

  11. 11
    Curt Cameron

    JT wrote:"1) What's the purpose of the leap year (day), then?"I don't know what you're asking – nothing KaylaKaze wrote pertains to leap years in a significant way."2) What causes the earth's angular velocity to slow down, then speed up again?"It doesn't. But because the Earth travels around the Sun in an ellipse instead of a perfect circle causes what he was talking about.If you define a "day" as the time from when the Sun appears at its highest point (local noon), until it does this the next time, that will average out to be 24 hours, but it won't be exactly 24 hours every time. Not because the Earth is speeding up or slowing down its rotation, but because of the path the Earth takes around the Sun.Imagine you set up a camera on a tripod and have it take a picture of the Sun's position every day for a year, with the pictures being exactly 24 hours apart. Besides the North-to-South motion you'd expect from the change of seasons, there's also an East-West variation. During part of the year (which is winter in the North BTW), the Earth is actually closer to the Sun. Since it's closer, there are two effects that cause the apparent position of the Sun to move faster: 1) it's closer so the angle of its movement changes faster, and 2) in an elliptical orbit, the Earth actually is at the fastest part of its orbit when it's closest to the Sun.So if you combine all those pictures and map the position of the Sun over the course of a year, you'll see a figure-eight pattern. You may have seen this because it's traditionally printed on globes. The pattern is called the analemma.So if you define a day as an exact 24-hour period, you'll see the Sun move back-and-forth over the course of a year. If you define a day as the time it takes the Sun to be in the same place, then some days are shorter and some are longer.

  12. 12
    KaylaKaze

    @JTI don't know. I'm not an astronomer. Ask them. I just remembered having read in a science book that the day was actually 23 hours, 56 minutes and went to look it up to verify.Solar Time and Sidereal TimeThere are plenty of ways to mock this ridiculous idea. We don't need bad math making us look bad.

  13. 13
    James A. Brown

    Typo in your second paragraph:"Speed of lot" ?

  14. 14
    Andy

    Well, you know, in the Land of Religion, there's no such thing as a "coincidence"–just miracles!Gimmie a calculator and an hour, and I'll make any holy text seem prophetic. Oh, look, the Israelites wandered for forty years–and 40 x 2 is 80. Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. That must mean Reagan is (was?) the Messiah!

  15. 15
    Kazim

    @Simon (third post):You're right, breathlessly citing big numbers like "That's over twenty times the distance between the Earth and the Sun!" is a pet peeve of mine that creationists use frequently, and you're right that it's the percent error that should be reported.However, my point here is not just how much the numbers are off. The number used in the Quran ("a thousand years of what you count") is absurdly unspecific. Not only does it make not direct reference to the moon at all, but it has, you know, ONE significant digit. From a literary point of view, it's like saying "40 days and 40 nights"; all it's meant to signify is "some really big number."As such, it's a Rorshach test. People can superimpose whatever they want over "what you count," and pick their units in whatever way will mean something, and translate the final number into whatever sciency-sounding term seems to fit.Given all those degrees of freedom, 12% error is still remarkably shitty as a "hit".

  16. 16
    PaulJ

    You could, if you were so inclined, do exactly the same thing with "The Canterbury Tales," "The Epic of Gilgamesh," or Lewis Carrol's "Jabberwocky."This is pretty much what was done with Moby Dick in order to debunk the "Bible Code" nonsense.

  17. 17
    JT

    @Curt CameronThanks, I wasn't familiar with those concepts. It's good to know.

  18. 18
    Jeremiah

    Good stuff on the orbit of the earth around the sun Curt. Stuff like that is why I love science so much. :)I don't know about anyone else but to me, learning about the actual mechanics of why something is the way it is, that is 1000 times more interesting and satisfying than thinking that a divine force 'just made it so'.

  19. 19
    rrpostal

    Okay. If that's the case, then why didn't the ancient Muslims know what the speed of light was? I had one annoyingly long discussion with one of these "secrets in the Quran" folks a bit ago. I kept explaining to him this very point. He went so far as to say "we didn't have the tools to know back then". Yes, I needed to point out the almighty may have been able to throw the tool info in there also. When he finally understood what I was saying, he was amazed that this mattered to me. The point wasn't to share the information with us, he claimed. Apparently the reason things like the speed of light were put in there is so that when we do actually discover them, we then realize what a great and wonderful book it is.Honestly. He didn't miss a beat. The scary thing is that I really don't think he would have been any more impressed if the writings were actually teaching legitimate unknowns.

  20. 20
    James

    There seems to be some confusion about number of seconds in a day: Kazim you are correct when you say that a day in the usual sense of the word has 86400 seconds (ignoring leap seconds etc) but they video mentions a sidereal day. There is an important difference: the usual meaning of day is a mean solar day, the average interval between times when the sun is at its highest point in the sky. A sidereal day is instead defined with respect to the distant stars, and differs from a solar day because in addition to rotating on its axis, the earth orbits the sun. So it takes 23 hours 56 minutes for the earth to complete a full revolution with respect to the fixed stars, but a further 4 minutes until the sun is once again at its highest point, because the earth has moved along its orbit, and with respect to the fixed stars, the direction from the earth to the sun has changed.The passage from the Koran does use the word day, but does not specify the sidereal day, just like it doesn't mention the speed of light, any reference to distance, the orbit of the moon or, well, anything really.For the pedants, I'm ignoring the effect of precession since it's almost negligible.

  21. 21
    Ing

    Hey the Jabberwocky has great insights into medicine and anatomy that could ONLY be supernatural!After all it predicted the fact that you can't survive decapitation LONG before modern medical science figured it out.Are you saying you can survive with your head cut off? I think not, Mr. Glasser! GOOD DAY SIR!

  22. 22
    Ing

    Also on the earlier one on "Quaran predicts plant genders" Plants themselves are usually not male/female. For most, each plant has male and female genitalia. Not going into the alternative generations, of course.

  23. 23
    Rhetoric

    One of the hardest things to do in this world is to distinguish between what you want to be true and what you are actually perceiving.How many times in your life have you looked back on events only to realize all the signs where there for something that(at the time) took you by surprise. Or saw all the signs you wanted to see which weren't signs at all. It's amazing how when you really really want something to be true you can always find support for it.

  24. 24
    ernobius

    The good thing in things like this, that aren't Christian, that you can try using them to show Christians that people with other religions feel the same (and do the same), and their religion is not the only one.I guess.

  25. 25
    Trash

    It would be interesting to know what the Quran (or any other holy book) can predict on questions not yet answered by science:1. Are there elementary particles yest to find?2. Is it possible to travel in time?3. Are we alone in the galaxy, or the universe?Most scolars understand these questions and a correct answer will be an obvious merit for there holy book.

  26. 26
    Wanderlust

    "…makes no reference whatsoever to moons or distances or even the number 12"The verse in question states, "(Allah) Rules the cosmic affair from the heavens to the Earth. Then this affair travels to Him a distance in one day, at a measure of one thousand years of what you count."Key phrase being "one thousand years of what /you/ measure." Muslims use the lunar calendar (lunar = moon, obviously). Each year has 12 months. That's what they count. That's where the moon and number 12 came from.

  27. 27
    newerehmi

    A point that you should know: quran wasn't revealed but to Muhammad (peace be upon him), all for his and his people point of view, which is arabs. On their century, they count 1 year as 12 lunar (so of course 1000 year = 12000 lunar). They didn't have the calender to count DAY by DAY. And quran was not revealed to a scientist! So, what do you expect for the Word to have a scientific word in it? will the people of that century (7th) believe it? The non-believer of that time will ridicule more then. And quran wasn't revealed but as a Sign to the believer so they believe in God, NOT as the SCIENCE to the believer. Not everyone a scholar, not everyone a scientist. But, we in the modern day, can use it as the sign of His Existence! Say: "O men! I am sent unto you all, as the Messenger of God, to Whom belongeth the dominion of the heavens and the earth: there is no god but He: it is He That giveth both life and death. So believe in God and His Messenger, the [b]Unlettered Prophet[/b], who believeth in God and His words: follow him that (so) ye may be guided." [quran 7:158]

  28. 28
    Kazim

    But, we in the modern day, can use it as the sign of His Existence! No we can't. The passage contains no more scientifically interesting information than does "Jabberwocky." You seem to want to reiterate the claim by just repeating it and pretend the post commenting on that didn't happen.

  29. 29
    newerehmi

    Then tell me, how could the calculation result equivalent to the speed of light? On which part do you want to claim that it is wrong?

  30. 30
    mustafa

    the speed of light bit taken from quran even if wrong..it will only be human error..you cannot prove quran wrong by proving a man's interpretation of quran wrong…did you know quran says that the earth is geospherical.I guess no.

  31. 31
    Flame of the East

    newerehmi said:"A point that you should know: quran wasn't revealed but to Muhammad (peace be upon him), all for his and his people point of view, which is arabs. On their century, they count 1 year as 12 lunar (so of course 1000 year = 12000 lunar). They didn't have the calender to count DAY by DAY. And quran was not revealed to a scientist!"Actually they counted Lunar periods (29,5 days)not lunar orbits (27 days)When you take that difference for 1000 years it adds up to a difference of 26507 days If you are a Muslim you should know about Islamic calender (at least for Ramadan) and that one month there takes either 29 or 30 days. And you can open up the website of those miracle traders to see that they have taken 27 point something daysYou already posses the knowledge to debunk this, I should not even tell you about this, if you only take one skeptical look you will seeSo what this miracle suggests is that Allah (you know supposedly all-knowing) has missed the speed of light by 26507 days when he said "1000 years of WHAT YOU COUNT"mustafa said:"the speed of light bit taken from quran even if wrong..it will only be human error..you cannot prove quran wrong by proving a man's interpretation of quran wrong…did you know quran says that the earth is geospherical.I guess no."No I did not know that… In fact I knew that someone calculated Earth's cicumference quite accurately before Quran even existed on this Earthhttp://geography.about.com/od/historyofgeography/a/eratosthenes.htm@AtheistsDon't rely on evangelists for anything, just check the verse and the numbers and the calculation something HAS TO BE wrong, it always is

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