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May 10 2011

Science vs. the Qur’an

I received a comment on my post Religion as a mental parasite from Hashem, an Ohio native studying abroad at a university in Cairo. He converted to Islam, and believes its teachings to be divinely inspired due to the scientific information it conveys that was not available to its author(s) at the time of writing, in 600CE.

jthibeault, I like your article, and I have been in your place some time ago and truly understand what your thinking and trying to convey. But I got out of this, after extensive re-search on religion, and found, as always, how the strongest and most fearful things have extensive degrading rumors around it. From here I’m trying to say the religion I found, and I am not a preacher, but someone open to new thoughts that would shed “light upon me” and help me understand the truth, like letting up on my religion, have more faith in it, or whatever the outcome would be. I talk about Islam, and till today I haven’t found any flaw in the texts of the holy Q’uran regarding science, or anything which changed to adapt to science, or anything which ever prevented in the search of science. Actually its quiet the opposite, since it always calls for us to look for science and advance more in this world that god gave us. The scientific facts, philosophies, and explanations were never out of date, and is actually much ahead of its time. Please ask questions, I would love to have this conversation/debate, if you may, with you.

There’s a kernel of truth to this statement — while the Christian world suffered through the anti-knowledge Dark Ages, the Arabic world, predominantly Muslim, enjoyed a period of flourishing scientific discovery in astronomy and mathematics, owing largely to their disinclination to describe physical properties of objects, preferring instead to describe their Platonic ideals. Since they disliked the idea of trying to “unweave the rainbow” and take glory away from Allah, they largely avoided over-scrutiny of any of this world’s actual physical properties, so other disciplines languished while mathematics and astronomy benefited.

The challenge, however, is this: show the Qur’an had special scientific knowledge unavailable to mankind in ~600CE. That’s a tough nut to crack.

The Qur’an is not the only holy book claimed to be the “only scientifically accurate document from antiquity” — Christians make the same claim about the Bible all the time. Because I tend to get Christian apologists around these parts, not Muslim apologists, I also tend to have quick rebuttals for specific points at the ready through frequent use. Not so with the Qur’an — I honestly have never read it, as I have (three times!) with the KJV Bible. I am therefore relying on a public-domain translation of the Qur’an and some handy pointers to specific science claims.

I have found already a number of passages that are simply flat wrong. I expect Hashem to counter with some interesting passages. I also expect that neither of us will convince one another, but that any dialog that goes on between us will be for others’ benefit, not ours. I’m okay with that, personally. As long as it benefits someone. I will only provide the surrounding lines for context if they make a legitimate difference to the context of the phrase (e.g. where specific passages are part of a larger thought). I do not intend this to be comprehensive — I’m sure the Skeptics’ Annotated folks already have that market cornered, so I don’t see a need. I simply want to highlight some very simple passages that expose enculturated ignorance about scientific matters that are common knowledge today. If any deity were to write a holy book with the intent that it be filled with deep truths about this universe that the “locals” didn’t know about at the time, here are some specific things that expose the deity either to be ignorant of his own design, or the authors to have had no divine knowledge whatsoever.

First, a bunch of great astronomical verses:

3 We narrate unto thee (Muhammad) the best of narratives in that We have inspired in thee this Qur’an, though aforetime thou wast of the heedless.
4 When Joseph said unto his father: O my father! Lo! I saw in a dream eleven planets and the sun and the moon, I saw them prostrating themselves unto me.
Chapter 12: Joseph, verse 4

Allah inspired a dream in Joseph involving the solar system. In 600CE, the common picture of the solar system (the Ptolemaic model, as described in the 200CE book The Almagest) held that the Earth was at the centre of the universe, with — in increasing order of distance — the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the fixed sphere of stars. While Allah is slightly closer to the truth in “inspiring” the vision of 11 planets plus the sun and moon, it’s likely they didn’t even include the Earth in that list. So really they estimated 12, including Earth. There are eight planets by the only logical delineation of the solar system one can develop, though you could make a case for more if you included the dwarf planets like Pluto and Ceres. The funny thing is, there are enough Kuiper objects in our solar system’s neighborhood that, if you create any criterion that will include Pluto or Ceres, will include far more than the 12 required to satisfy the Qur’an.

One could argue this isn’t a proclamation of truth, but rather just a dream. That would be undercutting Allah, though, wouldn’t it? And besides, there are many other verses that describe the Seven Heavens, indicating the five known planets, moon and sun. Those also undercut the divine knowledge of this statement.

Interestingly, I know of one specific case where a later translation completely changes the meaning to attempt to approximate a better understanding of the world, though this “better” translation fails even harder. Check out these translations:

Wal’arda ba’da dhalika dahaha (Arabic)
And the earth, moreover, hath He extended (to a wide expanse); (Yusuf Ali)
And after that He spread the earth, (Pickthall)
And the earth, He expanded it after that. (Shakir)
He made the earth egg-shaped. (Mahmud)
Chapter 79: Those Who Pull Out, verse 30

The Ptolemaic model understood the Earth to be a sphere, but in every case, the Qur’an appears to indicate that the Earth is a flat disc that was stretched outward by Allah. The word “dahaha” is evidently the word in question, and it apparently takes a gross misinterpretation of the Arabic to derive “egg-shaped” from the stretched-out-like-an-expanse translations. Ignoring the fact that this is post-hoc retrofitting of the Qur’an to fit the current understanding of the universe, the claim falls on its face in that the Earth is an oblate spehroid with very little actual bulging at the equator. It is far closer to a perfect sphere than it is to an egg-shape, no matter what sort of egg you attempt to implicate. I should like to see a fish egg (the only roughly spheroid egg I can think of) somewhere in the desert near enough to Mekka to be understood by Muhammed.

15 See ye not how Allah hath created seven heavens in harmony,
16 And hath made the moon a light therein, and made the sun a lamp ?
Chapter 71: Noah, verse 16

The moon reflects the light cast on it by the sun. It is not self-illuminated. This was understood in ~350 BCE by Aristotle. Aristotle used this fact, even, to prove that the Earth is round. There are other passages in the Qur’an that claim the moon and sun orbit the Earth (35:13), that the Earth is fixed in the universe as per the Ptolemaic model (27:61), or that the sun has a “resting place” that it goes to after it sets (36:38). Clearly astronomy wasn’t yet Islam’s best claim to science when the Qur’an was written!

Not that other disciplines fared much better in the Qur’an’s treantment. See biology:

49 And all things We have created by pairs, that haply ye may reflect.
Chapter 51: The Scatterers, verse 49

This is in the context of the things Allah’s responsible for making, including biological creatures that must reproduce via sexual coupling (e.g. by pairs, to “reflect” one another’s biology). Operative word “all”. Show a single piece of biological material that reproduces asexually, and this verse fails.

5 So let man consider from what he is created.
6 He is created from a gushing fluid
7 That issued from between the loins and ribs.
Chapter 86: The Night-Comer, verse 5-7

I’m going to forego the obvious and childish snickering at the choice of chapter title considering that “come” can’t possibly have had the same connotation in 600CE. It might have in 1938 when this translation was made, but hey. Regardless, I hope you all realize that testicles produce semen, and that testicles aren’t generally found between the loins and the ribs.

5 Lo! now they fold up their breasts that they may hide (their thoughts) from Him. At the very moment when they cover themselves with their clothing, Allah knoweth that which they keep hidden and that which they proclaim. Lo! He is Aware of what is in the breasts (of men).
Chapter 11: Hud (verse 5)

This should be relatively obviously and self-evidently wrong, I hope. People neither think, nor feel, with their breasts (e.g. their hearts). The only things happening in peoples’ breast are breathing, digestion and circulation. Wearing clothing is not an attempt to hide thoughts or feelings from a deity, it’s protection from the elements coupled with an attempt at self-expression or individuation. Or, as with the case of burkas (which one might say covers their brains), an attempt at hiding such individuation or self-expression. All thoughts and feelings happen in the brain area. A retranslation may or may not have corrected this, but I suspect this translation to be true to the originally intended meaning.

All of these verses show unequivocally that Muhammed did not have access to any special knowledge about this universe or how it works. If he did, he could have easily explained exactly how this universe works in such a way that translators would not be forced to make specious claims about ancient Arabic to try to sort of shoehorn the mantle of “science-fact” onto their holy book. I’m absolutely certain that Hashem will have some verses he’d like us to ponder, whose stretched interpretations might actually somewhat resemble reality. In all honesty though, even if the Qur’an was 100% filled with “lucky guesses” about reality that turn out to be perfectly accurate given the language of the day, it would sooner be proof that someone traveled back in time to become a religion’s prophet than it would prove that a creator deity inspired this person to write the book to disseminate this knowledge.

One cannot extrapolate that a book’s origin is divine, unless the book itself has some divine properties — like, say, for instance, being indestructible, being readable by anyone of any language, being solely responsible for all scientific advances since its being written, or — and here’s my big one — explaining the universe and how it works without debasing itself to becoming a rulebook for how humans should live by some seemingly arbitrary criteria. Any book that thoroughly explained this universe would instantly evaporate all need for scientific progress, because we would be gifted with a technologically advanced utopia. And that every deity of every holy book must needs have some twisted “test” for us, that a testing ground be the BEST explanation for this universe we see around us, is simply too much for me to swallow. No amount of scientific accuracy would convince me the testing nonsense is an act that a worthy deity would ever undertake. It would simply be beneath such an all-powerful creature to test us as opposed to simply “reformatting” the lot of us to His Divine Mandate.

So, in the interest of dialog, what have you got to offer, Hashem? I truly hope for your own sake that whatever it is, it’ll overwhelm these few examples of nonsense I’ve provided.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    Dan J

    Oddly enough, I have recently been contemplating writing another post about science and religion.

    My basic thoughts on the subject are like this: Your religion is (and should be) based on faith in your god. Please leave it that way. Attempting to find scientific justification for your deity denigrates your faith. It also wastes the time and resources of science, which is a method used to discover the nature of the physical reality we live in. If you don’t like some of the results of that scientific research: too bad. Get over it. No one cares. Keep your faith as faith. Justify it in your mind any way you want, but don’t expect science to help you. It’s done nothing put prove religious tenets false for the past couple of thousand years.

  2. 2
    Uncle Glenny

    6 He is created from a gushing fluid from The Night-Comer

    I took to mean amniotic fluid (when the water breaks). There could be pre-translation grammatical clues to disprove this, and of course there’s the timing issue, since pregnancy is a pretty obvious a long pre-existing state.to childbirth…

  3. 3
    The Atheist Jew

    The majority of Muslims I’ve been in debates with also believe that evolution is hooey. Ask Hashem if he accepts evolution and common ancestry. If he can’t accept it based on the Koran, it means the Koran is OTL right from the get go.

  4. 4
    Daniel M.

    Dan J,

    I agree. I didn’t before only because I use to ask the wrong question, namely, how can I find modern science in this ancient text? I no longer do that. Why? Because science changes. If my faith in God was founded on a few verses that seemed to make a scientific claim when translated into english, then I would pigeon hole my self. Because, after all, science is in a constant state of change as we discover new things. God does not change.

    So, how have I changed? Instead of asking the wrong question as stated above, I ask myself some very important questions when approaching any text — If I were a Jew reading this in the ancient near east culture, how would I read it or understand it? This has provided wonderful insight, because is allows me to enter their framework and not bring my 21st century paradigm to theirs.

    One argument commonly used in Christian circles, for example, is where Isaiah mentions “the circle of the earth” and the word circle in hebrew actually means “sphere.” Now, anybody would love to jump to their feet and exclaim, “See! The Bible knew this before everybody!” But, this is an ignorant claim. We are making the presupposition that the text was trying to tell us something scientifically in the first place. The context doesn’t provide us with this meaning. In other words, it isn’t saying, “The earth is a spherical shape.”

    We just ask the wrong questions, bring our presuppositions to an ancient text, and try to find 21st century science to the table when it never asked for it.

  5. 5
    Dan J

    Hi Daniel!

    I greatly appreciate your response. I keep getting this feeling that a lot of the friction between the secular, scientific world and the faith-based world of religion is caused by misplaced expectations.

    I don’t expect the Christian Bible to help me develop new antibiotics, and I don’t expect a chemistry textbook to provide examples of my social group’s expected morality.

  6. 6
    Jason Thibeault

    I’m sad that Hashem never returned. He asked for a discussion, and I made this post explicitly to that end. :(

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