Astronomy in the Quran
The Quran is full of reflections on the Heavens. In the preceding chapter on the Creation, we saw how the plurality of the Heavens and Earths was referred to, as well as what the Quran calls an intermediary creation 'between the Heavens and the Earth', modern science has verified the latter. The verses referring to the Creation already contain a broad idea of what is to be found in the heavens, i.e. of everything outside the earth.
Apart from the verses that specifically describe the Creation, there are roughly another forty verses in the Quran which provide information on astronomy complementing what has already been given. Some of them are not much more than reflections on the glory of the Creator, the Organizer of all the stellar and planetary systems. These we know to be arranged according to balancing positions whose stability Newton explained in his law of the mutual attraction of bodies.
The first verses to be quoted here hardly furnish much material for scientific analysis: the aim is simply to draw attention to God's Omnipotence. They must be mentioned however to give a realistic idea of the way the Quranic text described the organization of the Universe fourteen centuries ago.
These references constitute a new fact of divine Revelation. The organization of the world is treated in neither the Gospels nor the Old Testament (except for a few notions whose general inaccuracy we have already seen in the Biblical description of the Creation). The Quran however deals with this subject in depth. What it describes is important, but so is what it does not contain. It does not in fact provide an account of the theories prevalent at the time of the Revelation that deal with the organization of the celestial world, theories that science was later to show were inaccurate. An example of this will be given later. This negative consideration must however be pointed out. [ I have often heard those who go to great lengths to find a human explanation-and no other-to all the problems raised by the Quran Bay the following: "if the Book contains surprising statements on astronomy, it is because the Arabs were very knowledgeable on this subject." In so doing they forget the fact that, in general, science in Islamic countries is very much post-Quran, and that the scientific knowledge of this great period would in any case not have been sufficient for a human being to write some of the verses to be found in the Quran. This will be shown in the following paragraphs.]
A. GENERAL REFLECTIONS CONCERNING THE SKY
--sura 50, verse 6. The subject is man in general.
"Do they not look at the sky above them, how We have built it and adorned it, and there are no rifts in it."
--sura 31, verse 10:
"(God) created the heavens without any pillars that you can see..."
--sura 13, verse 2:
"God is the One Who raised the heavens without any pillars that you can see, then He firmly established Himself on the throne and He subjected the sun and moon . . ."
These two verses refute the belief that the vault of the heavens was held up by pillars, the only things preventing the former from crushing the earth.
--sura 55, verse 7:
"the sky (God) raised it . . ."
--sura 22, verse 65:
"(God) holds back the sky from falling on the earth unless by His leave . . ."
It is known how the remoteness of celestial masses at great distance and in proportion to the magnitude of their mass itself constitutes the foundation of their equilibrium. The more remote the masses are, the weaker the force is that attracts one to the other. The nearer they are, the stronger the attraction is that one has to the other: this is true for the Moon, which is near to the Earth (astronomically speaking) and exercises an influence by laws of attraction on the position occupied by the waters of the sea, hence the phenomenon of the tides. If two celestial bodies come too close to one another, collision is inevitable. The fact that they are subjected to an order is the sine qua non for the absence of disturbances.
The subjection of the Heavens to divine order is often referred to as well:
--sura 23, verse 86. God is speaking to the Prophet.
"Say: Who is Lord of the seven heavens and Lord of the tremendous throne?"
We have already seen how by 'seven heavens' what is meant is not 7, but an indefinite number of Heavens.
--sura 45, verse 13:
"For you (God) subjected all that is in the heavens and on the earth, all from Him. Behold! In that are signs for people who reflect."
--sura 55, verse 5:
"The sun and moon (are subjected) to calculations"
--sura 6, verse 96:
"(God) appointed the night for rest and the sun and the moon for reckoning."
--sura 14, verse 33:
"For you (God) subjected the sun and the moon, both diligently pursuing their courses. And for you He subjected the night and the day."
Here one verse completes another: the calculations referred to result in the regularity of the course described by the heavenly bodies in question, this is expressed by the word da'ib, the present participle of a verb whose original meaning was 'to work eagerly and assiduously at something'. Here it is given the meaning of 'to apply oneself to something with care in a perseverant, invariable manner, in accordance with set habits'.
--sura 36, verse 39: God is speaking:
"And for the moon We have appointed mansions till she returns like an old shriveled palm branch."
This is a reference to the curled form of the palm branch which, as it shrivels up, takes on the moon's crescent. This commentary will be completed later.
--sura 16, verse 12:
"For you (God) subjected the night and the day, the sun and the moon; the stars are in subjection to His Command. Verily in this are signs for people who are wise."
The practical angle from which this perfect celestial order is seen is underlined on account of its value as an aid to man's travel on earth and by sea, and to his calculation of time. This comment becomes clear when one bears in mind the fact that the Quran was originally a preaching addressed to men who only understood the simple language of their everyday lives. This explains the presence of the following reflections.
--sura 6, verse 97:
"(God) is the One Who has set out for you the stars, that you may guide yourselves by them through the darkness of the land and of the sea. We have detailed the signs for people who know."
--sura 16, verse 16:
"(God sets on the earth) landmarks and by the stars (men) guide themselves."
--sura 10, verse 5:
"God is the One Who made the sun a shining glory and the moon a light and for her ordained mansions, so that you might know the number of years and the reckoning (of the time). God created this in truth. He explains the signs in detail for people who know."
This calls for some comment. Whereas the Bible calls the Sun and Moon 'lights', and merely adds to one the adjective 'greater' and to the other 'lesser', the Quran ascribes differences other than that of dimension to each respectively. Agreed, this is nothing more than a verbal distinction, but how was one to communicate to men at this time without confusing them, while at the same time expressing the notion that the Sun and Moon were not absolutely identical 'lights'?
B. NATURE OF HEAVENLY BODIES
The Sun and the Moon
The Sun is a shining glory (diya') and the Moon a light (nur). This translation would appear to be more correct than those given by others, where the two terms are inverted. In fact there is little difference in meaning since diya' belongs to a root (dw') which, according to Kazimirski's authoritative Arabic/French dictionary, means 'to be bright, to shine' (e.g. like a fire). The same author attributes to the substantive in question the meaning of 'light'.
The difference between Sun and Moon will be made clearer by further quotes from the Quran.
--sura 25, verse 61:
"Blessed is the One Who placed the constellations in heaven and placed therein a lamp and a moon giving light."
--sura 71, 15-16:
"Did you see how God created seven heavens one above an other and made the moon a light therein and made the sun a lamp?"
--sura 78, verses 12-13:
"We have built above you seven strong (heavens) and placed a blazing lamp."
The blazing lamp is quite obviously the sun.
Here the moon is defined as a body that gives light (munir) from the same root as nur (the light applied to the Moon). The Sun however is compared to a torch (siraj) or a blazing (wahhaj) lamp.
A man of Muhammad's time could easily distinguish between the Sun, a blazing heavenly body well known to the inhabitants of the desert, and the Moon, the body of the cool of the night. The comparisons found in the Quran on this subject are therefore quite normal. What is interesting to note here is the sober quality of the comparisons, and the absence in the text of the Quran of any elements of comparison that might have prevailed at the time and which in our day would appear as phantasmagorial.
It is known that the Sun is a star that generates intense heat and light by its internal combustions, and that the Moon, which does not give of flight itself, and is an inert body (on its external layers at least) merely reflects the light received from the Sun.
There is nothing in the text of the Quran that contradicts what we know today about these two celestial bodies.
As we know, the stars are heavenly bodies like the Sun. They are the scene of various physical phenomena of which the easiest to observe is their generation of light. They are heavenly bodies that produce their own light.
The word 'star' appears thirteen times in the Quran (najm, plural nujum); it comes from a root meaning to appear, to come into sight. The word designates a visible heavenly body without saying of what kind, i.e. either generator of light or mere reflector of light received. To make it clear that the object so designated is a star, a qualifying phrase is added as in the following sura:
--sura 86, verses 1-3:
"By the sky and the Night-Visitor, who will tell thee what the Night-Visitor is, the Star of piercing brightness." [ Here, the sky and a star are used to bear witness to the importance of what is to come in the text.]
The evening star is qualified in the Quran by the word takib meaning 'that which pierces through something' (here the night shadows) . The same word is moreover used to designate shooting stars (sura 37, verse 10): the latter are the result of combustion.
It is difficult to say whether these are referred to in the Quran with the same exact meaning that is given to the heavenly bodies in the present day.
The planets do not have their own light. They revolve around the Sun, Earth being one of them. While one may presume that others exist elsewhere, the only ones known are those in the solar system.
Five planets other than Earth were known to the ancients: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Three have been discovered in recent times: Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.
The Quran would seem to designate these by the word kaukab (plural kawakib) without stating their number. Joseph's dream (sum 12) refers to eleven of them, but the description is, by definition, an imaginary one.
A good definition of the meaning of the word kaukab in the Quran Seems to have been given in a very famous verse. The eminently spiritual nature of its deeper meaning stands forth, and is moreover the subject of much debate among experts in exegesis. It is nevertheless of great interest to offer an account of the comparison it contains on the subject of the word that would seem to designate a 'planet'.
Here is the text in question: (sura 24, verse 35)
"God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His light is as if there were a niche and within it a luminary. The luminary is in a glass. The glass is as if it were a planet glittering like a pearl."
Here the subject is the projection of light onto a body that reflects it (glass) and gives it the glitter of a pearl, like a planet that is lit by the sun. This is the only explanatory detail referring to this word to be found in the Quran.
The word is quoted in other verses. In some of them it is difficult to distinguish which heavenly bodies are meant (sura 6, verse 76; sura 82, verses 1-2).
In one verse however, when seen in the light of modern science, it would seem very much that these can only be the heavenly bodies that we know to be planets. In sura 37, verse 6, we see the following:
"We have indeed adorned the lowest heaven with an ornament, the planets."
Is it possible that the expression in the Quran 'lowest heaven' means the 'solar system'? It is known that among the celestial elements nearest to us, there are no other permanent elements apart from the planets: the Sun is the only star in the system that bears its name. It is difficult to see what other heavenly bodies could be meant if not the planets. The translation given would therefore seem to be correct and the Quran to refer to the existence of the planets as defined in modern times.
The Lowest Heaven
The Quran mentions the lowest heaven several times along with the heavenly bodies of which it is composed. The first among these would seem to be the planets, as we have just seen. When however the Quran associates material notions intelligible to us, enlightened as we are today by modern science, with statements of a purely spiritual nature, their meaning becomes obscure.
Thus the verse quoted could easily be understood, except that the following verse (7) of the same sura 37 speaks of a 'guard against every rebellious evil spirit', 'guard' again being referred to in sura 21, verse 32 and sura 41, verse 12, so that we are confronted by statements of quite a different kind.
What meaning can one attach moreover to the 'projectiles for the stoning of demons' that according to verse 5, sura 67 are situated in the lowest heaven? Do the 'luminaries' referred to in the same verse have something to do with the shooting stars mentioned above? [ It is known that when a meteorite arrives at the upper layers of the atmosphere, it may produce the luminous phenomenon of a 'shooting star'.]
All these observations seem to lie outside the subject of this study. They have been mentioned here for the sake of completeness. At the present stage however, it would seem that scientific data are unable to cast any light on a subject that goes beyond human understanding.
C. CELESTIAL ORGANIZATION
The information the Quran provides on this subject mainly deals with the solar system. References are however made to phenomena that go beyond the solar system itself: they have been discovered in recent times.
There are two very important verses on the orbits of the Sun and Moon:
--sura 21, verse 33:
"(God is) the One Who created the night, the day, the sun and the moon. Each one is travelling in an orbit with its own motion."
--sura 36, verse 40:
"The sun must not catch up the moon, nor does the night outstrip the day. Each one is travelling in an orbit with its own motion."
Here an essential fact is clearly stated: the existence of the Sun's and Moon's orbits, plus a reference is made to the travelling of these bodies in space with their own motion.
A negative fact also emerges from a reading of these verses: it is shown that the Sun moves in an orbit, but no indication is given as to what this orbit might be in relation to the Earth. At the time of the Quranic Revelation, it was thought that the Sun moved while the Earth stood still. This was the system of geocentrism that had held sway since the time of ptolemy, Second century B.C., and was to continue to do so until Copernicus in the Sixteenth century A.D. Although people supported this concept at the time of Muhammad, it does not appear anywhere in the Quran, either here or elsewhere.
The Existence of the Moon's and the Sun's Orbits
The Arabic word falak has here been translated by the word 'orbit'. many French translators of the Quran attach to it the meaning of a 'sphere'. This is indeed its initial sense. Hamidullah translates it by the word 'orbit'.
The word caused concern to older translators of the Quran who were unable to imagine the circular course of the Moon and the Sun and therefore retained images of their course through space that were either more or less correct, or hopelessly wrong. Sir Hamza Boubekeur in his translation of the Quran cites the diversity of interpretations given to it: "A sort of axle, like an iron rod, that a mill turns around; a celestial sphere, orbit, sign of the zodiac, speed, wave . . .", but he adds the following observation made by Tabari, the famous Tenth century commentator: "It is our duty to keep silent when we do not know." (XVII, 15). This shows just how incapable men were of understanding this concept of the Sun's and Moon's orbit. It is obvious that if the word had expressed an astronomical concept common in Muhammad's day, it would not have been so difficult to interpret these verses. A Dew concept therefore existed in the Quran that was not to be explained until centuries later.
1. The Moon's Orbit
Today, the concept is widely spread that the Moon is a satellite of the Earth around which it revolves in periods of twenty-nine days. A correction must however be made to the absolutely circular form of its orbit, since modern astronomy ascribes a certain eccentricity to this, so that the distance between the Earth and the Moon (240,000 miles) is only the average distance.
We have seen above how the Quran underlined the usefulness of observing the Moon's movements in calculating time (sura 10, verse 5, quoted at the beginning of this chapter.) This system has often been criticized for being archaic, impractical and unscientific in comparison to our system based on the Earth's rotation around the Sun, expressed today in the Julian calendar.
This criticism calls for the following two remarks:
a) Nearly fourteen centuries ago, the Quran was directed at the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula who were used to the lunar calculation of time. It was advisable to address them in the only language they could understand and not to upset the habits they had of locating spatial and temporal reference-marks which were nevertheless quite efficient. It is known how well-versed men living in the desert are in the observation of the sky. they navigated according to the stars and told the time according to the phases of the Moon. Those were the simplest and most reliable means available to them.
b) Apart from the specialists in this field, most people are unaware of the perfect correlation between the Julian and the lunar calendar: 235 lunar months correspond exactly to 19 Julian years of 365 1/4 days. Then length of our year of 365 days is not perfect because it has to be rectified every four years (with a leap year) .
With the lunar calendar, the same phenomena occur every 19 years (Julian). This is the Metonic cycle, named after the Greek astronomer Meton, who discovered this exact correlation between solar and lunar time in the Fifth century B.C.
2. The Sun
It is more difficult to conceive of the Sun's orbit because we are so used to seeing our solar system organized around it. To understand the verse from the Quran, the position of the Sun in our galaxy must be considered, and we must therefore call on modern scientific ideas.
Our galaxy includes a very large number of stars spaced so as to form a disc that is denser at the centre than at the rim. The Sun occupies a position in it which is far removed from the centre of the disc. The galaxy revolves on its own axis which is its centre with the result that the Sun revolves around the same centre in a circular orbit. Modern astronomy has worked out the details of this. In 1917, Shapley estimated the distance between the Sun and the centre of our galaxy at 10 kiloparsecs i.e., in miles, circa the figure 2 followed by 17 zeros. To complete one revolution on its own axis, the galaxy and Sun take roughly 250 million years. The Sun travels at roughly 150 miles per second in the completion of this.
The above is the orbital movement of the Sun that was already referred to by the Quran fourteen centuries ago. The demonstration of the existence and details of this is one of the achievements of modern astronomy.