Science & the Koran
ASKED to participate in a dialogue with a Muslim cleric about the existence of God (see A Dialogue With the Deaf in Glasgow), I found myself exploring his website. This is the website of the Islamic Information & Da’wah Center International based in Toronto.
The cleric in question was Shabir Ally, originally from Guyana but a Canadian resident since 1978. It appears that he is the author of the website text, a view confirmed by statements he made during the dialogue.
This showed that he and others are engaged on a mission to convince the world that the Koran is compatible with modern science and that Allah revealed scientific truths about the world to Mohammed in the 7th century, well before the rise of science. The website claims that its mission is:
To establish the correct Islamic belief among Muslims, to convey the message of Islam to non-Muslims and refute all stereotypes and allegations against Islam, particularly against the Qur‘an [Koran] and Prophet Muhammad …
It also claims that Islam encourages the use of science and the scientific method. However, as I show below, this is false.
What shape is the Earth?
Ally claims that the Koran reveals that the Earth is a spheroid. The claim is based in particular on suras such as 39:5 (“He coils the night upon the day and He coils the day upon the night”). It is claimed that “coils” here is the Arabic word kawwara, used to describe the action of coiling a turban around the head, so expressing the idea that day and night coil around the Earth as it turns. However, in Dawood’s translation of the Koran, this sentence is translated as “He caused the night to succeed the day and the day to overtake the night”. Nothing about coiling, which in any case hardly suggest the shape of the Earth.
What holds up the sky?
Definitely not pillars; that would imply a flat Earth. Consequently Ally makes much of a sura 13:2 which claims that God “raised the heavens without any pillars that you can see” (Dawood has “without visible pillars”). On this basis, the Koran is thought to anticipate the beliefs of modem science, although the idea is spoiled by the mistaken claim that “gravitational forces … hold the heavenly bodies apart from each other”. However this sura can just as well mean that the heavens are held up by pillars which cannot be seen. Indeed, mention of the pillars being invisible implies their existence.
How old is the Earth?
Ally appears to rejoice in the fact that the Koran fails to follow the Bible in appearing to claim that the Earth was created some 6,000 years ago. He sees this as proof that the Koran is superior and without error. But while he claims that it contains no chronology, he does claim that a reference to God measuring its “sustenance” in “four periods” (41:10, Dawood has “in four days provided it with sustenance”) is a reference to “the four geological periods described by modem science, with man’s appearance in the quaternary era [sic]”.
In fact there are at least eleven geological periods (sic) in the Phanerozoic eon (sic) and the “quaternary” is merely the fourth period of the Cenozoic era. Dawood’s translation indicates that the Koran did in fact follow Genesis.
Ally claims that the Koran reveals that heaven and Earth were created from smoke (sura 41:11, but Dawood has “cloud of vapour”). This is seen as being consistent with the belief of modern science that the universe was formed from a gaseous mass. However, the sura merely refers to the sky emerging from a cloud; it does not claim that the Earth came from this cloud. The translation “smoke” has been chosen to allow the existence in the vapour of solid particles from which the Earth could be made.
While there is some resonance with modern ideas about the formation of stars and planetary systems from dust and gas clouds, the universe has a more mysterious origin, possibly from nothing. Clearly the Koran throws no light on the matter.
Interstellar Galactic Material
One can hardly imagine the Koran making any reference to the tenuous dust and gas that exists in galaxies between the stars. However Muslims can. They see sura 20:6 (“To him belongs what is in the heavens, on Earth, between them and beneath the soil”) as a reference to material not just between heaven and Earth but outside heaven and Earth (whatever that means).
They ask how a man living 1,400 years ago could have known about interstellar galactic material. We might ask what makes them believe that the sura is referring to such material and not objects which lie between the sky and the Earth – like clouds!
The Sun and Moon and their orbits
In an attempt to show that the Koran correctly anticipated modem understanding of the cause of the movement of the sun and moon, Ally quotes a sura (36:40) which reads “Each one is travelling in an orbit with its own motion”. A more accurate translation, which Dawood confirms, is “Each swims in its own orbit”.
We might see this as consistent with a geocentric cosmology in which it is the sun which moves and not the Earth. Indeed, coupling sun and moon together in one sura rather implies that. However, ignoring both heliocentricity and Newton’s laws of motion, Ally claims that the sun and moon are indeed “in part animated” by their rotation.
He also thinks he sees differences between the description of the sun and moon as if the author knew that one is luminous and the other merely a reflector. He quotes sura 10:5 (“who made the sun a shine and the moon a light”) in evidence.
But Dawood has “gave the sun his brightness and the moon her light”, a statement which merely acknowledges that the sun is brighter than the moon. Ally is also excited by sura 25:51 (“placed therein a lamp and a moon giving light”). He thinks this distinction significant.
Christians are sometimes discomfited by the discoveries of astronomy, particularly by the discovery of extra-solar planets. The Bible is strangely silent on the universe and its structure and Jesus made no mention of the fate of people on other planets (if there are any).
Mr Ally is not so silent. He claims that the dedication (“exordium”) of the Koran recognises Allah as “Lord of the Worlds” and he interprets this as recognition of the existence of many “Earths” in the Galaxy, so making the Koran anticipate modem cosmology (not that we have yet found any Earth-like planets).
However, Dawood translates the exordium as “Lord of the Universe” and Ally‘s interpretation falls. His idea is also undermined by suras which speak of God creating seven heavens and seven earths (e.g. 65:12). This not only echoes the New Testament, but rather limits exploration of the universe. There are surely more than seven Earth-like planets in the universe.
Most of these strange interpretations derive from Dr Maurice Bucaille, author of a book called The Bible, the Qur’an and Science. Although Muslims describe him as a “scientist”, he was in fact a French surgeon, scholar and author. It is evident that his scientific knowledge was elementary.
Evidently the Koran anticipates modern science no more than the Bible does; both reflect the primitive pre-scientific beliefs of their time.
 The Koran: Translated with notes by N J Dawood (Penguin Books, 1999).
• This article first appeared in the May, 2002, edition of the Freethinker. The image used to illustrate this piece was found on a Muslim website that claims that “a Muslim scientific awakening is under way“.