Quran and Natural Phenomena
Q. I am an American citizen who accepted Islam 20 years ago. Recently some questions were put to me asking about the Islamic view as to whether the earth is flat or rounded, whether it rotates or remains stationary, and whether it circles the sun or vice versa? I could not answer these questions, as I do not have a clue. Please help.
A. Islam is a faith and its teachings are concerned with human life in all its aspects, particularly man’s position in relation to God, the universe and other human beings. Therefore, it provides guidance on all aspects of life, particularly social relations within the family and the community, as also relations between the Muslim community and other groups and societies. Needless to say, the central theme of the Qur’an is the belief in God, His oneness and the message He sent to mankind to provide guidance in all their affairs. In its presentation of this message, the Qur’an employs variety of styles and arguments. Some of these call on man to look around him in the universe, reflect on its creation and how it is supported. It draws man’s attention to what he sees around him in the universe and invites us to reflect on how it all comes into being, the balance we observe in nature and how its disturbance affects the universe and man’s life. In doing so, the Qur’an highlights some of what we see around us, on earth, in the skies, in the sea and in the open universe. But this does not mean that the Qur’an is a book of geography, geology or astronomy. Similarly the Qur’an highlights many natural phenomena and the interaction between different natural forces. This does not make the Qur’an a book of earth sciences. All these issues are addressed as they relate to the central theme of the Qur’an, which is belief in God and His oneness.
Having said that, we wish to add that the Qur’an does not concern itself with telling us whether the earth is flat or rounded, rotates or remains stationary, or indeed any aspect of its shape or physical aspects. Nevertheless, the Qur’an calls on us to consider everything around us on earth and in the universe, reflecting on their function and creation, the perfection of their design and the fine balance they provide. It relates all this to God’s perfect creation, arguing that no one could have created all this, but God.
The Qur’an also mentions certain aspects of life that could not have been known to any human being at the time of its revelation. It tells us of the several stages an embryo goes through before it is born. The most advanced scientific discoveries in this area confirm the accuracy of the Qur’anic description, given in a form understood by people at the time and accurate by our standards. No doubt they will remain accurate, however human knowledge advances.
Some Muslim scientists speak of the references given in the Qur’an to natural aspects and phenomena, highlighting this as a miraculous aspect of the Qur’an, testifying to its divine origin. This is well and good, but there are two points to make here: 1) the fact that such references confirm the most advanced scientific knowledge proves nothing more than what we already accept, namely, that the Qur’an is revealed by God who has perfect, absolute and unlimited knowledge; and 2) if human knowledge happens to be at variance with what the Qur’an states, then the Qur’an is true and our knowledge is suspect and will inevitably prove to be faulty. With respect to the specific questions the reader asks, scientists dwell on certain statements in the Qur’an highlighting them as scientific truth. These include that the earth is round, not flat, and that it split from the sun at some point in the distant past, and that the earth, the moon and the sun, move in their respective orbits.
In practice, the Qur’anic call on people to look around, study and reflect encouraged scientific research in all aspects, and Muslim scientists were able to expand their knowledge and use it in numerous ways that benefited man. They proved that the earth was round, not flat, and that it circles the sun, not the other way round, several centuries before Europe accepted these facts. However, some people in the West today try to accuse Islam and Muslims of being reactionary or old fashioned. A couple of years ago, I watched a programme on television when Richard Perle, a top official in the present US administration, referred to Muslims as flat-earthers. This only exposed his own lack of knowledge. But he and people like him always try to berate Islam and Muslims. We should not pay any attention to such war-mongers.