Astronomy in the Qur’an
The Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’anic text described the organization of the Universe fourteen centuries ago.
These references eonstitute 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 Qur’an 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.
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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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’?
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 Qur’an.
–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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an (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.”
The evening star is qualified in the Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an.
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 Qur’an ‘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 Qur’an to refer to the existence of the planets as defined in modern times.
The Lowest Heaven.
The Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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?
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.
The information the Qur’an 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 Qur’anic 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 Qur’an, 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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. Si Hamza Boubekeur in his translation of the Qur’an 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 Qur’an that was not to be explained until centuries later.
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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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.
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 Qur’an, 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 Qur’an fourteen centuries ago. The demonstration of the existence and details of this is one of the achievements of modern astronomy.
Reference to the Movement of the Moon and the Sun in Space With Their Own Motion.
This concept does not appear in those translations of the Qur’an that have been made by men of letters. Since the latter know nothing about astronomy, they have translated the Arabic word that expresses this movement by one of the meanings the word has: ‘to swim’. They have done this in both the French translations and the, otherwise remarkable, English translation by Yusuf Ali.
The Arabic word referring to a movement with a self-propelled motion is the verb sabaha (yasbahuna in the text of the two verses). All the senses of the verb imply a movement that is associated with a motion that comes from the body in question. If the movement takes place in water, it is ‘to swim’; it is ‘to move by the action of one’s own legs’ if it takes place on land. For a movement that occurs in space, it is difficult to see how else this meaning implied in the word could be rendered other than by employing its original sense. Thus there seems to have been no mistranslation, for the following reasons.
-The Moon completes its rotating motion on its own axis at the same time as it revolves around the Earth, i.e. 291/2 days (approx.), so that it always has the same side facing us.
-The Sun takes roughly 25 days to revolve on its own axis. There are certain differences in its rotation at its equator and poles, (we shall not go into them here) but as a whole, the Sun is animated by a rotating motion.
It appears therefore that a verbal nuance in the Qur’an refers to the Sun and Moon’s own motion. These motions of the two celestial bodies are confirmed by the data of modern science, and it is inconceivable that a man living in the Seventh century A.D.-however knowledgeable he might have been in his day (and this was certainly not true in Muhammad’s case) -could have imagined them.
This view is sometimes contested by examples from great thinkers of antiquity who indisputably predicted certain data that modern science has verified. They could hardly have relied on scientific deduction however; their method of procedure was more one of philosophical reasoning. Thus the case of the pythagoreans is often advanced. In the Sixth century B.C., they defended the theory of the rotation of the Earth on its own axis and the movement of the planets around the Sun. This theory was to be confirmed by modern science. By comparing it with the case of the Pythagoreans, it is easy to put forward the hypothesis of Muhammad as being a brilliant thinker, who was supposed to have imagined all on his own what modern science was to discover centuries later. In so doing however, people quite simply forget to mention the other aspect of what these geniuses of philosophical reasoning produced, i.e. the colossal blunders that litter their work. It must be remembered for example, that the Pythagoreans also defended the theory whereby the Sun was fixed in space; they made it the centre of the world and only conceived of a celestial order that was centered on it. It is quite common in the works of the great philosophers of antiquity to find a mixture of valid and invalid ideas about the Universe. The brilliance of these human works comes from the advanced ideas they contain, but they should not make us overlook the mistaken concepts which have also been left to us. From a strictly scientific point of view, this is what distinguished them from the Qur’an. In the latter, many subjects are referred to that have a bearing on modern knowledge without one of them containing a statement that contradicts what has been established by present-day science.
The Sequence of Day and Night.
At a time when it was held that the Earth was the centre of the world and that the Sun moved in relation to it, how could any one have failed to refer to the Sun’s movement when talking of the sequence of night and day? This is not however referred to in the Qur’an and the subject is dealt with as follows:
–sura 7, verse 54:
“(God) covers the day with the night which is in haste to follow it . . .”
–sura 36, verse 37:
“And a sign for them (human beings) is the night. We strip it of the day and they are in darkness.”
–sura 31, verse 29:
“Hast thou not seen how God merges the night into the day and merges the day into the night.”
–sura 39, verse 5:
“. . . He coils the night upon the day and He coils the day upon the night.”
The first verse cited requires no comment. The second simply provides an image.
It is mainly the third and fourth verses quoted above that provide interesting material on the process of interpenetration and especially of winding the night upon the day and the day upon the night. (sura 39, verse 5)
‘To coil’ or ‘to wind’ seems, as in the French translation by R. Blachère, to be the best way of translating the Arabic verb kawwara. The original meaning of the verb is to ‘coil’ a turban around the head; the notion of coiling is preserved in all the other senses of the word.
What actually happens however in space? American astronauts have seen and photographed what happens from their spaceships, especially at a great distance from Earth, e.g. from the Moon. They saw how the Sun permanently lights up (except in the case of an eclipse) the half of the Earth’s surface that is facing it, while the other half of the globe is in darkness. The Earth turns on its own axis and the lighting remains the same, so that an area in the form of a half-sphere makes one revolution around the Earth in twenty-four hours while the other half-sphere, that has remained in darkness, makes the same revolution in the same time. This perpetual rotation of night and day is quite clearly described in the Qur’an. It is easy for the human understanding to grasp this notion nowadays because we have the idea of the Sun’s (relative) immobility and the Earth’s rotation. This process of perpetual coiling, including the interpenetration of one sector by another is expressed in the Qur’an just as if the concept of the Earth’s roundness had already been conceived at the time-which was obviously not the case.
Further to the above reflections on the sequence of day and night, one must also mention, with a quotation of some verses from the Qur’an, the idea that there is more than one Orient and one Occident. This is of purely descriptive interest because these phenomena rely on the most commonplace observations. The idea is mentioned here with the aim of reproducing as faithfully as possible all that the Qur’an has to say on this subject.
The following are examples:
–In sura 70 verse 40, the expression ‘Lord of Orients and Occidents’.
–In sura 55, verse 17, the expression ‘Lord of the two Orients and the two Occidents’.
–In sura 43, verse 38, a reference to the ‘distance between the two Orients’, an image intended to express the immense size of the distance separating the two points.
Anyone who carefully watches the sunrise and sunset knows that the Sun rises at different point of the Orient and sets at different points of the Occident, according to season. Bearings taken on each of the horizons define the extreme limits that mark the two Orients and Occidents, and between these there are points marked off throughout the year. The phenomenon described here is rather commonplace, but what mainly deserves attention in this chapter are the other. topics dealt with, where the description of astronomical phenomena referred to in the Qur’an is in keeping with modern data.
EVOLUTION OF THE HEAVENS
Having called modern concepts on the formation of the Universe to mind, reference was made to the evolution that took place, starting with primary nebula through to the formation of galaxies, stars and (for the solar system) the appearance of planets beginning with the Sun at a certain stage of its evolution. Modern data lead us to believe that in the solar system, and more generally in the Universe itself, this evolution is still continuing.
How can anybody who is aware of these ideas fail to make a comparison with certain statements found in the Qur’an in which the manifestations of divine Omnipotence are referred to.
The Qur’an reminds us several times that: “(God) subjected the sun and the moon: each one runs its course to an appointed term.”
This sentence is to be found in sura 13, verse 2. sura 31, verse 29; sura 35, verse 13 and sura 39, verse 5.
In addition to this, the idea of a settled place is associated with the concept of a destination place in sura 36, verse 38: “The Sun runs its course to a settled place. This is the decree of the All Mighty, the Full of Knowledge.”
‘Settled place’ is the translation of the word mustaqarr and there can be no doubt that the idea of an exact place is attached to it. How do these statements fare when compared with data established by modern science?
The Qur’an gives an end to the Sun for its evolution and a destination place. It also provides the Moon with a settled place. To understand the possible meanings of these statements, we must remember what modern knowledge has to say about the evolution of the stars in general and the Sun in particular, and (by extension) the celestial bodies that automatically followed its movement through space, among them the Moon.
The Sun is a star that is roughly 4½ billion years old, according to experts in astrophysics. It is possible to distinguish a stage in its evolution, as one can for all the stars. At present, the Sun is at an early stage, characterized by the transformation of hydrogen atoms into helium atoms. Theoretically, this present stage should last another 5½ billion years according to calculations that allow a total of 10 billion years for the duration of the primary stage in a star of this kind. It has already been shown, in the case of these other stars, that this stage gives way to a second period characterized by the completion of the transformation of hydrogen into helium, with the resulting expansion of its external layers and the cooling of the Sun. In the final stage, its light is greatly diminished and density considerably increased; this is to be observed in the type of star known as a ‘white dwarf’.
The above dates are only of interest in as far as they give a rough estimate of the time factor involved, what is worth remembering and is really the main point of the above, is the notion of an evolution. Modern data allow us to predict that, in a few billion years, the conditions prevailing in the solar system will not be the same as they are today. Like other stars whose transformations have been recorded until they reached their final stage, it is possible to predict an end to the Sun.
The second verse quoted above (sur’a 36, verse 38) referred to the Sun running its course towards a place of its own.
Modern astronomy has been able to locate it exactly and has even given it a name, the Solar. Apex: the solar. system is indeed evolving in space towards a point situated in the Constellation of Hercules (alpha lyrae) whose exact location is firmly established; it is moving at a speed already ascertained at something in the region of 12 miles per. second.
All these astronomical data deserve to be mentioned in relation to the two verses from the Qur’an, since it is possible to state that they appear to agree perfectly with modern scientific data.
The Expansion of the Universe.
The expansion of the Universe is the most imposing discovery of modern science. Today it is a firmly established concept and the only debate centres around the way this is taking place.
It was first suggested by the general theory of relativity and is backed up by physics in the examination of the galactic spectrum; the regular movement towards the red section of their spectrum may be explained by the distancing of one galaxy from another. Thus the size of the Universe is probably constantly increasing and this increase will become bigger the further away the galaxies are from us. The speeds at which these celestial bodies are moving may, in the course of this perpetual expansion, go from fractions of the speed of light to speeds faster than this.
The following verse of the Qur’ an (sura 51, verse 47) where God is speaking, may perhaps be compared with modern ideas:
“The heaven, We have built it with power. Verily. We are expanding it.”
‘Heaven’ is the translation of the word sama’ and this is exactly the extra-terrestrial world that is meant.
‘We are expanding it’ is the translation of the plural present participle musi’una of the verb ausa’a meaning ‘to make wider, more spacious, to extend, to expand’.
Some translators who were unable to grasp the meaning of the latter provide translations that appear to me to be mistaken, e.g. “we give generously” (R. Blachère). Others sense the meaning, but are afraid to commit themselves: Hamidullah in his translation of the Qur’an talks of the widening of the heavens and space, but he includes a question mark. Finally, there are those who arm themselves with authorized scientific opinion in their commentaries and give the meaning stated here. This is true in the case of the Muntakab, a book of commentaries edited by the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, Cairo. It refers to the expansion of the Universe in totally unambiguous terms.
THE CONQUEST OF SPACE
From this point of view, three verses of the Qur’an should command our full attention. One expresses, without any trace of ambiguity, what man should and will achieve in this field. In the other two, God refers for the sake of the unbelievers in Makka to the surprise they would have if they were able to raise themselves up to the Heavens; He alludes to a hypothesis which will not be realized for the latter.
1) The first of these verses is sura 55, verse 33: “O assembly of Jinns and Men, if you can penetrate regions of the heavens and the earth, then penetrate them! You will not penetrate them save with a Power.” The translation given here needs some explanatory comment:
a) The word ‘if’ expresses in English a condition that is dependant upon a possibility and either an achievable or an unachievable hypothesis. Arabic is a language which is able to introduce a nuance into the condition which is much more explicit. There is one word to express the possibility (ida), another for the achievable hypothesis (in) and a third for the unachievable hypothesis expressed by the word (lau). The verse in question has it as an achievable hypothesis expressed by the word (in). The Qur’an therefore suggests the material possibility of a concrete realization. This subtle linguistic distinction formally rules out the purely mystic interpretation that some people have (quite wrongly) put on this verse.
b) God is addressing the spirits (jinn) and human beings (ins), and not essentially allegorical figures.
c) ‘To penetrate’ is the translation of the verb nafada followed by the preposition min. According to Kazimirski’s dictionary, the phrase means ‘to pass right through and come out on the other side of a body’ (e.g. an arrow that comes out on the other side). It therefore suggests a deep penetration and emergence at the other end into the regions in question.
d) The Power (sultan) these men will have to achieve this enterprise would seem to come from the All-Mighty.
There can be no doubt that this verse indicates the possibility men will one day achieve what we today call (perhaps rather improperly) ‘the conquest of space’. One must note that the text of the Qur’an predicts not only penetration through the regions of the Heavens, but also the Earth, i.e. the exploration of its depths.
2) The other two verses are taken from sura 15, (verses14 and 15). God is speaking of the unbelievers in Makka, as the context of this passage in the sura shows:
“Even if We opened unto them a gate to Heaven and they were to continue ascending therein, they would say. our sight is confused as in drunkenness. Nay, we are people bewitched.”
The above expresses astonishment at a remarkable spectacle, different from anything man could imagine.
The conditional sentence is introduced here by the word lau which expresses a hypothesis that could never be realized as far as it concerned the people mentioned in these verses.
When talking of the conquest of space therefore, we have two passages in the text of the Qur’an: one of them refers to what will one day become a reality thanks to the powers of intelligence and ingenuity God will give to man, and the other describes an event that the unbelievers in Makka will never witness, hence its character of a condition never to be realized. The event will however be seen by others, as intimated in the first verse quoted above. It describes the human reactions to the unexpected spectacle that travellers in space will see. their confused sight, as in drunkenness, the feeling of being bewitched . . .
This is exactly how astronauts have experienced this remarkable adventure since the first human spaceflight around the world in 1961. It is known in actual fact how once one is above the Earth’s atmosphere, the Heavens no longer have the azure appearance we see from Earth, which results from phenomena of absorption of the Sun’s light into the layers of the atmosphere. The human observer in space above the Earth’s atmosphere sees a black sky and the Earth seems to be surrounded by a halo of bluish colour due to the same phenomena of absorption of light by the Earth’s atmosphere. The Moon has no atmosphere, however, and therefore appears in its true colors against the black background of the sky. It is a completely new spectacle therefore that presents itself to men in space, and the photographs of this spectacle are well known to present-day man.
Here again, it is difficult not to be impressed, when comparing the text of the Qur’an to the data of modern science, by statements that simply cannot be ascribed to the thought of a man who lived more than fourteen centuries ago.
Borrowed from The Bible, The Qur’an and Science by Dr. Maurice Bucaille
64. Here, the sky and a star are used to bear witness to the importance of what is to come in the text.
65. 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’.
66. Pub. Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, Lahore (Pakistan)
67. This verse is followed by an invitation to recognize God’s blessings. It forms the subject of the whole of the Sura that bears the title ‘The Beneficent’.