The Quran And Scientific Discoveries
This article explores the Quran and scientific discoveries.
There are many more verses in the Quran that are related to what we now call scientific facts. The existence of such verses indicates that man’s seeking of knowledge is a portion of Divine Mercy graciously bestowed upon him by his Creator.
The formation and the developmental phases of an embryo in the uterus
What the Quran reveals about the formation and the developmental phases of an embryo in the uterus is striking:
O mankind! if you have a doubt about the Resurrection, (consider) that We created you out of dust, then out of sperm, then out of a leech-like cloth, then out of a lump of flesh, partly formed and partly unformed, in order that We may manifest (what We will) to you. (22:5)
In another verse, the development is explained in greater detail, and the distinct phases more clearly emphasized:
Man We created from a quintessence (of clay). Then We placed him as (a drop of) sperm in a place of rest, firmly fixed. Then we made the sperm into a clot of congealed blood. Then of that clot We made a lump (embryo); then we made out of that lump bones and clothed the bones with flesh. Then We developed out of it a new (distinct, individual) creature. (23:12-4)
The milk and the process of its production
What the Quran has said about milk and the process of its production is as brilliant as the drink itself is.
And verily in cattle (too) will you find an instructive sign. From what is from their bodies, between excretions and blood, We produce, for your drink, milk, pure and agreeable to those who drink it. (16:66)
The Quran narrates the process in remarkable detail: part-digestion of what is ingested as food, absorption of it; a second process and refinement in the glands. Milk is a wholesome and agreeable diet for man, yet it is a secretion, like other secretions, between the excretions which the body rejects as useless and the precious blood-stream which circulates in the body.
Creation in pairs
The Quran has revealed that all things in nature are created in pairs.
Glory be to God, who created in pairs all things, of what the earth produces, of themselves, and of which they have no knowledge. (36:36)
All things are in twos. Every thing has its pair or counterpart, opposite to it or complementary. The complementarity of sexes in man and animals and certain plants has long been known. But, what about the pairs in all things, of which they have no knowledge? This may refer to a whole range of entities, inanimate as well as animate. In the subtle forces and principles of nature within (as well as among) animate or inanimate entities, there are many kinds of pairs. All things, from atoms to clouds, as our modern instruments can confirm, do indeed occur in twos.
The first creation of the world and of living forms in it
The Quran recounts, in its own unique idiom, the first creation of the world and of living forms in it:
Do not the unbelievers see that the heavens and the earths were joined together (as a single mass), before We clove them asunder? We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe? (21:30)
The narrative in the Quran is manifest and clear, and should not be confounded with the different hypotheses that are aired as to whether the primary material in creation is an ether or a large cloud, a huge nebula, a mass of hot gas or something else. The Quran has also explained that every living thing was created of water. The Scripture does not concern itself with whether this unique source of life came about as a result of gases and vapors which first rose from the earth, later condensing and returning to it as rain, then formed the seas and so prepared a suitable context and condition for life to form, or whether it happened in some other way. The verse in the Quran explicitly and unmistakably presents the universe as a single miracle of creation. Everything in the universe is an integral part of that miracle and bears signs that prove it so. Everything is interconnected, like the leaves in some massive tree which are different but like one another and linked to a common root. The verse is, of course, also emphasizing the vitality and significance of water which constitutes three-fourths of the mass of most living bodies.
The movement of the sun
The sun has a special and significant place in the creation. The Qur’an reveals the most important aspects of it in just four words of Arabic whose full meaning cannot easily be rendered:
And the sun runs its course (mustaqarr) determined for it. That is His decree, the Exalted in Might, the All-Knowing. (36:38)1
In fact, mustaqarr here may mean a determined route in space, or a fixed place of rest or dwelling, as well as a determined route in time. We are told not only that the sun runs a predetermined course, but also that it moves towards a particular point in the universe. The solar system (the sun and its dependent planets and satellites), as we now know, is running to the constellation Lyra at an almost inconceivable speed (every second we come ten miles closer to that constellation, almost a million miles a day). Our attention is also drawn to the fact that when the sun has finished its appointed task it will abide by a command and come to rest.
Such is the richness of the Quran that many truths are told in so few words. Here, in only four words, many vaguely known things are clarified although the Quran was revealed fourteen centuries ago when people generally believed that the sun made a daily circuit around the earth.
Expansion of the universe
Another of the inspiring and eloquent utterances in the Quran concerns the spreading out or expansion of the universe in space; again, the Arabic original uses only four words:
And the firmament: We constructed it with power and skill, and We are spreading it. (51:47-8)
The verse reveals to us that the distance (space) between celestial bodies is increasing, the universe is expanding. In 1922 the astronomer Hubble claimed that all galaxies except the five closest to the earth, are moving further away into space at a speed directly proportional to their distance from the earth. According to Hubble, a galaxy one million light years away is moving away at a speed of 168 km/year, one two million light years away at twice that speed, and so on. Le Maître, a Belgian mathematician and priest, later proposed and developed the theory that the universe is expanding. No matter how human beings try to express this reality, whether through Hubble’s coefficient or (in the future) through someone else’s, the Revelation is unmistakably clear as regards the reality itself.
The laws of general gravitation and repulsion
We are given some indication in the Quran of the invisible operation of what we now call the laws of physics, such as attraction and repulsion, and rotation and revolution in the universe:
God is He Who raised the heavens without any pillars that you can see. (13:2)
The celestial bodies, from individual satellites to entire solar systems, move in order, balance and harmony. They are held and supported in this order by pillars but not of the sort one can see. Some of these pillars are repulsion or centrifugal force:
He holds back the sky from falling on earth except by His leave. (22:65)
From this verse we understand that the heavenly bodies may at any moment collapse on the earth except that the All-Mighty does not allow it, and that is an instance of the universal obedience to His Word which, in the language of contemporary science, is explained as a balance of centripetal and centrifugal forces. It is of far greater importance that we turn our minds to that obedience and to the Divine Mercy by which the universe is held in its reliable motion than to whether people now follow Newton’s or Einstein’s theories about the mechanical and mathematical terms of that obedience.
Traveling in space
There is a verse in the Quran which some commentators have thought may be a reference to traveling to the moon, a once remote possibility which, not so long ago, became an actuality:
By the moon’s fullness! you shall surely travel from stage to stage. (84:18-9)
Earlier commentators understood this verse quite differently. They read it figuratively in reference to man’s spiritual life considered as an ascent, from one stage to the next above it, from one heaven to another. Others interpreted the verse as referring to change in general from one state to another. Over the course of time, later interpreters of the Quran tried to explain the sense in roundabout ways because the literal meaning of the verse did not agree with what they felt sure they knew about the possibility of actually traveling distances of this magnitude. But in fact, the more appropriate sense of the words following the oath (By the moon!), given the immediate context of the verse, is that of really traveling to the moon, whether literally or figuratively.
The shape of the earth and changes in it
The words in the Book about the geographical shape of the earth and change in that shape are particularly interesting:
Do they not see how We gradually shrink the land from its outlying borders? Is it then they who will be victors? (21:44)
The reference to shrinking from its borders could relate to the now known fact that the earth is compressed down at the poles, rather than to the erosion of mountains by wind and rain, or of the sea-shores by the sea, or to the encroachment of the desert upon lands cultivated (and so dominated) by man.
At a time when people generally believed that the earth was flat and stationary, the Qur’an revealed in several different verses, explicitly and implicitly, that it is round. More unexpectedly still, it also tells us that the precise shape is more like an ostrich egg than a sphere.
After that He shaped the earth like an egg, whence He caused to spring forth the water thereof, and the pasture thereof. (79:30-2)
The verb in Arabic (daha’) means to shape like an egg, the derived noun form (da’hia) is still used to mean an egg. Because the scientific fact may have appeared in their time to be contrary to sense-impression, some interpreters misunderstood the meaning of the word, as stretched out, perhaps fearing that the literal meaning might be difficult to understand and so mislead. Of course, modern instruments have established quite recently that the shape of the world is indeed more like an egg than a perfect sphere, that there is a slight flattening around the poles and a slight curving around the equator.
The early forms of the sun and the moon
As a last example, consider what the Quran says about the sun and the moon:
We have made the night and the day as two signs; the sign of the night We have obscured, while the sign of the day We have made to enlighten you. (17:12)
According to Ibn ‘Abbas, the sign of the night refers to the moon, the sign of the day to the sun. Therefore, from the words the sign of the night We have obscured, we understand that the moon once emitted light as the sun does; and that God took its light from it, caused it to darken or obscured it. While the verse thus accurately recounts the past of the moon, it also points to the future destiny of other heavenly bodies.
There are many more verses in the Quran that are related to what we now call scientific facts. The existence of such verses indicates that man’s seeking of knowledge is a portion of Divine Mercy graciously bestowed upon him by his Creator. Indeed, Divine Mercy is one of the Quran’s names for itself, and all that it contains of truth and knowledge is beyond the compass of man to even tell, let alone to hold in his mind. We must remember, however, that while the Quran contains allusions to many scientific truths, it is not therefore to be read as a book of science or scientific explanations. Rather it is, and has always been understood by believers to be, the book of guidance which teaches mankind the way to right belief and right action so that we may be worthy of Divine Mercy and Forgiveness. It is the responsibility of Muslims to ensure that the pursuit of knowledge, scientific or otherwise, is conducted in the light of the Quran which so encourages and supports it and not in a spirit of arrogance and insolence and vainglory, which is the way of unbelievers and which will lead to desolation of mind and the degradation of man and the earth which, only by God’s leave, man temporarily inhabits and hold in trust.
Atmospheric temperature, gravitational attraction and balance
In the verse about the creation of the universe,
“Then, He turned to the heaven when it was smoke, and said to it and to the earth, ‘Come willingly or unwillingly.’ They said: ‘We come willingly” (40:11)
the Quran indicates that there is a difficulty in the cooperation between the earth and heaven. As is known, the molecules and atoms in the atmosphere try to escape into space while the earth tries to attract and captivate them. For the formation of an atmosphere, the motions leading to the escape of molecules have to be counterbalanced by the gravitational attraction of the earth. This is an almost impossibly difficult condition to fulfill. From the standpoint of Geophysics, these extremely difficult conditions require the preservation of three important balances: (i) atmospheric temperature, (ii) proportionate gravitational attraction on the part of the earth, and (iii) the non-violation of this balance by various radiant energies arriving from space. The Quran expresses all these facts by the phrases “Then He turned to the heaven.. and said to the heaven and the earth: Come willingly or unwillingly”. That the almost impossible conditions are fulfilled only by God’s power is indicated by the phrase, “They said: ‘We come willingly.’”
The verses 75 and 76 of the Chapter ‘The Fearful Event’, “No, I swear by the positions of stars; and if you but knew, that is indeed a mighty oath” are interpreted by modern scientists to allude to the ‘star locations’ or ‘black holes’ and ‘white holes (quasars)’. The verse, “Glory be to Him, Who created in pairs all things that the earth produces, as well as their own selves, and many other things of which they know nothing” (36:36), after beginning with the warning that God Himself is beyond being involved in any duplication, any likeness or equal, proceeds with telling of the existence of created things in pairs, this existence indicates opposition simultaneously with similarity. The scientific definition of the creation in pairs implies ‘similar opposites’. The Quran gives three examples of existence in pairs: (i) Pairs produced by the earth (positron-electron, antiproton-proton, antineutron-neutron; pairs that differ in their physical and chemical characteristics, e.g. metals and nonmetals; biologically opposed pairs: male and female sexes of plants and animals, and physically opposed pairs.) (ii) Pairs of their selves (man and woman, personality traits such as cruel – compassionate, generous – mean, and traits which are similar but subject to opposed value judgments such as hypocrisy – consideration..) (iii) Pairs we do not know about. The discovery of the positron and ‘parity’ (creation in pairs) may be regarded as a turning point in contemporary Physics, a fact which was mentioned fourteen centuries ago by the Quran.
Spherical shape of planets and their rotations
The verse “He is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, and all that lies between them; He is the Lord of the Easts” (37:15) indicates the spherical shape of planets and their rotations. Because the concept of the ‘Easts’ introduces infinite dimensions, and differs for each location on the earth. A point on the earth is in the east with respect to its western regions, therefore the ‘East’ concept is different at every point on earth, and these form an ensemble of Easts. Besides, there are 180 points of sunrise, that is, the Sun rises at one place for only two days in the year so there are 180 ‘Easts’. Therefore, this verse is also indicative of meridians as well as of infinite dimensions, and of the relativity of space and the spherical shape of planets as well as the rotation of the earth.
A barrier between “two seas”
The French scientist Jacques Cousteau has discovered that the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean differ in terms of their chemical and biological constitution. Captain Cousteau conducted various undersea investigations at the Straits of Gibraltar in order to explain this phenomenon, concluding that “unexpected fresh water springs issue from the Southern and Northern coasts of the Gibraltar. These water sprouts gush forth towards each other at angle of 45°, forming a reciprocal dam like the teeth of a comb. Due to this fact, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean cannot intermingle.” Subsequent to this assessment, Cousteau was amazed upon being shown the Quranic verse “He has let forth the two seas, that meet together. Between them a barrier, they do not overpass” (55:19-20). This verse further invites our attention to the plankton composition of the seas, and to the flora and fish distributions that change with variations in temperature. There are many other verses in the Quran which shed light upon scientific facts, and it invites everyone to study it: “Now We made the Quran easy for reflection and study. Is there any that will study and reflect?”
“The sun moves (in its course) to a resting-place for it”
The statement just discussed comprises only five words. All the statements of the Quran contain lots of information either explicitly or implicitly and allusively to satisfy all levels of understanding in all times until the Judgment Day. Another example is a statement of, in its original, only four words:
The sun moves (in its course) to a resting-place for it (36.38).
Before elucidating other meanings and connotations of this statement, we should remember that in the past people, judging again by their sense-impressions, believed that the earth was motionless while the sun moved around it. Later developments in science and observation showed that the earth spins upon its own axis and orbits the sun which is, relatively, motionless. First of all, since people see the sun moving, the Quran mentions it as moving. Second, the Quran mentions the sun here as an illustration of the magnificent order prevailing throughout the universe as a sign of God’s Might and Knowledge. The context where this statement is, is as follows:
A sign for them is the night. We strip it of the day, and behold! they are in darkness. And the sun moves (in its course) to a resting-place for it. That is the measuring and ordaining of the All-Mighty, the All-Knowing. And for the moon We have appointed mansions till it return like an old shriveled palm-leaf. It is not for the sun to overtake the moon, nor does the night outstrip the day. They float, each in an orbit. (36.37-40)
We understand from the statement in its context that the sun has a vital function in the universal order. The word the Quran uses in the statement, mustaqarr, means stability, of the course and the place in which stability is secured. So, the statement can mean that the sun has a central position in the order of the universe. Second, the preposition used together with the word mustaqarr, li, has three meanings: for, to, and in. Therefore, the exact meaning of the statement comprising four words is: The sun moves following a route or course to a fixed place determined for it for the purpose of its (system’s) stability.
The recent discovery about the movement of the sun
In recent decades, solar astronomers have been able to observe that (Bartusiac, M. (1994) ‘Sounds of the Sun’, American Scientist, January-February, pp.61-68) the sun is not in fact motionless. It quivers and shakes and continually rings like a well-hit gong. These vibrations of the sun reveal vital information about the sun’s deep interior, its hidden layers, information which affects calculations of the age of the universe. Also, knowing exactly how the sun spins internally is important in testing Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Like so many other significant findings in astronomy, this discovery about the sun was totally unexpected. Having discovered the quivering and ringing sun, some astronomers have commented that it is as if the sun were a symphony orchestra, with all the instruments being played simultaneously. All the vibrations combine at times to produce a net oscillation on the solar surface that is thousands of times stronger than any individual vibration.
What did Bediuzzaman write concerning the movement of the sun almost a century ago?
Commenting on the Qur’anic verse, The sun moves to a resting-place for it, several decades before this totally unexpected discovery in astronomy, Said Nursi had written (Muhakemat (‘Reasonings’), Istanbul pp. 68-69):
As the word ‘moves’ points to a style, the phrase ‘in its course’ demonstrates a reality. The sun, like a vessel built of gold, travels and floats in the ocean of the heavens comprising ether and defined as a stretched and tightened wave. Although it quivers and shakes in its course or orbit, since people see it running, the Qur’an uses the word travel or float. However, since the origin of the force of gravity is movement, the sun moves and quivers in its orbit. Through this vibration, which is the wheel of its figurative movement, its satellites are attracted to it and preserved from falling and scattering. When a tree quivers, its fruits fall. But when the sun quivers and shakes, its fruits-its satellites-are preserved from falling.
Again, wisdom requires that the sun should move and travel on its mobile throne-its course or orbit-accompanied by its soldiers-its satellites. For the Divine Power has made everything moving and condemned nothing to absolute rest or motionlessness. Divine Mercy allows nothing to be condemned to inertia which is the cousin of death. So, the sun is free, it can travel provided it obeys the laws of God and does not disturb others’ freedom. So, it may actually be traveling, as its traveling may also be figurative. However, what is important according to the Qur’an is the universal order the wheel of which is the sun and its movement. Through the sun, the stability and orderliness of the system are ensured.
In short: Most of the Quran’s verses are each a key to a treasury of perfections and a store of knowledge. If you would like to ascend to the sky of the Quran and reach up to the stars of its verses, make those twenty Words, which you have already read, a stairway of twenty steps, and climb to them. You will see what a brilliant, shining sun the Quran is! Notice how it radiates a pure light over the Divine truths and the truths of the contingent (created) realm! See what a brilliant light it spreads!
Conclusion: Since the verses concerning the Prophets contain some allusions to the wonders of the present level of technology, and have a manner of expression which suggests their furthest limits, and since it is certain, as is unanimously agreed, that each verse of the Quran bears a great variety of meanings, and since there are categorical commands to follow and obey the Prophets, then besides their explicit meanings, the verses mentioned above must be pointing to the importance of man’s arts and sciences, and urging man towards them.
By Bediuzzaman Said Nursi