Author Topic: Does the Quran teach that the Earth is Flat?  (Read 3370 times)

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Does the Quran teach that the Earth is Flat?
« on: December 23, 2014, 03:10:26 PM »

Original Article:

Does the Quran teach that the Earth is Flat?
One often finds critics of the Quran claiming that the Quran states that the Earth is flat. They cite verses that state the Earth is 'an expanse' or is 'spread out'. But do these verses say the Earth is flat?

One of the grandfathers of this criticism was William Montgomery Watt. William Montgomery Watt in his book "Muhammad at Mecca" brings forth 8 verses that he claims describe a flat earth. Muhammad Mohar Ali is his book "The Qur'an And The Orientalists" analyses Watt's claims and this oft cited criticism and shows it to be baseless.

As an extension of the plea about errors in respect of Judaism and Christianity Watt has lately suggested that the Qur'an also reproduces the contemporary errors about the nature of the earth and the sky. The Qur'an, he says, addresses its first audience, the Arabs, in terms of their own world-picture and thus reproduces even points in which that picture was mistaken. In support of this statement he reproduces, in translation, some eight Qur'anic passages and says that they show that the prevailing notions of the earth being a flat space and the sky being a solid structure, "presumably of stone", are reproduced in the Qur'an. [1] Watt recognizes that different words are used in these passages to describe the earth and says that "all would be interpreted by the hearers in terms of their belief that the earth is flat." He adds that "there is no special emphasis on flatness, since no one supposed that the earth would be otherwise. " [2] He also suggests that such reproduction of contemporary errors was only natural, for, according to him, "it was not essential for god's purpose that false ideas of this sort should be corrected", "since the Qur'anic message could be communicated to them [the Arabs] without correcting these beliefs." [3]

Before proceeding to take into account the passages cited by Watt in support of his assumption it is necessary to note the implications of his last mentioned statement about the supposed compatibility of God's purpose with the continuance of the prevailing scientific errors in the Qur'an. In making this statement Watt appears to reflect the modern Christian's attitude to his own sacred scripture. This attitude is an outcome of a growing awareness since the nineteenth century of the existence of a number of scientific inaccuracies in the Biblical texts. In view of these inaccuracies the opinion first gained ground that there was an antagonism between science and religion. Gradually, however, the notion of a text of revelation communicated by God gave way to the notion of a text "inspired" by God but written down by human hands. The Biblical authors, it came to be assumed, might have introduced inaccuracies to the text arising from the language of the day or from ideas and traditions still honoured and prevalent at the time; but that did not detract from their being divinely inspired. [4] "The scientific errors in the Bible", states an eminent modern Christian thinker, "are the errors of mankind, for long ago man was like a child, as yet ignorant of science." [5]

The modern Muslim, however, is neither in need of nor prepared for finding solace in such assumptions; for there is no discrepancy between scientific data and any of the Qur'anic statements. As will be seen presently, the interpretations put by Watt on the passages he cites are wrong. And it is surprising that in advancing his assumption he has not taken into account, not to speak of a umber of Arabic works on the subject, [6] even such a best-seller in Europe as M. Bucaille's La Bible, Le Coran et Ia Science which, appearing for the first time in 1976, had run into 12 editions within ten years [7] and had been translated into at least three other European languages including English and seven Asian languages before Watt penned his above mentioned statement.The word 'ard occurs in the Qur'an some 461 times. Most of the uses are in connection with a description of Allah's absolute dominion over the entire universe and His power of creation. At a number of places the word clearly comes in the sense of country or dominion; [8] while at other places it is used metaphorically to denote worldly life. [9] The passages wherein it occurs with any description of its shape and nature may be divided into two categories. In one category it is mentioned in combination with or in comparison to the mountains and rivers. Here the emphasis is on how the earth has been made suitable and useful for man and other creatures. Here the listeners' or readers' attention is drawn mainly to the objects of nature and the land-surface falling within his immediate view. In other words, the earth in these passages means the land or land-surface falling within an observer's immediate view, in contradistinction to the mountains and rivers, rather than the entire earth as a unit. In the second category of passages the word occurs in relation to the sun, the moon, the skies and the universe in general. Here the earth is spoken of as a unit and the description really gives an insight into its shape, position and even movement in space.

In view of this general nature of the Qur'anic use of the expression 'arrj Watt's statement of the subject is partial and faulty in three main respects. In the first place, he concentrates on the passages of the first category and takes them to refer to the shape of the earth as a unit, which is not the case. Second, despite the diversity and differences in the descriptive expressions in the passages he cites he imposes on them all identical meanings because, as he says, the "first audience" of the Qur'an could not have supposed that the earth's shape could have been otherwise than flat. A really objective approach would have suggested greater care in understanding the precise implications of the different expressions employed in the passages. Watt even neglects to note the significance of a passage in its entirety, omitting its material part from his translation. Third and more importantly, he does not at all take into consideration the second category of passages wherein the shape and position of the earth as a unit, as also those of the others planets and stars in the space, are indicated and which contain astounding scientific data not known to man at the time the Qur'an was revealed.
That the term 'ard used in most of the passages cited means the land-surface falling within the observer's immediate view, rather than the earth as a planet, is very clear from 88:19-20 and 78:6-7 which Watt cites. The two passages, together with Watt's translations, run respectively as follows:

 وَإِلَى الْأَرْضِ كَيْفَ سُطِحَتْ وَإِلَى الْجِبَالِ كَيْفَ نُصِبَتْ 
"and [to] the mountains how they are set up? and [to] the earth how it is spread out?" (88:19-20)
 أَلَمْ نَجْعَلِ الْأَرْضَ مِهَادًا وَالْجِبَالَ أَوْتَادًا
"Did we not make the earth an expanse and the mountains pegs?" (78:6-7)
Clearly, at both the places 'ard means the immediately visible plain land in contradistinction to "the mountains" that also are visible. For, if the earth as a whole is implied, the reference to the mountains distinct from it would be both incongruous and superfluous here. It is further noteworthy that the 'ayah 78:7 speaks of mountains as "pegs". Modern scientific knowledge confirms that mountains, like pegs have deep roots embedded in the ground and that these stabilize the earth's crust. [10] In another place the Qur'an very clearly says that Allah "has set firm mountains in the earth so that it would not shake with you." [11] The 'ayahs 88:6-7 and 78:6-7 do in fact refer to these scientific facts and how Allah has set the earth's surface and the mountains for making the earth suitable for human habitation. They do not speak about the earth's shape. Watt has simply misunderstood and misinterpreted the 'ayahs. Let us now consider the material words in relation to 'ard in all the passages cited. They are mentioned below together with Watt's rendering of material words (italicized) in them.

 (1) 79:30 = وَالْأَرْضَ بَعْدَ ذَٰلِكَ دَحَاهَا (dahaha) "spread out".
(2) 88:20 = وَإِلَى الْأَرْضِ كَيْفَ سُطِحَتْ (sutihat) "spread out".
(3) 78:6 = أَلَمْ نَجْعَلِ الْأَرْضَ مِهَادًا (mihada) "make an expanse".
( 4) 51:48 = وَالْأَرْضَ فَرَشْنَاهَا فَنِعْمَ الْمَاهِدُونَ (farashnaha) "laid flat".
(5) 71:19 =وَاللَّهُ جَعَلَ لَكُمُ الْأَرْضَ بِسَاطًا (bisata) "made an expanse".
(6) 20:53 = الَّذِي جَعَلَ لَكُمُ الْأَرْضَ مَهْدًا  (mahda) "made a bed".
(7) 13:3 = وَهُوَ الَّذِي مَدَّ الْأَرْضَ (madda) "spread out".
(8) 2:22 = الَّذِي جَعَلَ لَكُمُ الْأَرْضَ فِرَاشًا (fiarasha) "made a carpet".

Needless to say, each one of these expressions like dahaha, sutihat, etc., admits of a variety of meanings. Watt himself admits this fact in a general way not only with reference to these passages but also with regard to the others he has quoted by saying at the outset of his work that he has so selected the translation as "best brings out the points being illustrated by the quotations." [12]

Now, the very first expression in the series, dahaha, is noticeably distinctive and different in genre from the rest. Watt, following many other previous translators, renders it as "spread out". But the exact and correct meaning of the term, keeping in view its root, rather provides a very positive Qur'anic evidence in support of the spherical shape of the earth. For daha means to "shape like an egg", its noun being dahiyah, which the Arabs still use to mean an egg. [13]

The second expression, sutihat, is equally significant. It is derived from sath (سطح) which means surface, outer layer, outer cover, roof, deck, plane, etc. Hence sath al-bahr means sea-level, sath ma'il means inclined plane, sathi means external, outward, superficial, etc. Keeping this original meaning of the root-word in view and approaching the Qur'anic statement at 88:20 with our modern knowledge that the interior of the earth is full of gaseous and liquid materials (lava) and that the land-surface is only an outer cover resembling the skin of an egg, and that it is also a plane, it would be seen how very appropriate, scientific and significant is the term sutihat used here in describing the land-surface of the earth, particularly after the description in the previous 'ayah, 88:19, of how the mountains have been affixed. The Qur'anic statement at 88:20 may thus be very appropriately and more correctly rendered as: "(Do they not look) to the earth how it has been surfaced and planed?"

The third word in the series is mihad and it may be considered along with the sixth in the series, mahd in 20:53, because they both belong to the same root. The former means resting place, abode, bosom, cradle and, figuratively, fold (in which something rests). And A.J. Arberry has very correctly translated the expression at 78:6 as: "Have We not made the earth as a cradle?" [14] In fact, this very word mihad occurs at six other places in the Qur'an, [15] and at each of these places it clearly bears the meaning of an abode, a habitat, a resting place, etc. In any case, even without regard to what we know of the interior of the earth, to translate the expression as "made an expanse" would be quite remote from the original sense and would be inappropriate here.

Similarly mahd means bed or cradle. It occurs at four other places in the Qur'an, once in connection with 'ard in 43:10 and thrice in connection with 'Isa's speaking to men even while in the cradle. [16] And again, A.J. Arberry very consistently renders the term at both 43:10 and 20:53 as cradle. In fact, he translates the statements at both the places uniformly as: "He who appointed the earth to be a cradle for you." [17] Watt, on the other hand, is not so consistent. He translates the expression at 78:6 as "make an expanse" and at 20:53 as "made a bed".
Similarly inconsistent is his translation of the fourth and eighth terms in the series, farashnaha and firasha. The primary meaning of farasha is to spread out as a bed, to pave, to cover, etc.; while firasha means bed, mattress, bedspread, cushion, carpet, etc. Nevertheless, while Watt has translated this last expression at 2:22 as "made a bed", he has rendered the word at 51:48 as "laid flat", though the farthest manoeuvring that could legitimately be done here is to render it as "spread out as a bed" or "laid out as a bed", but not quite as "laid flat".
There remain two other words to consider, bisat and madda, the fifth and seventh respectively in the series. The same meaning of laying or spreading as a bed is appropriate for bisat, and Arberry has indeed translated the whole statement at 71:9 as: "And God has laid the earth for you as a carpet." [18] Watt, however, has rendered the expression as "made an expanse". As regards the word madda, its primary meaning is "he extended" or "he expanded". It may even mean "he spread out", as Watt translates it. The term has been used in the Qur'an in several other senses. At 84:3-4 the expression is in its passive form, muddat, and it clearly bears the meaning of "is flattened"-"And when the earth shall be flattened and it will throw off what is in it and shall get emptied". This is a description of what will happen when the earth (world) will be brought to an end and the resurrection will take place. Hence the sense in which muddat is used here cannot be applied to the same term or its derivatives which speak about the normal situations of the earth and which therefore must bear a meaning other than "made flat" or "flattened". Conversely, this passage is a pointer to the fact that prior to the event of the earth's being brought to an end it is as a whole not flat.
Leaving aside the differentials in meanings and accepting the renderings as "spread out", "made an expanse", etc., none of the eight statements cited does really say that the earth as a whole is a flat space; for the passages speak of the earth or land as it comes within the immediate view of the observer. Moreover, though the sense of making level or plane may be said to be common to all the terms, this sense does not in fact run counter to the spherical nature of the earth as a whole. The accepted geometrical and mathematical definition of "plane" is "surface such as that the straight line joining any points on it is touching on all points. " [19] Hence, in spite of the earth as a whole being spherical, its surface is nonetheless level, plane, spread out or even flat.

The inherent relativity of the expression madda or "spread out" applied to earth in such passages was indeed pointed out some eight centuries ago by Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (544-606 H./1150-1210 A.C.) who was quite conscious of the spherical nature of the earth. Referring to the term madda used at 13:3 and 15:19 he makes two points. He says that the object of these passages is to bring home the theme of the existence of the Creator. The reference has therefore to be to such objects as are visible and obvious to the listener. Hence the term 'art/ in these passages has to be understood in the sense of the part of it which comes to the immediate view of the observer. [20] Second, he points out that the earth "is an extremely large ball; but a part of a gigantic ball, when looked at it, you will see it as a plain surface. This being the case, the difficulty of which you speak ceases to exist. The proof of this [explanation] is the saying of Allah: (We have set the mountains as pegs - 78:7). He calls them pegs notwithstanding the fact that there may be extensive plain surfaces on top of them. So is the case here. " [21]

[Muhammad Mohar Ali, (2004) The Qur'an And The Orinientlists, Jam'iyat Ihyaa' Minhaaj Al-Sunnah, pp.71-77]

[1] WATT, Muhammad's Mecca, 5-6.
[2] Ibid., 5.
[3] Ibid., 2, 44.
[4] The second Vatican Council (1962-1965) adopted a document which recognizes that the Books of the Old Testament contain material that is imperfect and obsolete. See M. Bucaille, What is the Origin of Man? The Answers of Science and the Holy Striptum, 4th edition, Seghers, Paris, 1988, p. 15.
[5] Jean Guitton (1987), quoted in ibid., 10.
[6] For instance Muhammad Wafa Al-'Amiri, Al-'Isharat al-Ilmiyah Fi al-Qur'an, second impression, Cairo, 1401 (1981) and Hanafi Ahmad, AI-Tafsir al-'Ilmii li 'Ayat al-Kawniyyah Fi al-Qur'an, Cairo, n.d.
[7] The 13th edition was published in Paris in 1987.
[8] For instance in 7:110; 14:13; 20:57; 20:63; 26:35; 28:57. Incidentally the word 'earth' seems to be an adaptation of 'ard.
[9] As in 9:38.
[10] See for instance Andre Cailleux, Anatomy of the earth, London, 1968, p. 220; Frank Press and Raymond Siever, Earth, Sanfrancisco, 1982, p. 413.
[11] Q. 16:15.
[12] WATT, Mubammad's Mecca,2.
[13] M. Fathi 'Uthman, "AI-'ard Fi al-Qur'a al-Karim", Proceedings of the First Islamic Geographical Conference", Riyadh, 1404/1984, Vol. IV, 127; A.M. Soliman, Scientific Trends in the Qur'an, London (Ta-Ha Publications), 1985, p.16
[14] A.J. ARBERRY, op.cit, 626.
[15] Q. 2:206; 3:12; 3:197; 7:41; 13:18 and 38:56.
[16] Q. 3:40; 3:110 and 19:314.
[17] A.J. ARBERRY, op.cit., 505 and 314.
[18] Ibid., 609.
[19] Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English, 19th impression, 1984, p. 636.
[20] Al-Tafsir al-Kabir, XIX, 3.
[21] Ibid, 170.


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