Cosmographical Readings of the Qurʾan

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Adrien Chauvet


cosmography, paradigm, Islam, science, modern


The Qurʾan is the primary source of inspiration for Muslims across the ages. As Muslims, the task is to make the Qurʾan relevant to our own context. That task is however challenged every time the conception of the world changes. The change from a medieval Aristotelian to a modern heliocentric view of the world represented just such a challenge. But regardless of the differing worldviews, the Qurʾan’s descriptions of natural phenomena remained relevant. Accordingly, the aim of this article is to demonstrate the correspondence between the Qurʾanic description of natural phenomena and various scientific paradigms. It claims that the Qurʾan is relevant to both past and present scientific paradigms, even if these paradigms conflict with one another. This claim is illustrated through the example of cosmographies. It shows that the Qurʾan’s cosmographical verses can be read considering both ancient and modern paradigms. This multiplicity of correspondences is achieved: (1) by means of subjective descriptions, which are open to interpretation, (2) by means of negative affirmations, which allude to certain paradigms without fully endorsing them, and (3) through a silence about key elements that would unambiguously validate or refute a specific scientific paradigm. The Qurʾan’s interpretatively open cosmographical verses also include particularly apt word choices and morphology when it comes to considering them in the light of modern scientific paradigms. The philosophical and theological consequences of this multiplicity of correspondence are also discussed.

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1 Maurice Bucaille, La Bible, Le Coran Et La Science: Les Écritures Saintes Examinées
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2 Sheikh Jawahir Tantawi could be described as having produced the first reading
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12 See in Sahih al-Bukhari 3886; In book ref.: Book 63, Hadith 226; USC-MSA ref.: Vol.5,
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14 Note that cosmography includes geology, which corresponds to the study of the
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15 Kuhn, Structure, 13-14.
16 Isaac Newton, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (n.p.: A. Strahan, 1802).
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18 Bucaille, La Bible, Le Coran Et La Science.
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20 Damien Janos, “Qurʾanic Cosmography in Its Historical Perspective: Some Notes on the
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22 Mohammad Ali Tabatabaʾi and Saida Mirsadri, “The Qurʾānic Cosmology as an
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23 Jonathan A.C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenge and Choices of
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24 Tabatabaʾi and Mirsadri, “The Qurʾānic Cosmology,” 201-234.
25 Anton M. Heinen, Islamic Cosmology: A Study of as‐Suyūṭī’s Al‐Hayʾa as‐Sanīya
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26 The following Hadith shows that the Prophet (PBUH) was known for embodying the
teachings of the Qurʾan: “[…] [Hakim] said [to Aisha]: Mother of the Faithful, tell
me about the character of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him.
She said: Don’t you read the Qurʾan? I said: Yes. Upon this she said: The character
of the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, was the Qurʾan. […].”
Sahih Muslim, 746a; In-book ref.: Book 6, Hadith 168; USC-MSA web ref.: Book 4,
Hadith 1623.
27 As reported by Aisha: “The speech of Messenger of Allah, peace and blessing may be
upon him, was so clear that all those who listened to it would understand it.” In Riyad
as-Salihin, 696; In book ref.: Book 1, Hadith 17.
28 Walton, Lost World, 21-34.
29 Chittick, Science of the Cosmos, 5-8.
30 See the exegesis in Seyyed Hossein Nasr et. al., The Study Quran: A New Translation
and Commentary (New York: HarperOne, 2015).
31 John Albert Wilson et. al., The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on
Speculative Thought in the Ancient near East (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1948) 45-46.
32 Y. Tzvi Langermann, “Hebrew Astronomy: Deep Soundings from a Rich Tradition,”
in Astronomy across Cultures: The History of Non-Western Astronomy, eds. Helaine
Selin and Sun Xiaochun (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2000), 555-584 (564).
33 Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism: The Early Period, Vol. 1, (Leiden: Brill,
1996), 132-133.
34 Walton, Lost World, 55-56.
35 Zsuzsanna Gulácsi and Jason Beduhn, “Picturing Mani’s Cosmology: An Analysis
of Doctrinal Iconography on a Manichaean Hanging Scroll from 13th/14th-Century
Southern China,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 25 (2011): 55-105.
36 Wilson et. al., Intellectual Adventure, 45-48.
37 Walton, Lost World, 27-28.
38 Nicholas Campion, “Babylonian astrology: Its origin and legacy in Europe,” in
Astronomy Across Cultures, 509-553 (542).
39 Boyce, History, 141.
40 Gulácsi and Beduhn, “Mani’s Cosmology,” 55-105.
41 Boyce, History, 133.
42 Rosemary Wright, Cosmology in Antiquity (London: Routledge, 2013) 42-43.
43 Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution: Planetary Astronomy in the Development
of Western Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957), 86-87; George
Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance (Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press, 2007), 131-135; Dallal, Islam, 54-89.
44 Wright, Cosmology, 241.
45 Ibid., 103.
46 Ibid., 114-115.
47 Kuhn, Copernican Revolution, 45.
48 The Qurʾan uses multiple synonyms for “spread”, each having their own connotations.
Broadly speaking, it refers to stretching, using madda in verse 13:3, madadnā
in verses 15:19 and 50:7, and by using ṭaḥā in verse 91:6. It also refers to flattening,
using farashnā and al-māhidūna in verse 51:48, using mahhadttu in verse 74:14,
using daḥāhā in verse 79:30 and by using suṭiḥat in verse 88:20.
49 The Qurʾan implies that the Earth was made flat and comfortable, using firāshan
in verse 2:22, and using farashnā in verse 51:48; like a bed, using mahdan in verses
20:53 and 43:10, or a resting place using mihādan in verse 78:6; that is secured, using
qirāran in verses 27:61 and 40:64.
50 Wright, Cosmology, 41.
51 See verse 18:86-90.
52 See verses 25:53, 27:61, 35:12 and 55:19.
53 See verse 35:12.
54 Tesei, “Some Cosmological Notions from Late Antiquity,” 19-32.
55 Tomislav Bilić, “The Myth of Alpheus and Arethusa and Open-Sea Voyages on the
Mediterranean—Stellar Navigation in Antiquity,” International Journal of Nautical
Archaeology 38, no. 1 (2009): 116-32.
56 The Qurʾan refers to pegs by using awtādan in verse 78:7.
57 The Qurʾan refers to the firmness of the mountain by calling them rawāsiya in verses
13:3, 15:19, 16:15, 21:31, 27:61, 31:10, 41:10, 50:7 and 77:27, as well as by using arsāhā
in verse 79:32 and nuṣibat in verse 88:19.
58 See Qurʾan, verses 16:15, 21:31 and 30:10.
59 Boyce, History, 133.
60 The sun and the moon’s subjugation are implied in the Qurʾan by using sakhkhara
in verses 13:2, 16:12, 29:61, 31:20, 31:29, 35:13, 39:5, 45:13, and using musakhkharāt
bi-amrihi in verses 7:54 and 16:12. The subjugation is further described as being
continuous by using dāʾibay in verse 14:33.
61 The Qurʾan refers to the motion of the sun and moon by using yasbaḥūna in verses
21:33, 36:39, and 55:5 and by using tajrī in verse 36:38.
62 The use of the sun and moon for computational purposes is referred in the Qurʾan
by using ḥusbānan in 6:96 and 55:5. It is then explicitly mentioned in 10:5 and 17:12.
63 The stars’ subjugation is implied in the Qurʾan by using sakhkhara in verses 31:20
and 45:13, and by using musakhkharāt bi-amrihi in verses 7:54 and 16:12.
64 The Qurʾan explicitly refers to the stars’ guiding ability in verses 6:97 and 16:16.
65 Kuhn, Copernican Revolution,42-43.
66 It is possible to read al-khunnas in verse 81:15, meaning “those who retreat,” as a
reference to the planets because of their disappearance during the day or because
of their retrograde motion. See Nasr et. al., The Study Quran. However, this verse
is also translated as referring to the stars, as in Sahih International’s translation.
Hence, the verse is prone to interpretations. If we interpret the verse as referring
to the planets, the verse can be taken as an allusion to their deviation with respect
to the ecliptic. This apparent unwillingness to conform to any geocentric models
corresponds to ancient paradigms who were unable to accurately describe and
predict the planets’ trajectories.
67 Dallal, Islam, 114.
68 Boyce, History, 133-134; Gulácsi and Beduhn, “Mani’s Cosmology”.
69 The Qurʾan refers to the sky as a protected ceiling, using saqfan maḥfūẓan in verse
21:32, but also refers to the ceiling of the sky, using samkahā, in verse 79:28.
70 The Qurʾan refers to the sky as being built like a solid structure, using bināʾan in
verses 2:22 and 40:64, banaynā in verses 50:6, 51:47, 78:12 and banā in verses 79:27
and 91:5.
71 The Qurʾan mentioned that the sky was raised using rafaʿa in verses 13:2, 55:7, 79:28
and 88:18, and by using marfūʿ in verse 52:5.
72 See verses 13:2 and 31:10.
73 Wilson et. al., Intellectual Adventure, 46.
74 Edward Adams, “Graeco-Roman and Ancient Jewish Cosmology,” in Cosmology
and New Testament Theology, eds Jonathan T Pennington and Sean M McDonough,
(London: T&T Clark International, 2008), 5-27 (20); Gulácsi and Beduhn, “Mani’s
Cosmology” .
75 See Qurʾan 22:65.
76 See Qurʾan 34:9.
77 See Qurʾan 50:6 and 67:3-4.
78 Wright, Cosmology, 23.
79 See Qurʾan 79:27-28.
80 Wayne Horowitz, Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography (n.p.: Eisenbrauns, 1998), xiv.
81 Joel White, “Paul’s Cosmology: The Witness of Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and
Galatians,” in Cosmology and the New Testament Theology, 90-106 (93-94).
82 See, for example, Qurʾan 30:41.
83 See Qurʾan 23:71.
84 Gulácsi and Beduhn, “Mani’s Cosmology”.
85 Wright, Cosmology, 114-115.
86 In Qurʾan 71:16, a distinction in intensity is made between the light from the sun
and that from the moon. This difference can be interpreted as a difference in the
way each light is produced.
87 Edward J. Tarbuck et. al., Earth: An Introduction to Physical Geology (Upper Saddle
River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005), 36-42.
88 Cliff Ollier and F. Colin Pain, The Origin of Mountains (London: Routledge, 2000)13-
20, 186.
89 Roger Graham Barry and Richard J Chorley, Atmosphere, Weather, and Climate
(London: Psychology Press, 2003), 32-37.
90 R. Brent Tully et. al., “The Laniakea Supercluster of Galaxies,” Nature 513, no. 7516
(2014): 71-73.
91 Kenath Arun et. al., “Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and Alternate Models: A Review,”
Advances in Space Research 60, no. 1 (2017): 166-86.
92 See for example verses 78:6-7 and 16:15.
93 Ollier and Pain, Origin, 18-19.
94 The Qurʾan refers to the shaking and swinging of the earth by using tamīda in verses
16:15, 21:31, and 31:10.
95 The Qurʾan refers specifically to earthquakes by using al-rajfah in verses 7:78, 7:91,
7:155 and 29:37. In contrast, it refers to the emotional effect of earthquakes by using
zulzilū in verses 2:214, 33:11 and 99:1.
96 Tarbuck et. al., Earth, 59.
97 Adrian Lenardic et. al., “Longevity and Stability of Cratonic Lithosphere: Insights
from Numerical Simulations of Coupled Mantle Convection and Continental
Tectonics,” Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth 108, no. B6 (2003).
98 See footnotes 48 and 49.
99 The Qurʾan alludes to a wide earth by using wāsiʿah in verses 4:97, 29:56 and 39:10.
100 The passage in Qurʾan 21:44 reads as follows: “[…] Do they not consider how We
come upon the land, reducing it of its outlying regions? […]” This passage is commonly
taken as referring to the loss of territory to an enemy, as well as to the loss
of people of knowledge. See Nasr et. al., The Study Quran. However, when taken in
its most evident meaning, the verse refers to the shrinking of landmasses.
101 With respect to the modern sciences, the shrinking of the earth could, for example,
refer to the raising of sea levels, which started at the end of the last ice age.
102 See Qurʾan 51:48.
103 See Qurʾan 51:47.
104 See Qurʾan 21:33 and 36:40.
105 Tully et. al., “The Laniakea Supercluster of Galaxies,” 71-73.
106 See Lane’s Lexicon.
107 Kuhn, Copernican Revolution, 252-265.
108 See Qurʾan 13:2 and 31:10.
109 See Qurʾan 67:3.