In a postmodern world where the Sun of Christianity is found to be setting in murky waters, one finds the Sun of Islam rising on a people for whom no protection has been provided against the bright sunshine of Islamic Enlightenment. Hence, Islamophobia runs amok. They say that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones at others, but it seems like the Christian missionaries are hell-bent on “proving” that Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be infinite blessings and peace, was laboring under the illusion that the Earth is flat and the Sun rotates around a stationary earth. I believe that a hundred lies cannot equal a single truth, yet this is precisely what the missionary agenda is. Here we will insha’Allah offer a refutation of the accusations leveled against the Qur’an and Sunnah.
The Story of Dhul-Qarnayn:
The Holy Qur’an says:
And they ask you about Dhul-Qarnayn. Say: "I shall recite to you something of his story." Verily, We established him in the earth, and We gave him the means of everything. So he followed a way. Until, when he reached the setting place of the Sun, he found it setting in a spring of black muddy [or hot] water. And he found near it a people. We [God] said [by inspiration]: "O Dhul-Qarnayn! Either you punish them, or treat them with kindness." He said: "As for him who does wrong, we shall punish him; and then he will be brought back unto his Lord; Who will punish him with a terrible torment [Hell]. But as for him who believes and works righteousness, he shall have the best reward, [Paradise], and we [Dhul-Qarnayn] shall speak unto him mild words [as instructions]." Then he followed another way, Until, when he came to the rising place of the Sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We [God] had provided no shelter against the Sun. So [it was]! And We knew all about him [Dhul-Qarnayn]. (Al-Qur’an, 18:83-91)
The accusation is that Dhul-Qarnayn (and by extrapolation, Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon them) thought that the Earth was flat and he had reached the literal ends of the Earth where he observed the Sun entering inside a spring of murky water at the Western end (!) and the Sun rising so close to the Earth at the Eastern end that there was no protection for the people who lived there. An accusation couldn’t get more ludicrous. In this connection, the Wikipedia articles on Sunrise and Sunset are most enlightening. The Sunrise article notes:
The apparent westward revolution of Sun around the Earth after rising out of the horizon is due to the Earth's eastward rotation. This illusion is so convincing that most cultures had mythologies and religions built around the geocentric model.
While the Sunset article notes in the last sentence of its third paragraph:
On a west-facing coastline, sunset occurs over water while sunrise occurs over land.
If a modern writer who believes that sunset and sunrise are illusions, can say a statement like “sunset occurs over water” or “sunrise occurs over land”, then why can’t the Author of the Qur’an say so?
It may be noted that we popularly call Japan as the Land of the Rising Sun even though we know that the Earth is spherical and rotates around the Sun. Indeed, the Japanese call their country Nippon, a word that means “origin of the Sun”.
Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, California (in the United States) is probably the most famous street in the World. The western part of this street - its most famous part - is duly named Sunset Strip. It runs near Los Angeles’ western coastline adjoining the Pacific Ocean. The Qur’anic reference to "the setting place of the Sun" is indeed such a place in Dhul-Qarnayn’s kingdom. The “spring” of murky water may or may not have been an ocean, but it certainly was large enough to extend all the way to the horizon.
Flattened Earth vs Flat Earth:
The Qur’an says:
And it is He who spread out the Earth (13:3)
And the Earth, We spread out (15:19)
And the Earth, We have spread it out (50:7)
And We have spread out the Earth, how Excellent Spreader [thereof] are We! (51:48)
And God has made for you the Earth, wide spread [an expanse] (71:19)
And after that, He spread the Earth (79:30)
And at the Earth, how it is spread out (88:20)
And by the Earth and Him Who spread it (91:6)
None of the verses quoted above preclude the Earth from being a big sphere. A surface that has been “spread out” could very well be a big spherical surface. Moreover, the spreading out could also mean the flattening (i.e. leveling) of the Earth after it was bombarded by flying fragments during the Late Heavy Bombardment. This bombardment probably created 22,000 or more craters with impact diameters greater than 20 km, about 40 impact basins with diameters about 1,000 km, and several impact basins with diameter about 5,000 km.
The Earth as a Bed:
The Qur'an says:
Who has made the Earth for you like a bed [or carpet] (20:53)
Who has made for you the Earth like a bed [or carpet] (43:10)
Have We not made the Earth as a bed [or carpet] (78:6)
The accusation is that since beds are flat and not spherical, the Author of the Qur'an "thinks" that the Earth is flat, as opposed to spherical. However, geologists, who sleep in flat beds and believe in a spherical Earth, also believe that sedimentary rock, which covers 75% of the Earth’s surface and most of the continental land mass, has been laid down in layers called beds (1,2) through a process called bedding. More detailed reading of the verses in question will reveal that the the Qur’an has always referred to the Earth as a bed in a geologic (and not astronomic) context only:
Who has made the Earth for you like a bed [spread out]; and has opened roads [ways and paths, etc] for you therein; and has sent down water [rain] from the sky. And We have brought forth with it various kinds of vegetation (20:53)
Who has made for you the Earth like a bed, and has made for you roads therein, in order that you may find your way. And Who sends down water [rain] from the sky in due measure. Then We revive a dead land therewith, and even so you will be brought forth [from the dead]. (43:10-11)
Have We not made the Earth as a bed. And the mountains as pegs? (78:6-7)
The only valid inference we can draw is that the Qur’anic reference to the Earth as a bed is not only most appropriate, it is also far ahead of its time of revelation.
The Hadith of the Throne:
According to an authentic hadith of Sahih Bukhari:
Narrated Abu Dhar: The Prophet, peace be upon him, asked me at sunset, "Do you know where the sun goes (at the time of sunset)?" I replied, "Allah and His Apostle know better." He said, "It goes (i.e. travels) till it prostrates Itself underneath the Throne and takes the permission to rise again, and it is permitted and then (a time will come when) it will be about to prostrate itself but its prostration will not be accepted, and it will ask permission to go on its course but it will not be permitted, but it will be ordered to return whence it has come and so it will rise in the west. And that is the interpretation of the Statement of Allah: "And the sun Runs its fixed course For a term (decreed). that is The Decree of (Allah) The Exalted in Might, The All-Knowing." (36.38)
(Hadith referenced here.)
The significance of Syedna Abu Dhar’s statement (may God be pleased with him), “Allah and His Apostle know better”, should not be underestimated. It does not mean that Syedna Abu Dhar (may God be pleased with him) or the Arabs of the 7th century had no idea where the Sun went after setting. Rather, it was routine with the Companions to answer any question of the Prophet, peace be upon him, with these words even if they knew the answer, the only exception being when they realized that the Prophet, peace be upon him, was specifically demanding for an answer. This was because they knew what was meant by the term adab (i.e. love and reverence) of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him). In this context, I am reminded of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, a fond memory from my childhood years, where Petruchio tames his spoiled wife to such an extent that when he points at the Sun and says that it is the Moon, she agrees with him, and when he says that it is not the Moon but the Sun indeed, she again agrees with him. I wish we too could learn such adab.
The phrase, “It goes (i.e. travels)” cannot be forced to mean that it travels around a fixed earth. Such an inference can be made if the words had been, “It goes on around the earth”. In the hadith, however, the phrase “It goes” simply means that it goes on in whatever orbit has been assigned to it.
The Sun prostrates when it reaches the Throne, yet in our scientific observation, the Sun is never seen to prostrate to any Throne. Instead, it is observed to be orbiting the center of our galaxy at a speed of about 800,000 kilometers per hour. The reason for our inability to observe the prostration of the Sun is that the Throne lies in the Unseen (the Gha'ib). The laws of physics hold true only in the physical universe (the Seen). The laws of the metaphysical universe (the Unseen) are known only to Almighty God or to whom He gives special sanction. It is not for us to speculate on the Unseen. Note also the following Qur’anic verses:
And to God prostate all things that are in the Heavens and all things that are in the Earth, of the live moving creatures and the angels, and they are not proud [i.e. they worship their Lord with humility] (16:49)
See you not that to God prostrates whoever is in the Heavens and whoever is on the Earth, and the Sun, and the Moon, and the stars, and the mountains, and the trees, and the live moving creatures, and many of humankind? But there are many [people] on whom the Punishment is justified. And whomsoever God disgraces, none can honor him. Verily! God does what He wills. (22:18)
And the herbs [or stars] and the trees both prostrate (55:6)
The manner in which all of the non-human creation prostrate to God is not observable to us through scientific methods because it is a matter of the Unseen that was shown only to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Likewise, the prostration of the Sun is just as unobservable as the prostration of the trees and mountains.
This hadith is very important in that it underscores the fact that a Muslim is by definition one who believes in the Unseen:
Those who believe in the Unseen (Qur’an:2,3)
A Prophet is by definition one who brings news from the Unseen (nabi, the Arabic word for prophet, means ‘one who brings news’); a believer is one who listens to this news and believes in the truthfulness of the news-bringer, salla Allah o alaihe wa aaalehi wa sallam.
Reference: Hadiths on the Cosmos – On Cosmic Revolution, the Dying Sun, and Energy