Sunday, December 17, 2006

More Polemics on the Sun and the Earth: Is the Qur’an Geocentric or Heliocentric? …

It is He Who has made the Sun a shining thing and the Moon as a light and measured out its [their] stages, that you might know the number of years and the reckoning. God did not create this but in truth. He explains the Signs in detail for people who have knowledge.
(Al-Qur’an: 10:5)

When one surfs the Internet, one comes across a plethora of websites and discussion forums that accuse the Qur’an of Biblical geocentrism. Their charge is that the Qur’an is presenting a cosmology wherein the heavenly bodies, in particular the Sun and the Moon, are revolving around a fixed and immobile Earth. Their main argument in favor of this allegation is that the Qur’an never mentions that the Earth is moving while it often mentions that the Sun and the Moon are moving. Truly, the Qur’an does say at various places that the Sun and the Moon “run on their fixed courses for an appointed term” (Qur’an: 13:2, 14:33, 31:29, 35:13, 36:38, 39:5, and 55:5) or “float, each in an orbit” (Qur’an: 21:33 and 36:40). However, as we shall see shortly, there is a cosmic ignorance and prejudice that lurks behind the Islamophobic manner of thinking. It is extremely unfortunate that the apology put forward by some well meaning but uninformed Muslims reveals similar cosmic ignorance. The Muslim apology that I have come across consists of two main arguments:

1. The Qur’an is not a Book of Science; rather, it is a Book of Signs. Therefore, one should not expect to find a statement about the movement of the Earth in the Qur’an.
2. If the Qur’an does not mention the movement of the Earth around the Sun, neither does it say that the Sun moves around the Earth. All it says is that the Sun “moves”. That’s all. It does not define the orbit of the Sun. Modern science has found out that the Sun is indeed moving – around the center of our galaxy. Hence, modern science has vindicated what the Qur’an had revealed 1400 years ago.

In all humbleness, I think what we have here is a classic case of a strong case but a weak lawyer. Neither of these arguments directly addresses the allegation of the Islamophobes. We will insha’Allah offer a refutation of the accusation here. Before we go into deeper matters, we will first debunk the hoax of the fixed abode.

The Hoax of the “Fixed Abode”:

The Holy Qur’an says:

Is not He [better than your gods] Who has made the earth as a fixed abode, and has placed rivers in its midst, and has placed firm mountains therein, and has set a barrier between the two seas? Is there any god with God? Nay, but most of them know not. (27:61)

The Islamophobic inference is that the Qur’an is saying that the Earth is fixed and immobile. Here are three other standard translations:

Is not He [best] Who made the earth a fixed abode … (Pickthall)
Or, Who has made the earth firm to live in … (Yusufali)
Or, Who made the earth a resting place … (Shakir)

The word fixed vanishes in two translations because the Qur’anic word qararan has been used to describe the Earth in a geologic context and not in an astronomic context. This becomes most obvious when the verse in question is studied in context with the preceding verse:

Is not He [better than your gods] Who created the heavens and the earth, and sends down for you water [rain] from the sky, whereby We cause to grow wonderful gardens full of beauty and delight? It is not in your ability to cause the growth of their trees. Is there any god with God? Nay, but they are a people who ascribe equals [to Him]! Is not He [better than your gods] Who has made the earth as a fixed abode, and has placed rivers in its midst, and has placed firm mountains therein, and has set a barrier between the two seas. Is there any god with God? Nay, but most of them know not. (27:60-61)

One will observe in these verses that after mentioning “the heavens and the earth”, which is the Qur’anic terminology for the Universe, the Qur’an immediately moves on to focus on the Earth’s geologic phenomena. The phenomena are mentioned in this order:

1. Rain
2. Gardens
3. Trees
4. Earth (fixed abode / resting place)
5. Rivers
6. Mountains
7. Seas

It is obvious that the word ardh is not used here to refer to a planet of the solar system; instead, it is used here to refer to the Earth’s crust. The Qur’an is simply saying that the Earth’s crust has been made stable enough for man to live on it. The discerning eye of some sick devil saw the words earth and fixed placed tantalizingly close to each other in a standard translation, and so he or she decided it was time to wreak havoc on the Internet.

Sunrise and Sunset:

We commonly say, “The Sun rises in the East”, and “The Sun sets in the West”. The words rise and set are verbs attributed to the Sun, thus implying that the Sun is moving, yet we use these words despite the fact that we have deduced from certain observations and experiments that sunrise and sunset occur because of the spinning of the Earth on its axis and not revolution of the Sun around the Earth. We use these verbs without causing any ambiguity because we know that we are talking only about the phenomena of appearance of the Sun from below the horizon and disappearance of the Sun beneath the horizon rather than actual movement of any heavenly body.

The Qur’an uses the same methodology (e.g., Qur’an: 2:258, 6:76-78, 18:17) and it would be dishonest to fish out a diagnosis of biblical geocentrism on the basis of this usage in the Qur’an. In particular, Dhul Qurnayn’s story has been used by the Islamophobes to allege that the Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be infinite blessings and peace, thought that the Sun went around a fixed Earth. The same holds true for the Hadith of the Throne. (See my previous post for details.)

Frames of Reference and The Problem With Newtonian Mechanics:

Due to our early indoctrination with Newtonian mechanics, the statement, “The Earth revolves around the Sun”, has been so deeply ingrained in our mentality that we fail to see that this statement is prejudicial and holds true only if the Sun is taken as the frame of reference. Newtonian mechanics erroneously held that space is Euclidean and thus space itself is an absolute frame of reference, and this is why the Qur’an is being seen in the wrong light.

Einstein’s theories of relativity, which are a cosmic shift from Newtonian mechanics, hold that space is curved by heavenly bodies. The consequence is that there is no absolute or privileged frame of reference. Thus the statement, “The Earth revolves around the Sun”, made by an observer on the Sun, and the statement, “The Sun revolves around the Earth”, made by an observer on the Earth, are both true from their own perspectives. One of the most important discoveries of Relativity is that description of the motion of heavenly bodies necessarily calls for an arbitrary frame of reference. The Qur’an has thus chosen to take the Earth as the frame of reference for the simple reason that this is where we live and do our observations. This indeed is why the Qur’an does not care to describe the movement of the Earth. It is, however, extremely important to note that the Qur’an takes the Earth only as a convenient frame of reference, not as a privileged or absolute frame of reference. This has had two consequences. Firstly, the Earth is nowhere described as a still, motionless object. Secondly, although the Sun and the Moon are described as moving objects, this movement is never defined to be around the Earth. In this context, the mistake of the Bible was not that it adopted a geocentric frame of reference. Rather, the Bible’s mistake was to assume that the geocentric frame is a privileged frame.

The Holy Qur’an has adopted four positions with regard to the movement of the heavenly bodies:
1. The Sun and the Moon are said to be moving.
2. The movement of the Sun and Moon is described as being in a “fixed course”, but the course is not described as being around the Earth.
3. The Earth is not said to be moving.
4. The Earth is not said to be stationary either (i.e. the Qur’an has preferred to remain silent about the movement or lack of movement of the Earth in an astronomic context.)

As we have seen, all this is perfectly consistent with the general principles of Relativistic mechanics. Now, there is a fifth and final point about the movement of the heavenly bodies that is most interesting. The Qur’an describes the motion of the Sun and the Moon by the phrase
كُلٌّ فِي فَلَكٍ يَسْبَحُونَ (Qur’an, 21:33, 36:40) which means “they float, each in an orbit”. When an object floats in water, it drifts along gently on the surface of the water. In other words, the object goes wherever the medium in which it has been placed (water) carries it. Likewise, heavenly bodies move in curved orbits because it is the curvature of the space in which the body is moving that carries the body into a curved orbit. Thus the Qur’anic description is most appropriate.

It has now becomes a matter of Faith to decide whether it is Relativity that is vindicating the Qur’an or the Qur’an that is vindicating Relativity.

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