By David Wood
The most popular argument for Islam today is the “Argument from Scientific Accuracy.” Muslims maintain that Muhammad made numerous scientific statements that couldn’t possibly have been verified in seventh century Arabia, but which modern science confirms. The main problem with this argument is that virtually all of Muhammad’s scientific claims are demonstrably false. In this essay, we will examine Muhammad’s view of cosmology. The evidence will show that when Muhammad explained the structure of the universe and the nature of the heavenly bodies, he had absolutely no clue what he was talking about.
I. A WHALE OF A STORY
Let’s begin at the bottom. Surah (Chapter) 68:1 of the Qur’an reads:
“Nun. By the Pen and by the (Record) which (men) write . . .”i
The word “nun” typically goes untranslated, but it refers to a large fish or a whale. Ibn Abbas, one of Muhammad’s companions and the greatest early commentator on the Qur’an explains “nun” as follows:
Allah swears by the Nun, which is the whale that carries the earths on its back while in Water, and beneath which is the Bull and under the Bull is the Rock and under the Rock is the Dust and none knows what is under the Dust save Allah.ii
Ibn Masud (whom Muhammad selected as his best teacher of the Qur’aniii) presents a similar picture. He said:
“[Allah] created the earth upon a (big) fish (hut), that being the fish (nun) mentioned by God in the Qur’an: ‘Nun. By the Pen.’ The fish was in the water. The water was upon the back of a (small) rock. The rock was upon the back of an angel. The angel was upon a (big) rock.”iv
We have many more references to this cosmic fish in Ibn Kathir, al-Tabari, and al-Qurtubi, but the point is clear. Muhammad’s companions held that Surah 68:1 contains a reference to a fish that underlies the seven earths (yes, there are seven).
II. A STACK OF FLAT EARTHS
In Surah 65:12 we read:
“Allah is He Who created seven heavens, and of the earth the like of them . . .”
Modern Muslims have tried to reconcile Muhammad’s reference to seven heavens and seven earths with a correct understanding of the universe. However, in Jami at-Tirmidhi, Muhammad himself explained what the Qur’an is referring to. The seven heavens are seven domes over the earth, each with a five hundred year journey between itself and the next heaven.
Then [Muhammad] said: “Do you know what is above you?” They said: “Allah and His Messenger know better.” He said: “Indeed it is a preserved canopy of the firmament whose surge is restrained.” Then he said: “Do you know how much is between you and between it?” They said: “Allah and His Messenger know better.” He said: “Between you and it [is the distance] of five-hundred years.” Then he said: “Do you know what is above that?” They said: “Allah and His Messenger know better.” He said: “Verily, above that are two Heavens, between the two of them there is a distance of five-hundred years”—until he enumerated seven heavens—“What is between each of the two Heavens is what is in between the heavens and the earth.”v
The Qur’an also implies that the lowest heaven is some sort of tangible substance that would fall on us if God didn’t hold it up:
Do you not see that Allah has made subservient to you whatsoever is in the earth and the ships running in the sea by His command? And He withholds the heaven from falling on the earth except with His permission; most surely Allah is Compassionate, Merciful to men. (22:65, Shakir)
See they not what is before them and behind them, of the sky and the earth? If We wished, We could cause the earth to swallow them up, or cause a piece of the sky to fall upon them. (34:9)
Just as there are seven heavens, there are seven earths (with ours, of course, on top):
Then [Muhammad] said: “Do you know what is under you?” They said: “Allah and His Messenger know better.” He said: “Indeed it is the earth.” Then he said: “Do you know what is under that?” They said: “Allah and His Messenger know better.” He said: “Verily, below it is another earth, between the two of which is a distance of five-hundred years.” Until he enumerated seven earths: “Between every two earths is a distance of five-hundred years.”vi
According to the Qur’an, the earth is as flat as a carpet:
He Who has made for you the earth like a carpet spread out . . . (20:53)
And Allah has made the earth for you as a carpet (spread out) . . . (71:19)
Do they never reflect on the camels, and how they were created? The heaven, how it was raised on high? The mountains, how they were set down? The earth, how it was made flat? (88:17-20, Dawood)
One of the greatest Muslim commentaries of all time explains 88:20 as follows:
As for His words sutihat, ‘laid out flat’, this on a literal reading suggests that the earth is flat, which is the opinion of most of the scholars of the [revealed] Law, and not a sphere as astronomers (ahl al-hay’a) have it, even if this [latter] does not contradict any of the pillars of the Law.vii
We learn from Muhammad’s companions that all seven earths are flat. Ibn Abbas comments:
(Allah it is Who hath created seven heavens) one above the other like a dome, (and of the earth the like thereof) seven earths but they are flat.viii
The great seventh century Muslim traditionist Wahb agrees:
And when Wahb was asked how the earths are (constituted), he replied: They are seven earths that are flat and islands. Between each two earths, there is an ocean.ix
Yet Muhammad’s astronomical difficulties don’t stop there.
III. THE SUN GOES SKINNY-DIPPING
Muhammad clearly believed that it is the movement of the sun, not the rotation of the earth, that accounts for our observation of the sun moving across the sky:
And the Sun runs its course for a period determined for it; that is the decree of (Him), the exalted in Might, the All-Knowing. And the Moon—We have measured for it Mansions (to traverse) till it returns like the old (and withered) lower part of a date stalk. It is not permitted to the Sun to catch up the Moon, nor can the Night outstrip the Day: Each (just) swims along in (its own) orbit (according to Law). (36:38-40)
Notice that the Qur’an here declares that the celestial bodies swim along in their orbits. Some Muslims try to stretch the interpretation to mean that the universe is a sphere and that everything is “swimming” in it, or that Muhammad is really talking about the orbits of the planets and moons. However, Muhammad obviously has both the moon and the sun in mind. As we read in Surah 21:33:
It is [Allah] Who created the Night and the Day, and the sun and the moon: All (the celestial bodies) swim along, each in its rounded course. (Qur’an 21:33)
We know Muhammad believed that the sun is moving across the sky from other passages of the Qur’an as well. For instance, the following verses tell us that a man (thought by many Muslims to be Alexander the Great) once reached the place where the sun sets:
They ask thee concerning Dhu al Qarnayn. Say, “I will rehearse to you something of his story.” Verily We established his power on earth, and We gave him the ways and the means to all ends. One (such) way he followed, until, when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it set in a spring of murky water: Near it he found a people. (18:83-86)
According to this passage, the sun is small enough to set in a pool of murky water, somewhere way out west. Muslims try to reinterpret this, but Muhammad’s view is quite plain.
IV. DANCING WITH THE STARS
Since the sun sets in a pool, the sun must not be very big. But the other heavenly bodies aren’t very big either. Indeed, many of the stars we see are small enough to be flung at demons whenever these evil spirits overstep their bounds. According to several passages in the Qur’an, stars are missiles that God uses to shoot demons when they try to sneak into heaven. If we see a shooting star in the sky, it’s because God became angry and hurled a star at a demon. Let’s consider some passages.
And We have (from of old), adorned the lowest heaven with lamps, and We have made such (lamps) (as) missiles to drive away the Evil Ones, and have prepared for them the Penalty of the Blazing Fire. (67:5)
It is We Who have set out the Zodiacal Signs in the heavens, and made them fair-seeming to (all) beholders; and (moreover) We have guarded them from every evil spirit accursed: but any that gains a hearing by stealth, is pursued by a flaming fire, bright (to see). (15:16-18)
We have indeed decked the lower heaven with beauty (in) the stars—(for beauty) and for guard against all obstinate rebellious evil spirits, (so) they should not strain their ears in the direction of the Exalted Assembly but be cast away from every side, repulsed, for they are under a perpetual penalty, except such as snatch away something by stealth, and they are pursued by a flaming Fire, of piercing brightness. (37:6-10)
Abu Qatada, one of Muhammad’s companions, comments:
Abu Qatada mentioning Allah’s saying: “And indeed We have adorned the nearest heaven with lamps . . .” (v. 67:5) said, “The creation of these stars is for three purposes, and they are: 1) as decoration of the nearest heaven, 2) as missiles to hit the devils, and 3) as signs to guide travelers. So, if anybody tries to find a different interpretation, he is mistaken and just wastes his efforts and troubles himself with what is beyond his limited knowledge.”x
There are some clear errors here. First, it’s extremely odd to claim that shooting stars, which are physical objects, are somehow going to hurt evil spirits, which aren’t physical. Second, shooting stars aren’t really stars. According to the Qur’an, however, God flings stars at demons, causing a bright streak across the sky. The Qur’an therefore identifies shooting stars as stars, which is simply wrong.
V. AND ON THAT FARM HE HAD SOME GOATS
In case stellar missiles, a skinny-dipping sun, and an earth-shaking fish weren’t enough to cast doubt on Muhammad’s scientific precision, the following report should suffice:
[Muhammad said]: Above the seventh heaven there is a sea the distance between whose surface and bottom is like that between one heaven and the next. Above that there are eight mountain goats the distance between whose hoofs and haunches is like the distance between one heaven and the next. Then Allah, the Blessed and the Exalted, is above that.xi
Muslims point to Muhammad’s miraculously accurate scientific statements as proof that Islam is true. But what exactly did Muhammad get right? Muhammad believed that there are seven earths (false), all of them flat (false), stacked on top of each other like pancakes (false), except with a long distance between them (false). Out on the edge of the top earth is a pool (false) where the sun sets (false). There are also seven heavens above the earths (false), like domes that will fall on us if God doesn’t hold them up (false). In the lowest heaven are the stars, which God uses to hurl at demons (false). All of this is sandwiched between a giant fish (false) and eight giant goats (false).
If this is the greatest evidence for the prophethood of Muhammad, we can only wonder why anyone believes in Islam. Muhammad’s view of the cosmos was wrong in virtually every way. Since his claims about worldly things are demonstrably false, does it make sense to trust him when it comes to heavenly things?
iUnless otherwise noted, all Qur’an quotations are from the Yusuf Ali Translation.
iiTanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas.
iiiSee Sahih al-Bukhari 3308.
ivThe History of Al-Tabari, Volume One: General Introduction and From the Creation to the Flood, Franz Rosenthal, trans. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), p. 220.
vJami at-Tirmidhi 3298.
viJami at-Tirmidhi 3298.
viiiTanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas.
ixThe History of Al-Tabari, Volume One: General Introduction and From the Creation to the Flood, Franz Rosenthal, trans. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989), p. 208.
xSahih al-Bukhari 3198.
xiSunan Abu Dawud, Number 4705.