By Dr. Maurice Bucaille
The information the Qur'an provides on this subject mainly deals
with the solar system. References are however made to phenomena that go beyond the solar
system itself: they have been discovered in recent times. There are two very important
verses on the orbits of the Sun and Moon:
--sura 21, verse 33:
"(God is) the One Who created the night,and day, the sun and the moon. Each
one is travelling in an orbit with its own motion."
--sura 36, verse 40:
"The sun must not catch up the moon, nor does the night outstrip the day. Each one
is travelling in an orbit with its own motion."
Here an essential fact is clearly stated: the existence of the Sun's and Moon's orbits,
plus a reference is made to the traveling of these bodies in space with their own motion.
A negative fact also emerges from a reading of these verses: it is shown that the Sun
moves in an orbit, but no indication is given as to what this orbit might be in relation
to the Earth. At the time of the Qur'anic Revelation, it was thought that the Sun moved
while the Earth stood still. This was the system of geocentrism that had held away since
the time of Ptolemy, Second century B.C., and was to continue to do so until Copernicus in
the Sixteenth century A.D. Although people supported this concept at the time of Muhammad,
it does not appear anywhere in the Qur'an, either here or elsewhere.
The Existence of the Moon's and the Sun's Orbits.
The Arabic word falak has here been translated by the word
'orbit'; many French translators of the Qur'an attach to it the meaning of a 'sphere'.
This is indeed its initial sense. Hamidullah translates it by the word 'orbit'. The word
caused concern to older translators of tne Qur'an who were unable to imagine the circular
course of the Moon and the Sun and therefore retained images of their course through space
that were either more or less correct, or hopelessly wrong.
Si Hamza Boubekeur in his translation of the Qur'an cites the diversity of
interpretations given to it: "A sort of axle, like an iron rod, that a mill turns
around; a celestial sphere, orbit, sign of the zodiac, speed, wave . . .", but he
adds the following observation made by Tabari, the famous Tenth century commentator:
"It is our duty to keep silent when we do not know." (XVII, 15).
This shows just how incapable men were of understanding this concept of the Sun's and
Moon's orbit. It is obvious that if the word had expressed an astronomical concept common
in Muhammad's day, it would not have been so difficult to interpret these verses. A new
concept therefore existed in the Qur'an that was not to be explained until centuries
1. The Moon's Orbit.
Today, the concept is widely spread that the Moon is a satellite of the Earth
around which it revolves in periods of twenty-nine days. A correction must however be made
to the absolutely circular form of its orbit, since modern astronomy ascribes a certain
eccentricity to this, so that the distance between the Earth and the Moon (240,000 miles)
is only the average distance. We have seen above how the Qur'an underlined the usefulness
of observing the Moon's movements in calculating time (sura 10, verse 5, quoted at the
beginning of this chapter.) This system has often been criticized for being archaic,
impractical and unscientific in comparison to our system based on the Earth's rotation
around the Sun, expressed today in the Julian calendar.
This criticism calls for the following two remarks:
a) Nearly fourteen centuries ago, the Qur'an was directed at the inhabitants of the
Arabian Peninsula who were used to the lunar calculation of time. It was advisable to
address them in the only language they could understand and not to upset the habits they
had of locating spatial and temporal reference-marks which were nevertheless quite
efficient. It is known how well-versed men living in the desert are in the observation of
the sky; they navigated according to the stars and told the time according to the phases
of the Moon. Those were the simplest and most reliable means available to them.
b) Apart from the specialists in this, most people are unaware of the perfect
correlation between the Julian and the lunar calendar: 235 lunar months correspond exactly
to 19 Julian years of 365.25 days. Then length of our year of 365 days is not perfect
because it has to be rectified every four years (with a leap year): With the lunar
calendar, the same phenomena occur every 19 years (Julian). This is the Metonic cycle,
named after the Greek astronomer Meton, who discovered this exact correlation between
solar and lunar time in the Fifth century B.C.
2. The Sun.
It is more difficult to conceive of the Sun's orbit because we are so used to
seeing our solar system organized around it. To understand the verse from the Qur'an, the
position of the Sun in our galaxy must be considered. and we must therefore call on modern
scientific ideas. Our galaxy includes a very large number of stars spaced so as to form a
disc that is denser at the centre than at the rim. The Sun occupies a position in it which
is far removed from the centre of the disc. The galaxy revolves on its own axis which is
its centre with the result that the Sun revolves around the same centre in a circular
orbit. Modern astronomy has worked out the details of this. In 1917, Shapley estimated the
distance between the Sun and the centre of our galaxy at 10 kiloparsecs i.e., in miles,
circa the figure 2 followed by 17 zeros. To complete one
revolution on its own axis, the galaxy and Sun take roughly 250 million years. The Sun
travels at roughly 150 miles per second n the completion of this. The above is the orbital
movement of the Sun that was already referred to by the Qur'an fourteen centuries ago. The
demonstration of the existence and details of this is one of the achievements of modern
Reference to the Movement of the Moon and the Sun
in Space With Their Own Motion.
This concept does not appear in those tranislations of the Qur'an that have been
made by men of letters. Since the latter know nothing about astronomy, they have
translated the Arabic word that expresses this movemcnt by one of the meanings the word
has: 'to swirn'. They have done this in both the French translations and the, otherwise
remarkable, English translation by Yusuf Ali. The Arabic word referring to a movement with
a self-propelled motion is the verb sabaha (yasbahuna in the text of the two verses). All
the senses of the verb imply a movement that is associated with a motion that comes from
the body in question. If the movement takes place in water, it is 'to swim'; It is 'to
move by the action of one's own legs' if it takes place on land. For a movement that
occurs in space, it is difficult to see how else this meaning implied in the word could be
rendered other than by employing its original sense. Thus there seems to have been no
mistranslation, for the following reasons:
--The Moon completes its rotating motion on its own axis at the same time as it
revolves around the Earth, i.e. 29.5 days (approx.), so that it always has the same side
--The Sun takes roughly 25 days to revolve on its own axis. There are certain
differences in its rotation at its equator and
poles, (we shall not go into them here) but as a whole, the Sun is animated by a rotating
motion.It appears therefore that a verbal nuance in the Qur'an refers to the Sun and
Moon's own motion. These motions of the two celestial bodies are confirmed by the data of
modern science, and it is inconceivable that a man living in the Seventh century
A.D.--however knowledgeable he might have been in his day (and this was certainly not true
in Muhammad's case)--could have imagined them. This view is sometimes contested by
examples from great thinkers of antiquity who indisputably predicted certain data that
modern science has verified. They could hardly have relied on scientific deduction
however; their method of procedure was more one of philosophical reasoning. Thus the case
of the Pythagoreans is often advanced. In the Sixth century B.C., they defended the theory
of the rotation of the Earth on its own axis and the movement of the planets around the
Sun. This theory was to be confirmed by modern sciece. By comparing it with the case
of the Pythagoreans,it easy to put forward the hypothesis of Muhammad as being a brilliant
thinker, who was supposed to have imagined all on his on his own what modern science was
to discover centuries later. In so doing however, people quite simply forget to mention
the other aspect of what these geniuses of philosophical reasoning produced, i.e. the
colossal blunders that litter their work. it must be remembered for example, that the
pythagoreans also defended the theory whereby the Sun was fixed in space; they made it the
centre of the world and only conceived of a celestial order that was centered on it.
It is quite common in the works of the great philosophers of antiquity to find a
mixture of valid and invalid ideas about the Universe. The brilliance of these human works
comes from the advanced ideas they contain, but they should not make us over look the
mistaken concepts which have also been left to us. From a strictly scientific point of
view, this is what distinguished them from the Qur'an. In the latter, many subjects are
referred to that have a bearing on modern knowledge without one of them containing a
statement that contradicts what has been established by present-day science.
The Sequence of Day and Night.
At a time when it was held that the Earth was the centre of the world and that
the Sun moved in relation to it, how could any one have failed to refer to the Sun's
movement when talking of the sequence of night and day? This is not however referred to in
the Qur'an and the subject is dealt with as follows:
--sura 7, verse 54:
"(God) covers the day with the night which is in haste to follow it..."
--sura 36, verse 37:
"And a sign for them (human beings) is the night. We strip it of the day and
they are in darkness."
--sura 31, verse 29:
"Hast thou not seen how God merges the night into the day and merges the day into the
--sura 39, verse 5:
"...He coils the night upon the day and He coils the day upon the night."
The first verse cited requires no comment. The second simply provides an image.
It is mainly the third and fourth verses quoted above that provide interesting material on
the process of interpenetration and especially of winding the night upon the day and the
day upon the night. (sura 39, verse 5)
'To coil' or 'to wind' seems, as in the French translation by R. Blachere, to be
the best way of translating the Arabic verb kawwara. The original meaning of the verb is
to 'coil' a turban around the head; the notion of coiling is preserved in all the other
senses of the word. What actually happens however in space? American astronauts have seen
and photographed what happens from their spaceships, especially at a great distance from
Earth, e.g. from the Moon. They saw how the Sun permanently lights up (except in the case
of an eclipse) the half of the Earth's surface that is facing it, while the other half of
the globe is in darkness. The Earth turns on its own axis and the lighting remains the
same, so that an area in the form of a half-sphere makes one revolution around the Earth
in twenty-four hours while the other half-sphere, that has remained in darkness, makes the
same revolution in the same time. This perpetual rotation of night and day is quite
clearly described in the Qur'an. It is easy for the human understanding to grasp this
notion nowadays because we have the idea of the Sun's (relative) immobility and the
Earth's rotation. This process of perpetual coiling, including the interpenetration of one
sector by another is expressed in the Qur'an just as if the concept of the Earth's
roundness had already been conceived at the time-which was obviously not the case.
Further to the above reflections on the sequence of day and night, one must also
mention, with a quotation of some verses from the Qur'an, the idea that there is more than
one Orient and one Occident. This is of purely descriptive interest because these
phenomena rely on the most commonplace observations. The idea is mentioned here with the
aim of reproducing as faithfully as possible all that the Qur'an has to say on this
subject. The following are examples:
--In sura 70 verse 40, the expression 'Lord of Orients and Occidents'.
--In sura 55, verse 17, the expression 'Lord of the two Orients and the two Occidents'.
--In sura 43, verse 38, a reference to the 'distance between the two Orients', an image
intended to express the immense size of the distance separating the two points. Anyone who
carefully watches the sunrise and sunset knows that the Sun rises at different point of
the Orient and sets at different points of the Occident, according to season. Bearings
taken on each of the horizons define the extreme limits that mark the two Orients and
Occidents, and between these there are points marked off throughout the year. The
phenomenon described here is rather commonplace, but what mainly deserves attention in
this chapter are the other topics dealt with, where the description of astronomical
phenomena referred to in the Qur'an is in keeping with modern data.