Anyone who has had even a mild exposure to Islamic apologetics will have encountered the argument for the Qur’an’s divine origin based on its purported scientific miracles — that is, scientific assertions contained within the Qur’an which have only been validated by modern science. Out of all of the arguments for the Islamic religion, this is the one which, in my judgment, comes closest to being a real argument. Indeed, this is probably the best they’ve got, and it is frequently a lead argument by Muslim polemicists. Nonetheless, the argument has always appeared very strange to me. If the Qur’an is unrivaled at anything, assuredly it is only in its ability to conceive of a Universe so wildly disconnected from reality.
One problem with the positive Islamic argument is that it can only be falsified if one allows both correct and incorrect scientific statements to potentially validate or refute the Qur’an’s divine origin. If correct scientific statements provide evidence for the Qur’an’s divine origin, then surely incorrect scientific statements provide support for the opposite conclusion. For the argument to work, therefore, one must demonstrate not only that the Qur’an contains specific scientific information that could not have been known by a seventh century Arab, but also that the Qur’an does not contain demonstrable scientific errors that we might expect from a seventh century Arab. Unfortunately, it is usually the case that only the passages that are believed by Muslims to comport with modern science are presented in Muslim polemical literature.
What sort of arguments are deployed by Muslim apologists to demonstrate Muhammad’s unique scientific insight? Take a look at the following figure, excerpted from A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam by I.A. Ibrahim.
The book draws on Surah Al-Mumenoon (23) 12-14, in which we read,
We created man from an extract of clay. Then We made him as a drop in a place of settlement, firmly fixed. Then We made the drop into an alaqah, then We made the alaqah into a mudghah (chewed substance)…
The word alaqah can be mean three things: leech, suspended thing, or blood clot. The book attempts to argue that an embryo at one stage resembles a leech. Such a claim is quite debatable, however, and the illustration above is clearly tailored to comport with the argument. The book even makes the argument that “suspended thing” can refer to the suspension of the embryo in the womb of the mother. This is a real stretch, however. Finally, we have this figure, which attempts to show similarity between a pharyngula stage embryo (which it calls the mudghah stage) and a piece of chewed gum.
This argument is so absurd that to state the argument is to refute it. Other such claims of miraculous scientific insight in the Qur’an do not fare much better. Another argument is that various ayat teach that mountains have roots (16:15, 21:31, 31:10, 78:7, 79:32-33), something which apparently Muhammad could not have known. These ayat do not, however, teach that mountains have roots. They assert that the mountains were placed on the earth to keep it fixed and standing firm. Again, such an argument is a real stretch. In any case, the roots of mountains were known about even in ancient times (e.g. see Job 28:9, Psalm 18:7, Jonah 2:6). I think it more likely that the author of the Qur’an viewed mountains as a sort of paperweight to keep the earth still. That would seem to be the best reading of Surah Qaf (50) 7: “As for the earth, We have spread it out, and cast on it firm hills…” In support of this, there is also some indication that the author of the Qur’an viewed the earth as flat (e.g. 20:53; 22:65; 43:10; 71:15-20; 88:20).
In this article, we will examine a few of the problematic passages. We shall also look at some of the statements of Muhammad as reported by the ahadith literature. Some of these hadithic statements shed light or clarify the meaning of these Qur’anic verses. One may argue in response that these ahadith are inauthentic and do not truly reflect words spoken by Muhammad. Nonetheless, irrespective of whether these ahadith go back to Muhammad or not, they do tell us something about how the early Muslims understood the corresponding statements in the Qur’an, and are thus relevant to how we ought to interpret them. This list is far from exhaustive, but draws on a few illustrative examples.
Stars as Missiles?
According to the Qur’an, stars are missiles that Allah uses to chase away demons. According to Surah Al-Mulk (67) 5,
And We have decorated the nearest sky with lamps, and have made them devices to stone the devils, and We have prepared for them the punishment of Hell.
We further read in Surah Al-Jinn (72) 8-9,
And we have sought (to reach) the heaven, but we found it filled with stern guards and flames. And that we used to sit at places therein to listen; but if one will (try to) listen now, he will find a flame in ambush for him.
Note that this is from the perspective of the Jinn, which are spiritual beings spoken of frequently in the Qur’an. The Jinn desired to eavesdrop the heaven, but were chased away by shooting stars. This same idea is taught also in Surah As-Saaffat (37) 6-10, in which we read,
Verily, We have decorated the nearest sky with an adornment, the stars, and (have made them) a security against every rebellious devil. They cannot listen to the Upper Realm and are hit from every side to be driven off, and for them there is a lasting punishment; However, if one snatches a little bit, he is pursued by a bright flame.
How did the early Muslims understand these verses? In volume 4 and chapter 3 of Sahih al-Bukhari, we read the following:
(About the) Stars, Abu Qatada mentioning Allah’s Statement: ‘And We have Adorned the nearest heaven with lamps,” (67:5) And said, “The creations of these stars is for three purposes, i.e. as decorations on the sky, as missiles to hit the devils, and 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.
The same concept is also found in Sahih Muslim (vol.1 book 4 no.902; vol.4 book 24 no.5538) and Sunan ibn Majah (vol.1 book 1 no.194).
The Trajectory of the Sun and Moon
Dhul-Qarnain, traditionally identified by Qur’anic commentators as Alexander the Great, is spoken of in Surah Al-Kahf (18). In verses 83-86, we read,
They ask you about Dhul-Qarnain. Say, “I shall now recite to you an account of him. Surely, We gave him power on earth and gave him means to (have) everything (he needs). So he followed a course, until when he reached the point of sunset, he found it setting into a miry spring, and found a people near it. We said, “O Dhul-Qarnain, either punish them or adopt good behavior with them.”
Thus, according to the Qur’an, Alexander the Great traveled so far that he reached the place where the sun sets (a pool of water) and even found a people that lives nearby it! He was even able to reach the place of sunrise, according to verses 89 and 90 of the same chapter:
Thereafter he followed a course, until when he reached the point of sunrise, he found it rising over a people for whom We did not make any shelter against it.
Surah Ya-Seen (36) 38-40 is even more clear:
And the sun is quickly proceeding towards its destination. That is the designing of the All-Mighty, the All-Knowing. And for the moon We have appointed measured phases, until it turned (pale, curved and fine) like an old branch of date palm. Neither it is for the sun to overtake the moon, nor can the night outpace the day. Each one is floating in an orbit.
Am I misinterpreting? Surely Muhammad — the Messenger of the Almighty Allah — knew that the sun doesn’t actually move in relation to the earth, right? We need only go to the ahadith sources to find out. According to Sahih Bukhari vol.4 book 54 ch.4 no.421,
Narrated Abu Dhar: The Prophet 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 when 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)
In Sunan Abu Dawud (3991), we also read,
Abu Dharr said: I was sitting behind the Apostle of Allah who was riding a donkey while the sun was setting. He asked: Do you know where this sets? I replied: Allah and his Apostle know best. He said: It sets in a spring of warm water.
As any astronomer will tell you, this is a point on which Muhammad was dead wrong. Such an error may have been excusable for a seventh century Arab, but it certainly doesn’t bode well for the Qur’an being the revealed word of God.
Muhammad Wrong About Human Reproduction
The Qur’an On Semen Production
Surah At-Tariq (86) 5-7 attempts to comment on the production of semen:
So, let man consider of which stuff he is created. He is created of spouting water that comes out from between the loins and the chest bones.
Again, the Qur’an has blown yet another opportunity to demonstrate to us its divinely inspired nature. Semen is produced in the seminal vesicle, located in the pelvis — not between the loins and chest bones.
Muhammad On Parental Resemblance
According to Sahih Bukhari chapter 58 (no. 275), Muhammad is asked three questions by Abdullah ibn Salam, upon hearing the news of the Prophet’s arrival. He says “I am going to ask you about three things which only a Prophet can answer.” One of those questions is “Why does a child attract the similarity to his father or to his mother?” Interestingly, Muhammad claims to receive an answer to this question from the very same source that he is purportedly receiving the Qur’an from. This means that this is an ideal opportunity to test whether this source of Qur’anic revelations is reliable. He states that “Gabrial has just now informed me of that.” In response to the question, Muhammad states that,
As for the child, if the man’s discharge proceeds the woman’s discharge, the child attracts the similarity to the man, and if the woman’s discharge proceeds the man’s, then the child attracts the similarity of the woman.
Strangely, the response of Abdullah ibn Salam is to say, “I testify that None has the right to be worshiped except Allah, and that you are the Apostle of Allah.” How on earth could ibn Salam have known whether the answer given by Muhammad was correct or not? It is only with the benefit of modern science that we can confirm how wrong Muhammad was on this point. Of particular significance, he claimed that such knowledge was revealed to him by the angel Gabriel, the very same source from which the Qur’an is purportedly derived. Why, then, should we trust that?
Muhammad On Sex-Determination
Muhammad, it turns out, was also wrong concerning sex-determination which, according to Sahih Muslim 6397, takes place only after the final shape of the embryo has been formed. We read,
Anas ibn Malik reported directly from Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) that he said: Allah, the Exalted and Glorious, has appointed an angel as the caretaker of the womb, and he would say: My Lord, it is now a drop of semen; my Lord, it is now a clot of blood; my Lord, it has now become a lump of flesh, and when Allah decides to give it a final shape, the angel says: My Lord, would it be male or female or would be be an evil or a good person? What about his livelihood and his age? And it is all written as he is in the womb of his mother.
Muhammad Wrong About Personal Hygiene
Muhammad also makes blunders concerning personal hygiene. Consider, for instance the following passages from the ahadith:
- Sahih Al-Bukhari 537: “Narrated Abu Huraira: The prophet said “If a house fly falls in the drink of anyone of you, he should dip it (in the drink), for one of its wings has a disease and the other has the cure for the disease.””
- Sunan Abu Dawud 67: “I heard that the people asked the Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him): Water is brought for you from the well of Buda’ah. It is a well in which dead dogs, menstrual cloths and excrement of people are thrown. The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) replied: Verily water is pure and is not defiled by anything.”
- Sunan Ibn Majah 520: “It was narrated that Jabir bin Abdullah said: “We came to a pond in which there was the carcass of a donkey, so we refrained from using the water until the Messenger of Allah came to us and said: ‘Water is not made impure by anything.’ Then we drank from it and gave it to our animals to drink, and we carried some with us.””
I, for one, certainly would not want to follow Muhammad’s hygiene advice.
As I have shown, the Qur’an, far from being a scientific miracle, contains numerous scientific mistakes and errors. It gives every appearance of being the product of the imaginations of a seventh century Arab, not the inspired word of God. To his contemporaries, who didn’t know any better, Muhammad’s pretensions to have prophetic insight concerning science may have given him credibility in the eyes of some. To us, who live in the 21st century, however, the numerous scientific blunders in the Qur’an essentially refute its claims to divine origin.
Any Muslim apologetic that attempts to wield the argument from the “scientific miracles” of the Qur’an must, if it is not to be a task of cherry-picking, take into account the aforementioned blunders. When taken together with the argument presented in my previous article, as well as the Qur’an’s misrepresentation of Christian theology (which I discuss here), it seems that the case is decisive and inescapable. There are many more difficulties, however, which I have yet to discuss. In future articles, we shall consider still further reasons why the Qur’an cannot possibly be the word of God as claimed by Muslims.