A few weeks ago I posted a fatwa by the late Saudi scholar, Bin Baz, about his claim that the sun rotated around the Earth, based on his interpretation of certain Quranic ayat and ahadith. Below is a wonderful response and example, posted on Sunnipath.com, by a Sunni scholar about similar verses in the Qur'an pertaining to the sun and moon and how Islamic teachings are in perfect harmony with science. It also provides a glaring example of the difference between Wahhabism and Sunni scholarship.
Sun and moon verses in the Holy Qur'an
Answered by Sidi Sohail Hanif
I have a few questions regarding the nature of certain scientific verses related to astronomy in the Qur'an: In Surah 36,verse 40, Allah says:" 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." In Surah 13, verse 2, He says, " ...Allah subjected the sun and the moon: each one runs its course to an appointed term..."Surah 36, verse 38: The Sun runs its course to a settled place. This is the decree of the Almighty, The Full of Knowledge."From these verses the notion that the Sun moves around the Earth seems to be implied. This is contradictory to modern science. Could you please explain the verses in the light of science and any other meanings they intend?
In the name of Allah Most Merciful Most Compassionate
The Qur'an is the word of Allah Most High, the One who knows the reality of everything. Therefore, everything mentioned in the Qur'an must necessarily correspond to reality and cannot contradict it. When seeking to compare our knowledge to what is mentioned in the Qur'an we must keep something in mind, namely the word 'reality'.
As we, the human race, learn more about the world, we realise how much we in fact do not know. Thus science may be described, as indeed it has been, as 'expanding horizons of ignorance', meaning we learn more and more about how ignorant we really are of the workings of the world around us. This is why science is always changing, and theories seen to be absolute, like Newton's laws of motion, after centuries of reliability and testing suddenly become restricted by others, such as Einstein's theory of relativity. It is therefore important for us to realize that a lot of what we believe or are taught are not realities, but rather theories that are yet waiting to be proven or dis-proven. It is of the utmost importance, therefore, that one separates scientific fact from scientific theory.
The verses quoted in the question were indeed seen as problematic when the fact that the Earth orbits the Sun and not vice versa became common knowledge. The Sun was seen as a stationary entity around which the planets orbited. This of course was scientific fact...or was it?
It was certainly a fact that the planets orbited the Sun, so relative to them, the Sun was stationary, but did we know for sure that the Sun was indeed completely stationary? No, that was just an assumption as we did not see any reason why it would be in motion. The stationary nature of the Sun was therefore a theory waiting to be proven or disproven.
A number of decades ago, the truth was out. Further testing, and more advanced technology enabled us to get a better idea of not just the solar system in which we live, but also the galaxy in which we are and the universe in which our galaxy is in. We then became aware of the surprising fact that everything in the entire universe was in motion, nothing appeared to be stationary. Not only was everything in motion but there were several planes of motion that everything was subject to.
Of these celestial bodies is of course our Sun. The Sun has been proven to move in a number of manners.
First of all, it rotates upon its own axis, rather like the Earth. It completes one total rotation in about thirty days (for further information please see: http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/question.php?number=615)
Secondly, it orbits, along with the planets, around the centre of mass of the solar system. The idea that the Sun is stable with all the planets orbiting it, is in fact a simplification. The centre around which the planets and the Sun rotate is actually the centre of mass of the solar system. However, since the Sun is so large compared to everything else in the solar system, with 99% percent of the mass of the solar system in the Sun itself, the centre of mass is only just outside the Sun so its orbit is very slight. For further reading see, http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/question.php?number=461
Thirdly, the Sun, along with its planets, orbits the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way at a speed of about 220 kilometres per second (792,000 kilometres per hour). Despite its shockingly fast speed, the Milky Way is a big place and it takes the Sun about 230 million years to complete one orbit of the Milky Way. The Qur'an in the above quoted verse from Sura Yasin aptly uses the verb tajri which implies fast motion to describe the movement of the Sun, 'The Sun runs its course to a settled place' (36:38). For further details please see, http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/question.php?number=96
Fourthly, the Sun, along with everything else in the entire Milky Way, is moving towards our neighbouring galaxy Andromeda. I am not aware of the speed of this motion.
Fifthly, the Sun, along with the entire Milky Way and Andromeda, is moving towards the Virgo cluster which is the nearest cluster of galaxies. Again I am not aware of the speed of this motion.
As is quite evident, a matter that was taken as fact not so long ago was subsequently proven to be not just inaccurate, but rather completely wrong. A number of lessons can be drawn from the preceding discussion.
Firstly, one must realise the importance of separating fact from presumption. This is an extremely important skill in all spheres of one's life, not just when looking at outer space. The Qur'an often alludes to the misguidance of people who take presumptions to be facts, 'They follow but a guess, and lo! a guess can never take the place of the truth' (53:28). Very often a number of presented facts will have concealed within them a presumption and it requires a discerning eye to pick it out; so be warned!
Secondly, one can see that the Qur'an consistently shows itself to be referring to nothing but realities, describing matters exactly as they are. Not only is it accurate and breathtakingly beautiful in its original Arabic it is observable that the Qur'an uses the most precise terms possible, such that if one were to search the entire Arabic language one would not find a more suitable word to put in place of a word chosen by the Qur'an. This study of the choice of Qur'anic words is a fascinating study undertaken by sholars of i'jaz, the study of the Qur'anic linguistic miracle.
Thirdly, when the Qur'an refers to Allah's signs in the universe, one must not just stop with analyzing the signs themselves; this is clear short sightedness. Rather, one must reflect on what the sign is quoted to show. The universe is Allah Most High's handiwork, and He teaches us that by reflecting on His handiwork one will gain more knowledge about the One whose handiwork it is. The above quoted verse from sura Yasin, after mentioning the motion of the Sun and the Moon, and the regulation of day and night, says, 'That is the decree of (Him), the Exalted in Might, the All-Knowing'. Allah Most High chose these two very specific names to describe himself in this verse as they are the most evident when looking at these aspects of His creation. The extreme size of the Sun, its rapid motion through its galaxy, the sheer size of its galaxy, the Milky Way, and the immense size of the known universe point clearly to the Might of the One to whom this universe is subject, coming into existence at His will, and submitting to His laws without exception. His infinite knowledge is clearly indicated by his determining everything in a perfect way to enable this entire universe to exist in harmony and setting laws that see to the seamless running of the universe, specifying the various materials that make up the universe and the very precise measurements that enable life to exist one our little Earth. One also learns of one's insignificance before Allah Most High and is humbled before His creation.
Lastly, Allah Most High turns our attention to a reality, more pressing and worthy of attention than the reality of the motion of the Sun in the above quoted verse, 'The Sun runs its course to a settled place'. This reality is that the Sun is running very fast towards its own demise, the place where, once reached, the Sun will not run anymore. This is to remind us that we too, like the Sun, are running, at a speed comparable to that of the Sun to a place after which we, also, will cease to run; namely the grave. These most formidable manifestations of Allah's power have an end so what of our end that is so very near to each of us? Is it not easy for the One who created this breathtaking creation to recreate us, judge us, and admit us to our eternal abodes? The one who reflects on the creation of the universe answers with a definite, 'Yes.'
We ask Allah Most High to show us His signs in the universe, and to enable us to reflect on the signs and to turn our reflection into action for His sake.