“Quran-science”: Scientific miracles from the 7th century?
There is a familiar form of accommodation of scriptural literalism to modern science, which reaches its extremes in “scientific” creationism and Bible-science among Christians. Consider this example of Henry Morris’s discoveries of modern science in the Bible:
. . . Ecclesiastes 3:14: “I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.” This striking verse actually anticipates the great principle of energy conservation . . . The only way of accounting for the infinite reservoirs of energy in the universe is “God doeth it.”
Twisting science and sacred texts to fit one another is a popular apologetic device in the Islamic world as well. Orthodox Muslims must take the Quran to be the direct word of God, which promotes literalism; and Islamic countries have come under Western technological domination, which produces a certain respect for science derived from the power of its applications. This motivates curious attempts at systhesis. There are attempts at what might be called “Quran-science,” which in many ways parallels Bible-science; in fact, creationism in a form directly borrowed from the conservative Protestant version has gained a foothold.
There are aspects of science-abusing apologetics that are more specific to Islam, however. In providing illustrations of the all-encompassing power of God, the Quran often includes vague descriptions of natural phenomena, which are then alleged to be perfectly in concord with modern science. The argument then goes on to claim that various details of the natural world, given in Scripture and recognized by hindsight, could not have been known in the 7th century, which proves its divine origin.
In what follows, I will present a few examples of Quran-science. I do not provide any detailed refutations, as the stretched or arbitrary nature of the interpretations involved will be clear to most people with a decent science education, and who are not highly motivated to coax prophecies and wonders out of ancient texts.
The Quran’s narrative takes place in a primitive cosmology similar to what is found in the Bible, which is a recurrent source of embarrassment. However, one can always try to recast these as signs of supernatural wisdom. We have seven layers of skies or firmaments, for example (2:29, 78:12 and other verses), a long-standing item of Near Eastern cosmic mythology. Some interpret this away as being of symbolic significance, but others see it as pointing to scientific discoveries yet to be made. Perhaps most audacious is Haluk Nurbaki  who has modern science confirm Muslim Scripture with the expedient of the solar system being the first layer of sky, our galaxy the second, our local cluster the third, and so on with increasing bizarreness.
Free Inquiry readers are familiar with misuses of Big Bang cosmologies , and Quran-science eagerly participates . This is allegedly foreshadowed by verses about God separating the heavens and the earth (21:30), which is read to speak of an “integrated mass, or energy, which was split up . . . in a given moment of space-time, from which matter, space, time had their origin. This `splitting up’ led to an explosion which has led to the recent astro-physical theory of creation, known as the Big Bang.”. The physics is subtly wrong here, but the greater wonder is how much information can be read into a few ambiguous words. More interestingly, a dubious translation of 51:47, “. . . we are the Lord of power and expanse,” is sometimes referred to as anticipating the expanding universe. This, in fact, has more to do with primitive cosmologies and is closer in meaning to verses having God “stretch the Earth” in laying it out (13:3 and others) in establishing it. Henry Morris applies the identical reasoning to Psalm 104 when finding the expanding universe in the Christian scriptures.
Astronomy is fertile terrritory for the imaginations of apologists seeking to show that the Quran exhibits knowledge far beyond what would be possible in the 7th century environment of its origin. Supposedly, it was not known then that the moon shines with reflected light, but the Quran, if read properly, has this. Heliocentricity and the revolution of earth about its axis is found in verses about the night “coiling about” the day. Passages are tortured to confess that they proclaim the orbiting of planets and gravitation. Even the possibility of extraterrestrial life is accounted for, since a Quranic title for God is “The Lord of Worlds“—though if such doesn’t exist, that is also fine.
Naturally (supernaturally?) physical science is not the only ground to hunt for amazing 7th century anticipations of modern knowledge. Fruits are said to be created in pairs: a revelation of the sexual reproduction of plants, unknown in those times. Verses that mention rain in passing are actually demonstrations of modern hydrology and the water cycle in disguise. Heavy disguise. In fact, the compatibility of the Quran with the true facts of science is so amazing that it can be a corrective when science gets too materialistically speculative, as with theories of human evolution. It may look like familiar ancient myth when Scripture speaks of the sex of offspring being determined by the male, but to knowledgable eyes this is nothing but the X or Y chromosomes being passed on from the male sperm.
The most famous Quran-science claims might be those relating to medicine, in particular the idea that the scheme of embryological development only recently observed in detail is present in the Quran. Let me quote at some length from Keith L. Moore, Professor of Anatomy and Associate Dean Basic Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto :
Statements referring to human reproduction and development are scattered throughout the Qur’an. It is only recently that the scientific meaning of some of these verses has been appreciated fully. . . .
“He makes you in the wombs of your mothers, in stages, one after another, in three veils of darkness.”
This statement is from Sura 39. . . . doctors in the 7th century A.D. likely knew that the human embryo developed in the uterus. It is unlikely that they knew that it developed in stages, even though Aristotle described the stages of development of the chick embryo in the 4th century B.C. The realization that the human embryo develops in stages was not discussed and illustrated until the 15th century. . . .
“The three veils of darkness” may refer to: (1) the anterior abdominal wall; (2) the uterine wall; and (3) the amniochorionic membrane. . . .
“Then We placed him as a drop in a place of rest.”
This statement is from Sura 23:13. The drop or nutfa has been interpreted as the sperm [but a better interpretation is] the zygote which divides to form a blastocyst which is implanted in the uterus (“a place of rest”). This interpretation is supported by another verse in the Qur’an which states that “a human being is created from a mixed drop.” The zygote forms by the union of a mixture of the sperm and the ovum (“The mixed drop”).
“Then We made the drop into a leech-like structure.”
This statement is from Sura 23:14. [Leech] is an appropriate description of the human embryo from days 7-24 when it clings to the endometrium of the uterus, in the same way that the leech clings to the skin. Just as the leech derives blood from the host, the human embryo derives blood from the decidua
or pregnant endometrium. It is remarkable how much the embryo of 23-24 days resembles a leech. As there [was no microscopy] in the 7th century, doctors would not have known [about] this leech-like appearance.
“Then of that leech-like structure, We made a chewed lump.”
This statement is also from Sura 23:14. . . . Toward the end of the fourth week, the human embryo looks somewhat like a chewed lump of flesh [resulting] from the somites which resemble teeth marks. . . .
“Then we made out of the chewed lump bones, and clothed the bones in flesh.”
This continuation of Sura 23:14 indicates that out of the chewed lump stage, bones and muscles form. This is in accordance with embryological development. First the bones form as cartilage models and then the muscles (flesh) develop around them[.]
“Then we developed out of it another creature.”
This next part of Sura 23:14 . . . may refer to the human-like embryo that forms by the end of the eighth week. This [fetus] may be the new creature to which the verse refers.
“And He gave you hearing and sight and feeling and understanding.”
This part of Sura 32:9 indicates that the special senses of hearing, seeing, and feeling develop in this order, which is true. . . .
“Then out of a piece of chewed flesh, partly formed and partly unformed.”
This part of Sura 22:5 seems to indicate that the embryo is composed of both differentiated and undifferentiated tissues. . . .
The interpretation of the verses in the Qur’an referring to human development would not have been possible in the 7th century A.D., or even a hundred years ago. We can interpret them now because the science of modern Embryology affords us new understanding. Undoubtedly there are other verses in the Qur’an related to human development that will be understood in the future as our knowledge increases.
This interpretive tour-de-force in medicine is actually restrained compared to material such as that claiming the brain frontal lobes’ role in planning behavior being present in the Quran. Verse (96:15-16) has punishment of the impious having to do with being dragged by a “lying, sinful forelock” or forehead, thus exhibiting a link of frontal lobes and immorality. The only proper response to such spiritual discernment on the part of the God-fearing is an awed silence.
An irony is that Quran-scientists are also similar to their Biblical counterparts in their abuse of texts: even passages that are clearly metaphorical, expressing the power of God in a legitimate religious context, fall to a heavy-handed literalism in a quest for scriptural miracles. For instance, (27:88), which poetically speaks of the impermanence of the firmly planted mountains in the sight of God when the Day of Judgment arrives, has been interpreted as anticipating plate tectonics—since mountains do move imperceptibly.
This brings us to another observation: Quran-science is pathetic, but this is realized by many Muslims as well. It does not characterize Islam any more than the Institute for Creation Research typifies Christianity. Yet, even with that important qualification, the ridiculous extreme I described above can illustrate the ambiguous relation between modern science and orthodox Islam. While most believers are content to ignore the issue and declare full scientific compatibility for the Quran, some intellectuals take a cognitive relativist path, or insist that science be structured by Islam so as to comply with an Islamic view of nature. The apologetic moves familiar in the Christian West appear in broadly similar forms, of which Quran-science is just one form. Unfortunately, the more liberal theological options are at present weak, and are likely to remain so. This is not to say that they would be intellectually more successful—the concepts of God and Revelation remain fatally problematic. But for a more open intellectual climate in the Muslim world, liberal religion is the only option that might have a chance. Humanism is beyond the pale and will remain so indefinitely, but we may yet help by supporting culturally modernist strains within Islamic culture.
- Henry M. Morris, Biblical Creationism, Baker Books, 1993, p.108. Morris is perhaps the most influential “scientific creationist.”
- Taner Edis, “Islamic Creationism In Turkey,” Creation/Evolution, 34 1 (1994).
- Nurbaki is a popular but unsophisticated apologist. Others operate in the same style, and they freely contradict each other, though the public impression emerging from this is one of the harmony of the Quran with science. This and some other examples I use are taken from Kur’an’dan Ayetler ve İlmi Gerçekler vol. III.
- See articles on “Does The Big Bang Prove The Existence of God” in Free Inquiry 13:1.
- Maurice Bucaille is a French surgeon popular in Islamic circles as Western scientist acknowledging that “the Qur’an did not contain a single statement that was assailable from a modern scientific point of view.” His book, The Bible, The Qur’an and Science, Paris: Seghers 1982, is a source for some of my illustrations, along with his video tape “The Book Of Signs.”
- From a footnote in the Ahmed Ali (mis)translation of the Quran, p. 282, Quality Paperback Book Club edition, 1992. The Quran provides more scope than the Bible for creative translation.
- Keith L. Moore, “A Scientist’s Interpretation Of References To Embryology In The Qur’an.” The Journal of IMA, Vol. 18, p.15, 1986. This embryological apologetic is very popular, and I doubt it has originated with Moore.