Whenever I describe to Westerners the details the Qur’an contains on certain points of astronomy, it is common for someone to reply that there is nothing unusual in this since the Arabs made important discoveries in the field of astronomy long before the Europeans. But, this is a mistaken idea resulting from an ignorance of history. In the first place, science developed in the Arab World at a considerable time after the Qur’anic revelation had occurred. Secondly, the scientific knowledge prevalent at the highpoint of Islamic civilization would have made it impossible for any human being to have written statements on the heavens comparable to those in the Qur’an. The material on this subject is so vast that I can only provide a brief outline of it here.
Whereas the Bible talks of the sun and the moon as two lights differing only in size, the Qur’an distinguishes between them by the use of different terms: light (noor) for the moon, and lamp (siraaj) for the sun.
"Did you see how Allah created seven heavens, one above the other, and made in them the moon a light and the sun a lamp?"
The moon is an inert body which reflects light, whereas the sun is a celestial body in a state of permanent combustion producing both light and heat.
The word ‘star’ (najm) in the Qur’an (86:3) is accompanied by the adjective thaaqib which indicates that it burns and consumes itself as it pierces through the shadows of the night. It was much later discovered that stars are heavenly bodies producing their own light like the sun.
In the Qur’an, a different word, kawkab, is used to refer to the planets which are celestial bodies that reflect light and do not produce their own light like the sun.
“We have adorned the lowest heaven with ornaments, the planets.”
Today, the laws governing the celestial systems are well known. Galaxies are balanced by the position of stars and planets in well-defined orbits, as well as the interplay of gravitational forces produced by their masses and the speed of their movements. But is this not what the Qur’an describes in terms which have only become comprehensible in modern times. In chapter al-Ambiyaa we find:
“(God is) the one who created the night, the day, the sun and the moon. Each one is traveling in an orbit with its own motion.”
The Arabic word which expresses this movement is the verb yasbahoon which implies the idea of motion produced by a moving body, whether it is the movement of one’s legs running on the ground, or the action of swimming in water. In the case of a celestial body, one is forced to translate it, according to its original meaning, as ‘to travel with its own motion.’
In my book, The Bible, The Qur'an and Science, I have given the precise scientific data corresponding to the motion of celestial bodies. They are well known for the moon, but less widely known for the sun.
The Qur’anic description of the sequence of day and night would, in itself, be rather commonplace were it not for the fact that it is expressed in terms that are today highly appropriate. The Qur’an uses the verb kawwara in chapter az-Zumar to describe the way the night ‘winds’ or ‘coils’ itself around the day and the day around the night.
“He coils the night upon the day and the day upon the night.”
The original meaning of the verb kis to coil a turban around the head. This is a totally valid comparison; yet at the time the Qur’an was revealed, the astronomical data necessary to make this comparison were unknown. It is not until man landed on the moon and observed the earth spinning on its axis, that the dark half of the globe appeared to wind itself around the light and the light half appeared to wind itself around the dark.
The notion of a settled place for the sun is vividly described in chapter Yaa Seen of the Qur’an:
"The sun runs its coarse to a settled place That is the decree of the Almighty, the All Knowing.”
“Settled place” is the translation of the word mustaqarr which indicates an exact appointed place and time. Modern astronomy confirms that the solar system is indeed moving in space at a rate of 12 miles per second towards a point situated in the constellation of Hercules (alpha lyrae) whose exact location has been precisely calculated. Astronomers have even give it a name, the solar apex.
Chapter ath-Thaariyaat of the Qur’an also seems to allude to one of the most imposing discoveries of modern science, the expansion of the Universe.
“I built the heaven with power and it is I, who am expanding it.”
The expansion of the universe was first suggested by the general theory of relativity and is supported by the calculations of astrophysics. The regular movement of the galactic light towards the red section of the spectrum is explained by the distancing of one galaxy from another. Thus, the size of the universe appears to be progressively increasing.
Among the achievements of modern science is the “conquest” of space which has resulted in mans journey to the moon. The prediction of this event surely springs to mind when we read the chapter ar-Rahmaan in the Qur’an:
“O assembly of Jinns and men, if you can penetrate the regions of the heavens and the earth, then penetrate them! You will not penetrate them except with authority.”
Authority to travel in space can only come from the Creator of the laws which govern movement and space. The whole of this Qur’anic chapter invites humankind to recognize God’s beneficence.