Geocentrism and the Qur'an
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In several verses the Qur'an describes the movement of the sun and moon, a few times mentioning that they travel in an orbit or sphere/hemisphere (fee falakin فِى فَلَكٍ), but does not mention once that the Earth does too. The geocentric (Earth-centered) view was the prevailing understanding of the universe prior to the 16th century when Copernicus helped explain and popularize a sun-centered (heliocentric) view of the universe. In the Qur'an, the sun's orbit is almost always mentioned in the context of night and day (Quran 13:12 being the only exception) and is always mentioned with that of the moon, which does in fact orbit the Earth each month, and appears, to the unaided eye, to traverse the sky each night when it is visible.
Geocentrism is the notion that the Earth is the (immovable) center of our universe, thus all celestial bodies move around it. The ancient Greeks and the Europeans of the middle ages thought that the celestial bodies (the sun, the moon and the 5 known planets) all moved in celestial spheres around a spherical Earth. This was the theory of Ptolemy (d. 170 CE), who was followed by Muslim astronomers from the 8th century CE, though Islamic texts expressing doubts about his ideas started to appear regularly from the 10th century. Aside from notable exceptions such as Aristarchus of Samos, heliocentrism was only advocated by occasional figures with small followings and widely rejected before the work of Copernicus.
Geocentrism is not to be confused with the idea that the Earth is flat. However, while those who believe in geocentrism do not always hold the Earth to be flat, those who hold the Earth to be flat almost invariably believe in geocentrism.
The Qur'an says that both the sun and the moon swim or float in a circuitous path, celestial sphere or, more likely, a hemisphere (a 'falak' in the Arabic). It seems that Allah brings the sun from the east, it goes high above the Earth, and after sunset it goes to a resting place. All this took place around an Earth that was spread out and had a firmament of seven heavens built without pillars that can be seen above it.
The geocentrism and cosmography in general of the Qur'an shows little or no influence from Ptolemaic concepts of heavenly spheres, each containing a celestial body, according to which paradigm the Qur'an and the word falak came to be interpreted In a paper on Qur'anic cosmography, Damien Janos notes that the "Qurʾānic cosmology stems from a different religious background and it does not contain any conspicuous signs of synthesis or assimilation with the cosmological trends indebted to Ptolemaic astronomy" and observes that in various respects the two paradigms are incompatibile, particularly as the celestial bodies move in the lowest part of the seven heavens in the Qur'anic model. Rather, the Qur'an is more reflective of its Biblical and Mesopotamian predecessors (see also Cosmology of the Quran). In the same paper Janos does, however, theorise that the Qur'anic falak may contain Greek influence given how often it was interpreted in terms of circularity or sphericity by Muslim scholars. He also considers as a possible hypothesis that both the falak and seven heavens "can be construed as having not a fully spherical shape, but rather a hemispherical or domed-shape", and the sun would transit back to its origin in the east by "via an underground passage", which "finds some support in traditional Arabic reports [...] and seems to have Mesopotamian antecendents".
The following is a list of evidence for a geocentric interpretation of the Qur'an. Some of these are discussed in more detail together with further evidence in the rest of the article.
- The courses taken by both the sun and moon are visible to the people addressed in the Qur'an.
- The Qur'an says that the moon follows the sun. The floating/swimming (the verb جري) of the sun is always mentioned with that of the moon, and in these verses they are nearly always mentioned in the context of night and day.
Qur'an 36:37-40 is a passage about night and day. Right after describing the change from day to night it says that the sun runs on to a resting place for it (see footnotes regarding the Arabic word here, which differs from similar verses). There are also sahih hadith that use the same Arabic word as in verse 36:38 to mean a resting place as part of the sun's daily cycle..
The alternative view was that it refers to the sun's final resting on the last day. Another similar sahih hadith probably supports this view. Whichever interpretation was intended, the sun's movement is nevertheless mentioned right after describing day and night, just as the next verse mentions the different mansions appointed for the moon each night. The whole passage is about day and night and the sun and moon's movement in that context.
- The sun and moon each float in an orbit (verses 21:33 and 36:40), or more precisely, each in a "falak", a word with various meanings related to the celestial sphere or dome-shaped things, as described in Lane's lexicon of classical arabic. His main definition is the place of the revolving of the stars, the celestial sphere, generally imagined to be a hemisphere by the Arabs, or the pole of the heavens. The more common English translations, 'orbit', or 'rounded course', seem to be based on the meanings related to roundness or circling. Ibn 'Abbas is recorded in the tafasir (commentaries) of al-Tabari and of ibn Kathir explaining that the sun and moon swimming in a falak means 'in a whirl (whorl), like the whirl of a spindle' (a hemisphere-shaped object). It may also be based on another ibn 'Abbas comment, as noted by ibn Kathir, that the sun runs in its falak in the sky / heaven during the day, and when it sets, it runs at night in its falak underneath the Earth until it rises in the east.Al-Tabari further mentions other opinions, such as that it means the pole of the heavens, and similarly, the shape of an iron [axis of a?] millstone.
- It is not for the sun to overtake the moon, though on the last day they will be joined together, which is rather suggestive of them orbiting the same body at a similar distance from us.
- The stars have settings (mawaqi) , but only the day, night, the sun and moon are mentioned as all floating in an orbit (falak), while there is no indication of the Earth's own orbit.
- Abraham is approvingly quoted as saying that Allah brings the sun from the east in one verse, and setting and rising places of the sun are reached and described in the Dhu'l Qarnayn story.
The visibility of the sun's movement
A common claim is that references in the Qur'an to the sun's movement concern its 225 million year orbit around our milky way galaxy rather than to a geocentric orbit. Yet the author of the Qur'an describes a movement of the sun (as well as of the moon) that he expects any of its listeners to see, hence it is difficult to argue that this is referring to the sun's galactic orbit.
The words 'and that' (wa anna) towards the end of the verse indicates that "Do you not see" applies to the entire verse, and leaves no doubt that not just the day and night, but also the running of the sun and moon were things that the 7th century listeners of the Qur'an were expected to know; they could 'see' the night turn into day and vice versa, they could see the sun and the moon running their courses around the earth. The people could see Allah's signs, and Allah could see them.
The words "don't you see" (Alam Tara أَلَمْ تَرَ) may be interpreted in the sense of "don't you know" or "aren't you aware", though nevetheless is an appeal to common knowledge, which erroneous perceptions it thereby reinforces.
The word translated "running" (yajree يَجْرِىٓ) in this and the next few verses quoted below was used for the physical travelling of heavenly bodies along their courses, and in general means to run, or to flow like water. It is used two verses later for the sailing of ships (Quran 31:31).
The following verse says that the sun and moon running their courses are signs (ayaat) to mankind and thus they must be visible (or known) to a 7th century Arab audience. It says they are explained in detail in the Qur'an to strengthen the faith of its listeners, which again seems problematic for the galactic orbit interpretation, since for fourteen centuries they had no option but to interpret the words geocentrically.
yudabbiru (he arranges / regulates) al amra (the matter) yufassilu (he explains in detail) al ayaat (the signs) la allakum (so you may) biliqai (meeting) rabbikum (with your Lord) tūqinūna (be certain)
In the following verses the Qur'an states that the sun follows a daily cycle, which ends every night when the sun goes to its resting place (ِmustaqarrin مُسْتَقَرٍّ). As usual in the Qur'an (13:2 being the only exception), the sun's movement is mentioned in the context of night and day.
Waalshshamsu (and the sun) tajree (runs) limustaqarrin (a resting point) laha (of it).
The 225 million year galactic orbit interpretation would have no relevance to human timescales, nor would it be "a token" or sign for 7th century listeners, nor would it make sense in the context about the night-day cycle.
The phrase "It is not for the sun to overtake the moon" in verse 40 seems awkward from a heliocentric perspective, though quite natural from a 7th century perspective where the sun and moon were believed to orbit the same world, and indeed, will one day be joined together (see below). The word translated 'for' in the phrase 'It is not for the sun...' in verse 36:40 is يَنۢبَغِى yanbaghee, which means is fit, suitable, or proper, or behoves, or is right and allowable, or good, or facilitated or easy, or practicable or manageable and the word translated 'overtake' is تُدْرِكَ tudrika, which means catches up and comes upon)
In the following verse the Qur'an tells of an indirect observation of the sun's movement.
الشَّمسَ عَلَيهِ دَلِيل = ash shamsa (the sun) `alayhi (for it) dalilaan (a guide / an indication)
Aside from other light sources, shadows on Earth are produced when the sun's light is obstructed. The Earth's rotation causes these shadows to change size and lengthen. The above verses state that the reason shadows fluctuate in size rather than being stationary is because Allah has made the sun their guide. This appears to confirm the geocentric outlook widely evidenced elsewhere in the Qur'an, for it is only on a geocentric view that shadows would be of fixed length if the sun (rather than the Earth) were not made to do something.
Interestingly, the length of the shadow cast by the sun is also used to determine the start of the Asr prayer time; the apparent movement of the sun is still used by Muslims as a clock of sorts.
The similar size and distance of the sun and moon
The Qur'an has some statements in a passage about events on the day of resurrection that are much as one would expect if the author believed the sun and moon to be of similar size and a similar distance from Earth.
The word translated "are joined" is Arabic jumi'a, a verb which means to collect together, gather together, bring together. Now given that this would actually require the moon to travel 98 million miles away from Earth and into the sun, which is over 600 times wider, it is far less suitable as an apocalyptic event than if the ancient understanding of the cosmos was correct, and it is not credible that an author with accurate knowledge of the solar system would describe such an event using the words found in these verses.
The course of the sun in relation to the course of the moon
The courses of the sun and the moon are also a pair of sorts, always mentioned together in the Qur'an.
Waalshshamsi (and the sun) waduhaha (and its brightness) Waalqamari (and the moon) itha talaha (when it follows it)
This indicates that the sun takes a path or action similar to that of the moon (which does indeed go around the earth once per month, and to an ancient person seems to do so on a nightly basis). The word translated "follow" is used many other places to mean recite, but is primarily defined as to follow, go or walk behind, follow in way of imitation, of action etc., and is often used for animals like camels following behind each other.  The Moon does not follow behind the sun's movement, nor does it provide its own light like the sun. It might merely seem to a scientifically naive observer to do these things.
There are many more verses where the sun and moon are paired:
In the above verse, the sun's movement (as well as day and night) is a token, or sign, that the hearers can readily observe. Many other verses mention the sun and moon together:
...khalaqa (created) allayla (the night) waalnnahara (and the day) waalshshamsa (and the sun) waalqamara (and the moon) kullun (each) fee (in) falakin (a rounded course) yasbahoona (they swim)
The Qur'an explains that not only are humans created in pairs (male and female), but so are the two bodies of flowing waters (one salt and one sweet), and the night and the day and the sun and the moon.
The shape of the sun's course
Various verses explain the shape of the sun's course. Apparently Allah brings the sun from east, it travels high and eventually goes down. Most of these, however, could fairly be regarded as the same kind of convenient language we would use today (Quran 20:059, Quran 20:130, Quran 17:078, Quran 6:77-78, Quran 18:17). Some are more interesting, however.
The Qur'an approvingly quotes a few lines from a debate between Abraham and a disbelieving King, where Abraham replies that Allah brings the sun (yatee biashshamsi يَأْتِى بِٱلشَّمْسِ) from the east. The arabic verb and preposition indicates that the sun actually moves.
The Qur'an also describes the locations where the sun actually rises and sets in response to a question about an existing legend. It can be seen by human eyes in the story of (Alexander the Great):
For a detailed discussion of the key words in these verses, evidence showing that early Muslims took it literally, and contemporary Arabic and Syriac poems of the same legend, see the article Dhul-Qarnayn and the Sun Setting in a Muddy Spring
The Qur'an is quite clear about the course of the sun. It does not even describe a complete orbit, but merely a rounded course, probably in a hemisphere (falak) that has a beginning, an end, and a highest point.
The regular cycle of the sun
According to the Qur'an, the sun's cycle is repeated on a regular basis (exactly computed even) just like that of the Moon and night and day.
This Surah reads: Alshamsu (the sun) waalqamaru (and the moon) bihusbanin.
Husban can mean a number of things: definite reckoning, appointed courses, numbering, revolving firmament, running appointed and scheduled course. In many English translations we see the word 'course' or 'celestial sphere' but note that the word 'falak' isn't mentioned here; this verse only indicates that the sun and the moon behave in a calculated / scheduled / appointed manner.
This is further evidence towards a geocentric interpretation since the sun's daily cycle and the moon's monthly cycle have timekeeping purposes such as prayer and fasting times in Islam (see next section).
The movement of the sun and timekeeping
In Muhammad's lifetime it was common practice to use the sun and moon for timekeeping, which provides a ready explanation for the emphasis in the Qur'an on the regulated / scheduled nature of the courses of the sun and moon as a sign from Allah and as a monthly calendar (see previous section).
The moon (the sign of the night) is used to count the years, which comprise 12 lunar months making up the Islamic year, and the sun is to be used to keep track of time. The only solar movement Muslims use for timekeeping is the apparent daily course of the Sun (from east up and then down to the west). To this very day, Muslims use the (far less precise and, according to some interpretations, entirely unpredictable) lunar calender, and the waqt (prescribed time) of their daily salats (prayers) is determined by the position of the Sun along its apparent course.
- Salat Al Fajr – right before sun rise. (mentioned in Quran 17:78, Quran 20:130, and Quran 24:58)
- Salat Al Zuhr – right after the Sun’s zenith, but before the shadow of the Sun becomes twice its length from midday. (Possibly mentioned in Quran 17:78 as prayer at the "decline of the sun")
- Salat Al Asr- between zenith and sunset, when the length of a shadow of a stick is either once or twice its length. (Mentioned in Quran 2:238 as "the middle prayer" and Quran 20:130 and Quran 50:39 as "exhalt with praise" before the sun's setting)
- Salat Al Maghrib – right after sunset. (not clearly mentioned in the Quran - Quran 20:130 and Quran 50:39 mention to "exhalt with praise" before rather than after sunset, though the latter verse also mentions "the two ends of the day")
- Salat Al Isha'a – at night, between sunset and sunrise. (Mentioned in Quran 11:114, Quran 17:79, and Quran 20:130)
The apparent daily course of the sun dictates the time of each and every daily prayer and the only examples of the sun being used for timekeeping in the Qur'an employ the sun's apparent daily movement along the sky.
Despite all the verses discussed above that strongly indicate a geocentric worldview, a few counter arguments are sometimes used to support a heliocentric interpretation of the Qur'an. The galactic orbit interpretation for the sun's falak is discussed above. Verse 36:40 ('it is not for the sun to overtake the moon...') is sometimes offered as evidence for heliocentrism, and is also discussed above. Two other verses are sometimes used to try to demonstrate knowledge that the Earth rotates on its axis.
Waalnnahari (and the day) itha (when) jallaha (it displays it) Waallayli (and the night) itha (when) yaghshaha (it covers it)
At first it seems that 'day' and 'night' here may refer to the process of the Earth's rotation revealing and obstructing the view of the sun (though the verse also fits with a geocentric view where 'day' and 'night' are processes when the sun is above or below the horizon). But the verses apparent alignment with heliocentrism seems less concrete when the verses detailed below are considered. For the Earth is actually a globe, and there are no specific times 'when' (itha) the day reveals the sun or the night conceals it. Rather at all times half the Earth is in daytime and half in nighttime, so the sun is at all times both revealed and concealed. This problem wouldn't arise if the word 'when' (itha) was absent in these verses.
There are other verses that mention the night covering (with the same Arabic verb as 91.4), which show that the verb in this context does not simply mean the body of the earth blocking the line of sight to something. Verses 92:1-2 use identical words as 91:3-4, but without the pronoun suffix at the end. So the night is when things generally are covered, not just the sun on the other side of the Earth, and the day is when things generally are revealed. It seems that the verbs are meant in a poetic sense.
Waallayli (and the night) itha (when) yaghsha (it covers) Waalnnahari (and the day) itha (when) tajalla (it displays)
In the verse below, the night's cover (the same verb as in versie 91:4) can apply to anything, not just the sun, so it may seem difficult to interpret the night covering the sun in 91.4 as literally meaning that the body of the earth covers the sun on its other side. The word "pieces" in the translation means portion or piece cut off from the whole.
The same Arabic word for cover appears yet again in verse 7:54, where this time it is the day doing the covering, or possibly the other way round (the Arabic is ambiguous and translations differ, while tafsirs take the view that it means both). It seems far from clear how this could be interpreted as the rotating Earth blocking the night (whatever this might mean) in analogy to the heliocentric interpretation of verse 91:4. Rather it seems that the day and night are active entities in the Qur'an.
The other verse used as evidence of heliocentrism is 39:5. Here the word translated wraps (kawwara, as with a turban, for example) is claimed to indicate the rotation of the Earth.
As with 7:54 mentioned above and the verses where the day and night (as well as the sun and moon) have a falak, the night and day are referred to as active entities, and there is no suggestion that the Earth revolves. It would be quite reasonable to describe the Earth as passing through night and day, or perhaps even to say that night and day wrap around the earth as you could spin an item in order to wrap it with something. But the Qur'an just says that the day or night wrap each other. The night and day are always present on opposite sides of the Earth.
One solution may be to suppose that 'day' means the half of the Earth that is currently sunward, and 'night' means the shadow of the Earth cast by the sun, but then to make the next phrase work the 'night' would instead have to mean the half of the Earth that is currently opposite the sun, and the 'day' would have to mean the light from the sun.
A common claim by some of those who believe that 39:5 is a reference to the Earth's rotation is that this phrase is the most perfect that Allah could use without causing 7th century Arabs to dismiss Muhammad's message. Yet the Qur'an itself records that Muhammad was much mocked anyway by those who disbelieved what he said, and the Qur'an contains many claims that sounded absurd even to many of his contemporaries, so critics tend to criticise the Qur'an for not giving even some vague indication that the earth itself is revolving or that it has an orbit.
There are also two nearly identical verses to 39.5. These are 31:29 and 35:13 (also with the similar phrase are 3:27 22:61 and 57:6) where instead of 'he wraps', the verb 'he causes to enter' (yooliju) is used. Together, along with 7:54 where the day covers and chases the night (or vice versa), they present a picture of the day and night successively wrapping across each other and in so doing covering the other and entering into it, though the night never outruns (sabiqu) the day (36:40).
Ancient and modern-day Muslim astronomers
Muslims living in Muhammad’s day universally accepted the Qur'an's geocentric cosmology. References in the Hadith of any of the ansari or others in Muhammad's environment arguing about this point with their prophet or among themselves are unknown. Famous Muslim astronomers (people who certainly read, and knew the Qur'an) like the Arab astronomer Ibn al-Shatir and the Persian Nasir al-Din al-Tusi used Greek (geocentric) astronomy to create complex models of our ‘universe’ (only our solar system, which they believed constituted the entire universe) that were geocentric.
In a televised debate aired on Iraqi Al-Fayhaa TV (October 31, 2007), Muslim Researcher on Astronomy Fadhel Al-Sa'd also declared :
What I say is based on Koranic science. He bases his arguments on the kind of science that I reject categorically -- the modern science that they teach in schools. This science is a heretic innovation that has no confirmation in the Koran. No verse in the Koran indicates that the Earth is round or that it rotates. Anything that has no indication in the Koran is false.
According to Fadhel Al-Sa'd, the moon's diameter is 1,200,000 km, while that of the sun is only 2,400,000 km.
Muslims around the time of Muhammad
In the Hadiths we read that the sun moves around the earth and goes to "its resting place" at night, and will one day be told to go to "the place of your setting".
Similar versions of this hadith can be found in Sahih Bukhari and elsewhere in Sahih Muslim. In another hadith Muhammad tells the story of an earlier prophet who asked the sun to stop moving and it does so. This hadith is based on the story of Joshua in the Bible and is also found in Sahih Muslim:
These Hadiths are all deemed 'sahih' (authentic) according to Islamic scholars, but even if inauthentic, they at least indicate what Muslims around the time of Muhammad (or not long after his demise) believed about the sun and thus prove useful in interpreting the intended meaning of the Qur'an, which appeals to the common knowledge of its listeners.
- Cosmology - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Cosmology
- Geocentric Islam - Muslim blog, "western atheists deceived us when they taught the Hoax of a Rotating Earth !!"
- Muhammad's Geocentric Universe - YouTube video
- Falak Lane's Lexicon Volume 1 page 2443 and page 2444 Lane also says that the Arab astronomers said there were seven of these spheres for the sun, moon, and the five visible planets, rotating about the celestial pole. This must reflect the post-Qur'anic influence of Ptolemy, whose astronomical work was translated for the Arabs from the 8th century onwards.
- Hoskin, Michael, The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy, Cambridge University Press, p. 60, ISBN 978-0-521-57600-0, 25 April 2021
- van Bladel, Kevin, "Heavenly cords and prophetic authority in the Qur’an and its Late Antique context", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 70 (2): 223-246, 2007, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40379198
- Janos, Damien, "Qurʾānic cosmography in its historical perspective: some notes on the formation of a religious wordview", Religion 42 (2): 215-231, 2012 See p. 224
- Ibid. p. 221
- Ibid. p. 228
- 21:33, 39:40, 31:29, 35:13, and 39:5; the exception being 13:2. See also 14:33, though note that the word translated "constant in their courses" is daibayni, which is simply a verb meaning to strive, toil, labour, hold on or continue. Ref: dal-alif-ba Lane's Lexicon Volume 1 page 106
- "And a Sign for them is the Night: We withdraw therefrom the Day, and behold they are plunged in darkness; And the sun runs his course for a period determined for him: that is the decree of (Him), the Exalted in Might, the All-Knowing. And the Moon,- We have measured for her mansions (to traverse) till she returns like the old (and withered) lower part of a date-stalk. It is not permitted to the Sun to catch up the Moon, nor can the Night outstrip the Day: Each (just) swims along in (its own) orbit (according to Law)." - Qur'an 36:37-40
- A few translations use instead, "appointed term", though in nearly all other verses where we find mustaqarrin (qaf-ra-ra قرر Lane's Lexicon Volume 1 page 2501) as a participle they translate it as a place of settlement or an abode or resting place. There are other verses (35:13, 31:29, 39:5, 13:2) that mention the sun and moon floating/swimming (with the same verb as is translated "run" in 36:38) for a term appointed, but these use the words لِأَجَلٍ مُّسَمًّى which do indeed mean a term appointed, but note that mustaqarrin مُسْتَقَرٍّ in 36:38 is a different word.
- Sahih Muslim 1:297. For the Arabic of this hadith, see here
- With a different ending indicating that the مُسْتَقَرٍّ (resting place) in 36:38 refers to the end of the world when the sun is asked to rise from its setting place (مِنْ مَغْرِبِهَا). Ref: Sahih Bukhari 9:93:520. For the Arabic see here
- The Arabic reads:فِي فَلْكَة كَفَلْكَةِ الْمِغْزَل fee falka, ka-falkati almighzal - at-Tabari and ibn Kathir on 36:40 quran.al-islam.com (select the tafsir, surah and ayah). Similarly for 21:33 in ibn Kathir, "Ibn Abbas said, 'Spinning like as spins the spindle in a whirl'". Lane translates the exact same words attributed to ibn 'Abbas as "the whirl of a spindle...thus called because of its roundness...it is a piece of wood, generally of hemispherical form, or nearly so, through the middle of which the upper part of the spindle-pin is inserted" (see link to his lexicon page 2444 in an earlier footnote for falak above).
- "Ibn Abi Hatim recorded that Ibn `Abbas said, 'The sun is like flowing water, running in its course [falakha] in the sky [alssama] during the day. When it sets, it travels [at night - bi al-layli (omitted in the translation)] in its course [falakha] beneath the earth until it rises in the east.' He said, 'The same is true in the case of the moon.' Its chain of narration is Sahih."
Tafsir ibn Kathir for Qur'an 31:29
For the Arabic, see quran.al-islam.com
- [Qur'an 56:75]
- ra-alif-ya راي Lane's Lexicon page 998
- jiim-ra-ya جرى Lane's Lexicon page 415
- ba-ghayn-ya Lane's Lexicon Book 1 page 233
- dal-ra-kaf Lane's Lexicon Book 1 page 873
- Jama'a Lane's Lexicon Book 1 page 455
- Ta-Lam-Waw Lane's Lexicon Book 1 page 313
- alif-taa-ya Lane's Lexicon Book 1 page 15 The verb means to come, and when it has an object with the bi preposition it means to bring, as in many other instances in the Qur'an.
- qaf-taa-ayn Lane's Lexicon Suppliment page 2990