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.[1] 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.


In Islamic cosmology

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[1]). It seems that Allah brings the sun from the east, which then goes high above the Earth, and after sunset goes to a resting place. All this takes place around an Earth that is spread out (or flattened) and which possesses a firmament of seven heavens built atop it without visible pillars.

Historical background

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 9th century CE, though Islamic texts expressing doubts about his ideas started to appear regularly from the 10th century.[2] 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 different from 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.

Historical influences on Islamic cosmology

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[1][3] 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"[4] and observes that in various respects the two paradigms are incompatible, particularly as the celestial bodies move in the lowest part of the seven heavens in the Qur'anic model.[5] 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 "via an underground passage", which "finds some support in traditional Arabic reports [...] and seems to have Mesopotamian antecendents".[6]

Geocentrism in the Qur'an

The Qur'an in several places and contexts advances or alludes to descriptions of the heavenly bodies which explicitly or implicitly entail a geocentric model of the solar system. Seven such distinct assertions form the crux of the discussion on geocentrism in the Quran.

First is the strongly implied idea that both the courses or orbits (falak) taken by the sun and moon should be visible to the people addressed in the Qur'an. Second is the Quran's assertion that the moon follows the sun. The orbital "floating" or "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.[7]

Third, in Quran 36:37-40, which is a passage about night and day, right after describing the change from day to night the passages states that the sun runs on to a designated resting place (see footnotes regarding the Arabic word here, which differs from similar verses).[8][9] There are also sahih hadith that use the same Arabic word as in Quran 36:38 to identify "a resting place" as part of the sun's daily cycle.[10] An alternative view is that this refers to the sun's final resting on the last day rather than some temporal location. Another similar sahih hadith apparently supports this view.[11] Whichever meaning was originally 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.

Fourth is the idea that the sun and moon each float in an orbit (Quran 21:33 and Quran 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.[1] The main definition Lane provides is of 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).[12] 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 or heaven during the day, and when it sets, it runs at night in its falak underneath the Earth until it rises in the east.[13] Al-Tabari further mentions other opinions, such as that it means the pole of the heavens, and similarly, the shape of an iron millstone (or perhaps the iron axis thereof).

Fifth is the statement that "It is not for the sun to overtake the moon", though on the last day they will be joined together, which is thus suggestive of the two bodies orbiting the same central body and while being positioned at a relatively similar distance. Sixth is the idea that stars have certain fixed "settings" (or mawaqi); and while the day, night, the sun and moon are mentioned as all floating in an orbit (falak), while there is no indication of the Earth possessing its own orbit or falak.[14] And seventh is the verse which approvingly quotes Abraham saying that Allah brings the sun from the east along and the verses in the Dhu'l Qarnayn story which describe the setting and rising places of the sun as concrete locations which humans can visit and have visited (and even resided nearby) historically.

The visibility of the sun's movement

Modern Islamic scholars have often argued 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 supposed geocentric orbit. Critics have responded that the the author of the Qur'an describes a movement of the sun (as well as of the moon) which he expects its listeners to see and that, for this reason, the reference cannot be to the sun's galactic orbit.

Do you not see that Allah causes the night to enter the day and causes the day to enter the night and has subjected the sun and the moon, each running [its course] for a specified term, and that Allah, with whatever you do, is Acquainted?

The words 'and that' (wa anna) towards the end of the verse indicate that "Do you not see" applies to the entire verse, suggesting that it is not just the day and night, but also the running of the sun and moon that the 7th century listeners of the Qur'an were expected to know about. Critics maintain that implication here is that the audience could 'see' the night turn into day and vice versa, and that they could see the sun and the moon running their courses around the earth.

The words "don't you see" (alam tara أَلَمْ تَرَ[15]) may be interpreted in the sense of "don't you know" or "aren't you aware", but nonetheless function as an appeal to common knowledge. To critics, this common 7th century Arabian knowledge of geocentrism is erroneous, and in affirming this erroneous perception, the Quran itself may be said to err.

The word translated "running" (yajree يَجْرِىٓ) in this and the next few verses quoted below was used in classical Arabic to describe the physical travelling of heavenly bodies along their courses, and in general means to run, or to flow like water (or even "swim"). It is used two verses later in Quran 31:31 to describe the sailing of ships.[16]

Quran 13:2 states that the sun and moon running their courses are signs (ayaat) to mankind, implying they are facts known to and appreciated by a 7th century Arabian audience. The verses state that these signs are explained in detail in the Qur'an in order to strengthen the faith of its listeners. Critics argue that this directly undermines the idea that the Quran could have been alluding to the galactic orbit of the sun, for such an orbit was not known to the Quran's audience, and thus could not strengthen their faith, until some fourteen centuries after the Quran's authorship.

[…] He has subjected the sun and the moon! Each one runs for a term appointed. He regulates the matter, explaining the signs in detail, so you can be certain of meeting with your Lord.
Word by word: 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)

Quran 36:37-40 state that the sun follows a daily cycle, which ends every night when the sun goes to its resting place (ِmustaqarrin مُسْتَقَرٍّ)[9]. As usual in the Qur'an (Quran 13:2 being the only exception), the sun's movement is mentioned in the context of night and day.

A token unto them is night. We strip it of the day, and lo! they are in darkness and the sun runneth on unto a resting-place for him. That is the measuring of the Mighty, the Wise. And for the moon We have appointed mansions till she return like an old shrivelled palm-leaf. It is not for the sun to overtake the moon, nor doth the night outstrip the day. They float each in an orbit.
Word by word: Waalshshamsu (and the sun) tajree (runs) limustaqarrin (a resting point) laha (of it).
Qur'an 36:37-40

The phrase "It is not for the sun to overtake the moon" in Quran 36:40 does not, critics point out, fit a heliocentric perspective, yet is quite natural from a 7th century perspective where the sun and moon were believed to orbit the same world, and indeed, would one day be joined together (see below). The word translated 'for' in the phrase 'It is not for the sun...' in Quran 36:40 is yanbaghee (يَنۢبَغِى), which means "fitting", "suitable", "proper", "behoves", "right and allowable", "good, "facilitated", "easy", "practicable", or "manageable"[17] and the word translated 'overtake' is tudrika (تُدْرِكَ), which means "catches up and comes upon".[18]

Quran 25:45 tells of an indirect observation of the sun's movement.

Have you not seen see how your Lord spread the shadow. If He willed he could make it stationary. Then do We make the sun its guide.
Word by word: 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. Critics note that 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.

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 to schedule various Islamic rituals, as discussed further below.

The similar size and distance of the sun and moon

In a passage about events on the day of resurrection, the Quran makes an assertion which, critics argue, implies that the sun and moon are of a similar size and are located a similar distance from Earth.

And the moon darkens And the sun and the moon are joined,

The word translated "are joined" is jumi'a, a verb which means to collect together, gather together, bring together.[19] Critics note that this would require the moon to travel 98 million miles away from Earth and into the sun, which is over 600 times wider, which is less suitable as an apocalyptic event than if the ancient understanding of the cosmos was correct. To critics, on the ancient view, the collision of the moon and the sun would entail a far more dramatic and apocalyptically appropriate collision of two roughly equivalent celestial bodies in the sky above the Earth.

The course of the sun in relation to the course of the moon

The courses of the sun and the moon are designated as a pair of sorts, and are always mentioned together in the Qur'an.

By the sun and his brightness, And the moon when she followeth him
Word by word: Waalshshamsi (and the sun) waduhaha (and its brightness) Waalqamari (and the moon) itha talaha (when it follows it)
Qur'an 91:1-2

In the view of critics, this suggests that the sun takes a path or action similar or at least comparable to that of the moon (which goes around earth once per month, and to an ancient person would appear 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", "walk behind", or "follow in way of imitation" or "of action", and is often used for animals like camels following behind each other.[20] Critics note that while the moon neither follows behind the sun's movement nor provides its own light like the sun, a pre-modern observer would get the impression that the moon and sun, in a sense, "chase" one another in orbit about the Earth (an impression the Quran appears to agree with).

There are many other verses where the sun and moon are paired. In Quran 36:37-40 the sun's movement (as well as day and night) is a token, or sign, that the hearers can readily observe.

A token unto them is night. We strip it of the day, and lo! they are in darkness and the sun runneth on unto a resting-place for him. That is the measuring of the Mighty, the Wise. And for the moon We have appointed mansions till she return like an old shrivelled palm-leaf. It is not for the sun to overtake the moon, nor doth the night outstrip the day. They float each in an orbit.
Qur'an 36:37-40
And He it is Who created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. They all float in rounded courses.
Word by word: 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)
He has made subject to you the Night and the Day; the Sun and the moon
And He hath made subject to you the Sun and the moon, both diligently pursuing their courses; and the night and the day hath he (also) made subject to you.
Among His Signs are the Night and the Day, and the Sun and the Moon. [...]
He created the heavens and the earth in true (proportions): He makes the Night overlap the Day, and the Day overlap the Night: He has subjected the sun and the moon (to His law): Each one follows a course for a time appointed. Is not He the Exalted in Power - He Who forgives again and again?

Quran 35:11-13 explains that it is not only humans that were created in pairs (male and female), but also the two bodies of flowing waters (one salty and one sweet), the night and the day, and the sun and the moon.

And Allah did create you from dust; then from a sperm-drop; then He made you in pairs. And no female conceives, or lays down (her load), but with His knowledge. Nor is a man long-lived granted length of days, nor is a part cut off from his life, but is in a Decree (ordained). All this is easy to Allah. Nor are the two bodies of flowing water alike,- the one palatable, sweet, and pleasant to drink, and the other, salt and bitter. Yet from each (kind of water) do ye eat flesh fresh and tender, and ye extract ornaments to wear; and thou seest the ships therein that plough the waves, that ye may seek (thus) of the Bounty of Allah that ye may be grateful. He merges Night into Day, and he merges Day into Night, and he has subjected the sun and the moon (to his Law): each one runs its course for a term appointed. Such is Allah your Lord: to Him belongs all Dominion.
Qur'an 35:11-13

The shape of the sun's course

Various verses describe the shape of the sun's course. The general scheme involves Allah bringing the sun from east and the sun traveling high and eventually going back down. Critics and modern Islamic scholars agree, however, that most of these verses are comparable to the kind of convenient colloquialisms we still use today (see Quran 20:059, Quran 20:130, Quran 17:078, Quran 6:77-78, and Quran 18:17). Some of these verses, however, have been the object of considerable debate between the two groups.

Quran 2:258 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 indicate that the sun is conceived of as physically moving.[21]

Abraham said, ‘Indeed Allah brings the sun from the east; now you bring it from the west.’ So the disbeliever was overwhelmed [by astonishment], and Allah does not guide the wrongdoing people.
Qur'an 2:258

Quran 18:84-90 also describes the physical, terrestrial locations where the sun is supposed to rise and set in response to a question about an existing legend. Here, in the Quranic account of life of Dhul Qarnayan or Alexander the Great, the physical setting place of the sun, located in muddy spring, can be seen by human eyes. Indeed, in this account, a human tribe is said to live adjacent to this celestial setting place.

Lo! We made him strong in the land and gave him unto every thing a road. And he followed a road. Till, when he reached the setting-place of the sun, he found it setting in a muddy spring, and found a people thereabout. We said: O Dhu'l-Qarneyn! Either punish or show them kindness. Then he followed a road. Till, when he reached the rising-place of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had appointed no shelter therefrom.
Qur'an 18:84-90

There is historical evidence from early Quranic commentaries and other sources, including contemporary Arabic and Syriac poems of the same legend, to the effect that early Muslims took this account literally.

Critics conclude that the Qur'an is clear about the course of the sun: it does not describe a complete orbit, but rather a rounded course, presumably in a hemisphere (falak[1]) that has a beginning, an end, and a highest point.</ref>

The regular cycle of the sun

According to several verses in the Qur'an, the sun's cycle is repeated on a regular basis and is comparable in this respect to the orbit of the Moon as well as the cycle of and night and day.

[…] He made the Sun and the moon subservient (to you); each one pursues its course to an appointed time; He regulates the affair, making clear the signs
Seest thou not that Allah merges night into day and he merges day into night and he has subjected the sun, and the moon each running its course for a term appointed. And Allah is aware of what you do.
The Sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed
Word by word: 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 the word 'course' or 'celestial sphere' is used. In this verse, the word falak is not used; Quran 55:5 only indicates that the sun and the moon behave in a calculated, scheduled, or otherwise pre-appointed manner. This verse and similar verses are consequently marshalled by critics as further evidence that the Quran espouses a geocentric cosmology, as the sun's daily cycle and the moon's monthly cycle serve ritual timekeeping purposes such as for determining 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 helps explain the emphasis in the Qur'an on the regulated and scheduled nature of the courses of the sun and moon as a sign from Allah and as a divinely sanctioned monthly calendar (see previous section).

He it is that cleaves the day-break (from the dark): He makes the night for rest and tranquility and the sun and moon for the reckoning [of time])
Indeed, (the) number (of) the months with Allah (is) twelve months in (the) ordinance (of) Allah (from the) Day He created the heavens and the earth; of them, four (are) sacred. That (is) the religion the upright, so (do) not wrong therein yourselves. And fight the polytheists all together, as they fight you all together. And know that Allah (is) with the righteous.
It is He Who made the Sun to be a shining glory and the moon to be a light (of beauty), and measured out stages for her; that ye might know the number of years and the count [of time]. Nowise did Allah create this but in truth and righteousness. (Thus) doth He explain His Signs in detail, for those who have knowledge.
And We have made the night and the day two signs, then We have made the sign of the night to pass away and We have made the sign of the day manifest, so that you may seek grace from your Lord, and that you might know the numbering of years and the reckoning; and We have explained everything with distinctness.

The moon (the sign, or ayah, of the night) is used to count the years, which comprise the twelve lunar months making up the Islamic year, and the sun is to be used to keep track of time. The only solar movement to be used for timekeeping is the apparent daily course of the sun (from east up and then down to the west). To this day, virtually all mainstream Islamic authorities use the (less precise and regularly unpredictable) lunar calendar to determine the date and the apparent position of the sun from any given location to determine the waqt (prescribed time) of daily salats (prayers). In some cases, as with the Burj Khalifa, which is one of the tallest buildings in the world and which is located in the United Arab Emirates, this means that prayer times differ one the top floor of the building from the prayer times on the bottom floor of the building, as the moment of sunset and sunrise varies as one ascends in elevation.

Solar "orbit" and the daily prayers

The only examples of the sun being used for timekeeping in the Qur'an employ the sun's apparent daily movement along the sky. Each of the five daily prayers described either directly or indirectly or alluded to in some manner in the Quran. These references all involve mention of the physical, orbital position of the sun. The first prayer, salat al-fajr, takes place right before sun rise and is mentioned in Quran 17:78, Quran 20:130, and Quran 24:58. The second prayer, salat al-zuhr, takes place right after the sun reaches its zenith, but before the shadow of the Sun becomes twice its length from midday. This prayer is possibly mentioned in Quran 17:78 as prayer at the "decline of the sun". The third prayer, salat al-asr, takes place when the sun is between zenith and sunset, when the length of a shadow of a stick is either once or twice its length. This prayer is mentioned in Quran 2:238 as "the middle prayer" and in Quran 20:130 and Quran 50:39 as the "exhalt[ing of Allah] with praise" before the sun's "setting". The fourth prayer, salat al-maghrib, takes place right after sunset. This prayer is not clearly mentioned, but Quran 20:130 and Quran 50:39 mention the "exhalt[ing of Allah] with praise" before rather than after "sunset". The latter verse also mentions "the two ends of the day". The fifth prayer, salat al-isha, takes place at night, between sunset and sunrise. This prayer is mentioned Quran 11:114, Quran 17:79, and Quran 20:130.

Modern heliocentric re-readings

In light of the many verse describing a geocentric system and the difficulties this poses in reconciling the Qur'an with the findings of modern science, many modern Islamic scholars have attempted to re-read the Quran as describing a heliocentric system. A major factor in these re-readings, as mentioned above, has been identifying the "orbit" or falak of the sun described in the Quran as a reference to the sun's orbit in the Milky Way galaxy. Likewise discussed above, Quran 36:40 ('it is not for the sun to overtake the moon...') has been re-read in a manner concordant with a heliocentric model.

Quran 91:1-4

In addition to the above two re-readings, two other verses are advanced to suggest that the author of the Quran was aware of the Earth's rotation about its axis.

By the sun and his brightness, And the moon when she followeth him, And the day when it revealeth him, And the night when it enshroudeth him
Word by word: Waalnnahari (and the day) itha (when) jallaha (it displays it) Waallayli (and the night) itha (when) yaghshaha (it covers it)
Qur'an 91:1-4

In its plain sense, it appears 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 can also fit with a geocentric view where 'day' and 'night' are processes when the sun is above or below the horizon). While modern Islamic scholars frequently use this verse to defend a heliocentric reading of the Quran, critics argue that the verse's agreement with heliocentrism is undermined when certain other verses in the Quran are considered which appear to elucidate its meaning.

In addition, critics argue, because the Earth is actually a globe, 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 being both revealed and concealed. This problem, critics note, would not arise if the word 'when' (itha) were simply removed from these verses (an exclusion the author of Quran, if inclined to heliocentrism, would likely have made).

The other verses considered in this context by critics which use the the same Arabic verb as found in Quran 91:1-4, are said to show that the verb here does not simply signify that the body of the earth is blocking the line of sight to something. Quran 92:1-2 use the same words found Quran 91:3-4, but without the pronoun suffix at the end. Thus, critics conclude, the "night" is when things generally are "covered", and not just the sun on the other side of the Earth. Likewise, the "day" is when things generally are "revealed". In this reading, the verbs employed are used only in a poetic manner.

By the night enshrouding, And the day resplendent
Word by word: Waallayli (and the night) itha (when) yaghsha (it covers) Waalnnahari (and the day) itha (when) tajalla (it displays)
Qur'an 92:1-2

In Quran 10:27, the night's "cover" (the same verb as in Quran 91:4) is used to apply to all things and not just the sun. As a result, critics argue, it is difficult to interpret the night covering the sun in Quran 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.[22]

they will have no one to save them from Allah; as if their faces are covered with pieces of the dark night
Qur'an 10:27

The same Arabic word for cover appears again in Quran 7:54, where 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 either or both). Critics argue that it is far from clear how verse could be interpreted as describing a rotating Earth blocking the night (however that conception may be interpreted) in a manner analogous to the heliocentric interpretation of Quran 91:4. Critics then assert, instead, that the plain sense of these verses and the Quran at large hold the day and night to be active, concrete, and physically independent entities.

He covereth the night with the day, which is in haste to follow it
Qur'an 7:54

Quran 39:5

The other verse advanced by modern Islamic scholars as favoring a heliocentric re-reading of the scripture is Quran 39:5. Here the word translated "wraps" (kawwara, as with a turban, for example) is argued to be indicative of the rotation of the Earth.

He created the heavens and earth in truth. He wraps the night over the day and wraps the day over the night and has subjected the sun and the moon, each running [its course] for a specified term.
Qur'an 39:5

As with Quran 7:54 and the verses where the day and night (as well as the sun and moon) are said to have a falak[1], the night and day are referred to as active entities, and there is indication suggesting that the Earth revolves. Here, critics argue that it would make sense to describe the Earth as passing through night and day or to say that night and day wrap around the earth, as one might spin an item in order to wrap it with something. But, the critics note, the Qur'an instead says that the day or night wrap about one another rather than the earth, suggesting that the night and day possess some manner of corporeal form.

To this, some modern Islamic scholars have responded that 'day' here refers to that half of the Earth that is currently sunward and that 'night' refers to the shadow of the Earth cast by the sun. Critics are, however, unsatisfied with this rebuttal. They note that if this argument is accepted, then in order to make the next phrase work, the 'night' would instead have to refer to that half of the Earth that is currently opposite the sun, and, moreover, the 'day' would have to refer to the light from the sun.

Two verses nearly identical to Quran 39:5 are Quran 31:29 and Quran 35:13 (also containing similar phrasing are Quran 3:27, Quran 22:61, and Quran 57:6) where instead of "he wraps", the verb "he causes to enter" (yooliju) is used. Critics argue that, together and along with Quran 7:54 where the day is said to "cover" and "chase" the night (or vice versa), these verses present a picture of the day and night successively wrapping across each other and in so doing covering the other and entering into it. It is in this picture, they note, that night never "outruns" (sabiqu) the day (Quran 36:40).

The argument of mutual comprehensibility

Modern Islamic scholars also make the case that thought indirect, Quran 39:5 is as direct reference to the Earth's rotation as would have permitted the point to be made while keeping 7th century Arabs from immediately dismissing Muhammad's message on grounds of pre-modern incredulity. To emphasize this point, modern Islamic scholars evoke the doctrine of the maximal possible perfection of every verse in the Quran and suggest that Allah struck the perfect balance of simultaneously alluding to modern science while speaking in terms comprehensible to the inhabitants of a 7th century Arabian desert. To this presentation, critics have responded pointing out that Muhammad's message was immediately dismissed and mocked by most of his contemporaries anyways, and that widespread conversion to Islam was more a consequence of Muhammad's later military success than his preaching and doctrine. According to hadith tradition, Muhammad did not hesitate to tell his contemporaries he had met an angel, ridden a winged beast up to Allah, and accomplished other fantastic feats. This having been the case, critics ask why Allah should not simply have gone ahead and stated plainly what he wanted to state, knowing that his message would thereby have resonated with ever increasing power generations later. To critics, the author of the Quran did not see his description of the heavens as scientifically novel or as couched in compromised language for the sake of comprehensibility, but was simply describing the universe he held to exist in common with his audience in order to inspire awe, all while having no real regard for their ridicule or mockery of him.

Islamic authorities on geocentrism

Ancient and modern Muslim astronomers

Muhammad's Muslim contemporaries all accepted the Qur'an's geocentric cosmology. References in the Hadith of the ansari or others in Muhammad's environment arguing about this point with their prophet or among themselves are nonexistent. 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 the ‘universe’ that were geocentric (to pre-moderns, the 'universe' comprised the local solar system).

In a televised debate aired on Iraqi Al-Fayhaa TV (October 31, 2007), the Islamic astronomer Fadhel Al-Sa'd asserted the following:

The sun circles the Earth because it is smaller than the Earth, as is evident in Koranic verses. Have you ever seen how the sun moves? I have seen the sun moving. The sun makes one move every 24 hours. 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.

In Fadhel Al-Sa'd's view, the moon's diameter is 1,200,000 km, while that of the sun is only 2,400,000 km.

Muhammad's contemporaries

Hadiths graded as authentic by Islamic scholars and found in collections like Sahih Muslim maintain that the sun moves around the earth and goes to its resting place at night, until it is told to return to "its rising place" (matli'iha), a word which also appears in Quran 18:90 when Dhu'l Qarnayn reaches the rising place of the sun (mali'a ash-shamsi).[23] One day the sun will be told instead to go and emerge "from the place of your setting" (min maghribiki), and so, it will go and emerge "from the place of its setting" (min maghribiha), often mistranslated as "the west" in other narrations of this prophecy, despite the possessive suffix and lack of definite article[24]. The direct address to the sun and possessive pronouns show that this is not a mere figure of speech about the rotation of the Earth or the east and the west.

It is narrated on the authority of Abu Dharr that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) one day said: Do you know where the Sun goes? They replied: Allah and His Apostle know best. He (the Holy Prophet) observed: Verily it (the Sun) glides till it reaches its resting place under the Throne. Then it falls prostrate and remains there until it is asked: Rise up and go to the place whence you came, and it goes back and continues emerging out from its rising place and then glides till it reaches its place of rest under the Throne and falls prostrate and remains in that state until it is asked: Rise up and return to the place whence you came, and it returns and emerges out from it rising place and the it glides (in such a normal way) that the people do not discern anything (unusual in it) till it reaches its resting place under the Throne. Then it would be said to it: Rise up and emerge out from the place of your setting, and it will rise from the place of its setting. The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said. Do you know when it would happen? It would happen at the time when faith will not benefit one who has not previously believed or has derived no good from the faith.

Similar versions of this hadith are found in Sahih Bukhari and elsewhere in Sahih Muslim. In another hadith Muhammad recorded telling the story of an earlier prophet who asked the sun to stop moving, whereafter the sun complied with his request. This hadith is based on the story of Joshua found in the Bible and is also found in Sahih Muslim:

…So, the prophet carried out the expedition and when he reached that town at the time or nearly at the time of the ‘Asr prayer, he said to the sun, ‘O sun! You are under Allah’s Order and I am under Allah’s Order O Allah! Stop it (i.e. the sun) from setting.’ It was stopped till Allah made him victorious…

These Hadiths are all deemed 'sahih' (authentic) according to Islamic scholars. According to historians, however, even if these hadiths are not historically reliable, they nonetheless indicate what very early Muslim authorities believed about the sun and are thus useful in interpreting the intended meaning of the Qur'an.

See also

  • Cosmology - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Cosmology

External link


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 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.
  2. Hoskin, Michael, The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy, Cambridge University Press, p. 60, ISBN 978-0-521-57600-0, 25 April 2021 
  3. 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, 
  4. 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
  5. Ibid. p. 221
  6. Ibid. p. 228
  7. 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
  8. "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
  9. 9.0 9.1 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.
  10. Sahih Muslim 1:297. For the Arabic of this hadith, see here
  11. 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
  12. The Arabic reads:فِي فَلْكَة كَفَلْكَةِ الْمِغْزَل fee falka, ka-falkati almighzal - at-Tabari and ibn Kathir on 36:40 (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 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).
  13. "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
  14. [Qur'an 56:75]
  15. ra-alif-ya راي Lane's Lexicon page 998
  16. jiim-ra-ya جرى Lane's Lexicon page 415
  17. ba-ghayn-ya Lane's Lexicon Book 1 page 233
  18. dal-ra-kaf Lane's Lexicon Book 1 page 873
  19. Jama'a Lane's Lexicon Book 1 page 455
  20. Ta-Lam-Waw Lane's Lexicon Book 1 page 313
  21. 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.
  22. qaf-taa-ayn Lane's Lexicon Suppliment page 2990
  23. In contrast, the generic east is always indicated with the word al mashriq or its derivatives everywhere else in the Quran.
  24. Muhsin Khan, English translator of Sahih Bukhari is particularly guilty of this. Compare with min al maghribi which can in fact be translated as the sun rising "from the west" in Quran 2:258