August 27, 2009

My Tafsir on Surah Fussilat (41):9-12

"The Bible was written to show us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." - Cardinal Cesar Baronio (1598), as cited by Galileo Galilei

A couple days ago, I received a comment from a certain someone who asked about verses 41:10-12 in the Qur'an. This person is apparently under the impression that the Qur'an is suggesting that the Earth was created first in all the universe before anything else (including the stars). I told him that the verses were analogical, but I wanted to expand on the point further. Below are the relevant verses (41:9-12):

Say: Is it that ye deny Him Who created the earth in two Days? And do ye join equals with Him? He is the Lord of (all) the Worlds.

He set on the (earth), mountains standing firm, high above it, and bestowed blessings on the earth, and measure therein all things to give them nourishment in due proportion, in four Days, in accordance with (the needs of) those who seek (Sustenance).

Moreover He comprehended in His design the sky, and it had been (as) smoke: He said to it and to the earth: "Come ye together, willingly or unwillingly." They said: "We do come (together), in willing obedience."

So He completed them as seven firmaments in two Days, and He assigned to each heaven its duty and command. And We adorned the lower heaven with lights, and (provided it) with guard. Such is the Decree of (Him) the Exalted in Might, Full of Knowledge.

First, I'm amused that verse 41:9 was skipped in the certain someone's original comment, if only because we both that he's become a self-proclaimed apostate. So, unless he's changed his mind and come back to a state of Islam (insha'allah), I'd say that his answer to the first question is "no." (Astaghfirullah!) Regardless...

The thing about the remaining verses, 41:10-12, is that they follow a specific sequence. This sequence was done with the original recipients of the Qur'an in mind, that being the early Muslim community and the Jahiliyyah-era Arabs (this surah, Fussilat, being revealed in the later Makkan period). As any good writer knows, you write to the level of your audience. Verse 41:9, for example, talks about the creation of the Earth, but Allah (swt) uses concepts that the audience at the time of the revelation would have understood; i.e., it took two of His days to complete. He, Allah (swt), didn't talk about things like the nebular hypothesis of solar system formation or protoplanetary disks. That sort of thing would have been far above the heads of the original recipients of the Qur'an.

So He followed a specific sequence that could be understood. Verse 41:10 first discusses the earth, the mountains, and the necessary chemicals - including water - that were needed to support life (once again, written in a way that could be understood by the original recipients). This verse came first, IMO, because everyone knows what the Earth is and would have asked a question like "How was the Earth made?" at some point in their life. The following verse, then, would be the next logical question: "How was the sky made?" And, finally, verse 41:12, completes the sequence by discussing the heavens and the stars. These verses were written in an order that is completely natural from the perspective of a human: we look down at the ground and then progressively higher, into the sky and then up to the heavens.

The mistake is to assume that these verses show the actual sequence of creation. Like the quotation at the top of this post, the Qur'an was written to show us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. These four verses were revealed not to provide a scientific proof, but to discuss how the Earth, sky and heavens were created in a manner that a people with a lack of scientific knowledge could understand.

Wa allahu alim. (And God knows best.)

11 comments:

nizo said...

First, putting aside previous arguments we had, I thank you for taking the time to address my question.

Now if you are going to take offense from what I am going to write here and use it as an excuse to delete my comment, you can not claim that you are open minded and transparent when it comes to educated and scientific discussions in Islam, for in definition censorship is not transparency.

There are topics that by just addressing them may offense others, in this case I am forced to ask these questions, now do not take any offense from my arguments please, it is you in the first place who is willing to discuss his believes publicly so you should keep this in mind.

Going straight to the point: now claiming that people back then weren't capable of understanding terms that we today are capable of understanding is no excuse for this error.

For God is Almighty and all capable, it is in his own powers to do what ever he deems, there are no limitations or restrictions when it comes to God's capabilities of design and creation.

Having said this, one can not excuse such quranic creationism errors because people back them weren't as developed as we are today in understanding the world around us.

There are two possible conclusions in this situation, A) quranic creationism is false, B) God is not all mighty and all capable.

God claims to be good, just, fair and perfect, he could have easily avoided such misunderstanding by either making humans more advanced in understanding such terms of creationism or rephrase his verses into a more proper and less misleading context.

Take this example:
Verse 1: God have created the heaven and earth in 7 days and nights for the believers to thank and worship him.

Verse 2: on the first period matter was formed out of energy, and those who question his power will never believe.

verse 3: in the second period the heaven was inflated and cooled down to suit the lives of his creation, for god is all loving.

verse 4: in the third period God allowed matter to combine and form planets and stars to guard the heavens.

Verse 5: After everything was set and ready God created the earth and put in it its mountains and foods, for god is all loving.

verse 6: God created life on earth and give his creation the freewill to obey.

verse 7: God continued expanding the universe for the seekers to find miracles in his creation.

This was a very clear explanation of how the universe came to be that anybody can understand including people that lived pre jesus times, if I managed to pull it in 3-4 minutes, why couldn't the all mighty and all capable do it?

JDsg said...

The first comment can stay; the second goes due to the snide comment at the end. Remove the last sentence and you can repost the comment. It's not a question of whether your ideas are offensive, it's the tone of your writing that causes your comments to be deleted. Write respectfully and comments can stay, insha'allah.

In answer to your first comment, no, no and no. Even your "simplified" seven verses would have sailed over the heads of the Arabs at that time. Specifically, your "verses" 2, 3 and 4. Heck, even your "the heaven was inflated" would have been a revolutionary thought prior to 1984 or so (when I first read about cosmic inflation). What you want is for Allah (swt) to conform to your will. You think that writing above the heads of people will create understanding, but it doesn't work that way. Any parent of children knows this. To use a simple analogy, you can't run when you're still crawling. People learn at their own pace; Allah (swt) trying to rush the pace of learning would only backfire upon the learners. I could try to teach my daughter doctoral-level microeconomics (a course I once took and did very well in), but at her age it would just be Abah babbling to himself. So you take the education in steps, teaching in ways that are age- and educational level-appropriate. The Qur'an was written at a level appropriate for a people (and for people) whose knowledge of science is scanty at best. There's nothing wrong with that, even though it may not satisfy you. But that doesn't negate Allah's (swt) omnipotence either, just as if I wrote children's books doesn't negate my education and intelligence.

nizo said...

Sure, I will play by your rules, here is the rest of my comment:

All you did there was justify the error, and justification doesnt not resolve the error, whether you justify it or not it will still contradict with science.

Take this for example:
If a verse states that earth is flat or the sun rotates around the earth [example only], these are false statements, and claiming that God wrote the verses in this way because people back then weren't able to understand what we are capable of understanding is just a stupid argument.

Simply because the Quran is made to be universal and to suit all times.

Also, I am sorry but I have to say this, if you have read the verses properly you would have understood that there is a sequence and an order of creation in the verses, look here:

10) And He made in it mountains above its surface, and He blessed therein and made therein its foods, in four periods: alike for the seekers.

(11) Then He directed Himself to the heaven and it is a vapor, so He said to it and to the earth: Come both, willingly or unwillingly. They both said: We come willingly.

Notice the ''Then'' here, it follows, it continues his story of creation, he doesn't jump to discuss another point that my happened before or after this point.

Also, notice that at this point the rest of the universe was ''vapor'', so at this point earth existed and the rest of the world was vapor.

(12) So He ordained them seven heavens in two periods, and revealed in every heaven its affair; and We adorned the lower heaven with brilliant stars and (made it) to guard; that is the decree of the Mighty, the Knowing.

Notice the ''So'' in the ''So He ordained'' he is continuing the story, its not a totally separate step that doesn't follow the pattern.

Also, notice that at this point the stars were made to existence.

I hope that you stay true to your readers and allow contrary arguments to show on your blog, ...

nizo said...

JD: maybe my verses weren't as perfect as an all capable and all mighty perfect God's verses.

I understand your point that people back then weren't as capable of understanding such terms as we today are.

This however, means that it is either an error in God's creation of the human mind or an error in the creation of his holy and perfect message to humanity.

God claims to be fair, just, good and perfect, such mistakes prove otherwise for he is all capable and can avoid such misunderstandings.

If something is impossible for kids to understand then do not put it in the kids book, rewriting it in a very simplistic way that causes it to loose the truth it should be carrying is a mistake, and if you ask me its a mistake that the creator of this world, who ever he is, wouldn't commit.

If I am going to use your logic then all religious texts are perfect and error free, simply because all the errors are deliberately made by God the all capable because he was forced to phrase them in a simple way for the simple people to understand.

JDsg said...

This however, means that it is either an error in God's creation of the human mind or an error in the creation of his holy and perfect message to humanity.

I don't buy either of these arguments. You're trying to claim an either-or scenario when it's multiple choice. (To give an old American analogy, people who make this type of argument are essentially saying, "Why, if it isn't Christmas, then it must be the Fourth of July!")

If something is impossible for kids to understand then do not put it in the kids book, rewriting it in a very simplistic way that causes it to loose the truth it should be carrying is a mistake...

No. Truth doesn't change simply if something is omitted or written down to a simpler level. Consider math textbooks. Has algebra changed in terms of its level of truth if geometry isn't included? Has algebra changed in terms of its level of truth if it discusses lower levels of equations and omits more advanced formulas (like polynomials)? Has algebra or geometry changed in its level of truth if calculus is ignored? No, no and no. Of course not. But you don't expect a kindergartener to understand algebra, geometry or calculus. That's neither "an error in God's creation of the human mind" nor an error in the mathematical "message to humanity."

Your level of expectation is too high. Raised as a Christian as I was, I was used to Biblical "miracles." Turning water into wine, raising Lazarus from the dead, that sort of stuff. Not just "miracles," but "Miracles!" But the Qur'an emphasizes the very-much-lower-case "miracle":

Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the profit of mankind; in the rain which God Sends down from the skies, and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds, and the clouds which they Trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth;- (Here) indeed are Signs for a people that are wise. (2:164)

This verse and the many more like it ultimately convinced me (after a number of years of thought) that "miracles" in the form of signs were all around us on a daily basis. Wait until you're a parent someday, insha'allah! Babies are ultimately formed from five different elements in DNA: hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon and phosphorus. (There may be a few others I've missed, but these are the big five.) Now, of these five, I'm sure you'd agree with me that as far as we know, none of these elements are sentient. And yet from these non-sentient atoms come sentient, living, breathing, eating, pooping babies. One is tempted to say that the birth of a baby is a "MIRACLE!" And yet so many babies are born every day, how can it be so profound? No, it's a lower-case "miracle," but a miracle nonetheless. This is the level of miracle and science that's presented in the Qur'an. Nothing fancy, but easily understandable. The Qur'an doesn't need fancy science to present its case, it just needs to present its case in a way that even poorly educated people can come to grips with.

If I am going to use your logic then all religious texts are perfect and error free...

No, I wouldn't buy that argument either. :) As far as I know only one religious text (the Qur'an) came from God; all the others, regardless of whether they came from the west or the east, were written by men. I've no doubt that Christians and Jews are People of the Book and that the messages they received were the same as that revealed in the Qur'an, but what's come down to us in the form of the Bible isn't the same as what they received.

I'll get to your other comment later, insha'allah. I've got other things I need to do.

JDsg said...

(Sorry for the delay in the response. I rarely have time for the Internet on the weekends due to family responsibilities.)

(11) Then He directed Himself to the heaven and it is a vapor, so He said to it and to the earth: Come both, willingly or unwillingly. They both said: We come willingly.

Notice the ''Then'' here, it follows, it continues his story of creation, he doesn't jump to discuss another point that my happened before or after this point.


You might want to consider Muhammad Asad's footnote to this verse (41:11):

Note 11 (Quran Ref: 41:11)

Whenever the particle thumma is used, as in the above instance, to link parallel statements - i.e., statements not necessarily indicating a sequence in time - it has the function of a simple conjunction, and may be rendered as "and". (Quran Ref: 41:11)


(12) So He ordained them seven heavens in two periods, and revealed in every heaven its affair; and We adorned the lower heaven with brilliant stars and (made it) to guard; that is the decree of the Mighty, the Knowing.

Notice the ''So'' in the ''So He ordained'' he is continuing the story, its not a totally separate step that doesn't follow the pattern.


Although there is no thumma at the beginning of this verse as there is at the beginning of 41:11, I find it interesting that Asad also chose to use "And" at the beginning of this verse as well, as opposed to "So..." or "Then..." I think the "Then..." or "So..." used by other translators is being used more to push along the narrative rather than to indicate a time-linked sequence.

Regardless, I don't believe there's any contradiction between the Qur'an and science in these verses, and I do believe my interpretation of the Qur'an is more correct than yours. We will just have to agree to disagree.

Blog said...

There is also a nice explanation here

http://www.quran-miracle.info/six-days-of-creation.htm regarding this.

Allah knows the best.

JDsg said...

@ Blog: Thanks for the link!

Anonymous said...

Salam.

The thing is that nothing is chronological in the Holy Quran, unlike the Gospels. Gospels are as if they're relating stories of the prophets... once upon a time.. etc. Therefore, many non-muslim people who start reading the Quran, they find it very hard to find consistency in it. Reason being that Allah SWT's words were uttered to the people then... according to what they asked. what we really have today is the combined copy of it. and if you really have to understand the Quran, it has to be in Arabic. otherwise, no justice is done. its just the same as reading Shakespeare in French... although there is no comparison b/w Quran and Shakespeare's literature...

what we have to understand is that when understanding the Quranic verses, we have to relate them to other verses too, otherwise, it'll be a big haphazard. Allah SWT tells us continuously to use our intelligence... for if we dont, we wont understand it. so the person who isnt ready to accept it, is hardly using his intelligence. he just is stuck like Allah SWT warns in the ayahs before these ones. that they dont want to accept it. theyre blind.

I too was a bit puzzled when i read these ayah. But as I said, Quran and Arabic can only be understood if we use enough intelligence.

refer to other verses where Allah SWT tells us that heavens and earth were joined together and they were unsewn in normal english. Arabic has a deeper meaning than that though. so here you have to understand that the earth or this solar system was taken apart from the heavens. and he had to give certain properties to earth and according give MORE properties to the heavens to protect us. this is His Mercy and Love, if but you understood.

and i was reading the other day that in some ayahs heavens are mentioned before and in some the earth. it really is according to what questions the people asked then. but as i have made clear that Allah SWT says that he separated the two since they were vapor and joined together. and btw, in the ayahs that are under discussion, for your further clarification, Allah says that he called the earth and the heavens together since both were parallel. each a part of the other. and He set guards on the lower heavens. the earth had to be there in relation to the properties of that heaven.

plus, the word "thumma" has many meanings. it may be used as 'moreover', 'then', 'and' etc. its just the same as "wa". where wa at times means 'and' and at times is used to take a promise or to swear. and then the word "ma". it may mean "no" or "those". so it really depends on the context what the words mean. as i said arabic is an amazing language. it aint english that each word has only one meanings. thats the beauty of the Quran. which non arabs wont be able to grasp.

plus, the ayahs have a certain rythm and metre to them. and thus occur according to that.

one has to broaden the horizon to understand.

Anonymous said...

moreover, the great big bang theory has its loopholes too. it tells us what possibly happened. and not what HAD to have happened. since it wasnt the big bang theory that made the universe. it says that the nebula exploded, solar system happened, other things happened, etc. thats exactly what Quran says. the heavens and the earth were joined. they were unsewn. it doesnt have to give other chronological details... for if He did give, it would be like a big story and Quran is just a reminder and info. for those who think. now its upto you to fill the gaps up. and it is upto you how you fill it.

According to me Quran beautifully summarized the whole thing. it says that yeah, they were a vapor... had to parted. 'ard' i.e. the earth or other planets too were made etc. and then the whole universe was asked to come willingly or unwillingly. and heavens were given further qualities and properties in accordance to the earth. i say this because Allah first parted the vapour to make earth and heavens. and earth was given sustenance. so, the heavens still existed but they were strengthened even further...
use common sense and intelligence.

thats the difference in the Holy Quran readers and the Bible readers. you know how its written that the people of the book are as if theyre donkeys with books on their back. and its true. bible readers do not use their brains while reading the bible. firstly because the human hands have written longggg stories in it. no need to use the brain. everything is already there. plus, had they used their brains, they wouldve realized the faults in the bible. whereas Quran supports reading and use of intellect. that is why, after Quran was revealed, the Muslims came up with so many sciences to really understand what Quran meant because in those times, none wouldve understood those ayahs. what i really think is that Allah SWT wanted to instigate us to learn science and know the miracles of Allah.

thats how it is.

gezarra said...

Look , i am no expert on the Quran , but i know arabic , taking a big compilcated thing and breaking it to smaller piece is what i do for a living,

i read the verses and here is what i think i understand form the verses regardless of the details i want to make a certain point :


- Allah(swt) created earth ...

- then at the start of verse 11 in Sahih International translation

{Then He directed himself to the heaven while it was smoke and said to it and to the earth,

"Come [into being], willingly or by compulsion." They said, "We have come willingly."}

(i smpliy don't know where the word "desing" used in your translation fit in the verse) i know arabic.

however i notice that in this verse Allah never said "Then he created the heaven" but On the contrary Allah treated the heaven as an already existing object(in smoke form),

what i see happing here is that the word "the heaven" in arabic is "Al Samma" which mean in arabic all that above something(Roof)

"Al Samma" or "the heaven" of the earth is all what above it. the point is logicaly that when an object created in space .

the direction above( or/and around) it is created at the same time . which means that heaven existed because earth were created before that every thing was one there were one.

but Allah(swt) only reformed it into seven layers or (heavens), atleast that what i understood , even if i am wrong the verses never stated that earth were created first then heaven .
And Allah knows Best. excuse my awful english.