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A Problem of Interpreting Quran by Science

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I was browsing IslamToday.com and came across an interesting article (full text at the end of the post) regarding the ayah,

O assembly of jinns and men! If you have power to pass beyond the zones of the heavens and the earth, then pass (them)! But you will never be able to pass them, except with authority (from Allah)! (55:33)

This verse has been used by some as a proof predicting space travel, and by others as as a proof that space travel is impossible (obviously not in the past few decades). The problem here is making a stretch for reading scientific interpretations into the Qur’an. While it is obviously a true miracle that there are some scientific facts mentioned about things such as embyrology, we should not make them the focus of our calling.

The problem becomes as we see from this ayah – people twisting it both ways to suit a particular scientific interpretation. If someone now were to look at a book of tafseer from the 1800’s and see it espousing the opinion that the Quran says space travel is impossible, then they might (audhubillah) turn away from it and consider it to be false!

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Please note I am not trying to discount the scientific miracles in the Quran, just saying that we should exercise some caution when discussing them or promoting them. The best example I have seen of the scientific miracles being used in promotion of da’wah is the Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam.

I hope that the article quoted below will show not only some of the importance of staying true to the classical interpretations, but also give a glimpse into how powerful the ayaat are when we dig deeper into their ‘Islamic’ (or primary) meanings.

Please also see:

Here is the full text of the article (source):

       

 

“If you can pass beyond the zones of Heaven and Earth, then pass!” | Sheikh `Umar al-Muqbil, professor at al-Imâm University|  

 

Allah says: “O assembly of Jinn and men! If you can pass beyond the zones of the heavens and the Earth, then pass! Not without authority shall you be able to pass!” [Sûrah al-Rahmân: 33]

This verse is a challenge to Allah’s creatures. It is a challenge on the Day of Resurrection, since it is given after the verse: “Soon shall We settle your affairs, O both you worlds!” [Sûrah al-Rahmân: 31]

Al-Tabarî explains that the two verses taken together mean:

Soon shall We settle your affairs, O both you worlds! And it will be said to you: “O assembly of Jinn and men! If you can pass beyond the zones of the heavens and the Earth, then pass! Not without authority shall you be able to pass!”

Al-Sa`dî explains in his commentary on the Qur’ân:

When Allah gathers them together at the place of standing on the Day of Resurrection, He will declare to them their weakness and helplessness, while affirming the fullness of His power and authority, and that His will shall be accomplished.

He will say to them: “If you can pass beyond the zones of the heavens and the Earth, then pass!”

This means: If you can find a way out of Allah’s dominion and power, then go ahead.

Then Allah will inform then: “Not without authority shall you be able to pass!”

This means: You will have no escape without power and authority that you surely do not possess.

On that Day, they will have no power to cause any benefit or harm. They will have no control over their life and death – nor over their own summons. In that assembly, no one will speak without Allah’s permission, and no voice will be heard above a murmur. Kings and subjects, princes and paupers – they will all be equal on that day.

Implications for Space Travel

Some people have tried to understand this verse as referring to the life of this world, ignoring its context. They have claimed that this verse refers to space travel. The people who have made this assumption are, in turn, divided into two diametrically opposed groups:

1. There are those who say that this verse is proof that space travel is humanly impossible. This group, understandably, has grown much smaller in the past few decades.

2. The other group takes the opposite position. They try to use this verse as proof that the Qur’ân predicts human space flight. They argue that the word “authority” in the verse should be understood to mean “knowledge”.

Ibn `Uthaymîn discusses the weakness of these interpretations in his book Regarding a Trip to the Moon. He discusses at length the problems associated with such interpretations. What follows owes a debt to his excellent work.

Anyone who reads the verse in the broader context of the entire chapter – Sûrah al-Rahmân – will understand clearly that the challenge takes place in the Hereafter. Allah begins the chapter by discussing the creation of humanity and the jinn. Then He tells us how He subjected to His servants the heavens and the Earth. Then He tells us how all the denizens of the Earth shall perish. It is at this point that He says: “Soon shall We settle your affairs, O both you worlds!” This is the Judgment. And at this point, the challenge is given. There will be no escaping from Allah’s judgment.

This is the danger of taking a sentence or a word out of context. A sentence or a word can mean many very different things, depending on the context in which it is used.

Even if we say that the verse could – taken in isolation – be understood to mean either a denial or prediction of space travel, neither of these ideas makes any sense in the context in which the verse is given.

If the verse were predictive as some people have recently alleged, and the word “authority” means knowledge, this would make the meaning of the verse: “O assembly of Jinn and men, you will not be able to pass beyond the zones of the heavens and the Earth without knowing how to do so!”

This is, to say the least, just stating the obvious. Nothing that any of us attempt to do can be achieved without knowledge of how to do it. Such a meaning is incongruous with the awe and majesty of the declaration. It makes no sense for something so banal to be declared right after such an ominous warning like: “Soon shall We settle your affairs, O both you worlds!”

It makes equally little sense for such a statement to come right before the equally ominous: “On you will be sent (O ye evil ones twain!) a flame of fire (to burn) and a smoke (to choke): no defense will you have.” [Sûrah al-Rahmân: 35]

There can be no doubt about what the verse means when it is taken in context.

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Omar Usman is a founding member of MuslimMatters and Qalam Institute. He teaches Islamic seminars across the US including Khateeb Workshop and Fiqh of Social Media. He has served in varying administrative capacities for multiple national and local Islamic organizations. You can follow his work at ibnabeeomar.com.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Fulaan

    August 23, 2007 at 12:11 PM

    Erm, I remember being taught that the first heaven includes all that which contains planets and stars, etc. i.e. all the galaxies and the entire universe – known and unknown.

    I forget the evidence my teacher told me – but can find out inshallah.

    The likeness of the first heaven wrt the second heaven being like a ring in the vastness of the desert. Recurse this up 6 more times for all 7 heavens – and the same was said wrt the ‘Arsh wrt the 7th heaven.

    Again, this is off the top of my head so research it before you rely on it.

  2. SaqibSaab

    August 23, 2007 at 1:04 PM

    Another problem we run into is when we have “Islam and Science” type lectures.

    When we present them, we’re all on the same page of having the Qur’an as the platform, and Science as a compliment. But non-Muslim audiences are rarely on the same wavelength, and the more outspoken anti Religion-works-with-Science types go nuts, making the presentation lose its grip on the audience as a whole.

    We had one example like this in Chicago a few years back. A student of bin Uthaymeen (who’s also an engineer) gave an awesome presentation during an IAW about Qur’anic miracles that science has only recently discovered.

    A “Christian scientist” blew a fuse throughout the entire event, nitpicking at the most minute points, overly complicated the most simple points.

    It really put a damper on the presentation and even slightly on the Qur’an for the non-Muslim audience that attended =/. But at the end the brother did bring things back to light a bit =).

    Just something I noticed.

  3. Ardit

    August 23, 2007 at 10:21 PM

    That’s why the work of the scientists should be viewed by the scholars. I already read the article in the islamtoday.com. Harun Yahya is not better, his work should be reviewed and challenged because a lot of students of knowledge are complaining about his works. Somebody got to stop the guy…:)

    ma salama, ardit

  4. NasirMuzaffar

    May 29, 2009 at 8:37 AM

    Assalam Alaikum Wa Rahmatullah

    A friend wrote the follwoing:

    “I forgot the exact details, but when the Americans first landed on the moon, some people went up to Shaykh Al Shanqeeti and told him about this and said that this contradicted one of the verses in the Qur’an (i forgot which one). So the Shaykh said “maybe we have been wrong all this time in regards to our understanding of this verse”. Thus, showing he is open to the possibility to interpreting the Qur’an based on facts we know in reality and wasn’t stubborn and said “the kuffar are lying, they couldn’t have landed on the moon”

    ———– End Quotation—————–

    Does anyone know which Ayah of the Quran was mentioned to Sh. Muhammad al-Ameen Al Shanqeeti ?

    Was it Surah Rahman- Ayah 33 or some other Ayah ?

    (there are some other Ayaahs which can possibly be interpreted in a way to support his position (& postion of some other students of knowledge) that according to the Quran it’s not possible to land on the moon-

    Please note : I am not saying their interpretation is correct)

    Perhaps, the work, “Trip To The Moon” by Sh. Uthaymeen (r) , may have he tquotation of the Sh. Muhammad al-Ameen Al Shanqeeti incident, cited above.

    (please don’t initiate a debate as to whether the americans landed on the moon or not – as this is n’t the gist of my question)

    And Allah knows best.

    Wassalaam

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