It is often the case that believers of Islam go to great lengths to thoroughly manipulate the words of their text to fit a modern narrative. Words are suddenly interpreted entirely differently to however they were interpreted for centuries previously, the moment a new scientific discovery is made, in order to make the Qur’an fit that new understanding. The historical context is abandoned. It is the religious equivalent of painting a 21st outfit onto Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, and then claiming it was like that all along. Dr Zakir Naik is an expert in this most curious and disingenuous form of manipulating the words of the Qur’an to mean something that they clearly don’t. In this article, I will look at Dr Naik’s claim that the Qur’an’s description of the creation of the universe perfectly corresponds to modern scientific understanding.
The softly spoken, suited Dr Naik is loved by many Muslim apologists. For the rest of us, he’s a bit of a mad Televangelist who thinks 9/11 was orchestrated by President Bush, believes apostates who ‘speak out’ against Islam should be put to death, and that evolution was originally a conspiracy against the Church, and is now “only a hypothesis”. Ridiculous. He is essentially the Jerry Falwell of Islam. Nevertheless, he is taken seriously by a large number of Muslims, and so I thought I’d focus on him today.
For reference, I am using the English translation of the Qur’an by M.A.S Abdel Haleem. Haleem was born in Egypt, he learnt the Qur’an off by heart at a young age, and he is now Professor of Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. His translation, according to ‘Muslim News’ is:
“One of the best to have appeared in recent times.”
Similarly, suhaibweb.com calls the translation:
“…one of the most genuine and refreshing translations in contemporary times.”
– I trust this translation. It sits on my shelf, and I use it for most articles I write on Islam.
Onto the topic. Here is Dr Naik trying so very hard to suggest that the Qur’an mentions the theory of the big bang.
Let’s examine the verses of the Qur’an mentioned here by Dr Zaik:
Chapter 21 Verse 30:
“Are disbelievers not aware that the heavens and the earth used to be joined together and that We ripped them apart…
– No. Disbelievers are not aware of this, because this isn’t reality. The verse is quite clear. The heavens and the Earth – not the raw material that eventually forms planets, but the Earth itself – were joined. This creation idea is not unique to Islam. It is worth noting that the idea of the pulling apart of the Earth and the sky at the moment of creation, is known itself as the ‘World parent’ myth of creation. It is a common myth. The sky is usually depicted as the male, and the Earth as the female in these myths, with both existing tightly packed together before splitting apart in primordial state of being. The Egyptian deity Shu split the Earth from the skies, for example. The Qur’an mixes elements of the World parent myth, with elements of an ex nihilo variety of myth creation, with Allah bringing the Earth and sky into existence with speech, by forcing them apart. This also, is common. It is important therefore to note that the Qur’an follows earlier creation myth building perfectly, and offers nothing new or impressive. This does not in any way relate to modern cosmology, because it is entirely related to earlier myth creation, which itself was a way to try to explain our origins at a time in our magnificent history, when our species had absolutely no idea what was going on.
The Qur’anic verse above implies that space and the Earth were ripped apart at the same moment. We of course know that the big bang happened around 13.7 billion years ago. The Earth formed around 4.5 billion years ago. The atoms that eventually became the Earth spent 9 billion years as other forms of matter. For most of the history of the universe, the matter that formed the Earth, was not, and will not be the Earth. The explosion of a star around 5 billion years ago, its remnants colliding with a gas cloud, that eventually formed our solar system. The heat from the supernova helped to form clusters of matter that eventually created enough gravitational pull to form the sun, which naturally became inconceivably dense and violently hot that it pulled surrounding objects into its orbit. Those surrounding objects eventually lumped together to form the Earth and other planets and moons. The matter that makes the Earth, will eventually create another form of matter, when the planet and the sun and solar system die out. The Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago. It was not once joined to the ‘heavens’ in the way the Qur’an implies.
A plethora of Islamic apologists – including Adnan Oktar – seem to suggest that the Qur’an actually means “matter” and not “the Earth” with verses like that of the one above. But that’s not what the words actually say. This represents one of those moments where Muslims insist every word of the Qur’an is exactly as it was revealed to Muhammad… until they decide it needs changing.
It is also worth pointing out that the materials required to create the Earth were created long after the big bang. For example, stable hydrogen atoms required the cooling of the universe over hundreds of thousands of years before it began to form. This of course, isn’t present in the Qur’an. Just “We ripped them apart”.
Also not present in the Qur’an; the infinitesimal singularity, there is no mention of matter, of atoms, of how planets form, of how gravity warps spacetime, no mention of the cooling period of the early universe and the creation of stable hydrogen atoms, no densely packed inconceivably hot energy in the early state of the universe, no quantum physics, no mention of the importance of the core of a star, no mention of how galaxies form, or of energy. There is no mention of these key aspects of the beginning of the universe because those who wrote the Qur’an were unaware of it all, relying instead on earlier myths. Had this been a ‘revelation’ from the divine, and given that the Qur’an goes out of its way to care enough to mention creation, I would have expected far more information, and a leap forward for scientific endeavour, rather than regurgitating legends of old. Instead we’re treated to cryptic nothingness that wouldn’t have been considered ‘advanced’ scientific knowledge, had it been ‘revealed’ 500 years earlier.
Further, the verse suggests that the Earth is now separate from the sky, and that separation occurred at the moment they were “ripped apart”. Whilst this is in keeping with World parent myth creation, in reality it doesn’t resemble truth at all. There is no separate “sky” and “Earth”, they are both part of the same system, with the Earth forming around 9 billion years after the initial expansion at the big bang. There was simply an expansion. There was no ‘before’ the big bang in which the Earth and the sky were in a different state of being, unless you accept the primitive creation myths in which a primordial state of being existed whereby the Earth and sky were joined. None of this is mentioned in the Qur’an, just a simplistic “We ripped them apart”. Let’s stop pretending this is credible, or scientific, or representing some sort of advanced knowledge. It isn’t. It is a simple, and primitive creation myth.
Chapter 41, Verse 11 (a chapter that tenderly takes a brief time out – a couple of sentences – from describing the painful eternal torture awaiting us non-believers, to discuss ‘creation’, before launching into more violent descriptions of our imminent punishment):
“Then He turned to the sky, which was smoke – He said to it and the Earth, ‘come into being, willingly or not,’ and they said, ‘we come willingly…”
– Again it is worth noting that the use of God’s voice to bring into being everything, is not new. Everything springs from a creator after a thought, or words, or breath. Secondly, the mention of ‘smoke’ is not a new idea, having been propagated by the Greeks centuries earlier, as a potential state prior to the creation of the Earth. Aristotle, for example says To rest the entire idea of the Qur’an mentioning the state of the early universe on ‘which was smoke’ shows just how incredibly weak the claim is. There was no smoke at the conception of the universe. In fact, the early state of the universe cannot be said to resemble smoke – defined as ‘a visible suspension of carbon or other particles in air, typically one emitted from a burning substance’ – in any form. Carbon itself would not exist for a few million years. Stable hydrogen atoms also took a very long time to form. The early universe was a very dense, incredibly hot, lightless mass of energy. Not smoke. Nothing like smoke. Again, it takes very creative language manipulation to try to claim the word ‘smoke’ can be used to describe the early universe. It just can’t.
Much like the previous quoted verse, this verse suggests that the Earth and sky came into being at the same time, at the moment in which they were “ripped apart”, and again, this is wrong. Indeed, not only does Chapter 41, Verse 11 of the Qur’an absolutely contradict our understanding of the cosmos and the formation of the universe and Earth, but also, lazily, contradicts itself over the previous two verses. The preceding verses of Chapter 41, from verse 9-10 state:
“Say ‘how can you disregard the One who created the Earth in two days? How can you set up other gods as His equals? He is the Lord of all Worlds! He places solid mountains on it, blessed it, measured out its varied provisions for all who seek them – all in four days.Then He turned to the sky, which was smoke – He said to it and the Earth, ‘come into being, willingly or not,’ and they said, ‘we come willingly…”
– So, from verse 9 and 10 we get creation of the Earth. The inclusion of the word ‘then’ at the beginning of verse 11, implies that God turned His attention to the sky, after already forming the Earth. By verse 11 the Earth has been created with mountains and ‘provisions’. There is no sky at this point, despite the fact that the earlier chapter 21 implies they were created at the exact same moment in which they were “ripped apart”. Provisions and mountains exist, but the sky is just smoke. But then, oddly, God turns to both and demands they come into existence together. Which they do, confirming the earlier chapter, but contradicting the previous verse.
An earlier myth from Memphis in Egypt tells us that the God Ptah simply thought the World into existence, and gave everything its essence, through his words. As noted earlier, the use of divine speech – important to this Quranic verse – to bring everything into existence is not new. As well as appearing in countless creation myths, it appears in the Torah too: “And God said; ‘let there be light!'”
So, if we take Chapter 21, Verse 30, along with Chapter 41, Verse 11, as Dr Naik does, we come to the conclusion that the Earth – complete with mountains and ‘provisions’ – was created first, the sky was then created. They were joined. They were then ripped apart. It is very similar to Genesis, with a few tweaks here and there. It corresponds wonderfully to earlier primitive creation myths that speak of the sky and Earth pulled apart at the moment of creation. But it doesn’t correspond in any conceivable way to reality, without a thorough rewording, and creative reinterpretation of what the text actually says. Dr Naik is attempting – unsuccessfully – to rescue a dying and failed ‘science’ from its inevitable demise, by recreating what it actually says. It is a very defensive form of apologetics. I am yet to find any scientific peer reviewed thesis in relation to the origins of the universe and planet formation that references the Qur’anic story. It isn’t difficult to see why.