The Expansion of the Universe and the Qur’an – Abdassamad Clarke

The following examination of the ayah of Qur’an which is taken to refer to the expansion of the universe is a single example of what is becoming a burgeoning literature among Muslims claiming that science proves the Qur’an to be true. This literature can be said to date from the book of Maurice Bucaille: The Bible, the Qur’an and Science. As Hajj Idris Mears pointed out, it is implicit in the title of his book that there are three successive stages of revelation: first, the Bible; second, the Qur’an which the author regards as a great deal more scientific (although in the process he manages to undermine and indeed repudiate the hadith literature); and then thirdly and lastly, science, which is clearly in his view the judge and arbiter as to the truth or falsity of the previous two.

This perspective is of course utterly unacceptable to us, since, as Thomas Kuhn showed, the modern scientific outlook is in his terminology ‘a paradigm’ which was preceded by the Aristotelian ‘paradigm’ and may thus clearly be succeeded by yet another. Thus it is impossible that we should tie the meanings of the Qur’an to what is simply a paradigm.

It might help if we look at one example which is widely touted as definitive proof of the scientific authenticity of the Qur’an: the ayah 47 in Surat adh-Dhariyat which many people take as predicting the twentieth-century discovery that the universe is expanding.

In the Bewley translation this meaning is expressed as:

As for heaven – We built it with great power
and gave it its vast expanse.

This is clearly not the meaning that those give the ayah who consider that it might have to do with the expanding universe. Note also that the Bewley translation is the most careful of the translations in following the orthodox tafs?r literature and the meanings of the Arabic language.

It is absolutely impermissible for anyone to interpret the Qur’an simply according to their own opinion or even according to the opinions of others even if those others are legion, native Arab speakers, and doctors in universities. Rather, there is a process for tafsir and there are conditions for doing it, which are best outlined in the introduction which Ibn Juzayy al-Kalbi makes to his tafsir at-Tashil li ‘ulum at-tanzil. (Available as a PDF here.)

Without going into the science of tafsir exhaustively, let us note that the least requirement of it is that any explanation be consistent with what is possible in the Arabic language, but here we mean the classical Arabic language, and not as spoken today by Arabs, since it is clear that Arabic has altered considerably in its usages. This is not a new condition to place on the person making tafsir. It has always been one of the requirements of tafsir that it should be consistent with the classical language and thus we have the scholarship of the Arabic-Arabic dictionaries and of the tafsir scholars.

In Surat adh-Dhariyat, the key term musi’un is the masculine plural of the active participle of the fourth form of the verb wasi’a. The modern person thinks of wasi’a as simply ‘to be vast’, and that thus the fourth form of the verb awsa’a would necessarily have the sense of ‘to make [something] vast’. Note here that even in modern Arabic, it does not give the sense ‘to make vaster’ or ‘to expand’, which may be a subconscious confusion with the comparative form awsa’u ‘vaster’.

However, in classical Arabic, the senses of the verb are utterly different from what we would be led to expect by a modern dictionary such as Hans Wehr’s A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, which although an Arabic-German dictionary is well known in English because of its translation by Cowan and there is no doubt about its excellence within its domain. However, it is in no sense reliable for translation of any classical work and does not make any such claim, and it is certainly no proof, or indeed of very much use, in translation of Qur’an.

So our point of departure as English speaking Arabic students for the classical language must be E. W. Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon. But we must understand what this book is before we proceed. Lane’s Lexicon is simply Lane’s extremely careful translation of the entries from the classical dictionaries of Arabic which the Muslims drew up in order to have access to the classical language, in particular to understand the Qur’an, the hadith literature and the classical works of poetry. Lane put little of his own understanding in his book. So it is our point of departure but if we are serious we must have recourse to the Arabic-Arabic dictionaries and the lexicographical understandings of the Qur’anic commentators.

The Bewleys translate the ayat thus: ‘As for heaven – We built it with great power and gave it its vast expanse.’ It is clear from this translation that the meaning they have taken is to give heaven its vastness or great expanse, something that is evident to the human senses and has been from the beginning of time to all people whether educated or not. Thus they have translated it in a sense that is immediately obvious to any people at any time in history and not just to people who have a degree in cosmology.

A part of our problem with giving the meaning to the ayah of expanding the universe is that this is something utterly concealed from our senses and only available to our intellects through a most abstract process, whereas the ‘vast expanse’ of the universe is something evident to anyone who has ever been out of the city and under an open sky at night.

The idea of the expanding universe is a theoretical mathematical idea which can never be seen and theoretically is deduced from Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and practically from Hubble’s observations of the red-shift.

However, what is most striking in our dictionary sources is that most of the meanings of wasi’a and awsa’a have no sense of physical vastness but indeed of encompassing in knowledge, or being endowed with sufficient and ample wealth, etc., as you can see from the numerous examples below.

Please note that almost all of the commentators see the only other usage of this word (in its singular form) in the Qur’an in Surat al-Baqarah 236 ‘from the musi’ [wealthy person] according to his capacity’ as a decisive proof of its meaning in this ayah in adh-Dhariyat.

IBN KATHIR

Sees the ayah as meaning, ‘We encompassed [wasi’na] its extremities or made them vast [wassa’na], and We raised it without any pillars until it became independent [or possibly ‘raised itself’] as it is.’

AL-JALALAYN

Jalal ad-Din al-Mahalli said, ‘the man awsa’a’ means ‘he became possessor of ample wealth and strength.’

AR-RAGHIB AL-ASBAHANI SAID IN MUFRADAT ALFADH AL-QUR’AN

‘We are musi’un’ Adh-Dhariyat: 47 indicates something similar to His saying, ‘The One who gave everything its creation and then guided.’ (Ta-Ha: 50) ‘So-and-so awsa’a‘ if he has wealth and becomes possessor of ample provision…

AL-QURTUBI

Ibn ‘Abbas said it – Musi’un – means ‘able/powerful’.

Some say [that ‘We are Musi’un‘ means], ‘We are possessors of ample wealth, and in its creation [the heaven’s] and the creation of other than it, nothing of that which We wish is hard for Us.’

Some say, ‘We give provision abundantly to Our creation.’ Also [narrated] from Ibn ‘Abbas.

Al-Hasan said [that ‘We are Musi’un‘ means], ‘We are capable.’

He also said [it means], ‘We give provision abundantly by the rain.’

Ad-Dahhak said [it means], ‘We enrich you’ his proof being [the ayah] 236 in Surat al-Baqarah ‘from the musi’ [wealthy person] according to his capacity’.

Al-Qutbi said [it means], ‘Abundantly generous to Our creation.’

And the [above previous two] meanings are close.

Some said [it means], ‘We made between the two of them [possibly a mistake, and should read ‘between it…’] and the earth ample space/ample provision.’

Al-Jawhari said, ‘The man awsa’a i.e. he became the possessor of ample provision and wealth, an example of which is “As for heaven – We built it with great power and We are Musi’un” (Surat adh-Dhariyat: 47) i.e. [We are] Wealthy and Powerfully capable’ so that his statement comprises all of the statements.

AT-TABARI

In His saying, ‘We are Musi’un‘, He is saying, ‘Possessor of vast capacity/power/wealth for its creation and the creation of what We wish to create, and powerfully capable to do it,’ and an example of it is His saying in Surat al-Baqarah 236 ‘from the musi’i [wealthy person] according to his capacity’.

Ibn Zayd said about that: Yunus narrated to me saying, ‘Ibn Wahb informed us saying, “Ibn Zayd said concerning His words ‘We are Musi’un‘ [that it means] ‘I make it vast and expansive,’ or ‘I make its means of subsistence ample and abundant’ [see the meaning in Lane’s Lexiconwherein awsa’ahu and wassa’ahu mean He (Allah) made his means of subsistence ample and abundant], majestic is His majesty.

IBN JUZAYY AL-KALBI

Concerning ‘We are Musi’un‘ there are three statements:

first that it means Capable/Powerful, which is from wus’ or capacity, and an example of which is ‘from the musi’ [wealthy person] according to his capacity’ (Surat al-Baqarah 236) meaning the person who has the strength to spend;

and the other is ‘We made the heaven vast’ or ‘We made between it and the earth vastness [possibly wealth or abundant provision];

and the third is ‘We expanded provisions by means of the rain from the sky.’

That concludes what the classical commentators and Arabic linguists have said. As you can see, the sense given the ayat in the majority of the above cases has nothing even remotely to do with space, and where it does have it is in the sense of making heaven spacious and vast, but not with the sense of expanding it and making it more vast and more expansive. That is absolutely clear from all of the tafsirs and dictionaries which I have consulted and quoted. Therefore, there is certainly no evidence to warrant introducing this commentary for this ayah.

The sense of wasi’a and wasa’a being ‘wide and spacious’ is only a part of the story, since many of the meanings of the Arabic are much more subtle than this and do not have a spatial sense at all, but relate to ample provision or knowledge or capability. The fourth form of the verb –awsa’a – may well be the causative form of the verb, but then in this very restricted case of the physical meaning of first form of the verb – wasi’a – meaning being wide and spacious, the fourth form has the sense of causing the thing [in this case heaven] to be wide and spacious, and not the sense of making it expand. Therefore, I differ with those who automatically extend the meaning to ‘to extend or expand’. This is not correct, in my view.

The ayah does not rule out the expansion of the universe, but it certainly does not say unequivocally that the universe is expanding and nothing that I have seen in the works I have confirm that meaning, and after a very thorough and exhaustive research I cannot see that any of the above tafsirs say this and I have not found a single classical scholar of Islam who even hints at this meaning being a possible meaning of awsa’aor a possible meaning of the tafsir of this ayat.

Yet this very widespread view of this ayah is only the tip of an iceberg: that literature that thinks that somehow ‘science’ proves the Qur’an to be true, ignoring the very serious philosophical dilemmas and contradictions within science. What can one say about people, i.e. scientists, who have still not confronted the near century-old discovery that matter is both particle and wave, that the results of experiment are affected by the observation of the observer and depend on what the experiment is set up to explore?

Please note that in the aforegoing I take no objection intrinsically to the thought that the Qur’an might indicate some scientific truths. My own background is in maths and physics, and I grew up with a particular love for both cosmology and the world of sub-atomic particles. Indeed, there are a number of ayat in the Qur’an which are of some interest to me in this respect, such as:

Do those who are kafir not see
that the heavens and the earth were sewn together
and then We unstitched them
and that We made from water every living thing? (Surat al-Anbiya: 30)

and:

Glory be to Him who created all the pairs:
from what the earth produces
and from themselves
and from things unknown to them. (Surah Yasin: 35)

But that is a topic for another day, insha’Allah.

From: Abdassamad Clarke

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1 Comment

Filed under Arabic, Islam, Quran, Religion

One response to “The Expansion of the Universe and the Qur’an – Abdassamad Clarke

  1. Max

    Extremely interesting article and very well researched. I’m always surprised at the insistence by some that the Quran (or the Bible or the Torah etc.) is a scientific treatise. As you mention, scientific theories change all the time, so you could find a certain Surah seemingly supporting a current scientific theory and 20 years later that theory has been superseeded.

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