Quranic Inerrancy

quranic-inerrancy

Quran is not inerrant

Muslims, no less than Christians, fancy that their holy book is inerrant. Dr. Zakir Naik, a Salafist (conservative) Sunni Muslim scholar, declares that the Quran is a perfect source of knowledge and that it is wrong to try to critique it. He maintains that non-Muslim houses of worship should be forbidden in Muslim lands and that Muslims who convert from Islam and then speak against Islam should be put to death.[1]

If a book is inerrant, why is so much effort invested to silence or kill its critics? Someone should call Naik aside and say, “Listen, buttercup, you need to calm down.”

Naik makes one boast about the Quran that I simply cannot let pass without comment. He boasts that the Quran, probably written shortly after 632 CE, expresses scientific concepts that mankind did not discover until much later. In this blog post I will expose this idle boast for the sham that it is.

Item number 1. According to Naik, the Quran describes the Big Bang in verse 21:30, which says, “Do not the Unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together (as one unit of creation), before we clove them asunder? We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?”[2]

Naik seems oblivious to the fact that the Quran expresses the same view that all Abrahamic as well as ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian religions share, that Earth and sky were split apart by a god. Similar, though certainly not identical, ideas are expressed, for example, in the Babylonian creation myths recounted in the Enuma Elish (probably twelfth century BCE), in which the supreme god Marduk split the body of the vanquished Tiamat to create heaven and Earth and to separate the waters above from the waters below.

All these religious fables consist of magical stuff, nothing like the modern cosmological view. I have perused the Quran and I have found no mention of red shifts or cosmic background radiation. If the Quran is going to dabble in scientific discussions of the Big Bang, then certainly it should have mentioned the Hubble Constant.

Incidentally, I am old enough to have witnessed the dramatic turn-about by religious apologists, Muslim and Christian alike, who used to denounce the Big Bang as a dastardly atheistic ploy. Now they scramble to claim that their holy books described the Big Bang many centuries before science discovered it.

If the Quran were such a good source of scientific information, then perhaps we humans have been wasting our time and effort by building radio telescopes, particle accelerators, and nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers. Perhaps we should have simply read the answers to our scientific quandaries directly from the blood-stained pages of the Quran.

Item number 2. According to Naik, the Quran describes the fact that the moon reflects sunlight rather than being an original source of light. He says that mankind discovered a mere 100 to 200 years ago that the moon doesn’t produce its own light.

That statement misses the mark by more than two millennia. Aristotle (384-322 BCE) argued that Earth was spherical based on observations of Earth’s shadow on the moon. Aristotle understood that no shadow would be detected if the moon were the source of its own light. By the time the Quran was written, it had been known for nearly a thousand years that the moon reflects sunlight.

That already blows Naik’s argument. But it is worth noting that the verse he cited is 25:61, which says, “Blessed is He Who made constellations in the skies, and placed therein a Lamp and a Moon giving light.” That passage could be read to indicate either that the moon generates light or reflects light.

As we struggle to stretch that verse to fit Naik’s claim, we cannot help but wonder why supposedly all-knowing beings can’t manage to communicate in unambiguous language. Gods tend to talk to their followers a lot using metaphor, poetic language, secret codes, signs, and parables. I don’t want to be insulting, but from what I have seen of religious believers, these are the last people on Earth who should be expected to solve riddles.

According to The Inquisitr, Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) was booed by a Waco, Texas audience during McLennan Community College’s Distinguished Lecture Series after he commented that the moon reflects sunlight, contrary to Genesis 1:16, which states, “God made two great lights, the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night…” Nye noted that the “lesser light” (the moon) is not a light at all.[3]

I doubt that the Christians who booed were disputing the science. They just didn’t appreciate someone pointing out that their inerrant text isn’t. Christians and Muslims should either learn to be more open to criticism or adopt books that are less open to criticism.

Item number 3. Naik, in his ongoing jihad against rationality, proclaims that mankind first knew Earth was spherical when Francis Drake sailed around the globe in 1597. That is ridiculous. Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BCE) knew Earth was spherical, and from Pythagoras’s time until modern times that belief has never gone extinct.

Naik subsequently amended his claim to say that, though many people speculated that Earth was spherical, it wasn’t proved until the time of Drake. That is also ridiculous. Over 2,200 years ago Eratosthenes, using perfectly valid measurement techniques, calculated the circumference of the earth to within about two percent of the actual value.[4]

The reason spherical Earth theories did not spread beyond the intellectual elite is that religion has kept the majority of people in ignorance. In the centuries following Eratosthenes, most of the Mediterranean region fell under control of the Catholic Church, which had little interest in the shape of Earth or much else about nature. As explained by Leone Montagnini[5], those early church leaders who were influenced by the Greeks, including Origen, Ambrose of Alexandria, and Basil of Caesarea, were receptive toward the notion that Earth is spherical, whereas the flat Earth model persisted among those who were influenced by Old Testament texts, including Diodore of Tarsus, Severian of Gabala, John Crysostom, and Cosmas Indicopleustes (who, as late as 547 CE, wrote a defense of the flat Earth perspective named Topographia Christiana). It appears that opinions were divided in ancient and medieval times, just as we find opinions divided today on topics like evolution and climate change.

Augustine, trying to sell Christianity to the Roman world, took the middle ground. He deemed it somewhat plausible that Earth was spherical, but he did not commit himself to any conclusion about the shape of Earth. He waffled, just as modern politicians like Ron Paul waffle on evolution. Augustine dismissed such matters, “There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity…It is this that drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.”[6] Such dull minds evoke sharp barbs from Noah Lugeons, who quips that religious dolts “look past the entire universe of things that actually exist and stand in awe of something that doesn’t.”[7]

It is hard to determine the opinions of most European peasants, given that they were illiterate and therefore did not write down their opinions. They may have thought little about the shape of Earth and, like the more conservative religious authorities, implicitly assumed it was flat until around the sixth or seventh century, after which time few doubted Earth’s sphericity.

Remnants of the Greco-Roman intellectual tradition, largely forgotten throughout Western Europe, survived in the Middle East. When the Quran was written, literate Middle Easterners understood that Earth is spherical. If the authors of the Quran got this one right, it proves only that they were flowing with the intellectual tide. If the Quran got it wrong, it reflects a level of ignorance more in keeping with uneducated Western European peasants and the least informed factions among the Western literati.

Did the authors of the Quran get the shape of Earth right? Naik cited verse 79:30, which says, “And the earth, moreover, hath He extended to a wide expanse.” What the heck does that even mean? It sounds as though the Quran is saying Earth is wide because it got stretched. Hmm, that is familiar sounding, isn’t it? It is essentially the same flat Earth perspective the Old Testament teaches.

Since Naik likes to interpret passages poetically, maybe he can interpret this passage about the extending or stretching of the Earth to mean that the Rocky Mountains are stretch marks. But wait, Muhammad never mentioned the Rocky Mountains. In fact, he didn’t seem to know anything about the American continents or isotopes or chloroplasts or kangaroos. He knew only about sand and camels and other stuff common in the seventh century Middle East.

That’s not surprising, since Muhammad was a camel merchant, the seventh century equivalent of a used car salesman. I hesitate to compare Muhammad to a used car salesman. My hesitation does not arise from any fear that I might piss off some Islamic thugs who would gleefully pursue a fatwa issued against me for voicing an unflattering truth about Muhammad. My hesitation arises, to the contrary, from the fact that making such a comparison doesn’t seem fair to used car salesmen.

After all, most used car salesmen can read, whereas popular legend has it that Muhammad was illiterate. The typical used car salesman is probably morally superior to Muhammad as well. The used car salesman doesn’t cite his religious beliefs as justification for declaring war against surrounding countries.

Okay, some do. But my guess is that no used car salesman cites his religion to justify having sexual relationships with pre-pubescent children. Unless he’s also a Catholic priest.

Muslims get annoyed when Westerners carp about Muhammad’s addition of the nine-year-old Aisha to his harem. Muslims insist that Muhammad patiently waited until Aisha was eleven years old before he penetrated her, so Muhammad was not a pedophile; he was a gentleman. To this day Muslim scholars and judges maintain that eleven is an appropriate age for girls to marry because Muhammad declared so. It isn’t necessary, in their view, to consult a professional moralist, a psychologist, or an eleven-year-old girl.

Item number 4. Naik brags that verse 51:47 describes the expansion of the universe: “With power and skill did We construct the Firmament: for it is We Who create the vastness of space.”

Naik strikes out again. The Quran refers to the firmament, expressing the same fallacious flat Earth notions that we find in the Old Testament. The part about space seems on closer scrutiny to be referring to expansive Earthly terrain. But even if it were referring to space, the passage speaks only of the vastness of space, providing no hint whatsoever that space is expanding. The pretense that the Quran is describing the modern scientific idea of cosmic expansion is an inept attempt to perpetrate a scam.

Item number 5. Naik claims that the Quran presaged the scientific principle that mountains prevent Earth from shaking. Unfortunately for Naik’s argument, there is no such scientific principle. To the contrary, plate tectonics create mountains and cause earthquakes. It might make a little sense to claim that shaking causes mountains, as long as one is speaking very poetically. But to say that mountains prevent Earth from shaking is nonsensical.

To prove that the Quran establishes this make-believe scientific principle, Naik cites verses 78:6-7, which say: “Have We not made the earth as a wide expanse and the high hills bulwarks?” This passage revisits the notion of expansive terrain, and it mentions hills, which are kind of like mountains, but I don’t see where Naik gets the idea that this passage says mountains keep Earth from shaking.

I have critiqued enough of Naik’s empty boasts to illustrate my point that the Quran is not an inerrant source of knowledge. There is no inerrant source of knowledge.

It might be tempting to shrug one’s shoulders and say, “Well, if someone wants to fool themselves into thinking their holy book is inerrant, that’s their business.”

It is their business, certainly, but we should not be so nonchalant. The whole idea of inerrancy arises from the wish to shut down debate. It reflects the yearning to silence one’s opposition rather than engage with them as equals in an intelligent discussion.

Those claiming inerrancy are alerting everyone around them that they have no appetite for contrary evidence. To preemptively dismiss the judgment of others in such a manner is to treat not only their opinions with disrespect, but also all the time and effort they invested in researching their opinions. It devalues intellectual integrity and debases the rational pursuit of truth.

We need to acknowledge the real danger we face. Claims of biblical or Quranic inerrancy pose an existential threat to any discursive and democratic civilization founded on the principles of open debate.

 

[1] Killing apostates is mandated by the Hadith (Sahih al-Bukhari 4:52:260 and elsewhere). Yusuf al-Qaradawi, head of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of the most respected leaders of the Sunni world, said on Egyptian television, “If they [Muslims] had gotten rid of the punishment [often death] for apostasy, Islam would not exist today.” (http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/3572/islam-apostasy-death)

[2] You may wonder why Allah uses the plural “we” instead of “I.” Though some maintain that the plural is a holdover from polytheism, according to a Muslim source, “The term ‘We’ in the Bible and in the Quran is the royal ‘We’ – as an example when the king says, ‘We decree the following…’” www.godallah.com/we_and_he.php

[3] Tim Woods (Tribune-Herald staff writer) article titled “Bill Nye ‘The Science Guy’ is entertaining and provocative at MCC lecture” dated Thursday, April 06, 2006.

www.web.archive.org/web/20090427074510/http://www.wacotrib.com/news/content/news/stories/2006/04/06/04062006wacbillnye.html?

[4] The accuracy may have been within 16% in the unlikely event that he used the Egyptian rather than Greek stadion as his unit of measure.

[5] Leone Montagnini, “La questione della forma della Terra. Dalle origini alla tarda Antichità, in Studi sull’Oriente Cristiano,” 13/II: 31-68. See also: www.armoniedeldisordine.it/works.html     www.biblionext.it/profile/LeoneMontagnini

[6] Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (First Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, NY, February 2005), quotation featured on introductory page.

[7] Noah Lugeons, Diatribes, Volume 1: 50 Essays From a Godless Misanthrope, (2014), p.70.

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