Adapted from: Noor al-Islam No. (61-62) March/April 1996 pp.13-18
As most people in the West have been brought up on misconceptions concerning Islam and the Qur'an; for a large part of my life, I myself was one such person. Let me cite one or two specific examples to indicate the kind of inaccurate ideas generally current.
As I grew up, I was always taught that "Mohammed" was the author of the Qur'an; I remember seeing French translations bearing this information. I was invariably told that the 'author of the Qur'an simply compiled, in a slightly different form, stories of sacred history taken from the Bible; the 'author' was said to have added or removed certain passages, while setting principles and rules of the religion he himself had founded.
This description of the origins of the Qur'anic text which is so out of touch with reality, might lead one immediately to assume that if there are scientific errors in the Bible there must also be errors of this kind in the Qur'an! This is the natural conclusion to be drawn in such circumstances, but it is based on a misconception.
We are well aware that at the time of Muhammad the Qur'anic Revelation took place between 6I0 and 632 C.E. - scientific obscurantism prevailed, both in the Orient as well as in the West. In France, for example this period corresponded roughly to the reign of King Dagobert, the last of the Merovingians. This approach to what was supposedly the Qur'anic text may on first sight seem logical but when one examines the text with an informed and impartial eye, it becomes clear that this approach is not at all in keeping with reality.
We shall see in a moment the truth of this statement, which is obvious from the texts.
Whenever there is textual proof of the existence in the Qur'an of statements that are in agreement with modern knowledge, but which in the Bible are related in a manner that is scientifically unacceptable, the stock response is that, during the period separating the two Scriptures, Arab scientists made discoveries in various disciplines which enabled them to arrive at these supposed adaptations.
This approach takes no account whatsoever of the history of the sciences. The latter indicates that the great period of Islamic civilisations during which, as we know, science made considerable progress, came several centuries after the communication of the Qur'an to man. Furthermore, scientific history informs us that, as far as the subjects dealt with in this present book are concerned, no discoveries were made during the period separating the Bible from the Qur'an.
When this aspect of the Qur'an is mentioned in the West, however, we are likely to hear it said that while this may indeed be so, nowhere is this fact referred to in the translations of the Qur'an which we possess today, or in the prefaces and commentaries that accompany them.
This is a very judicious remark. Muslim--and indeed non-Muslim translators who have produced a French version of the Qur'an are basically men of letters. More often than not, they mistranslate passage because they do not possess the scientific knowledge required to understand its true meaning. The fact is, however, that in order to translate correctly, one must understand what one is reading. A further point is that translators especially those mentioned above may have been influenced by notes provided by ancient commentators often came to be regarded as highly authoritative, even though they had no scientific knowledge nor indeed had anybody else at the time. They were incapable of imagining that the texts might contain allusions to secular knowledge, and thus they could not devote attention to a specific passage by comparing it to other verses in the Qur'an dealing with the same subject a process that often provides the key to the meaning of a word or expressions.
From this results the fact that any passage in the Qur'an that gives rise to a comparison with modern secular knowledge is likely to be unreliably translated. Very often, the translations are peppered with inaccurate if not totally nonsensical statements. The only way to avoid such errors is to possess a scientific background and to study the Qur'anic text in the original language.
It was not until I had learnt Arabic and read the Qur'an in the original that I realised the precise meaning of certain verses. Only then did I make certain discoveries that were astounding. With my basic ideas on the Qur'an which to begin with were inaccurate, just as those of most people in the West, I certainly did not expect to find in the text the statements that I in fact uncovered. With each new discovery, I was beset with doubt lest I might be mistaken in my translation or perhaps have provided an interpretation rather than a true rendering of the Arabic text. Only after consultations with several specialists in linguistics and exegesis, both
Muslim and non-Muslim was I convinced that a new concept might be formed from such a study the compatibility between the statements in the Qur'an and the firmly established data of modern science with regard to subjects on which nobody at the time of Muhammad not even the Prophet himself could have had access to the knowledge we possess today.
Since then, I have not found in the Qur'an any support given to the myths or superstitions present at the time the text was communicated to man. This is not the case for the Bible, whose authors expressed themselves in the language of their period.
In 'La Bible, le Coran et la Science' (The Bible the Qur'an and Science), which first appeared in the original French in I976 and which subsequently appeared in English in I978, I set forth the main points of these findings.
On November 9, I976, I gave a lecture to the Academie de Medecine (French Academy of Medicine) in which I explored the statements on the origins of man contained in the Qur'an; the title of the lecture was 'Donnees physiologiques et embryologiques de Coran (Physiologic and Embryological Data in the Qur'an). I emphasised the fact that these data, which I shall summarise below formed part of a much wider, study. The following are some of the points which arise from a reading of the Qur'an:
- A concept of the creation of the world which, while different from the ideas contained in the Bible, is fully in keeping with today's general theories on the formations of the universe;
- Statements that are in perfect agreement with today's ideas concerning the movements and evolution of the heavenly bodies;
- A prediction of the conquest of space;
- Notions concerning the water cycle in nature and the earth's relief, which were not proven correct until many centuries later.
All of these data are bound to amaze anyone who approaches them in an objective spirit; they add a much wider dimension to the problem studied in the, present work.
The basic point remains the same, however we must surely be in the presence of facts which place a heavy strain on our natural propensity for explaining everything in materialistic terms, for the existence in the Qur'an of these scientific statements appears as a challenge to human explanations.
On the subject of man, as well as the other topics mentioned earlier, it is not possible to find any corresponding data in the Bible. Furthermore the scientific errors contained in the Bible such as those describing man's first appearance on earth, which as we have seen, may be deduced from the genealogies that figure in Genesis are not to be found in the Qur'an. It is crucial to understand that such errors could not have been 'edited out' of the Qur'an since the time they first became apparent: Well over a thousand years have elapsed since the most ancient manuscripts and today's texts of the Qur'an, but the texts are still absolutely identical. Thus, if Muhammad (P.B.U.H.), were the author of the Qur'an (a theory upheld by some people), it is difficult to see how he could have spotted the scientific errors in the Bible dealing with such a wide variety of subjects and have proceeded to eliminate every single one of them when he came to compose his own text on the same themes. Let us state once again that no new scientific facts had been discovered since the time the Bible was written that might have helped eliminate such errors.
In view of the above, it is imperative to know the history of the texts just as it is essential to our understanding of certain aspects of the Bible for us to be aware of the conditions in which it was written.
As we have noted earlier, experts in Biblical exegesis consider the books of the Old and New Testaments to be divinely inspired works. Let us now examine however, the teachings of Muslim exegesis, who present the Qur'an in quite a different fashion.
When Muhammad (P.B.U.H.) was roughly forty years old, it was his custom to retire to a retreat just outside Makkah in order to meditate. It was here that he received a first message from God via the Angel Gabriel, at a date that corresponds to 6 I 0 C.E. After a long period of silence, this first message was followed by successive revelations spread over some twenty years. During the Prophet's lifetime, they were both written down and recited by heart among his first followers. Similarly, the revelations were divided into surah (chapters) and collected together after the Prophet's death (in 632 C.E.) in a book the Qur'an.
The Book contains the Word of God, to the exclusion of any human addition. Manuscripts dating from the first century of Islam authenticate today's text, the other form of authentifications being the recitation by heart of the Qur'an, a practice that has continued unbroken from the time of the Prophet down to the present day.
In contrast to the Bible, therefore, we are presented with a text that is none other than the transcript of the Revelations itself; the only way it can be received and interpreted is literally. The purity of the revealed text has been greatly emphasised, and the uncorrupted nature of the Qur'an stems from the following factors:
First as stated above, fragments of the text were written down during the Prophet's lifetime; inscribed on tablets, parchments and other materials current at the time. The Qur'an itself refers to the fact that the text was set down in writing. We find this in several chapters dating from before and after the Hijrah (Muhammad's departure from Makkah to Madinah in 622 C.E.).
In addition to the transcription of the text, however, there was also the fact that it was learned by heart. The text of the Qur'an is much shorter than the Old Testament and slightly longer than the New Testament. Since it took twenty years for the Qur'an to be revealed, however, it was easy for the Prophet's followers to recite it by heart, surah by surah: this process of recitation afforded a considerable advantage as far as an uncorrupted text was concerned, for it provided a system of double-checking at the time the definitive text was written down.
After Muhammad's death, Islam rapidly expanded far beyond the limits of the area in which it was born. Soon, it included many peoples whose native language was not Arabic. Very strict steps were taken to ensure that the text of the Qur'an did not suffer from this expansion of Islam: Uthman sent copies of his entire recession to the vast Islamic empire. Some copies still exist today, in more or less complete form, in such places as Tashkent (U.S.S.R.) and Istanbul. Copies have also been discovered that date from the very first centuries after the Hijrah, they are all identical, and all of them correspond to the earliest manuscripts. Today's editions of the Qur'an are all faithful reproductions of the original copies. In the case of the Qur'an there are no instance of rewriting or corruption's of the text over the course of time.
If the origin of the Qur'an were similar to those of the Bible, it would not be unreasonable to suppose that the subjects it raised would be presented in the light of the ideas influenced by certain opinions of the time, often derived from myth and superstition. If this were the case, one might argue that there were untold opportunities for inaccurate assertions based on such sources, to find their way into the many and varied subjects briefly summarised above. In actual fact, however, we find nothing of the kind in the Qur'an.
But having said this, we should note that the Qur'an is a religious book par excellence. We should not use statements that have a bearing on secular knowledge as a pretext to go hunting after any expression of scientific laws. As stated earlier, all we should seek are reflections on natural phenomena, phrases occasioned by references to Divine Omnipotence and designed to emphasise that Omnipotence in the eyes of mankind throughout the ages. The presence of such reflections in the Qur'an has become particularly significant in modern times, for their meaning is clearly explained by the data of contemporary knowledge. This characteristic is specific to the Qur'an.
That does not mean to say, however, that the statements in the Qur'an-especially those concerning man may-all of them be examined in the light of the findings of modern science. The creation of man as described in both the Bible and the Qur'an totally eludes scientific investigation of the event per se.
Similarly, when the New Testament or the Qur'an informs us that Jesus was not born of a father, in the biological sense of the terms, we cannot counter this Scriptural statement by saying that there is no example in the human species of an individual having been formed without receiving the paternal chromosomes that make up one half of its genetic inheritance. Science does not explain miracles for the definition, miracles are inexplicable thus, when we read in both the Qur'an and the Bible that man was moulded from the ground we are in fact learning a fundamental religious principle: Man returns from whence he came, for from the place he is buried he will rise again on the Day of Judgement.
Side by side with the main religious aspect of such reflections on man, we find in the Qur'an statements on man that refer to strictly material facts. They are quite amazing when one approaches them for the first time. For example the Qur'an describes the origins of life in general and devotes a great deal of space to the morphological transformation undergone by man repeatedly emphasising the fact that God fashioned him as He willed. We likewise discover statements on human reproductions that are expressed in precise terms that lend themselves to comparison with the secular knowledge we today possess on the subject.
Interest To Men Of Science
The many statements in the Qur'an that may thus be compared with modern knowledge are by no means easy to find. In preparing the study published in I976, I was unable to draw on any previous works known in the West, for there were none. All I could refer to were a few works in Arabic dealing with themes treated in the Qur'an that were of interest to men of science. There was, however, no overall study. Over and above this, research of this kind requires scientific knowledge covering many different disciplines. It is not easy, however, for Islamologists to acquire such knowledge, for they possess a mainly literary background. Indeed, such questions hardly seem to occupy a place in the field of classic Islamology, at least as far as the West is concerned.
Only a scientist, thoroughly acquainted with Arabic literature, can draw comparisons between the Qur'anic text for which he must be able to read Arabic and the data supplied by modern knowledge.
There is another reason why such statements are not immediately apparent. Verses bearing on a single theme are scattered throughout the Qur'an. The Book is indeed a juxtaposition of reflections on a wide variety of subjects referred to one after the other and taken up again later on, often several times over. The data on a precise theme must therefore be collected from all over the Book and brought together under a single heading. This requires many hours' work tracking down verses, in spite of the existence of thematic indexes provided by various translators, for such lists may perhaps be incomplete and indeed in many cases, they often are.