Muslims are forever claiming that the Qur’an is a “scientific miracle”, i.e. that 1,400 years ago, the Prophet Muhammad accurately predicted much of what we only know to be true today about the natural world. They assert that the Qur’an is in perfect harmony with modern science – and therefore, that if there appears to be any sort of contradiction, then either we have misunderstood the scripture or our science is wrong.
To back up these claims, Muslims point to verses which refer to the developing embryo, the mode of life of bees, the salt content of the ocean, and so on. In this article, we will see if these verses really do hold up to scrutiny. If they do not, then we can safely conclude that Muhammad was chancing his arm, knowing that the Arabs of the time would have had no means to conclusively refute his claims.
And even if they did have such a means, Muhammad kept the verses vague enough to ensure that this wouldn’t be a problem. Indeed, it is the ambiguity of the Qur’an that enables devout Muslims to find whatever they want to find in the book. This is what we call ‘confirmation bias’ – the tendency to seek confirmation rather than disconfirmation of any hypothesis we have adopted, however tentatively. In the words of John Allen Paulos:
People who suffer from this psychological disorder notice more readily and search more diligently for whatever might confirm their beliefs, and they don’t notice as readily and certainly don’t look as hard for what disconfirms them.
This being the Muslim position, we cannot seriously hope for believers to change their minds simply by pointing out the scientific errors in the Qur’an, for they will never accept that they are errors. We must stress, however, that this article is not intended for them: rather, it is for those who have ever wondered about the issue of science in the Qur’an, but have yet to pursue the matter further. It is for them that we will set out to prove:
1. The Qur’an’s science describes something that any human, of normal intelligence, can observe.
2. The Qur’an’s science is similar to the prevailing scientific opinions of the era.
3. Many of these alleged scientific statements are contradicted by other passages in the Qur’an.
4. On matters of science, the Qur’an was, more often than not, completely wrong.
In 1982, Keith Moore, an anatomy professor at the University of Toronto, produced a textbook titled The Developing Human, 3rd edition. In this book, Moore expresses his astonishment at the way embryonic development is described in the Qur’an. Moore would go on to produce multiple editions of this text, as well as another book titled Human Development as described in the Quran and Sunnah, all of which Muslims cite with great pleasure. Moore and his Muslim supporters primarily refer to the following verse:
We placed him as sperm in a place of rest, firmly fixed; Then We made the sperm into a clot of blood; then of that blood clot We made a lump; then we made out of that lump bones and clothed the bones with flesh; then we developed out of it another creature. So blessed be God, the best to create! (23:13-14)
Now at first glance, this does seem like a remarkable statement for a 7th century desert Arabian to make. However, upon closer inspection, one realises that there is both explanation and error to this verse. First we must ask if this was an original theory, and second if it is correct.
Some people are amazed by the mention of sperm in this verse, but this is nothing special. Since the beginning of time, man has been aware of the ‘seed’ that is released from the penis during sexual intercourse. The Old Testament, a text much older than the Qur’an, tells a story of a man who was struck down by God for “spilling his seed on the ground” (Genesis 38:9-10).
The account of human development provided by the Qur’an is not original at all. Theories of the formation of a child inside the womb were put forth by Aristotle nearly a thousand years before the Qur’an was written. In fact, Aristotle correctly described the function of the umbilical cord, something not mentioned in the Qur’an, showing that earlier philosophers certainly were aware of such things before Muhammad.
Some Muslim apologists claim that Muhammad had no contact with Greeks or Romans. But pre-Islamic Arabia definitely had contact with Byzantium, Syria, Egypt, Persia and Mesopotamia. There were many Jews and Christians living in the area, and they were familiar with Greek and Roman philosophy. The Christians were connected to Rome; the Jews were connected to Babylon and Persia. It is easy to see how theories of embryonic development may have reached Muhammad.
Finally, to touch on the scientific accuracy of these verses, one must conclude that they are largely incorrect. The Qur’an states that the blood clot is turned to bone and then God “clothed the bones with flesh”. But it is a biological fact that living tissue forms first, with bones growing at a later time and continuing to gain strength (by building calcium) for many years after birth.
Muslims claim that the following verse is a reference to the importance of the nerve endings in the skin:
Those who reject our signs, We shall soon cast into the fire. As often as their skins are roasted through, We shall change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the chastisement. Truly Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise. (4:56)
Of course, there is no miracle here. To anyone acquainted with fire, it is fairly obvious that the skin triggers pain when it is burned. As for giving people fresh skins “that they may taste the chastisement”, again, this is nothing special: rather, the author is merely demonstrating his knowledge of how regrown skin (scar tissue) is less sensitive. The Qur’an does not speak about specific nerve cells in the skin functioning as pain receptors, which are indeed insights of modern science.
Muslims love to argue that the following verse speaks of the prefrontal cortex – a region of the human brain that has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behaviour:
Let him beware! If he desists not, We will drag him by the forelock – A lying, sinful forelock! (96:15-16)
In his book It Is the Truth, Sheikh Abdul Majeed Zindani offers the following commentary:
If we look into the skull at the front of the head, we will find the prefrontal area of the cerebrum… This area of the cerebrum is responsible for planning, motivating, and initiating good and sinful behaviour, and is responsible for telling lies and speaking the truth. Thus, it is proper to describe the front of the head as lying and sinful when someone lies or commits a sin, as the Qur’an said: …a lying, sinful naasiyyah (front of the head)! Scientists have only discovered these functions of the prefrontal area in the last sixty years, according to Professor Keith Moore.
In actual fact, brain wave technology shows that electrical activity happens in the entire brain when deceitful. In any case, the Qur’an does not claim that man’s thoughts or sins originate in the front of the head. On the contrary, according to a literal interpretation of the Qur’an, our thoughts, lies and sins are in our breasts:
Lo! Now they fold up their breasts that they may hide (their thoughts) from Him. At the very moment when they cover themselves with their clothing, Allah knoweth that which they keep hidden and that which they proclaim. Lo! He is Aware of what is in the breasts (of men). (11:5)
This next verse, referring to the defeat of the Byzantine forces by the Persians in 613 AD, is used by Muslim apologists to prove that Muhammad knew that the Dead Sea is the earth’s lowest elevation on land:
Alif Laam Meem. The Romans have been defeated, in the lowest part of the land1, but after defeat they will soon be victorious. (30:1-3)
In reality, the Romans were routed at Antioch in 613 AD, which is nowhere near the Dead Sea. Its ruins lie near the modern city of Antakya, Turkey. As for the prediction that the Romans would soon be victorious, this is hardly a miracle. The Roman Army was still a force to be reckoned with at the time: all Muhammad said was that at some point in the near future, they would succeed once more. This is an educated guess, not a divine prophecy.
He has let free the two seas meeting together: Between them is a barrier which they do not transgress. (55:19-20)
This verse is used to prove that the Qur’an spoke of homogeneous ocean circulation 1,400 years ago. Sheikh Zindani’s logic runs as follows:
The seas do meet together, for example, in the picture of the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean. Even though there is a slanted water barrier between them, we now know that through this barrier the water from each sea passes to the other. But when we the water from one sea enters the other sea, it loses its distinctive characteristics and becomes homogenized with the other water. In a way, this barrier serves as a transitional homogenizing area for the two waters.
There are two problems here. Firstly, the “slanted water barrier” between two different bodies of water is something that humans can observe quite easily. When a river flows into the sea, we can see a gradient, moving out to sea, of sediment which is deposited in a delta as the velocity of river water decreases as it enters the sea. Herodotus noted this long before the time of Muhammad. Another gradient, which was common knowledge long before Muhammad, is the increase in the buoyancy of a boat as it sails from a fresh body of water into saltier (denser) water.
Secondly, Zindani tells us that when the water of one sea enters another, “it loses its distinctive characteristics and becomes homogenized with the other water.” However, the Qur’an says in no uncertain terms that “Between them is a barrier which they do not transgress.” In other words, they have passed through the barrier which the Qur’an tells us it cannot pass! Zindani’s statement contradicts the Qur’an, thereby destroying his argument that the Qur’an is scientifically accurate.
Or (the unbelievers state) is like the depths of darkness in a vast deep ocean, overwhelmed with billow topped by billow, topped by (dark) clouds: Depths of darkness, one above another: If a man stretches out his hand, he can hardly see it! For any to whom Allah does not give light, there is no light. (24:40)
To make a long story short, the ‘miracle’ in this chapter is that light disappears as we go deeper into the ocean. Once again, this is nothing new. There are many poetic references to the darkness of the ocean depths that were written centuries before Muhammad. Here is one example from The Odyssey by Homer:
When in your ship you have now crossed the stream of Oceanus, where is a level shore and the groves of Persephone…beach your boat there by Ocean’s swirling streams and march on into Hades’ dark house.
Then turned He to the heaven when it was smoke, and said unto it and unto the earth: Come both of you, willingly or loth. They said: We come, obedient. (41:11)
Muslims are quick to interpret “the heaven when it was smoke” as the universe when it initially existed in a gaseous state. But if we follow this logic, then according to this verse, the earth existed before the universe was formed, which is patently false.
Have you not seen how Allah makes the clouds move gently, then joins them together, then makes them into a stack, and then you see the rain come out of it? (24:43)
There are two problems with using this verse to prove the divine origins of the Qur’an. Firstly, the phenomenon of cloud formation – in this case, small clouds – is something that can be observed with relative ease. Secondly, the explanation given by the Qur’an is fundamentally mistaken. Small clouds do not join together and “stack up” in the manner described: rather, they form when warm moist air is pushed higher by a cold front. As the warm air rises, it cools, causing water vapour to condense along the way; this can give the appearance of clouds “growing” in height.
Now let man but think from what he is created! He is created from a drop emitted – Proceeding from between the backbone and the ribs. (86:5-7)
This passage tells us that semen originates from between the back and the ribs, i.e. the kidneys. We know today, however, that semen is actually produced in the testicles.
The Qur’an tells the story of some men who slept in a cave for 309 years, which is obviously nonsense:
So they stayed in their Cave three hundred years, and (some) add nine (more). (18:25)
The Qur’an describes how God has made the earth “like a carpet spread out”:
He Who has made for you the earth like a carpet spread out; has enabled you to go about therein by roads (and channels); and has sent down water from the sky. (20:53)
This could hardly be a clearer way of describing the earth as flat. Indeed, in 1993, Sheikh Abdel Aziz ibn Baaz, the supreme religious authority of Saudi Arabia, issued a fatwa in this fashion:
The earth is indeed flat. Those who do not accept this are atheist – they deserve to be punished.
The Qur’an tells us that heavy mountains hold the earth in place:
And we have set on the earth mountains standing firm, lest it should shake. (21:31)
In reality, mountains are part of the earth’s surface: they are not “set” on the earth after its formation, like plates being set on a table.
The Qur’an describes the sky as a hard, physical structure that could fall down and kill us:
He withholds the sky from falling on the earth except by his leave: for Allah is most kind and most merciful to man. (22:65)
The Qur’an tells us that the earth and the sky were once joined together, but God pulled them apart, thus explaining the distance between the two:
Do not the unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together (as one unit of creation), before we clove them asunder? (21:30)
The Qur’an talks of the earth as if it were stationary, with the sun and stars moving around it:
It is he who created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon: all (celestial bodies) swim along, each in its rounded course. (21:33)
We know today that the sun is far bigger than the earth, and is drawing the latter in its orbit.
The Qur’an regales us with the story of a pious Muslim, named Dhul Qarnain, who was travelling in the desert until eventually:
He reached the setting of the sun, [and] he found it to set in a spring of murky water. (18:86)
So Dhul Qarnain found that the sun sets in a spring of murky water, on earth. This is an error of astronomical proportions. The sun is far bigger than the earth, and if it were any closer, we would all burn up. Why Dhul Qarnain did not go blind or suffer serious eye damage is not explained. Indeed, he still had good enough eyesight to travel to the opposite end of the world, “where the sun rises”:
Until, when he came to the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom we had provided no covering protection against the sun. (18:90)
In the Qur’an, Muslims are commanded to pray towards Mecca:
So from whencesoever thou startest forth, turn thy face in the direction of the Sacred Mosque; and wheresoever ye are, turn your face thither: that there be no ground of dispute against you among the people, except those of them that are bent on wickedness. (2:150)
Now from a flat-earth viewpoint, this makes sense. On a globe, however, if you pray towards Mecca, then you are actually praying towards the emptiness of space.
The Qur’an talks of the mountains as if they are hollow and will one day collapse in on themselves:
Indeed ye have put forth a thing most monstrous! As if the skies are ready to burst, the earth to split asunder, and the mountains to fall down in utter ruin. (19:89-90)
In his booklet Miracles of the Qur’an, Harun Yahya claims that the Qur’an describes the seven layers of the earth’s atmosphere, i.e. the stratosphere, ionosphere, exosphere, and so on. He cites this verse:
He Who created the seven heavens one above another: no want of proportion wilt thou see in the Creation of (Allah) Most Gracious. So turn thy vision again: seest thou any flaw? (67:3)
However, to be consistent with this claim, Yahya ignores how the Qur’an also says that the stars we see are found in the lowest levels of our atmosphere, which is flat-out wrong:
We have indeed decked the lower heaven with beauty (in) the stars – (For beauty) and for guard against all obstinate rebellious evil spirits… (37:6-7)
In this verse, the Qur’an tells us that stars and comets chase after evil spirits:
It is We Who have set out the Zodiacal Signs in the heavens, and made them fair-seeming to (all) beholders; And (moreover) We have guarded them from every evil spirit accursed: But any that gains a hearing by stealth, is pursued by a flaming fire, bright (to see). (15:16-18)
Strange enough as this is, it is perhaps even stranger that these evil spirits are millions of light years away, letting themselves be chased by enormous stars and comets, when they could be perfectly safe on earth.
The Qur’an says that moon was once cut in half:
The Hour (of Judgement) is nigh, and the moon is cleft asunder. But if they see a Sign, they turn away, and say, “This is (but) transient magic.” (54:1-2)
For Sunni Muslims, it was Muhammad himself who split the moon in two2. How he managed to cut through hundreds of miles of solid rock, we are not told. How he put the moon back together, we are not told. Why no one else in the world saw it, we are not told.
Modern scholars have criticised the Bible for its claim that the earth was created in six days. The Qur’an has made the same mistake, however:
And verily We created the heavens and the earth, and all that is between them, in six Days, and naught of weariness touched Us. (50:38)
Some Muslim apologists point out that the Qur’an also says that a day for God and the angels is similar to 50,000 years:
The angels and the Spirit ascend unto Him in a Day the measure whereof is (as) fifty thousand years… (70:4)
In citing this verse, Muslims try to say that the Earth was completed in 300,000 (6 x 50,000) years. This is still in conflict with modern science, which tells us that it took several billion years for the Earth to form.
According to the Qur’an, there was once a man who could understand the speech of animals:
At length, when [the people of Solomon] came to a (lowly) valley of ants, one of the ants said: “O ye ants, get into your habitations, lest Solomon and his hosts crush you (under foot) without knowing it.” So he smiled, amused at her speech; and he said: “O my Lord! So order me that I may be grateful for Thy favours, which Thou hast bestowed on me and on my parents, and that I may work the righteousness that will please Thee: and admit me, by Thy Grace, to the ranks of Thy righteous Servants.” (27:18-19)
While zoologists have devised methods for communicating with apes and chimps, no human being has ever been able to understand the ‘language’ of species different from our own. The ability to speak like a human is formed by advanced brains with complex thought patterns, something which most animals do not have.
What is even worse is that the Qur’an specifically mentions ants, which have no speech patterns! Ants communicate through smell, not sound. This blunder is understandable, as the average desert Arab in the 7th century would not know this. The human origin of the Qur’an is at its most obvious here.
Plate tectonic boundaries situated at mountainous areas are highly unstable. In accordance with this, the landmass of the earth has changed throughout history. However, the Qur’an propagates the idea that mountains are crucial in stabilising the earth:
And He has set up on the earth mountains standing firm, lest it should shake with you; and rivers and roads; that ye may guide yourselves. (16:15)
It took thousands of years of domestication, evolution and cross-breeding before we could use horses as a means of transport. Horses were domesticated approximately 4,000 years ago in East Europe or Central Asia; prior to this, horses were wild and needed to be tamed. The Qur’an neglects this important fact, stating that horses were fit for human transportation from day one:
And horses and mules and asses (hath He created) that ye may ride them, and for ornament. And He createth that which ye know not. (16:8)
According to the Qur’an, God is apparently unaware that he creates disabled animals and humans in tandem with his ‘perfect’ creation:
No want of proportion wilt thou see in the Creation of (Allah) Most Gracious. So turn thy vision again: seest thou any flaw? (67:3)
In reality, over one billion people today – 15 percent of the world’s population – experience some form of disability.
In the Qur’an, those who do not embrace Islam are described as fools – deaf, dumb and blind:
When it is said to them: “Believe as the others believe:” They say: “Shall we believe as the fools believe?” Nay, of a surety they are the fools, but they do not know… Deaf, dumb, and blind, they will not return (to the path). (2:13,18)
In reality, all of the scientific and technological advances enjoyed by Muslims are almost exclusively purchased from the non-Muslim world. Computers, televisions, helicopters, media players, cameras, satellites, birth control pills, vaccinations, telephones, radios, light bulbs, microchips, CDs, games consoles, refrigerators, microwaves, stainless steel, plastic, x-rays, antibiotics, the internet – all of these were invented by non-Muslims. What we have we seen from the Islamic world in recent times by way of human progress?
The Qur’an tells us that all animals live in communities:
There is not an animal (that lives) on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities like you. Nothing have we omitted from the Book, and they (all) shall be gathered to their Lord in the end. (6:38)
In actual fact, members of the Panthera genus – including the jaguar and the leopard – are well known for being solitary loners. They are not known to form communities.
Space travel was pioneered by non-Muslims fifty years ago. Using satellites and shuttles, mankind has already explored the end of the solar system. However, the Qur’an implies that space travel is impossible without the consent of Allah:
O ye assembly of Jinns and men! If it be ye can pass beyond the zones of the heavens and the earth, pass ye! Not without authority shall ye be able to pass! (55:33)
With dozens of atheist astronauts, you have to wonder how an omniscient Deity could make such an erroneous prophecy.
In Muhammad’s time, it would have taken a week to travel from Mecca to Jerusalem by camel. But according to the Qur’an, by flying on the back of a winged beast known as Al-Buraq, Muhammad accomplished this feat in a matter of minutes:
Glory to (Allah) Who did take His servant for a Journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the farthest Mosque, whose precincts We did bless, in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One Who heareth and seeth (all things). (17:1)
Although Al-Buraq is not mentioned in the Qur’an by name, the hadith literature provides us with the details of Muhammad’s Night Journey. Narrated by Anas ibn Malik:
Malik bin Sasaa said that Allah’s Apostle described to them his Night Journey saying, “While I was lying in Al-Hatim or Al-Hijr, suddenly someone came to me and cut my body open from here to here.” I asked Al-Jarud who was by my side, “What does he mean?” He said, “It means from his throat to his pubic area,” or said, “From the top of the chest.” The Prophet further said, “He then took out my heart. Then a gold tray of Belief was brought to me and my heart was washed and was filled (with Belief) and then returned to its original place. Then a white animal which was smaller than a mule and bigger than a donkey was brought to me.” (On this Al-Jarud asked, “Was it the Buraq, O Abu Hamza?” I [Anas] replied in the affirmative). The Prophet said, “The animal’s step (was so wide that it) reached the farthest point within the reach of the animal’s sight. I was carried on it, and Gabriel set out with me till we reached the nearest heaven.” (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 5, Book 58, hadith 227)
The Qur’an issues a challenge to those who would refute it:
Do they not ponder on the Qur’an? Had it been from other than Allah, they would surely have found therein much discrepancy. (4:82)
As regarding science and history, we find therein much discrepancy. What could not be refuted in Muhammad’s time has been refuted in our age of scientific knowledge. Muslims would do well to admit that the Qur’an was composed at a time when humanity had a very limited understanding of how the world works.
Religious texts like the Qur’an are ancient works of mortal fallibility. As such, we should not be obsessed with them, or revere them as anything other than what they are: the cultural dogmas of primitive peoples. Instead, we should seek wisdom in reason and scientific investigation.
1. In Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation, considered to be the most faithful rendering available in English, the verse reads “in a land close by”, not “the lowest point”.
2. Sahih al-Bukhari 4: 830-832; 5: 208-211; 6: 387-390.
An artist’s depiction of the Night Journey, featuring Muhammad riding Al-Buraq through the heavens.