Geocentrism and the Qur'an

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In several verses the Qur'an describes the movement of the sun and moon, a few times mentioning that they travel in a circuitous path, or sphere/hemisphere (fee falakin فِى فَلَكٍ), but does not mention once that the Earth too is in motion.[1] The geocentric (Earth-centered) view was the prevailing understanding of the universe prior to the 16th century when Copernicus helped explain and popularize a sun-centered (heliocentric) view of the universe.

In the Qur'an, the sun's movement is almost always mentioned in the context of night and day (Quran 13:2 being the only exception) and is always mentioned with that of the moon, which does in fact orbit the Earth each month, and appears, to the unaided eye, to traverse the sky each night when it is visible. The Quran assumes that the sun's movement is familiar to its audience and is to be understood as a sign. In other verses the moon is said to follow the sun, which is not allowed to overtake it, though they will be brought together on the last day.


In Islamic cosmology

The Qur'an says that both the sun and the moon swim or float in a circuitous path, celestial sphere or, more likely, a hemisphere (a falak in the Arabic[1]). It seems that Allah brings the sun from the east, which then goes high above the Earth, and after sunset goes to a resting place. All this takes place around an Earth that is spread out (or flattened) and which possesses a firmament of seven heavens built atop it without visible pillars.

Historical background

Geocentrism is the notion that the Earth is the (immovable) center of our universe, thus all celestial bodies move around it. The ancient Greeks and the Europeans of the middle ages thought that the celestial bodies (the sun, the moon and the 5 visible planets) all moved in celestial spheres around a spherical Earth. This was the theory of Ptolemy (d. 170 CE), who was followed by Muslim astronomers from the 9th century CE onwards, though Islamic texts expressing doubts about his ideas started to appear regularly from the 10th century.[2] Aside from notable exceptions such as Aristarchus of Samos, heliocentrism was only advocated by occasional figures with small followings and widely rejected before the work of Copernicus.

Geocentrism is different from the idea that the Earth is flat. However, while those who believe in geocentrism do not always hold the Earth to be flat, those who hold the Earth to be flat almost invariably believe in geocentrism.

Historical influences on Islamic cosmology

The geocentrism and general cosmography of the Qur'an shows little or no influence from Ptolemaic concepts of heavenly spheres, each containing a celestial body, according to which paradigm the Qur'an and the word falak later came to be interpreted[1][3] In a paper on Qur'anic cosmography, Damien Janos notes that the "Qurʾānic cosmology stems from a different religious background and it does not contain any conspicuous signs of synthesis or assimilation with the cosmological trends indebted to Ptolemaic astronomy"[4] and observes that in various respects the two paradigms are incompatible, particularly as the celestial bodies move in the lowest part of the seven heavens in the Qur'anic model.[5] Rather, the Qur'an is more reflective of its Biblical and Mesopotamian predecessors (see also Cosmology of the Quran). In the same paper Janos does, however, theorise that the Qur'anic falak may contain Greek influence given how often it was interpreted in terms of circularity or sphericity by Muslim scholars. He also considers as a possible hypothesis that both the falak and seven heavens "can be construed as having not a fully spherical shape, but rather a hemispherical or domed-shape", and the sun would transit back to its origin in the east "via an underground passage", which "finds some support in traditional Arabic reports [...] and seems to have Mesopotamian antecedents".[6]

Geocentrism in the Qur'an

The Qur'an in several places and contexts advances or alludes to descriptions of the heavenly bodies which explicitly or implicitly entail a geocentric model of the cosmos.

Quran 36:37-40 - The sun's daily cycle and resting place

Quran 36:37-40 is a passage about night and day and the cycles of the sun and moon in that context.

A token unto them is night. We strip it of the day, and lo! they are in darkness and the sun runneth on unto a resting-place for him. That is the measuring of the Mighty, the Wise. And for the moon We have appointed mansions till she return like an old shrivelled palm-leaf. It is not for the sun to overtake the moon, nor doth the night outstrip the day. They float each in an orbit.
Word by word: Waalshshamsu (and the sun) tajree (runs) limustaqarrin (to a resting point) laha (of it).

Immediately after describing the change from day to night the passage states that the sun runs on to a designated "resting place" (ِmustaqarrin مُسْتَقَرٍّ See footnotes regarding the Arabic word here, which differs from similar verses).[7] There is also a sahih hadith that uses the same Arabic word as in Quran 36:38 to identify "a resting place" as part of the sun's daily cycle.[8] An alternative view is that this refers to the sun's final resting on the last day rather than some temporal location. Another narration of the same hadith possibly supports this view.[9] Whichever meaning was originally intended, the sun's movement is nevertheless mentioned right after describing day and night, just as the next verse mentions the different mansions appointed for the moon each night. The whole passage is about day and night and the sun and moon's movement in that context.

The phrase "It is not for the sun to overtake the moon" in Quran 36:40 does not, critics point out, comfortably fit a heliocentric perspective whereby the moon orbits the Earth and the Earth orbits the sun, yet is quite natural from a 7th century perspective where the sun and moon were believed to orbit the same world, and indeed, would one day be joined together (discussed in another section below). It is also difficult to interpret the verse merely in terms of a visual human perspective since the sun and moon do appear to "catch up" when a solar eclipse occurs. The word translated 'for' in the phrase 'It is not for the sun...' in Quran 36:40 is yanbaghee (يَنۢبَغِى), which means "fitting", "suitable", "proper", "behoves", "right and allowable", "good, "facilitated", "easy", "practicable", or "manageable"[10] and the word translated 'overtake' is tudrika (تُدْرِكَ), which means "catches up and comes upon".[11]

The sun's movement is almost always mentioned in the context of day and night

An important observation is that the sun's movement is almost always mentioned in the context of night and day, Quran 13:2 being the only exception. See the "floating" of the sun and moon in Quran 21:33 and Quran 36:40 (discussed in the next section), and the "running" of the sun and moon in Quran 31:29, Quran 35:13, Quran 36:37-40, and Quran 39:5. Similarly, Quran 14:33 (the word translated there as "constant in their courses" is daibayni, which is simply a verb meaning to strive, toil, labour, hold on or continue[12]).

Quran 21:33 and 36:40 - The sun, moon, night and day all float in a falak

And He it is Who created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. They all float in rounded courses.
Word by word: khalaqa (created) allayla (the night) waalnnahara (and the day) waalshshamsa (and the sun) waalqamara (and the moon) kullun (each) fee (in) falakin (a rounded course) yasbahoona (they swim)
A token unto them is night. We strip it of the day, and lo! they are in darkness and the sun runneth on unto a resting-place for him. That is the measuring of the Mighty, the Wise. And for the moon We have appointed mansions till she return like an old shrivelled palm-leaf. It is not for the sun to overtake the moon, nor doth the night outstrip the day. They float each in an orbit.

The last sentence in Arabic is the same in both verses. They state that the sun and moon (and night and day) all "float" or "swim" in an orbit, or more precisely, each in a falak, a word with various meanings related to the celestial sphere or dome-shaped things, as described in Lane's lexicon of classical arabic.[1] The main definition Lane provides is the place of the revolving of the stars, the celestial sphere, generally imagined to be a hemisphere by the Arabs, or the pole of the heavens. The more common English translations, 'orbit', or 'rounded course', seem to be based on the meanings related to roundness or circling. Ibn 'Abbas is recorded in the tafasir (commentaries) of al-Tabari and of Ibn Kathir explaining that the sun and moon swimming in a falak means 'in a whirl (whorl), like the whirl of a spindle' (a whirl was a hemisphere-shaped object).[13] Similarly, Ibn Kathir records in his tafsir for 21:33, "Ibn Abbas said, 'Spinning like as spins the spindle in a whirl'".[14] Lane translates the exact same words attributed to Ibn 'Abbas as "the whirl of a spindle...thus called because of its is a piece of wood, generally of hemispherical form, or nearly so, through the middle of which the upper part of the spindle-pin is inserted". Such translations may also be based on another Ibn 'Abbas comment, as noted by Ibn Kathir, that the sun runs in its falak in the sky or heaven during the day, and when it sets, it runs at night in its falak underneath the Earth until it rises in the east.[15] Al-Tabari further mentions other opinions, such as that it means the pole of the heavens, and similarly, the shape of an iron millstone (or perhaps the iron axis thereof).

No mention of Earth's orbit

Critics often point out that while, according to the Quran, the stars have certain fixed "settings" (mawaqi, Quran 56:75) (also not scientifically correct as they are constantly orbiting e.g. black holes and other stars - they just appear that way from Earth as they are so far away)[16]; and while the day, night, sun and moon are mentioned as all floating in a falak; and while the sun and moon are often mentioned as running their courses, there is never any indication whatsoever that the Earth itself runs any kind of course or orbit.

Some suggest that the word "all" (kullun) in Q. 21:33 and Q. 36:40 quoted above refers to all heavenly bodies, which would implicitly include the earth. Critics point out that the verses themselves already explicitly state what "all" refers to - they name the sun, moon, night, and day, all of which are described as mobile entities in other verses.

In any case, vast numbers of interstellar objects (even planets and stars) are not currently in circular orbits but rather are travelling in hyperbolic trajectories (becoming ever straighter), having been dynamically ejected at greater than escape velocity from their solar systems or even from their galaxies (indeed, intergalactic stars have been observed by astronomers).

The galactic orbit interpretation

Modern Islamic scholars have often argued that references in the Qur'an to the sun's movement refer to its orbit around our milky way galaxy rather than to a geocentric orbit.

Critics point out that the 225 million year galactic orbit has no relevance to human time-scales, while the Quran almost always mentions the sun's movement in the context of night and day. Another response is that the entire solar system, and not just the sun, orbits the gravity well of our galaxy. This is considered a problem because therefore the moon can equally be said to orbit the galaxy, yet in verses like Quran 36:37-40 the floating of the moon in a falak seems to relate to the phases of the lunar cycle. There is yet another problem discussed in the next section below, which is perhaps even more important.

Quran 31:29 and 13:2 - The sun's movement is visible and is a sign

Critics of the galactic orbit interpretation have further responded that the author of the Qur'an describes a movement of the sun (as well as of the moon) which he expects its listeners to see and interpret as a sign, and for this reason the reference cannot be to the sun's galactic orbit.

Do you not see that Allah causes the night to enter the day and causes the day to enter the night and has subjected the sun and the moon, each running [its course] for a specified term, and that Allah, with whatever you do, is Acquainted?

The words 'and that' (wa anna) towards the end of the verse indicate that "Do you not see" applies to the entire verse, suggesting that it is not just the day and night, but also the running of the sun and moon that the 7th century listeners of the Qur'an were expected to know about. Critics maintain the implication here is that the audience could 'see' the night turn into day and vice versa, and that they could see the sun and the moon running their courses across the sky.

The words "don't you see" (alam tara أَلَمْ تَرَ[17]) may be interpreted in the sense of "don't you know" or "aren't you aware", but nonetheless function as an appeal to common knowledge. To critics, this common 7th century Arabian knowledge of geocentrism is erroneous, and in affirming this erroneous perception, the Quran itself may be said to err.

Quran 13:2 and Quran 36:38 state that the running of the sun and moon to an appointed term, or the sun running to its resting place, respectively, are signs (ayaat) to mankind, implying they are facts known to and appreciated by a 7th century Arabian audience. Verse 13:2 states that these signs are explained in detail in the Qur'an in order to strengthen the faith of its listeners. Critics argue that this directly undermines the idea that the Quran could have been alluding to the galactic orbit of the sun, for such an orbit remained unknown to the Quran's original audience, and thus could not strengthen their faith, nor anyone's faith, until some fourteen centuries after the Quran's authorship.

[…] He has subjected the sun and the moon! Each one runs for a term appointed. He regulates the matter, explaining the signs [l-āyāti] in detail, so you can be certain of meeting with your Lord.
Word by word: yudabbiru (he arranges / regulates) al-amra (the matter) yufassilu (he explains in detail) al-ayaati (the signs) la-allakum (so you may) biliqai (meeting) rabbikum (with your Lord) tūqinūna (be certain)
A token [āyatun] unto them is night. We strip it of the day, and lo! they are in darkness and the sun runneth on unto a resting-place for him. [...]

The word translated "running" (yajree يَجْرِىٓ) in the three above-quoted verses and similar ones was used in classical Arabic to describe the physical travelling of heavenly bodies along their courses, and in general means to run, as in running water. It is used in Quran 31:31 to describe the sailing of ships, two verses after the first example quoted above.[18]

Some critics also argue that Quran 25:45 indirectly comments on the sun's movement.

Have you not seen see how your Lord spread the shadow. If He willed he could make it stationary. Then do We make the sun its guide.
Word by word: ash shamsa (the sun) `alayhi (for it) dalilaan (a guide / an indication)

Aside from other light sources, shadows on Earth are produced when the sun's light is obstructed. The Earth's rotation causes these shadows to change size and lengthen. The above verses state that the reason shadows fluctuate in size rather than being stationary is because Allah has made the sun their guide. Critics note that this appears to confirm the geocentric outlook widely evidenced elsewhere in the Qur'an, for it is only on a geocentric view that shadows would be of fixed length if the sun (rather than the Earth) were not made to do something.

The length of the shadow cast by the sun is also used to determine the start of the Asr prayer time; the apparent movement of the sun is still used to schedule various Islamic rituals, as discussed further below.

Quran 91:1-2 - The moon follows the sun

By the sun and his brightness, And the moon when she followeth him
Word by word: Waalshshamsi (and the sun) waduhaha (and its brightness) Waalqamari (and the moon) itha talaha (when it follows it)

In the view of critics, this suggests that the sun takes a path or action similar or at least comparable to that of the moon (which goes around earth once per month, and to an ancient person would appear to do so on a nightly basis). The word translated "follow" is used many other places to mean recite, but is primarily defined as "to follow", "go", "walk behind", or "follow in way of imitation" or "of action", and was used for animals like camels following behind each other.[19] Critics note that while the moon neither follows behind the sun's movement nor provides its own light like the sun, a pre-modern observer would get the impression that the moon and sun, in a sense, "chase" one another in their course about the Earth (an impression the Quran appears to agree with).

Quran 75:8-9 - Implied similar size and distance of the sun and moon (one day they will be brought together)

In a passage about events on the day of resurrection, the Quran makes an assertion which, critics argue, strongly implies that the sun and moon are of a similar size and are located a similar distance from Earth. As already noted, the Quran says that the moon "follows" the sun (Quran 91:1-2), and "It is not for the sun to overtake the moon, nor doth the night outstrip the day." (Quran 36:40). Verse Quran 75:8-9 adds that on the last day the sun and moon will be brought together:

And the moon darkens And the sun and the moon are joined,

The Arabic word translated as "are joined" is jumi'a, a verb which means to collect together, gather together, bring together.[20] Critics note that this would involve our moon, which orbits the Earth 93 million miles away from the sun, being brought together with our local star which is over 400 times wider. To say that such mismatched objects will be brought together (jumi'a) in such a scenario would hardly be apt, critics argue, and a very odd apocalyptic event. Rather, the description sits comfortably in the ancient understanding of the cosmos, whereby the sun and moon were assumed to be two roughly equivalent celestial bodies in the sky above the Earth.

It is worth noting that the "darkening" of the moon in verse 8 is an Arabic word which in hadiths refers to a lunar or solar eclipse (in this case lunar). However, for a lunar eclipse to occur (when the earth's shadow is cast upon the moon) the sun and moon are on opposite sides of the earth and thus are not in any sense "brought together". Nor does brought together in verse 9 work as a reference to a solar eclipse (when the sun occasionally casts a shadow of the moon on the earth). The moon is invisible during the portion of a month when it can eclipse the sun since it must be on the daylit side of the earth, and hence the moon does not "darken" or itself become eclipsed (verse 8) as it passes between observers and the sun but rather its silhouette becomes visible.

The sun and its movement is always paired with the moon

The movement of the sun is always mentioned with that of the moon, whether described as running (yajree/tajree) or floating (yasbahoona), or toiling (daibayni). Additionally, in these verses they are nearly always mentioned in the context of night and day (the exception being 13:2), as discussed in an earlier section above.

Here are some of the many verses where the sun and moon are paired (other examples can be found quoted across the article).

A token unto them is night. We strip it of the day, and lo! they are in darkness and the sun runneth on unto a resting-place for him. That is the measuring of the Mighty, the Wise. And for the moon We have appointed mansions till she return like an old shrivelled palm-leaf. It is not for the sun to overtake the moon, nor doth the night outstrip the day. They float each in an orbit.
And He it is Who created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. They all float in rounded courses.
Do you not see that Allah causes the night to enter the day and causes the day to enter the night and has subjected the sun and the moon, each running [its course] for a specified term, and that Allah, with whatever you do, is Acquainted?
He has made subject to you the Night and the Day; the Sun and the moon
And He hath made subject to you the Sun and the moon, both diligently pursuing their courses; and the night and the day hath he (also) made subject to you.
Among His Signs are the Night and the Day, and the Sun and the Moon. [...]
He created the heavens and the earth in true (proportions): He makes the Night overlap the Day, and the Day overlap the Night: He has subjected the sun and the moon (to His law): Each one follows a course for a time appointed. Is not He the Exalted in Power - He Who forgives again and again?

Quran 35:11-13 explains that it is not only humans that were created in pairs (male and female), but also the two bodies of flowing waters (one salty and one sweet), the night and the day, and the sun and the moon.

And Allah did create you from dust; then from a sperm-drop; then He made you in pairs. And no female conceives, or lays down (her load), but with His knowledge. Nor is a man long-lived granted length of days, nor is a part cut off from his life, but is in a Decree (ordained). All this is easy to Allah. Nor are the two bodies of flowing water alike,- the one palatable, sweet, and pleasant to drink, and the other, salt and bitter. Yet from each (kind of water) do ye eat flesh fresh and tender, and ye extract ornaments to wear; and thou seest the ships therein that plough the waves, that ye may seek (thus) of the Bounty of Allah that ye may be grateful. He merges Night into Day, and he merges Day into Night, and he has subjected the sun and the moon (to his Law): each one runs its course for a term appointed. Such is Allah your Lord: to Him belongs all Dominion.

Quran 2:258 - Abraham's challenge: Allah brings the sun from the east, so bring it from the west!

Various verses describe the shape of the sun's course. The general scheme involves Allah bringing the sun from east and the sun traveling high and eventually going back down. Critics and modern Islamic scholars agree, however, that most of these verses are comparable to the kind of convenient colloquialisms we still use today (see Quran 20:059, Quran 20:130, Quran 17:078, Quran 6:77-78, and Quran 18:17). Some of these verses, however, have been the object of considerable debate between the two groups.

Quran 2:258 approvingly quotes a few lines from a debate between Abraham and a disbelieving king, where Abraham replies that Allah brings the sun (yatee biashshamsi يَأْتِى بِٱلشَّمْسِ) from the east. The arabic verb and preposition indicate that the sun is conceived of as physically moving.[21]

Abraham said, ‘Indeed Allah brings the sun from the east; now you bring it from the west.’ So the disbeliever was overwhelmed [by astonishment], and Allah does not guide the wrongdoing people.
Qur'an 2:258

Critics conclude that the Qur'an is clear about the course of the sun: it does not describe a complete orbit, but rather a rounded course, presumably in a hemisphere (falak[1]) that has a beginning, an end, and a highest point.

Quran 18:83-90 - The sun sets in a muddy spring and rises on a people without shelter

Quran 18:83-90 also describes the physical, terrestrial locations where the sun is supposed to rise and set in response to a question about an existing legend. Here, in the Quranic account of life of Dhul Qarnayan or Alexander the Great, the physical setting place of the sun, located in muddy spring, can be seen by human eyes. Indeed, in this account, a human tribe is said to live adjacent to this celestial setting place.

They will ask thee of Dhu'l-Qarneyn. Say: I shall recite unto you a remembrance of him. Lo! We made him strong in the land and gave him unto every thing a road. And he followed a road. Till, when he reached the setting-place of the sun, he found it setting in a muddy spring, and found a people thereabout. We said: O Dhu'l-Qarneyn! Either punish or show them kindness. Then he followed a road. Till, when he reached the rising-place of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had appointed no shelter therefrom.

There is historical evidence from early Quranic commentaries and other sources, including contemporary Arabic and Syriac poems of the same legend, to the effect that early Muslims took this account literally.

Quran 79:27-29 - The entire heaven has a night and day

The Qur'anic conception of the cosmos accords with its author's visual perception of the sky, even to the extent that in Quran 79:28-29 night and day is mistaken as a feature of the entire heaven. In these verses the night and morning brightness are said to be an attribute of the heaven (l-samāu) which Allah built (banāhā) and raised (rafaʿa) as a ceiling (samkahā) and ordered it (fasawwāhā) when he created the heaven and earth.

Are ye the harder to create, or is the heaven that He built? He raised the height thereof and ordered it; And He made dark the night thereof, and He brought forth the morn thereof. And after that He spread the earth,

The possessive hā suffix in laylahā (its night) and ḍuḥāhā (its morning light) relates night and day to the heaven in its entirety. In reality, the night and day we experience is a feature of the earth's rotation on its axis. There is no sense in which the earth's night and day (which happen at the same time) apply across the wider cosmos.

In order to confirm the interpretation of these verses it is important to look at how the significant words are used elsewhere in the Quran. "The night" is a very common word in the Quran, and the morning light is used in the same context in Quran 93:1-2-1 and Quran 91:1-1 (see also Quran 79:46).

Indeed, Quran 91:1-6 has many of the same Arabic words as Quran 79:27-30: "its morning light" (this time of the sun), "the night", and "the heaven" (singular) "built" by Allah. Putting the two passages together, it seems that the author of the Quran intuitively believed that the night and the sun's morning light were features pertaining to the entire visible heaven. This does not accord in any way with the modern heliocentric understanding of our local solar system.

Other verses are helpful to confirm what is meant by the heaven (singular) in this context. Quran 2:29 states that Allah turned (is'tawā) to the heaven and fashioned them (fasawwāhunna) seven heavens. These are two forms of the same Arabic verb as is translated "ordered" in Quran 79:28 in the above quote.

He it is Who created for you all that is in the earth. Then turned He to the heaven, and fashioned it as seven heavens. And He is knower of all things.

The word "raised" in Quran 79:28 is similarly used for the creation of the heaven (singular) and earth in Quran 88:18 and the heavens (plural) raised without visible pillars in Quran 13:2.

The word "he built it" in v. 27 (banāhā) also occurs in Quran 50:6, which says regarding the heaven (singular) that Allah "built it" and "adorned it" (wazayyannāhā), a word which in other verses refers to the stars or lamps adorning the lowest heaven (Quran 37:6, Quran 41:12 and Quran 67:5).

The regular cycle of the sun

According to several verses in the Qur'an, the sun's cycle is repeated on a regular basis and is comparable in this respect to the orbit of the Moon as well as the cycle of night and day.

[…] He made the Sun and the moon subservient (to you); each one pursues its course to an appointed time; He regulates the affair, making clear the signs
Seest thou not that Allah merges night into day and he merges day into night and he has subjected the sun, and the moon each running its course for a term appointed. And Allah is aware of what you do.
The Sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed
Word by word: Alshamsu (the sun) waalqamaru (and the moon) bihusbanin

Husban can mean a number of things: "definite reckoning", "appointed courses", "numbering", "revolving firmament", "running appointed", and "scheduled course". In many English translations the word 'course' or 'celestial sphere' is used. In this verse, the word falak is not used; Quran 55:5 only indicates that the sun and the moon behave in a calculated, scheduled, or otherwise pre-appointed manner. This verse and similar verses are consequently marshalled by critics as further evidence that the Quran espouses a geocentric cosmology, as the sun's daily cycle and the moon's monthly cycle serve ritual timekeeping purposes such as for determining prayer and fasting times in Islam (see next section).

The sun and timekeeping

In Muhammad's lifetime it was common practice to use the sun and moon for timekeeping, which helps explain the emphasis in the Qur'an on the regulated and scheduled nature of the courses of the sun and moon as a sign from Allah and as a divinely sanctioned monthly calendar (see previous section).

He it is that cleaves the day-break (from the dark): He makes the night for rest and tranquility and the sun and moon for the reckoning [of time])
Indeed, (the) number (of) the months with Allah (is) twelve months in (the) ordinance (of) Allah (from the) Day He created the heavens and the earth; of them, four (are) sacred. That (is) the religion the upright, so (do) not wrong therein yourselves. And fight the polytheists all together, as they fight you all together. And know that Allah (is) with the righteous.
It is He Who made the Sun to be a shining glory and the moon to be a light (of beauty), and measured out stages for her; that ye might know the number of years and the count [of time]. Nowise did Allah create this but in truth and righteousness. (Thus) doth He explain His Signs in detail, for those who have knowledge.
And We have made the night and the day two signs, then We have made the sign of the night to pass away and We have made the sign of the day manifest, so that you may seek grace from your Lord, and that you might know the numbering of years and the reckoning; and We have explained everything with distinctness.

The moon (the sign, or ayah, of the night) is used to count the years, which comprise the twelve lunar months making up the Islamic year, and the sun is to be used to keep track of time. The only solar movement to be used for timekeeping is the apparent daily course of the sun (from east up and then down to the west). To this day, virtually all mainstream Islamic authorities use the (less precise and regularly unpredictable) lunar calendar to determine the date and the apparent position of the sun from any given location to determine the waqt (prescribed time) of daily salats (prayers). In some cases, as with the Burj Khalifa, which is one of the tallest buildings in the world and which is located in the United Arab Emirates, this means that prayer times differ one the top floor of the building from the prayer times on the bottom floor of the building, as the moment of sunset and sunrise varies as one ascends in elevation.

The sun and the daily prayers

The only examples of the sun being used for timekeeping in the Qur'an employ the sun's apparent daily movement along the sky. Each of the five daily prayers described either directly or indirectly or alluded to in some manner in the Quran. These references all involve mention of the physical, orbital position of the sun. The first prayer, salat al-fajr, takes place right before sun rise and is mentioned in Quran 17:78, Quran 20:130, and Quran 24:58. The second prayer, salat al-zuhr, takes place right after the sun reaches its zenith, but before the shadow of the Sun becomes twice its length from midday. This prayer is possibly mentioned in Quran 17:78 as prayer at the "decline of the sun". The third prayer, salat al-asr, takes place when the sun is between zenith and sunset, when the length of a shadow of a stick is either once or twice its length. This prayer is mentioned in Quran 2:238 as "the middle prayer" and in Quran 20:130 and Quran 50:39 as the "exhalt[ing of Allah] with praise" before the sun's "setting". The fourth prayer, salat al-maghrib, takes place right after sunset. This prayer is not clearly mentioned, but Quran 20:130 and Quran 50:39 mention the "exhalt[ing of Allah] with praise" before rather than after "sunset". The latter verse also mentions "the two ends of the day". The fifth prayer, salat al-isha, takes place at night, between sunset and sunrise. This prayer is mentioned Quran 11:114, Quran 17:79, and Quran 20:130.

Modern heliocentric re-readings

In light of the many verses describing a geocentric system and the difficulties this poses in reconciling the Qur'an with the findings of modern science, many modern Islamic scholars have attempted to re-read the Quran as describing a heliocentric system. A major factor in these re-readings, as mentioned above, has been identifying the falak of the sun described in the Quran as a reference to the sun's orbit of the Milky Way galaxy. Likewise discussed above, Quran 36:40 ('it is not for the sun to overtake the moon...') has been re-read in a manner concordant with a heliocentric model.

Quran 91:1-4

In addition to the above two re-readings, two other verses are advanced to suggest that the author of the Quran was aware of the Earth's rotation about its axis.

By the sun and his brightness, And the moon when she followeth him, And the day when it revealeth him, And the night when it enshroudeth him
Word by word: Waalnnahari (and the day) itha (when) jallaha (it displays it) Waallayli (and the night) itha (when) yaghshaha (it covers it)
Qur'an 91:1-4

In its plain sense, it appears that 'day' and 'night' here may refer to the process of the Earth's rotation revealing and obstructing the view of the sun (though the verse can also fit with a geocentric view where 'day' and 'night' are processes when the sun is above or below the horizon). While modern Islamic scholars frequently use this verse to defend a heliocentric reading of the Quran, critics argue that the verse's agreement with heliocentrism is undermined when certain other verses in the Quran are considered which appear to elucidate its meaning.

In addition, critics argue, because the Earth is actually a globe, there are no specific times 'when' (itha) the day reveals the sun or the night conceals it. Rather, at all times half the Earth is in daytime and half in nighttime, so the sun is at all times being both revealed and concealed. This problem, critics note, would not arise if the word 'when' (itha) were simply removed from these verses (an exclusion the author of Quran, if inclined to heliocentrism, would likely have made).

The other verses considered in this context by critics which use the the same Arabic verb as found in Quran 91:1-4, are said to show that the verb here does not simply signify that the body of the earth is blocking the line of sight to something. Quran 92:1-2 use the same words found Quran 91:3-4, but without the pronoun suffix at the end. Thus, critics conclude, the "night" is when things generally are "covered", and not just the sun on the other side of the Earth. Likewise, the "day" is when things generally are "revealed". In this reading, the verbs employed are used only in a poetic manner.

By the night enshrouding, And the day resplendent
Word by word: Waallayli (and the night) itha (when) yaghsha (it covers) Waalnnahari (and the day) itha (when) tajalla (it displays)
Qur'an 92:1-2

In Quran 10:27, the night's "cover" (the same verb as in Quran 91:4) is used to apply to all things and not just the sun. As a result, critics argue, it is difficult to interpret the night covering the sun in Quran 91:4 as literally meaning that the body of the earth covers the sun on its other side. The word "pieces" in the translation means portion or piece cut off from the whole.[22]

they will have no one to save them from Allah; as if their faces are covered with pieces of the dark night
Qur'an 10:27

The same Arabic word for cover appears again in Quran 7:54, where it is the day doing the "covering", or possibly the other way round (the Arabic is ambiguous and translations differ, while tafsirs take the view that it means either or both). Critics argue that it is far from clear how the verse could be interpreted as describing a rotating Earth blocking the night (however that conception may be interpreted) in a manner analogous to the heliocentric interpretation of Quran 91:4. Critics then assert, instead, that the plain sense of these verses and the Quran at large hold the day and night to be active and physically independent entities.

He covereth the night with the day, which is in haste to follow it
Qur'an 7:54

Quran 39:5

The other verse advanced by modern Islamic scholars as favoring a heliocentric re-reading of the scripture is Quran 39:5. Here the word translated "wraps" (kawwara, as with a turban, for example) is argued to be indicative of the rotation of the Earth.

He created the heavens and earth in truth. He wraps the night over the day and wraps the day over the night and has subjected the sun and the moon, each running [its course] for a specified term.
Qur'an 39:5

As with Quran 7:54 and Quran 36:37 and the verses where the day and night (as well as the sun and moon) are said to swim in a falak[1] (see above), the night and day in this verse are referred to as some kind of entities. Here, critics argue that it would make sense to describe the Earth as passing through night and day or possibly to say that night and day wrap around the earth, as one might spin an item in order to wrap it with something. But, the critics note, the Qur'an instead says that Allah wraps the day and night over one another rather than the earth, suggesting that the night and day possess some manner of corporeal form.

Another problem is that there is no coherent way to consistently interpret each term in the phrase "wraps the night over the day and wraps the day over the night" to correspond with scientifically meaningful concepts. For example, if one takes the first half of the phrase to mean that the sunlit side of the Earth revolves into the shadow of the Earth cast by the sun, those definitions of "day" and "night" do not work for the second half of the phrase, "wraps the day over the night". The word "day" would now have to mean the light from the sun and "night" would have to refer to the shadowed side of the earth which rotates into it.

Two verses nearly identical to Quran 39:5 are Quran 31:29 and Quran 35:13 (also containing similar phrasing are Quran 3:27, Quran 22:61, and Quran 57:6) where instead of "he wraps", the verb "he causes to enter" (yooliju) is used. Critics argue that, along with Quran 7:54 where the day is said to "cover" and "chase" the night (or possibly vice versa) and Quran 36:37 where Allah strips the day from the night, these verses present a picture of the day and night successively being wrapped across each other and in so doing covering the other and entering into it. It is in this picture, they note, that night never "outruns" (sabiqu) the day (Quran 36:40).

The argument of timeless comprehensibility

Modern Islamic scholars also make the case that though indirect, Quran 39:5 is as direct a reference to the Earth's rotation as would have permitted the point to be made while keeping 7th century Arabs from immediately dismissing Muhammad's message on grounds of pre-modern incredulity. To emphasize this point, modern Islamic scholars evoke the doctrine of the maximal possible perfection of every verse in the Quran and suggest that Allah struck the perfect balance of simultaneously alluding to modern science while speaking in terms comprehensible to the inhabitants of a 7th century Arabian desert. To this presentation, critics have responded pointing out that Muhammad's message was immediately dismissed and mocked by most of his contemporaries anyways, and that widespread conversion to Islam was more a consequence of Muhammad's later military success than his preaching and doctrine. According to hadith tradition, Muhammad did not hesitate to tell his contemporaries he had met an angel, ridden a winged beast up to Allah, and accomplished other fantastic feats. This having been the case, critics ask why Allah should not simply have gone ahead and stated plainly what he wanted to state, knowing that his message would thereby have increasingly resonated generations later. To critics, the author of the Quran did not see his description of the heavens as scientifically novel or as couched in compromised language for the sake of comprehensibility, but was simply describing the universe he held to exist in common with his audience in order to inspire awe, all while having no real regard for their ridicule or mockery of him.

Islamic authorities on geocentrism

Geocentrism in hadiths

Hadiths graded as authentic by Islamic scholars and found in collections like Sahih Muslim maintain that the sun moves around the earth and goes to its resting place at night, until it is told to return to "its rising place" (matli'iha), a word which also appears in Quran 18:90 when Dhu'l Qarnayn reaches the rising place of the sun (mali'a ash-shamsi).[23] One day the sun will be told instead to go and emerge "from the place of your setting" (min maghribiki), and so, it will go and emerge "from the place of its setting" (min maghribiha), often mistranslated as "the west" in other narrations of this prophecy, despite the possessive suffix and lack of definite article[24]. The direct address to the sun and possessive pronouns show that this is not a mere figure of speech about the rotation of the Earth or the east and the west.

It is narrated on the authority of Abu Dharr that the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) one day said: Do you know where the Sun goes? They replied: Allah and His Apostle know best. He (the Holy Prophet) observed: Verily it (the Sun) glides till it reaches its resting place under the Throne. Then it falls prostrate and remains there until it is asked: Rise up and go to the place whence you came, and it goes back and continues emerging out from its rising place and then glides till it reaches its place of rest under the Throne and falls prostrate and remains in that state until it is asked: Rise up and return to the place whence you came, and it returns and emerges out from it rising place and the it glides (in such a normal way) that the people do not discern anything (unusual in it) till it reaches its resting place under the Throne. Then it would be said to it: Rise up and emerge out from the place of your setting, and it will rise from the place of its setting. The Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said. Do you know when it would happen? It would happen at the time when faith will not benefit one who has not previously believed or has derived no good from the faith.

Similar versions of this hadith are found in Sahih Bukhari and elsewhere in Sahih Muslim. In another hadith Muhammad recorded telling the story of an earlier prophet who asked the sun to stop moving, whereafter the sun complied with his request. This hadith is based on the story of Joshua found in the Bible and is also found in Sahih Muslim[25]:

…So, the prophet carried out the expedition and when he reached that town at the time or nearly at the time of the ‘Asr prayer, he said to the sun, ‘O sun! You are under Allah’s Order and I am under Allah’s Order O Allah! Stop it (i.e. the sun) from setting.’ It was stopped till Allah made him victorious…

These Hadiths are all deemed 'sahih' (authentic) according to Islamic scholars. According to historians, however, even if these hadiths are not historically reliable, they nonetheless indicate what very early Muslim authorities believed about the sun and are thus useful in interpreting the intended meaning of the Qur'an.

Classical Commentators

It is also notable that no major classical Islamic scholar came up with a heliocentric reading based of the language of the Quran (nor an understanding of our universe close to what we know it is today), as can be seen in their writings, particularly their tafsirs/Quranic commentaries. This includes from the most well-known and influential scholars of all time including al-Tabari, al-Razi,[26] al-Qurtubi, Ibn Abbas, Ibn Kathir, Ibn Taymiyyah, Al Jalalayn, al-Qummi (a prominent Shia scholar), Al-Baghawi and al-Zamakhshari.

Ancient and modern Muslim astronomers

Muhammad's Muslim contemporaries all accepted the Qur'an's geocentric cosmology. References in the Hadith of the ansari or others in Muhammad's environment arguing about this point with their prophet or among themselves are nonexistent. Famous Muslim astronomers (people who certainly read, and knew the Qur'an) like the Arab astronomer Ibn al-Shatir and the Persian Nasir al-Din al-Tusi used Greek (geocentric) astronomy to create complex models of the ‘universe’ that were geocentric (to pre-moderns, the 'universe' comprised the local solar system).

In a televised debate aired on Iraqi Al-Fayhaa TV (October 31, 2007), the Islamic astronomer Fadhel Al-Sa'd asserted the following:

The sun circles the Earth because it is smaller than the Earth, as is evident in Koranic verses. Have you ever seen how the sun moves? I have seen the sun moving. The sun makes one move every 24 hours. What I say is based on Koranic science. He bases his arguments on the kind of science that I reject categorically -- the modern science that they teach in schools. This science is a heretic innovation that has no confirmation in the Koran. No verse in the Koran indicates that the Earth is round or that it rotates. Anything that has no indication in the Koran is false.

In Fadhel Al-Sa'd's view, the moon's diameter is 1,200,000 km, while that of the sun is only 2,400,000 km.

See also

  • Cosmology - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Cosmology

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Falak Lane's Lexicon Volume 1 page 2443 and page 2444 Lane also says that the Arab astronomers said there were seven of these spheres for the sun, moon, and the five visible planets, rotating about the celestial pole. This must reflect the post-Qur'anic influence of Ptolemy, whose astronomical work was translated for the Arabs from the 8th century onwards.
  2. Hoskin, Michael, The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy, Cambridge University Press, p. 60, ISBN 978-0-521-57600-0, 25 April 2021 
  3. van Bladel, Kevin, "Heavenly cords and prophetic authority in the Qur’an and its Late Antique context", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 70 (2): 223-246, 2007, 
  4. Janos, Damien, "Qurʾānic cosmography in its historical perspective: some notes on the formation of a religious wordview", Religion 42 (2): 215-231, 2012  See p. 224
  5. Ibid. p. 221
  6. Ibid. p. 228
  7. A few translations use instead, "appointed term", though in nearly all other verses where we find mustaqarrin (qaf-ra-ra قرر Lane's Lexicon Volume 1 page 2501) as a participle they translate it as a place of settlement or an abode or resting place. There are other verses (35:13, 31:29, 39:5, 13:2) that mention the sun and moon running (with the same verb as is translated "run" in 36:38) for a term appointed, but these use the words لِأَجَلٍ مُّسَمًّى which do indeed mean a term appointed - However, note that mustaqarrin مُسْتَقَرٍّ in 36:38 is a different word.
  8. See Sahih Muslim 1:297 (also Sahih Bukhari 6:60:326 and Sahih Bukhari 6:60:327 where Q. 36:38 is explained such that the resting place is under the throne)
  9. See Sahih Bukhari 4:54:421 and Sahih Bukhari 9:93:520 where Q. 36:38 is instead mentioned at the end, possibly indicating that the مُسْتَقَرٍّ (resting place) in 36:38 refers to the end of the world when the sun is asked to rise from its setting place (مِنْ مَغْرِبِهَا) instead of under the throne each night.
  10. ba-ghayn-ya Lane's Lexicon Book 1 page 233
  11. dal-ra-kaf Lane's Lexicon Book 1 page 873
  12. dal-alif-ba Lane's Lexicon Volume 1 page 106
  13. The Arabic reads:فِي فَلْكَة كَفَلْكَةِ الْمِغْزَل fee falka, ka-falkati almighzal - al-Tabari and Ibn Kathir on 36:40 or for an interpretation in English
  14. Ibn Kathir on 21:33 and in English
  15. "Ibn Abi Hatim recorded that Ibn `Abbas said, 'The sun is like flowing water, running in its course [falakha] in the sky [alssama] during the day. When it sets, it travels [at night - bi al-layli (omitted in the translation)] in its course [falakha] beneath the earth until it rises in the east.' He said, 'The same is true in the case of the moon.' Its chain of narration is Sahih."
    Tafsir ibn Kathir for Qur'an 31:29
    For the Arabic, see
  16. Why are all the stars fixed in space?. Science Questions with Surprising Answers. West Texas A& University Website. Dr Christopher S. Baird. Physics professor at West Texas A&M University. 2013.
  17. ra-alif-ya راي Lane's Lexicon page 998
  18. jiim-ra-ya جرى Lane's Lexicon page 415
  19. Ta-Lam-Waw Lane's Lexicon Book 1 page 313
  20. Lane's Lexicon p. 455 جُمِعَ
  21. alif-taa-ya Lane's Lexicon Book 1 page 15 The verb means to come, and when it has an object with the bi preposition it means to bring, as in many other instances in the Qur'an.
  22. qaf-taa-ayn Lane's Lexicon Suppliment page 2990
  23. In contrast, the generic east is always indicated with the word al mashriq or its derivatives everywhere else in the Quran.
  24. Muhsin Khan, English translator of Sahih Bukhari is particularly guilty of this. Compare with min al maghribi which can in fact be translated as the sun rising "from the west" in Quran 2:258
  25. Sahih Muslim 19:4327
  26. For example, the famous tafsir 'al-Tafsir al-Kabir ' of Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1209) (often referred to as Al-Razi), he explains on his commentary on Verse 7:54, that the sun has two types of movements; one in a day, and one in a year.