One thing we need to understand about the Qur’an is that it is not meant as a book of science, just as it is not meant as a book of history, philosophy or sociology.
Allah in the Qur’an very clearly and emphatically says what kind of a book it is:
“This is the Book; in it is guidance sure without doubt, to those who fear Allah.” (Al-Baqarah 2:2)
“A Book which We have revealed unto you, in order that you may lead mankind out of the depths of darkness into light – by the leave of their Lord – to the Way of (Him) the Exalted in power, worthy of all praise!” (Ibrahim 14:1)
“And We sent down the Book to you for the express purpose, that you should make clear to them those things in which they differ, and that it should be a guide and a mercy to those who believe.” (Al-Nahl 16:64)
And nowhere does the Qur’an say that it is a book of science, period. This means that it would be wrong on our part to read it as a textbook of science or as a scientific work written in the language of science meant to teach science.
But the foregoing does not mean that the Qur’an does not contain ideas relevant to science, philosophy, sociology etc.
The minimal Muslim claim is that the Qur’an DOES NOT contradict established facts of science or of human experience. This means that we have no responsibility to support or justify exaggerated or obscurantist statements made by certain clerics in order to explain some Qur’anic passages – statements that obviously contradict established science or plain common sense.
Now let us come to your question proper, which in simple words is as follows: ‘The Qur’an does not say anywhere that the earth revolves around the sun; doesn’t this mean that it approves of the idea that the sun revolves around the earth?’
First, the Qur’an DOES NOT SAY that sun revolves around the earth; nor does it say that the earth is stationary, as was claimed by the Church in Galileo’s time.
Note the following verse:
“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. And those whom ye invoke besides Him have not the least power.” (Fatir 35:13)
The above verse speaks of the merging of the day into night and the night into day, as well as of the subjection of the sun and the moon. But it is also stated that each one runs its course for a term appointed. This verse does not clearly say that the earth is round and it rotates around its axis; but the word, “merge” implies that the earth is round and moves around its axis.
It is also stated that each (celestial body) runs its course for a term appointed. This running of the course clearly suggests the movement of the sun and the moon. Modern science has discovered that the sun situated at the center of the solar system moves with the whole solar system along an orbit of its own. And so the Qur’anic statement about the movement of the sun (and similarly of the moon) is an established fact now. But those who are not aware of this scientific fact imagine that the movement of the sun mentioned here is a reference to “the movement of the sun around the earth”, as was believed in the past.
Note the following verse too:
“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?” (Az-Zumar 39:5)
As mentioned above, “the overlapping of the night and day” signifies the rotation of the earth around its axis, as well as its revolution around the sun, making the alternation of night and day possible. The idea that “He has subjected the sun and the moon (to His Law)” does not mean that only the sun and the moon follow His Law. Every object or being follows His Law. But only the sun and moon are apparent in the context and are mentioned, that is all.
A person who knows modern astronomy may figure out several details of the rotation and revolution of the stars and planets that could be mentioned in this verse or other similar verses. But they are irrelevant to the intended meaning of the verses. Because, the Qur’an is not a book of astronomy, and the verses given here are enough for the context.
The Qur’an gives examples of the phenomena of nature that can serve to thinking humans as signs pointing to the majesty and sovereignty of the one and only Creator and Sustainer of the universe as in the following verse:
“Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and the day; in the sailing of the ships through the ocean for the profit of mankind; in the rain which Allah Sends down from the skies, and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds, and the clouds which they Trail like their slaves between the sky and the earth;- (Here) indeed are Signs for a people that are wise.” (Al-Baqarah 2:164)
This verse as well as the two verses quoted above (35:13 and 39:5) are meant to evoke in thinking humans the contemplation of the Creator behind the varied and colorful phenomena of nature. Their purpose is more to inspire a moral and spiritual transformation in humans, than to motivate an aesthetic or scientific interest in them.
In conclusion, what you have raised does not refer to any ‘mistake’ in the Qur’an, but to a misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the Qur’an.
Taken with slight editorial modifications from onislam.net.
Professor Shahul Hameed is a consultant to Ask About Islam. He was previously the Head of the Department of English, Farook College, Calicut University, India. He also held the position of president of the Kerala Islamic Mission, Calicut, India. Professor Shahul Hameed is the author of three books on Islam published in the Malayalam language. His books are on comparative religion, the status of women, and science and human values. Professor Shahul Hameed has published poems and articles in various magazines. He has also presented papers and given talks on topics related to Islam in several conferences and seminars.