By MuslimAnswers.net Team
بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيم
Statement: Verse 21:33 says the sun and the moon yasbahun. This means both of them navigate or rotate around the earth and not around their own axis as Dr. Naik has claimed.
This is one of a set of questions on what are presented by many propagators of Islam as “scientific miracles of the Qur’an”. First of all, the Verse under discussion is:
وَهُوَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ اللَّيْلَ وَالنَّهَارَ وَالشَّمْسَ وَالْقَمَرَ ۖ كُلٌّ فِي فَلَكٍ يَسْبَحُونَ ﴿٣٣﴾
And He it is Who created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. They float, each in an orbit. (33)
The non-Muslim making this statement is referring to the statements of Dr. Zakir Naik with respect to this Verse, where he says:
The Arabic word used in the above verse is yasbahûn. The word yasbahûn is derived from the word sabaha. It carries with it the idea of motion that comes from any moving body. If you use the word for a man on the ground, it would not mean that he is rolling but would mean he is walking or running. If you use the word for a man in water it would not mean that he is floating but would mean that he is swimming.
Similarly, if you use the word yasbah for a celestial body such as the sun it would not mean that it is only flying through space but would mean that it is also rotating as it goes through space. Most of the school textbooks have incorporated the fact that the sun rotates about its axis. The rotation of the sun about its own axis can be proved with the help of an equipment that projects the image of the sun on the table top so that one can examine the image of the sun without being blinded. It is noticed that the sun has spots which complete a circular motion once every 25 days i.e. the sun takes approximately 25 days to rotate around its axis.
In fact, the sun travels through space at roughly 150 miles per second, and takes about 200 million years to complete one revolution around the center of our Milky Way Galaxy.
We were not able to find references to the movement of the sun and moon around “their own axis” as a possible explanation for this Verse among the contemporary traditional scholars, so it could be true that Dr. Naik’s interpretation may be an overextension of the intended meaning. Such traditional scholars simply mention that the Verse refers to the orbits of the sun and the moon. For example, in Ma’ariful Quran we read:
The word (falak) is used for circle or anything round. For this reason the word (falak) is also used sometimes for sky. In this verse it means the orbits of the sun and the moon in which they revolve. The Qur’anic words do not specify the location of the orbits in the space but space research has now established that these orbits are located in the space much below the sky. This verse apparently indicates that the Sun also moves around an orbit. The scientists previously did not believe in the rotation of the Sun, but the most modern research has now accepted it.
Other contemporary interpretations place the emphasis on the type of movement that is being described in this Verse. For example, Shaykh Mutawali ash-Shi’rawi (Rahimahullah) mentions that the movement being described in here is that of a continuous motion like that of a fish in gentle waters (hence the mention of the word “yashabun”, as opposed to motion is spurts. This of course is something clearly visible and does not correlate directly to scientific discoveries. The late Shaykh of Al-Azhar, Ali at-Tantawi (Rahimahullah) says that the movement being attributed to the sun and the moon is the same is the movement of thinking beings, and is of the same category as when Allah the Exalted mentions the story of Prophet Yusuf (Alayhi Salaam) where he mentions seeing the Sun and Moon prostrating before him in a dream. Again this is different from what Dr. Naik mentions in his work, as Dr. Naik makes a distinction between when the word “yashabun” is used for humans and when it is used for celestial bodies.
Having said this, the comment from the non-Muslim that this refers specifically to the sun and moon rotating around the Earth is not something mentioned by any of the contemporary Tafsirs. While it is true that many of the classical exegesists had taken such a meaning from the Verse in question, the only thing that this Verse mentions is the motion of the Sun and the Moon itself without mentioning the specific orbits- something which can be seen above in the interpretation of Mufti Shafi Usmani (Rahimahullah).
Even if we were to take the meaning as being that the Sun and Earth rotate around a fixed Earth this still would not be a problematic issue, since the motion of bodies can only be described if we have a stationary point from which to make such observations, since it is an issue of different bodies moving relative to an (arbitrary) stationary point of reference – and the Islamic religion has chosen for the Earth to be that point of reference. Even though there are reasons why scientists may choose to place bodies other than the Earth as the point of reference when explaining any given model, the choice of which body is moving and which one is relative depends on the situation and the model that is being presented, and there is no such thing as an “absolute stationary point of reference” in the Universe as far as “modern science” is concerned.
If someone insists by saying that we are playing the role of an extreme apologist, we say that Islam has its own frame for its narratives, which does not necessarily have to be concomitant with what the “natural sciences” of any given period take as the overriding narrative frame. Thus, given that the main reason why the Prophet ﷺ was sent to mankind was for him to guide people to the true worship of Allah by His Leave, the description of the Earth and the Universe as a whole would be based on the day-to-day simple observations that everyone can relate to. More about this can be read in our article: “(Draft Article) A first comment about ‘Islam and Modern Science’ matters”, and we hope that the readers will keep this important distinction among the frames of narration in their minds whenever they tackle “Science and Islam” questions.
http://classicalislamgroup.com/index.php?view=tafseer/s21-v30to33, Ma’ariful Qur’an – Mufti Shafi Usmani (Rahimahullah)
Tafsir Khawatir (The speeches of Muhammad Mutawali ash-Sha’rawi), http://www.altafsir.com/Tafasir.asp?tMadhNo=7&tTafsirNo=76&tSoraNo=21&tAyahNo=33&tDisplay=yes&UserProfile=0&LanguageId=1
Tafsir al-Wasit fi Tafsir al-Quran al-Kareem, http://www.altafsir.com/Tafasir.asp?tMadhNo=7&tTafsirNo=57&tSoraNo=51&tAyahNo=47&tDisplay=yes&UserProfile=0&LanguageId=1