The Conquest of Space

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"The Conquest of Space" is a document by Maurice BucailleWikipedia's W.svg that purports to show that the Qur'an contains scientific foreknowledge when it "predicted" that humans could enter space.

The following is a side-by-side rebuttal.


"The Conquest of Space", Maurice Bucaille:[1]RationalWiki:
Interesting. I don´t remember NASA asking Allah for permission to go to the Moon, though.
—Carmen R (Now a Koala)[2]
From this point of view, three verses of the Qur'an should command our full attention. One expresses, without any trace of ambiguity, what man should and will achieve in this field. In the other two, God refers for the sake of the unbelievers in Makka to the surprise they would have if they were able to raise themselves up to the Heavens; He alludes to a hypothesis which will not be realized for the latter.Oooh, scientific foreknowledge "without any trace of ambiguity"!

The first of these verses is sura 55, verse 33: "O assembly of Jinns and Men, if you can penetrate regions of the heavens and the earth, then penetrate them! You will not penetrate them save with a Power." The translation given here needs some explanatory comment: a) The word 'if' expresses in English a condition that is dependent upon a possibility and either an achievable or an unachievable hypothesis. Arabic is a language which is able to introduce a nuance into the condition which is much more explicit. There is one word to express the possibility (ida), another for the achievable hypothesis (in) and a third for the unachievable hypothesis expressed by the word (lau). The verse in question has it as an achievable hypothesis expressed by the word (in). The Qur'an therefore suggests the material possibility of a concrete realization. This subtle linguistic distinction formally rules out the purely mystic interpretation that some people have (quite wrongly) put on this verse.The full Pickthall translation of Qur'an 55:33 is: "O company of jinn and men, if ye have power to penetrate (all) regions of the heavens and the earth, then penetrate (them)! Ye will never penetrate them save with (Our) sanction."

Bucaille is right that "إن (ini)" is in the verse[3] and that it implies possibility.[4] This doesn't change much.

First, it should be noted that, in Islam, the "heavens" are a solid dome over a flat earth above which exist 7 separate heavens. To assert that this verse shows scientific foreknowledge is to ignore the rest of the Qur'an on "what's up there".

Second, this verse is part of a list of things that are impossible, to support the idea that death is inevitable and that resisting Allah is futile:

  • "And the sky He hath uplifted; and He hath set the measure, That ye exceed not the measure, But observe the measure strictly, nor fall short thereof," (Qur'an 55:7-9).
  • "He hath loosed the two seas. They meet. There is a barrier between them. They encroach not (one upon the other)," (Qur'an 55:19-21).
  • "Everyone that is thereon will pass away; There remaineth but the Countenance of thy Lord of Might and Glory," (Qur'an 55:26-27).
  • "We shall dispose of you, O ye two dependents (man and jinn)," (Qur'an 55:31).
  • "There will be sent, against you both, heat of fire and flash of brass, and ye will not escape," (Qur'an 55:35).
  • "And when the heaven splitteth asunder and becometh rosy like red hide .... On that day neither man nor jinni will be questioned of his sin," (Qur'an 55:37-39).
  • "The guilty will be known by their marks, and will be taken by the forelocks and the feet," (Qur'an 55:41).

The fact that this sura is about the inevitability of Allah's will is supported by numerous tafsirs:

  • "(O assembly of Jinn and men! If you are able to pass beyond the zones of the heavens and the earth, then pass beyond (them)! But you will never be able to pass them, except with authority (from Allah)!) meaning, 'you will never be able to escape Allah's orders and decrees, because it encompasses you. You will never be able to avoid or avert His rule and judgement over you, you are surrounded by it wherever you may be.' This is also about the Gathering when the angels, comprising seven lines in every direction, will surround the creatures. None of the creatures will be able to escape on that Day, [....] (except with authority) meaning, except with the commandment from Allah, [....] (On that Day man will say: "Where (is the refuge) to flee" No! There is no refuge! Unto your Lord will be the place of rest that Day.)(75:10-12)," Ibn KathirWikipedia's W.svg, Qur'an 55:33-35[5]
  • "O company of jinn and humans, if you are able to pass through, to exit from, the confines, the regions, of the heavens and the earth, then pass through! — a command [meant] to challenge them to what they are incapable of [doing]. You will not pass through except with a sanction, [except] with some power, and you have no power for such a thing," Tafsir al-JalalaynWikipedia's W.svg, Qur'an 55:33[6]
  • "O company of jinn and men, if ye have power) if you are able (to penetrate (all)) to break free from (regions) the extremities (of the heavens and the earth) and from the rows of angels; (then penetrate (them)) then break free and flee! (You will never penetrate them) you will not be able to break free (save with (Our) sanction) save with a reason and proof," Abd Allah ibn AbbasWikipedia's W.svg, Qur'an 55:33[7]
  • "O company of jinn and men, if you have the power to go beyond the bounds of the heavens and the earth, go beyond them! Yet you will be unable to go beyond them for that requires infinite power. [...] "The earth and the heavens": the Universe or the Kingdom of God. The verse means to impress this: 'It is not in your power to escape Allah's grasp. When the time for the accountability of which you are being foretold comes, you will be seized and brought before God in any case wherever you may be. To go out of God's reach you will have to flee from the Universe of God for which you do [not] have the required power. If you feel that you have the power, then you may use that power if you so will," Abul A'la MaududiWikipedia's W.svg, Qur'an 55:33[8]
Rather than predicting space travel, the Qur'an is challenging humans to do something nearly impossible.

b) God is addressing the spirits (jinn) and human beings (ins), and not essentially allegorical figures.The entire section tries to convince people that Allah's will is inescapable, not imparting scientific knowledge. Even if the verse isn't metaphorical, it certainly isn't meant to be taken literally.

c) 'To penetrate' is the translation of the verb nafada followed by the preposition min. According to Kazimirski's dictionary, the phrase means 'to pass right through and come out on the other side of a body' (e.g. an arrow that comes out on the other side). It therefore suggests a deep penetration and emergence at the other end into the regions in question.Qur'an 55:33 does have the phrase "أن تنفذوا (tanfudhu min)"[3] which is often translated as "pass through", "penetrate", or similar.[9] However, the precise translation doesn't change anything. First, this doesn't indicate that entering space is feasible. Second, if you want to get to the other side of the sky-dome, then obviously you have to pass all the way through -- going halfway would just mean getting stuck in the sky-dome.

d) The Power (sultan) these men will have to achieve this enterprise would seem to come from the All-Mighty.' There can be no doubt that this verse indicates the possibility men will one day achieve what we today call (perhaps rather improperly) 'the conquest of space'.The statement "Ye will never penetrate them save with (Our) sanction" indicates that getting into space requires Allah's permission. We presume that Allah, in His infinite wisdom, allowed the heathen-led Soviet Union, United States, France, Japan, China, United Kingdom, European Space Agency, India, Israel, and Ukraine all to predate the first attempted launch by majority-Muslim Iran in 2009.[10]

One must note that the text of the Qur'an predicts not only penetration through the regions of the Heavens, but also the Earth, i.e. the exploration of its depths.Qur'an 55:33 challenges humans to explore all the "أقطار (aqtari)" of the Earth.[3] Considering that aqtari is translated as "country, land, territory, [or] region",[11] and the only countries/lands/territories on Earth are on the surface of the Earth, it's a bit of a stretch to imagine that the Qur'an is talking about spelunking and oceanic exploration. Furthermore, we're not sure how talking about exploring downward is scientific foreknowledge. Humans had already been mining into the Earth for millenia and that humans already knew there was probably something deeper than the surface of the ocean.

The other two verses are taken from [S]ura 15, (verses 14 and 15). God is speaking of the unbelievers in Makka, as the context of this passage in the sura shows: "Even if We opened unto them a gate to Heaven and they were to continue ascending therein, they would say: our sight is confused as in drunkenness. Nay, we are people bewitched." The above expresses astonishment at a remarkable spectacle, different from anything man could imagine.The full Pickthall translation of Qur'an 15:14-15 is: "And even if We opened unto them a gate of heaven and they kept mounting through it, they would say: Our sight is wrong - nay, but we are folk bewitched.".

While Bucaille paints it as being about space, Qur'an 15:14-15 is actually about about how stubborn those nasty unbelievers are. Muhammad is saying that even if he opened up a portal into heaven and let unbelievers go through it, they still wouldn't believe that he's right. Multiple tafsirs support this interpretation:

  • "[...] Allah says that He has sent Messengers before him to the nations of the past, and no Messenger came to a nation but they rejected him and mocked him. [....] 14. And even if We opened to them a gate to the heavens and they were to continue ascending through it (all day long).) (15. They would surely say (in the evening): "Our eyes have been (as if) dazzled (we have not seen any angel or heaven). Nay, we are a people bewitched.") Allah explains the extent of their disbelief and stubborn resistance to the truth by stating that even if a door to heaven were to be opened for them, and they were to be taken up through it, they would still not believe. Rather, they would say: [....] (Our eyes have been (as if) dazzled,)" Ibn KathirWikipedia's W.svg, Qur'an 15:14-15[12]
  • "(15:14) If We were even to open for them a way to the heavens, and they could continually climb up to it in broad daylight, (15:15) they would still have said: "Surely our eyes have been dazzled; rather, we have been enchanted." (15:16) We have indeed set constellations in the heavens8 and have beautified them for the beholders,9 8. In the preceding[ ]( Ayats 14-15) it was stated that the disbelievers had become so hardened against the Quran that they would not have believed in it even if they had ascended the Heaven and seen with their own eyes the signs mentioned in it. Now in (Ayats 16-22), some of the signs are being cited in order to convince there of its truth. Buruj (mansions of stars) are signs of Allah. For it is not possible to pass through one sphere of the Heaven into another, as each sphere of the space has been fortified by invisible boundaries. In this connection, it may be noted that literally the Arabic word burj means a fortified place, but as a technical term of ancient astronomy this stood for each of the twelve signs of the Zodiac, which marked the sun’s path through the heavens," Abul A'la MaududiWikipedia's W.svg, Qur'an 15:14-16[13]

The conditional sentence is introduced here by the word lau which expresses a hypothesis that could never be realized as far as it concerned the people mentioned in these verses. When talking of the conquest of space therefore, we have two passages in the text of the Qur'an: one of them refers to what will one day become a reality thanks to the powers of intelligence and ingenuity God will give to man, and the other describes an event that the unbelievers in Makka will never witness, hence its character of a condition never to be realized.Bucaille is flatly wrong about the first passage; the second is unrelated.

The event will however be seen by others, as intimated in the first verse quoted above. It describes the human reactions to the unexpected spectacle that travelers in space will see: their confused sight, as in drunkenness, the feeling of being bewitched... This is exactly how astronauts have experienced this remarkable adventure since the first human space flight around the world in 1961. It is known in actual fact how once one is above the Earth's atmosphere, the Heavens no longer have the azure appearance we see from Earth, which results from phenomena of absorption of the Sun's light into the layers of the atmosphere. The human observer in space above the Earth's atmosphere sees a black sky and the Earth seems to be surrounded by a halo of bluish color due to the same phenomena of absorption of light by the Earth's atmosphere. The Moon has no atmosphere, however, and therefore appears in its true colors against the black background of the sky. It is a completely new spectacle therefore that presents itself to men in space, and the photographs of this spectacle are well known to present-day man.Yeah, space doesn't look the same as Earth. Big whoop. This is irrelevant, for two reasons:

First, Qur'an 15:14-15 isn't talking about space. It's talking about Heaven.

Second, it's not scientific foreknowledge to imagine that space might look weird. No scientific knowledge is required to make such a prediction. This is even more true, given the Qur'an's lack of detail about what "space" looks like.

Here again, it is difficult not to be impressed, when comparing the text of the Qur'an to the data of modern science, by statements that simply cannot be ascribed to the thought of a man who lived more than fourteen centuries ago.We agree that the statement that it is possible to enter space cannot be ascribed to Muhammad, since he didn't say it.


Summary of claim: The Qur'an accurately it's possible to exit the Earth's atmosphere and enter space, which looks weird, which would have been unknowable to contemporary science.
Does this statement meet all criteria necessary for Qur'anic scientific foreknowledge?

  1. Is it correct? Yes. It is possible to enter space.
  2. Is it in the Qur'an? No. The Qur'an is trying to drive home the point that Allah's will is inescapable and that unbelievers are stubborn bastards, not that it is possible to enter space.
  3. Is it unambiguous? No. The Qur'an does not describe space, describe what's between the surface and space, describe how to get up into space, or anything remotely useful to such a venture.
  4. Was it outside of contemporary knowledge? No. It was possible to imagine going "above" the sky-dome.
  5. Was it outside of contemporary technology? No. It was possible to imagine going "above" the sky-dome.

Thus, this statement is not an example of Qur'anic scientific foreknowledge.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

  • Other sources:
  • Other rebuttals: