Does the Koran teach a Flat Earth?

Miry Fount Like a Carpet
Level Earth Solid Heavens
Tent-Stakes The Sky is Falling
Hadith Prostration
Bed-Time Astronomy


At its best, the Koran is soaring religious poetry.  At its worst, it can sound like the improvisations of a barbarous outlander out of touch with the civilized world.  People in the seventh century knew that the earth was round; Ptolemaic astronomy was premised on that fact. But it is far from obvious that Mohammed knew what they knew.

Miry Fount

Mohammed is under the impression the sun sets at a particular locale on the earth:

"...And a route he followed, until when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it to set in a miry fount; and hard by he found a people...Then followed he a route until when he reached the rising of the sun he found it to rise on a people to whom we had given no shelter from it." (Sura 18:83-89).

The traveller, 'Dhoulkarnain,' the 'Two-horned,' is probably Alexander the Great. Ancient coins depict Alexander with two ram's horns, reflecting Ammon's paternity. Some Muslim commentators identify him as such: "Moreover, some Muslim traditions give Dhu'l-Qarnain the added name Sakandar (an Arabic derivative of the Greek name Alexander) and identify him as king of Greece and Persia." (Understanding the Koran, Mateen Elass, Kindle location 1367).

The Koranic text implies there is a particular spot on the earth where the sun rises, and another where it sets. One can find similar references in the Iliad, where they seem to be manifest symptoms of flat-earthism:

"Now the sun of a new day struck on the ploughlands, rising out of the quiet water and the deep stream of the ocean to climb the sky." (Iliad, Book 7, 421-423);
"So he spoke, and Hera of the white arms gave him no answer. And now the shining light of the sun was dipped in the Ocean trailing black night across the grain-giving land." (Iliad, Book 8, 484-486);
"Now the lady Hera of the ox eyes drove the unwilling weariless sun god to sink in the depth of the Ocean, and the sun went down, and the brilliant Achaians gave over their strong fighting, and the doubtful collision of battle." (Iliad, Book 18, 239-242).

Any visualization of the sun actually being doused by earthly waters, such as the perception that the sunset as seen from Spain's coast is accompanied by a hissing sound, is diagnostic of flat-earthism:

"It is quite possible that these things are so, and we ought not to disbelieve them. Not so however with regard to the other common and vulgar reports; for Posidonius tells us the common people say that in the countries next the ocean the sun appears larger as he sets, and makes a noise resembling the sound of hot metal in cold water, as though the sea were hissing as the sun was submerged in its depths. (Strabo, Geography, Volume I, Book III, Chapter 1, Section 5, p. 207).

The concept that there is a particular locale upon the face of the earth which is the very place where the sun sets is difficult to reconcile with any other astronomy than flat-earth.

Like a Carpet

Further eroding confidence is Mohammed's penchant for employing similes for the earth like 'carpets' and 'beds' which don't spring to mind as the most natural analogy for a round earth: "And the Earth -- we have stretched it out like a carpet; and how smoothly have we spread it forth!" (Sura 51:48).  Only with a great many tucks, darts and safety pins is a 'carpet' fitted to a round planet.

"He hath spread the earth as a bed, and hath traced out paths for you therein, and hath sent down rain from Heaven, and by it we bring forth the kinds of various herbs..." (Sura 20:55).
"Who hath made the earth a bed for you, and the heaven a covering, and hath caused water to come down from heaven, and by it hath brought forth fruits for your sustenance!" (Sura 2:20).
"And God hath spread the earth for you like a carpet,
That ye may walk therein along spacious paths." (Sura 71:18-19).

Need a Koran?


Level Earth

Mohammed says the earth is 'level':

"It is He who hath made the earth level for you: traverse then its broad sides, and eat of what He hath provided. -- Unto Him shall be the resurrection." (Sura 67:15).

From what perspective is he speaking? Is he contrasting the traversable plains of Arabia to more inaccessible mountainous zones? Or is he describing the earth/sky system from the point of view of an outside observer?

Speaking of the end of days, he talks about the earth being "stretched out as a plain:"

"When the Heaven shall have split asunder and duteously obeyed its Lord; and when Earth shall have been stretched out as a plain, and shall have cast forth what was in her and become empty..." (Sura 84:1-4).
"And call to mind the day when we will cause the mountains to pass away, and thou shalt see the earth a levelled plain, and we will gather mankind together, and not leave of them any one." (Sura 18:45).

None can doubt that God can produce whatever changes He wishes in the earth/sky system. Again, from what perspective is Mohammed speaking? Is he contrasting the level plains with the mountains, or speaking as an outside observer?

Solid Heavens

As will be seen, Mohammed is prone to fretting about the sky falling.  He describes the heaven as 'solid', which would explain his concerns about pieces falling off: "And built above you seven solid heavens, And placed therein a burning lamp..." (Sura 78:12-13). Under this solid structure is a firm foundation:

"It is God who hath given you the earth as a sure foundation, and over it built up the Heaven, and formed you, and made your forms beautiful, and feedeth you with good things." (Sura 40:66).

The 'seven' heavens, familiar from the astronomical musings of the Talmudic Rabbis, correspond to the number of the then-known planets plus the sun and moon: "He it is who created for you all that is on Earth, then proceeded to the Heaven, and into seven Heavens did He fashion it: and He knoweth all things." (Sura 2:27).

"See ye not how God hath created the seven heavens one over the other? And He hath placed therein the moon as a light, and hath placed there the sun as a torch..." (Sura 71:14-15)
"And He made them seven heavens in two days, and in each heaven made known its office: And we furnished the lower heaven with lights and guardian angels." (Sura 41:11).
"And we have created over you seven heavens: -- and we are not careless of the creation." (Sura 23:17).
"SAY: Who is the Lord of the seven heavens, and the Lord of the glorious throne?" (Sura 23:88).
"The seven heavens praise him, and the earth, and all who are therein; neither is there aught which doth not celebrate his praise; but their utterances of praise ye understand not. He is kind, indulgent." (Sura 17:46).
"It is God who hath created seven heavens and as many earths." (Sura 65:12).

He refers to heaven as a structure, a "roof:"

"And we made the heaven a roof strongly upholden; yet turn they away from its signs." (Sura 21:33).

What was the predominant scientific astronomy in Mohammed's day?:



Tent-Stakes

Mohammed seems stuck on the idea of the earth being...stuck, weighted down by all those mountains:

"Without pillars that can be seen hath He created the heavens, and on the earth hath thrown mountains lest it should move with you; and He hath scattered over it animals of every sort..." (Sura 31:9);
"And He hath thrown firm mountains on the earth, lest it move with you; and rivers and paths for your guidance..." (Sura 16:15).
"Have we not made the Earth a couch? And the mountains its tent-stakes?" (Sura 78:6-7).
"And we set mountains on the earth lest it should move with them, and we made on it broad passages between them as routes for their guidance..." (Sura 21:32).

Somebody better get a crow-bar and pry off all those mountains so it can orbit...

The Sky is Falling

  • "And should they see a fragment of the heaven falling down, they would say, 'It is only a dense cloud.'" (Sura 52:44)
  • "Seest thou not that God hath put under you whatever is in the earth...And He holdeth back the heaven that it fall not on the earth, unless He permit it! for God is right Gracious to mankind, Merciful." (Sura 22:64)
  • "And they will say, 'By no means will we believe on thee till thou cause a fountain to gush forth for us from the earth...Or thou make the heaven to fall on us, as thou hast given out, in pieces; or thou bring God and the angels to vouch for thee...'" (Sura 17:92-94)
  • "'Make now a part of the heaven to fall down upon us, if thou art a man of truth.'" (Sura 26:187)
  • "What! have they never contemplated that which is before them and behind them, the Heaven and the Earth? If such were our pleasure, we could sink them into that Earth, or cause a portion of that Heaven to fall upon them! herein truly is a sign for our every returning servant." (Sura 34:9).

Mohammed's fretting about the sky falling does not sound as if intended as irony. The Kaabah, the sacred structure about which Muslim pilgrims circumambulate, contains, it is said, a black stone which appears to be a meteorite. Evidently this stone had long been held in reverence; the Christian author Clement of Alexandria, writing in the early third century, mentions it: "In ancient times, then, the Scythians used to worship the dagger, the Arabians their sacred stone, the Persians their river." (Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks, Chapter III, p. 101 Loeb edition). Pagan theologian Maximus of Tyre was aware of it, whether this is the same rock or a similar one: "The Arabians, indeed, venerate a god whom I do not know; but the statue of him which I have seen is a quadrangular stone." (Maximus of Tyre, The Dissertations, Volume II, Dissertation XXVIII, p. 194). These authors wrote centuries before Mohammed.

The fear that a chunk of sky was likely to fall down and clobber the innocent pedestrian, an odd fear to our ears, was in fact expressed by other peoples of antiquity:

"Ptolemy, the son of Lagus, relates that in this campaign the Celts who dwell on the Adriatic came to Alexander for the purpose of making a treaty of friendship and mutual hospitality, and that the king received them n a friendly way, and asked them, while drinking, what might be the chief object of their dread, supposing that they would say it was he; but that they replied, it was no man, only they felt some alarm lest the heavens should on some occasion or other fall on them, but that they valued the friendship of such a man as him above every thing." (Strabo, Geography, Book VII, Chapter III, Section 8, pp. 463-464)

Arrian also tells the story of the fearful Celts: "Of the Celts he enquired what, of mortal things, they most dreaded, hoping that his own great name had reached as far as the Celts and farther, and that they would confess that they dreaded him beyond all else. Their answer, however, proved unexpected to him, for, living as they did in difficult country far from Alexander, and seeing that his invasion was really directed elsewhere, they said that their greatest dread was lest the sky should fall upon them." (Arrian, Anabasis, Book I, Chapter IV). Did they seriously fear this outcome, or was this an ironical sally directed at Alexander's inflated self-estimation?

Evidently the celebrated oracle at Delphi considered this eventually something to plan for:

"Podaleirios came to Delphi and asked the oracle where he should settle. An oracle was given that he should live in a city where nothing would happen to him if the sky above fell, so he settled the place in the Carian Chersonesos that is encircled entirely by mountains." (Apollodorus, Library, Epitome 6.18, p. 87 Hackett).
Up
bar

The Hadith

The recollections of Mohammed's contemporaries are employed in working up Muslim law, because the Koran's scattershot injunctions do not make up a complete law-code. The sects differ as to the authenticity of the material in the traditional collections. These 'hadith' also touch upon astronomy:

"Narrated Abu Dhar: 'The Prophet asked me at sunset, "Do you know where the sun goes (at the time of sunset)?" I replied, "Allah and His Apostle know better." He said, "It goes (i.e. travels) till it prostrates Itself underneath the Throne and takes the permission to rise again, and it is permitted and then (a time will come when) it will be about to prostrate itself but its prostration will not be accepted, and it will ask permission to go on its course but it will not be permitted, but it will be ordered to return whence it has come and so it will rise in the west. And that is the interpretation of the Statement of Allah: "And the sun Runs its fixed course For a term (decreed). that is The Decree of (Allah) The Exalted in Might, The All-Knowing."'" (Hadith, Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 54, Number 421.)

Tomb of Mohammed
"'May Allah's Curse be on the Jews and the Christians for they build places of worship at the graves of their prophets.' (Hadith Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 56, Number 660.)

Prostration

"Have they not seen how everything which God hath created turneth its shadow right and left, prostrating itself before God in all abasement?" (Sura 16:50)

What Mohammed visualizes here is the daily procession of shadows cast by stationary objects as a 'prostration' or act of worship. This makes more sense if God is visualized, not as omnipresent, but as seated upon a throne at the zenith of the sky: "His Throne reacheth over the Heavens and the Earth, and the upholding of both burdeneth Him not; and He is the High, the Great!" (Sura 2:256). There is no verse in the Koran corresponding to John 4:24, "God is a Spirit."

"And unto God doth all in the Heavens and on the Earth bow down in worship, willingly or by constraint: their very shadows also morn and even!" (Sura 15:16).

Bed-Time

"A sign to them also is the Night. We withdraw the day from it, and lo! they are plunged in darkness; and the Sun hasteneth to her place of rest. This, the ordinance of the Mighty, the Knowing!" (Sura 36:37-38).

The idea that the sun, like an exhausted farmer, rests at night, may be poetic diction, an instance of Ruskin's 'pathetic fallacy.' Or it might be intended as a matter-of-fact description of the sun's daily routine. If the latter, it's a flat-earth reference, because in no other system is the sun doing, or not doing, anything different when her rays are not seen from one hemisphere.


Astronomy

Copernicus Calendrical Reform

Copernicus

The heliocentric Copernican system, upon its first publication, met with indignation, not only from the Roman Catholic church, but also from Martin Luther. A rotund earth was not a novelty of this system, the Ptolemaic system already had that. Copernicus' innovation still meets with indignation in some quarters today...such as Saudi Arabia: "When in 1966, for example, he [Sheikh Bin Baz] had condemned what he termed the Copernican 'heresy,' insisting, as the Koran said, that the sun moved, Egyptian journalists, much to President Nasser's delight, had mercilessly mocked the leading cleric as a reflection of Saudi primitiveness." (Judith Miller, God has Ninety-Nine Names, p. 114).

Comments about the sun moving include,

"And He it is who hath created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon, each moving swiftly in its sphere." (Sura 21:34).
"Seest thou not that God causeth the night to come in upon the day, and the day to come in upon the night? and that he hath subjected the sun and the moon to laws by which each speedeth along to an appointed goal? and that God therefore is acquainted with that which ye do?" (Sura 31:28).
"He causeth the night to enter in upon the day, and the day to enter in upon the night; and He hath given laws to the sun and to the moon, so that each journeyeth to its appointed goal: This is God your Lord: All power is His..." (Sura 35:14).
"To the Sun it is not given to overtake the Moon, nor doth the night outstrip the day; but each in its own sphere doth journey on." (Sura 36:40).
"For truth hath he created the Heavens and the Earth: It is of Him that the night returneth upon the day and that the day returneth upon the night: and He controlleth the sun and the moon so that each speedeth to an appointed goal. Is He not the Mighty, the Gracious?" (Sura 39:7).

To an earth-bound observer the sun does apparently move. Such language might be phenomenological, describing what an observer within the system sees. It might also intend to describe what a privileged observer standing outside the system would see. In the Ptolemaic system of astronomy, such an observer would see the sun move:



A moving sun is of course also consistent with flat-earth astronomy.

"It is God who hath reared the Heavens without pillars thou canst behold; then mounted his throne, and imposed laws on the sun and moon: each travelleth to its appointed goal." (Sura 13:2).

Calendrical Reform

Mohammed legislated a calendrical reform for his people, or rather a calendrical anti-reform or retrogression. Because twelve lunar months add up to less than one solar year, the pagan Arabs used to intercalate an extra month as required. Mohammed would have none of that:

"Twelve months is the number of months with God, according to God's book, since the day when He created the Heaven and the Earth: of these four are sacred: this is the right usage: But wrong not yourselves therein; attack those who join gods with God in all, as they attack you in all: and know that God is with those who fear Him. To carry over a sacred month to another, is only a growth of infidelity. The Infidels are led into error by it. They allow it one year, and forbid it another, that they may make good the number of months which God hath hallowed, and they allow that which God hath prohibited. The evil of their deeds hath been prepared for them by Satan: for God guideth not the people who do not believe." (Sura 9:36-37)

This is progress in a rear-ward direction. It really is a good idea to intercalate an extra month into a lunar calendar, because twelve lunar months do not add up to 365-1/4 days. The people of Arabia used to do that, in the times of ignorance:

"The intercalators are those who used to adjust the months for the Arabs in the time of ignorance. They would make one of the holy months profane, and make one of the profane months holy to balance the calendar. It was about this that God sent down: 'Postponement (of a sacred month) is but added infidelity by which those who disbelieve are misled.' [Sura 9:37]" (Life of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq, translated by A. Guillaume, pp. 21-22).

In their "times of ignorance" they were wiser than they would later be, because in the uncontrolled lunar calendar now used by Muslims, months gyrate wildly through the seasons. The ancient Romans at once time employed a lunar calendar, corrected as needed, but under the auspices of the pagan dictator-for-life Julius Caesar, they ditched it and went to a stable 365-1/4 day calendar, as advised by Cleopatra's astronomer Sosigenes:

"Under the guidance of her astronomer royal, Sosigenes, Rome's unwieldy lunar calendar was discarded in favor of Egypt's more straightforward solar version. It became known as the Julian Calendar and was made up of 365 days, with an extra day added every four years to create what is now known as a leap year. . .In order to introduce their new calendar on 1 January 45 BC, Caesar and Sosigenes added two extra months between November and December in 46 BC as a one-off measure. This made 46 BC the longest year on record at an astonishing 445 days. . ." (Cleopatra the Great, by Joann Fletcher, p. 202

With slight tweaking by Pope Gregory, this is the calendar now used in the West. Its great advantage is its stability; it keeps pace with the sun, so that the autumn harvest festival is never found to occur, say, in winter. Its great disadvantage is that the months have become abstractions, untethered from the moon's cycle.



Conclusion

Not only a geocentrist, Mohammed, if we adopt the simplest and most plausible explanation for the Miry Fount, was a flat-earther, an idea retrograde even for his own time.

Some people take a 'so's your old man' approach to Christian criticism on this point, claiming that the Bible also teaches a flat earth. Wallace D. Fard, a self-professed Muslim who nevertheless made a heterodox claim to godhood, went further in his criticism on this point, offering geocentricity as proof of the futility of Bible religion: "The very first time I went to a meeting I heard him [Fard] say: 'The Bible tells you that the Sun rises and sets. That is not so. The Sun stands still. All your lives you have been thinking that the Earth never moved. Stand and look toward the Sun and know that it is the Earth that you are standing on which is moving.' Up to that day I always went to the Baptist church. After I heard that sermon from the prophet, I was turned around completely.'" (Manning Marable, Malcolm X, p. 85). In fact the great majority of people who say 'the sun rises' and 'the sun sets' are not geocentrists, nor was Copernicus, who included a table of sunrise and sunset times in his astronomical works. It is oddly true however, that a distressingly large percentage of the populace of the United States, and also Russia, get this question wrong when asked by a pollster. Does the Bible teach either geocentrism or flat-earthism?:

Return to Answering Islam...