This blog was created in large part to share my love of books and my wish to learn more about humanity, the universe around us and our place in it.
Over the years I have built up a nice little collection of ten separate English translations of the Qur’an including my most recent purchase which was The Study Qur’an – a collective translation and commentary effort undertaken by a small committee of academics under the leadership of the renowned Iranian Islamic scholar, Seyyed Hossein Nasr.
I have derived a huge amount of enjoyment and comfort over the years from reciting and reflecting on verses from the Qur’an and continue to do so. This post is part of a life long desire to learn and try and improve my understanding by asking questions and subjecting ideas to criticism.
This process has over the years seen me depart from some widely-held Muslim opinions on a number of issues including the Satanic Verses affair, free speech and the right to cause offence, the theory of evolution by natural selection, gay rights, the undesirability of living in a religious state etc.
History is littered with ideas and viewpoints/interpretations that were once passionately held only to be overturned by later discoveries, scientific findings or more convincing arguments. Recall the Catholic Church’s opposition to the ideas of Copernicus who held that it was the earth that revolved around the sun. The Catholic Church insisted that Biblical doctrine taught that it was the sun that revolved around the earth and it persecuted those who dared to believe otherwise. Even the celebrated scientist Galileo was brought in front of the Inquisition and forced to recant his adherence to Copernican views: an adherence that was based on his own astronomical observations with the telescope he had himself designed and built.
Does the Qur’an contain passages which – in their traditional interpretation(s) – do not stand up to modern scrutiny? And if that is the case, what consequences should that have as to how the Qur’an is viewed and interpreted today as a religious scripture?
In four separate passages in the Qur’an (15:16-18; 37:6-10; 67:5 and 72:8-9) reference is made which – according to the majority of Qur’anic interpretations I have seen – concerns the phenomenon of shooting stars. Let’s take a closer look at each of those passages:
And We have placed within the heaven great stars and have beautified it for the observers.
And We have protected it from every devil expelled [from the mercy of Allah]
Except one who steals a hearing and is pursued by a clear burning flame.
Indeed, We have adorned the nearest heaven with an adornment of stars
And as protection against every rebellious devil
[So] they may not listen to the exalted assembly [of angels] and are pelted from every side,
Repelled; and for them is a constant punishment,
Except one who snatches [some words] by theft, but they are pursued by a burning flame, piercing [in brightness].
And We have certainly beautified the nearest heaven with stars and have made [from] them what is thrown at the devils and have prepared for them the punishment of the Blaze.
And we have sought [to reach] the heaven but found it filled with powerful guards and burning flames.
And we used to sit therein in positions for hearing, but whoever listens now will find a burning flame lying in wait for him.
According to traditional Muslim commentators these above passages refer to jinns (a kind of ethereal being) who try to listen in to discussions between angels in the heavens and who are then pelted with bright flames which are associated with shooting stars. The Study Qur’an that I mentioned near the beginning of this post says the following in connection with the passage at 37:6-10:
“It is believed that after the Prophet Muhammad began receiving revelations, God cut off all such access to angelic discussions for the jinn, establishing angels as sentries and repelling the jinn with meteors.” The Study Qur’an, Note 10, p1086
Is the proposition that meteors are a punishment aimed at mischievous jinns trying to eavesdrop really a credible explanation? While it may perhaps have seemed a plausible explanation in past times, it is surely plausible no longer.
The NASA website has a far more convincing explanation for the phenomenon of shooting stars: they are dust particles in space that burn up on entry into the earth’s atmosphere. Indeed, when the earth passes through a trail of debris left by a comet then we see meteor showers whose dates astronomers are able to accurately predict each year based on the earth’s revolution around the sun.
So, it is disconcerting and very regrettable to see the Study Qur’an published in 2015 still repeating the discredited older explanation without any criticism or updating whatsoever given the additional knowledge we have gained in the intervening fourteen centuries since the Qur’an was first preached by the Prophet Muhammad.
The esteemed team behind the Study Qur’an are by no means alone though. On the Ask Imam website, when a correspondent asked about the Qur’an’s apparent references to shooting stars he was given an answer that to me seems long-winded, highly evasive and thoroughly unconvincing. You can read the Ask Imam response here and decide for yourself whether it was a convincing explanation.
Is it impious or sinful to raise questions regarding interpretations of the Qur’an which do not appear to make sense? Surely, it should not be. Progress depends on all ideas being allowed to be criticised. If the ideas are good ones then they will be able to withstand the criticism and its proponents will be able to convince others of their merits. If not, then bad ideas should be replaced by better and more convincing ideas.
Update (14th Aug 2016): The above blog attracted some of the nonsensical views below I had expected including someone who claimed that the fact that we have meteor showers at certain times of the year merely serves to show that God knows exactly when Jinn tend to be at their most mischievous because he is all-knowing. Still, for those who prefer objective knowledge to stupidity, here is a fine extract from The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch in which shows how science helps us choose between rival explanations of the same phenomenon:
…the ‘angel’ theory of planetary motion is untestable because no matter how planets moved, that motion could be attributed to angels; therefore the angel theory cannot explain the particular motions that we see, unless it is supplemented by an independent theory of how angels move. That is why there is a methodological rule in science which says that once an experimentally testable theory has passed the appropriate tests, any less testable rival theories about the same phenomena are summarily rejected, for their explanations are bound to be inferior.
(The Fabric of Reality, David Deutsch, p66)