August 27, 2009

My Tafsir on Surah Fussilat (41):9-12

"The Bible was written to show us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." - Cardinal Cesar Baronio (1598), as cited by Galileo Galilei

A couple days ago, I received a comment from a certain someone who asked about verses 41:10-12 in the Qur'an. This person is apparently under the impression that the Qur'an is suggesting that the Earth was created first in all the universe before anything else (including the stars). I told him that the verses were analogical, but I wanted to expand on the point further. Below are the relevant verses (41:9-12):

Say: Is it that ye deny Him Who created the earth in two Days? And do ye join equals with Him? He is the Lord of (all) the Worlds.

He set on the (earth), mountains standing firm, high above it, and bestowed blessings on the earth, and measure therein all things to give them nourishment in due proportion, in four Days, in accordance with (the needs of) those who seek (Sustenance).

Moreover He comprehended in His design the sky, and it had been (as) smoke: He said to it and to the earth: "Come ye together, willingly or unwillingly." They said: "We do come (together), in willing obedience."

So He completed them as seven firmaments in two Days, and He assigned to each heaven its duty and command. And We adorned the lower heaven with lights, and (provided it) with guard. Such is the Decree of (Him) the Exalted in Might, Full of Knowledge.

First, I'm amused that verse 41:9 was skipped in the certain someone's original comment, if only because we both that he's become a self-proclaimed apostate. So, unless he's changed his mind and come back to a state of Islam (insha'allah), I'd say that his answer to the first question is "no." (Astaghfirullah!) Regardless...

The thing about the remaining verses, 41:10-12, is that they follow a specific sequence. This sequence was done with the original recipients of the Qur'an in mind, that being the early Muslim community and the Jahiliyyah-era Arabs (this surah, Fussilat, being revealed in the later Makkan period). As any good writer knows, you write to the level of your audience. Verse 41:9, for example, talks about the creation of the Earth, but Allah (swt) uses concepts that the audience at the time of the revelation would have understood; i.e., it took two of His days to complete. He, Allah (swt), didn't talk about things like the nebular hypothesis of solar system formation or protoplanetary disks. That sort of thing would have been far above the heads of the original recipients of the Qur'an.

So He followed a specific sequence that could be understood. Verse 41:10 first discusses the earth, the mountains, and the necessary chemicals - including water - that were needed to support life (once again, written in a way that could be understood by the original recipients). This verse came first, IMO, because everyone knows what the Earth is and would have asked a question like "How was the Earth made?" at some point in their life. The following verse, then, would be the next logical question: "How was the sky made?" And, finally, verse 41:12, completes the sequence by discussing the heavens and the stars. These verses were written in an order that is completely natural from the perspective of a human: we look down at the ground and then progressively higher, into the sky and then up to the heavens.

The mistake is to assume that these verses show the actual sequence of creation. Like the quotation at the top of this post, the Qur'an was written to show us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. These four verses were revealed not to provide a scientific proof, but to discuss how the Earth, sky and heavens were created in a manner that a people with a lack of scientific knowledge could understand.

Wa allahu alim. (And God knows best.)