Navigating the ‘scientific miracles of the Qur’an’ narrative

Rushda N.

On a cool summer morning in June 2011, two well-known Muslim apologists confronted biologist P. Z. Myers outside the World Atheist Convention in Dublin. They challenged Myers to explain how the Qur’an could have known the exact sequence of human embryonic development. “The Qur’an explicitly says the bones came before the flesh,” one of them said.

“In that case,” Myers retorted, “the Qur’an is wrong. The bones and flesh are formed simultaneously.” Taken aback, the Muslim apologist questioned his credentials. “Are you an embryologist?”, he asked sardonically. Myers said that he was. There was a ripple of laughter among the onlookers. Then the Muslim apologist recovered. “The Qur’an is still right!” he exclaimed. “Because the Arabic word thumma can also be used to imply simultaneity!”

Myers did not have to speak to convey his incredulity—one look at his face was enough to tell you what he thought.

In fact, the verse the two apologists were referring to says nothing about the order of formation of bones and flesh. But Muslims have continually sought such scientific allusions in the Qur’an as proof of its divine origins. This incident is just one example of how the scientific miracles narrative has become an intellectual embarrassment[1] for Muslims.

In a nutshell, the scientific miracles narrative argues that there are specific Qur’anic verses that allude to scientific theories or phenomena that were unknown at the time of revelation of the Qur’an, thus providing evidence for the Qur’an’s divine authorship.

This idea was popularised by Dr Maurice Bucaille in 1976 through his book The Bible, the Qur’an and Science, in which he argued that while the Bible was riddled with scientific errors, the Qur’an was perfectly compatible with modern science. Bucaille concluded that the science found in the Qur’an could not have been the work of man. The book was widely embraced by Muslims, despite being scorned by the scientific community.[2] It inspired the practice of interpreting Qur’anic verses in a scientific context as a form of apologetics, later dubbed Bucailleism.[3]

Known as al-i’jaz al-ilmi, or “scientific miraculousness”, this approach has become increasingly popular in mainstream Islamic discourse. But upon scrutiny, do such arguments hold water? And more importantly, is this the best strategy to convey the truth of Islam?

Examining some alleged scientific miracles

Proponents of the scientific miracles narrative have claimed that the Qur’an contains information that predates scientific breakthroughs in everything from geology to quantum mechanics to genetics to astronomy.

One such example is the verse:

“Do not the unbelievers see that the heavens and earth were joined together before we clove them asunder?”

Al-Qur’an 21:30

According to these apologists, this verse is a clear reference to the Big Bang theory, thus establishing the Qur’an’s divine origins. The discovery of antimatter? Foretold by the verse, “And We have created everything in pairs” (51:49). Some have even managed to find a link between the coronavirus and certain Qur’anic passages. (Surely the verse “Upon her nineteen” (74:30) is an explicit foretelling of the COVID-19 pandemic?)

While some of these arguments sound preposterous right off the bat, others initially appear to be more plausible. Often these claims are riddled with scientific jargon, which is meant to deliberately obfuscate the arguments and at the same time lend them a veneer of credibility. The fact is that most of these claims demand a considerable amount of mental and linguistic gymnastics, distortions of the original Arabic text, and leaps of imagination to establish any semblance of a connection between the verse in question and the scientific phenomenon it purportedly refers to.

Take, for example, the verse that allegedly mentions the spherical shape of the Earth. It reads, “And after that, He spread the Earth” (79:30). At first glance, the verse seems to make no assertion about the Earth’s shape. But Bucailleists argue that the Arabic word for “spread”, dahaha, is derived from the lexical root daha and its cognate udhiya, the latter of which refers to the egg of an ostrich. Hence, they say, the verse implies that the Earth is shaped like an ostrich egg—an uncannily accurate description that could only have been divinely inspired to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.

This argument is problematic on several levels. First off, neither daha nor udhiya refer to an ostrich egg. Lane’s Lexicon, one of the foremost works in Arabic lexicography, defines udhiya as “the place of the laying of eggs … of the ostrich.”[4] Lisān al-ʿArab elaborates on the word, “the place where the ostrich lays its eggs in the sand … [it is named so] because the ostrich spreads out (tad’hoo) the sand then lays its eggs in it, as it doesn’t have a nest.”[5]  The notion that the word refers to the egg itself is entirely unfounded. (Ironically, Muslim flat-earthers use the same verse to argue that the Qur’an substantiates the flat-earth claim.)

Second, the idea of a spherical Earth had been around long before the advent of Islam, most notably in ancient Greece and Rome.[6] Thus, even if the verse did refer to a spherical Earth, any claims of miraculousness would be invalidated on grounds that this knowledge was preexisting.

Third, a quick Google image search will tell you that the Earth’s shape is considerably different from that of an ostrich egg. An ostrich egg, like any other egg, is a prolate spheroid, and so elongated instead of squashed. The Earth, as we know, is largely the opposite: bulging at the equator and flattened at the poles, or what is known as an oblate spheroid.

Thus, by using arguments such as these to establish the truth of the Qur’an, we are only shooting ourselves in the foot. As with the “bones before flesh” argument, the ostrich egg affair has been turned against Muslims to demonstrate that the Qur’an’s alleged scientific miracles are in fact scientific errors. It is the coup de grâce of the adversary: not only is your alleged scientific miracle not a miracle, it’s a glaring inaccuracy.

Note that none of the classical exegetes interpreted the above verse as having made any suggestion regarding the Earth’s shape; yet, some modern translations of the Qur’an substitute the phrase “spread out” with the term “egg-shaped”.

Such arguments are growing in popularity despite being patently absurd; the Internet is awash with claims of hidden Qur’anic meanings foretelling recent scientific discoveries. This popular meme summarises what seems to be the general principle behind these claims:

(Whether or not this meme is a work of satire is unclear, but let’s assume for the sake of the ummah that it is.)

The incoherence of the scientific miracles argument

Based off the “ostrich egg” example, we can maintain that most arguments dealing with “scientific miracles” are incoherent for a number of reasons:

1. Such claims lead to inconsistencies in interpretation. For example, the verse mentioned at the start of the previous section, “And we have created everything in pairs”, often invoked as a reference to the existence of antimatter, has also been used as a reference to the existence of subatomic particles, and in other instances as a reference to sexes in the plant kingdom[7]. Clearly, none of these interpretations can be reconciled with the others. So which one is it, and in which interpretation does the miracle lie?

2. The verses in question are vague enough to be interpreted in a variety of different, often contradictory, ways—as with the “bones before flesh” example above. Another such example is the argument that the Qur’anic description of the sky as a “protected roof” (21:32) is a miraculous reference to the protective function of the atmosphere. On the other hand, it could be argued that the same verse inaccurately describes the sky as a physical roof-like structure. Of course, as Muslims, we reject this latter interpretation because we know the Qur’an to be the infallible word of Allah ﷻ, but the existence of an alternate interpretation such as this one renders the argument invalid. This is not to reject the scientific interpretation itself, but the argument that relies on it—perhaps the verse does indeed refer to the function of the atmosphere, but its ambiguity means it can provide no grounds for claims of miraculousness.

3. The arguments overlook the fact that much of the scientific knowledge contained in these verses was already available at the time of revelation of the Qur’an. This holds true for the Big Bang claim referred to above, the moon’s light being reflected from the sun, iron being sent down from outer space, and many other such alleged miracles: these facts were common knowledge in other civilisations.[8] Since the Arabs had access to information from these civilisations through trade and commerce (there are ahadith[9] explicitly referring to this exchange of knowledge), it would make little sense to argue that the scientific information in these verses is of a miraculous nature. To the skeptic, the most rational explanation would be that Prophet Muhammad ﷺ borrowed this information from the earthly sources he had access to.

4. Finally, one could argue that there are several instances of other ancient scriptures making similarly vague allusions to recent scientific discoveries.[10] Does that make their works divine?

It should be noted that rejecting certain claims about alleged scientific miracles doesn’t mean rejecting the Qur’an’s compatibility with science. To argue that the Qur’an is consistent with science is one thing; to extract scientific meaning where none exists is another.

Consequences for Islamic apologetics

The lack of intellectual integrity surrounding the scientific miracles narrative has resulted in damning consequences for da’wah. Apologists promoting this narrative have become the subject of ridicule, thus undermining the serious intellectual discourse taking place in Islamic apologetics. Meanwhile, skeptical Muslims and new converts to Islam who have been convinced of the divine nature of the Qur’an through these arguments often apostate once they become disillusioned with this narrative. It has led to a growing countermovement online, comprising of ex-Muslims and critics of Islam debunking these claims and casting doubt on the validity of Islamic apologetics as a whole.

Thus, this narrative has not only served to lead people away from Islam, but has also resulted in a crisis of faith among Muslims.

How should we approach al-i’jaz al-’ilmi?

It’s important to bear in mind that the realm of scientific exegesis (tafsir ‘ilmi) is one uncharted by the Prophet ﷺ, the sahabah or the classical mufassireen. One is therefore required to exercise great precaution when using such an approach. This does not mean that this form of exegesis is inherently unfounded—indeed, part of the beauty of the Qur’an lies in the multiplicity of its meanings. The Qur’an’s timelessness and universality mean that one can find in its verses relevant interpretations for any age, and meaningful discourse for people of all backgrounds. In many cases, exploring the scientific phenomena related to a verse would help fulfil its objective of instilling awe at the creation of Allah ﷻ. One such example is to call attention to the wonders of the atmosphere when reflecting over the following verse:

“Do they not observe the sky above them, how we have made it and beautified it, and how there are no rifts therein?”

Al-Qur’an (50:6)

However, one needs to be careful not to overstep the line. Any scientific interpretation made must not exceed the linguistic scope of the verse, contradict the rules of Arabic grammar and syntax, disregard the context of the verses, or be at direct odds with an Islamic principle or with any interpretation of the verse made by the Prophet ﷺ.

Note that at-tafsir al-‘ilmi does not necessarily make arguments pertaining to al-i‘jaz al-‘ilmi. It is one thing to interpret Qur’anic verses in a scientific context as one of its many possible readings; it is quite another to use such a reading as a definitive basis for arguments of miraculousness.

When pursuing arguments for al-i‘jaz al-‘ilmi, it is important to make a distinction between established scientific phenomena and speculative theories. For instance, some Bucaillists have claimed that the multiverse theory can be derived from certain Qur’anic verses. Such a claim, even if substantiated, would make a shaky argument for the Qur’an’s miraculousness, because it could be negated by new empirical data in the future. Worse still, it would inadvertently attribute scientific errors to the Qur’an.

On the other end of the spectrum to Bucailleists are those who argue that because science is ever-changing, it is a pointless endeavor to seek any kind of scientific interpretation in the Qur’an as proof of its veracity. They invoke the probabilistic nature of science as a basis for this argument. But probability does not imply unreliability: it is unlikely that established scientific facts—such as the spherical shape of the earth—will ever be invalidated by new data. To claim that we cannot treat such scientific discoveries with certainty is absurd.

So if science is a valid yardstick to judge the integrity of scripture, the question is—can the scientific miracles argument be salvaged?

Having considered the discrepancies found in most claims of scientific miraculousness, we can reason that if any such argument is to be valid, it must fulfill the following criteria:

  • The verse in question must make an unambiguous allusion to a scientific phenomenon.
  • It must be established that this scientific information was unavailable before or at the time of the revelation of the Qur’an, and impossible to discover at the time.
  • The scientific phenomenon alluded to must be one established by empirical data and accepted as fact by the scientific community; it must not be an unproven hypothesis.

Advancing science in Islam

The scientific miracles narrative has played on the inferiority complex of the Muslim masses,[11] reassuring them that their backwardness in the scientific arena today can somehow be overturned by allusions to science found in their own scripture. It can’t.

Let’s not forget that our ummah has a rich heritage of scientific discovery and invention. There used to be a time when the Islamic world was the heart of scientific growth. When Europe was drowning in the Dark Ages, it was our people who lit the candle of knowledge, so that its glow spread across the East and West. For over half a millennium, Arabic was the language of science. But today, Muslim contribution to the natural sciences is spectacularly poor. Muslim countries contribute only about 1% of the world’s published scientific papers; in 2005, the entire Arab world combined produced some 2000 scientific papers fewer than Harvard university alone.[12] And it’s hardly been getting better since.

If we are to revive the legacy of our predecessors, we need to encourage genuine Muslim contribution to academia, rather than seek validation through pseudo-scientific arguments. Many of us Muslims constantly seek external approval for the relevance or progressiveness of our faith—specifically Western intellectual praise. News of a European or American’s conversion to Islam is met with a great deal of fanfare in the Muslim community, perhaps because it allays our own insecurities with regards to our faith. As Muslims, we need to remind ourselves that the truthfulness of our faith is not subject to the status quo or number of its followers, and that true honour lies with Allah ﷻ and should be sought through Him alone.

Whether or not the Qur’an contains miracles of science, the evidence for its divine origin is clear. From its linguistic inimitability to the sublimity of its message, the Qur’an is a timeless miracle—a Book untouched by human folly.

“No falsehood can approach it from before or behind it: a revelation from One full of wisdom, worthy of all praise.”

Al-Quran 41:42

[1] Tzortzis, H (2013). ‘Does the Qur’an Contain Scientific Miracles? A New Approach on How to Reconcile and Discuss Science in the Qur’an’ [Online]

[2] Rahim, S. (2010). ‘Pathfinders: The golden age of Arabic science by Jim Al-Khalili: Review’, The Telegraph [Online]

[3] Sardar, Z. (1989). Explorations in Islamic Science, Mansell, p. 34.

[4] Lane, E. W., Lane-Pool, S. (1863). Arabic-English Lexicon, Williams and Norgate, p. 857.

[5] Ibn Manzur, M. (1955). Lisan al-Arab, vol. 14, p. 252. Originally published in 1290.

[6] Evans, J, (1998). The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy, Oxford University Press, p. 47. Originally published in 1983.

[7] What about the existence of hermaphrodites?

[8] For an analysis of the historical evidence, refer to Hamza Tzortzis’ essay on the subject.

[9] The Prophet ﷺ said, “I intended to prohibit cohabitation with suckling women, but I considered the Romans and Persians, and saw that they suckle their children and this (cohabitation) does not do any harm to them (the suckling women).” [Sahih Muslim 3392]

[10] Arguments of ‘Bible science’ work in much the same way; see Henry M. Morris (1993), Biblical Creationism, Baker Books,  p.108 for one such example.

[11] Sardar, Z. (2011). Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam, Oxford Univerity Press, p.356.

[12] Al-Khalili, J. (2010). ‘Science in the Muslim world,’ Physics World [Online]

Rushda is an undergraduate student of Islamic studies and physics based in Saudi Arabia. She writes for her website, New Dawn, and conducts youth-centric workshops in association with Islamic institutes in Malaysia. When she’s not trying (and failing) to comprehend quantum physics, she can be found stargazing, devouring books or adding to her assortment of equestrian-related injuries.

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