Does the Qur’an Speak About an Expanding Universe?


As the unchanged and unerring Word of God, the Qur’an has naturally been considered by Muslims as containing miracles. Many scientific claims have been identified in the Qur’an. Of course, any such identification presumes that the specific scientific claim is a definite fact. Linking a Qur’anic text to any conceived scientific fact often requires preferring one particular interpretation of a word or expression in that Qur’anic text over possible alternatives. Such effort is, of course, open to error. The supposed scientific fact may be later proved to be wrong and/or the interpretation of the relevant Qur’anic passage may be wrong. In this article, I will discuss such a case of misidentification where a misinterpretation of a Qur’anic text is linked to a supposed scientific fact in the Qur’an.

In order to explain certain observations that the view that the universe was static could not explain, astronomers in the twenties of the 20th century developed the theory that the universe is expanding. That the universe is expanding is now considered an established scientific fact.Some Muslims claim that the Qur’an contains a verse that state that the universe has been expanding. This is the verse in question:

And the heaven We built it with might and We lamūsi‘ūn. (51.47)

The term “lamūsi‘ūn” is usually understood as meaning “expanding.” The word “heaven” is taken to mean the “universe” and to be the object of the action of “expanding,” and thus it is claimed that this verse shows that the Qur’an has revealed that the universe is expanding. This, however, is a misunderstanding of the word “lamūsi‘ūn.” I should first note that most translations do not suggest a link between this verse and the concept of expanding universe:

Translator Translation
Pickthall We have built the heaven with might, and We it is Who make the vast extent (thereof).
Palmer And the heaven — we have built it with might, and, verily, we do surely give it ample space!
Rodwell And the Heaven — with our hands have we built it up, and given it its expanse.
Sale We have built the heaven with might; and we have given [it] a large extent.
Shakir And the heaven, We raised it high with power, and most surely We are the makers of things ample.
Sher Ali And We have built the heavens with Our own hands, and, verily, We have vast powers.
Yusuf Ali With power and skill did We construct the Firmament: for it is We Who create the vastness of pace.

But some translations allow a link between the verse and the expanding universe concept:

Translator Translation
Arberry And heaven — We built it with might, and We extend it wide.
Hilali-Khan With power did We construct the heaven. Verily, We are Able to extend the vastness of space thereof.
Khalifa We constructed the sky with our hands, and we will continue to expand it.

Whether or not accommodating linking the verse to the concept of expanding universe, all nine translators link the term “lamūsi‘ūn” to “expansion,” “space,” “vastness,” and such concepts.

Some classical exegetes of the Qur’an have also established this link in the verse. For instance, Qurṭubī (d. 671/1272) and ibn Kathīr (d. 774/1372) interpret this term as meaning “We have expanded its borders.” Others, however, have differed. For instance, Zamakhsharī (d. 538/1144) and Baiḍāwī (d. 685/1286) take it to mean “We are capable.” Rāzī (d. 606/1209) considers both interpretations as possible, so he says that it may mean “we expanded it” or “We are capable.” Obviously, those who linked “lamusi’un” to “expansion” did not have the concept of expanding universe in mind. Nevertheless, linking this term to “expansion” is the result of wrong interpretation.

The article “la” in “lamūsi‘ūn” is used for oath or emphasis, so the term we are interested in is “mūsi‘ūn.” This term is the masculine plural of an active participle “mūsi‘.” The plural of this word and the plural pronoun “We” are used in the verse because they refer to God. In Arabic, the plural is often used as a mark of respect and authority. For instance, a king may refer to himself in the plural with “we.”

The active participle “mūsi‘” is derived from “si‘a.” The latter may mean “expanse.” For instance, “wāsi‘,” which is another active participle of “si’a,” is used 5 times to mean “vast.” This is the case when it is applied to describe God’s “land” (4.97, 29.56, 39.10) “mercy” (6.147), and “forgiveness” (53.32) as being “vast”. But in its remaining 8 occurrences, the term “wāsi‘” has the broader meaning of “accommodating” or “encompassing.” In these verses, “wāsi‘” is used to describe God Himself, i.e. it is is one of the Beautiful Names of God. I will revisit this particular use of “wāsi‘” later.

But the term “si’a” also means “capability,” or “capacity.” This is an example:

Allah does not charge a soul but to its wusahā (capacity). (2.286)

So what does active participle “mūsi‘” then mean? In addition to its occurrence in verse 51.47, this term occurs also in this verse:

There is no fault in you if you divorce women before you have touched them or appointed a settlement for them. But make provision for them, the mūsi (affluent man) according to his means, and the needy man according to his means; [it is] a provision in reason — an obligation on the good-doers. (2.236)

Clearly, the term “mūsi‘” has no sense of expansion, but it stands for the person who can afford higher provisions, i.e. it describes capability. This sense of the word becomes even clearer when we consider the use of its verb “wasi‘a.” This verb occurs six times in the Qur’an. These occurrences are particularly instructive because they are used with reference to God in some way or another, like the use of the term “lamūsi‘ūn” in 51.47. The first three verses use the verb to describe the fact that God encompassed everything with His knowledge:

My Lord wasia (encompasses) everything in His knowledge. (6.80)

Our Lord wasia (encompasses) everything in His knowledge. (7.89)

[He] wasia (encompasses) everything in His knowledge. (20.98)

The Qur’anic expression that is repeated in the three verses emphasizes that God comprehends everything with His knowledge, so there is nothing that He does not know. There is no knowledge beyond God’s knowledge. His knowledge contains all knowledge.

The forth verse applies the verb to God’s mercy:

My mercy wasiat (encompasses) everything. (7.156)

The fifth verse combines the meanings of the four verses above:

Our Lord! Wasita (You encompass) everything in Your mercy and knowledge. (40.7)

Now, if we then try and derive the active participle “musi” from the verb “wasi‘a,” we have to conclude that it the former means “encompassing.” If this is the case, then verse 51.47 must be understood as follows:

And the heaven We built it with might and We lamūsiūn (are encompassing it). (51.47)

This verse confirms that the heaven is completely within and under God’s control. There is no reference whatsoever to expansion of the heaven. The term “lamūsi‘ūn” describes God not the heaven. This interpretation becomes even more emphatic when we consider the sixth and last verse in which the verb wasi’a occurs:

His Throne wasia (encompasses) the heavens and the earth and preserving them does not cause him any tiredness. (2.255)

This is the closet verse of all to 51.47. Clearly, it reiterates the fact that the heaven and the earth are within God’s control.

I pointed out earlier that the active participle “wāsi‘” is used 8 times in the Qur’an to describe God. Interestingly, in 7 verses, the term appears in the expression “wāsi‘ ‘alīm” (2.115, 2.147, 2.261, 2.268, 3.73, 4.54, 24.32) and once in the expression “wāsi‘an ḥakīman” (4.130). The term “‘alīm” means “knowledgable” and “ḥakīman” means “wise.” You can see here also that the term “wāsi‘” is related to vastness of knowledge not special vastness.

Now note the concept of God being “encompassing” in knowledge in this verse also:

It is Allah who created seven heavens, and of earth their like. The Command descends between them, that you may know that Allah is powerful over everything and that Allah encompasses everything in knowledge. (65.12)

The Arabic term that I have translated as “encompasses” here is “aḥāṭa,” which may also be translated as “surrounds.” This verse and verse 51.47 have clear similarity in meaning.

This article in no way suggests that there are no miracles in the Qur’an. It only points out that the particular claim that verse 51.47 talks about an expanding universe is not supported by how the critical term “wasi‘a” is used in other verses in the Qur’an.

Copyright © 2012 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved.


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