Saturday, April 18, 2009

Analyzing Muhammad’s Scientific Blunders

By David Wood

Due to renewed interest in Islam in the West, the historical Muhammad is finally starting to come into public view.  Muhammad was an extraordinary man, but he was nevertheless flawed.  He was often ruthless towards his adversaries, he commanded his followers to assassinate those who insulted him, and he beheaded hundreds of Jews.  Although his revelations permitted other men to have only four wives, Muhammad had at least nine wives at one time, and more than thirteen throughout his life.  One of these wives was a nine-year-old girl; another was the divorced wife of his adopted son.  He also allowed men to beat their wives.  Further, Muhammad showed signs of mental and spiritual instability.  His first impression of his encounter with the angel Gabriel was that he was under demonic attack.  Even after he became Allah's Apostle, Muhammad believed that he was the victim of magic spells.[1]   

All of these facts call Muhammad's reliability into question.  Muslims can no longer turn to Muhammad's "flawless" character as evidence for their faith, for history shows that Muhammad had numerous flaws.  Hence, Muslims must defend their religion by other means.  The most popular method is currently to argue for the "miraculous" scientific accuracy of the Qur'an.  Muslim reverence for Muhammad's scientific brilliance can hardly be exaggerated: 

It was [Muhammad] who turned the course of human thought away from superstition, the unnatural and the unexplainable, towards a logical approach illustrating a love for truth and a balanced worldly life. . . . It was he who, in the place of baseless speculation, led man to use logic and reasoning on the basis of observation, experimentation and research.  He was the one who clearly defined the limits and functions of sense perception, reason and intuition.[2] 


[I]t is inconceivable that many of the statements in the Qur'an which are connected with science could have been the work of a man.  It is, moreover, perfectly legitimate, not only to regard the Qur'an as the expression of a Revelation, but also to award it a very special place on account of the guarantee of authenticity it provides and the presence in it of scientific statements which, when studied today, appear as a challenge to human explanation.[3] 

Muhammad's supposed scientific precision is notorious for being singularly unimpressive to anyone who isn't already a committed Muslim.  The tactic employed by Muslim apologists is (1) to read a simple verse from the Qur'an, (2) to twist and stretch the interpretation as far their imaginations will take them, (3) to insert a bunch of scientific terminology into the interpretation, and (4) to proclaim that there is absolutely no way an illiterate, seventh-century leader could have revealed all these scientific insights without the help of God.  After hearing such arguments, Muslims typically stand in awe.  Others stand there wondering, "Where did the verse say that?" 

The purpose of this article is not to respond to the many supposed instances of scientific accuracy in the Qur'an.  Instead, I hope to show that the Muslim approach is unpromising, for the argument from scientific accuracy cuts both ways.  That is, one cannot reasonably point to Muhammad's scientific insights while at the same time turning a blind eye to his numerous scientific inaccuracies.  As it turns out, this is exactly what Muslims do.  Yet such a method could be used to prove the prophetic authority of people throughout history.  

For instance, Thales of Miletus was able to predict a solar eclipse in 585 B.C.  One could use this to argue that he must have been inspired by God.  However, Thales also proclaimed that everything is composed of water, an idea that now seems absurd.  Similarly, in the fourth century B.C. Democritus correctly suggested that everything is composed of atoms.  Yet no one considers this to be evidence of divine inspiration, for the atomic theory of Democritus was almost completely inaccurate. 

We run into a similar problem when we come to Muhammad.  While Muhammad's proclamations aren't nearly as impressive as the atomism of Democritus, Muslims have put forth a number of arguments for Muhammad's scientific intuitions.  However, the following examples of Muhammad's scientific blunders should be sufficient to convince an unbiased examiner that Muslims have overstated their case. 

I must note here that I do not believe that it is necessary for all of a prophet's statements (i.e. statements not intended as revelation) to be in line with modern science.  Prophets are, after all, human, and as humans they may believe in superstitions and fables.  However, when a prophet proclaims a message from God, it must be accurate.  Thus, some of the popular critiques of Muhammad are somewhat misplaced.  For example, consider the following claims, which have provided Islam's critics with much ammunition: 

A Fly In Your Drink 


The Prophet (the blessing and peace of Allah be upon him) said:  "If a house fly falls in the drink of any one of you, he should dip it (in the drink), for one of its wings has a disease and the other has the cure for the disease."[4] 

Here Muhammad proposes a rule for living:  If a fly lands in your Pepsi, you should dunk the fly all the way into the drink.  He also provides us with a reason for his rule:  One of the fly's wings has a disease, but the other wing has the remedy for the disease.  His reason is, of course, completely false.  A fly may indeed be carrying bacteria that it contracted while feeding, but the idea that flies carry antidotes on their wings would be universally rejected by microbiologists.  Muhammad's rule for living is unwise, and his reason for proclaiming it is false.  But notice that this command isn't said to have come from a divine revelation.  Muhammad, then, may have simply been passing on an old wives' tale that he had appropriated at some point during his life.  Taken alone, this doesn't cast much doubt on his prophethood (though it does cast doubt on Mawdudi's claim that Muhammad "turned the course of human thought away from superstition"). 

How Tall Was Adam? 

The Prophet (the blessing and peace of Allah be upon him) said:  "Allah created Adam, making him 60 cubits [i.e. 90 feet] tall. . . . People have been decreasing in stature since Adam's creation."[5] 

Allah's Apostle (the blessing and peace of Allah be upon him) said:  "The first group of people who will enter Paradise, will be glittering like the full moon, and those who follow them, will glitter like the most brilliant star in the sky. . . . All of them will look alike and will resemble their father Adam (in stature), sixty cubits tall."[6]   

Muhammad repeatedly proclaimed that Adam was ninety feet tall, and that people have been shrinking ever since Adam.  If this were true, we would expect paleontologists to find fossils of extraordinarily large femurs and skulls.  But they don't.  Once again, Muhammad seems to be asserting fables.  Nevertheless, just as in the case of the fly, this doesn't disqualify Muhammad as a prophet, for he doesn't claim that the story is from God. 

Other passages, however, are much more problematic.  Muhammad made numerous scientific statements that he claimed to have received from God through the angel Gabriel, and many of these revelations are clearly at odds with modern scientific knowledge.  These claims cast doubt not only on his scientific accuracy, but on his status as a prophet.  Two of the most striking examples of scientific blunders are Muhammad's revelations concerning astronomy and human reproduction.  

Muhammad On Astronomy 


Muhammad clearly believed that it is the sun, not the earth, that is moving: 

Abu Tharr (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated:  "The Prophet (the blessing and peace of Allah be upon him) 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.'"[7]  

I would be willing to accept this passage as another example of Muhammad's understandable belief in myths if it weren't for the rest of the passage, which says that this hadith provides the interpretation of a particular passage in the Qur'an: 

And the Sun Runs its course For a period determined For it; that is The decree of (Him), The exalted in Might, The All-Knowing.  And the Moon-We have measured for it Mansions (to traverse) Till it returns Like the old (and withered) Lower part of a date stalk.  It is not permitted To the Sun to catch up The Moon, nor can The Night outstrip the Day:  Each (just) swims along In (its own) orbit (According to Law).[8]  

The Qur'an, then, declares that the celestial bodies swim along in their orbits.  We could stretch the interpretation to mean that the universe is a sphere and that everything is "swimming" in it, or that Muhammad is really talking about the orbits of the planets and moons.  However, Muhammad seems to have both the moon and the sun in mind: 

It is [Allah] Who created The Night and the Day, And the sun and the moon:  All (the celestial bodies) Swim along, each in its Rounded course.[9] 

Further, Muhammad's belief about the sun's motion is clear from the interpretation in the hadith:  The sun is moving around or above the earth, and it travels under God's throne when it sets.  If we decide to reinterpret Muhammad's explanation so that it conforms to our knowledge of astronomy, we will be giving an interpretation of an interpretation.  The only option for Muslims is to conclude that Muhammad must have been speaking figuratively (i.e. he is merely using metaphorical language to show that God has power over the heavenly bodies).  Such a conclusion seems desperate, however, especially when we combine these passages with Muhammad's other statements on astronomy. 

The following report, taken from the Qur'an, claims that a man (thought by many Muslims to be Alexander the Great) once reached the place where the sun sets: 

They ask thee concerning Dhu al Qarnayn.  Say, "I will rehearse to you Something of his story."  Verily We established his power On earth, and We gave him The ways and the means To all ends.  One (such) way he followed, Until, when he reached the setting of the sun, He found it set In a spring of murky water:  Near it he found a People.[10] 

This verse states that the sun is small enough to set in a pool of murky water on earth.  Indeed, many of the stars we see are at least small enough to be flung at demons whenever they overstep their bounds: 

And We have (From of old), Adorned the lowest heaven With Lamps, and We Have made such (Lamps) (As) missiles to drive Away the Evil Ones, And have prepared for them The Penalty Of the Blazing Fire.[11] 

It is We Who have set out The Zodiacal Signs in the heavens, And made them fair-seeming To (all) beholders; And (moreover) We have guarded them From every evil spirit accursed:  But any that gains a hearing By stealth, is pursued By a flaming fire, bright (to see).[12] 

We have indeed decked The lower heaven with beauty (In) the stars-(For beauty) and for guard Against all obstinate Rebellious evil spirits, (So) they should not strain Their ears in the direction Of the Exalted Assembly But be cast away From every side, Repulsed, for they are Under a perpetual penalty, Except such as snatch away Something by stealth, and they Are pursued by a flaming Fire, of piercing brightness.[13] 

It is difficult to give this strange doctrine a favorable figurative interpretation.  This difficulty is compounded by similar references in the Hadith: 

Takemotos Nebula

Abu Qatada mentioning Allah's saying:  "And we have Adorned the nearest Heaven with lamps" (67:5) said:  "The creation of these stars is for three purposes, i.e. as decoration of the sky, as missiles to hit the devils, and as signs to guide travelers.  So, if anybody tries to find a different interpretation, he is mistaken and just wastes his efforts and troubles himself with what is beyond his limited knowledge."[14] 

As we were sitting during the night with Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him), a meteor shot gave a dazzling light.  Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) said:  "What did you say in the pre-Islamic days when there was such a shot (of meteor)?"  They said:  "Allah and His Messenger know best (the actual position), but we, however, used to say that that very night a great man had been born and a great man had died," whereupon Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) said:  "(These meteors) are shot neither at the death of anyone nor on the birth of anyone.  Allah, the Exalted and Glorious, issues Command when He decides to do a thing.  Then (the Angels) supporting the Throne sing His glory, then sing the dwellers of heaven who are near to them until this glory of God reaches them who are in the heaven of this world.  Then those who are near the supporters of the Throne ask these supporters of the Throne:  'What your Lord has said?'  And they accordingly inform them what He says.  Then the dwellers of heaven seek information from them until this information reaches the heaven of this world.  In this process of transmission (the jinn snatches) what he manages to overhear and he carries it to his friends.  And when the Angels see the jinn they attack them with meteors."[15]   

It is easy to see how Muhammad would have come to this view.  He could see the stars in the sky, but he would also occasionally see a "shooting star."  But what are these stars shooting at?  They must be shooting at demons.  The problem with Muhammad's position is that he proclaimed it, not as a hypothesis, but as an authoritative revelation from God.  Astronomical observations have shown that Muhammad's revelation from God was false. 

Yet Muhammad's astronomical difficulties don't stop there.  The Qur'an also implies that the lowest heaven (the sky) is some sort of tangible substance that would fall on us if God didn't hod it up: 

Do you not see that Allah has made subservient to you whatsoever is in the earth and the ships running in the sea by His command?  And He withholds the heaven from falling on the earth except with His permission; most surely Allah is Compassionate, Merciful to men.[16] 

Do they not then consider what is before them and what is behind them of the heaven and the earth?  If We please We will make them disappear in the land or bring down upon them a portion from the heaven.[17] 

Putting the data together, we are able to get a glimpse of Muhammad's picture of the universe.  Everything, including the sun, travels around the earth.  The sun doesn't travel completely unhindered, however, for it sets in a pool of murky water.  The sky is a solid or liquid object over the earth that must be held up by Allah, so that it doesn't fall on us.  This explains why Muhammad described celestial objects as "swimming"; the sun and the moon must swim through the substance of the sky.  Nevertheless, pieces of the sky may occasionally flake off and hit us.  The stars are potential missiles to be used by angels whenever the demons try to steal information from heaven, and shooting stars are missiles that have been activated in defense of God's message.  That this picture of the universe is far from accurate goes without saying. 

Muhammad On Human Reproduction 

The Qur'an and the Hadith give us a detailed description of Muhammad's view of human reproduction.  To his credit, Muhammad recognized the importance of sperm in this process (though this had been noted long before Muhammad): 

Verily We created Man from a drop Of mingled sperm, In order to try him:  So We gave him (the gifts), Of Hearing and Sight.[18] 

Unfortunately, Muhammad's scientific accuracy stops there, for the Qur'an states that semen comes from an area between the ribs and the backbone (quite a way from the testicles, where semen is produced): 

Now let man but think From what he is created!  He is created from A drop emitted-Proceedings from between The backbone and the ribs.[19] 


Since Muhammad's life and character provide strong evidence that he is not a credible source of divine teachings, any argument for the authority of the Qur'an will have to be especially strong.  Without sufficient evidence to overcome the overwhelming evidence against Islam, an honest investigator's only reasonable option is to conclude that Muhammad was not a prophet of God, and that the Qur'an has no authority over man.  

In order to overcome the obvious shortcomings of their prophet, Muslim apologists argue that Muhammad's scientific accuracy proves his status as a prophet.  Yet we have seen that Muhammad made numerous false statements, many of which were claimed to have come from God.  We covered two broad categories of scientific problems in the Qur'an and Hadith, but there are a number of other difficulties that haven't been addressed.  For instance, the Qur'an reports that Solomon once overheard a short speech given by an ant and afterwards listened as a bird gave an account of its whereabouts.[31]  The Qur'an also states that nothing holds birds in the air except Allah,[32] whereas air surely has something to do with flight.  These verses are problematic for the Muslim apologist.  Nevertheless, Muslims continue to proclaim Islam's scientific heritage as evidence for its validity.  They can only do this, however, by employing a peculiar method of investigation.  This method requires only two steps:  

(1)  Find anything that can possibly be interpreted as an accurate scientific statement, dress it up, add a few scientific terms, and declare it to be a miracle. 

(2)  Ignore any obviously inaccurate scientific claims or insist that they are merely figurative statements. 

Such a technique makes sense for Muslims, since they have been taught that the Qur'an is perfect.  However, to use this method in an argument is an entirely different story.  Muslims can't expect everyone to interpret Muhammad's statements in the most favorable light imaginable when his reliability as a prophet is what is being investigated.  The Muslim argument is meant to prove that Muhammad was a true prophet, but in order to prove their point, Muslims have to assume that Muhammad was a true prophet and that he therefore couldn't have made any errors.  This makes the Muslim method of scriptural interpretation a classic example of circular reasoning.  Indeed, as stated above, Muslim logic could be used to justify any position in history.  For instance, if I were to use Muslim tactics in defending Thales' position that everything is made of water, I could make the following argument: 

The Prophet Thales claimed that everything is made of water.  That's obviously not true, but Thales was a prophet, so he couldn't have been wrong.  So what could he have meant?  Well, consider the composition of water.  It is made of hydrogen and oxygen.  Most of the mass in the universe is in the form of hydrogen, and all living things use oxygen in some way.  Thus, we have in Thales' statement a full description of the universe, the non-living, predominantly hydrogen part, and the living, oxygen-using part!  But how could Thales have known these things unless God revealed them to him?   

This sort of reasoning will seem almost comical to anyone who isn't a committed Muslim, but it is almost universally accepted as valid in the Islamic world.  We can picture the following conversation taking place:   

Muslim:  "There is only one God, and Muhammad is his prophet!"

Questioner:  "I have my doubts about that second part.  Why should I accept it?"

Muslim:  "You should accept the fact that Muhammad is God's prophet because Muhammad said that he was God's prophet!"

Questioner:  "You're assuming that everything Muhammad says was true, but how can I know that?"

Muslim:  "You can know it because of the amazing scientific accuracy of the Qur'an!"

Questioner:  "But what about talking ants, stellar missiles that hit demons, the sun setting in the ocean, and man forming from a blood-clot?  What about all these passages?"

Muslim:  "Those passages are metaphorical!"

Questioner:  "But how do you know they're metaphorical?  Muhammad didn't say that he was using figurative language when he said those things.  Indeed, he seems to take them quite literally."

Muslim:  "Muhammad couldn't have meant those verses to be taken literally."

Questioner:  "Why not?"

Muslim:  "Because he's God's greatest prophet, and a prophet would never believe such things!" 

If there were some compelling reason for us to regard Muhammad as a prophet, perhaps we would be justified in interpreting his statements as completely accurate, as Muslims do.  For example, if Muhammad had risen from the dead (as Jesus did), we would have God's stamp of approval on his message.  But we have nothing of the sort.  In the absence of strong evidence, we must take Muhammad's statements for what they appear to be:  the sometimes accurate, mostly erroneous speculations of an intelligent but superstitious man.


[1] See my article "Islam Beheaded" for references. 

[2] Abul, A'la Mawdudi, Towards Understanding Islam (New York: Islamic Circle of North America, 1986), p. 62.

[3] Buacille, Maurice,  The Bible, The Qur'an, and Science (Elmhurst: Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, Inc., 2003), p. 269.

[4] Sahih Al-Bukhari, Dr. Muhammad Matraji, tr. (New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2002), Number 3320.

[5] Ibid., Number 3326.

[6] Ibid., Number 3327.

[7] Ibid., Number 3199.

[8] Qur'an 36:38-40.  Unless otherwise noted, Qur'an quotations are taken from The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, tr. (Beltsville: Amana Publications, 1989).

[9] Ibid., 21:33.

[10] Ibid., 18:83-86.

[11] Ibid., 67:5.

[12] Ibid., 15:16-18.

[13] Ibid., 37:6-10.

[14] Sahih Al-Bukhari, Number 3198.

[15] Sahih Muslim, Abdul Hamid Siddiqi, tr., Number 5538.

[16] Qur'an 22:65, M.H. Shakir Translation (Elmhurst: Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an Inc., 2002).

[17] Ibid., 34:9.

[18] Qur'an 76:2

[19] Ibid., 86:5-7.

[20] Sahih Muslim, Number 608.

[21] Ibid., Number 3328.

[22] Ibid., Number 3329.

[23] Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah (The Life of Muhammad), A. Guillaume, tr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 255.

[24] Sahih Muslim, Number 614.

[25] Qur'an 22:5.

[26] Ibid., 40:67.

[27] Sahih Muslim, Number 6397.

[28] Sahih Al-Bukhari, Number 3208.

[29] Sahih Muslim, Number 6392.

[30] Ibid., Number 6393.

[31] See Qur'an 27:16-22.

[32] Ibid., 16:79.


1 comment:

  1. Hi David,

    I cannot find the hadith for reference #14:
    i.e. [14] Sahih Al-Bukhari, Number 3198.

    Could you clarify where you got this from. Do you have a hard copy?

    I think Islamic websites are removing these types of hadith. I vagely remember seeing this hadith on

    But now its no longer on that website.



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