BAYAN LINNAS SERIES 166: FLAT EARTH POLEMIC: AN ISLAMIC PERSPECTIVE

166 bayan linnas

Mukadimah

Alhamdulillah, praise and thanks to Allah for the many countless blessings He has blessed us all with. Blessings and salutations to the Prophet Muhammad PBUH, his wives, his family, companions and all those that follow his teachings to the day of judgement.

First and foremost, we at the The Federal Territories Mufti Office has recently been flooded with questions delivered through mass media regarding the issue of flat earth. This issue was heatedly debated among society members and had turned into an endless polemic.

There are two diverging opinions regarding this issue; while some support the theory, others reject the concept of flat earth. This proves that humans are creatures of Allah SWT and are bound with limitations. Human understanding in nature is varied because it is limited to what is confirmed by their senses especially the naked eye. Fortunately, the development and evolution of science and technology has helped people in finding explanations for human life and contributes in the determination of Islamic rulings as a source of reference.

Hence, in this series of Bayan Linnas, we will discuss on the issue of Flat Earth Polemic from an Islamic Perspective. May this explanation give us understanding and finally conclude the truth of the reality of the shape of the earth.

The Earth as Allah SWT’s Creation

The earth and the entire galaxies are created by Allah SWT is an undeniable self-evident (badihi) fact. This is in accordance with the statement of Allah SWT:

وَلَئِن سَأَلْتَهُم مَّنْ خَلَقَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ لَيَقُولُنَّ اللَّـهُ

“And if you asked them, "Who created the heavens and the earth?" they would surely say, " Allah."

Surah al-Zumar (38)

Syeikh al-Maraghi said: “Truthfully, the disbelievers actually believe in The All Knowing and Wise God, for the evidences supporting this fact is clear. When they are asked, ‘Who created the heavens and he earth?’ surely they would respond, ‘Allah SWT is the creator.’ However, they still invoke other than Allah SWT and this is the proof of their ignorance. Though they are among the intelligent people, they refuse to think and to use their minds, instead preferring to follow their desires.” (See Tafsir al-Maraghi12/5898)

The Creation of the Heavens and the Earth are Signs for Those Who Think

Allah SWT states:

إِنَّ فِي خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافِ اللَّيْلِ وَالنَّهَارِ لَآيَاتٍ لِّأُولِي الْأَلْبَابِ

“Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding.”

Surah ali-‘Imran (190)

Syeikh al-Maraghi said: “The people of understanding in the above verse meant people who use their minds to think and benefit, following the guidance and contemplate on the greatness of Allah SWT, for the heavens and the earth are reminders for them of Allah SWT’s wisdom, blessing, eminence, in every situation of their lives, whether when they are standing, sitting or lying down. As a conclusion, they never forget Allah SWT throughout their lives, remembering that Allah SWT is always watching over them.” (See Tafsir al-Maraghi, 2/1056)

Both verses stated above give us understanding that the creation of the heavens and earth serves as reminders for humans and encourage us to think of Allah SWT’s greatness, eminence and blessings. The earth does not suddenly exist magically without any creator.

 

The Earth as al-Ardh

Ibn Manzur explains al-ardh (الأَرْض) as the habitat for humans, it is a word in a feminine form (أُنثى), which is the collective noun that refers to its classification (اسم جنس). (See Lisan al-Arab, 7/11). According to al-Qamus al-Muhit, (pg. 820): Al-Ardh (الأرضُ) is feminine (مؤنث), a collective noun that refers to its classification (اسم جنس) or a collection (not a single thing). Hence, it is not named as ardhah (أرْضَةٌ). The word al-Ardh (الأرضُ) means:

We are inclined towards the opinion that the confusion of the flat earth theory supporter comes from their misunderstanding of the meaning of the word al-ardh. When Allah SWT use the word al-ardh, it means the soil or land that we see and travel on. They misunderstood and considers the word refers to the earth as a planet. This is in accordance with the methodology of understanding the Quran as have been stated by Ibn Kathir in the prolegomena of his commentaries. (See Tafsir al-Qur'an al-'Azimpg. 4-5).

The Earth’s Condition Stated in the Quran

Allah SWT explains about the earth using several words describing it. Among the words used to describe the earth are, “We spread” (Surah al-Hijr: 19), “spread/expanse” (Surah al-Naba’:6, Surah al-Baqarah: 22, Surah Nuh: 19, Surah al-Nazi’at :30) and “spread out” (Surah al-Ghasyiah: 20).

Allah SWT states:

الَّذِي جَعَلَ لَكُمُ الْأَرْضَ فِرَاشًا وَالسَّمَاءَ بِنَاءً

“[He] who made for you the earth a bed [spread out]”

Surah al-Baqarah (22)

Allah SWT states:

وَالْأَرْضَ مَدَدْنَاهَا وَأَلْقَيْنَا فِيهَا رَوَاسِيَ وَأَنبَتْنَا فِيهَا مِن كُلِّ شَيْءٍ مَّوْزُونٍ

“And the earth - We have spread it and cast therein firmly set mountains and caused to grow therein [something] of every well-balanced thing.”

Surah al-Hijr (19)

Allah SWT states:

وَهُوَ الَّذِي مَدَّ الْأَرْضَ وَجَعَلَ فِيهَا رَوَاسِيَ وَأَنْهَارًا

“And it is He who spread the earth and placed therein firmly set mountains and rivers;” 

Surah al-Ra’d (3)

Allah SWT states:

وَالْأَرْضَ بَعْدَ ذَٰلِكَ دَحَاهَا ﴿٣٠﴾ أَخْرَجَ مِنْهَا مَاءَهَا وَمَرْعَاهَا

“And after that He spread the earth. He extracted from it its water and its pasture,”

Surah al-Nazi’at (30-31)

Allah SWT states:

وَإِلَى الْأَرْضِ كَيْفَ سُطِحَتْ

“And at the earth - how it is spread out?”

Surah al-Ghasyiah (20)

Does spread or spreading out of the earth necessarily only means that it is flat or level?

Syeikh ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sa’di defines (وَالْأَرْضَ مَدَدْنَاهَا) as: “We has widen (spread) the earth as far as the eyes could see for humans and animals to travel, find sustenance and live in all corners of the earth.” (See Taisir al-Karim al-Rahman fi Tafsir Kalam al-Mannan, pg. 1/347)

When we study the word (دَحَاهَا), salafussoleh divides it into two:

  1. Qatadah, al-Suddi and Sufyan al-Thauri understood the word as spreading out.
  2. Ibn ‘Abbas, Ibn Juraij and Ibn Zaid understood its meaning as Allah SWT extracted water, livestock and natural resources for humans.

(See al-I’jaz al-‘Ilmi: Ila Aina?120-121)

Syeikh Ibn 'Asyur defines the word ( بِسَاطًا) when he commented on verse 19 Surah Nuh:

The word al-bisat means anything that is spread to sleep or sit on, whether it is a type of clothing or carpet. The description of earth as being spread out is a balaghah comparison to spreads. The similar characteristic (wajh syabah) of earth to a spread is, it enables people to travel or sleep on it. It does not mean that the earth is created flat by Allah SWT, for the earth is a sphere. The meaning is clear for the verse continues with the phrase ‘for you’ (لَكُمُ ). This is appropriate for the reason is not stated, which is so that you could walk or travel. Both reasons are signs of the blessings for humans from the heavens and earth, such as farm animals and vegetation, to the specific blessing that enables humans to walk on earth.

Hence, the words used, which means flat or level are just their literal meaning, but the contextual meaning from the verse is different.

Scholars’ Opinion Regarding the Shape of the Earth

Islamic scholars agreed that the earth is a circle. Although, the circle is not an absolute circle, but may be a sphere or a spherical-like shape like an egg. This is supported by modern and scientific findings.

Here we include the scholars’ opinions regarding the spherical shape of the earth.

It has been proven through sound and correct facts that the shape of the earth is a sphere, then, how can someone still be unreasonable (refuse to accept the truth) in this issue?” (See Tafsir Mafatih al-Ghaib, 19/5)

It has been proven that the earth is a circle (spherical). This does not contradict Allah SWT’s statement: (مَدُّ الأَرْضِ) The earth is spread out. The reason is, earth is a huge matter that certain parts of it would be a spread of visible land.” (See al-Bahr al-Muhit, 6/346)

When commenting on verses 30-31 of Surah al-Nazi’at, our teacher Syeikh Muhammad al-Amin bin Muhammad al-Mukhtar al-Syanqiti emphasized the need to consult with Muslim experts in the field of astronomy, who agreed that the earth is a circle or a sphere.

Ibn ‘Asyur comments on the word (يُكَوِّرُ) in Surah al-Zumar verse 5 stating:

Al-Takwir means folding or rolling up. As for kawwara al-‘Imamah, it means the folding or rolling of a turban. Takwir from the verse means the comparison of the change of night and day on one side of the earth, alternating with each other. This analogy is unique and acceptable for the changing of night and day is compared to the folding of the turban on a circular head. This is one of the Qurans’ scientific miracles, for the word takwir used refers to kurrah which means spherical. Hence, the earth is spherical. This fact is unknown to the Arabs and humans, until the Quran explains the two elements of the changing of dark to light, or night and day.” (See al-Tahrir wa al-Tanwir23/238)

The spread of the earth meant (in this verse) does not deny the earth is circular (spherical) and is surrounded by thousands of stars, as has been proven by evidences of our minds, senses and statements and testimonies of experts, who are able to determine the things that are far and wide using the latest technology. For a spread only denies the spherical shape of a small sphere. However, the earth’s size is huge, and a gigantic sphere will be seen as a spread, thus both facts do not contradict each other.” (See Taisir al-Karim al-Rahman, pg. 2/211-212)

 

Early Scholars’ Opinions Regarding the Shape of the Earth

Other than the opinions of tafsir scholars, we also include the opinions of early scholars regarding this issue:

They state: Indeed, there are evidences that prove the earth is a circle, while there are still some people that claim otherwise. And our answer (for guidance comes only from Allah SWT): The leaders of the believers are those who are qualified and are knowledgeable in the field, does not deny that the earth is a circle. There are no evidences from any of them that denies this fact. Furthermore, evidences from the Quran and Sunnah also prove that the earth is a circle.” (See al-Fasl fi al-Milal wa al-Ahwa' wa al-Nihal, 2/78)

The opinion that the earth is a circle is presented by Syeikh al-Islam Ibnu Taimiyyah, from Abi al-Husain al-Munadi, he said: “The consensus of scholars state that the earth and all of its movements, whether it be on land or at sea are like a circle.” (See Majmu' al-Fatawa, 25/195). He further adds: “They (the scholars) have agreed that the earth’s shape is spherical.

As for the earth, it is the same as a ball (a sphere), which is located inside the universe, just like the egg whites inside of an egg.” (See Ahsan al-Taqasim fi Ma'rifah al-Aqalim, 1/58)

Abu al-Qasim Ubaidillah bin Abdillah or also known as Ibn Khardazabah said: “The earth’s characteristics is circular, just like a ball or a marble. It is located in the universe just like the egg whites of an egg.” (See al-Masalik wa al-Mamalik, pg. 4)

He cited the opinion of al-Syarif al-Idrisi in the muqaddimah of Masalik al-Absar fi Mamalik al-Amsar: “Even if the earth is a sphere, it is not a perfect sphere (ovoid/egg-shaped).

In Ibn Khallikan’s book, he states the opinion of Abu Bakr bin Yahya al-Suli: “The spherical shape of the earth is determined through geometry. The distance (diameter) is 8000 farsakh. If we wind a thread around the earth from one point (anywhere on earth), the two ends of the thread would eventually meet each other.” (See Wafayat al-A'yan, 4/359)

He said: “The scholars have agreed that the whole earth including frozen water is like a circle (spherical).” (See al-Muntazam fi Tarikh al-Muluk wa al-Umam, 1/184)

The earth in the skies is comparable to the fruit inside a watermelon. And the skies surround the earth from all sides. And the proof of this is when a traveller travels from the east to the west non-stop, he would eventually end up back to the place where he begins his travels.” (See Mukhtasar al-'Uluw li' al-'Aliy al-Ghaffar by al-Zahabi, pg. 74-76)

 

The Opinion of Mufti of Federal Territories

We would like to reiterate the fact that the earth’s shape is indeed a circle (spherical). Among the Quranic evidence that supports this is a statement of Allah SWT:

يُكَوِّرُ اللَّيْلَ عَلَى النَّهَارِ وَيُكَوِّرُ النَّهَارَ عَلَى اللَّيْلِ

“He wraps the night over the day and wraps the day over the night,”

Surah al-Zumar (5)

Syeikh al-Maraghi said: “It is known that the earth rotates on its axis in its orbit. The rotation of the earth on its axis results in the changing of night and day, when a part of the earth faces the sun it will experience day and when it rotates away from the sun it experiences night. Thus, night and day completes each other alternately. The above verse contains guidance as to the circular shape of the earth that rotates on its axis.” (See Tafsir al-Maraghi12/5863)

Imam al-Raghib al-Asfahani said: “The word كَوْرُ الشيءِ means encircling of something or the combination of the end of something with the end of another thing, just like كور العمامة or like a turban on a head. Allah SWT states: يُكَوِّرُ اللَّيْلَ عَلَى النَّهَارِ وَيُكَوِّرُ النَّهَارَ عَلَى اللَّيْلِ (He wraps the night over the day and wraps the day over the night), explaining the movement of the sun as a result of earth’s rotation on its axis.” (See al-Mufradat fi Gharib al-Quran, pg. 729)

While Imam Ibnu Hazm said: “The above verse is a clear explanation that nights and days are wrapped with each other (alternating). Using the word with the same meaning as encircling the turban on one’s head, it compares to the earth’s rotation on its axis. This is the strongest evidence that states the earth is a circle and it rotates on its axis orbiting the sun.” (See al-Fasl fi al-Milal wa al-Ahwa wa al-Nihal, 2/78)

Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi states: “The scholars’ consensus states that the end of the earth would meet each other.” (See al-Farqu baina al-Firaq, pg. 318)

This fact is also supported by our country’s astronaut Dato’ Dr Syeikh Muszaphar Shukor, where he said: “The earth is spherical in shape or the accurate term for the earth’s shape is geosphere. It is unlike the shape of a ball but similar to the shape of an egg.” [1]

Conclusion

Alhamdulillah, after studying and comparing the facts of contemporary and previous scholars’ books, we found that early scholars have discussed this issue long before us. Some of them have even discussed this issue more than a thousand years ago. Hence, our understanding in this issue shows that Islam has led the world in the field of knowledge in front of other empires, such as the Persian, Rome, ancient Egypt, Ethiopia, India, China and Greek.

Our senses are limited, making it impossible for us to understand the verses of the Quran explaining about the earth without referring to commentaries of scholars and facts from the astrological experts. Furthermore, merely using our sight as the evidence of our arguments surely is not enough for the limitation of the sense itself.

Our senses alone are unable to help us to find the truth. Al-Ghazali criticized those groups of people who use their senses alone to find the truth. He commanded them to look at the sky and observe how small the stars seem to be, when in truth, through geometrical calculations, it is proven that they are actually bigger than the earth. (See al-Munqiz min al-Dhalalpg. 112-113). This clearly show how limited our senses are and that we need to rely on technology and guidance from Allah SWT.

We include the commentaries of verse 5 Surah al-Zumar by Syeikh Muhammad Mutawalli Sya’rawi:

يُكَوِّرُ اللَّيْلَ عَلَى النَّهَارِ وَيُكَوِّرُ النَّهَارَ عَلَى اللَّيْلِ

“He wraps the night over the day and wraps the day over the night,”

Surah al-Zumar (5)

The Prophet PBUH knew that the miracles of the Quran will never stop. Thus, he explains the verse according to the ability for the people in his time to understand, preventing them from renouncing the religion. If the Quran directly state that the earth is a circle, rotating on its axis and orbits the sun, would anyone believe it? Even now, there are still people that denies this fact. Hence, the Quran guides and uses the right term, where its meaning are broad that when people really think they could eventually arrive at the truth. The fact that night and day alternates with each other, is proof that the earth is like a circle.” (See Tafsir al-Sya'rawi, 6/3785)

Let’s contemplate that the real purpose of our life is to worship and obey Allah SWT’s commandments and to avoid any debates that could lead to arguments and insults with each other.

Lastly, let’s always pray to Allah SWT for guidance and understanding with the following doa:

اللَّهُمَّ أَرِنَا الْحَقَّ حَقَّا وَارْزُقْنَا اتِّبَاعَهُ وَأَرِنَا الْبَاطِلَ بَاطِلًا وَارْزُقْنَا اجْتِنَابَهُ

“O Allah! Show us the truth as the truth and give us strength to follow the truth and show us what is false as a falsehood and give us strength to avoid it.”

 

End Notes:

[1] See http://www.utusan.com.my/berita/terkini/dr-sheikh-muszaphar-jawab-persoalan-bentuk-muka-bumi-1.841332

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