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The Koran Predicted the Speed of Light? Not Really.

Richard Carrier

There is no end to the strange things Muslim Fundies will claim. A new one is in A New Astronomical Quranic Method for The Determination Of The Greatest Speed Cby Dr. Mansour Hassab-Elnaby. There are hundreds of bogus arguments like this on the web (or at least were when I wrote this). But one need only see how bogus one or two are to see it isn't worth bothering investigating any more (see, for example, my other essay: Cosmology and the Koran: A Response to Muslim Fundamentalists, 2001). I guess this is the shotgun strategy--make so many wild claims that skeptics couldn't possibly rebut them all for shear lack of time, and claim victory.

Someone has rebutted the speed of light argument already: see the simple Review by Dr. Arnold Neumaier of the Institute of Mathematics at the University of Vienna.

My own thoughts right away were fourfold:

(1) The first thing I noted is that it is based on the moon's orbit and earth's rotation--both of which are and have been slowing down for ages (a year was 400 days long 60 million years ago, for example, and the moon's orbit is enlarging and its velocity slowing, both due to gravitational friction between the two bodies: see Did the Earth rotate faster in the past? and Is the Moon moving away from the Earth?, by Dr. Sten Odenwald, 1997). Thus, the moon's and earth's speeds (and the circumference of the lunar orbit) were slightly different 1400 years ago than they are today. Thus, on what time in earth's history is this calculation supposed to be based? The Muslims making the argument use contemporary measures, rather than measures as extrapolated for 1 AH, the year they believe the Koran to have been dictated to Muhammad. But why use values for the year 2001, almost fourteen hundred years later? Where is that indicated in the Koran? So I got suspicious from the start...

(2) The second thing I noticed is that the verse in the Koran that is being used is actually a paraphrase of the Hebrew Bible (Ps 90:4) and the New Testament (2 Pe 3:8), and is thus not unique to the Koran at all. In fact, in all ANE cultures "a thousand" was a standard word for "uncountable many," "a really, really lot a lot." In Greek, for example, chilia was so used; in Latin, milia. In Hebrew it is the same. Thus, from the cultural context it is hard to see this as any sort of precise measure. I would be far more impressed if the Koran said a day is equal to 1,023 and 2/3 years, or something like that, producing an absolutely exact result (at least as it would have been when the Koran was supposedly dictated--so Allah missed a glorious opportunity to give ideal mathematical proof of when the Koran was revealed...oh well, gods always seem to suck at logistics for some reason...I guess we are supposed to imagine Allah as a cosmic Homer Simpson).

(3) Third, nowhere does the Koran say anything about something crossing any particular distance in a thousand years. The verse that is so interpreted (32:5) only repeats that god is almighty and a day to him is a thousand years. At best the translation can be turned into a reference to a period of a thousand years over which the world shall ascend, but across what distance is not stated or even implied. So we are already skating on thin subjective ice as it is.

The actual verses read:

[32.4] Allah is He Who created the heavens and the earth and what is between them in six periods, and He mounted the throne (of authority); you have not besides Him any guardian or any intercessor, will you not then mind? [32.5] He regulates the affair from the heaven to the earth; then shall it ascend to Him in a day the measure of which is a thousand years of what you count.
There is no connection made here with the moon (which is never mentioned anywhere in book 32), or with any distance being crossed, and any hint of the idea of light is completely absent. If not for Dr. Hassab-Elnaby's fertile imagination, no one would ever think "the affair" meant "light." To the contrary, "the affair" clearly refers to the universe as a whole (i.e. everything "from the heaven to the earth," the object of the previous sentence) and "it shall ascend to Him" might at best refer to the apocalypse, though the phrase can be a colloquialism for "he reckons," at any rate it is anyone's guess how light "ascends" or how it is we are supposed to know that it is light that is doing the ascending, much less that it is to ascend exactly the distance of 12,000 lunar orbits. Indeed, as Dr. Neumaier observes, this reading entails that God is physically located one light day from earth! So much for his omnipresence. Maybe Islam is a religion inspired by pyramid-building aliens? Von Daniken, move over!

(4) Fourth, the Muslim author jigs the result by importing a bogus notion of heliocentric compensation. He makes it look real by inventing a fake connection to Einstein's "second postulate" of Special Relativity (linking the Special with the General Theory), which states that the Special Theory holds in the absence of gravity--so that in the presence of gravity transformation equations are needed. But nothing in Dr. Hassab-Elnaby's math equates to the strength of the sun's gravitational field, so he is clearly not employing any real transformation factor.

The equation Dr. Hassab-Elnaby defends is as follows:

C = 12,000 [lunar revolutions about the earth] x 3682.07 [average orbital velocity of the moon today in km/hr] x 0.89157 [compensation factor for heliocentric gravitation] x 655.71986 [length in hours of one complete lunar orbit transit today] / 86164.0906 seconds [one sidereal day on earth today] = 299792.5 km/s
The essential number, the only one that has no validity here but that is required for the result to come out as the speed of light, is the compensation factor. There is no basis whatever for introducing this. The calculation without it is entirely correct whether the system orbits the sun or not. Moreover, there is no logic in multiplying lunar velocity by the cosine (why the cosine? No answer) of the degrees of solar arc crossed by the earth in a lunar siderial month (why a month? No answer).

This bogus import was noted by Dr. Neumaier, who aptly called it "pure nonsense." He was also clever enough to catch the fact that if we have to account for that (for whatever reason), then we are also obligated to account for the sun-earth-moon system's revolution around the galactic center (and, I might add, the orbital motion of the milky way within the local cluster), but Dr. Hassab-Elnaby didn't think of this. Ooops!

In the end, what the Islamic Fundamentalists are doing is finding any string of numbers they can dig up that produce any number significant to modern science, and then claiming the Koran predicted modern science. But that is like saying, on account of amazing but contrived coincidences, that Elvis is the Son of God. Remember: all this started with nothing more than a commonplace phrase "a day is like a thousand years." From this Dr. Mansour Hassab-Elnaby deduces the speed of light! At the very best he might have claimed that there is an amazing coincidence between the distance crossed by the moon in a thousand lunar years, and the distance light crosses in a day, but the Koran actually failed to predict this, since it fails to state so simple a sentence as that, and never mentions light or, in that context, the moon. But he cannot even claim this, because the math doesn't work out anyway. He had to invent an arbitrary and thus bogus "cosine of a 27 degree arc" to get even this "amazing" result.

Homines quicquam credent. People will believe anything.

Published:
  2001-12-06

Categories:
  Koran, Science and Religion

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