What do we make of all the verses and ahadith that seem to imply that the earth is flat or that the earth does not revolve around the sun?
Consider the ayah in Surat al-Kahf:
“Until, when [Dhul-Qarnayn] reached the setting of the sun, he found it setting in a spring of dark mud, and he found near it a people. Allah said, “O Dhul-Qarnayn, either you punish [them] or else adopt among them [a way of] goodness.””
And the hadith:
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said one day: Do you know where the Sun goes when it sets? They said: Allah and His Messenger know best. He said: It goes until it arrives at its place of settlement beneath the Throne. Then it falls down in prostration and remains like that until it is said to it: Arise! Go back from whence you came. Then it goes back and rises from its place of rising. Then it goes until it arrives at its place of settlement beneath the Throne. Then it falls down in prostration and remains like that until it is said to it: Arise! Go back from whence you came. Then it goes back and rises from its place of rising. Then it goes without people finding anything wrong with it until it arrives at that place of settlement it has beneath the throne. Then it will be told: Arise! Enter upon the morning rising from your setting place. Then Allahs Messenger (peace be upon him) said: Do you know when that will be? It will be when its faith will not avail a soul which had not believed before or earned some good from its faith” [Sahîh Muslim]
How do we understand all this? It is easy to say that these are all “metaphorical.” Perhaps they are in some sense, but that’s too hasty. Is there any other “recourse”?
Imagine two people have equally correct knowledge about the universe. Those two people can describe that knowledge in different ways, i.e., they can describe the universe in different ways. They can use different language, different images, different concepts to explain the same thing. Furthermore, they can use different terms *even when they are describing things literally from their individual perspectives*. What do I mean by this? Well, a simple example is all the different terms that Bedouin Arabs have for “lion.” Or all the different terms that Eskimos have for “snow.” The way that an Arab talks about a lion and the way that an Eskimo talks about snow will be very different from how a zoologist or a meteorologist speaks about these things. It is not that the Arab or the Eskimo are speaking metaphorically while the zoologist/meteorologist are speaking literally. No, in this example, everyone is speaking literally but there are just certain concepts that are in the language and at the disposal of the Arab/Eskimo that are not found in the language and conceptual architecture of the zoologist/meteorologist. And vice versa. The assumption that people nowadays tend to make is that scientific language is the language that describes things as they really are. But we don’t have to accept that. In fact, we shouldn’t because scientific language is always changing. I’ll explain the significance of this in a minute inshaAllah.
The second layer is this: Imagine two people where one has correct knowledge about the universe and the other doesn’t but thinks he does. This adds another wrinkle. In the previous example, the Bedouin Arab relying on the accumulated knowledge of centuries and generations of Bedouins living in the environment of the lion arguably has a better understanding of lions than the foreign zoologist from outside that environment who travels to the location for a couple of months at a time, does his fieldwork, and goes back home. And of course zoology itself is a new discipline. So the language of the Bedouins will reflect their superior knowledge. But the zoologist will not necessarily accept this. In fact, the zoologist thinks that these Bedouins are fairly ignorant and their understanding of lions pales in comparison to his. And to prove that point, he will cite the Bedouin’s descriptions of the lion and claim that those descriptions are inaccurate. But on what basis can he claim that the Bedouin’s description is inaccurate? He can only do so on the basis of his own knowledge, which, in this example, we have stipulated is incorrect and certainly inferior to the knowledge of the Bedouins. Nonetheless, the zoologist is confident that these Bedouins simply do not know what they are talking about.
This is the folly and pitiful arrogance of modern science. First, scientific language is assumed to be the only accurate, literal, acceptable way to describe the world. Second, science assumes it knows what the universe is really like. Both these assumptions we easily reject out of hand.
Now, to give you a taste of this, consider that most of what they teach people in school about science, astronomy, and the shapes and the motions of the earth and other celestial bodies uses a Newtonian language. Since Newton’s time, physicists by the end of the nineteenth century till now have speculated that the universe is really more than 3 spatial dimensions. Einstein pioneered this way of thinking about physics when he incorporated non-Euclidean mathematics — such as Riemannian geometry — into his treatment of gravitation. At one point in the past decade, String Theorists were even theorizing a 21-dimensional universe. Obviously, this is all speculation on their part and only Allah knows the reality. But even within the bounds of accepted theoretical physics, we can see how describing the world as “flat” or “rolling up the heavens” and so on are perfectly apt. In 4 spatial dimensions, for example, a 3-dimensional sphere can be rolled up, just like how in 3 spatial dimensions a 2-dimensional circle can be rolled up. And so on. This goes back to my point about scientific language always changing. Part of this is because scientists’ knowledge about the world, or what they purport to be knowledge at any rate, is always changing. And then their language evolves on top of that. So why should we take that language as a benchmark for judging the Words of Allah? We decidedly should not.
On a spiritual level, I really cherish the passages in the Quran and the ahadith that conflict with modern scientific understandings. Those are gems for me and provide me the most peace and boost in iman. Because those are instances where revelation from Allah is teaching me something or making me aware of something about the world that modern people and the most advanced science is not privy to (at least for the time being, perhaps). The ayat about Dhul-Qarnayn in Surat al-Kahf about, e.g., the setting place of the sun as well as the hadith cited above are really beautiful and powerful to me and there is no reason to rush to interpret them metaphorically or somehow anything less than a pure, pristine, direct description of the reality given to us by Allah, the Creator and Master of all reality.
May Allah strengthen our iman, illuminate our hearts and minds with His ayat, and fortify us against the whispering of Satan.