Scientific miracles in the Quran, take 2
Our friends at the Atheist Experience recently got an email from a viewer that got my old wheels turning. Saki wanted to know the best way to approach a certain argument that some Muslims pull out as evidence of their God being cooler than your God. Or your non-God, in this case. Russell Glasser thought I’d like to take a crack at it, and he was right. (Thanks for the forward, Russell!)
From Saki’s email:
ok, i realize that you probably don’t do this sorta thing, but i’m getting really really ticked of over this one god damned (pardon the pun) argument that keeps popping up that i’ve been having to put to rest a good ten to fifteen times now… someone or the other quotes something from their holy book and goes “well this refers to this scientific discovery that wasn’t made until recently. How could people from the 7th century possibly know that?”
Hey, it’s the return of the Quranic scientific miracle! We got into this a little back in chapter 4, but it’s definitely worth discussing on its own. The exact argument that Saki is referring to is laid out in detail at this site. You can read it in full there.
Here’s the 10 second run down for all you lazy bastards out there: the Quran describes embryology in vivid detail which Mohammed’s 7th century local yokels couldn’t possibly have known about. The Quran wins! May Allah have mercy on you silly assholes.
Lets jump in and do it to it.
First things first: what translation is this guy using? If you’ve been following along as I blog my way through the Quran, you already know why I’m asking. We’ve seen over and over again that translators will sweeten things up a little by adding in science-y stuff that isn’t found in other translations. What was once translated as mustard seed is now translated as atom. The translation I’m reading does this shit all the time. In chapter 4, for instance, Ahmed Ali says God created man out of single cell:
(4:1) O MEN, FEAR your Lord who created you from a single cell, and from it created its mate,
Single cell. Sounds pretty impressive for 600 CE, right? But if you check some other translations, it doesn’t say the same thing:
(4:1) Mankind, fear your Lord, who created you of a single soul, and from it created its mate,
(4:1) O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate
Syed V. Ahamed:
(4:1) O Mankind! Fear (and respect) your (Guardian) Lord, Who created you, from a single person (Adam), and from him, He (Allah) created his mate of similar nature,
So two translators come up with single soul, one with single person and Ahmed Ali somehow twists that same Arabic into single cell. Every time something sounds a little too science-y, I cross check with other translations. And guess what? It’s usually the translator fluffing things up. When it comes to scientific miracles in the Quran, I go by one common sense rule: if it sounds too modern to be true, it probably is. Cross check, cross check, cross check.
Now back to the semen thing. How could 7th century Arabs possibly have known that man was created from a drop of semen? Well, who says the word semen is in the Arabic at all? See above about translators being asshats, and then check this out:
(86:5) Let man consider what he was made of:
(86:6) He was created of spurting water
(86:7) Issuing from (the pelvis) between the backbone and the ribs.
That’s right. Man is created from spurting water. Spurting water that comes from between the backbone and the ribs. Isn’t that where the kidneys are? Now, I’m no expert on all things testicular, but I’m pretty fucking sure that’s where the baby juice comes from. I learned that in, oh, 6th grade. I thought boys were weird and gross then, and honestly, that little bit of information didn’t help their case out at all.
Even if other parts of the Quran specifically mention the word semen in Arabic, that one blunder there is kind of a big one. And it’s not just an Ahmed Ali mistake either:
A. J. Arberry:(86:6) he was created of gushing waterPickthall:(86:6) He is created from a gushing fluidSyed V. Ahamed:
(86:6) He is created from a drop emitted
See that? Three translations that say spurting/gushing water/fluid, and then one says a drop emitted. Ahh, the magic of apologetics. And here I thought the word of God was immutable. Silly me!
To me, the whole house of cards comes crumbling down when you have a huge honking mistake like this in the Quran. But there’s more to the argument than just that. What about the 3 layers of the uterus bit? And the 3 distinct stages thing? Who else but God could have told Mohammed about all of that?
Here’s the deal: Muslims are claiming that God revealed these things to Mohammed before scientists discovered them. A lot of people have this idea that Mohammed’s people were all by their lonesome in the middle of Arabia. So anything that sounds even remotely outside the desert world must surely be evidence that the Quran is the true word of God. It’s just too fucking bad that science was moving along just fine before the Quran came along, and that the Arabs were not really isolated at all.
I’m not really sure where that whole isolation thing comes from. The Arabs were trading with plenty of people outside of Arabia. Contemporary Greek trading documents mention Arab towns like Ta’if, Yathrib (Medina) and Khaybar. And we know that the Persian Sassanids were in and out of Arabia between 300 and 570 CE. Check out this nifty little map that shows the trade routes followed by an Arab tribe known as the Nabateans:
And those guys were trading as early as 600 BCE…by boat! Hell, Mohammed’s first wife ran a successful trading business herself, and guess who worked for her? Yup. Mo, himself. He took his first caravan to Syria for her before they were married. It’s a quaint idea that the Arabs were free from all outside influence, but it’s a load of bullshit.
The water-kidney-sperm verses are a perfect example of why this idea is just fucking stupid: it was a theory that the Greeks came up with before Mohammed was even born. Ever heard of Hippocrates? The father of medicine? He had this wild idea that sperm is actually made up of different fluids in your body, and that it traveled through the brain, spine and finally the kidneys before it got to the testicles. Give the guy a break. This was, after all, in 400 BCE. Old Hippocrates knew that sperm was responsible for baby-making over 1000 years before the Arabs’ little book came along.
And it’s not just Hippocrates either. Aristotle had theories about fetal formation around 1000 years before the Quran came along. He even accurately described the umbilical cord’s function, which is something God forgot to mention in the Quran. Oops!
People who argue for these so-called scientific miracles in the Quran seem to think that science and surgeries and dissections are something that only started happening recently. Not so much. Animal lovers, look away: Hippocrates performed surgeries on pregnant dogs and recorded his findings. He describes the amniotic sac inside the uterus and everything. And it’s not like Hippocrates was the first or only person in the world doing this or that these studies died when he did. I imagine as time went on, experimenting progressed and peoples’ knowledge about things like fetal development and layers of the uterus got more and more accurate. That’s kind of how science works, right? Right??
So you have 1000 years between the time that Hippocrates and Aristotle are writing about amniotic sacs and stages of pregnancy and the time that the Quran comes out with all this layers of the uterus stuff. And you’ve got a community of 7th century Arabs who are nowhere near as isolated as some people would have you believe. The only miracle here is that people actually believe this shit even in the face of evidence that completely contradicts it. Bah humbug.
Anyway, Saki, I hope that helps you out. If anyone has any more questions like this, fire away. Helping you helps me help you. …yeah.