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Ibn Taymiyah & the shape of the Earth

Published: 27/08/2011 11:01:00 AM GMT
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I heard that Ibn Taymiyah made statements to the effect that the Earth is round. Doesn’t the Qur’ân indicate in many places that the Earth is flat, as mentioned by Ibn Kathîr, since it describes the Earth with the words sutihat and muddat? I am referring especially to Sûrah al-Ghâshiyah, verse 20 and Sûrah al-Ra`d, verse 3. What was Ibn Taymiyah’s reason back then for believing the Earth is round? Where was his proof from the Qur’ân and Sunnah? Back then, there could be no other proof, since the shape of the Earth would have been a matter of the Unseen. The Earth was not fully explored back then and no one could have seen it from space.

Answered by

the Scientific Research Committee -

The term “sutihat” has many shades of meaning that are all quite literal, among them: “to be spread out, leveled, made smooth, unrolled, flattened”.

The term “madda” simply means to extend or stretch.

We must believe that the Earth has been extended and spread out. This is what Allah says. However, we are not obliged to know how Allah has done so unless he specifically informs us of this. We are likewise not accountable to know the exact nature of this spreading out and extension. We should leave knowledge of that to Allah. It would definitely be wrong for us to think that Allah cannot spread out and extend a spherical surface however He sees fit. Allah does whatever He pleases.

You should be able to see quite clearly from the above discussion that Allah does not say anywhere in the Qur’ân that the Earth is flat. This is just one way of understanding these verses. Some people have merely inferred the flatness of the Earth from these verses. Therefore, it is just their opinion that the Earth is flat. Our opinions can be right or wrong. We are obliged to believe everything that the Qur’ân says. However, we are not obliged to believe someone’s mere opinion about what it means.

Here is what Ibn Kathîr says about Sûrah al-Ghâshiyah, verse 20:

And at the earth, how it is outspread” …meaning, how it has been spread out (busitat), extended (muddat) and made smooth (muhhidat). Thus, He directs the Bedouin to consider what he himself witnesses. His camel that he rides upon, the sky that is above his head, the mountain that faces him, and the earth that is under him, all of this is proof of the power of the Creator and Maker of these things. These things should lead him to see that He is the Lord, the Most Great, the Creator, the Owner, and the Controller of everything. Therefore, He is the God other than Whom none deserves to be worshipped.

Nowhere does Ibn Kathir discuss the physical nature of the Earth in his commentary of this verse. He makes it clear that Allah is not doing so either. He says that Allah “directs the Bedouin to consider what he himself witnesses”. There is no geology or biology lesson going on here. Allah is merely instructing us to look at what we see before us. He is not describing to us how He created the camel or the Earth. He is just telling us to look at these matters and ponder them.

With respect to Sûrah al-Ra`d, verse 3, Ibn Kathîr says:

And it is He Who spread out (madda) the Earth” …made it spacious in length and width (ja`alahâ muttasa`ah mumtaddah fî al-tûl wa al-`ard). Allah has placed on the earth firm mountains and made rivers, springs and water streams run through it, so that the various kinds of fruits and plants of every color, shape, taste and scent are watered with this water.

Again, no mention is made that the Earth is flat. He merely understands from the term “madda” that Allah has made the Earth spacious for us. This is, indeed, all that we can honestly understand from this verse without our delving into unnecessary speculation and interpretation.

Even if Ibn Kathîr did hold the view that the Earth was flat, that world merely have been his opinion, since it is not directly stated by Allah anywhere in the Qur’ân. It would not mean that Muslims are obliged to believe the flatness of the Earth as an article of their faith. However, Ibn Kathîr does not mention anything about the Earth being flat in his commentary on these two verses, since he did not see these two verses as indicating the flatness of the Earth.

As for your request for Ibn Taymiyah’s statements on the shape of the Earth, he states quite clearly in a number of places that it is round.

For instance, he writes: “Know that there is agreement that the Earth is spherical of shape and water covers most of it.” [Majmû` al-Fatâwâ (5/150). See also: Majmû` al-Fatâwâ (6/546-567)]

Please keep in mind that even if Ibn Taymiyah had thought that the Earth was flat, that would just have been his opinion on the matter. We would not be obliged to agree with him. We are only obliged to believe what is clearly stated in the Qur’ân and Sunnah.

Ibn Taymiyah is merely mentioning the scientific knowledge of his day. He is not making a statement of religious beliefs nor is he discussing the Unseen. The shape of the Earth was determined then as it is now – by human observation.

(However, Ibn Taymiyah argues that the celestial orbits are round on the authority of the Qur’ân, Sunnah, and `Ijmâ`. [See: Majmû` al-Fatâwâ (5/150)])

In fact, Ibn Taymiyah makes a clear mistake when he says: “As for the other side of the Earth, it is completely covered by ocean, so there are no humans and the like over there.” [Majmû` al-Fatâwâ (6/565)] However, he is not quoting this from the Qur’ân and Sunnah. He is again merely stating what was believed at the time in which he lived. People knew that the world was round. However, they did not know about the Americas, Australia, or Antarctica. They only knew about Eurasia and Africa. They just assumed that the rest of the world was one great ocean.

This is not a problem in his religion, since belief in the existence of the Americas is no more a tenet of our faith than is our belief about the shape of the Earth. It is merely a question of geography. It has no bearing on faith whatsoever.

It would be fair to ask why Ibn Taymiyah, who was clearly concerned with religious matters and not scientific ones, would care to discuss the shape of the Earth at all? The answer is that in these passages that we quoted to you, Ibn Taymiyah is concerned with something that is indeed a matter of faith. He is arguing with people who claim that Allah’s throne cannot be above the Earth since the Earth is round. His purpose is to refute them by demonstrating that Allah’s throne can indeed be above the Earth even though the Earth is undoubtedly round.

You also ask how people back then knew that the Earth was round when they had not explored all of the Earth, never traveled around it, and never departed from its surface.

There were many ways they came to know this. The most obvious of these is the existence of a horizon. Things do not just appear smaller and smaller as they stretch off endlessly in the distance. This is what we would see if the Earth was flat, and it would be a strange sight to us indeed. What we actually see is that things suddenly disappear at the horizon. When we are standing on a flat plain, the horizon is crisp and clean in all directions. The reason for this is that the horizon is the place where the curve of the Earth dips below our line of sight.

Moreover, the top of a distant tall mountain might be seen peeking out from just beyond the horizon. As we approach it, we can see lower and lower down the mountainside. If the Earth was flat, we would see the entire mountain from the base to the summit getting larger and larger as we approach it. However, we see the summit first. A sailor approaching a mountainous coast sees this phenomenon most clearly. He first sees the mountaintops, then as he approaches the coast, he can see lower down the mountains.

People also observed that the angle of a shadow at the same time of day from different cities was different. The reason for this is that the rays of the Sun are hitting the Earth at different angles because the Earth’s surface is curved. From this observation, ancient people not only realized that the Earth was round, but they were actually able to calculate the size of the Earth with surprising accuracy.

Ancient people also noticed that during a lunar eclipse – which occurs when Earth is directly between the Sun and the Moon – the shadow of the Earth on the Moon is circular. They realized from this observation that the Earth was a sphere, since only a sphere could cast such a circular shadow.

Therefore, the shape of the Earth was a well-known observable fact since ancient times. It was not a matter of the Unseen.

Source: Islam Today

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