Answered by Ustadh Salman Younas
Question: Recently I read that it is obligatory for Muslims to believe that the earth is stationary and that the sun orbits around it. Can you tell me what belief we should have?
It is known that the earth orbits the sun, not the other way around.
The Qur’an was not revealed as a book of science. Nor was the sunna primarily interested in elucidating points of scientific fact. Rather, the point of both of these sources is to instruct humans regarding the manner in which they should live in order to recognize God and attain to felicity. In other words, the Qur’an and sunna are sources of guidance: “Indeed, this Qur’an guides to the straightest way and gives glad tidings to the believers,” (17:9) and “A book we have sent down to you so you may bring forth mankind from darkness to light.” (14:1).
From this perspective, references to the earth, sun, stars, the moon, and other celestial objects within the primary sources is primarily for the purpose of drawing the attention of human beings towards the creation of God. It is through reflecting on these created things that humans are able to recognize the existence and power of God: “Indeed, in the alternation of the night and day and in what God has created within the heavens and the earth are signs for those who are pious.” (10:9)
Science & Scripture
With this in mind, the basic principle is that whenever a literal or outward reading of a verse of the Qur’an or an authentic saying of the Prophet seems to contradict a decisively established point of fact, then that verse or saying is interpreted in a manner that accords to this established point of fact.
Take the following verse: “The sun and the moon follow exact courses.” (55:5). One interpretation given for this verse by classical exegetes is that the sun and moon actually move in an orbit around the earth. In his commentary, Imam Alusi (d. 1317/1854) states that some philosophers in his time argued that it was the sun that was stationary and the earth that revolved around it. Imam Alusi comments on the position of these philosopher by stating:
“We have heard that they altered their position again by stating that the sun moves around another star. This indicates that their initial position [regarding the sun being stationary] lacks clear evidence… and we stick to the literal purport of the texts so long as there is no decisive evidence contrary to it. If such evidence exists, then we resort to interpretation, and there is great scope for this.” [Ruh al-Ma`ani]
There are a number of critical points that the above statement demonstrates.
(a) despite holding a contrary position, Imam Alusi acknowledges that if the evidence of those who state the sun is stationary is established, then that is the position that will be adopted.
(b) that the primary texts themselves allow for a sufficient scope of interpretation that would allow for such a position.
In other words, there is nothing decisive in the meaning indicated by such verses that would prevent us from understanding them in a manner that corresponds to contemporary scientific evidence. This evidence, as we now know, establishes in a convincing fashion that the earth rotates around the sun. In so far as the prerogative to determine the movement of celestial bodies belongs to those in the fields of astronomy, cosmology, etc., those in the field of religious scholarship are required to submit to their opinions on these issues.
How Do We Interpret These Verses
Keeping the above mind, there are a number of ways to interpret verses that seemingly indicate the movement of the sun:
(a) Looking at it from the perspective of the purpose of the Qur’an as a book of guidance calling upon creation to reflect, these verses are simply describing celestial bodies as they appear to the onlooker. This is a powerful method of making man reflect in so far as it appeals to his or her actual experience of these celestial bodies. It describes the celestial in a manner that people were accustomed to and described it in a language they understood.
(b) That the words signifying the movement of the sun refer to its rotation on its own axis, known as solar rotations, or to the revolution of the sun around the galaxy. It does not refer to its revolution around the earth i.e. geocentrism.
(c) That some of these verses have metaphorical meanings.
I am unable to go through all the verses that directly relate to this issue. However, the above should be provide a general overview of the issue.
The upshot is that it is not obligatory to believe that the sun revolves around the earth. Rather, the principles of our tradition dictate that we accept the heliocentric model of the universe that currently stands as the consensus position of those specializing in the study of celestial bodies.
Checked & Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani