Expansion of the Universe in the Bible and the Qur'an
Comparing Isaiah to Soorat az-Zaariyaat

NOTE: this article employs Hebrew and Arabic characters in unicoded format. You need a browser that can support unicode encoding in order to see these characters. If you cannot see the text try setting your browser encoding to unicode utf-8.
Of the various forms of pro-Islamic apologia, the scientific-hermeneutic approach to the Qur'an has become one of the most popular. This is a method by which proponents of the approach reinterpret verses from the Qur'an in light of science and then assert that the text would not fit with science so easily if it were not the author's intention for it to be a reference to such discoveries. In other words, it is argued that the author of the Qur'an possessed scientific knowledge that the rest of the world would not stumble across until centuries later. The list of subjects allegedly covered in the Qur'an includes embryology, evolution, the big bang, string theory, the spherical shape of the earth, the heliocentric nature of our solar system, the atmosphere, relativity, the binding energy of certain elements, the age of the universe, and various other topics. The goal is to demonstrate that the only rational conclusion is that the Qur'an is from a divine origin.

One of the more popular claims put forth by proponents of this approach is that the Qur'an speaks of the expansion of the universe in Soorat az-Zaariyaat 51:47. This article seeks to compare Soorat az-Zaariyaat with the book of Isaiah in the Bible, and demonstrate that there is no significant difference between what is being said in these two texts regarding the heavens.

To begin, the relevant verse in the Qur'an reads as follows:

والسماء بنيناها بأيد وإنا لموسعون

My preliminary translation of this would be "and the heavens, we built them with our hands and certainly [we are] moosi'oon." That may seem like a bizarre translation, but the word moosi'oon (موسعون) is the word at the center of this dispute; it serves as the crux of this version of the scientific-hermeneutic approach to the Qur'an. Proponents of this approach prefer to translate it as "expanding them," i.e. God is expanding the heavens, and then proclaim it to be a reference to the expansion of the universe.

First we need to discuss the meaning of this word. Note that it is a noun in the plural, the singular being moosi' (موسع). The word itself can mean many things. It is an active participle from the waw-seen-ayn trilateral root (وسع) derived from the FORM IV verb stem of the root, awsa'a (اوسع). While this may not be clear to some readers at the moment, I will cover the subject of active participles being derived from roots in greater detail below. At this moment I will only write that awsa'a can have many meanings, among them being to be rich, to enrich, to expand, to stretch, to make wide, to extend, et cetera.

It is interesting to note that the one other time the word moosi' is employed in the Qur'an (Soorat al-Baqarah 2:236) it is clearly in reference to a rich man. Along these lines, in al-Qurtubee's commentary on the Qur'an, ad-DaHaak is cited as summing up the meaning of moosi'oon with a single word: aghnaynaakum (اغنيناكم), which means "we enriched you".[1] Furthermore, it should be noted that "we are expanding it" (present tense) might have been better expressed via the imperfect indicative of the same verb, noosi'uhaa (نوسعها).

Nonetheless, as was noted above, the verb from which this word is derived can mean expand. Furthermore, active participles can be employed as verbs working in a present tense continuous action. I would like to submit that this Qur'anic verse (combined with the verse that follows, which speaks of the spreading of the earth) does not say anything significantly different from what was written in the book of Isaiah more than a thousand years earlier. First I would like to submit Isaiah 42:5, which reads in part:

כה אמר האל יהוה בורא השׁמים ונוטיהם

My translation would be "thus says the God YHWH, [who is] creating the heavens and expanding them." Some might notice that this translation does not square immediately with what they find in the KJV, NIV or JPS translations of the Bible. So I will take this time to explain this translation. The key part is found in the words YHWH bore ha-shamaim v'noteihem (יהוה בורא השׁמים ונוטיהם), which most literally mean "YHWH is creating the heavens and expanding them." The verb noteh (נוטה) is the present tense (hoveh - הווה) conjugation of the verb lintot (לנטות), which can mean stretch, bend, expand, et cetera. So I have presented the most literal translation of the verse from Isaiah.

Now some may object that I have offered a translation via the rules of modern Israeli Hebrew, not the rules of Biblical Hebrew. Those who offer this objection will claim that what is called "present tense" (hoveh - הווה) in modern Israeli Hebrew, is merely the tenseless participle in Biblical Hebrew. It is claimed that the participle in Biblical Hebrew is "atemporal". I will argue that this sort of conjugation[2] is "atemporal" in Biblical Hebrew the same way it is "atemporal" in modern Israeli Hebrew or even modern Arabic. For example, consider what your standard introductory text on Arabic would say regarding tenses:
    Orthodox Arabic grammarians recognize only three parts of speech: verbs, nouns and participles. [...] Arabic verbs have only two "tenses," perfect and imperfect. In reality these are not tenses, for the distinction between them is not basically that of time. Rather, they indicate whether action is complete or not. The perfect denotes completed action, and the imperfect denotes incompleted action - irrespective of time. It is usually the case that the Arabic perfect is equivalent to the English past and that the Arabic imperfect is equivalent to the English present or future, but exact equivalents must be determined by the context.[3]
This is almost exactly what any textbook on Biblical Hebrew would say about tenses in that respective language. So now I will explain how one determines from the context in what sense a participle is being employed in Arabic and modern Israeli Hebrew, and then I will show that there is no difference in Biblical Herbrew. First, however, let me use an example from English. The English word "suspect" could be described as "atemporal," and it is "atemporal" in the same way that Arabic and Hebrew participles are "atemporal". One can only determine the intended usage of the word "suspect" by its context in a sentence. The sentence "Joe is the main suspect" employs the word as an tenseless passive participle - as a noun. However, the sentence "I suspect that Joe is guilty" employs the word as a present tense conjugation of the verb "to suspect". It is essentially the same with participles in Arabic and Hebrew.

First take note of the various verb stems in Arabic and Hebrew. The first (FORM I) verb stem in Arabic is fa'ala (فعل), and the first verb stem in Hebrew is pa'al (פעל). Though they are pronounced slightly differently, they are spelled exactly the same way.[4] The active participle of the Arabic fa'ala stem is faa'il (فاعل) and the active participle of the Hebrew pa'al stem is po'el (פועל).

To explain this in terms that might be more clear to those who do not have any familiarity with Semitic languages, first note that almost every word in Arabic or Hebrew breaks down to a trilateral (three lettered) root. Further note that both Arabic and Hebrew have multiple verb stems. In Arabic, the active participle of the first verb stem of any root XYZ is prounounced XaaYiZ. In Hebrew, the active participle of the first verb stem of any root XYZ is pronounced XoYeZ.

So take for example the QTL root (قتل = קטל) common to both Hebrew and Arabic, which is roughly for the verb "to kill". "Killer" (one who kills) in either language can be expressed via the active participle of the first verb stem of this root. So the Arabic word for killer is qaatil (قاتل) and the Hebrew word for killer is qotel (קוטל). Another example can be the the KTB root (كتب = כתב) common to both Hebrew and Arabic, which is roughly for the verb "to write". Thus the Arabic word for writer is kaatib (كاتب) and the Hebrew word for writer is koteb[5] (כותב).

The only difference between the structure of moosi' (موسع) and the active participles just mentioned is that moosi' is from the fourth verb stem rather than the first. From this same verb stem the SLM root (سلم) gives us muslim (مسلم), and the LHD root (لحد) gives us mulhid (ملحد) - "atheist/blasphemer," and there are many other examples. So while in the first verb stem the active participle of any root XYZ is XaaYiZ, in the fourth verb stem the active participle is muXYiZ. Nonetheless, the rules regarding employment of active participles generally apply across the board.

Now that we have discussed the active participle, we can compare it to the English passive participle "suspect" as per the analogy above. This conjugation in either Hebrew or Arabic is tenseless, and you have to determine its tense from the context of a sentence. So compare the following Arabic and Hebrew sentences:

هو القاتل

huwa 'l-qaatil

"he is the killer"

هو قاتل الكلب

huwa qaatil al-kalb

"he is killing the dog"

הוא הקוטל

hu ha-qotel

"he is the killer"

הוא קוטל את-הכלב

hu qotel et ha-keleb

"he is killing the dog"

Above we have two sentences in Arabic and two sentences in Hebrew. Each sentence employs the active participle from the QTL root. The sentences are roughly equivalent in structure to English sentences along the lines of "Joe is the main suspect regarding the stain on the floor" and "I suspect Joe's dog left that stain on the floor," respectively. In the first sentence the context obviously has the relevant word being used as a noun. In the second sentence the context obviously has the relevant word being used as a verb. In Arabic and modern Israeli Hebrew, when the active participle is used as a verb is when it implies present tense.

So, as was noted at the outset, when employing modern Israeli Hebrew, the words YHWH bore ha-shamaim v'noteihem (יהוה בורא השׁמים ונוטיהם) should be literally translated "YHWH is creating the heavens and expanding them." This is because it has the structure of person - verb - object the verb is acting upon. Now the question one must ask is, does the same rule apply for Biblical Hebrew? Well, first note that Gesenius offers "stretching them" (present tense) as a possible translation of noteihem.[6] Then note that the Artscroll Stone Edition TaNaKh, which represents the cream of present day Jewish scholarship, contains a footnote for Isaiah 42:5 that reads: "Literally, the verse is in the present tense".[7]. For more consider the following from a popular introductory text on Biblical Hebrew:
    The participles imply continuous activity, and this is especially true of the active form. In meaning they are like gerundives or verbal adjectives, and may agree in gender and number with a a noun or pronoun, e.g., אנחנו משלים, we are ruling.[8]
Similarly, Menahem Mansoor's text book on Biblical Hebrew supports present tense translations for active participles.[9] Of course, this does not tell the whole story, as there are texts on Biblical Hebrew that will present the participle as being "atemporal".[10] However, if one investigates the subject rather thoroughly, he or she will see that in Biblical Hebrew the context supports present tense translation when the participle is used as a "predicate".

What does this mean? Regarding the predicate usage of a participle, Hornsell writes that "[t]his is the same use which some grammars refer to as the verbal use of the participle."[11] In other words, when the participle is employed in the fashion it is employed in Isaiah 42:5 or the example sentences above - when it is employed as a verb. Brettler draws this out further when he writes:
    The participle, like the adjective, may function attributively (for example, הכוהן העולה, "the ascending priest"), or as a predicate (for example, הכוהן עולה, "the priest is ascending"). In its attributive use, the participle is typically translated as an ajective (note how the form הכוהן העולה is parallel to הכוהן הזקן, "the old priest"), while as a predicate, it is usually translated as a verb (note how הכוהן עולה is similar to הכוהן עלה, "the priest ascended").[12]
In other words, the participle as predicate is found when we have the person carrying out the action captured by the verb (exempli gratia: YHWH, Joe, the Priest) followed by the participle as a verb. Such constructions are present tense. The conclusion regarding the participle as predicate in Jouon's authoritative text is as follows:
    From the temporal point of view, the participle more properly expresses the present or the near future, while the yiqtol more properly expresses the future.[13]
His reference to the "yiqtol" refers to the "imperfect" tense of Biblical Hebrew (corresponding to the imperfect tense in Arabic and the future tense in modern Israeli Hebrew). This would mean that there is no significant difference between Biblical Hebrew and modern Israeli Hebrew when it comes to the active participle. Horsnell agrees with Jouon's conclusion[14], and others note that in later Biblical Hebrew the participle represents the present tense.[15] As for examples of participles conveying present tense, Kelley gives Isaiah 61:8[16], Jouon gives Genesis 37:16, Judges 9:36 & Exodus 13:15[17], and Horsnell gives Zecharaiah 2:6[18], all of which agree in basic structure with Isaiah 42:5 and the example sentences given above. Lambdin gives his own examples which also possess the same structure.[19]

So with this long defense of my translation taken care of, the reader will now realize that Isaiah 42:5 (as well as Isaiah 51:13, for that matter) is saying essentially the same thing as Soorat az-Zaariyaat 51:47. However, for the few stubborn types who will continue to refuse to believe that the Arabic employment of active participles is roughly the same as the Hebrew employment of active participles, I would like to bring in the American Bible Society's Arabic translation of Isaiah from 1867.[20] The relevant portion of Isaiah 42:5 is translated as follows:

هكذا يقول الله الرب خالق السموات وناشرها

We see that the Hebrew noteihem (נוטיהם) is translated naashiruhaa (ناشرها). The active participle naashir (ناشر) is being employed, which is from a verb that can mean extend or expand.[21] The Hebrew noteh (נוטה) is also employed in Isaiah 51:13, and there the ABS translation renders it baasit (باسط), from a verb that can mean to spread out, stretch out, enlarge, extend, or expand.[22]

Proponents of the scientific-hermeneutic approach to the Qur'an who push this polemic argue that it is impossible for a mere mortal to write a sentence that can so easily be correlated with the expansion of the universe if that was not the author's intention. What we have shown here is that Isaiah, which predates the advent of Islam, can also be correlated with the expansion of the universe, thus any pre-Islamic Jew or Christian who repeated what is found in Isaiah would be uttering such a statement without necessarily intending it to be a reference to the expanding universe. Also, the ABS translation was written by mere mortals who did not have any knowledge of the expanding universe, yet they too managed to create sentences employing active participles from verbs that can mean "expand" in relation to the heavens.

What this tells us is that the verse in Soorat az-Zaariyaat is not particularly amazing in any scientific sense. In other words, the verse is not a proof in itself (as some would like us to believe) of the Qur'an being from a divine origin. Of course, I do not mean to argue that the Qur'an is, therefore, not from a divine origin. For all I know the Qur'an may very well be the the word of God, and nothing in this article has proven that it is not. However, the point is that this example of the scientific-hermeneutic approach to the Qur'an has failed to prove that Islamic scripture is the word of God. Maybe up to this point readers would best take a position of agnosticism regarding the Qur'an's origins.

  1. al-Qurtubee, al-Jaami'oo li-aHkaam al-Qur'aan, vol. 17, 51:47-49.

  2. Here I use the word "conjugation" loosely and might best put it in quotation marks, as some may argue that participles are not within the scope of the various ways a verb can be conjugated in a Semitic language. Nonetheless, in modern Israeli Hebrew this represents the present tense conjugation of the verb.

  3. Farhat J. Ziadeh & R. Bayly Winder, An Introduction to Modern Arabic, (Dover, 2003), pp. 20-21.

  4. Do not let the different scripts deceive you. The two words employ the exact same spellings, that is, with the exact same corresponding letters: the Arabic faa-ayn-lam and the Hebrew feh-ayin-lamed (roughly F'AL).

  5. In modern Israeli Hebrew the word for "writer" is actually pronounced kotev, because the Hebrew bet (second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, equivalent of the English 'B') is pronounced like a 'v' under certain circumstances.

  6. A.E. Cowley & E. Kautzsch (eds.), Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, (Oxford, 1970), 124 k, p. 399.

  7. Rabbi Nossom Sherman, The Artscroll Series Stone Edition Tanach, (Mesorah, 2003), Isaiah 42:5, p. 1026.

  8. R.K. Harrison, Biblical Hebrew, (Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 1995), p. 87.

  9. Menahem Mansoor, Biblical Hebrew Step-by-Step, (Baker Book House, 1978), pp. 79-80.

  10. Exempli gratia: Bill T. Arnold & John H. Choi, A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, (Cambridge, 2003), pp. 77-78.

  11. Malcolm J.A. Horsnell, A review and Reference Grammar for Biblical Hebrew, (McMaster University, 1999), p. 79.

  12. Marc Zvi Brettler, Biblical Hebrew for Students of Modern Israeli Hebrew, (Yale University Press, 2002), p. 111.

  13. Paul Jouon, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, translated from the French by Takamitsu Muraoka, (Editrice Pontifico Instituto Biblico, 1991), Vol. II, p. 412. Also see p. 409 in the same text where Jouon similarly writes: "The temporal value of the participle is mainly and, as it were, naturally that of the present."

  14. Horsnell, opere citato, p. 79 includes a portion that reads: "Because the participle expresses continuous action it lends itself especially for expressing the present tense."

  15. See Arnold & Choi, opere citato, p. 78, n. 94; also see Angel Saenz-Badillos, A History of the Hebrew Language, (Cambridge, 1993), p. 129, and to a much lesser degree, Moses Hirsch Segal, A Grammar of Michnaic Hebrew, (Oxford, 1990), pp. 155-157.

  16. Page H. Kelley, Biblical Hebrew: An Introductory Grammar, (W.B. Eerdmans, 1992), pp. 200-201.

  17. Jouon, opere citato, p. 409.

  18. Horsnell, opere citato, p. 79.

  19. Thomas Oden Lambdin, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, (Scribner, 1971), pp. 18-19.

  20. The text of this translation can be found online at http://www.arabicbible.com/bible/pdf/2395isa2.pdf

  21. See the nun-shin-raa root in Rohi Baalbaki, Al-Mawrid: A Modern Arabic-English Dictionary, (Dar El-Ilm Lilmayin, 1988), on p. 236

  22. See the the baa-seen-taa root in Baalbaki, al-Mawrid, p. 1171, and J. Milton Cowan, Hans Wehr, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, 3rd ed., (Spoken Language Services, 1971), p. 57.

Hosted by www.Geocities.ws