Another Credibility Problem for the Qur'an
The Qur'an narrates the following story in order to inform us how Abraham became a true believer:
And when Abraham said to his father Azar, 'Takest thou idols for gods? I see thee, and thy people, in manifest error.' So We were showing Abraham the kingdom of the heavens and earth, that he might be of those having sure faith. When night outspread over him he saw a star and said, 'This is my Lord.' But when it set he said, 'I love not the setters.' When he saw the moon rising, he said, 'This is my Lord.' But when it set he said, 'If my Lord does not guide me I shall surely be of the people gone astray.' When he saw the sun rising, he said, 'This is my Lord; this is greater!' But when it set he said, 'O my people, surely I am quit of that you associate. I have turned my face to Him who originated the heavens and the earth, a man of pure faith; I am not of the idolaters.' His people disputed with him. He said, 'Do you dispute with me concerning God, and He has guided me? I fear not what you associate with Him, except my Lord will aught. My Lord embraces all things in His knowledge; will you not remember? How should I fear what you have associated, seeing you fear not that you have associated with God that whereon He has not sent down on you any authority?' Which of the two parties has better title to security, if you have any knowledge? Those who believe, and have not confounded their belief with evildoing -- to them belongs the true security; they are rightly guided. S. 6:74-82 Arberry
Before inquiring about the "religious message" proclaimed by this text, we need to observe that this passage is not an allegory or some other kind of fictional story. This story is presented to the reader as a historical narrative. In other words, the author of the Qur'an wants us to understand these verses as a report of what actually happened in Abraham's life.
There are, however, serious problems with this account. It conflicts with common sense and also contains a theological problem.
The credibility of this story depends on the "surprise factor", i.e. that Abraham is actually surprised by the fact that the star, the moon and the sun are setting. Does that make sense? What is the probability that this is true?
Depending on where people live and what lifestyle they have, they may not usually be awake when the sun rises. Consequently, experiencing a sunrise may not be a regular event for some, though most people have nevertheless experienced a good number of them. However, nearly all people are awake when the sun sets. Not all are privileged to live in the mountains or at an ocean shore where the surrounding scenery makes a sunset particularly beautiful, but by the time somebody becomes a young adult, he had thousands of sunset experiences (except for very few people who live north of the polar circle, but Abraham lived in the Middle East). Whether or not one has ever seen the full beauty that is possible in a sunset, there are not many things that are as certain every day as the fact that the sun is going to set, and the night will come. And that is not a new development in the 21st Century; it was just the same in Abraham's time.
The Quranic story in S. 6:74-82 presumes that Abraham had never before in his life seen a star, the moon or the sun. Only then could he become so impressed as to worship them immediately at their appearance, and then be surprised and dismayed at their setting after their rising.
Note that according to the Qur'an, Abraham he had just realized that those hand-crafted idols worshiped by his people and also in his own family are not gods. He had just recognized a false religion, and called the worship of idols a clear error. He was already in the mode of "religous scepticism". It is hardly believable that someone who had seen stars, the moon and particularly the sun rise and set hundreds or thousands of times before — without considering them divine until that point in time —, would then suddenly think that those well-known celestial bodies are God. Even if that could be considered possible once, we are asked to believe that this happened to Abraham three times in a row! After he had already recognized that the star cannot be his Lord because it set again after its rising, and supposedly repeated the same observation and conclusion with the moon, it is absolutely impossible to believe that he would make the sun his Lord. He had already concluded twice that those "things that set" cannot be God, and he had seen the sun set thousands of times before. This story has a serious credibility problem!
Does the Qur'an teach that Abraham was exceedingly stupid? Or do Muslims want to assume that Abraham was kept by his father in a dark dungeon so that he had never seen the sun, moon and stars in his life, until the time when he objected to the idols of his father?
Whatever angle one may choose, this story is not credible as an accurate report of a historical event. It flies in the face of common sense. Believing that this story is historically true demands considerable gullibility on the part of the reader. No, I do not believe that Abraham was stupid, and neither am I willing to sacrifice common sense and sound reason when reading the Qur'an.
This story is not credible, period. In other words: The Qur'an is not credible. The Qur'an is not a credible source of historical information. But if we cannot trust the Qur'an when it reports historical events, how can we believe the Qur'an when it claims to proclaim the truth about God?
There is yet another scientific and common sense reason why it could not have happened this way. Granted, there is a certain logic behind the sequence of (1) star, (2) moon, and (3) sun: these three are sorted according to the increasing brightness of their appearance on the sky. However, even under the already impossible assumption that Abraham had not seen either one of these before, this is not the sequence in which he could have encountered them.
Stars are only visible at night. Thus, Abraham saw that star rise on the night sky. However, the moon outshines every star. Just step outside at night and take a look the next time the sky is clear. If brightness is the argument, how could Abraham have chosen a little twinkling star as his Lord when the moon was shining so much larger and so much brighter? It does not make sense. Some may reply: "But there are nights when we do not see the moon!" That is correct, but in that case, what celestial body is Abraham going to see after the star has set? If it is a night where the moon is not visible, then Abraham would first have seen the sun during the next day before he could encounter the moon in one of the following nights. The sequence in the Qur'an simply does not work.
Again, this story is not credible. It certainly did not happen this way.
As mentioned above, besides the clash with common sense, this story also poses a theological problem. It is well known that idolatry, worshiping someone or something as god which is not the true God, is considered the worst sin in Islam, some passages in the Qur'an even stating that it is the only sin that will not be forgiven.
Let me quote the first part of the story again, this time highlighting other elements:
74And when Abraham said to his father Azar, 'Takest thou idols for gods? I see thee, and thy people, in manifest error.' 75So We were showing Abraham the kingdom of the heavens and earth, that he might be of those having sure faith. 76When night outspread over him he saw a star and said, 'This is my Lord.' But when it set he said, 'I love not the setters.' 77When he saw the moon rising, he said, 'This is my Lord.' But when it set he said, 'If my Lord does not guide me I shall surely be of the people gone astray.' 78When he saw the sun rising, he said, 'This is my Lord; this is greater!' But when it set he said, 'O my people, surely I am quit of that you associate. 79I have turned my face to Him who originated the heavens and the earth, a man of pure faith; I am not of the idolaters.' S. 6:74-79 Arberry
There are basically two possibilities to interpret this. Either, the events in verses 76-79 (are thought to have) happened some time after Allah had been "showing Abraham the kingdom of the heavens and earth, that he might be of those having sure faith" (v. 75), or they are part of this process of "showing Abraham the kingdom of the heavens and earth", i.e. 6:76-79 give some details of the process that is mentioned as a summary statement in 6:75.
The first interpretation means that Abraham lapsed into idolatry after he had already received revelation from Allah. Even worse, he had been given that revelation for the express purpose that he may have "sure faith". Nevertheless he moved on to commit repeated acts of idolatry by declaring various celestial bodies to be his Lord. For a more detailed discussion of this interpretation, see the article Abraham's Monotheism.
The second interpretation is even worse. It means that it was Allah himself who pushed Abraham into idolatry in order to lead him to true and sure faith in the end. After Abraham had already rejected idolatry (S. 6:74), and the normal appearance of a star, the moon or the sun would hardly have caused Abraham to call any of them "my Lord", Allah must have caused them to appear to him in some extraordinary, amazing, super-natural way. They must have looked very different than usual and so overwhelmingly radiant and powerful that Abraham was led to view them as deities. Whatever happened exactly, if verses 76-79 are part of Allah's act of showing Abraham the kingdom of the heavens and the earth, then it is Allah who is the direct cause of Abraham's repeated idolatry.
In other words, during his process of revelation Allah first misled Abraham about the truth, before he finally guided him right. Allah used some kind of deception. Allah is, yet again, a deceiver. Allah mixes revelation with deception. That should be troubling for anyone who believes in Islam.
Articles examining other instances in which Allah is depicted as using deception: (1) Allah as a Deceiver, (2) Deceptive God, Incompetent Messiah: What Islam Really Teaches About Allah and Jesus, (3) To deceive or not to deceive, (4) Does Allah Command Evil and Abomination or Doesn’t He?
Articles discussing contradictions and inconsistencies in the Abraham stories of the Qur'an: (1) Abraham's Monotheism, (2) Abraham's messed up family tree.
1. Moreover, observe that verse 76 actually starts with these words: "When night outspread over him he saw a star ..." This formulation implies (seeing) a sunset. It refers to the process when the sun sets and the place where a person stands becomes darker and darker until it is fully night. In other words, this indicates that Abraham experienced a sunset right before he saw the star rising. He was there when the sun set and the star rose. The sunset, featured so prominently in Verse 78, was already seen by him in verse 76.
Contradictions in the Qur'an
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