The Qur'an and the Oily Red Rose Nebula

There are many Muslim webpages propagating one particular example of the miraculous scientific knowledge of the Qur'an, supposedly proven by a picture from the NASA Hubble Space Telescope on January 11, 1995, but having reached the attention of the Muslims apparently when it was the featured image at the NASA web site on October 31, 1999. Starting from that date, some Muslim discovered that this is may make a good miracle, spread the news and many have taken up the story (cf. *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *, *).

One of the most elaborate articles on this topic was written by Shibli Zaman, making the claim: Lifecyle of the Universe Foretold in the Qur'ân. His claims, the statements presented as facts and the conclusions drawn from them, are thoroughly examined in two articles: Is the Lifecycle of the Universe Foretold in the Qur’an? by Alastair M. Paterson (PDF file, looking at the scientific questions) and Does the Qur'an Speak About a "Lifecycle of the Universe"? (on exegetical issues regarding Surah 55:37).

For the remainder of this discussion I will look at one claim made by most of the above linked Muslim articles, but not by Mr. Zaman and therefore not discussed in the above two rebuttals. The Muslim sites usually display the NASA picture together with a verse from the Qur'an, then a variety of similar statements or questions are presented:

This picture of the "Cat's Eye Nebula," taken on September 18, 1994, by the NASA Hubble Space Telescope is officially referred to as NGC 6543. Estimated to be 1,000 years old, the nebula is a visual "fossil record" of the dynamics and late evolution of a dying star. NGC 6543 is an exploding star 3,000 light-years away in the northern constellation Draco.

They should have called it the "Oily Red Rose Nebula." As the Quran states in Surat ar-Rahman (chapter 55), "When the sky is torn apart, so it was (like) a red rose, like ointment." How would the Quran know 1,400 years ago that when a star explodes, it is like a oily red rose? (Source)

We see it now in the years 1999/2000! and Quran mentioned it almost 1400 years ago. (Sources 1, 2, 3)

It is amazing with regards how accurately the Quran describes these events some 1400 years ago!!! (Source)

"When the sky splits apart, and turns rose-like..." (Qur'an 55:37) Compare this statement in the Qur'an to the above NASA picture taken by the Hubble Telescope. The picture captures the "Splitting" of "a" sky. Why didn't NASA call this the "rose nebula" instead of the Cat's Eye Nebula? (Source)

There are, however, several problems with the Muslim claims. The first one will become obvious when comparing a number of translations of Surah 55:37:

And when the heaven splitteth asunder and becometh rosy like red hide - (Pickthall)
When the sky is rent asunder, and it becomes red like ointment: (Yusuf Ali)
And when the heaven splits up and turns crimson like red hide (Nooruddin)
And when the heaven is rent asunder, and then becomes red like red hide. (Shakir)
When the sky disintegrates, and turns rose colored like paint. (Khalifa)
And when the sky is rent asunder, and becomes red like [burning] oil (Asad)
Then when the heaven is rent asunder, and it becomes rosy or red like red oil, or red hide - (Hilali and Khan)
When the sky splits asunder and reddens like a rose or stained leather (Dawud)
And when the heaven shall be cleft asunder, and become rose red, like stained leather (Rodwell)
And when heaven is torn asunder, and turns crimson like red leather (Arberry)
And when the heaven is rent asunder and become rosy red - (melting) like grease! (Palmer)
And when the heaven shall be rent in sunder, and shall become [red as] a rose, [and shall melt] like ointment: (Sale)

The issue is that the crucial word in the Arabic text is so obscure that we do not even know what it exactly means, and so translators make some educated guesses. Can we really call a statement of unclear meaning a scientific miracle? There seems to be a general agreement that this verse talks about some kind of a red color, similar to the COLOR of a rose or stained leather or hot oil, but most of the translators do NOT say that the sky will have the FORM of a rose or look like a rose. However, this is obviously the point of connecting the verse with the image of this star in most of the Muslim articles. They claim that this event is mentioned in the Qur'an.

The authors of the translations used in the various Muslim articles referred to above remain unidentified. They render Surah 55:37 for example like this:

And if the sky is torn apart to become a rose as in a painting, (Source)

When the sky splits apart, and turns rose-like... (Source)

When the sky is torn apart, so it was (like) a red rose, like ointment. (most of the pages, e.g. this one)

Apparently, these Muslims have adjusted the translation to fit the image, but what is their justification for doing so? Would it not be a matter of intellectual integrity to state that we really do not know what the word exactly means? An minor issue is that this amateurish translation doesn't make much sense because of inconsistent tenses: "When the sky is (present tense) ..., so it was (past tense) ...". The consequence of something happening in the present (or future) can hardly be an effect in the past. This violates the scientific law of cause and effect.

Furthermore, it is important to observe that the verse clearly says "when the sky is torn apart", not "when one star loses part of its substance". The image of this star having shed its outer layers was only possible because of a very powerful telescope since it is so small and so faint and represents only a very tiny dot on the sky. Thus we have to ask: Since (a) the sky has so far obviously NOT been torn apart, and (b) even this particular star is still there and not torn apart either (as one can clearly see in the center of the image), WHY would anyone suppose that this verse of the Qur'an talks about the event captured in this particular image? And if it doesn't, where is the miracle?

The problem of applying the image of only one star (among billions of stars) to the whole sky was recognized by one Muslim author, and so he writes:

The above photograph of the exploding Nebula raises a distinct possibility that the explosion at some very early stage of the big bang might have looked like the photograph of the Nebula. In that case the Qur'anic verse in Sura Ar-Rahman is yet another reference to the big bang. Notice that the verse in Sura Ar-Rahman says that "when the sky is clove apart ..." and not when "a star is torn apart ..". The reference to sky rather than a star suggests an explosion involving the whole universe as in the big bang. (Source)

This reasoning is not valid either for several reasons:

First, the verse of the Qur'an clearly talks about a future event, even about the end of this World (Judgment Day, cf. the article Does the Qur'an Speak About a "Lifecycle of the Universe"?) not the beginning of the world. Second, one can only tear apart a sky that already exists. Before the Big Bang, there was no sky to tear apart. Thus, this explanation does not make much sense scientifically either. Third, according to the theories of astrophysics, our universe is several billions of years old and there are several billions of years to come before it may die. Thus, we are currently soemwhere in the middle of its life. How can a verse from the Qur'an speaking about the end of the world combined with an image of one star taken in the middle of the life of the universe be evidence that the Qur'an teaches that in the very beginning the universe started with the Big Bang? Such logic is beyond me.

Jochen Katz

Qur'an, Islam & Science
Answering Islam Home Page