Responses to Shibli Zaman

Does the Qur'an Speak About a "Lifecycle of the Universe"?

On a considerable number of Muslim websites we find the approach to call people to accept the Qur'an as truth and embrace Islam on the basis of alleged amazing scientific knowledge found in the Qur'an that can only come from God. In one way or the other, these Muslim authors all repeat the mantra that "such miraculously detailed information was not available at the time of Muhammad" and therefore it had to be of divine origin. Mr. Zaman does not follow the approach of many other Muslim webmasters who are overloading their sites with several dozens of these alleged miracles, but he is nevertheless propagating these theories and has published several articles containing such claims (see also his articles on amazing scientific details regarding the communication of ants and submarine volcanoes). The present paper will evaluate one such claim that has apparently gone unanswered so far.

On 11 January 2002 Shibli Zaman published the article, Lifecyle of the Universe Foretold in the Qur'ān, making the following claims:

"The color composite was created during an analysis of different theories about star formation. Scientists think that the universe first went through a 'blue phase,' populated mostly by young stars; then shifted into its current 'green phase,' with its mixture of young and old; and will eventually experience a 'red phase,' when it possesses mostly aging red giants." [] [1]

The eventual "red phase" towards the death of our universe was supported in 1999 when, for the first time, a picture had been taken by NASA of a dying star which looked identical to a red rose. You can see it here on NASA's web site:

Now compare these recent scientific discoveries, to the following verse of the Qur'ān regarding the death of the universe and its commentary by the successors of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him):

"When the heavens are rent asunder and appear as a roseate oil; Which of your Lord's signs will you deny?" [2]

About this verse of the Qur'ān, Qatādah from the generation of the Prophet's (peace be upon him) succcessors stated:

"In our time the heavens are green but on that day they will become red.. " [3]

That statement was made over 1000 years ago. The early Muslims from the late 7th century knew that the universe's true color is green, and would eventually turn a deep roseate red. How did they know this information only substantiated in the year 2002? It should inspire all to ponder upon this question and wonder what their is in Islam that causes it to have revealed so many secrets of science more than 1400 years ago that are only being discovered with the help of modern technology to this day. The information is too copious to document here, but skimming through the age old commentaries of the Qur'ān by the Prophet's (peace be upon him) Companions and Successors each phase of the universe, the blue, the green, and the red, are mentioned thoroughly in great detail. ...


[1] "True color of the cosmos revealed, pale green" January 11, 2002 Posted: 6:34 AM HKT (2234 GMT), By Richard Stenger, Sci-Tech

[2] The Holy Qur'ān, Chapter ar-Rahmān, 55:36, in Arabic, "fa itha-nshaqqati-samā'u fa kānat wardat(an) kad-dihān; fa bi ayyi ālā'ī rabbikumā tukathibān". Some of the Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him), such as ibn `Abbās, said it is similar to the color of a red mare.

[3] Upon the authority of `Abdur-Razzāq, Ibn Jarīr, `Abd bin Humayd, and others in Tafsīr ibn Kathīr, al-Jāmi`u li-Ahkāmi-l Qur'ān of al-Qurtubī, Jāmi`u-l Bayān `An Ta'wīl Ayy al-Qur'ān of at-Tabarī, ad-Durr al-Manthūr fi-Tafsīr bi-l Ma'thūr of as-Suyūtī

There are actually more than a dozen Muslim websites that use the picture found on the above mentioned NASA webpage and link it with this verse of the Qur'an as Shibli Zaman did, and these claims have been around since the end of 1999. However, adding the above statement from a CNN report, connecting it with a narration of some early Muslims, and interpreting this as giving us scientific information about "the lifecycle of the Universe" seems to originate with Mr. Zaman.

As impressive as this seems to be at first reading, let us investigate whether the argument presented is true. Are the conclusions drawn from the reported facts logically valid? Are the facts listed even accurate? In order to evaluate Zaman's argument, both the scientific terms and the theological concepts involved need to be properly understood.

What are these cited passages talking about? Using bold and italics let me emphasize a couple of aspects in these quotations that we need to investigate: "When the heavens are rent asunder ..." and "In our time the heavens are ... but on that day they will become ...". The following questions will have to be asked: What event is the passage speaking about? When is this event going to happen? What object exactly is referred to?

First, a minor comment on Zaman's choice of terminology. The quotation from the CNN report talks about "phases" of the universe. It does not talk about a "lifecycle" and this is a rather inappropriate word for the current topic since cycles end where they began and then start all over again. I don't think Zaman wanted to propagate the theory of a cyclic universe, and thus he should not have chosen this word.

Second, these phases spoken about in the above CNN news report are clearly understood to be of comparable length (each several billions of years in duration) since the cooling of the stars is a slow continuous process. What, on the other hand, is the Qur'an talking about? The statement "When the heavens are rent asunder and appear as a roseate oil;" is not even a full sentence but only a subordinate clause. Let me quote the context of this verse to understand what event this passage is describing. The following is Surah 55:26-46 according to the translation of Yusuf Ali:

  1. All that is on earth will perish:
  2. But will abide (for ever) the Face of thy Lord, - full of Majesty, Bounty and Honour.
  3. Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?
  4. Of Him seeks (its need) every creature in the heavens and on earth: every day in (new) Splendour doth He (shine)!
  5. Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?
  6. Soon shall We settle your affairs, O both ye worlds!
  7. Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?
  8. O ye assembly of Jinns and men! If it be ye can pass beyond the zones of the heavens and the earth, pass ye! not without authority shall ye be able to pass!
  9. Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?
  10. On you will be sent (O ye evil ones twain!) a flame of fire (to burn) and a smoke (to choke): no defence will ye have:
  11. Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?
  12. When the sky is rent asunder, and it becomes red like ointment:
  13. Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?
  14. On that Day no question will be asked of man or Jinn as to his sin.
  15. Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?
  16. (For) the sinners will be known by their marks: and they will be seized by their forelocks and their feet.
  17. Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?
  18. This is the Hell which the Sinners deny:
  19. In its midst and in the midst of boiling hot water will they wander round!
  20. Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?
  21. But for such as fear the time when they will stand before (the Judgment Seat of) their Lord, there will be two Gardens - ...

Are these verses supposed to be matched up with the theories of astrophysics? While reading this text, did anyone gain the impression that the topic of this passage is scientific information regarding the "aging" phases of the universe? The scientific world is talking about slow and continuous changes. The topic of this passage in the Qur'an is Judgment Day, a sudden cataclysmic event. Just as the above provided narration of Qatada also states: "... on that day ..." and not "in the process of several billion years the color of the universe will slowly turn into red." The scientific theory talks about an aging process, a natural development that will happen if nothing interferes with it. The Day of Judgment is about an event where God will interfere and interrupt the "natural sequence of things" and will do something that cannot be interpolated from past events. The Qur'an talks here about a supernatural event that is outside the realm of the natural sciences. Zaman's attempt to connect this particular passage of the Qur'an with modern science can hardly be called a responsible interpretation of the text. Such an approach is not taking the text seriously. The author of the Qur'an had certainly no intention to foretell a theory of 21st Century astrophysics when composing this text.

[Note: This aspect is particularly interesting to observe since in another article, Talking Ants in the Qur'an?, he wants to exempt statements about the animal world from scientific scrutiny by shifting them into the realm of miracles while in this article he treats a clearly supernatural event as if it is a scientific statement. A careful distinction of these categories is, however, crucial for a correct interpretation of any religious text.]

Moreover, if Zaman wants to align God's Judgment Day with the red phase of the Universe, then there is another question that he will have to deal with: Does he believe and does he want to make us believe that Judgment Day is still several billion years away in the distant future? I don't think this implication would be supported by the Qur'an, the Muslim traditions or those commentaries that he referred to regarding the blue, green, and red phases of the universe.

Shibli Zaman's thesis for this article was that the different phases of the lifecyle of the universe are "foretold in the Qur'an". Clearly he has not presented any evidence for this bold claim. The one verse from the Qur'an that was quoted does not speak about different phases of the universe. The idea of phases of different colors in the evolution of the universe was not matched to anything in the Qur'an but to a short statement by an early Muslim. Thus, the claim contained in the title of the article completely failed. Neither is there a "lifecycle" nor is such a theory foretold in the text of the Qur'an.

Furthermore, Zaman wants the reader to believe even more, i.e. that in "the age old commentaries of the Qur'ān ... each phase of the universe, the blue, the green, and the red, are mentioned thoroughly in great detail." When making such steep claims, one would expect that they are then backed up with good evidence. The one meagre line quoted by Zaman neither mentions a blue phase, nor does it provide any of the claimed ‘great detail’ about the green and red phases of the universe.

The next considerable blow to Zaman's paper is the fact that the CNN report stating that our universe is currently of a green color was wrong. The strength of Zaman's argument was not so much in the claim that the universe will eventually be red, but in the claimed sequence of a current green phase to be followed by a final red phase. We will shortly see that the alleged ‘current green phase’ turned out to be the result of a computational error. This discovery destroys the very foundation of Zaman's argument.

Zaman was apparently so excited about finding this story on CNN on 11 January 2002 that he wrote his article the very same day. However, a couple of months later, the same researchers announced that their earlier result was incorrect due to a bug in the computer program they had used for the calculations.

The correction of the earlier press release was broadcast widely as well. Here are just a few of the news media that covered it: USA Today (8 March 2002), ScienceDaily (13 March 2002), SpaceNews (Associated Press, 8 March 2002). National Public Radio (8 March 2002) and they had also already corrected their January release (which was previously incorrect) on 7 March 2002. These above reports were not hard to find. Just putting the two words "color" and "universe" into the Google search engine delivers most of these on the first page of search results, and then many more. Even the very same NASA page, "Astronomy Picture of the Day", that Shibli Zaman referred to for the image "of a dying star which looked identical to a red rose" ( carried an image of the corrected color of the universe on 2 July 2002.

Could it really be that not one of the readers of Zaman's site ever checked up on that story in order to get more details about it, found out that it was actually not correct, and informed Mr. Zaman about the problem? Didn't anybody ever search for the words "color" and "universe" on Google or on the website of The John Hopkins University where the press release originated? They would have found these two releases dated 10 January 2002 and 7 March 2002, both telling them about the problem. Didn't anybody search to determine whether or not the two researchers mentioned in the CNN report, Karl Glazebrook and Ivan Baldry, may have written more on the issue? They would easily have found their webpage, The Cosmic Spectrum and the Color of the Universe, which gives a detailed explanation why their first announcement was wrong and what actually is the true color of the Universe. Is the Muslim audience in general so gullible that they believe everything, if only it supports Islam? Doesn't anybody look deeper to confirm such good news with more solid evidence going beyond a short CNN report? I don't expect that everyone would check up on it, but that not even one Muslim came across this and alerted Mr. Zaman seems incredible. After all, the correction has been out there for more than eighteen months! Or was Zaman informed but did not think a correction would be necessary? Would it not be a matter of intellectual integrity to remove articles or at least correct those claims in them that turn out to be based on wrong assumptions? As Karl Glazebrook said: "I'm very embarrassed, I don't like being wrong, but once I found out I was, I knew I had to get the word out."

A more detailed discussion of the scientific aspects is found in Dr. Paterson's response to Shibli Zaman's claims. In this present paper I am more concerned about issues of correct interpretation of the quranic text. There are a few other claims made by Muslims by connecting the image of the Cat's Eye Nebula with Surah 55:37. Although Shibli Zaman seems to allude to them as well with his remark, "... a picture had been taken by NASA of a dying star which looked identical to a red rose", this specific argument is not as prominent in Shibli Zaman's article. These other claims are therefore discussed separately in the article The Qur'an and the Oily Red Rose Nebula.

Is it even about "the Universe"?

Even though Zaman's argument is already invalidated with the above observations, there are a number of further errors and problems contained in it. Whatever the reason, Shibli Zaman did not use any of the standard English translations of the Qur'an, but provided his own. (Very minor side remark: He gives not only his own rendering in English, but even the verse numbering system seems to be his own, or at least a non-standard one. According to his footnote [2] he claims to translate Surah 55:36, but in the standard Qur'an editions this text is usually Surah 55:37-38. Even this trivial issue seems not to have been observed by any of the readers. Does anyone ever check up on the references? In the following I am going to use the standard numbering.)

I have not found any published English translation of the Qur'an that agrees with Zaman in speaking about "the heavens" in Surah 55:37. It is obviously crucial for the whole argument whether or not this verse is even speaking about the universe at all. The translation by Yusuf Ali that I quoted above to provide the context is much more accurate when it renders the Arabic sama' as "the sky". The important observation is that the Arabic word is singular, not plural. Surah 14:32 is one of many verses that could be used to illustrate the issue:

Allah is He Who created the heavens (samawat, plural) and the earth, and causeth water to descend from the heaven (sama', singular), ...

The expression "the heavens and the earth" encompasses all of creation and could legitimately be rendered as "the universe". But when the singular sama' is used, it often refers simply to the sky, the place where the rain comes from, where the clouds move and where the birds fly, i.e. the atmosphere of planet earth. Many more such verses exist, but the following small selection should suffice:

2:19     Or like a rainstorm from the sky (sama'), ...
6:6 ... and We shed on them abundant showers from the sky (sama'), ...
10:24 The similitude of the life of the world is only as water which We send down from the sky (sama'), then the earth's growth of that which men and cattle eat mingleth with it ...
15:22 And We send the winds fertilising, and cause water to descend from the sky (sama'), and give it you to drink. ...
16:79 Do they not see the birds, constrained in the middle of the sky (sama')? None withholds them but Allah; most surely there are signs in this for a people who believe.
27:60 Is not He (best) Who created the heavens (samawat) and the earth, and sendeth down for you water from the sky (sama') wherewith We cause to spring forth joyous orchards, ...
30:48 It is Allah Who sends the Winds, and they raise the Clouds: then does He spread them in the sky (sama') as He wills, ...

Very relevant to this discussion is Surah 25:25 since this passage also talks about God's Judgment Day:

A day when the heaven (sama') with the clouds will be rent asunder and the angels will be sent down, a grand descent. (Pickthall's translation)

Surah 25:25 mentions the sama' and the clouds in the context of Judgment Day. This would suggest that in this verse sama' denotes the sky. In both 25:25 and 55:37 it is stated that the sama' is rent asunder on Judgment Day. That is strong evidence that in 55:37 sama' is used to denote the sky as well.

Question: Was it an accidental mistake by Zaman to translate sama' as "the heavens" in the plural, or was it a deliberate adjustment so that the verse would better support the intended argument?

Admittedly, the Qur'an is not entirely consistent in its use of sama'. However, the provided examples show clearly that one cannot simply assume that the singular sama' refers to the universe. Zaman would have to argue the case if he wants to interpret it this way. However, rendering the singular as a plural is definitely wrong, and for this discussion it turns out to be a rather crucial error.

Red-hot or red-cold?

There is yet another problem for connecting the color of the universe as stated in modern theories of astrophysics with the statement of Surah 55:37 speaking about the sky turning red. This will become clear when looking at a number of translations of this verse:

And when the sky is rent asunder, and becomes red like [burning] oil (Muhammad Asad)

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)

When the sky is rent asunder, and it becomes red like ointment:5199 (Yusuf Ali)

In the footnote Yusuf Ali comments:

5199. Melting away like grease or ointment. The red colour will be due to the flames and the heat. The whole of the world as we know it now will dissolve.

Verse 37 seems to speak only of the color red and does not make an explicit statement about temperature. But what does the color red seek to communicate? The above cited translators - both Muslim and non-Muslim - clearly understood it to convey the meaning of intense heat, and this makes sense in its context. Let me quote again excerpts from verses 35-44:

On you will be sent (O ye evil ones twain!) a flame of fire (to burn) and a smoke (to choke): no defence will ye have: ... When the sky is rent asunder, and it becomes red like ointment: ... This is the Hell which the Sinners deny: In its midst and in the midst of boiling hot water will they wander round!

The topic is hell and the judgment of sinners. Before and after verse 37 we find explicit references to heat (flame of fire and boiling water), and elsewhere in the Qur'an the prominent feature of Hell is its scorching heat. Thus I agree with the above translators and interpreters of the Qur'an that the color red, the color of fire, is used to signify heat. The Qur'an apparently speaks about the sky becoming "red-hot".

This is in sharp contrast to the reason of the universe moving into a ‘red phase’ because it is cooling down. The young hot stars are blue, the older nearly burned out stars become red while they cool down. Thus, the color red in the theory of astrophysics means the opposite than in the Qur'an. This is another reason why the scientific theory is not in harmony but actually in contradiction to the statement of the Qur'an. At the time of Muhammad, the hottest fires humans observed looked red. That blue light or fire is actually hotter than a red one was not known. Had the Qur'an stated something about blue fire as an image of the most intense heat, that may have been impressive, but to use the color red as signifying heat is merely a common everyday human observation and can hardly be called an amazing scientific insight proving the divine origin of the Qur'an.

Jochen Katz

Responses to Shibli Zaman
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