Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

The "scientific miracle" of
the date branch like appearance of the moon orbit

By Al Hudhud

Recently an argument has been spread by Osama Abdallah in the internet which claims to have found "a new scientific miracle" in the Qur’an, as can be found on this page.

This argument has apparently first been developed by Harun Yahya.

In his view the Qur’an is filled with scientific statements which could not have been known at the time of Muhammad and therefore prove that the Qur’an is revelation by the all-knowing God.

This specific argument holds that Surah 36:39 predicts scientific knowledge that could not have been known by human beings at the time of Muhammad.

Surah 36:39 reads in a word by word translation:

"And the moon We predestined/evaluated it (in) sequences/descents
until it returned as/like the palm tree's branch/date bunch, the old."
(Compare the translations given by Osama Abdallah.)

It is claimed:

"Moon’s S-shaped orbit around earth is shaped like a branch of a date tree. mentioned in the Noble Quran and confirmed by Science!"

Osama Abdallah carries on by analysing the correct translation of this surah which is the scientific prediction that this surah describes the moon orbiting around the earth not in a circular way, but rather in an S-shaped path, a path that is shaped like an old palm tree’s branch.

Then he shows how science confirms this predicted path. The main argument against his statement is in his view that there are date palm branches of different shapes (even straight ones) but which, as he claims, does not invalidate his discovery.

Let us first show where we agree:

Indeed, modern science confirms that the moon’s elliptic orbit around the earth shows lateral variations. This is mainly due to the fact that the moon’s orbital plane is tilted with regard to the equatorial plane of the earth by about 5.1° and the intersection line of these 2 planes precesses (due to nutation) at a rotation period of 18.6 years. At the same time the equatorial plane of the earth is tilted by about 23.4° versus the ecliptic plain in which the earth orbits the sun, while also performing a slow precession movement (rotation period of 25,800 years). Taken together the epicyclic path of the moon around the earth through space resembles a 3-dimensional spiral comparable to a twisted S.

In short: Due to gravitational forces (causing nutation, precession) and the respective tilts of the earth’s and moon’s orbital planes, the path of the moon around the earth does not conform to the naive picture of a plain circle, but rather to the more complex picture of a tilted gyrating ellipse.

More detailed descriptions are easily available in the internet, e.g. in the Wikipedia entries on Moon and Earth (see also Osama Abdallahs pictures).

Therefore, two specific claims are made by Osama Abdallah which we will carefully examine in the following:

  1. Has this "S-shaped" motion of the moon really not been known to human beings before Muhammad (until end of 6th century AD)?
  2. Does a correct interpretation of Surah 36:39 really imply the claim of the S-shaped orbit of the moon?

Ad 1)

It was discovered that even the Babylonians in the 6th century BC possessed already knowledge that the moon changed its speed and its lateral position while orbiting across the sky. By collecting a lot of data about moon and sun in large number tables they could even predict solar eclipses.

MUL.APIN – This Babylonian compendium of sun, moon, planet, and star observations (whose earliest copy is dated to 686 BC, but is assumed to date from a time earlier than 1000 BC) contains a lot of information on "which stars are rising and which contain the full moon", on solstices and equinoxes, and was able to judge the "disparity of the lunar and solar cycles".

See also the text in Babylonian Astronomy. According to this article with several links, the Babylonian text "arranges stars in 'strings' that lie along declination circles and thus measure right-ascensions ... There are dozens of cuneiform Mesopotamian texts with real observations of eclipses, mainly from Babylonia."

So the Babylonians knew about the elliptic shape and the declination of the orbit of the moon and stars. The more interested reader is referred to the published translation of the most known astronomical tablets by Otto Neugebauer "Astronomical Cuneiform Texts".

It is especially interesting to note that these texts have later been used and conserved by Islamic astronomers, too.

However, a first consistent mathematical theory (and not just collections of data) on the moon’s orbit was developed by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus (ca. 190 – 120 BC) implying a precession movement of the moon around the earth which was very close to our present scientific knowledge, e.g. see Hipparchus.

Ptolemy of Alexandria (Egypt, ca. 83-161 AD) was building on this knowledge and refining the theory in his Almagest (al-kitabu-l-mijisti, i.e. "The Great Book") which was translated and conserved over hundreds of years by the Arabs. While Ptolemy still believed in a geocentric model of the solar system, he used several epicyclic movements to explain the non-circular path of the moon, making correct predictions. (Ptolemy)

It is therefore clear that the precession of the moon in his movement around the earth had already been known for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before Muhammad, and Muhammad would only have had to listen to a conversation of astronomers in his time to know about it.

By the way: this short essay also shows that the video which is for download on Osama Abdallah’s website "The universe is full of paths and orbits" which refers to Surah 51:7 "by the sky full of paths and orbits" falls short of being a proof of the revelatory nature of the Qur’an either. That the celestial bodies move in paths and orbits was known long before and would be obvious even if you believe in a geocentric model of the universe.

Ad 2)

Actually the text of Surah 36:39 adds several more question marks to the alleged miracle. Taking Surah 36:37-40 at face value, you see that the focus is on daylight and the darkness of night being a sign to us human beings.

In verse 39 the focus seems to be on the phases of the moon which certainly increase from new moon to full moon and return to the thin sickle shape. Imagine an Arabic desert night with the moon just shaped like a thin sickle a few days about new moon. A person – standing next to an old dry palm tree – might easily manage to take a position in which a curved date palm branch exactly covers the thin sickle of the moon which exhibits the same curved shape as the branch of the palm. So this provides a very plausible reading of the text comparing the weak moon phases to the curved thin shape of dry branches of a palm tree.

There is on the other hand no clear indication that this verse speaks about the space path of the moon. On the contrary, if one takes these verses to describe the path of sun and moon, one could ask why the Quran didn’t mention in verse 40 that the path of the moon can approach the sun during a sun eclipse which would pose another problem to the interpretation of Osama Abdallah.

So the interpretation with regard to the scientific miracle of the S-shaped path of the moon remains rather ambiguous and needs to be read into the text (eisegesis) rather than being derived from the text (proper exegesis).

Additionally, it needs to be mentioned that it is, of course, very vague to claim that the shape of an old date palm branch needs to be interpreted as an S-shaped space path of the moon, especially if this comparison is claimed to contain new scientific knowledge which could not possibly be known in the time of Muhammad.

In summary, we see that the precession movement of the moon (which could be regarded as somewhat S-shaped) was already known hundreds of years before Muhammad, and second, that the verse is written far too vague so that the "miracle" of the date palm shaped path of the moon has to be read into the text and doesn’t correspond well with the face value meaning of the verse.