A common claim propagated by Muslims in the recent era is the claim of modern scientific discoveries being predicted in the Qur’an, which then obviously begs the question: how could a nomad such as Muhammad, who cut of from the world and acquainted only with the desert and the camels possess such knowledge or Did Quranic authors borrow information of science from external sources?
Let me first say, that I have done extensive study on must of these so-called scientific predictions in the Qur’an and my conclusion remains that the Qur’an reveals the knowledge of Muhammad’s era only; hence the claim that the Qur’an is miraculously predicting in the seventh century what science recently has discovered is not a sustainable claim.
In this short thread, I intend merely to assess the claim that Muhammad was so cut off and remote from the outside world, its knowledge and science as Muslims want us to believe. Or is it plausible that such knowledge was available and obvious to the prophet of Islam via those individuals to whom he was acquainted?
Muhammad and the two claims
Pre-Islamic Arabs are usually portrayed as simple nomads, strongly acquainted with dessert-life and particularly poetry; yet lacking every existing insight into the thought and science of its present era. According to Iabal the scientific advancements that emerged with Islam were caused primarily by the appearance and study of the Qur’an; which later laid the foundation for Islam’s interaction with the world-powers and their knowledge.
Based on this, two assertions run frequently: primarily that Muhammad would have no access to nor possess any knowledge of the science promoted by his contemporaries; secondly, that the cause behind the science promoted by the Qur’an must, therefore, be of divine revelatory origin.
This proposition has in recent years been particularly promoted by Maurice Bucaille, who writes:
‘How could a man living fourteen hundred years ago have made corrections to the existing description to such an extent that he eliminated scientifically inaccurate material and, on his own initiative, made statements that science has been able to verify only in the present day? This hypothesis is completely untenable’.
Hence to assess this claim, we need to ask whether Muhammad was divinely inspired and uninformed, or whether he possessed access to the scientific postulates of his day. Furthermore, we need to ask whether the scientific claims of the Qur’an are consistent with the claims of modern discoveries.
Muhammad a man of knowledge
O’Leary points out that there are elements of definite Greek scientific origin, which made its way to the Arabs by a transmission of which route and date are uncertain. This suggests that early Arabs might have possessed a slight insight into the ideas of the Greeks, even prior to the era of Islamic conquests. According to early sources Muhammad possessed the knowledge and pursued it, as evident from Tabari’s narration: ‘Muhammad said:
“Man’s glance at knowledge for an hour is better for him than prayer for sixty years”. He, therefore, commanded all believers to seek knowledge and to go to China in search of knowledge, if required’.
Muhammad certainly possessed insight into the celestial world and their orbits; al-Tabari writes:
‘The Prophet [Mohammed] replied: “Ali, they are five stars: Jupiter (al-birjis), Saturn (zuhal), Mercury (utarid), Mars (Bahram), and Venus (al-zuhrah). These five stars rise and run like the sun and the moon and race with them together. All the other stars are suspended from heaven as lamps are from mosques,… (al-Tabari vol.1 p.235-236).”’
If therefore, Muhammad was acquainted only with the impoverished life of northern Arabia and its cultural exclusiveness and remoteness, from where did such insight derive? Is it plausible that Muhammad’s environment and the social circle was not as scientifically impoverished as we are made to believe? Is it possible that Mecca and desert cities were indeed impacted by external cultures?
Here we first need to consider the situation and history of ancient Arabia.
Prior to Muhammad Arabia was divided into the South, the Sabaens also referred to as the Yemenites, and the North referred to as Arabs. The South was a populated and sedentary community, living in cities, while the North was inhospitable, nomadic and isolated; hence we know that Arabia was not solemnly remote and isolated.
Yet were there any interactions between Arabs in the south and north and other factions that might have enriched or established knowledge among the desert people? The Sabaeans, ran two trade routes, an ocean-based route between India and Africa, and the land-based, particularly toward Syria and Egypt.
There is evidence that literary interaction between the South-Arabs, the Greeks and the Indians took place even centuries before Islam. Since 1300 BC, the South Arabs left inscriptions in the North, what the nomads referred to as Musnad. Interestingly, the Musnad alphabet was affected by the Greek language, which reveals the impact of Hellenism even in the south prior to the appearance of Islam.
Furthermore since alters to Arabic deities have been found in Delos we know that the Arabs actually traded in the Greek world.
For these routes to operate intermediate centres were needed; these were the oasis alongside the land-route between Yemen and Syria of which one was Mecca. This confirms that the trades required among the Arabs a certain acquaintance with Greek and other languages, which became the communication of administration. Hence the influence of trade and their international influence and the stations, certainly imply that Greek knowledge was spreading around.
Yet there were also other means of international interaction, such as the intervals of Northern dominance. At one point the South weakened and the Northern tribes took the advantage to invade extensive parts of the South Syrian territory. Even though no signs are evident of the Greek culture passing to the Arabs here, yet because Arab states were formed along the eastern border of Syria and left untouched, it is plausible that centuries of proximity prior to Muhammad’s era caused ideas to pass on. The further escalation between the political powers of the Byzantine in the North, the Persians in the East and the rulers of the south caused North Arabia to be caught in between.
In 450 AD the community in the South suddenly declines, its proliferation vanishes, which causes massive migration to the North. These immigrants strengthened the oasis and their communities and establish intellectual centres among the people of the desert.
A third influence was the dispersion of various Christian sects and Judaism, which also impacted the desert community. The Christian Nestorians reached deep into the Arabian desert with their message, as far as to Wadi I-Qura, near Medina. Beside the Nestorians, there were other Christian factions who expanded their influence; such as the Monophysites whose centre in Arabia was Najran.
These sects were connected to Christian factions to which science was greatly valued; who possessed schools which emphasised and propagated the Christian faith, including philosophy and science. Their contribution to translating literature e.g. into Syrian language and their knowledge was not only confined to monasteries but were transmitted to the communities.
The extensive influence impacted even scientific centres such as Jundishpur in Persia, in which global science was accumulated and dispersed into all direction; plausibly into Arabia. We need to consider that these factions of Christianity were proliferating in Arabia prior and in Muhammad’s era.
We know also that Muhammad visited Syria at least once. Arthur Jeffery suggests that a range of religious vocabulary in the Qur’an, such as Qur’an, Isa and Injil derives from the Syrian Christian faction. If this is true it reveals strong, intellectual interaction and borrowing, which Jeffery seems to suggest.
In the early era of Islam, a group of Muhammad’s followers settled in the Christian Abyssinia, which led to interaction between Muhammad, the earliest Muslims and the ruling body of Abyssinia.
Furthermore, O’Leary points out the possibility of runaway Ethiopian slaves who joined the Muslims, who interestingly might be the ones who were suspected to help Muhammad composing the Qur’an. The Bukhari indeed refers to a Christian convert to Islam, who helped to narrate Muhammad revelations. Initially, he left Islam and informed about his contribution to fabricate the Qur’an with Muhammad; Bukhari informs us that Allah caused him to die.
Greek scientific ideas would also have been passed on to Muhammad by the Jewish community; in fact, some of the scientific ideas of the Qur’an, both terminology and chronology, resemble the writings of the Talmud significantly. A strong notion to this influence upon the author of the Qur’an does not only derive from the presence of the Jewish community, to which Muhammad interacted but early Jewish converts to Islam. One of these Jewish converts was Abdullah ibn Salim who lived in Medina and was a companion of Muhammad. Qadir, points out that Salim was acquainted with cosmology and even ‘spread his knowledge among the Muslims’.
Based on this information; Muhammad would be acquainted with Christians and Jews who were aware of Greek science; particularly being based in Mecca and then Medina. Additionally, he might presumably be possessed insight into the information passed on through centuries of trading, invasions, political interactions and simply information being passed on by travellers, settlers and immigrants.