Qur'an: Not a book of science

Q543 :Would you kindly explain Verse 45 of Surah 24 and Verse 30 of Surah 21 and Verse 54 of Surah 25. In the translation of all these verses the translator, Mr. Yousuf Ali, suggests that Allah is telling us that He has created all living things from water. The phrase "from water" has left me confused. Why does not the Qur'an uses a phrase such as "made of water" or "contains mostly water," which are more scientifically accurate.


A543 : This is simply a linguistic question, Mr. Yusuf Ali's translation has many virtues, though at times he can be too literal, as in this case. He uses the preposition "from" simply because it is the one used in the Arabic text. I admit that I have never found the Arabic text confusing because the preposition used in all these verses simply implies a reference to the original substance used in the creation of the animal kingdom. In English, perhaps, the preposition "from" is not particularly useful in this context. I have looked these verses up in other translations I use. Before I explain how they render these verses, I would like to say that although there are about 20 different English translations of the Qur'an, none of them is free of defects. Each has its own merit, but there is hardly one which can be recommended without reservations. In Mr. Pickthall's translation, we find the first of these verses (21:30) rendered as "We made every living thing of water." The same phrase, "of water", is used in the verse in Surah 24, while the verse in Surah 25 is rendered as: "He it is who hath created man from water". In Mr. N.J. Dawood's translation, published by Penguin, the phrase "of water" is used in the first of the three verses while, "from water" is used in the other two. This is a little surprising because Mr. Dawood's translation is far from literal. In Mr. Muhammad Asad's translation, the second of these verses (24:25) is rendered as follows: "It is God who has created all animals out of water." The phrase, "out of water", is retained in the other two verses. The same phrase "out of water" is used in the rendering of all three verses by Dr. Thomas Irving, whose translation is the first by an American. Mr. Asad's and Dr. Irving's are two of the most recent translations. Mr. Asad's was published in 1980, while Dr. Irving's in 1985. I hope that what I have mentioned about the different translations is sufficient to clear the confusion which you have felt to arise from the rendering of these verses in English. As you see, it is the translator's preference in each case which influences his rendering. Perhaps a few additional words are needed here to explain the meaning of these verses. From the first of these verses, we understand that "Allah has made every living thing out of water". This is a very important truism which tells us that water is the origin of all life. The Qur'an has revealed 14 centuries ago, when no human being even remotely linked the origin of life with water. Today, we accept this fact easily because we know that water is the predominant element in all living creatures. Moreover, it is the environment in which life originated. Scientists did not discover that until recently. But the fact that this is now admitted by science is no reason to make us more convinced of the truth of the Qur'an. Because even if science did not have anything to say on the subject, we would still accept Allah's statement as absolutely true and irrefutable. When the Qur'an refers to something on which scientists hold specific views, we do not look for an endorsement of the Qur'anic statement by human science. The truthfulness of the Qur'an is not subject to proof by science or scientists. If we hear today of a scientific discovery which confirm what is mentioned in the Qur'an, we are not overjoyed. The point is that we must not look for a scientific proof for the validity of the Qur'anic statements. Everything mentioned in the Qur'an is true, although it may contradict the findings of human knowledge. This is due to the fact that scientific findings are never final. Scientists disprove today what they held to be true for a long period of time. Moreover, the Qur'anic statement may have to be interpreted in a particular way to bring it in line with the scientific discovery. If scientists disprove tomorrow what they have discovered today, we would need to change our interpretation of that Qur'anic verse in order to bring it in line with the new discovery. Such an approach to the Qur'an is demeaning. The Qur'an is not a book of science, but it has some references to certain scientific aspects in order to endorse the thrust of its argument in support of the Oneness of Allah and of His being the Supreme Lord in the universe. The Qur'an is a book of faith and it is in support of the principles of faith that it refers to some aspects of Allah's creation. That should be our approach to the Qur'an.


Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )