Sunday, 10 October 2010

Does the Qur'an Speak about Atoms?

by Jochen Katz

There are some translations of the Qur’an in which we read statements like these:

Surely Allah does not do injustice to the weight of an atom, and if it is a good deed He multiplies it and gives from Himself a great reward. S. 4:40 Shakir

Surely, ALLAH wrongs not anyone even so much as the weight of an atom. And if there be a good deed, HE multiplies it and gives from Himself a great reward. S. 4:40 Sher Ali

And you are not (engaged) in any affair, nor do you recite concerning it any portion of the Qur’an, nor do you do any work but We are witnesses over you when you enter into it, and there does not lie concealed from your Lord the weight of an atom in the earth or in the heaven, nor any thing less than that nor greater, but it is in a clear book. S. 10:61 Shakir

The Unbelievers say, "Never to us will come the Hour": Say, "Nay! but most surely, by my Lord, it will come upon you; - by Him Who knows the unseen, - from Whom is not hidden the least little atom in the heavens or on earth: Nor is there anything less than that, or greater, but is in the Record Perspicuous: S. 34:3 Yusuf Ali

Based in particular on S. 10:61 and 34:3, Harun Yahya and various other Muslim missionaries even claim that the Qur’an reveals the existence of particles!

However, other translations formulate these same verses rather differently; for example:

Lo! Allah wrongeth not even of the weight of an ant; and if there is a good deed, He will double it and will give (the doer) from His presence an immense reward. S. 4:40 Pickthall

Surely God shall not wrong so much as the weight of an ant; and if it be a good deed He will double it, and give from Himself a mighty wage. S. 4:40 Arberry

Surely! Allah wrongs not even of the weight of an atom (or a small ant) but if there is any good (done), He doubles it, and gives from Him a great reward. S. 4:40 Al-Hilali & Khan

Thou art not upon any occupation, neither recitest thou any Koran of it, nor do you any work, without that We are witnesses over you when you press on it; and not so much as the weight of an ant in earth or heaven escapes from thy Lord, neither is aught smaller than that, or greater, but in a Manifest Book. S. 10:61 Arberry

The unbelievers say, the hour [of judgement] will not come unto us. Answer, yea, by my Lord, it will surely come unto you; [it is he] who knoweth the hidden secret: The weight of an ant, either in heaven or in earth, is not absent from him, nor any thing lesser than this or greater, but [the same is written] in the perspicuous book [of his decrees]; S. 34:3 Sale

What is going on? Is the Qur’an speaking about atoms or is it speaking about ants?

There are six verses in the Qur’an which contain the expression in question, mithqala tharratin: S. 4:40, 10:61; 34:3, 22; 99:7,8. What does it mean?

Edward Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon (
*), first published in 1863-93 and still considered to be the best and most comprehensive Arabic-English dictionary available, has the following entry for tharrah (*):

The first listed meaning, i.e. the main meaning of the word, is that of (young) small ants. Based on the various quotations given, this word had become proverbial in signifying the smallest things and was therefore also used for motes of dust, or minute particles of gold. However, the term “atom” is not found in this extensive dictionary. If that is so, why does the term “atom” appear in a number of Qur’an translations of the 20th century?

When the Arabs had to translate Greek texts on the theory of (the structure of) matter, they came across the Greek word "atomos" and then were faced with the problem what word to choose in Arabic to render it. Classically, Arab philosophers used the term "al gwhar alfard" which means "singular essence" and that captures the Greek meaning reasonably well.

However, in modern times (around the beginning of the 20th century) the word “atom” began to be translated into Arabic as “tharrah” in texts written for laypeople and religious people. Thus, “tharrah” acquired this new additional meaning, but this meaning is of relatively recent origin. In the Qur’an, however, and in other classical Arabic text, “tharrah” is never used in that meaning.

What happened with these modern English translations of the Qur’an is that first “atom” began to be translated as “tharrah” in popular texts, and then the word “tharrah” in the Qur’an (a classical text, written before this word acquired this new meaning) was translated as “atom” in modern English translations of the Qur’an, but that is an anachronistic interpretation; it is reading into the text a meaning that was unknown to the original audience.

“If you look at the old Arabic translators which were very familiar with the concept of "atom" they never used "tharrah" for it. I am not aware of even a single reference during the classical time of translation of Greek works into Arabic that uses tharrah for atom.” (
Bassam Khoury, personal communication)

If Muslims want to insist that the Qur’an talks about atoms, they need to find ancient Arabic texts where this word is used for atoms, i.e. texts in which the structure of matter is discussed, for example Arabic translations of the classical Greek texts which talk about atoms.

Moreover, the classical Qur’an commentaries (the tafsir of Tabari, Qurtubi, etc.) never interpret the word in that sense, even though the Greek concept of atom was known in that time. Just some examples:

Sura 10:61
At-Tabari {...mithqala tharratin} means: the weight of a tiny ant ... and Tharrah is a singular for Tharr. And Tharr: are the small ants ... (
Arabic source)

Sura 4:40
Al Qurtubi {Surely Allah does not do injustice to the weight of tharratin} means that Allah will not short them of any reward based on their deeds even if it was the weight of a Tharrah...And Tharrah is: the red ant; according to Ibn Abbas and others, and it’s the smallest of ants. And Ibn Abbas also stated that it is the head of an ant. (
Arabic source)

Al-Baydawi {Surely Allah does not do injustice to the weight of tharratin}. He does not decrease the reward nor increase the punishment of a deed the size of a Tharrah, which is a small ant. (
Arabic source)

Al Jalalayn {tharratin} the smallest ant ... (
Arabic source)

Sura 34:3
Al-Jalalayn {tharratin} the smallest ant (
Arabic source)

Az-Zamakhshari {the weight of tharratin} the weight of the least ant (
Arabic source)

All of the above commentaries (translated by
Mutee’a Al-Fadi directly from the Arabic online editions) consistently explain tharrah as referring to a tiny ant or the smallest/least ant (namlah).4

To come back to the original question: The Qur’an uses the expression mithqala tharratin six times. And mithqala tharratin means “the weight of an ant” as confirmed by the classical commentators of the Qur’an. It simply is an idiomatic expression in Arabic signifying the smallest thing.

That is the smallest thing occurring naturally, in everyday life of the Arabs. However, an ant can be split
5, so there are things that are smaller (and therefore the Qur’an has no problem to talk about “and even smaller than that”)6, but this ant is still the proverbial "smallest thing" or the thing with the "least weight".

Therefore, if we look for a “dynamic equivalent” then it may be justified to translate the expression mithqala tharratin as the “weight of an atom” in modern language since for us today “the atom” is (or at least used to be) the smallest thing. In a dynamic sense, this is an acceptable translation, but not in a scientific sense, since the word did not mean “atom” to the original audience in the technical or scientific sense. The Qur’an is not making a scientific statement in these verses but a religious or theological statement saying that God will not do the least bit of injustice, and the author uses metaphorical language when he illustrates “the least bit” with the proverbial “tiny ant”.

Again, as a dynamic equivalent illustrating the religious message, a translation using “atom” is acceptable, but making the claim that the Qur’an speaks about atoms or even sub-atomic particles in these verses [cf. the article
Subatomic Particles Revealed in the Qur’an? for a detailed discussion of this claim] is a misinterpretation and an abuse of the text.

In fact, translating the word as “atom” and then taking that translation in a literal way instead of treating it as an idiomatic expression leads to scientific nonsense. Let’s examine this verse:

Say: (O Muhammad SAW to those polytheists, pagans, etc.) "Call upon those whom you assert (to be associate gods) besides Allah, they possess not even the WEIGHT of an atom (or a small ant), either in the heavens or on the earth, nor have they any share in either, nor there is for Him any supporter from among them. S. 34:22 Al-Hilali & Khan

Isn't that a rather strange formulation? Can anyone possess THE WEIGHT of anything without possessing the thing itself? Taken literally, this formulation is nonsense. Not even in Islamic law can somebody own an attribute or property of an object. Umar cannot own the weight of Abdallah’s camel, nor can Ali own the height of Uthman’s house, nor can Zainab own the color of Aishah’s cat, nor can Fatima own the sweetness of Khadija’s honey.

It should have said:

they possess not even an atom (or small ant), either in the heavens or on the earth, nor have they any share in either, ...

but adding "the weight of" turns the statement into nonsense.

The weight of something is an objective (scientific) reality of created things. These attributes or properties cannot be possessed or owned by anyone else, they are attached to the objects themselves.

The only justification for such a formulation is that "mithqala tharratin" is a fixed idiomatic expression signifying "the least or smallest thing" without referring to anything in particular.

Idiomatic expressions do not have to be logical. There are strange idiomatic expressions in most languages. But if we say that this is merely an idiomatic expression of the Arabic language, then this also forbids taking it as having a scientific meaning, let alone constituting a scientific miracle.

In the other five verses (S. 4:40, 10:61; 34:3; 99:7, 8), "mithqala tharratin" = "the weight of an atom/ant" makes sense, since those verses are clearly metaphorical, comparing the MEASURE of the justice of God with the WEIGHT (a measure) of something. But in that sixth reference, S. 34:22, the formulation does not make sense if taken literally, only when it is taken as an idiom.

And there is a second reason why interpreting “tharrah” as “atom” and claiming that these verses are providing scientific information and constitute a scientific miracle, spells trouble.

What is the weight of “an atom”?

If Muslims want to discover science in these verses, they need to apply scientific exactness to the formulations. The author of the Qur’an does not seem to be aware of the fact that there are many different atoms with VERY different weights! (Just consult any of these tables of elements:
1, 2, 3.) One atom of Lawrentium (Lr) has about 260 times the weight of one atom of Hydrogen (H). So, what does it mean to speak of “the weight of an atom”?

If we are talking about a certain species of ants, then they are more or less of the same weight, particularly when looking at the young ones that just hatched. One individual may be a bit slimmer, and the other one slightly heavier, but they are still rather similar. Therefore, it is reasonable to talk of “the weight of an ant”. However, scientifically, it makes no sense at all to talk about “the weight of an atom” without specifying what atom we are talking about.

Trying to find a scientific statement in these verses completely misses their purpose. Apart from S. 34:22, for all other verses that use this expression (4:40, 10:61; 34:3; 99:7,8) the context is the last judgment and the justice of God who will judge everything. He will punish the least wrong that has been done and will reward the least good that has been done.

These verses illustrate the fine-tuning of God’s justice by comparing it with something of tiny weight. Whether it is the weight of an ant or an atom, it is a METAPHOR since deeds cannot be weighed like material things, no matter how small. These verses cannot be taken literal or we have a problem. When taking those verses seriously, then they have (only) a religious message, but certainly not a scientific one.

Abul Ala Maududi was a respected conservative 20th century Muslim scholar, an interpreter and translator of the Qur’an. Contrary to many of his colleagues, he understood that "mithqala tharratin" is an idiomatic expression that the author of the Qur’an used in a metaphorical way. He translated this expression (in at least some of these verses) by using an equivalent English idiomatic expression:

Well, what harm would have come upon them, if they had believed in Allah and the Last Day and spent out of what Allah had given them? Had they done so, Allah would surely have had knowledge of their good deeds. Indeed Allah does not wrong anyone even by a jot: if one does a good deed, He doubles it, and then from Himself bestows a rich reward. (Source)

O Prophet, We are witnessing whatever work you may be engaged in and whatever portion you may be reciting from the Qur'an; We are also keeping a watch, O people, over whatever you are doing: for there is not an iota of anything, small or big, in the earth and the heavens that is hidden from your Lord, and everything is on record in the clear Register. … (Source)

Although Yusuf Ali succumbed to the temptation to use “atom” in most of these verses, he saw the issue more clearly when he rendered S. 4:40:

God is never unjust in the least degree: If there is any good (done), He doubleth it, and giveth from His own presence a great reward.

Finally, here is a section of a longer hadith that also makes clear that “atom” would be a strange interpretation:

Then it will be said, 'O Muhammad, raise your head and speak, for you will be listened to; and ask, for your will be granted (your request); and intercede, for your intercession will be accepted.' I will say, 'O Lord, my followers! My followers!' And then it will be said, 'Go and take out of Hell (Fire) all those who have faith in their hearts, equal to the weight of a barley grain.' I will go and do so and return to praise Him with the same praises, and fall down (prostrate) before Him. Then it will be said, 'O Muhammad, raise your head and speak, for you will be listened to, and ask, for you will be granted (your request); and intercede, for your intercession will be accepted.' I will say, 'O Lord, my followers! My followers!' It will be said, 'Go and take out of it all those who have faith in their hearts equal to the weight of a small ant (mithqala tharratin) or a mustard seed.' I will go and do so and return to praise Him with the same praises, and fall down in prostration before Him. It will be said, 'O, Muhammad, raise your head and speak, for you will be listened to, and ask, for you will be granted (your request); and intercede, for your intercession will be accepted.' I will say, 'O Lord, my followers!' Then He will say, 'Go and take out (all those) in whose hearts there is faith even to the lightest, lightest mustard seed. (Take them) out of the Fire.' I will go and do so."' … (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 93, Number 601; Arabic original)

Little ants and little seeds are a match. They are similar enough, i.e. they are within the same order of magnitude in regard to size. Atoms and seeds, on the other hand, would be a gross mismatch.
7 They are so far apart it would be more than strange to put them together as two illustrations for the same thing. In fact, this hadith shows a progression from the “barley grain” to the “small ant” to the “lightest, lightest mustard seed”. Apparently, the smallest kind of mustard seed was understood to be even smaller than the small ant. The tiny mustard seed is the climax of the sequence of comparisons of smallness in this hadith. This makes it impossible to argue that with “the small ant” it was really an atom that was meant. Such an interpretation destroys the progression that is clearly intended in this sequence of statements.

That the author of the Qur’an saw the small grain of a mustard seed as being roughly equivalent to the small ant in weight can also be deduced from a comparison of S. 21:47 and 31:16 with S. 4:40, 10:61; 34:3; 99:7,8 (cf.
this article). Without a doubt, the Qur’an does not speak about atoms in these verses.

1 The examination of that claim is left for another article, Subatomic Particles Revealed in the Qur’an?
2 Note that all these translations were made after the publication of Lane’s Lexicon.
3 This page provides the following references for the classical Arabic translation of the Greek word "atomos"
4 In Ibn Kathir’s tafsir the term “tharrah” is not explained in any of the verses. Interestingly, the English translators of the Ibn Kathir’s tafsir render “tharrah” as “a speck of dust” both in the translation (1) of all these verses as well as in the commentary (2) upon them: 4:40 (1,2), 10:61 (1,2), 34:3 (1,2), 34:22 (1,2), 99:7-8 (1&2). With this translation this group of translators uses a second meaning of tharr as given in Lane’s Lexicon, but one that is different from the explicit explanation given for this term by most classical commentators.]
5 In fact, notice that Al-Qurtubi quotes Ibn Abbas who refers to the head of the ant as the meaning of tharrah, and the head is part of the ant’s anatomy.
6 Actually, the “smaller than that” does not even refer to the ant, see the article, Subatomic Particles Revealed in the Qur’an?
7 The mustard seed would be more than a million times larger than the atom. Wikipedia provides various comparisons, e.g. "a typical human hair is about 1 million carbon atoms in width". (Source; accessed on 4 August 2009)



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