|"It is not permitted to the Sun to catch up the Moon, nor can the night outstrip the day, each just swims along in its own orbit." (36:40 Ali translation)||"It is not for the Sun to overtake the Moon, nor does the night outstrip the day. They float each in an orbit." (36:39 Pickthall translation)||"The Sun is not allowed to overtake the Moon, nor does the night outpace the day. Each in its own orbit runs." (36:40 Dawood translation)|
The above Sura is often quoted as a demonstration that God must have been the author of the Quran since people in Mohammad's day had no clue about orbits and the true nature of the heavens. What may be clearly observed, however, is that from every practical point of view, 36:40 is in gross error.
It might be said that Mohammad was speaking in this phrase from a purely poetic standpoint, not intended to present a literal proclamation of the relationship of the Earth, Moon, and Sun. However, the context of the passage is not poetic.
Forgetting for a moment that Muslims interpret this sura literally; verse 37 remarks that these things (specifically, the night) are signs for men. The language in this passage is literal. The questions is, is it correct?
36:40 can only be understood from the perspective of a man standing on the Earth and looking at the sky. Put yourself in that position. Mohammad is standing somewhere on the Arabian peninsula and observing the motion of the heavens. What does he see? "The Sun is not allowed to overtake the Moon." I.E., Mohammad, along with everyone else, observes the regular motions of the Sun and Moon traveling across the sky. The only way this verse can be accurate is if Mohammad is talking about an eclipse. The Moon intersects his line of sight covering up the Sun and passes, from his perspective, "over" the Sun. The Moon, from a visual perspective, "catches up," the Sun. Of course, Muslims believe 36:40 does not refer to an eclipse at all. Simply put, if Mohammad is referring to an eclipse then nothing remarkable has been revealed.
Aside from interpreting this as an eclipse (which Muslims reject) this verse comes into question. From the visual perspective of one standing on Earth the Sun travels more often in the sky than the Moon. Each day the Sun comes up and goes down. Because of its rotation around the Earth, on some days the moon appears, and on others it does not (during the New Moon).
"They float each in an orbit." Could a mere man without God's help have known this? Sure. The Greeks knew it long before Mohammad. The Egyptians knew it when constructing the Pyramids. The Druids knew it when building Stonehenge. Thus, there was no new revelation in 36:40. However, modern Muslim scholarship attributes the term "orbit" as something very specific. Note the next section.
In every respect 36:40 is in gross error. From a comparative view in space, the orbits of the Sun and Moon cannot be compared as if "outpacing" one another. To begin with, they don't even orbit on the same plane. Secondly, they don't orbit each other, the Moon orbits the Sun by means of its orbit of Earth. The Sun can't catch up the moon because the Moon is in subjection to the Sun; literally! The Moon is subject to the more powerful gravitation of the Sun.
Forget for a moment that the orbits aren't comparative. View the verse in terms of raw speed. "The sun is not allowed to overtake the moon." Wrong again. The Sun orbits the galactic center at approximately 144 miles a second. The Moon orbits the Earth at approximately 2,300 miles an hour. Which is faster? Even in this regard the Moon orbits the galactic center being carried in part by the gravitational influence of the Sun. The Sun is not allowed to catch up the Moon? On the contrary, the Moon is "caught up" in the gravitational influence of the Sun and carried along by it. The Moon, in fact, does not have enough of it's own gravity, or velocity, to escape the Sun's influence on its own.
If you view this from the perspective of rotations rather than literal orbits the Quran fails again. The Earth gives the appearance that the Sun is orbiting it because it rotates on it's own axis. This happens once just under every 24 hour period. The Moon circles the Earth once every 29.5 days; so the Sun "catches up" the Moon all the time. Note that the Moon's rotation was discovered thousands of years ago as even the Arabs of Mohammad's day used a Lunar calendar based upon the rotational, rather than orbital ,perspective.
As regards the translation of the term "orbit;" Muslim scholars have noted that it means literally "to swim." The interpretation being that God revealed to Mohammad that the planets move in their own motions of their own accord. That is not correct. Planets, moons, comet, asteroids, and virtually all stellar phenomenon in any kind of orbit rotate in such an orbit because of the gravitational influence of the other bodies around them. I.E., the combination of gravimetric forces of the major planets and the Sun determine the Earth's orbit (the Earth's mass and gravity are factors, but it does not orbit of its own volition. This is also true with all other orbiting bodies.) Regardless, commentators have tried to justify this by applying the rotations of the Sun and Moon, yet the passage is referring to orbits and not rotations on planetary axis.
"...nor does the night outstrip the day." Again we have a error made from the perspective of one standing on the Earth. At different times of the year night is longer than day. The closer you get to the polar regions, the longer night or day become. Night can sometimes last months longer than day!
36:40 stands, from every perspective, in opposition to what is already known about the orbits of the Sun, Moon, and Earth. Even in Mohammad's day the "night outpacing the day" was easily observable as false from any position on the Earth (with the possible exception of the equator, of which Mohammad lived 20 degrees north of). Is 36:40 God's word? If so, we must answer the question as to why God would contradict the facts of His own creation?