In the divine scripture Quran Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta'ala (SWT) has mentioned the names of many heavenly bodies. To express His greatness and mighty power of creation He mentioned many of His creations like the heavens, the earth, the sun, the moon, and the stars in the Quran
He has also mentioned some other celestial bodies of which people had no idea at the time of the revelation of the Quran and even for many centuries after the revelation of the Quran. From the translations and interpretations of the Quran, people could know generally about the citation of celestial objects in the Quran.
However, translation and interpretation of the Quran began several centuries before the discovery of telescopes when people’s knowledge of astronomical bodies was very primitive. At that time the terminologies used for celestial bodies in the translations of the Quran were in most cases improper and anomalous. Various translators used various terminologies for the same celestial body. People’s knowledge about astronomy started to develop from the17th century with the development of telescope.
Exploring Astronomical References in the Quran
Present-day astronomical science has made tremendous advances with the Hubble space telescope rotating over our heads and also with the very recent James Webb space telescope orbiting around the sun. These powerful telescopes have brought the distant heaven and the celestial bodies therein close to our eyes.
Many of the mysteries of ancient times are resolved and they are now explained scientifically. The celestial objects unknown at the time of revelation of the Quran are no longer unknown today. We can now easily pick up the astronomical terminology of any celestial body from the astronomical data with their proper identities.
However, it is not easy to identify all of the astronomical bodies mentioned in the Quran. Sometimes only some signs and indications are given in the Quran for some celestial objects and no names are assigned to them. It demands that men should contemplate over these creations and do research to unveil the identities of these objects in the light of modern astronomy.
Now, it is essential to update the old translations of the Quran adopting proper astronomical terminologies for the celestial bodies. But unfortunately, we notice that apart from the old translations, modern astronomical terminologies have not been adopted in majority of the present-day translations also.
It is expected that the learned translators should focus on this issue and take initiatives to include modern terminologies for celestial objects in the translations of the Quran. The improper terminologies in the translations often confuse the readers and cause a problem in understanding the messages given in the Quran.
The problems caused by the use of inappropriate terminologies in the translations and interpretations of the Quran are discussed in this essay with specific examples. As mentioned above some research and analysis is required to assign scientific nomenclature to celestial bodies in the Quran.
This article also describes the outcome of such an effort undertaken in the light of modern astronomy for proper characterization of celestial bodies directly named and indirectly indicated in the Quran.
Stars and Planets
We all know the fact that all the luminous celestial bodies we observe in the night sky do not have their own light. The luminous objects which have their own lights are called stars. On the other hand, those objects which do not have their own lights are planets, satellites, asteroids etc. They are illuminated through reflection of light on them from the sun.
In the Quran Allah the Almighty has used the terminology النَّجْم (Najm) for a star which is a light emitting body and the terminology كَوْكَبً (Kawkab) for a planet which does not emit any light. We often come across a common mistake in some of the translations of the verses of the Quran containing the word كَوْكَبً (Kawkab). We notice that in most of the translation books two different celestial bodies النَّجْم (Najm) and كَوْكَبً (Kawkab) have been translated as ‘stars’.
If someone translates an Arabic sentence and transforms the word كَوْكَبً (Kawkab) into ‘star’, the meaning of the sentence becomes ambiguous. Mistranslation of a verse may create problem in understanding the message Allah (SWT) has given for us in the Quran. With a specific example we can understand the matter clearly. Let us consider the following verse:
(Quran 82:2) وَإِذَا الْكَوَاكِبُ انتَثَرَتْ
In most of the translations the verse 82:2 containing the word كَوْكَبً (Kawkab) has been translated as “When the stars are scattered”. In our solar system there is only one star, the sun. There are 8 planets discovered so far (in accordance with the definition of International Astronomical Union) in the solar system.
These planets have their moons. Our planet earth has one moon. But some of the planets have several dozens of moons. Therefore, the solar system is a big assembly of celestial objects with the sun at the center. However, the planets are much smaller in size compared to the sun. The sun is so big that it can accommodate 1.3 million earths inside it.
The moon is so small that its size is not at all comparable to that of the sun. All the planets move around the sun along with all of their moons in specified orbits. Similar will be the picture with all other star systems in milky way galaxy and also with those in other galaxies. Like our solar system each star has its own family comprising many planets and moons orbiting the star in specified paths.
Now let us turn towards the translation of the verse 82:2 which reads “When the stars are scattered”. For an assembly like solar system the statement does not appear to be appropriate. Because, the star sun in the solar system is the central body and it carries more than 99% of the mass of the entire solar system and with dimension more than a million times larger than that of any planet of the system.
Therefore, scattering of this giant and central body in the solar system does not appear to be pertinent. Rather scattering of the planets is possible which are very small in size as well as in mass compared to the huge star, the sun. Moreover, the planets move around the sun in specific orbits and if for any reason they do not follow their track they can be termed as scattered or dispersed. Instead of the word ‘star’ if we put ‘planet’ in the above mentioned translation, it becomes appropriate and meaningful.
Thus we see that if proper terminology is not used for the celestial bodies in the translation, the verse gives anomalous and inconsistent meaning. The divine scripture Quran from the Almighty Allah cannot contain any verse that gives anomalous massage. So, in the above translation of the verse 82:2 the proper terminology for كَوْكَبً (Kawkab) should be ‘planet’.
Reevaluating the Translation of Yusuf's Dream
In some of the verses of the Quran Allah (SWT) has given signs or clues of something to the human being by citing some examples. It is very likely that we may fail to understand the meaning of the signs or indications given by Allah (SWT) because of the use of wrong terminologies in the translation. As a clarification to this point we can consider the verse (12:4) as an example.
Quran (12:4) إِذْ قَالَ يُوسُفُ لِأَبِيهِ يَا أَبتِ إِنِّي رَأَيْتُ أَحَدَ عَشَرَ كَوْكَبًا وَالشَّمْسَ وَالْقَمَرَ رَأَيْتُهُمْ لِي سَاجِدِينَ
In most of the translation books the verse 12:4 of the Quran has been translated as, “When Joseph said, ‘Father, in my dream I saw eleven stars, the sun and the moon prostrating before me’.” This verse partially describes the story of prophet Yusuf Alayhe Wasallam (AW) in chapter 12 of the Quran. In this verse prophet Yusuf (AW) states that in his dream he saw 11 كَوْكَبً (Kawkab), the sun and the moon submitted to him through prostration.
In the above mentioned translation of the verse the terminology ‘star’ has been used for the Arabic word كَوْكَبً (Kawkab). It is apparent that the celestial bodies cited in this verse belong to our solar system because the sun and the moon are members of the solar system. But there is a problem with the ‘11 stars’ mentioned in the translation of the verse. In the solar system there is only one star, the sun. Therefore, use of the terminology ‘stars’ in the translation for the Arabic word كَوْكَبً (Kawkab) has introduced a difficulty in the explanation of the verse.
In the concluding part of the story of Yusuf (AW), Allah (SWT) has mentioned, “And he raised his parents upon the throne and they bowed to him in prostration. And he said: O my father! This is the interpretation of my dream aforetime. My lord has made it come true. He has blessed me,----”. (Quran12:100). All most all the prophets were given one or more miraculous power by Allah (SWT). Prophet Yusuf (AW) was given the miracle of explaining dream.
Usually the dreams are symbolic and may remain unexplained. But the dreams of the prophets are either a massage from Allah (SWT) or an actual happening. Prophet Yusuf (AW) gave explanation of the dreams of other people instantly. But he had to wait many years to find explanation of his own dream. His dream was an actual event and that’s why he had to wait till the time comes for that event to occur. Verse 12:100 is the interpretation of the verse 12:4. From the interpretation given in the verse 12:100 we understand that the father of prophet Yusuf (AW) has been compared with the sun and his mother has been compared with the moon of the solar system in verse 12:4.
Then we can assume that the 11 brothers of prophet Yusuf (AW) have been compared with the planets of the solar system. Because in the solar family there is only one star (the sun) with which his father has already been compared. Leaving aside the sun and the moon, the remaining distinct objects in the solar system that can be compared with the brothers of prophet Yusuf (AW) are the planets.
But the number of known planets in the solar family is not yet 11. There are altogether 8 unambiguously determined planets till today. We should remember that the massages in the Quran are from the creator Himself who is all knowing. He does not give any example with false or imaginary things. The celestial objects of this story have been cited by Himself and He has a definite intention behind this citation.
It may be hopped that through this story He has disclosed a truth to the mankind that the actual number of planets in the solar system is 11. We have to wait for another three planets to be discovered yet.
Now we can see that use of an improper terminology for the Arabic word كَوْكَبً (Kawkab) in the translation of the verse, has introduced a serious ambiguity in understanding an important clue to the number of planets in the solar system. This mistake deprives human being from knowing the real message given by the Almighty creator in the Quran. From the above two examples we can realize how important is the use of proper terminology for astronomical bodies in the translation of the Quran!
It is true that in the 7th century, at the time of revelation of the Quran people could not differentiate between a star and a planet. But it is really disappointing if we find a translation of the Quran in the 21st century where a star (النَّجْم) and a planet (كَوْكَبً) could not be differentiated.
In many places in the Quran Allah (SWT) swears by some of His graceful names and also by the name of His creation. Whenever He swears by the name of some of His creation, it may be understood that the creation must be of special significance. Let us consider the following verse:
(Quran 51:7) وَالسَّمَاء ذَاتِ الْحُبُكِ
In this verse Allah (SWT) has sworn by one of His creation الْحُبُكِ (Hubuk), a celestial body in the sky. The most commonly used terminology for the Arabic word الْحُبُكِ (Hubuk) have been found to be ‘pathways’ or ‘paths’ or ‘tracks’ in the translations. In the Tafsir (Interpretation) books, some scholars have said that the 'tracks'; refer to the pathways used by the angels for entrance and exit. Others have opined that the tracks or paths are the orbits of planets and stars in the sky.
In the Tafsir Maarif-Ul-Quran it has been stated that الْحُبُكِ (Hubuk) is the plural of Arabic word Habikah (حَبِيكَة) and it primarily denotes thin irregular lines or streaks on fabrics when woven.
As the streaks of the woven fabric are its beauty, some scholars tend to interpret the verse as 'By the heaven full of beauty, grace, magnificence and perfection'. It is obvious that from the existing translations and interpretations we can’t know the exact terminology of the celestial body الْحُبُكِ (Hubuk) mentioned in the verse 51:7.
To find out the exact terminology for الْحُبُكِ (Hubuk) we need to think analytically over the matter. First of all we have to analyze the terminologies available in literatures and then we have to search in the astronomical store to find its match with astronomical bodies discovered by scientists. Swearing by something Allah (SWT) always wants to teach some lesson to the human being. Usually, Allah (SWT) does not swear by anything which is not apparent or visible to the human beings, because they cannot learn anything from invisible objects. Pathways or tracks of the planets and stars are not visible and are of no importance to us.
Similarly the angels are invisible to us and their pathways do not bear any credibility to us and Allah (SWT) will not intend to let us know that. So, neither tracks of planets and stars nor pathways of angels can be the meaning of الْحُبُكِ (Hubuk). Now if we look at the interpretation in the Tafsir mentioned before we learn that الْحُبُكِ (Hubuk) denotes ‘thin irregular lines or streaks on fabrics when woven’. Again we also come to know from this Tafsir that some scholars interpreted it as ‘beauty, grace, magnificence and perfection’.
Analyzing these two clues we can reach to a conclusion that الْحُبُكِ (Hubuk) must be some celestial objects in the sky which appear similar to lines or streaks on woven fabrics and at the same time they are beautiful and magnificent looking objects capable of attracting our vision. With this picture in mind if we search in the store of astronomy, eventually it comes out that the celestial objects الْحُبُكِ (Hubuk) cited by Allah (SWT) in the verse 51:7 is nothing but the ‘constellations’.
Constellations are beautiful objects in the sky with some specific shape or structure formed by definite arrays or lines of some stars which easily catch our eyes. Thus it is clearly apparent to us that the celestial objects mentioned in the verse are constellations. The Almighty Allah has put a small group of stars arranged in specific array in some location in the sky so that they look beautiful and are easily identifiable. Constellations are small organizations of stars, their shapes never change and their positions in the sky with respect to the earth appear to be fixed. Ursa Major and Orion are two such constellations which are being used for navigation purposes from ancient times. A few constellations (12 in number) are called Zodiac and are compared with the appearance of an animal or goddess. Astrologers use them for fortune telling and predicting disasters and natural calamities.
Galaxy and the Quran
From astronomy we know that a galaxy is an organization of celestial bodies in the heaven bound together by gravitational force. A galaxy consists of billions of stars, planets, satellites, asteroids and also huge clouds of gases and dusts. One may ask, is there any mention of the galaxy in the Quran which is so far the biggest organization of celestial objects in the heaven? We cannot give a definite answer to this question since we lack in research on the heavenly bodies mentioned in the Quran in the light of astronomy. Let us undertake a pursuit to identify the presence of galaxy in the text of Quran. In order to identify any word indicative of galaxy in the Quran we need to analyze certain verses which appear to possess some clue to it.
From that consideration let us examine the verse 25:61 of the Quran.
(Quran 25:61) تَبَارَكَ الَّذِي جَعَلَ فِي السَّمَاء بُرُوجًا وَجَعَلَ فِيهَا سِرَاجًا وَقَمَرًا مُّنِيرًا
In this verse three astronomical bodies بُرُوجً (Buruj), سِرَاجً (Seraj) and قَمَرً(Komar) have been mentioned by the great creator Allah (SWT). In all most all the translations of this verse سِرَاجً (Seraj) has been translated as a lamp meaning the sun and قَمَرً (Komar) has been translated as the moon with almost no ambiguity. However, in most of the translations we find that there is no use of a unique terminology for the word بُرُوجً (Buruj) which is the plural of بُرجً (Burj).
Various translators have adopted various terminologies for بُرُوجً (Buruj) such as ‘great stars’, ‘constellations’, ‘big stars’, ‘mansions of the stars’, fortified spheres etc. To find out a proper astronomic terminology for بُرُوجً (Buruj) we need to analyze the above verse using our conscience and scientific knowledge. If we look into the sequential order of the names of these bodies in this verse we notice that the name بُرُوجً (Buruj) has come first.
Then comes the name سِرَاجً (Seraj) and the name قَمَرً (Komar) comes in the last. The last two objects سِرَاجً (Seraj) and قَمَرً (Komar) in the verse are well known and they represent the sun and the moon respectively. Between these two celestial bodies سِرَاجً (Sun) is bigger and has been mentioned before the smaller one the قَمَرً (Komar). We note that the bigger one has been mentioned before the smaller one.
Now keeping this sequential order in view we can assume that the name which has come before سِرَاجً (Seraj) must be bigger than it. We see that the name بُرُوجً (Buruj) has come before سِرَاجً (Seraj) in this verse. So, we can assume that بُرُوجً (Buruj) must be bigger than سِرَاجً (Seraj). That means بُرُوجً (Buruj) is the biggest among the three celestial bodies. We find that these three celestial objects are cited in the verse in the descending order of the size. We know that سِرَاجً (Seraj) or sun is nothing but a star.
Now by virtue of modern astronomy we know that the celestial object bigger than a star is a galaxy. A galaxy is so big that it contains billions of stars within it. So, we can easily assume that the biggest astronomical body بُرُوجً (Buruj) among the three bodies mentioned in the verse 25:61 is the galaxy. Thus it can be suggested that in the translation of the Quran we should adopt the terminology galaxy for بُرُوجً (Buruj) in accordance with the modern astronomy.
In some of the translations of the verse the terminology ‘constellation’ has been used for بُرُوجً (Buruj). As explained in the previous section the terminology ‘constellation’ corresponds to the Quranic terminology الْحُبُكِ (Hubuk). A constellation is a small organization of celestial bodies in the sky consisting of very small number of stars arranged in a definite array giving rise to an attractive pattern so that it catches the eyes of the observer easily.
More over the features of الْحُبُكِ (Hubuk) as mentioned in the literature match with those of constellation uniquely. On the other hand the galaxy is the biggest organization of celestial bodies comprising of billions of stars and billions of other objects with no specific pattern. In one of the translations a synonym ‘mansions of the stars’ has been used for the Quranic word بُرُوجً (Buruj).
In a sense, it appears that this synonym is very close to the actual object meant by بُرُوجً (Buruj). Because, mansions represent big structures and we know from astronomy that the big astronomical structure in the sky is the galaxy. Therefore, applying our conscience along with the help of science we can determine the proper terminology or synonym of Quranic words relating to astronomy. Allah (SWT) has mentioned بُرُوجً (Buruj) in some other verses as well.
He has mentioned بُرُوجً (Buruj) in the verse 15:16. Besides, one complete chapter of the Quran, chapter number 85 has been named after the بُرُوجً (Buruj). All these signify that بُرُوجً (Buruj) is one of the great creations of Allah (SWT). Citing بُرُوجً (Buruj) in a number of verses He inspires human being to do research on galaxy in order to gain detailed knowledge of this great creation.
A Pulsar is a highly magnetized rotating neutron star that emits electromagnetic radiation beams from its poles. Sometimes an extra ordinarily large star collapses through supernova explosion giving birth to a neutron star. A neutron star is extremely dense with all of its masses compacted under tremendous pressure into a small region.
The strong electromagnetic field of the fast rotating neutron star emits strong radio-frequency wave that reaches to the earth and has already been detected in the laboratory. A pulsar is of the highest density and of the largest speed body in the universe. In order to look for any description of a pulsar in the Quran we would like to analyze the following verses where Allah (SWT) swears by a celestial body:
(Quran 86:1-3) (3) وَالسَّمَاء وَالطَّارِقِ (1) وَمَا أَدْرَاكَ مَا الطَّارِقُ (2) النَّجْمُ الثَّاقِبُ
The word الطَّارِقِ (tawrik) in the first two verses has a number of meanings. In the book entitled “A Dictionary of the Holy Quran” by Abdul Mannan Omar it is stated that the word الطَّارِقِ (tawrik) may mean ‘to come by night’, ‘to beat’, ‘to strike’ and ‘to knock’. The word الثَّاقِبُ (thaqib) in the third verse has meanings like ‘to shine’, ‘to perforate’, ‘to pierce’ and ‘to penetrate’ as mentioned in the same book. These two sets of meanings for the two words الطَّارِقِ (tawrik) and الثَّاقِبُ (thaqib) together characterize a star (النَّجْمُ). Several descriptions based on the combinations of these two sets of meanings can be made for a star which fit together giving sensible and logical meaning.
However, the most appropriate description that could be attributed to a star may be “A beating/knocking star that pierces/penetrates”. This could be interpreted as a star that makes a beating or knocking sound and pierces through something. Now we should look into the astronomical store to find a celestial body that matches with the above features. We can find that it fits well with the pulsar which is a neutron star rotating very fast with emission of strong radio frequency wave making sounds (knocks) and piercing through the heaven to the earth. Thus it may be suggested that the star described in the Quran 86:1-3 may be a pulsar in accordance with modern astronomy.
We know from astronomy that a Black hole is a region in spacetime from which nothing can escape due to its very strong gravity. Its gravity is so strong that even light or other electromagnetic wave cannot escape it. Black hole is not visible and astronomers cannot usually observe it using telescopes.
The presence of a black hole is inferred through its interactions with other matter and electromagnetic radiations such as visible light. A black hole is formed when massive stars collapse at the end of their life cycle. Once a black hole is formed it grows absorbing mass from its surroundings. The astronomers consensually agree that super massive black holes exist in the centers of most galaxies. Stars passing close to a super massive black hole can be shredded into pieces and be swallowed eventually.
Now we understand that a black hole is another very powerful creation of the great creator Allah (SWT). It may not be wrong to assume that Allah the Almighty might have given an indication of black holes in the Quran. In order to know it we need to examine and analyze certain verses of the Quran that appear to posses indications of black holes. As a step towards this, let us first consider the verse 53:1 in the Quran.
(Quran 53:1) وَالنَّجْمِ إِذَا هَوَى
In the verse 53:1 Allah has sworn by the Arabic word هَوَى (Hawa). We can assume for sure that the word هَوَى (Hawa) must be an indication of a significant phenomenon of stars. Most of the learned translators have adopted ‘set’ or ‘fall’ as the meaning for the word هَوَى (Hawa). Thus the verse is translated as “By the star when it sets or falls”. From scientific point of view setting or falling of stars cannot occur. Hence, literary meaning of the verse does not provide us with any understanding what the phenomenon (Hawa) is. Let us again consider the following two verses,
Quran (56:75, 76) فَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِمَوَاقِعِ النُّجُومِ  وَإِنَّهُ لَقَسَمٌ لَّوْ تَعْلَمُونَ عَظِيمٌ 
We further notice that Allah (SWT) has sworn in the verse (56:75) byمَوَاقِعِ النُّجُومِ (Mawaki-in-nujum) and in the next verse He puts emphasis on it stating that it is a mighty oath if you could know. If we look at the background of revelation of the verse 56:75 we come to know that the disbelieving peoples denied the Quran and they said it was inspired by Shaitan (Satan). In order to refute the objections of the disbelievers Allah (SWT) has taken oath by some of His powerful creation or astounding phenomenon as a witness to the truth that the Quran is from Him only.
Different translators have translated the phrase مَوَاقِعِ النُّجُومِ (Mawaki-in-nujum) in different ways such as ‘places of stars’, ‘setting of stars’, ‘positions of stars’, ‘sites of the stars’ and so on. The Arabic word واقع (Wakia) means happening of something and the word مواقع (plural of موقع) indicates the location or place where something happens. In a book “A word for word meaning of the Quran” by Muhammad Mohar Ali one of the meanings for مواقع has been mentioned as - ‘places where something falls’.
Bridging the Gap
In that sense مَوَاقِعِ النُّجُومِ (Mawaki-in-nujum) can be translated as “places where stars fall or set”. From the knowledge of science we know that due to rotation of the earth our position changes with respect to the sun and sometimes some celestial object such as a star may go out of our vision and we say that the star has set.
But actually the star has not set. As pointed out before, Allah (SWT) takes oath of some of His creation or phenomenon if that is of special significance. By His oath He indicates something and inspires us to think over that object or phenomenon which is a sign of His mighty power of creation. Combining the indications given by Allah (SWT) in the verse 53:1 and 56:75 we can come to a conclusion that there are places in the heaven where the stars disappear or vanish. If we search the astronomical data store to find a place in the heaven where stars disappear we get ‘the black hole’ to be that place.
We may assume that Allah the Almighty might have indicated to the black hole and its phenomenon by these two verses. In these verses Allah (SWT) has reminded us of a mighty creation where stars with enormous mass and size are being captured and vanished.
There is no unique method for identification of celestial bodies in the Quran and to know their corresponding astronomic terminology.
From the above descriptions it is evident that comparison and analysis of various translations, interpretations and dictionary meanings has been done to identify the astronomic terminology for the celestial bodies mentioned in the Quran. In the case of the Quranic terminology بُرُوجً (Buruj) the sequential order of the celestial bodies in the verse has been exploited to determine its astronomical name.
It is far more difficult to identify the celestial bodies for which only indications are given in the Quran but no assigned name. In all the cases it has been tried to find out certain characteristic features which are specific to a particular object only. The object thus identified has been compared with the astronomical data to find its match and finally determine the exact astronomical terminology for it.
The humanly conscience and scientific (astronomical) data have been utilized in order to reach a conclusion in the pursuit of characterizing celestial bodies mentioned in the Quran and assigning them astronomical terminologies. Allah (SWT) knows best whether the effort have been successful or not.
The only intention of this endeavor is to make some contribution towards getting rid of the anomalous terminologies for celestial bodies in the translations of the Quran and removing the ambiguity in understanding the divine message. It is hoped that Allah the Almighty will forgive any unintentional mistake if occurred in this effort.
It is felt that Muslim scholars should come forward with more research on this issue in order to establish a consensus in adopting astronomical terminologies for celestial objects in the divine book from the creator of the heaven and the earth, Allah the Almighty. May Allah forgive all of us and bestow His blessings and mercy upon us.