Tuesday, November 8, 2011

With A Pinch of Salt

"The Qur'an is full of scientific miracles. You'll enjoy it!"

I'm outside the GPO where an enthusiastic fellow Irishman offered me a pamphlet concerning a man who favoured red underwear. It didn't strike me as immediately relevant so I asked if he'd be willing to talk me through a sample scientific miracle instead.

"Well, the Qur'an tells us that salt water and fresh water don't mix. How could Mohammed (pbuh) be aware of that in the seventh century?"

There followed a longish pause as I wondered how best to express my skepticism. He clarified that there are underwater lakes, protected from seawater by a body of methane. I've been unable to find anyone online making this claim, which requires something rather odd to happen to the density of methane. I have found the following variations:

So, let's look at the verse in question. Not speaking Arabic I consulted a few translations:

Saleem: It is He who released the two bodies of flowing water, one sweet and fresh and the other salty and bitter, and put an insurmountable barrier between them.
Yusufali: It is He Who has let free the two bodies of flowing water: One palatable and sweet, and the other salt and bitter; yet has He made a barrier between them, a partition that is forbidden to be passed.
Pickthal: And He it is Who hath given independence to the two seas (though they meet); one palatable, sweet, and the other saltish, bitter; and hath set a bar and a forbidding ban between them.
Shakir: And He it is Who has made two seas to flow freely, the one sweet that subdues thirst by its sweetness, and the other salt that burns by its saltness; and between the two He has made a barrier and inviolable obstruction.

It's a stretch to see how this verse could apply to anything other than two seas, one fresh, one salty. On the other hand it's perfectly reasonable for someone living in arid conditions to be thankful that sea water and oases don't mix. Attributing this fortuitous land bank to divine intervention is understandable. I expressed this opinion.

"Have you read the Qur'an?"

The question was not unfriendly, and I answered honestly. At the time I had not. I was informed that Mohammed and his followers never travelled to the sea, viewing it as a dead, useless expanse of which they had no knowledge. I added that I had read the hadith of the whale, which includes Mohammed, three hundred of his followers and a whale. He had not heard of it. (This is not unusual, there are quite a few.) What is unusual is the many references to sailing in the Qur'an which seemed to have escaped his attention. Below are three samples:

30:46 Another of His signs is that He sends out the winds bearing good news, giving you a taste of His grace, making the ships sail at His command, enabling you to [journey in] search of His bounty so that you may be grateful.
31:31 [Prophet], do you not see that ships sail through the sea, by the grace of God, to show you [people] some of His wonders?
42:32 Among His signs are the ships, sailing like floating mountains: 33 if He willed, He could bring the wind to a standstill and they would lie motionless on the surface of the sea– there truly are signs in this for anyone who is steadfast and thankful

We discussed how Ribena mixes with fresh water and came to an accommodation of sorts, with him agreeing salt and fresh water mixed and that this miracle was perhaps not the best opening gambit when introducing Islam.

I have to say there's much in Islam I admire  and I respect for the chaps who man the Islam stall. They get considerable abuse (not from me I hasten to add) but are always polite. Islam is not so much misunderstood as ignored here and I think it's important that we make some small effort to learn about its 1.3 billion or so adherents with whom we share this planet. But some routes of Dawah (equivalent of evangelisation) are more effective than others. It seemed they were submitting the Qur'an to a higher authority of science, willing to offer meanings of its text that differed strongly from their original intent, and possibly even willing to create a false impression of the Qur'an's content in their eagerness to welcome me to their fold.

This had the opposite effect.

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