atheist v. Muslim – part 1

I play soccer on occasion during the lunch hour at my university. One of the other players (probably the best player) is an Iranian-American, “H”, who is also Muslim (he’s in IT). He asked me what I teach and when I told him Sociology of Religion, he became very interested. He said his favorite topic is religion. I knew where this would end up going, but I thought it would be fun to go there anyway. He eventually suggested we do lunch, which we did. Over lunch a number of topics were raised, resulting in the following email to me:

Good morning ProfXM,

Here is a short list of what Quran says about life and universe as we know it. I know there are more. But this should keep you busy for a while.

Creation of the universe. Smoke, dust, plume.

Surah Hud:7 He it is Who created the heavens and the earth in six Days – and His Throne was over the waters – that He might try you, which of you is best in conduct.

Mathematical relationship in the Quran:

Number 19
790 AC Muhammad became a prophet
1338 AC Quran
1436 Printing machine was invented

If you have any questions, please ask.

Here’s my response:

Hi H,

I did very much enjoy our discussion. I’ve looked up a couple things as a result.

First, it looks like we were both at least partially correct regarding the history of the Quran, per this summary:

Apparently there were multiple versions of the Quran (probably as many as there were reciters) prior to Abu Bakr. However, it was the third caliph Uthman ibn Affan, in 650, who destroyed all of the written variants of the Quran and created the version that is used today. So, between the time Mohammed began receiving the revelations (610) and the time of the creation of the Mushaf (650), there were many versions. But through the efforts of Uthman ibn Affan, those were destroyed and there is now just one. I suggested there were many versions and you said there were not. We’re both right: there were many versions for about 40 years, after which the many versions were destroyed and only one remained. Also, this version of events is supported by this professor’s website as well.

As far as the scientific miracles of the Quran go, I found this article informative:

Apparently there is a movement of apologists/exegists who claim that the Quran aligns with science. But most of those claims require really, really loose interpretations of the text, interpretations that likely would have been completely foreign to Muslims in the 600s.

As for your specific examples:

  • If I’m not mistaken, the claim that the universe was made from “smoke” comes Surah 41: Fusilat:
    • 41:11 Then turned He to the heaven when it was smoke, and said unto it and unto the earth: Come both of you, willingly or loth. They said: We come, obedient.
    • The article you cited,, does NOT say that the universe was created from smoke or dust. Rather what it says is that planets are likely formed from cosmic “dust” that is “more akin to smoke”. It doesn’t say that it is either dust or smoke, but rather small particles. The makeup of those particles is detailed here: The term “dust” is just a descriptor; it is not a technical definition of what this matter is. Thus, to claim that the Quran correctly foresaw that science would conclude that the universe was created from dust is wrong on two counts: (1) The universe contains “cosmic dust” but is not just cosmic dust. Cosmic dust is created by exploding stars; it does not create the universe. (2) The verse from Surah 41 says that heaven was created from smoke, but the comparison to smoke is not to suggest that “cosmic dust” is actually smoke but rather to make it understandable to laypeople. To selectively compare one verse from one Surah of the Quran to one press release about cosmic dust is to selectively examine both the Quran and science.
    • The above also doesn’t address what verse 11 also says, that Allah spoke to both heaven (which is not clearly defined, but we’ll pretend means “all of outerspace”) and earth and THEY SPOKE BACK. Does this mean to say that both heaven and earth are alive? That seems quite far-fetched.
  • The claim that Allah’s Throne “was over the waters” is a major major stretch of the science. You give the verse from Surah 11: Hud:
    • 11:7 And He it is Who created the heavens and the earth in six Days – and His Throne was upon the water – that He might try you, which of you is best in conduct. Yet if thou (O Muhammad) sayest: Lo! ye will be raised again after death! those who disbelieve will surely say: This is naught but mere magic.
    • You are definitely selectively quoting from this verse and suggesting an interpretation that is not in line with what the verse says. I’m not a Quranic scholar, but if you read the part you took out “throne upon the water” in the context of the whole verse, the suggestion of the verse is that this “throne upon the water” is likely some sort of metaphor to suggest that a throne on water is the best place to view humans in order to judge them. I don’t really understand the metaphor, but that is the suggestion.
    • Now compare that interpretation to yours, in which you cite another press release that talks about baryons in interstellar space. Yes, this interstellar matter is primarily hydrogen and oxygen, but it’s not combined in a liquid form (a.k.a. water). A close reading of that article says quite clearly the state of the hydrogen and oxygen – it is separate, ionized, and extremely hot. In other words, the hydrogen and oxygen are not combined in a liquid form of H20 but rather are not combined at all and are in a gaseous, ionized state. Ergo, no water at all!
    • Thus, to suggest that Surah 11:7 suggests that Allah’s Throne is on water is a reference to very hot, ionized matter in interstellar space is a major reach. And that isn’t even including the fact that if Allah has a Throne, then Allah cannot be infinite.
  • Regarding the claim that there are mathematical relationships in the Quran (… This is simply a twist of similar claims about there being a Bible Code: Reputable statisticians have illustrated (if you read the entire Wikipedia article provided) that such “relationships” are easily discerned in any text, assuming you define what you want to find ahead of time then modify the technique for finding it so that it appears. In other words, I guarantee you that you could find the same mathematical relationship you are suggesting in the text of Wikipedia if you look hard enough. And unless you want to claim that Wikipedia was inspired by Allah, I’d suggest you rethink your argument here as well.
  • I’m not exactly sure what you are suggesting with some of the remaining verses, but I looked them up:
    • 51:47 “We have built the heaven with might, and We it is Who make the vast extent (thereof).”
      • This one intrigues me as it seems to suggest that there is more than one God as the first-person plural is used here. “We have built…” That would fit with the cultural milieu of the time, as there were many local gods when Mohammad lived.
      • I think your point here is that the verse suggests the heavens are vast. That is something that a 6th-7th century merchant could have discerned simply by looking up. There is, of course, no discussion of how vast (e.g., light years across).
    • 21:30-33 “Have not those who disbelieve known that the heavens and the earth were of one piece, then We parted them, and we made every living thing of water ? Will they not then believe ? And We have placed in the earth firm hills lest it quake with them, and We have placed therein ravines as roads that haply they may find their way. And we have made the sky a roof withheld (from them). Yet they turn away from its portents. And He it is Who created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. They float, each in an orbit.”
      • This one is also intriguing. At best you could argue one element of this section is close to scientifically accurate – it’s likely life originated in water (i.e., “we made very living thing of water”). As a result, living cells are mostly water. But this gets a lot of other stuff really wrong from a scientific standpoint. It claims the earth and heavens were one piece, which contradicts the idea that the heavens were smoke (earlier claim). What’s more, the earth and heavens were never really one piece unless you really stretch this and claim a singularity. And, of course, if you do that, then you can’t claim, as is claimed in various places in the Quran, that the universe was created in 6 days.
      • This also suggests that the sun orbits the earth, like the moon does. Reinterpreting this to suggest that the sun orbits the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, which also orbits galactic central point is a major reach and not something Mohammad could have known. In other words, the Quran here suggests the sun and moon revolve around the earth, which is scientifically wrong.
      • These verses also use the first-person plural, which suggests polytheism rather than monotheism.
    • 51:7 “By the heaven full of paths,” makes no sense to me. I think it needs to be interpreted in light of the surrounding verses, but it still makes no sense to me.
    • 78:6 “Have We not made the earth an expanse,”
      • All this suggests is that the earth is big. It also suggests it is flat, but I don’t think it has to. Again, this is something that anyone who could see in the 6th Century could have understood.
    • 55:19-20 “He hath loosed the two seas. They meet. There is a barrier between them. They encroach not (one upon the other).”
      • Not sure I know what this is talking about, but it seems to be nothing more than a suggestion that there are two large bodies of water separated by a land mass. Again, a merchant like Mohammad from the 6th Century could have seen two large bodies of water (e.g., Red Sea and Indian Ocean) separated by a large land mass (e.g., Saudi Arabia) in his travels. I’m not sure why this should be interpreted to mean anything other than what it does.
    • 23:12-14 “Verily We created man from a product of wet earth; Then placed him as a drop (of seed) in a safe lodging; Then fashioned We the drop a clot, then fashioned We the clot a little lump, then fashioned We the little lump bones, then clothed the bones with flesh, and then produced it as another creation. So blessed be Allah, the Best of creators!”
      • This looks like a 6th-7th Century interpretation of sexual reproduction: (1) product of wet earth is what semen would look like; (2) drop of seed in safe lodging is ejaculating in a woman’s vagina; (3) the drop becomes a clot or lump, which would be observed as a miscarriage which would be quite common in those days; (4) that this ultimately becomes something of flesh and bone is not at all surprising. I fail to see how this is miraculous as pretty much all humans who were semi-literate in the 6th-7th Centuries would have had this rudimentary an understanding of sexual reproduction.
    • 39:6 “He created you from one being, then from that (being) He made its mate; and He hath provided for you of cattle eight kinds. He created you in the wombs of your mothers, creation after creation, in a threefold gloom. Such is Allah, your Lord. His is the Sovereignty. There is no God save Him. How then are ye turned away ?
      • This verse is clearly not scientific. Yes, people grow in the womb of their mother (which would have been common knowledge in the 6th-7th Century), but the first part of the verse suggests that Allah created one person, Adam, then created Eve out of Adam, which is, of course, not at all plausible or scientific. It also does not mesh with evolution.

Additionally, another website I found documents a number of clear scientific errors in the Quran:

Here’s a sample of the errors:

  • the Quran claims humans were created from one person; humans were not created from a single man; evolution is universally accepted by legitimate scientists today (4:1)
  • claims that Egyptians used crucifixion, which could not have been the case as it was invented by the Romans thousands of years later (7:124)
  • claims the earth is flat (13:3)
  • hail (frozen rain) comes from mountains (24:43)
  • claims the sun revolves around a fixed earth (27:61)
  • Mohammad supposedly split the moon into two pieces (54:1-2)
  • claims the moon emits light, which is not true (71:16)
  • claims semen is created between the loins and the ribs, not in the testicles (86:5-7)

In short, while there are no extant variations of the Quran (other than the many translations), the one version we do have is riddled with scientific inaccuracies. The claimed miracles you provide require a very loose, selective interpretation of the Quran that would really only be accepted by someone who wants the Quran to be true, not by someone who is skeptical about the Quran being a book dictated by Allah.


Stay tuned for the follow-up…


I'm a college professor and, well, a professional X-Mormon. Thus, ProfXM. I love my Mormon family, but have issues with LDS Inc. And I'm not afraid to tell LDS Inc. what I really think... anonymously, of course!

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9 Responses

  1. TT says:

    Honestly, what most surprises me about this exchange is that you are a professor of the sociology of religion. Perhaps I have not read your posts closely enough in the past, but would you mind saying a bit about your training, whether in a religion or sociology program, and what kinds of theoretical approaches to the study of religion past and present direct your teaching and research?

  2. profxm says:

    Hi TT,

    I am, indeed, a sociologist of religion. I have a PhD in Sociology (2007) and my area of research is religion. Within that, I study two general areas: Mormonism (surprise, surprise) and the non-religious. I have a dozen or so publications on these and various other topics related to religion.

    My BA is in Psychology from the University of Utah (2000). I opted for Sociology for my graduate work when I read a chapter on religion in a sociology intro. textbook and realized that sociologists thought about religion how I had for a long time – that it is, at heart, a social construction and that it can be studied scientifically. I pursued graduate work in sociology as a Mormon, hoping that my studies would affirm my beliefs. Um, yeah, that didn’t happen… A year into graduate school I was no longer Mormon. Since then I’ve become non-religious.

    As far as theoretical perspectives go, I find that I draw upon two approaches more than any others when it comes to my research, though I have employed others as well. The first is secularization theory as outlined by Steve Bruce. I have an article coming out in Sociology of Religion (probably in the fall) that uses Mormonism to basically support secularization theory. That should make a nice little splash. The second theory, employed in a Dialogue article I published last year, is basically understanding religions as quasi-corporations in the U.S., functioning in a pluralistic environment. That understanding leads to thinking about religions as corporations, competing for consumers through marketing and policy/practice change. Is that what you were looking for me to discuss?

    Also, FYI, the reason I post under a pseudonym here is precisely because of my occupation. If someone wants to figure out who I am, they certainly could with some ease. But I’m not going to make it particularly easy. Posting at MSP allows me to post my private thoughts on religion without that interfering with my professional work as a sociologist. Since I study both religious and non-religious people, it’s best for me to make it somewhat difficult for potential research participants to know where I actually stand on religion. When asked, I simply say I’m not religious.

    You interested in the sociology of religion?

  3. Chino Blanco says:

    My first year at NYU, I lived in Brooklyn with a Pakistani roommate. He kicked my ass nightly at chess and somewhere along the way I learned not to set his Quran on the floor in-between moves.

    We used to double-date the girls he knew. I remember riding in his dad’s Mercedes out to Rockefeller Center and having my date tell me how superficial and materialistic US culture seemed.

    But that wasn’t Farouk. While we were roomies, he paid his way through City College by driving cab and in his spare time managed to earn a scholarship to Yale.

    Last time we hooked up was in New Haven. I was there for a conference and he was doing his graduate engineering gig. He’d moved on from chess to video games, and I think we spent the entire afternoon playing something called “Street Fighter” … What I remember is the discomfort one feels when keeping company with the truly lonely.

    And I remember my sense of the world in the months after I returned from my mission. The world felt both inadequate and unforgivably titillating. I think that’s why Farouk and I got along. At the same time, I suppose I always knew I’d come out the other side at peace with the vagaries of modernity, whatever that might mean. In my friend’s case, I’m not sure that was ever an option.

  4. TT says:

    Thanks for the bit of bio. I will be interested to track down some of your publications. They sound interesting. I am interested in the sociology of religion, but my own approach is more of a blend between Foucaultian genealogy and sympathetic phenomenology of religion. As I understand your approach from what you are saying, it seems that your work has a normative bent around “secularism” and that your sociological research is aimed at validating a particular secular position. Is that correct?
    Secularism is one of those research interests that I haven’t yet had the time to fully digest, but I’m curious about what you think about Talal Asad’s Formation of the Secular, or Charles Taylor’s Secular Age, or about the recent moves in philosophy and religious studies to articulate the secular.

  5. I know you didn’t ask me, TT, but Taylor is interesting because he argues that the “secular” has built-in geographical limits. This jives well with my postcolonial sensibilities. The dissonance between, say, Euro-American secularism and a third world nativist religion isn’t the difference between “modernity” and “tradition,” but rather a difference in culture. Which means that all the ghosts, spirits and gods “speak,” which most secularists don’t want to grapple with. But historians tell us that in medieval Europe, it wasn’t the case that almost everyone believed in God, but rather God was, and it is useful to think this way as a scholar.

  6. profxm says:


    First, regarding my work… I wouldn’t say I have a normative bent around “secularism.” I recently explained to a very liberally religious (Seventh-day Adventist) co-author, I’m no longer sold on the idea that the answer to the world’s problems is the complete and utter destruction of religion. The reason I have been drawn to secularization is because it seems to best fit the data. If we’re talking macro theories of religion (basically at the state level, though potentially at the global level), secularization is far more supported by the empirical evidence than is the only real contender in the sociology of religion today – Stark’s “Religious Economies Model.” While I, personally, am not religious, and when I came to that conclusion I originally thought it was the optimal position for everyone, I’ve since reconsidered that position. So, at this point, I’m not necessarily an advocate of secularism in the sense that I think everyone should be secular. I am, however, an advocate of studying secularism in that it be better understood from a scientific standpoint as the people who have pretty much monopolized the scientific understanding of the non-religious to this point have been, not surprisingly, the religious. That is not as it should be.

    As far as Charles Taylor’s work… I’m ashamed to admit it, but I haven’t read his book. I should, but I just haven’t got around to it. Part of the reason is disciplinary boundaries (which probably shouldn’t be so opaque, but often are). Taylor isn’t widely cited in the sociology of religion (not nearly as often as people like Bruce, Chaves, or Brian Wilson). So, I’ve tended to focus on those scholars and their work rather than Taylor’s. But I will, I’m sure, read his book some day. However, when it is considered ground breaking by Robert Bellah, I become skeptical. I’m not a huge fan of Bellah; too pro-religion for me.

    I’ve seen a couple articles trying to articulate the secular. My sense is that there will be a lot more of this in the future – this is a budding area of research that remains largely unexplored, despite the very large numbers of non-religious people.

    What kind of work are you doing? I’m familiar with the general idea of phenomenology, and even of some applications of this to religion, but I’m intrigued by your Foucaultian approach. Do share…

  7. TT says:

    Thanks again for indulging me these questions. To explain, part of the reason I was surprised by your putting up front that you are a professor of the sociology of religion was the antagonistic tone of this response. It is framed as a “vs” discussion. I of course don’t know the broader context of your conversations with “H,” and I can certainly allow for a separation between one’s public intellectual life as a scholar and one’s private religious views, but I was just surprised given the number of different ways that one could have responded that this was the one that you chose.
    I don’t know the debates around secularization theory within sociology, only those in the study of religion more broadly (where it holds little cache), but your work does sound interesting in this respect. It sounds like you are trying to interpret the phenomena of people becoming less religious, i.e., this is the “data” that you are referring to. Again, just out of curiosity, to what extent does this approach rely on rational choice theory like that of Stark, Iannacone, and other economic theories of religion?
    As I say, a lot of these theories have been abandoned in the study of religion proper. While Durkheim and Weber are considered foundational in this field still, recent trends are more in line with Geertz’s more interpretative, and less empirical/scientific understanding of the work of anthropology, on the one hand, and the phenomenological approach which brackets questions of truth claims on the other. The study of religion has been a focus of a lot of my blogging over the past 5 years, so you can get a flavor there. For another context, I wrote about this question of bracketing a while ago: Orsi has been a huge influence in the field lately, doing more enthography than sociology, but a profound theorist of the discipline.
    As I mentioned earlier, I wish I had more time to read all of the current work on secularism in religious studies and philosophical circles. It seems to be a huge trend right now with some very big names weighing in. Most, as I understand it, tend to situate secularism in a particular genealogy of the West and strongly question its universality. The one that I am most familiar with is Asad, whose work on religion more generally, like in Genealogies of Religion, has been particularly influential for me, and embodies the Foucaultian historicism that I find extremely useful.
    As for my own work, I’m afraid that I am much more shy than you, and maintain that I am but a humble VCR repairman. In any case, I will continue to read your posts and wish you the best. It has been great to learn more about you.

  8. profxm says:


    Yep, this is a very confrontational exchange. As you note, there is a distinction between one’s personal and professional roles. In my discussions with “H”, the two mixed. I asked him at length about his life in Iran and how he ended up in the U.S. I’m interested in that both at a personal level and as a sociologist. But the conversation quickly became an effort on his part to convince me that the Quran was a miraculous book. He quite openly suggested that if I could see that it is a miraculous book, I would therefore want to become Muslim. As a sociologist, I could have simply suggested to him that I am interested in knowing why he thinks that but that I am talking as a sociologist and am not interested in converting. But this seemed like a situation where I should take off my sociologist hat and put on my skeptical, atheist hat. Ergo, when he put forth his arguments, I responded in kind. This is generally how I comment on MSP as well, just so you’re aware. The writing I do as a sociologist is for academic outlets; the writing I do on MSP is how I think as an individual, not as a sociologist. Ergo, don’t expect lots of amazing sociological insights from me on here. 😉

    You’re correct that I’m trying to interpret the phenomenon of people becoming less religious. I have a few studies under way in which I am trying to figure out the why and how of people leaving religion and becoming secular. That interests me. As far as the economic approach to religion… I’m not a fan of rational choice theory. There are some predictions generated from it that seem to be legitimate, but most of them are tautological. As theories go, rational choice theory isn’t one of the most compelling to me. Also, I noted in an earlier response that Stark’s “Religious Economies Model” was put forth as a competitor to secularization theory. While it is too early to claim the Religious Economies Model is in its death throes, I don’t think we are very far from that point – there are no religious revivals taking place in any of the moderately developed or developed countries, which is what is claimed. Additionally, as my paper coming out in Sociology of Religion illustrates, the religions that Stark predicts will become dominant in countries with lazy monopolies are not growing there at all. Ergo, the Religious Economies Model is not well-supported by the data, IMO. Rational choice theory may be useful if you can get past the tautological problems.

    On the bracketing issue… I found Prothero’s arguments in the Harvard Bulleting fascinating. At some level I am sympathetic to his arguments. However, if I want to get published in mainstream journals, I must bracket my personal views and write as a sociologist. That may be why I maintain my alter-ego here at MSP – my professional writing doesn’t allow me to say what I think as an individual, only what the “data say” as objectively as possible. On MSP, the brackets are gone. I write subjectively, critically, and without leaving my religion at the door.

  9. TT says:

    Lol! I guess it is not surprising that you like Prothero and I like Orsi! Ulimately, I think that the bracketing is more than just a scholarly convention, but one that has important epistemological and ethical effects.
    Coincidentally, there appears to be an interesting series starting on JI, and Orsi is invoked!

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