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According to many Islamic sources, Quran 51:47 refers to the expansion of the universe, a phenomenon that has been made known to us in the recent century.

And the heaven We constructed with strength, and indeed, We are [its] expander. (51:47)

Most of the debate pertaining to this verse is centered on the word 'musioona', and whether it implies an expansion of space in the past, or a continuous & ongoing expansion.

However, how do we know in the first place that the word 'samaa' used in this verse is referring to the greater universe (i.e heaven)?

In the Quran, Allah frequently reminds us of rain coming from the sky, as provision for his creation:

Do you not see that Allah sends down rain from the sky and makes it flow as springs [and rivers] in the earth; .... (39:21)

In verses such as these, the term 'samaa' cannot be used to denote the wider universe, but rather the closer regions of Earth's atmosphere to us.

Just to clarify, I understand that Arabic words can mean multiple things - 'samaa' can be either "sky" or "heaven"- but is it possible to know for certain which of these meanings is meant in 51:47 (i.e without using a potential scientific interpretation)?

  • Good to note is that the translated word "we are its expander" (innaa lamosi'oun) traditionally always have been translated to "we are able to" (innaa laqadiron) which is a synonym of the word. Lately scholars have adopted your quoted translation with the explanation that the earlier translators didn't know that the universe was expanding. – Kilise Aug 27 '17 at 8:06
  • According to At-Tabari and other interpeters (mufassyrin) , it means the sky we know , (the ceiling) . – Butarek Hd Aug 27 '17 at 8:48
  • @Kilise Very interesting - I see now why many older translations of this verse refer to the ability to expand,rather than the active participle (expander), which we have in modern translations. Thanks for shedding light on that. However, that's not the issue I'm concerned with. Could you clarify whether it is possible to differentiate between the definitions of the word 'samaa' so that samaa = universe, and not samaa = sky, or the other way around? – Adam Aug 27 '17 at 16:07
  • it depends on the context. Also, in some of the verses, they have many interpretations for 'Samaa' so you cannot be certain i guess. – Butarek Hd Aug 27 '17 at 23:06
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Traditionally the scholars has interpreted the word "lamosi'on" (لَمُوسِعُونَ) to mean; "indeed We are able too".

Most other translations today seems to (subjectively) ignore that translation and translate it to expansion:

وَالسَّمَاءَ بَنَيْنَاهَا بِأَيْدٍ وَإِنَّا لَمُوسِعُونَ

And the heaven We constructed with strength, and indeed, We are [its] expander.

Sahih International, 51:47

Some translates the word samaa' to heaven, while others translate it to universe (see Muhammed Asad).

If we would translate it as most traditional mufassiron (Quranic commentators), then the given verse wouldn't refer to the expansion of the universe:

And the heaven We constructed with strength, and indeed, We are able to.

The word "We are able to" is the word "laqadiron" (لقادرون) which is according to the scholars a synonym of "lamosi'on" in this context. See Tafsir Tabari, Razi, Zamakhshari, Qurtubi, Baydawi.

This is basically derived by the Arabic word "wos'a" found in this verse:

لَا يُكَلِّفُ اللَّهُ نَفْسًا إِلَّا وُسْعَهَا

Allah does not impose upon any soul a duty but to the extent of its ability

Allah does not charge a soul except [with that within] its capacity

Also:

عَلَى الْمُوسِعِ قَدَرُهُ

... the wealthy according to his capability ...

2:236

"مُوسِعِ" here is "wealthy". See Tafsir Baghawi for more information.


However, this said, you will find other (mostly modern) scholars interpreting the word to mean "Indeed We are expanding it". You will find some interesting quotes by Razi and Ibn Al-Kathir.

Of these two interpretations you get the following possibilities that the verse is referring too:

  • God created the universe - and truly He is its expander.
  • God created the sky - and truly He is its expander.
  • God created the universe - and truly He is able to.
  • God created the sky - and truly He is able to.

Conclusion

So, one could interpret it in different ways. The most popular interpretation today is the first mentioned (expansion of Universe), the reason is clearly a subjective choice since it fits good with the Big Bang theory, proving the divinity of the Quran. (The reason I mention it to be subjective is because todays scholars/translators do not mention the traditional view.) Good to mention is that you will find older translations that actually translate the word to "expanding". Here is one example in Old Swedish, translated by Johan Fredrik Sebastian Crusenstolpe, year 1843 (which is before the Big Bang theory):

Vi hafva bygt himmelen med mägta styrka; och vi äro de som utvidgat den:

"utvidgat" means expanded.

If you wish, you could also interpret the verse without using the interpretation that lean to the scientific view. This interpretation is the traditional interpretation, which shows Gods power to create, which is mentioned in many other places in the Quran. This also goes along with the context of the verse after, which again speaks about Gods ability/power to spread out the earth:

And We have spread out the (spacious) earth: How excellently We do spread out!

  • And how was "بِأَيْدٍ" interpreted? I'm just curious. I was thinking of an answer of this question, but had no time to check some references... maybe one day soon I might give you some input. – Medi1Saif Aug 30 '17 at 13:36
  • @Medi1Saif all tafsirs I've read interprets it to "بقوة وقدرة". I am looking forward to read your answer on this particular question if you get time to post :) – Kilise Aug 30 '17 at 13:42
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    @Medi1Saif Please do! I find this all very interesting! – Adam Aug 30 '17 at 20:03
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An example of the interpretation

Let's start with a quote from qtafsir (a somehow summarized version of tafsir ibn Kathir):

Allah reminds us of the creating of the higher and lower worlds,
(We constructed the heaven. وَالسَّمَآءَ بَنَيْنَـهَا) meaning, "We made it as a high roof, protected from falling,"

(with Hands بِأَيْدٍ), meaning, with strength, according to 'Abdullah bin 'Abbas, Mujahid, Qatadah, Ath-Thawri and several others,

(Verily, We are able to extend the vastness of space thereof. وَإِنَّا لَمُوسِعُونَ) means, "We made it vast and We brought its roof higher without pillars to support it, and thus it is hanging independently."

My own understanding of this verse is that some kind of expansion is included in the verses, but as the translation used in the quote from qtafsir shows the salafi view is that بِأَيْدٍ is equal to with hands, and may create confusion, if there was not a traditional interpretation as the one of ibn 'Abbas we would have here an issue, as strength would be considered as an interpretation which is not allowed for Allah's attributes by salafi scholars. But this is the meaning that would come to mind to any mindful person who understands Arabic!
However a-Shanqiti (a salafi schoalr) in his tafsir here clearly rejects the idea of that being a reference to the attribute of Allah and say:

ليس من آيات الصفات المعروفة بهذا الاسم ، لأن قوله : بأيد ليس جمع يد : وإنما الأيد القوة

It is not a verse quoting Allahs attributes known by this name, because بأيد (with hands -as it was quoted in the translation from qtafsir) is not the plural of يد (hand), but it is الأيد meaning strength. But his opinion about the linguistic issue doesn't seem to have support in other tafsirs, when the origin of الأيد is discussed.

So his interpretation is we have constructed the heaven with strength.

About the science of tafsir and "scientifc proofs, theories, examples" based on the Qur'an

Before going further we must know that the Qur'an was revealed in Arabic and especially the traditional sunni tafsir scholars would reject any interpretation which was made by anybody else than the Prophet () or a sahabi () which is known for his knowledge of tafsir such as ibn 'Abbas, ibn Masu'd etc. and their students. And of course if the Arabic meaning exists somewhere in traditional Arabic literature such as Jahili poems that might also be accepted. This means an interpretation of the meaning of a word, verse or chapter can only be based on an evidenced source.

So when it comes to so called scientific explanations or الإعجاز العلمي في القرآن (Scientific miraculousness of the Holy Quraan), if the given explanation or interpretation exists, then this can only be based on a meaning in the language, an interpretation given by the prophet himself or a kind of inspiration. Else some scholars among the sheikh az-Zindani have interpreted the verse:

We will show them Our signs in the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth. ... (41:53)

as follows: the "them" in this verse refers to the disbelievers and those who rejected Allahs signs in first place as it is them who will discover their truth (see also this fatwa islamqa #217157), so one way people may discover the truth of Islam is by discovering the truth of its message, not because Muslims show or found this to be truth, but because they were confronted with the truth in their own discoveries ...
On the other hand some of these traditional interpretations may fail if we compared them to scientific proofs or explanations (See for example in my answer on Is it possible for the Qu'ran to have mistakes in it? an example of a rather scientifically wrong interpretation). Therefore other scholars say as Muslims we consider the Qur'an as true, while many scientific theories change with the time, so coupling a quranic statement with a theory is a risky matter, as if this theory would one day considered being wrong we would clearly allow the conclusion that the Qur'an is wrong too.

Some interpretations based on tafsir books

In al-Bahr al-Moheet التفسير الكبير المسمى البحر المحيط the author says that لَمُوسِعُونَ refers to the construction of the heaven so it means we are expanding it's construction, he also quotes some other interpretations such as "we have much strength and power", some said "Energy" others said again referring to the heaven or sky we know: provision by rain and water also the connection to verse (2:236) etc. -already quoted by @Kilise- are quoted. Beside the other option of the meaning of سعة which is a vast space between the heaven and earth.

Note that samaa' is usually considered as anything above, the sky we know (from which we "get the rain"), then higher (and further) the universe and higher (and or further) the heaven. One may be able to deduce the meaning in cases from the context.

Imam at-Tabari in his tafsir quoted 6 traditional interpretations of لَمُوسِعُونَ where the meaning with strength بقوة was used and could find an explanation for any other interpretation to make it fit this (general) meaning (again referring to the verses Kilise has quoted).

Note that Allah says in the qur'an:

The creation of the heavens and earth is greater than the creation of mankind, but most of the people do not know. (40:57)

So the creation of the heavens is a much greater and complex creation than any other creation of Allah, and Allah here gives examples of how even if this creation was that difficult, complex and great HE is able to expand and go further, this is a sign for mankind, as they can only witness the result of HIS creation without being able to observe how. Ibn Ashur gave something like this as an introduction to comment on the verse in his tafsir at-tahrir wa-Tanwir adding that الأيد means strength, but it is originated from the hands, but due to the use of this expression it became a synonym of strength and in this verse and in surat saad أَيْدٍ refers to a strength that nobody can excel!

Does the Quran actually refer to the expansion of the universe?

Well from what I do understand this meaning is not excluded, as in this verse the major meaning is to show the ability of Allah, HIS power and strength to create and expand the heaven, which indeed is a greater and more difficult construct or creation than any other of Allahs creations including mankind and earth. But the point is that Allah refers to a creation we are not able to create, we didn't witness, but only are able to observe the result.

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