It is Reported by Al-Bukhari from Abu Dharr that once the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) asked him after sunset, “Do you know where the sun goes (at the time of sunset)?”
He replied, “Allah and His Apostle know better.”
So the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) answered:
“It goes and prostrates beneath the Throne, then it asks for permission (to rise) and permission is given to it. Soon it will prostrate, but it will not be accepted from it, and it will ask for permission (to rise) but permission will not be given to it; it will be said to it: “Go back to where you came from.’ So it will rise from its place of setting and that is what Allah, may He be Glorified, refers to in the verse: ‘And the sun runs its fixed course for a term (decreed). That is The Decree of (Allah) The Exalted in Might, The All-Knowing (Qur’an 36:38)'”.
The above hadith has caused much controversy in our times and many critics of Islam use it to disprove the authenticity of Islam. It is also one of the hadiths used by Quranists in an attempt to show the unreliability of hadith literature. However, if we really sincerely ponder over this hadith, it becomes quite clear that critics are just exaggerating in their critiques.
The critics of this hadith attack it from four angles:
- Sun’s rotation around the earth
- Movement of the sun
- Prostration of the sun
- Sun going under the Throne
So let us examine these four angles in detail:
Sun’s Rotation Around the Earth
The first criticism is the claim that the hadith somehow suggests that the sun is rotating around the earth (geocentric), whereas in reality, it is the earth that is orbiting around the sun (heliocentric) and on its own axis that gives us the impression of sunset and sunrise. This contention can easily be resolved by pointing out that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) here is speaking in the context of how things appear to be from earth not how as they really exist. A resident of this planet observes the sun moving from sunrise to sunset and not the earth. The astronomical term used for this phenomenon is called diurnal motion.
This is no different than how the rest of the world uses the terms sunset and sunrise. Even NASA uses such terms. When the day ends, we say the sun has set, and when the day begins, we say the sun has risen. To be more accurate, shouldn’t we say “sunlight has moved away from our location” or “sunlight has come upon our location”? However, we universally use the terms sunrise, sunset, and statements like the sun has risen, the sun has set, etc. because this is how the sun appears to us here on earth. Therefore, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is trying describe the same phenomenon to a 7th century Arab in words that he will understand because the sun moving is what appears to him from earth.
In the Qur’an, Allah also uses similar wording to describe sunrise and sunset in the story about the people of the cave. The Qur’an is conversing with mankind who live on earth, therefore, it uses concepts that they are familiar with:
And [had you been present], you would see the sun when it rose, inclining away from their cave on the right, and when it set, passing away from them on the left, while they were [laying] within an open space thereof. That was from the signs of Allah. He whom Allah guides is the [rightly] guided, but he whom He leaves astray – never will you find for him a protecting guide. [Qur’an 18:17]
In addition, it is important to note that the heliocentric model is accepted not because we’ve made direct observations of the earth literally going around the sun but because it better predicts the motions of the celestial objects. It just fits the data that we have observed much better and in a more precise manner. That’s all there is to it. Modern science is confident that this heliocentric theory is the correct one because it makes the collected data simpler to explain than the geocentric theory. Some people erroneously think that you can go into space just outside of the earth’s orbit and actually observe the earth going around the sun.
Movement of the Sun
The second criticism leveled against this hadith is that it suggests that the sun is moving, whereas, it is the earth that is moving. This too deserves the same reply as in the previous section, however, it should also be noted that the sun is not still. According to modern science, the sun is moving at a very fast pace through the Milky Way Galaxy and it is taking us along with it.
This moving of the sun is stated explicitly on NASA’s own website. In fact, our whole solar system is moving through the galaxy. Therefore, the critique of the very movement of the sun being problematic should be rejected. This phenomenon of our whole solar system on a move is in complete harmony with a verse in the Qur’an where Allah says:
It is not allowable for the sun to reach the moon, nor does the night overtake the day, but each, in an orbit, is swimming. [Qur’an 36:40]
Prostration of the Sun
The third criticism against this hadith is that it is speaking about some act of prostration occurring from the sun which is not visible especially with all the modern scientific tools we have at our disposal where the sun is watched all the time. The critics say it is just the earth rotating and the sun itself is not doing anything. This is where belief in the unseen comes into play. It is a type of prostration that we do not understand nor can we comprehend its true nature. It is part of the knowledge of the unseen. The absence of an understanding of something does not necessitate that it does not exist.
In fact, in one verse Allah tells us that everything prostrates to Him:
Do you not see that to Allah prostrates whoever is in the heavens and whoever is on the earth and the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, the moving creatures and many of the people? But upon many the punishment has been justified. And he whom Allah humiliates – for him there is no bestower of honor. Indeed, Allah does what He wills. [Qur’an 22:18]
When was the last time we observed the mountains, trees, and moving creatures prostrating to Allah? We haven’t yet they are doing it in a way that we do not understand. In one verse Allah is so explicit about this fact that it should suffice as an answer:
The seven heavens and the earth and whatever is in them exalt Him. And there is not a thing except that it exalts [Allah] by His praise, but you do not understand their [way of] exalting. Indeed, He is ever Forbearing and Forgiving. [Qur’an 17:44]
When was the last time we observed these things exalting Allah? Never. But they are doing so in a way we do not understand. There is also another interesting hadith from Ibn ‘Abbas in which a companion dreamed that a tree was prostrating with him during prayer and he brought that to the attention of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) who did not deny it. The point is that things are not always as they seem to us with our limited understanding of this universe. In yet another verse, Allah tells us that even thunder exalts Him with praises. Hence, Imam Al-Khattabi said:
“It cannot be denied that it [the sun] halts beneath the Throne, in a manner that we cannot see or comprehend; rather this is speaking about a matter of the unseen. So we should not disbelieve in it or ask how it happens, because our knowledge cannot comprehend it.”
Ibn Taymiyyah said:
“Prostration is a form of humility, so the prostration which includes all creatures implies the utmost submission and humility. For every created thing submits to His greatness and humbles itself before His might and power. This does not mean that everything prostrates like human beings do, on seven parts of the body, putting the forehead on the ground. This kind of prostration is only for human beings. Some other nations bow but do not prostrate, and that is their prostration…Sujood (prostration) is a generic term but because the way in which Muslims prostrate is so well known, many people think that this is how everything prostrates”
The problem is that these critics try to give a shape to the prostration in a way that a human being does, but the sun is not a human being. We have our way of prostrating to the Creator and rest of creation has its own way. Much like how different creatures on this planet have their own unique way of communicating with each other. What would small bugs think of our prostration? Do they comprehend what we’re doing?
This point requires faith in the revelation that has reached us through His final messenger.
Sun Going Under the Throne
The last criticism against this hadith is that it claims that the sun goes under the Throne yet we do not see any physical Throne in our modern 24-hour monitoring of the sun. This objection can also be easily resolved by pointing out the fact that the Throne of Allah is part of the unseen as is its location. Therefore, it is not possible for us to physically define its location so that we can actually see the sun prostrating beneath it. We do not posses sufficient enough knowledge of the unseen to be able to unravel its secrets.
In addition, there is a big difference between the inability to conceive something and the inability of something to occur. Just because we cannot imagine or understand something does not mean it cannot occur. One of the many causes of people to have doubts about such religious texts is that they often mix the two and then claim that it contradicts modern science.
Even in the realm of the scientific world, which is constantly changing ideas, there were numerous things in the past which were considered impossible but only later on with advancement were proven to be in fact possible. In other words, even in science when the appropriate tools are not there to be able to conceive or understand something, it can lead to the rejection of its existence even though it may be right in front of us. If this is the case for things in this world, then what of those outside of it?!
When we look at this hadith from the angle that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is describing something from the world of the unseen, it is not difficult to accept it or believe in it. As Muslims, it is part of our duty to believe in the unseen and accept it as true because Allah or His Messenger have said so. For us, authentic religious texts (Qur’an and hadiths) are considered reliable sources. Allah tells us in the beginning of His last revelation sent to mankind:
This is the Book about which there is no doubt, a guidance for those conscious of Allah – Who believe in the unseen, establish prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them. [Qur’an 2:2-3]
There are numerous statements in the Qur’an and the hadiths which tell us of things from the unseen that we cannot imagine but we believe to be true because Allah and His Messenger said so: angels recording our deeds, angel of death taking souls, questioning and punishment in the grave, divine decree (qadr), paradise, hell, soul, jinn, power of du’a (supplication), etc.