The Flat Earth Controversy – An Analysis of the Quran and the Bible
Originally Posted on the Quran and Bible Blog
بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْم
“And the earth, moreover, hath He extended (to a wide expanse);”
– The Quran, Surah An-Naziat, 79:30
The infamous Christian apologist Sam Shamoun has claimed that the Quran refers to a “flat earth”. In this article, we will analyze his appeal to certain verses in the Quran, which he insists refer to the mythical “flat earth”. Through this analysis, we will see the deception and stupidity of this apologist, and why he is an embarrassment to Christianity, inshaAllah. To finish off, we look at the undeniable Biblical evidence for an actual flat earth.
In his angry rant, Shamoun appealed to several Arabic words to argue for a flat earth cosmology in the Quran. These words are:
- فِرَاشًا (firāshan) – Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:22
“Who has made the earth your couch…”
- مَدَّ (madda) – Surah Al-Ra’d, 13:3
“And it is He who spread out the earth…”
- مِهَادًا (mihadan) – Surah An-Naba, 78:6
“Have We not made the earth as a wide expanse…”
- دَحَاهَا (dahaha) – Surah An-Naziat, 79:30
“And the earth, moreover, hath He extended (to a wide expanse);”
- سُطِحَتْ (sutihat) – Surah Al-Ghaashiya, 88:20
“And at the Earth, how it is spread out?”
- طَحَاهَا (tahaha) – Surah Ash-Shams, 91:6
“By the Earth and its (wide) expanse…”
As we can see, each of these words refers to the action of “extending” or “spreading” the Earth. Shamoun argues that this somehow proves that the Earth is flat, at least according to the Quran. So let us look at what the lexicons say about the matter. We will be citing the authoritative Lane’s Lexicon for the meaning of these words in their proper context.
But before we do that, it is also important to consider the meaning of another Arabic word and its variants:
This word literally means either the planet Earth or simply the ground (earth) upon which we walk, travel or use as a place of rest. Here is what Lane’s Lexicon states:
This dual meaning will be important, as we will see. Let us now analyze the six Arabic words that Shamoun used in his polemical diatribe.
According to Lane’s Lexicon, the definition of this word is:
“[a] thing that is spread upon the ground…”
More importantly, with regards to its usage in Surah 2:22, the word refers to the Earth as a:
“a thing that is spread for one to sit or lie upon…”
This is why Yusuf Ali translated the word as “couch”, whereas others translated it as either “bed” or “resting place”. Here is a screenshot of Lane’s Lexicon:
But to pseudo-scholars like Shamoun, this somehow proves that the Earth must be flat. Well, not really Shamoun, because no one would argue that people do not use the ground to sit or lie upon. That is all the verse is saying! And remember, the Arabic word for “earth” can mean both planet Earth or simply the ground. And as it turns out, the Bible also describes the Earth/ground in this manner:
“…who spread out the earth upon the waters, His love endures forever.”
“This is what God the Lord says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it…”
“I am the Lord, the Maker of all things, who stretches out the heavens, who spreads out the earth by myself…”
The Hebrew word used in these verses is “רָקַע” (raqa’). We will discuss the meaning of this word later, as if we use Shamoun’s logic, it can be used to “prove” that the planet Earth must be “flat” (of course, as we will see later, the Bible does allude to a flat earth in other verses).
According to Lane’s Lexicon, the definition of this word is to “spread” or “stretch out” and to make “plain, or level, the earth”:
As shown, the word can be used to mean “stretching” other things as well, such as “shade”. Indeed, the word is also used in the Quran to refer to the “stretching” of a “shadow”, as in Surah Al-Furqaan, 25:45:
“Hast thou not turned thy vision to thy Lord?- How He doth prolong the shadow!”
Shamoun picked up on this additional meaning and made the rather comical remark that “would anyone argue that a shadow is actually spherical in shape?” This just shows Shamoun’s woeful stupidity! As the Islamic scholar Ibn Kathir explained, the verse is simply referring to:
“…the period from the beginning of the dawn until the sun rises.”
So, the verse is referring to an easily observable phenomenon where a shadow of any physical object appears to “stretch” as the sun rises.
As for the meaning of “stretching” of the Earth, the word only refers to making the ground level. According to Ibn Kathir, the meaning is that Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) has made the earth “…spacious in length and width.” So again, we see nothing here about the shape of the planet Earth. It is simply a reminder of how God has made it “spacious” for people.
Finally, The Study Quran commentary on Surah 13:3 is quite interesting. It states:
“[a]ccording to Ibn Juzayy, [the verse] may appear to suggest that the earth is flat and not, as was widely acknowledged in his time, round. For him, however, the verse speaks of the earth as spread out because of the fact that every portion of land on earth, although flat from our perspective, comprises a greater whole, namely, the surface of the earth, which is round.”
So we can see why Shamoun’s interpretation is so foolish. Indeed, the same foolish interpretations can be applied to the Bible, as we will see.
According to Lane’s Lexicon, this word means any place for sleeping (like a cradle) that is “made plain, even, or smooth”. Similarly, when applied to the ground or “earth”, it means:
“…a plain, an even, or a smooth expanse…”
Moreover, when used in Surah 78:6, it means that the earth was:
“…adapted to be travelled over.”
A similar word is used in Surah Az-Zukhruf, 43:10 and means the same thing:
“(Yea, the same that) has made for you the earth (like a carpet) spread out, and has made for you roads (and channels) therein, in order that ye may find guidance (on the way);”
Alternate translations use the word “cradle” as well. According to The Study Quran, this verse was interpreted by scholars like Ibn Kathir and Al-Razi as meaning that the earth was made “easy to travel” (Ibn Kathir) or “tractable for agriculture” (Al-Razi) or “a home for human life”. So, would anyone argue that the earth has not been made as an “expanse” to be “travelled over” or to be used for agriculture? Of course not! Shamoun is once again misinterpreting the word as if it is somehow referring to the shape of the planet. Rather, the Quran is referring to the ground and how it has been made “level” so that mankind can use it for resting and travelling. It is simply reminding mankind of the blessings they enjoy, which they can easily witness themselves.
According to Lane’s Lexicon, this word also means to:
“…spread out, or forth; expanded; or extended…”
When referring to “earth”, it means that God made it:
“…wide, or ample…”
Again, would anyone argue that the earth is not “wide” or “ample”? There are currently almost 8 billion people on the entire planet, so clearly it is very “wide” and “ample”!
According to Lane’s Lexicon, the root of this word again means to “spread” or “expand”.
So once again, the word is simply referring to the earth being expanded to provide ample space for mankind. It is not referring to the shape of the entire planet. As The Study Quran commentary states, “spread out” means:
“…in such a way that human beings derive many benefits from it.”
Finally, this word, like the others, also means simply to “spread”, “expand” or “extend”.
So, based on what we have seen, the use of these words was not meant as a reference to the shape of the Earth. Whenever these words are used in the Quran, the context is in the sense of something the reader can witness himself. The Quran refers to how the earth has been “spread” and “expanded” so that mankind can use the ground to sit on, to sleep on and to travel on. None of these verses can be used to pontificate on the shape of the entire planet. But there are other verses that can. Let us discuss these now.
The (Actual) Shape of the Earth in the Quran
As discussed in a previous article, there are some words used in the Quran that seem to suggest the shape of the planet Earth. Surah Az-Zumar, 39:5, uses one such word:
“He created the heavens and the earth in true (proportions): He makes the Night overlap [يُكَوِّرُ – yukawwiru] the Day, and the Day overlap the Night: He has subjected the sun and the moon (to His law): Each one follows a course for a time appointed. Is not He the Exalted in Power – He Who forgives again and again?”
Let us see what this word means. According to Lane’s Lexicon, the word means to “wound”, especially in a “round form”, like winding a turban around one’s head.
A similar word is used in Surah At-Takwir, 81:1, in reference to the sun (which any observer can see is round):
إِذَا الشَّمْسُ كُوِّرَتْ
The word of interest is كُوِّرَتْ “kuwwirat”, the meaning of which Lane’s Lexicon explains is:
“[w]hen the sun shall be wound round [with darkness] like a turban…”
So we can see that this word conjures up the image of something being “wound” in a spherical or “round” form. So when the word is used in Surah 39:5, it similarly conjures up the image of the “night” being “wound” around the day (and vice versa). Thus, since it is used with regards to the sun, which is round, we can similarly conclude that when the “night” overlaps the “day”, the planet Earth (which both envelop) would have to be round as well. In fact, this verse was used by classical scholars such as Ibn Hazm to conclude that the Earth was indeed round.
The Bible’s Flat Earth
As mentioned above, in contrast to the Quran, the Bible doe seem to allude to a flat earth cosmology. Before we look at some verses as proof, let us first further refute Shamoun’s absurd argument about the Arabic words we discussed above. The Quran describes how the Earth was “spread”, “stretched” or “expanded”, which Shamoun interpreted as meaning that the planet Earth had to be “flat”. We have seen why this argument fails. But let us the turn the tables on Shamoun and use his argument against his own Bible.
As stated above, the Hebrew word “raqa’” (pronounced raw-kah’) is used in three places to describe how God “spread” the earth (Psalm 136:6, Isaiah 42:5, 44:24). But according to Strong’s Definitions and other lexicons, the etymology of the word suggests a “spreading” that occurs as a result of “pounding” or “hammering” an object:
This meaning is also confirmed by Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon:
Notice how both sources describe the “hammering” or “beating” of the “earth” to “spread” it out. If we use Shamoun’s logic, this would imply that the “Earth” must be flat! But this would be a premature conclusion, since the Hebrew word for “earth” has multiple meanings, similar to the Arabic word. The Hebrew word is אֶרֶץ (‘erets), which Gesenius’ Lexicon defines as either the planet Earth or “country” and “land” :
So the multiple definitions can range from the entire planet Earth or just a “piece of land” and also the “ground”, just like in Arabic. With this context in mind, it would be premature to suggest on the basis of the three verses mentioned above that since the Earth is “spread”, then it must be “flat”. Something tells me that Shamoun would not favor that interpretation!
But there are other Biblical passages that do seem to clearly suggest a flat Earth (and one particular verse leaves no doubt). We will discuss two such passages, one from the Tanakh and one from the New Testament.
Isaiah 11:12 –
“He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth.”
The phrase of interest in this verse is “four quarters of the earth”. The Hebrew word for “quarters” is כָּנָף (kanaph), which is defined as an “edge” or “extremity”.
In other words, when referring to the “earth”, it means the farthest “extremities”. However, according to Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, in this regard the earth is often compared to a “cloak” that is “spread out”. A cloak, of course, could not be described in any form even remotely resembling a spherical object. Hence, the suggestion is of a flat surface with four “corners” or “extremities”. Nevertheless, if we keep in mind that the Hebrew word “erets” does not always mean the entire planet Earth, then it is possible that a flat-Earth cosmology is not necessarily implied. But the next verse in our discussion, taken from the New Testament, can leave no such doubt.
Matthew 4:8-9 –
“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.””
This verse is the smoking gun for a flat Earth in the Bible. As stated, the gospel claims that Satan took Jesus (peace be upon him) to a “very high mountain” and then showed him “all the kingdoms of the world”. The fact that they had to go to a “very high mountain” to see these kingdoms refutes the idea of a spherical Earth, as it would be impossible to see the other “side”.
One possible way to argue against the “flat Earth” argument could be appeal to the meaning of the word for “world”. As we have seen, in the Hebrew language, the word “erets” can mean many things, such as a “piece of land” or the entire “Earth”. Perhaps the same applies to the Greek word used in Matthew? The word used in Matthew 4:8 is κόσμος “kosmos”, from which we get the English word “cosmos”. Can this word be ambiguous enough to simply mean “land”? After all, many Christian commentaries have argued that Satan either:
- Showed Jesus a “vision” of all the kingdoms of the world (instead of a literal view), or,
- Showed Jesus only the surrounding “kingdoms” of the holy land and other nearby lands.
#1 clearly does not make sense since why would Satan bother to take Jesus to a “very high mountain” just to show him a “vision”. He could have done that from the ground in the wilderness where they previously were.
For #2 to be plausible, we would need to analyze the meaning of the Greek word “kosmos”. And that is where we hit a brick wall. According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, the word can mean an “ornament”, the “world” or “universe”, the “circle of the earth” or just the “earth”, or the “inhabitants of the world”. Here is a screenshot:
Similarly, the 19th-century scholar James Austin Bastow defined “kosmos” as “the world” or “universe”, and specifically with regard to Matthew 4:8 as “the earth, as the abode of man”. So it is clear that when Matthew used the word “kosmos”, he was referring to the entire world. This designation is furthered strengthened by the fact that the devil offered the “kingdoms” as if they were his to give. It would be far more impressive if he was referring to the entire world rather than to just a small region in the Middle East. As Jeannine K. Brown states in her commentary on the gospel of Matthew:
“[t]he final temptation consists of an implicit claim by the devil that all the kingdoms of the world belong to him and that he will give them to Jesus if Jesus will worship him…”
Furthermore, if Matthew did not intend to refer to the whole world, he could have easily used a more ambiguous Greek word, similar to the Hebrew word “erets”. This is the Greek word γῆ (gē). Matthew even used this word several times in his gospel, including later in chapter 4, when he was quoting Isaiah:
“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles…”
According to Thayer’s Lexicon, the Greek word can mean “arable land”, the “ground”, the “earth as a whole” or “a country”:
In contrast, “kosmos” always meant the entire world or even the “universe” as well, so why didn’t Matthew use the more ambiguous word when referring to the “kingdoms of the world”, as some commentators allege was his original intention? Clearly, this argument does not have any merit. Matthew meant the kingdoms of the entire world, and he thought that it would be possible to see them all from a “very high mountain”. Of course, we have to remember that his knowledge of the world would have been limited. There is no reason to expect him to know about far-off lands like North America, South America or Australia. To Matthew, the whole “world” could have been limited to the lands of the Roman Empire and some other lands outside its realm, like Parthia. But there is no doubt that Matthew believed that it was possible to see all the kingdoms of the known world from a tall mountain. This suggests a flat-Earth cosmology.
As we have seen, Shamoun is high on bluster but short on substance. The Arabic words he claimed refer to a “flat” Earth imply no such thing and can easily be interpreted as describing the Earth from mankind’s perspective so as to remind them of God’s blessings. Furthermore, it was shown how this argument backfired on Shamoun when it was applied to the Bible. However, we saw that premature and unscholarly hijinks, such as those that Shamoun showcases, do not tell the whole story. Thus, the meaning of the Arabic and Hebrew words commonly translated as “earth” can mean much more. They can mean simply the “land” or “ground”, in which case both the Quran and the Bible’s description of the “earth” as “spread out” mean that it has been made spacious for people. Nevertheless, we did see one clear-cut example of the Bible’s flat-Earth cosmology: Matthew 4:8. This verse leaves no doubt that the author envisioned a flat Earth (albeit a very small one), whose kingdoms could be seen from a “very high mountain”. There can be no doubt, then, that the Bible (or at least the New Testament) alludes to a flat Earth, which proves that it cannot be from God. And Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) knows best!
 Psalm 136:5-7.
 Isaiah 42:5.
 Isaiah 44:24.
 The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (New York: HarperOne, 2015), p. 616.
 See The Study Quran, op. cit., p. 1191.
 Ibid., p. 1508.
 Recall that the Arabic word “madda” describes a “plain”. Interestingly, so does the Hebrew word “raqa’”! According to Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, in the commentary on Isaiah 42:5:
“He that spread forth the earth – He stretched it out as a plain – retaining the idea which was so common among the ancients that the earth was a vast plain, reaching from one end of the heavens to the other” (https://biblehub.com/commentaries/barnes/isaiah/42.htm).
 Nevertheless, some scholars have argued that the use of “raqa’” in Psalm 136:6 suggests a flattened “earth” floating on the sea. As Paul H. Seely explained in a 1997 publication in the Westminster Theological Journal:
“…the synonymous phraseology in Ps 136:6 (especially in the light of Isa 40:19 which uses raqa’ in the sense of “overlay”) means that the earth is spread out over or upon the sea. As gold overlays the cherubim in I Kgs 6:32 so the earth overlays the sea in Ps 136:6” (Paul H. Seely, “The Geographical Meaning of “Earth” and “Seas” in Genesis 1:10,” Westminster Theological Journal 59 (1997): 251, https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/OTeSources/01-Genesis/Text/Articles-Books/Seely_EarthSeas_WTJ.pdf).
 Of course, it could be that Matthew’s knowledge of the world was much more limited than our own. To Matthew, the entire “world” could have been limited to just the Middle East, Europe and some parts of Asia. Either way, such limited knowledge would not be expected from an allegedly “inspired” source.
 See for example Elicott’s Commentary for English Readers:
“[h]ere, if proof were wanted, we have evidence that all that passed in the Temptation was in the region of which the spirit, and not the senses, takes cognisance. No “specular mount” (I use Milton’s phrase) in the whole earth commands a survey of “all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them”” (https://biblehub.com/commentaries/ellicott/matthew/4.htm).
 See for example Barnes’ Notes on the Bible:
“[i]t is not probable that anything more is intended here than the kingdoms of Palestine, or of the land of Canaan, and those in the immediate vicinity. Judea was divided into three parts, and those parts were called kingdoms; and the sons of Herod, who presided over them, were called kings. The term “world” is often used in this limited sense to denote a part or a large part of the world, particularly the land of Canaan. See Romans 4:13, where it means the land of Judah; also Luke 2:1, and the note on the place.” (https://biblehub.com/commentaries/barnes/matthew/4.htm).
Of course, Barnes’ claim that the word for “world” was “often used in this limited sense” is clearly false, as we will see. He appealed to Romans 4:13 as proof of his claim, but Paul was appealing to the promise that Abraham’s offspring would inherit the world, and not just the land of Judea.
As for Luke 2:1, it doesn’t even use the same word. Rather, when referring to the census of the Roman Empire, Luke used the word οἰκουμένη “oikoumenē.
The phrase “circle of the earth” is found in Isaiah 40:22, but it does not mean the Earth is round, as some apologists claim. Rather, many ancient cosmologies regarded the Earth as a flat land with the heavens serving as a canopy in the form of a dome (hence the phrase “circle of the earth”).
 James Austin Bastow, A Biblical Dictionary, 4th ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1876), p. 783.
 Jeannine K. Brown, “Matthew,” in The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary, ed. Gary M. Burge and Andrew E. Hill (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012), p. 963.
 Matthew 4:15.