How do we understand the Hadith of the sun’s prostration beneath the Throne?
One of the things that is controversial is this case is as follows:
The Prophet (ﷺ) said to Abu Dhar (رضي الله عنه) when the sun set: “Do you know where it goes?” I said: Allah (ﷻ) and His Messenger (ﷺ) know best. He said: “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 (ﷻ), may He be glorified, refers to in the verse (interpretation of the meaning): [And the sun runs on its fixed course for a term (appointed). That is the Decree of the All-Mighty, the All-Knowing] [Q.36:38]. [Sahih al-Bukhari (3199), and Sahih al-Muslim (250)]
The opponents claim that this saying of the Prophet (ﷺ) proves that the sun is what moves and sets, then it hides from the whole earth, and that the sun prostrates beneath the Throne, and waits for permission to come back again to rise which means that it stops moving at a point when it goes beneath the Throne which contradicts what has been proven by modern science that the sun is still and rotates on its own self.
If you follow the writings of the opponents, you will find that they jump with joy on this; a lot of them mention it and don’t get bored by repeating it continuously, and they find it as one of the strongest statements against Islam.
Before clarifying this case, we first have to know that this has been a controversial topic among Muslim scholars before the scientific era. [see: A’lam al-Hadith fi sharh sahih al-Bukhari, al-Khattabi (1893/3), al-bidaya wal-nihaya, Ibn Kathir (33/1) and ‘umda tul Qari, al-‘Aini (119/15), and fath al-bari, Ibn Hajr (299/6)]
Many scholars have spoken of it and tried to explain it and clarify its meanings to address the doubts surrounding it. They were not blind to this Hadith and it was a very interesting topic for them.
To make it clear, we would separate the objection and divide it into four main points:
The Hadith mentions that the sun sets while facts are contrary to it; the sun neither sets nor moves to any place and the earth’s rotation causes the sunset.
This contradiction is not correct since the Hadith only mentions the sunset without mentioning the cause; it is the same as the verses mentioned earlier which speak of what the people see. The Hadith mentions that the sun prostrates beneath the Throne which implies that the sun stops moving and this contradicts modern science. Before commenting on this matter, we have to clarify that the mentioned prostrating is a special prostrating and is not the absolute physical movement to Allah (ﷻ); thus the Hadith states a special prostration related only to the sun. Moreover, saying that the prostration implies a stop is inaccurate. Since the base of the claim is faulty, that the sun prostrates like humans do, the argument itself is faulty as well. The fact is that the sun’s prostration and asking for permission is unknown to us. We do not know about it nor how it happens. Read a specially dedicated piece on this argument here.
The same is true for the prostration of the trees and stones and their glorification of Allah (ﷻ); if they are close to us and around us yet we do not know the manner in which they prostrate, then how can we understand the sun’s prostration?
Allah (ﷻ) says about their prostration: [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].
If the manner of the sun’s prostration is unknown to us, we cannot claim that it contradicts science as applied science does not recognize unknowns and only deals with what is applicable to the experiment. If science hasn’t experimented on a case, we cannot negate that case by saying that since science does not know yet, it does not exist and if it does not exist now, it has never existed. Such logic would be rejected by science and to do the same with Islam would be incorrect.
It is clear that the opponents of the sun’s prostration claiming it to be against science don’t have clear evidence to prove it a contradiction, and they have said it themselves that if it is unknown to science, it does not exist.
Moreover, prostration of the sun does not contradict the human mind because proving the opposite of something is invalid except if we know it for a fact and understand its nature. The sun’s prostration is unknown to us and we don’t know its manner, then how can we judge it and say that it contradicts our mind?!
We do not deny that what the Hadith states is unfamiliar to the human mind; however, there is a big difference between what the mind does not understand and what the mind cannot comprehend. Sometimes what the prophets inform people are topics which the mind does not understand but they do not tell the people about that which is impossible and that which the mind cannot comprehend. The opponents confuse between these two matters; sometimes they say that if it is unknown to the mind, it is impossible after which, for them, Islam contradicts science and mind.
Therefore, if the sun’s prostration is an unknown thing, it is not correct to contradict it and say that it implies that sun stops because it is not correct to state something’s specifications except if we already know its facts.
Many scholars have discussed this subject. Al-Khattabi says:
And it’s prostrating every night is not contradictory to its movement in its orbit. [A’lam al-Hadith fi sharh sahih al-Bukhari, al-Khattabi (1893/3)]
There’s nothing contradictory in its prostration beneath the Throne and its orbiting and purpose for what it has been created for. [Al-Asma’ wal-Sifaat (275/2)]
There are authentic Hadiths about the sun and its condition being unknown to the people such as this Hadith from Saheeh Muslim:
And it returns and emerges out from its rising place and it glides (in such a normal way) that the people do not discern anything.
This means that nobody understands its prostration or seeking permission. Thus they do not discern anything.
Somebody may argue that the Hadith says that the sun is still until it is said to it: Rise up and return to the place whence you came. They may argue that this implies that the sun has to stop moving. We answer that it is not like that; it means that it is still under prostration until permission from Allah (ﷻ) to rise again is received, thus the permission is related to the prostration and not the motion. We have already said that the prostration does not imply motion except if it was a familiar prostration to the humans; however, this is about the sun and we don’t know how its prostration looks like.
The Hadith mentions that the sun goes under the Throne and prostrates there but the fact is that the sun does not change its path or its orbit, then how can it go and come back?!
This alleged contradiction is inaccurate for two reasons:
The sun’s going is not known; thus it is the same as the prostration discussed above. The prostration of the sun, the manner of which we don’t know, is the same as its movement here and there. Al-Khattabi states:
It is unknown. We won’t deny it and we don’t ask or say how it is; moreover, our mind and science cannot understand or know anything about it. [A’lam al-Hadith fi sharh sahih al-Bukhari, al-Khattabi (1893/3); also see sharh al-mishkaat for al-Tibi (3450/11)]
The word for going in the Arabic language does not only mean the transformation from some place to another but may also mean the alignment; thus it would mean that the sun just aligns with/under the Throne, and what makes it more clear is that the Throne is much bigger than the sun and the skies and the whole earth. The Prophet (ﷺ) said:
‘The seven heavens in relation to the Kursi are like a ring thrown into a waterless desert. And the superiority of the ‘Arsh over the Kursi is like the superiority of the desert over that ring.’ [Sahih ibn Hibban (361), Ibn Abi Shayba in Kitab al-Arsh (58), al-Bayhaqi in al-Asma’ wal-Sifaat (862); silsilah al-saheeha for al-Albani (109)]
Ibn Kathir says about the Hadith:
This does not mean that it goes to the skies, but that it just sets out of our eyes even though it is still in its orbit. [Al-Bidaya wal-Nihaya (33/1)]
Al-Khattabi comments on this Hadith as follows:
The sun prostrating beneath the Throne is not a denial of the fact that it aligns with the Throne while it orbits. [A’lam al-Hadith fi sharh sahih al-Bukhari, al-Khattabi (1894/3)]
This style is known in the Arabic language; we say, for the one who went to pray, that he went to meet his God but the meaning here is not that he went above the heavens to meet Allah (ﷻ) there.
Similarly, here’s a verse about Ibrahim (عليه السلام) where Allah (ﷻ) says: [I will go to my Lord! He will surely guide me!] (Qur’an 37:99). This does not mean that he was going to meet Allah (ﷻ) above the seven heavens but that he was going to the place on earth where Allah (ﷻ) was being worshiped. [Tafsir ibn Jarir al-Tabari (71/21), and Tafsir al-Baghawi (46/7)]
It is correct to say: the man has gone to the desert to meet the moon and to lie down below it; the meaning is not that he is going to the moon in its orbit to meet it there.
The Hadith has specified the time of prostration, which is at the sunset, and mentioned that it does not prostrate at the time of sunrise; it is known that the sunrise and sunset are rational matters, since the sun is already rising and setting at the same time in different places, then it would be impossible to think that the sun prostrates and not prostrates all the time and having a single sunset at some moment on the whole earth contradicts applied science.
This matter is not right for two reasons:
The sun’s prostration is unknown as we have already mentioned and we cannot specify the criteria of/for unknown things. Thus, saying that it is mandatory that the sun prostrates all the time is based on our wrong understanding of the prostration, which is unknown to us.
For this, we find a similar matter elsewhere in Islamic texts and that is coming down of Allah (ﷻ) every night to the first sky in the last third of the night. Some have criticized this coming down claiming that there is always a last third at some point of the earth and hence this would mean that Allah (ﷻ) would be coming down all the time, every time.
This alleged contradiction is based on an incorrect idea that Allah (ﷻ)’s coming down is the same as the humans which is totally false. The same thing is with the sun, we do not know how the prostration looks like and hence, we cannot relate it to our understanding of the human prostration.
It might be correct that the sun has some point in its orbit where it will be typically adjacent to the Throne and this point is at the time of the sunset on the Arabian Peninsula where the Prophet (ﷺ) spoke the Hadith.
This would mean that the Hadith does not state that the sun, at the time of sunset, prostrates beneath the Throne, neither does it say that the sun prostrates every time the sun sets. Accordingly, the Hadith does not mention that the prostration takes place only at the time of sunset. The Prophet (ﷺ) did not say that (the sun was setting beneath the Throne) but he was speaking to those present at that time and at that time, the sun had set and prostrated and asked for permission from Allah (ﷻ). Therefore, this would mean that the Hadith is related to that point and that specific time.
Many scholars have spoken along similar lines. Al-Khattabi says:
This is not denying that it is adjacent to the Throne while it orbits [A’lam al-Hadith fi sharh sahih al-Bukhari, al-Khattabi (1894/3)].
Ibn Hajar says:
Actually his saying “beneath the Throne” means adjacent to it, and this does not contradict Allah (ﷻ)’s statement: [when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it [as if] setting in a spring of dark mud]; thus, the meaning is that it pertains to those who look at it, but the prostration is after the sunset. [Fath al-Bari (542/8)]
These opinions imply that the scholars did not understand that the sun prostrates when it has some sort of partial setting; thus, it does not prostrate all the time but just once when it is adjacent the Throne and that is when it sets from the Arabian Peninsula.
According to this, many of the opponents are now in trouble because they did not understand the actual meaning of the sayings and built a faulty understanding and wrong consequences and mixed up between the unknown and the impossible matters.