Talking Ants in the Qur’ân?
A long time ago, I published a short article titled Qur’an difficulty: Ants cannot talk in the section discussing Contradictions in the Qur’an. Over the years there have been a couple of Muslim responses and these discussions are accessible from the original article.
Recently Shibli Zaman wrote a response that has apparently impressed many, both Muslims and non-Muslims, and the Bismikaallahuma team has decided to add to their site a slightly edited version of Zaman’s article (Talking Ants in the Qur’ân?), and this article is presented as a rebuttal to the arguments outlined in my more than six years old article refered to above.
Since Zaman’s response misrepresents my original arguments on various levels, my answer will address the presented claims in several categories:
1. Logical fallacies: straw man arguments, ad hominem attacks, the root fallacy etc.
2. Scientific facts and their relationship to the Qur’anic story
3. Exegetical issues, including the (mis)interpretation of the Qur’anic story as a miracle
Not everybody may be interested to know exactly why Zaman’s article is not a valid rebuttal to my original article, or to investigate what exactly is known from scientific research about ant communication and about the relationship between ants and termites. In that case, feel free to skip the first two sections, and read only the third part. But nobody should miss out on the discussion about the meaning of the ant story found in Surah 27:18-19, and the implications of this story for the whole of the Qur’an.
Part 1: Logical Fallacies
It will shortly become obvious that Zaman’s article does not address my original argument at all. At the end of this first part, everyone should be able to see that his reply does not qualify as a rebuttal. But what would the reader think of me if I were to go on claiming that Zaman has not even written a response, or worse, that Zaman is not able to write at all? I will come back to this odd “conclusion”.
The article under consideration begins with these words:
Basically, the gist of the missionary claim is:
Why does the Qur’an say that ants talk (27:18-19)? Everyone knows that ants communicate by chemicals detected by scent and never sound! Is this not a scientific error in the Qur’an?
The above text explicitly links to my original article and claims that the quoted statement is the gist of (i.e. accurately represents) my argument. Shibli Zaman’s original article does not explicitly identify the source of the claim he sets out to refute [it does not have the first line above, stating that “Basically, the gist of the missionary claim is:”]. However, Zaman talks specifically about “answer[ing] the missionaries’ challenges” and placed this article in his section “Site Rebuttals: Answering Islam”, and there is only one article on Answering Islam dedicated to the discussion of this issue. Thus it is, by implication, supposed to be a rebuttal to the above referenced article. Since the two versions of the article available at the sites NESSIA and Bismikaallahuma are basically identical, apart from this implicit vs. explicit identification of the opponent to be rebutted, the rest of this response holds for both versions.
Does the above “summary” accurately represent my argument? Not at all! The following are just a couple of sentences of what I had actually written:
… ants do communicate using smells, not modulation of sounds. …
Even though basically all communication between ants is through chemical signals, there are, however, a few subspecies of ants which do use some sound communication. But of what kind and complexity is it?
Besides making these statements, I quoted from one of the standard reference books on ants, elaborating on the complexity of sounds found in the communication of ants, and I discussed why this is not sufficient to account for the kind of talk that the ant of the Qur’an supposedly uttered.
To anyone reading my argument carefully, it should have been clear that the main claim was not whether ants make any sounds at all, but whether the modulation of these sounds is sufficiently complex. I will explain this issue again in more detail in the next section regarding the scientific issues. The objective of this first section is only to point out how utterly inadequate the response was on the level of simple logic.
My claim: The sound of ants is too monotone and does therefore not convey sufficient meaning.
Zaman’s straw man: Ants never communicate via sound.
Then comes the heavy punch, successfully knocking down his home-made straw man:
Here is some research proving there is at least one particular kind of ants that actually produce some sound!
Therefore, the argument of the missionary is proven wrong.
Clearly, my carefully formulated and more complex argument was butchered and misrepresented, and replaced by a very cheap straw man.
The editor of Bismikaallahuma is at least as guilty of this straw man argument as the original author of the article, since he requested permission to publish this article also on their site, and then added the explicit link to my article.
Let us assume, for argument’s sake, that I had indeed said that the Qur’an is wrong because ants never make any sounds. After bringing to my attention the recent research by Robert Hickling and Richard Brown (published nearly four years after I had written my article), Shibli Zaman then gracefully accepts that we are all human and make mistakes, and even more, I am excused since I obviously could not have known the results of research conducted after the publication of my article, but he would suggest to me that I should correct what I have written, now that I know better. After all, the dialogue and discussion between Christians and Muslims has the goal to bring us both closer to the truth, and as we present all the pro and contra arguments, we will all grow in knowledge and understanding.
Is that what we see? Not at all. Based on this victory against these despicable Christian polemicists achieved by his superior scientific argument, the author has now all the justification to mock the missionary, labeling him ignorant, his argument sophomoric, and even calling into question his sincerity, i.e. the moral stature of his character:
This style of argument is quite sophomoric in that it is entirely based on someone who does not even have a rudimentary level understanding of zoology or entomology (I believe this is covered in 9th grade Biology in the USA). Its sadly typical of this genre of anti-Islamic quasi-polemicists. You seriously couldn’t go to the library or even do a web search for information on acoustic communication by ants?? What does this say about your credibility as a genre collectively?
Is such a reaction appropriate? Even if Zaman could have shown a particular argument to be objectively wrong, is that a basis to dismiss or even insult all Christians who think for themselves and speak critically about the claims of Islam? The implied message of the last sentence is that nobody who is in the genre of people who critically evaluate Islam has any credibility. Thus, besides the straw man argument, we also are presented with an ad hominem attack. Was the taste of straw as the only ingredient too dull, so that the whole thing needed to be spiced up with insults?
Question: What does Zaman actually want to say with the expression “quasi-polemicist”? Usually “quasi-…” is one who wants to be perceived as … but doesn’t really qualify, i.e. a kind of “pretender-…”. The prefix “quasi-” turns a positive term into a negative one. Since “polemicist” is usually a negative term, does that mean Zaman wanted to make a veiled compliment? Or was he just so excited that his terminology got messed up?
Note: Before I wrote this article, I actually invested a considerable number of hours in searching the internet (although the knowledge available via the World Wide Web was a lot smaller in 1996 than it is today), and I also consulted several biology and entomology text books at the university library. I did my homework before writing.
Questions: Given Zaman’s exhortation to do careful research before publishing, is it really too much to expect that he at least reads the article he intends to rebut and makes a serious attempt to comprehend the argument presented there? Does Zaman think he can beat those ignorant Evangelical missionaries any time, even when blindfolded and with his hands tied behind his back, and, therefore, he doesn’t need to take them or their arguments seriously? Certainly, there is no need for him to read their arguments before responding to them!? What does that tell us about Zaman’s genre – whatever genre he wants his audience to believe him to belong to?
Note: The error that Zaman made is of considerable magnitude. It is quite appropriate to compare his blunder to the following fictitious argument already alluded to in the beginning:
Based on the above quotations from my original article, it is obvious that Zaman’s reply did not address my argument, and as such it had little meaning and no relevance as a rebuttal to my article. I therefore claim he has not even written a response. There never was an article by Zaman, in fact, Zaman is not even able to write.
I would never argue that way, but the shift from my argument that “the sound of ants is too simple to account for the complex speech reported in the Qur’an” to Zaman’s substitute claim that “ants never make any sound” is about on the same level as a shift from my conclusion that “the argument of Zaman’s article is too simplistic to qualify as a response to the argument presented in my original article” (i.e. Zaman’s article is not meaningful) to the ridiculous claim that “Mr. Zaman never communicates by writing“.
If somebody who supposedly only made a wrong statement of scientific fact (whether ants make sounds or not) receives such an barrage of insults, imagine what response I would have received if I had published anything as off-base as Mr. Zaman did in his alleged rebuttal!
Zaman’s ad hominem is immediately followed up with the next fallacy:
The critic fallaciously relied upon an English translation of the Qur’ân which no Muslim relies upon. Unlike the Christians’ New Testament which has no Syriac or Aramaic original, nor even a Greek codex from the 1st century CE, the Qur’ân has always been in Arabic as it is today and this is the standard throughout the world. Critics and supporters alike agree that the Qur’ân was always Arabic (ignoring any neophytes who baselessly claim it was Syriac). Even orientalists with half a brain quote from the Arabic text.
This paragraph is nothing but ridicule and irrelevant diversion. Whether there exist original manuscripts of the Bible has absolutely nothing to do with the understanding and credibility of a passage in the Qur’an. Even if all of Christianity were a fraud, it would not add anything to this discussion, nor save the Qur’an from its errors. This paragraph is only an emotional argument designed to make Muslims “feel good”.
Actually, this ridicule exhibits several further logical fallacies. First, it assumes that Jesus spoke (only) Aramaic or Syriac and therefore a Greek New Testament will not have the same authority as an Aramaic manuscript or could not even be divinely inspired. This is wrong for several reasons: Jesus spoke also Greek. However, Jesus did certainly not speak Arabic. If “words of Jesus” found in the Qur’an in Arabic can be divinely inspired according to Islamic understanding, even though they could at most be a translation or summary of what he actually said, then there exists no reason at all, why the words of Jesus in the Greek New Testament cannot be inspired or accurate.
Second, it is true that we do not have a complete Greek codex of the New Testament dating in the first century AD, but neither does there exist a complete Arabic codex of the Qur’an dating in the first century AH. No original manuscripts exist of New Testament or Qur’an, and for both of these scriptures we depend on copies. In the discipline of textual criticism the Qur’an has no advantage over the New Testament. The section on The Text of the Qur’an discusses these issues in great detail.
The only potentially relevant claim in the above paragraph, the first half of the first sentence, was not substantiated. Zaman claims that “The critic fallaciously relied upon an English translation of the Qur’ân“, but he does not give any reason for this claim. My article was written in English and therefore quoted an English translation of the Qur’an. However, none of my arguments depended on peculiarities of the English translation, and Zaman has not presented any evidence that even one aspect of my arguments is contradicted by the Arabic original.
Zaman introduces further aspects (that these naml are female, winged, etc.) which he deduces from the Arabic original, but I never claimed that they were male or that they were without wings, since all these properties are irrelevant to the question whether ants are able to talk.
He also tries to appeal to the Arabic for the purpose of introducing termites into the discussion, which immediately leads him to commit yet another logical fallacy which is found in this statement:
First of all we have the word “naml” in Arabic which is a word for ants as well as termites in the Arabic language. Ants [sic!] are usually called in Arabic “an-Naml al-Abyad” meaning “the white ant”.
[ Note: Zaman certainly meant to write: Termites are usually called … “the white ant”. ]
However, scientifically speaking, a “white ant” (termite) is as much an ant as a “seahorse” is a horse. In short, Zaman is committing a common linguistic mistake, the “root fallacy”. One does not determine the meaning of a word by looking at its component parts. Although most termites are white, they are definitely not ants. Guinea pigs are not pigs, an adult “bush baby” is neither a bush nor a baby, but a kind of monkey living in Africa, and possessing certain characteristics that remind of kangaroos. The very unusual Aardvark (lit. earth pig), more commonly called the “ant bear”, is neither a pig nor a bear, but an order of species all by itself. Quite similar to the “white ant” under discussion is the “red spider” which is not a spider but a small web-spinning mite (Tetranychus telarius) of pale red color. Many more such examples could be added, not only from the realm of animals, but also for inanimate objects or even abstract concepts. The already introduced “straw man”, for example, is neither a man nor is it made of straw.
Although etymology is a subject Zaman loves to misapply, it is not the topic of this article. It would be inappropriate to devote too much space to this issue here. I have written another article on Shibli Zaman’s Abuse of Etymology, providing a detailed discussion of a number of etymological blunders found in his publications.
The scientific relationship between ants and termites, and the question whether termites qualify as candidates for Surah 27:18-19 will be discussed at the end of the next section.
Related to Zaman’s irrelevant diversion of introducing polemics about Bible manuscripts are the next two references to the Bible:
“I beheld then because of the voice of the great words which the horn spake.” [Daniel 7:11]
A talking horn? The notion of an inanimate HORN talking is even more absurd than an ant talking! …
If you want to take the offensive, be prepared for the defense. Nonetheless, I have tackled the subject of animals arguing with men verbally in the Bible here: …
In the Chapter 22 of the Biblical Book of Numbers we have an event in which the Prophet Balaam argues verbally with his donkey. Thus, we would like to compare the Solomon perceiving the ants warning each other in Sûrat an-Naml 27:18-19 with the story of Balaam’s ass in the Biblical Book of Numbers.
Hopefully, this will be embarrassment enough for the Evangelical Missionaries to look into themselves and rectify the abysmal darkness in their hearts. Their intentions are sorely mired by hate, paranoia and xenophobia. They must ask themselves why they would find fault in the Qur’ân because it relates that Solomon perceived the communication of ants, whereas, their very own Bible has a Prophet arguing at length with a senseless ass. (Sources: , )
Apart from the emotional and inappropriate attack on the supposedly evil motivation of the missionaries which reveals more about the state of Zaman’s heart than it does about ours, these statements are coming close to the “tu quoque” fallacy, trying to minimize one’s own problem by pointing to the problems of the opponent that are claimed to be similar or even worse.
The Qur’an will have to stand on its own merits, or it will fall. An argument like this will obviously not impress an atheist, but only confirm to him that the Muslim has really nothing to say, if he has to appeal to the Bible as a crutch to hold up his book. An argument in defense of the Qur’an can only be valid if it is equally true for all people.
The below section on exegetical issues will show why both of Zaman’s examples taken from the Bible are comparisons of the “apples and oranges” type and therefore not helping the case for the Qur’an even in the discussion with Christians.
A further logical fallacy found in Zaman’s paper is that of hasty generalization. He writes:
So the question is: Do ants communicate acoustically?
… Not only do ants communicate by sound, but termites are specifically known to communicate by sound. Regarding ants, their acoustic communication has been thoroughly researched and documented in a study …
Not only did they document ant sounds … they recorded the sounds you can hear on the web … Here are the actual .wav files you can listen to:
Stridulation Sounds of Black Fire Ants (Solenopsis richteri) in Different Situations
Although Zaman constantly talks about ants in general, he documents only sounds of one specific kind of ants. Generalizing in this way is not logically valid. This fallacy is, however, not detrimental to his argument in this case since Zaman would only need to find one species of ants that is able to talk the way it is reported in the Qur’an in order to make the story possible. There remains one problem: he chose the wrong species of ants as we will observe later.
We come to the last example in this first section on the logical problems in Zaman’s polemic. After being informed about Sam Shamoun’s article rebutting his exegetical abuse of the passage in Daniel, Zaman added these paragraphs to the article on his own web site:
“Answering (Attacking) Islam” attempted a “rebuttal” written by an active Internet critic of Islam, Sam Shamoun. The entire “rebuttal” focuses on the “Horn of Daniel” which I merely mentioned in passing as you can see at the end of the above article. He does not respond with anything at all about the acoustic communication of ants. I found no rebuttal from my side necessary as the inability to address the subject is a reluctant admission on their part. You can read it here:
Now, guys, how about tackling the subject which is “ants”? Remember? If you want to take the offensive, be prepared for the defense.
The patient will be rewarded (cf. Surah 2:153,249; 3:146; 8:46,66; 11:115, Ecclesiastes 7:8). The communication of ants and its implications for the Qur’an will be the topic of the second and third part in this article.
The above quoted ‘follow-up’ section, however, is yet another straw man argument. Zaman claims that Sam Shamoun’s article was supposed to be a rebuttal to his article, and then scoffs at it for failing to deliver because it missed the topic, only discussing a passing remark but not interacting with any of his arguments on the acoustic communication of ants. Therefore, it is not a valid rebuttal.
Contrary to this claim, the first paragraph of that article states explicitly:
The team at Bismikaallahuma has written a “rebuttal” seeking to defend the Quranic account of Solomon speaking with ants. We will address their claims about the Quran in a future article, Lord Jesus willing. Here, we would like to expose Shibli Zaman’s dishonest use of the Holy Bible.
As before, let me make the straw man structure explicit by listing both claims:
Shamoun’s claim: This article responds only to the abuse of the Biblical text in the book of Daniel. Zaman’s discussion of the meaning of the ant story in the Qur’an and the scientific claims regarding the acoustic communication of ants will be responded to in a separate article to be published later.
Zaman’s straw man: Answering Islam attempted to write a rebuttal to my article.
“Knock-out”: They utterly failed, because the article does not address the acoustic communication of ants.
This article never pretended to be a rebuttal to Zaman’s arguments regarding the Qur’an, neither his scientific nor his exegetical claims. Ridiculing the whole team of “Answering Islam” in general, or the author Sam Shamoun in particular for failing in what this article never set out to achieve, is a rather obvious straw man. Or did Zaman completely miss the point of that article because he did not pay any attention? Did he not carefully read this article just as he seemingly did not bother to read my original argument about the communication of ants? Then it would still be an effectual straw man, even though maybe not an intentional one. However, the misinterpretation of a passage in the Bible for polemical purposes is at least as worthy a topic for discussion as a supposedly wrong claim regarding a passage in the Qur’an.
Sam Shamoun’s article on the “Horn of Daniel” did therefore not show our “inability to address the subject” but Zaman’s inability to properly and fairly handle the Biblical text he selected, and our article achieved exactly what it set out to do.
One final comment: Observing the amazing number of logical fallacies which Zaman managed to include into his short article, it is somewhat ironic that Zaman twice applies the term “fallacious” to my argument, but fails to actually show where the fallacy is:
The critic fallaciously relied upon an English translation of the Qur’ân …
The antagonist(s) typically make the fallacious assumption that ants do not communicate by sound.
The first statement was already discussed above. The second is, strictly speaking, a wrong use of the word “fallacious”. Apart from the fact that we never made this claim, the sentence “ants do not communicate by sound” is a simple statement, and as such it could be true or false but not fallacious. Websters Revised Unabridged Dictionary gives this definition of fallacious: “embodying or pertaining to a fallacy; illogical; fitted to deceive; misleading; delusive; as, fallacious arguments or reasoning.” Since this statement does not contain any kind of logical step from premises to a conclusion, it cannot contain a logical fallacy or be fallacious.
I understand that charging somebody with using a “fallacious assumption” has a higher polemical value than the expression “wrong assumption”, since it suggests that something is wrong with this person’s thinking, not only with his information, so that this choice of words fits in well with the style of the rest of the article.
Note that I inserted the words “strictly speaking” in the above to avoid falling prey to the etymological fallacy myself. Given that “use determines meaning”, and many people nowadays use the expression “fallacious assumption” as being synonymous with “false assumption”, this expression can only be considered imprecise language.
[Follow-up: A couple of weeks after my rebuttal (this article) was published, Zaman added the following lines at the end of his article:
After three months, Jochen Katz from Answering-(Attacking)-Islam finally wrote an exceedingly superflous 41-page rebuttal. You may read it here (if you have that much time):
I am in the process of responding and it will not take me 3 months, nor will the rebuttal need to be more than just a few pages in length. Answering-(Attacking)-Islam’s tactic of trying to overwhelm the argument with recrementitious volume will most definitely prove to be their irreversible undoing. (bold emphasis mine)
More than five months have already passed and there is still no answer. However, there are a few more interesting observations to be made regarding the above comments, which are discussed in another article.]