LEGENDS, MYTHS AND FABLES IN THE QUR’AN AND ISLAMIC TRADITION PART 3B

Part 2: The Scientific Issues

The Quranic passage to be evaluated in this discussion states:

Till, when they reached the Valley of the Ants, an ant said: O ants! Enter your dwellings lest Solomon and his armies crush you, unperceiving. And (Solomon) smiled, laughing at her speech, and said: My Lord, … (Surah 27:18-19a)

An obvious first question is whether this is a miracle, an entirely supernatural event, and therefore not subject to scientific evaluation. Zaman expresses this conviction twice in his article:

Firstly, have you ever heard of something called a “miracle” associated with something called a “prophet”? If Moses can part the Red Sea, Solomon hearing the communication of ants is nothing. …

The fact is that these are miracles and you aren’t supposed to try and “scientifically explain” them anyways.

I agree that it would be inappropriate to subject the supernatural to scientific scrutiny. There may be some supernatural elements in the narrative. Nevertheless, not ALL parts of the story can be exempted from scientific evaluation on that basis.

The third and most important section on exegetical issues will be dedicated to determine the correct interpretation of the passage. For this purpose, it will be essential to answer the question of the “genre” of this story, i.e. whether it must be considered a fable, an allegory, or a report of a historical event, whether we understand it as a natural or supernatural one.

However, a correct scientific understanding about ant communication will be relevant for the proper interpretation of the ant story in the Qur’an.

Two things need to be carefully distinguished when discussing communication of any species, the “how” and the “what”, i.e.:

(a) the mode (how messages are sent and received)
(b) the complexity (what is communicated, the information content, the capability for thinking and expressing thoughts)

My main argument centers on the second topic, the possible complexity of ant communication, while the Muslim objector has exclusively focussed on the mode. Let us discuss these two aspects in turn.

A. The mode of ant communication

Many scientific insights about the mode of ant communication have already been reported and discussed in my first article, and nothing really new has been added to our knowledge since. I had summarized from a standard reference book, The Ants by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson:

Chapter 7, pages 227-297 speak about communication. Page 228 gives a table of different signals in communication between ants. Of the 17 “messages” listed 14 are chemical, 2 are tactile, 1 is “chemical or tactile”. In all the intensive studies of ants, “speech” (modulated sound of complex meaning) has never been observed.

Regarding those species of ants that use also acoustic signals, I had written and quoted:

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?

  • The use of vibrational signals is weakly developed in ants in comparison with communication by pheromones. … Two forms of sound production have been identified., body rapping against the substratum and stridulation, the latter employing files and scrapers clearly evolved for a communicative purpose. … [p. 255]
  • It has long been known, thanks to the experiments of … that ants are nearly deaf to airborne vibrations but extremely sensitive to vibrations carried through the substratum … [p. 257]
  • No evidence exists to rank the chirps of stidulation as anything more than simple unitary signals. In other words, ants do not “talk” by modulating sound through time. … sounds … do not appear to vary within species or within the repertory of one worker ant through time. … stridulation in ants produces a monotonous series of chirps with limited meaning. [p. 257]
  • The signaling pattern is independent of the triggering stimulus. That is, the ants do not modify the drumming to identify the category of danger to the nest. [p. 256]

Though Zaman is working under the mistaken assumption that I denied ants any sound at all, what are those scientific facts that he presents to us?

Not only did they document ant sounds, here’s the devestating blow to this missionary nonsense, they recorded the sounds YOU can hear on the web at the following URL:

http://home.olemiss.edu/~hickling/

Here are the actual wav files you can listen to:

Stridulation Sounds of Black Fire Ants (Solenopsis richteri) in Different Situations

Alarm signal generated by black fire ants when a microphone probe is inserted into their mound.
Normal movement sounds of a group of ants with occasional bursts of stridulation sound from a single ant.
Sounds of ants attacking a caterpillar with stridulation sound from a single ant.
Distress signals emitted by a single major worker with a caught antenna.

Now that absolutely ends the argument right there.

Wonderful! Zaman confirmed what we already knew: There are indeed a couple of unitary sounds produced by some ants, in this case, Black Fire Ants. The only new element is this: Using some sophisticated technical equipment, Hickling was able to record these sounds, and then placed them on the internet so that now everyone can listen to them.

Zaman was, however, not able to point to ant communcation that is any more complex than this. Whether there exist two or four or twenty such unitary stridulation signals, Hölldobler and Wilson’s judgment still stands: “No evidence exists to rank the chirps of stidulation as anything more than simple unitary signals. In other words, ants do not ‘talk’ by modulating sound through time.” Zaman’s discovery that ants make noise can hardly be considered a death blow to my argument (cf. the discussion of complexity below).

I reject the ant story in the Qur’an as a historical event, and consider it merely a fable for several reasons. The scientific reason is the lack of complexity in ant communication, not the observations regarding the mode of their communication.

There is only one reason for me to talk also about the mode, and to contrast ant communication via sound versus ant communication by scent. Many Muslims make the Scientific Miracle of the Qur’an the proof for the divine origin of their scripture. The alleged detail and exactness of the Qur’an in scientific issues at a time when these things could not have been known yet, is supposedly the divine authentication that the Qur’an is indeed revelation from God. This has become one of the major Muslim arguments to call people to convert to Islam. Zaman himself also plays to that tune in many of his articles, and makes it the climax of this article as well.

Because of these ubiquitous claims, and knowing today that the main mode of communication between ants is by pheromones not sound, the hypothesis of the scientific exactness of the Qur’an is tested for the statements it makes about ants. Evaluating Surah 27:18 regarding its scientific content, we observe that there is nothing that goes beyond what is found in fables, certainly no indication of knowledge about the main mode of ant communication, even though the importance of scent for ants is already found in the Talmud, derived from merely human observation:

R. Simeon b. Halaftha (46b), dealt with many things including the hen[259] that lost its down, to disprove R. Judah. He made experiments to check the words of [King] Solomon concerning the ant who has no commander[260], and he found that the ant hates robbery. A grain fell off an ant, all other ants came and smelled it and did not take it, until its owner came to take the grain, and he was permitted to do so.
Footnotes:   [259] Hullin 57 b.    [260] Prov 6:6-7.
(Source, cf. the same story with additional context as found in Deuteronomy Rabbah 5,2)

A number of Muslims have argued that the quranic statement “one of the ants said” does not necessarily have to indicate communication by sound. I agree that the word qal in Arabic or say / speak in English is a very common one and may mean different things in different contexts: A father may speak to his son, last week the newspaper said that the crime rate has increased again, a behavior may even speak volumes, and florists attempt to persuade customers to buy their products with the slogan: Let flowers speak. Does this mean that because the same word is used, therefore flowers speak in exactly the same way as humans do? Certainly not. It is the context that determines the exact meaning of a word. What then is the Qur’anic understanding of the statement “one of the ants said, …”? This will be discussed in the third part on exegetical issues.

I consider this very unlikely, but if the issue were only the mode of communication, then one could interpret Surah 27:18 with a lot of good will as “one of the ants communicated (in some unspecified way): O ye ants …” But if we accept that the word is so very unspecific, then it also means that the Qur’an has certainly no miraculous scientific detail regarding the mode of ant communication.

B. The complexity of ant communication

What constitutes language? Babies can make noise (cry) from the minute they are born. Most mothers learn fast to distinguish different kinds of baby noises and can often discern whether a baby is hungry, or uncomfortable, or in pain. But as long as their baby only issues various kinds of “unitary cry signals” parents are not going to inform friends and relatives that the baby has begun to talk. Something more is needed.

The main issue in the pericope concerning Solomon and the ants is not that ants make noises but that they speak in sentences and that Solomon understands them. The noises that ants have been discovered to make are not a language – no entomologist is claiming that. Most animals make noises: cows go ‘moo’, cats purr, etc. Ants make noises too. However, what Zaman needs to show is that the semiotic (signaling) system used by ants has the ability to encode the phrase “O ants! Enter your dwellings lest Solomon and his armies crush you, unperceiving” (Surah 27:18). This would require the ants to have a language system with a structure capable of sentence construction. Hence Zaman’s task is not to show that ants make noises – because from a semiotics point of view, if they had communicated using smell, it would still have been a communication event – but that ants have a language system that contains nouns and verbs, the ability to use anaphora, to encode imperatives, personal names, concepts etc. Recording a few ants making noises is an amusing diversion, but one that misses the whole point. From a linguistics point of view, Surah 27 does not hold water.

Let’s be very specific regarding the amazing detail of information that is actually found in this one sentence uttered by the Qur’anic ant:

ya ayyuha’n namlu odkhuloo masakinakum la yahtimannakum sulaymanu wajunooduhu wahum la yash’uroon

O ants! Enter your dwellings lest Solomon and his armies crush you, unperceiving.

One can make at least these observations about sentence structure and information:

  • The verb odkhuloo (enter) is the imperative form of the verb dakhala.
  • The verb la yahtimannakum (crush) is in the indicative form and in the present/future tense.
  • The phrase wahum la yash’uroon (Pickthall: unperceiving) is a complete subordinate clause, literally translated: while they are not sensing (or: not paying attention), i.e. unintentionally.
  • Masakinakum (dwellings) is a noun that is used as object.
  • The nouns “Solomon” (singular) and “armies” (plural) are used as a combined subject to the verb “crush”.
  • “his”, a possessive pronoun, looks innocent enough, but see the below discussion and links regarding anaphora.
  • “you” is a personal pronoun used as an object.
  • “lest” – the ant can form conditional sentences, i.e. she can reason logically from certain conditions to certain conclusions.
  • The ant knows that a multitude of human beings is approaching, not just a large number of something, i.e. she is able to discern between a multitude of members of the human race as distinguished from a herd of elephants or buffaloes.
  • The ant knows that one person among the many is special, and even knows his name, Solomon, and can express this to the others. The ant knows that Solomon is not just special, but he is even the owner / commander of these armies since she uses the possessive pronoun “his”. [As a side remark, but associated with this observation, we may have to ask how the ant got this particular information, as well as all the other details. Given that Solomon and his followers spoke, we presume, Hebrew, how did the ant know who the approaching king was and what his name was? Is there a class of ants whose job it was to learn Hebrew and translate the names of the local rulers into ant-speech? Quite a task for the secret service of the community of ants, given that ants are not only deaf to human sound but also blind.]
  • Junood (armies, or rather soldiers): The ant can discern and express that Solomon is on his way with armies, i.e. trained military units with weapons, not just any multitude of people.
  • unperceiving: The ant knows the difference between intentional and unintentional behavior, and knows that in the case of Solomon and his armies it would be an unintentional act to crush the ants on their path.

Let’s have a closer look at the use of anaphora, a complex linguistic concept demanding the focussed attention of entire conferences for researchers in the field of computer linguistics and language processing. In our example, “his armies” would be anaphoric. In order to find who “his” is, we need to read the context. Personal pronouns are quite a sophisticated linguistic device. Are scraping stridulation sounds a language system this sophisticated? The issue is whether ants have a language capable of encoding complex, context-dependent meaning.

These observations should make it quite obvious that to utter a statement like “O ants! Enter your dwellings lest Solomon and his armies crush you, unperceiving,” presupposes not only a developed language system to express this message, but first of all a high level of consciousness, the ability to distinguish, to define, to reflect and to reason. Speaking like this is only possible when a species has considerable thinking power. Basically, it needs something comparable to human intelligence. Does Zaman want to argue that this is found in ants?

That the ant speaks not only Arabic, but “Qur’anic”, a language whose eloquence is beyond the capability of humans and jinn to imitate (see the section on The Miracle of the Qur’an) could be sufficiently explained by the observation that the author of the Qur’an translated the statement of the ant into his own language. It is not unusual that a translation is more eloquent than the original. The information content of this statement, however, constitutes an element of “irreducible complexity” in the speech of the ant. This is what we are concerned about.

I consider it possible that ants have some simple, chemical or acoustic, signal(s) communicating “danger” which prompts other ants to retreat into their dwellings. [Though Zaman has not even shown that, since his link only presents us with an “Alarm signal generated by black fire ants when a microphone probe is inserted into their mound“, but tells us nothing about what these ants would do if they heard this signal while being outside of their mound.]

On the other hand, however, it does not need much research into entomology to come to the conclusion that the subordinate clause stating “lest Solomon and his armies crush you, unperceiving” is utterly impossible and removes this story from history and science. This belongs firmly into the realm of fables.

[Note: Whether this event should be considered a miracle, thus allowing it to be historical despite defying science, will be discussed below.]

To illustrate how complex the ant’s message truly is, imagine you are given two drums, a small and a big one to be able to make two kinds of sounds. The ability to produce a higher and a lower sound, plus hitting the drums in a faster or a slower succession gives some variation which somewhat approximates what ants may be able to produce with stridulation.

Now think about how you would communicate to your human brothers or sisters who have no clue beforehand what you are about to say but should afterwards understand the complete information found in this sentence:

O ants! Enter your dwellings lest Solomon and his armies crush you, unperceiving.

You are only allowed to drum. Think about it before you read on.

This is not an easy task even though you and your listeners are endowed with human intelligence and both of you have an already existing human language. Obviously, investing some extra effort in preparation, you could first learn the Morse alphabet together and then use that. But this would only be a translation of the same human language with its complexity into a different mode. That is not the point. (And: Solomon and his armies would have crushed you all before you have learned even only two letters of the alphabet).

Therefore, to make this exercise a bit more realistic, we are going to amputate 99.9% of the brain of the drummer, shrinking it down to about the size of an ant. Now, try again.

Odds and Ends …

It should be clear by now, that no species of insects has the necessary intelligence to produce a sentence like the one ascribed to the ant in the Qur’an. The scientific part of the argument could end here.

Nevertheless, it will be instructive to take a closer look at those two particular species proposed by Zaman as possible candidates to qualify as the “talking ants” encountered by king Solomon and his army.

1. Black Fire Ants

I assume that Zaman would agree that Solomon was the king of Israel and probably never marched with his army to South America to be able to cross the way of a colony of Black Fire Ants! The species Solenopsis richteri is indigenous to South America and has been imported to North America only in recent times where they have quickly become a major pest (cf. this article). [That is the reason intensive research is done on them now with the purpose to control them, including Dr. Hickling’s research on acoustic communication among Black Fire Ants.] The sound bites so proudly presented in Zaman’s article are all “Stridulation Sounds of Black Fire Ants (Solenopsis richteri) in Different Situations”.

The Qur’an, however, does not make an abstract statement that “somewhere on this globe there exist some ants making noise”, but narrates a very specific setting for the story under consideration. Zaman should at least have searched for a species of ants with acoustic communication that are indigenous to the Middle East to give Solomon a slight chance to actually meet these ants.

The blunders don’t stop here. Just as Zaman hasn’t cared to read and think much about my arguments, he seems not to have bothered to carefully read and think about the report of the research results of Hickling and Brown before quickly linking to the recorded ant noises and announce to the world his victory over the missionaries. There are a couple of interesting statements in their report which don’t fit in well with the story of the Qur’an.

Communication always consists of sending and receiving. Zaman only saw that Black Fire Ants are sending some kind of sound, which was seemingly enough for him.

The following quotations are from the short paper on “Nearfield acoustic communication by ants” presented by Robert Hickling at the 1999 Imported Fire Ant Conference:

… Since ants are deaf to airborne sound on a human scale, it has been inferred that they communicate using vibrations through the soil substrate. However, from the structure of an ant’s body and other evidence, the substrate transmission theory appears unlikely. A more likely explanation is that ants employ nearfield airborne sound. …

… The nearfield is an acoustic transition zone surrounding a small source, the size of an ant, in which the characteristics of the sound change abruptly before it can propagate fully in the farfield. Usually an ant is a few millimeters in size and the surrounding nearfield is roughly 200 mm in diameter, which is large enough to contain a number of ants. … This explains how ants can detect sound from other ants while, at the same time, being unaware of sound on a human scale. … Since ants appear to be almost blind, the ability to locate a source purely by means of sound would obviously be useful.

The issue is not just any sound, but the very specific characteristics of nearfield sound.

If the above statements are true, and ants are (a) virtually blind and (b) deaf to sound that originates from a source more than 20 centimeters away, Muslims have not only the problem that ants do not have the necessary intelligence to think a thought as complex as the one found in Surah 27:18, nor do they have a communcation system complex enough to express such messages, but they would not even be able to detect Solomon and his armies in the first place.

At least not until they have put down their feet directly in front of the ants, and then it would be too late to issue the warning and stop the army that is marching in full swing.

How then did the ant find out it was a human army approaching her, and that it was Solomon heading the army? Even if she understood Hebrew, she would not have been able to hear them talk, so she could not have gained this knowledge through her hearing or her vision.

When making any argument, it is very important to make sure one understands all the details and implications of the argument, and the details and implications of the sources used to back the argument. Zaman has argued very carelessly.

Recommendation: To gain a deeper understanding of their research, it may be worth reading the following articles reporting about the discoveries of Hickling and Brown: “Close encounters” by Philip Ball (nature science update), and “When Ants Squeak” by Susan Milius (Science News Online).

2. Termites

Several observations are in order regarding Zaman’s 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 are usually called in Arabic “an-Naml al-Abyad” meaning “the white ant”.

First, the statement is wrong. It is the termites that are called “white ants”. However, I assume that this was merely a typo.

Second, there is actually no need to make an appeal to the Arabic language for this claim. The same folkloristic terminology exists in English. In fact, searching for “white ants” on Google in May 2003 resulted in nearly 6,000 web pages containing this expression.

Third, when asking the “science questions”, we find that ants and termites are rather different and classified as different categories of insects:

Termites … are often called ‘white ants’ because the majority of them are white and small and live in large colonies much like ants. They are not actually closely related to the ants at all but are closely related to the Cockroaches. (Source: Gordon’s Isoptera page)

Termites, popularly called “white ants,” are neither ants nor even closely related to ants. In addition to a large number of structural differences between ants and termites, there is the important difference in life-history that ants hatch from the eggs as worm-like creatures and go through a pupal stage before becoming adults, while termites on hatching from the eggs look much like small adults (except that no newly hatched insect ever has wings), and they have no definite, apparently lifeless pupal stage in their life-history. In other words, ants have “complete metamorphosis” and termites have “incomplete metamorphosis.” I suppose that there is no real objection to calling them “white ants,” provided we remember that they are not ants and that winged ones are not white. (Source)

Termites are known also as white ants, a misnomer based on superficial similarities in the appearance and habits of these two insect groups. True ants belong to a more advanced insect order, the Hymenoptera, which includes also the bees and the wasps. Termites are relatively primitive; they have thick waists and soft bodies and undergo incomplete metamorphosis. … In socially advanced species, three principal castes exist: the reproductives, the soldiers, and the workers. Both the reproductives and the soldiers occur in two or three distinguishable forms, each specialized for a role in the division of labor in the colony. All forms comprise individuals of both sexes, but only in the reproductives do the sexual organs undergo complete development. Among the reproductives are dark-colored males and females with fully developed wings and compound eyes. At maturity, they leave the parental nest in swarms. After the flight, they shed their wings and mate. A new colony is then established by a male and female who become primary reproductives, that is, the king and queen, whose sole occupation is the production of eggs. … Most termite colonies have only one royal pair. Apart from the reproductives, all castes are sterile and wingless and have whitish bodies. (Source)

All ants belong to one group, know as a family, in this case the family Formicidae. Their nearest relatives are the various families of wasps, hornets and bees, and all these families together are classified in the Order Hymenoptera (membrane wings). There are sixty or seventy families in Order Hymenoptera in the world. Ants are often confused with termites (or “white ants”). Termites not only form a different family but belong to a completely different order (the Isoptera) and are therefore not related to ants. (Source)

In Afrikaans, termites are rysmeere (literally, rice ants); sometimes the insects are called white ants. Termites are not ants, however: their ancestors are social cockroaches, not the wasps from which ants descend. (Source)

In order to properly understand these statements, it will be necessary to make some comments on the way that scientists classify the animal world.

The systematic approach to naming organisms, called taxonomy, was developed by Carl Linneaus, who lived in the 1700s. He developed the system whereby every known living creature is assigned to a kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. (Source)

Insects are one class within the Animal kingdom; the class Insecta is further divided into orders (31 orders are currently known). As our discussion is about ants and termites, let us give the taxonomy of one species of termites, e.g. Macrotermes bellicosus, and one species of ants, the Black Fire Ant specifically refered to in Zaman’s article.

Classification Black Fire Ant Macrotermes Bellicosus
Kingdom Animalia Animalia
Phylum Arthropoda Arthropoda
Class Insecta Insecta
Subclass Pterygota Pterygota
Order Hymenoptera Isoptera
Suborder Apocrita Fontanella
Subdivision Aculeata Longiprocta
Superfamily Formicoidea Termitoidea
Family Formicidae Termitidae
Subfamily Myrmicinae Macrotermitinae
Genus Solenopis Macrotermes
Species Richteri Bellicosus

Most webpages about insects do not give a full taxonomy tree, so the above information was pieced together from various webpages (e.g. *, *, *). No guarantee is given for completeness. There may even be found classifications with further subdivisions. Sometimes different names are employed as well.

Nevertheless, the above shows already quite clearly that this and every species of termites is rather removed from this and every other species of ants. That is all that is important here. There is actually a fascinating website, the Tree of Life Web Project. Starting at their page for ants, Formicidae, try to find your way to the page for termites and “experience” for yourself how long you have to “crawl along the tree” (don’t cheat by using the shortcuts in the menue at the top of the page). This will give you a better understanding for the relationship between ants and termites than the above abstract classification list.

There are two scientific disciplines that are relevant in this discussion of “the relationship between ants and termites”. We have now reached the end of our investigation into the entomological aspects and turn our attention to the linguistic aspects. The true significance of the big difference between ants and termites in scientific terms will become clearer at the end of the linguistic discussion.

Fourth, we observe that many languages make the “etymological / entomological mistake” of linking termites with ants. Just a few examples are:

Words connecting termites with ants Words without the component “ant”
Persian termites are called mourianeh, the word consisting of mour (ant) and -ianeh (similar to), i.e. a termite is an “ant-like”. tafashak, rionjou, rashmiz, and choubkharak (little wood-eater)
Afrikaans rysmeir (rice ant), witmeir (white ant) termeit (termite)
French fourmi blanche (white ant) termite
English white ant termite
Arabic an-Naml al-Abyad, i.e., naml (ant) and abyad (white) ?

However, many languages have not only these “scientifically wrong” expressions of common use but also more precise names to denote objects. For example, in English there is also the word “termite” besides the expression “white ant”.

[ Note: The etymology of the word “termite” is not really more precise scientifically, but the root meaning of this term is lost in the English language so that the word termite does not produce any misunderstandings like the expression “white ant” obviously does. ]

[ Side remarks:

As far as I know, Arabic seems not to have any alternative word for termites, only the expression “white ant”. This leads to the question: If many other “merely human” languages have a terminology that is more correct in the sense that it does not connect termites with ants, why does the supposedly “divinely inspired” Arabic language have ONLY a scientifically wrong expression to denote these species of insects?

Since Arabic is the “language of divine revelation”, many Muslims make outrageous claims regarding the superiority of Arabic over every other language, and this superiority holds in every respect. Zaman has not done this, so we won’t make him responsible for it. Nevertheless, this is a good occasion to make a couple of observations and ask a few questions. If Arabic is truly so superior, how come it uses the same word for ants and termites even though they are not even closely related? Could this be a flaw in the Arabic language? Or, looking at this the other way around, and assuming the Arabic language is indeed perfect, and making the observation that in the Arabic language system termites are a subspecies of ants, called white ants, does this imply that entomology scientists should rethink the classification of insects based on this “revelation of divine taxonomy” and revise their system accordingly? I.e. should Muslim scientists propose to the scholarly community of entomologists that Arabic etymology should determine the taxonomy of entomology?

{Note: Some months after this article was finished I found out that there are other words in Arabic denoting termites, and a discussion of the further discoveries is found here.}

In the following I will leave aside the exaggerated claim that Arabic is “the divine language by nature” (although, given the understanding that the Qur’an on earth is identical with the eternal Qur’an on the guarded tablet in heaven, one quickly arrives at the concept that Arabic is the divine language, since eternal means that it existed before any human languages developed), but will work with the lesser Muslim assumption that Arabic is merely a human language like any other, and that God chose to express his final revelation in Arabic, using whatever terminology was available in this language at the time of Muhammad. ]

Even though less educated people may really believe that termites are indeed a species of ants with a different color, does Zaman want to suggest that Allah would not know that ants and termites are very different insects and talk about an ant when he actually means a termite? That hardly goes together with Zaman’s often claimed “scientific miracle of the Qur’an”. In that new ‘discipline’ of finding scientific statements in the Qur’an, very vague expressions are often forced to mean something very specific in scientific terms. In the case of Surah 27:18, however, the perfectly clear word naml, denoting an ant, is now supposed to be so vague that it could also mean termite! The motivation leading to the argument is clear: We need an insect that communicates with sound. However, the way Zaman wants to force the termite into the text is not convincing for one simple reason.

All languages have plenty of imprecise expressions that are in common use. But languages are not quite as imprecise as Zaman wants to make us believe!

Writing mour without the suffix -ianeh means ant in Persian, not termite. Talking about meere without the prefix rys- means ants in Afrikaans, not termites. Using only the word ant in English without the adjective “white” means without doubt that ants are the topic of discussion and not termites. Arabic is no different and mentioning naml without the adjective abyad denotes the ant, not the termite.

Unless … we are concerned with baby talk. When visiting an aquarium with a toddler who just starts to speak, and who loves seahorses, he may excitedly point to a seahorse and just say “horse” and laugh, and again he repeats: “horse! horse!” Is that the level on which Zaman wants us to approach the Qur’an, assuming the author meant something else, but for some reason didn’t write all the necessary words to make his message precise?

Certainly God knows the considerable difference between ants and termites. Certainly God knows that the Arabic name for termite is “WHITE ant”. Certainly God knows and is able to pronounce the Arabic word for “white” (if you want to believe that God is the author of the Qur’an, you can confirm this by looking at Surah 2:187).

Zaman’s attempt to interpret Surah 27:18 as talking about termites is actually an insult to God: the almighty and all-knowing God meant termites but said ants instead.

This should be sufficient to bury also the termite hypothesis.

Conclusion: Even if the acoustic communication of Black Fire Ants or that of termites had been sufficiently complex (but it is not), the two species proposed by Zaman are disqualified for the reasons outlined above. That leaves very little of any substance in his article.

In fact, Shibli Zaman was not the first Muslim attempting to answer regarding this issue. In April and September 2001 two Muslim responses to my original article were published at the web site Understanding Islam. In the short response, Solomon Listening to Ants, Moiz Amjad argued that the Arabic word qal (say) does not necessarily mean communication by sound, but could refer to any mode of communication. Amer Yousafzai seems to be the first Muslim who attempted a more serious investigation into the question of acoustic communication by ants, discovered a research paper by Drs. Hickling and Brown that is available online, and then posted his thoughts in the article Ants do Communicate through Sound

Both of these earlier authors make the same essential error as Zaman, that they focus on the mode instead of the complexity of ant communication. This paper is also a response to these earlier articles since it covers all their arguments as well. Comparing the current with the earlier articles, Zaman has added nothing of substance to the discussion. He may be able to take credit for finding the web address of Dr. Hickling’s page providing the Black Fire Ant sound files, but apart from that he has only added insults, and a multitude of logical and scientific errors.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Legends Myths And Fables In the Qur'an And Islamic Tradition and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s