The Qur’an and the Expanding Universe
The ‘cosmological expansion’ has within the last century become a theory that has broken considerable ground, I am thinking of the famous Sir Arthur Eddington and his classic ‘The Expanding Universe’ published by Pelican Books already in 1940 (which I am right now holding in my hand) to a number of modern works; particularly some of my favourites, like the numerous works of Stephen Hawking and the lesser known Simon Singh in his book ‘Big Bang’, to George Smoot and Keay Davidson, Wrinkles in Time: The Imprint of Creation, 1993: 42-65 and John Gibbin’s, Science: A History, 1543-2001, 2002: 572-612, to another magnificent written work: ‘The Five Stages of the Universe’ by Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin.
Due to the popularity of the concept it ought not to surprise us that a range of Muslim exponents, have as usual attempted to create links between this modern concept and certain Qur’anic statements.
However, these are not easily correlated. If we bother studying the scientific postulate, the ‘expansion’ includes time, space and matter expanding from an almost infinite hot cosmological state of fused matter and energy, that emerged through the time-length of a 300.000 year long process from one or possible two preliminary Big Bang type events, namely: the expansion of a highly hypothetical singularity state to another highly hypothetical inflation that evolved the present universe from its pre-conditional state of an orange size chaos state.
Yet, contrary the claim of this Qur’an=Modern scientific enterprise movement, this is not the cosmological concept described in the Qur’an at all.
The Qur'anic description of Cosmological Structure
Looking at the sequences of the cosmological event described in Sura 21 and 41, we indeed find the concept of expansion, but only the expansion of matter, not space. In fact Sura 21: 30 reveals merely that the heaven was separated from the earth and verse 32 states that the heavens are placed like a roof:
‘And we made the heavens as a canopy well guarded’.
Here Yusuf Ali translates it ‘canopy’, while Pickhtal translates it ‘roof’
see Arab Gateway:
Qur’an Online, http://www.al-bab.com/arab/background/quran.htm#english:
‘And we made the sky a roof withheld (from them)’.
Yet nothing suggest that this particular roof is the edge of time, space and matter, which initially separated from the earth. In fact in modern science, the heavens never separated from the earth.
Sura 41: 11-2 provides us with slightly more insight, depicting the primordial heaven in a state of smoke, from which Allah creates the seven heavens.
Yet verse eleven states only that the heavens were created in two days and does not indicate expansion; certainly not continuous expansion. Hence the universe according to this passage, if it refers to the universe in its entirety as its structure, does not expand. Yet again this smoke reveals nothing as to space itself, not even the stellar matter, which only appears after the smoke has been divinely structured into the heavenly seven levels.
Hence the heavens in Sura 21: 32 may only reveal a matterlike structure. Obviously the smoke in Sura 41, which hoovers around the earth, is along with the earth already existing in a sort of emptiness vacuum. It's this particular vacuum that interests me in this article.
Hence, this is the vital point: the smoke in Sura 41: 11-12 does not apply to space but only matter; this is even in the Hadith literature since the seven heavens are referred to as stratums, as habitations of heavenly beings, including the prophets. This is, hence not related to cosmological expansion but the creation of cosmological structure via matter.
On the other hand there is a reference to ‘the raising of the canopy’ which indeed might relate to expansion of space, as referred to in Sura 79: 27-8; yet this verse becomes ambiguous, for several reasons, firstly that of contradiction, since verse 30 states: ‘And the earth, moreover hath he expanded’; which implies that the canopy was created prior to the earth, which indeed
Yusuf Ali in his footnote (5937) points out: Moreover: or more literally after that. See also 4475 to 41: 11 (The Meaning of the Hoy Qur’an, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Amana Publications, 2001: 1596).
This completely contradicts Sura 21: 30-3, in which the authors depict the heaven as separating from the earth. Unless of course vacuum was brought into existence prior to matter. But Zakir Naiks famous correlation between the Qur'an and the primordial nebula are at risk.
Here in Sura 41: 11-2, the authors appear to imply that the structure of the heavens was brought into existence after the earth was made inhabitable.
Is this reference to first 1) void 2) then earth, 3) and finally the heavenly structure. I am doubt many scientists will confirm the possibility of this.
Or is it possible that the raising of the canopy merely describes the structure of the universe not the vacuum itself, but in that case we have a contradiction.
Even Kathir might be referring to this as a contradiction, in Tafsir Ibn Kathir volume 8, 2000: 519, concerning Sura 79: 27: 30:
‘So he mentioned the creation of the heavens before the earth’. As to Sura 41: 9-11, he writes: ‘Here he mentioned the creation of the earth before the creation of heavens’.
(Let me quickly summarize this, before we move on: The problem concerns the relation between Sura 79 and 41, in terms of structure and space. The possibility remains, that Sura 79: 27-6 refers to space, while Sura 41: 11-2 along with Sura 21: 30 refers to structural matter within this expanded or expanding space; but then. But then again why does Sura 41 describe the seven heavens within this context? Is it not presumable that edge of the universe was included within such a structure?)
The confusion, which the Qur’anic authors found themselves in, is obvious and highly understandable when we consider all the pre-islamic concepts he had to draw from.
If we cast aside the cosmological structure and focus on space alone, and if the Qur’an correctly is correlated to modern science and references related to space, it is probably Sura 51: 47 which becomes most significant. In the translation of Pickhtal we read: ‘We have built the heaven with might, and We it is Who make the vast extent (thereof)’.
Some Muslim propagandist, e.g. Osama Abdallah have asserted in the article: ‘Allah Almighty said in the Noble Quran that He is “Expanding” the Universe, that the passage predicts the modern postulate of continuous universal expansion.
Abdallah asserts that the passage should read:
"And it is We who have constructed the heaven with might, and verily, it is We who are steadily expanding it."
This interpretation is however disputed! Dr. Abdul-Kalaam Panglos, a writer on the humanist website Freethought Mecca (http://www.geocities.com/freethoughtmecca/home.htm) in a refutation to the claim states that the particular Arabic word moosi’oon is the plural word for moosi, which usually is translated ‘rich’ or ‘wealthy’ (see: Sura 2: 236).
In other words ‘enriching;’ while the root of the word is awsa´a, which indeed can mean expanding, stretching and enriching, the correct word for ‘expanding’ would be noosi´u and ‘continuous expansion’ would read noosi´uhaa.
Hence ‘continuous expansion’ is excluded:
The Qur’an and the Big Bang: http://www.geocities.com/freethoughtmecca/bigbang.html.
While Panglos might have a point here, there is another matter of consideration, namely that the issue of ‘space and matter’ was brought up and debated even centuries before Islam, and hence might derive from the ancient thinkers or texts that preceded the Qur’an.
Interestingly, Panglos points to the possible derivation from Jewish Old Testament sources, particularly, the book of Isaiah, chapter 42: 5:
‘This is what God the Lord says—he who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it, who gives breath to its people, and life two those who walk in it’
(see also Isaiah 40: 22 and 42: 5).
This resembles Sura 51: 47-8 remarkably, both in context and terminology:
‘With the power and skill did We construct the firmament: for it is We Who create the vastness of space. And We have spread out the (spacious) earth; how excellently We do spread out!’
Considering the proximity and interaction between the early Muslims and the Jews, as well as Jewish converts to Islam, the particular similarity might be a clear indicator; see:
In his essay, Panglos points out that the Hebrew of Is.42: 5 can indeed be translated ‘continuous expansion’:
‘…the words ‘YHWH bore ha-shamaim v'noteihem’ most literally means "YHWH is creating the heavens and expanding them." For example, the verb noteh is the present tense (hoveh) conjugation of the verb lintot, which can mean stretch, bend, expand, et cetera.’
Even Henry Morris, a Christian writer on modern science who tends to object to the view of ‘cosmological expansion’ concedes that these Old Testament passages and the modern concepts of cosmological expansion could be correlated. Morris also points to another Old Testament concept that may suggest such a cosmological occurrence, the Hebrew word raqia for ‘firmament’ is correctly translated ‘expanse’ or ‘perhaps better, “spread out thinnes”’ (Henry Morris, The Biblical Basis for Modern Science, p. 154)
Furthermore, the flourishing concepts of the Greek and Roman philosophers do also show awareness of cosmological expansion and structure. Lucretius in 50 AD claimed that nature consists of the two-fold nature of matter and space which do not mix (Lucretius, The Nature of the Universe, p.42).
The ancient philosophers therefore wondered how matter could have expanded in a dimension that contained no space.
There were several possibilities: did space expand with matter? But then again did matter coexist with or create more void than it was able to regulate? This relates closer to the Big Bang theory and even Lucretius, and this was indeed the concern of Aristotle who elaborated on the correspondence between place and body (Aristotle, 1999: p. 69).
Others, such as Hesiod concluded that the chasm was put in the system prior to matter (Aristotle, 1999, p. 79); based on the above information, if Sura 79: 29-30 and Sura 51 would describe an incident or cosmological factor separate from Sura 21 and 41 (which themselves appear contradictory in their structure), the Qur’an might refer to the Cosmological process of Hesiod, who postulated space prior to matter!
However, if Sura 21 and 41 include the canopy, then we are dealing with firstly with an irreconcilable contradiction and secondly a cosmos that hardly appears to expand. In any case the Qur’an clearly from Sura 21 and 41 describes the heavenly structure which might include the canopy, e.g. space to have emerged from or after the full creation and formation of the habitable earth--which is everything but scientific!
Yet even if the Qur'an proposes cosmological expansion, this hardly reveals miracolous inspiration.
Lucretius, despite that his work also appears unclear and contradictory (e.g. Lucretius, p. 55, in which he depicts the universe as unconfined, not bounded in any direction and bottomless), seems to make a great deal out of cosmological expansion; first and most his cosmogony implies that the mass which separated from the earth, raised the heights of the heaven and composed the outer walls of the great world and all the intermediate material, such as the stars, the sun and the moon:
‘…they (the atoms) began, in fact, to separate the heights of heaven from the earth, to single out the sea as a receptacle for water detached from the mass and to set apart the fires of pure and isolated ether. In the first place all the particles of earth, because they were heavy and intertangled, collected in the middle and took up the undermost stations. The more closely they cohered and clung together, the more they squeezed out the atoms that went to the making of sea and stars, sun and moon and the outer walls of the great world.’
(Lucretius, 1957: 184-5).
Interestingly, much like the Qur’an, Lucretius refers to the outer walls beyond the stars, sun and moon. Was this a reference to the seven heavens, referred to in the Qur’an and which the the Jews and the church fathers also referred to prior to Islam? Or is Lucretius referring to the seven orbits of the seven planets orbiting the earth, also mentioned in the Qur’an and elaborated on by the pre-islamic philosophers?
Hence as deplorable as reality might strike to these Islamic exponents, yes the ancient writers did view and depict a structured universe that expanded from the earth, much like the Qur’an, but hey, is such a concept scientifically correct anyway?
To Lucretius space appears to be a dimension created and expanding alongside the separated matter.
Furthermore, Lucretius states: ‘If there were no empty space…they could not possibly have come into existence’ (Lucretius, 1957: 37). What he means is basically:
‘if there were no space, everything would be one solid mass’ (Lucretius, 1957: 42).
In other words without space all matter would be compressed into one solid entity.
In fact Lucretius describes this solid state of the universe, a chaotic state of atoms:
At that time the sun’s bright disc was not to be seen here, soaring loft and lavishing light, nor the stars that crowd the far-flung firmament, nor sea nor sky, nor earth, nor air nor anything in the likeness of things we know – nothing but a hurricane raging in a newly congregated mass of atoms of every sort.’
Quite identical to early cosmological nebula, which contrary to Zakir Naik is not mentioned in the Qur'an (the Qur'an depicts earth and smoke side by side within a vaccum; while the Nebula consititutes of energy and matter compressed within the whole of existence; the earth did not exist at the time). But how did Lucretius' knowlege exceed that of the Qur'an and even prior to the Qur'an? Is it possible that Lucretius was he a prophet? No, in fact Lucretius was an atheist.
The fact is, even though Muslims were ever to find traces of modern science in the Qur’an, this would hardly accomplish anything of greater significance, any more than the ideas referred to by Lucretius 600 years earlier!
The Big Crunch and the Cyclic Universe
Furthermore, Lucretius believed in a reverse of all matter; he identifies the world as a whole, and proposes that as the sky and the earth have ‘had their birthday’ the inauguration, they also ‘will have their day of doom’ (Lucretius, 1957: 184-5). This doom is depicted as a cosmological crash, when the heights of heaven, the earth and all the intermediate material are brought to together:
‘These three bodies so different in nature, three distinct form, three fabrics such as you behold – all these a single day will blot out. The whole substance and structure of the world, upheld through many years, will crash…I am well aware how novel and strange in its impact on the mind is the impending demolition of heaven and earth…that your own eyes will see those violent earthquakes in a brief space dash the whole world to fragments…may reason rather than the event itself convince you that the whole world can collapse with one ear-splitting crack!’ (Lucretius, 1957: 174).
It remains a fact that Lucretius does refer to earthquakes and a progressive demolition of the earth, yet at the same time he suggests that ‘whole substance and structure’ of the world which has been ‘upheld’ will ‘crash’ and ‘collapse’. His terminology implies that in a brief space dash the entire world will be turned into ‘fragments’; in a ‘one ear-splitting crack’.
This was also the idea of a cyclic universe, in which the universe reverses back to its original state and repeats its creation. This was a predominant view among the pre-Islamic philosophers (see: Arthur Fairbanks: Anaximander, Plut. Strom. 2 ; Dox. 579; and Aet. Plac. i. 3: Dox. 277, 1898: 15-6. Concerning the concept of Pythagoras see description of Ocellus Lucanus in Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie’s, The Pythagorean Source Book and Library, Grand Rapids Michigan, Phanes Press, 1987: 20).
Hence it should not surprise us that the Qur’an follows the same concept:
‘The Day that We roll up the heavens like a scroll rolled up for books (completed), –even as We produced the first creation, so shall We produce a new one: a promise We have undertaken: truly shall We fulfil it (Sura 21: 104).’
Ibn Kathir purports even that creation will be repeated, much like the view postulated by pre-islamic writers:
‘…means, this will inevitable come to pass on the Day when Allah creates His creation anew. As He created them in the first place He is surely able to re-create them’ (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, vol.6, 2000: 506-7).
Indeed a range of Islamic authors propose the possibility of a repetitive cycle of creations:
‘After another seven hundred fifty quadrillion years, the universe will become an infinitely small point of infinite density and infinite temperature. What next? Who knows! The universe may continue to oscillate between Big Bangs and Big Crunches for all eternity. Or, the Big Crunch may be the end of everything. One thing is certain, however. If a new universe were created, it would have no memory of the old one. It could develop without regard for anything that happened before’
Mustafa Mlivo, Qur’an and Science: http://www.quranm.multicom.ba/science/1e-astronomy.htm
To conclude the expansion issue, we may conclude that the Qur’an is not clearly depicting a continuous expanding universe. Indeed the Qur’an refers to the universe has having expanded, but such hardly proposes a miraculous prediction of modern science, since such ideas flourished prior to the rise of Islam. Furthermore, the Qur’an appears to describe the heavens as having emerged from a separation from earth and the heavens, describing the structure of a seven levelled universe. This is certainly not the world of science.
It is difficult to propose from the Qur’anic text from which space itself originated, possibly, the Qur’an follows Hesiod’s view, that space was created prior to the earth, whereupon the heavens and its host were created by their matter separating from the earth, a view that also flourished among the ancient writers. But such is difficult to conclude. In any case such concepts are hardly ideas that correlate with modern science.
I would be happy to get some criticism, I am rather certain that I have overlooked some hidden details.
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