A Qur’anic Creation

The modern age in Europe ushered in a battle between two concepts, a battle that continues to this day: science vs. religion. These two frameworks for understanding the world have been even more at odds in recent decades in the United States. Famous individuals like Bill Maher attack religion on cable-network television and in large-production films. School districts are virulently attacked for considering teaching children the concept of intelligent design instead of the theory of evolution. Religious individuals pull their children out of schools that teach Darwin’s “Godless” theory. This is all at the popular level; at a scholarly level there has been a flurry of books published taking one position or another, including: Dawkin’s The God Delusion and McGrath’s Dawkin’s GOD: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life.

From the Islamic realm there have been a number of attempts to grapple with science, empiricism and scientism. The core issues are intellectual framing and worldview. What I mean by this is that Islam places emphasis, even centralizes, the role of God in the world and in an individual believer’s life while modern science and Modernity in general have raised the human being to a level almost, if not completely, on par with the Divine. God is something that is no longer important once humankind is at God’s level. Livingston illustrates this nicely in his article on the Muslim reformer Shaykh Tahtawi: “Galileo…had divorced God’s caring hand from the operations of the universe…Newton had gone a step further…reducing the universe to a self-operating system…Laplace would take the mechanistic logic to its end, declaring himself to have no need of that hypothesis when Napoleon asked him where God fit into his cosmology.”[1] On the contrary, Islam centralizes and elevates God and this is true historically of Muslim thinkers. “The great Muslim thinkers were masters of many disciplines, but they looked upon them as branches of the single tree of tawhid…Everything was governed by the same principles, because everything fell under God’s all-encompassing reality.”[2] This is the major gap between science and religion in the Islamic quarter. Contemporary thinkers such as Sayyed Hossein Nasr have attempted to turn back to traditional sciences and have made it a project to challenge the philosophical underpinnings of modern science.[3] This binary is often called the sacred versus the secular and is often couched in pitting spiritual matters against empirical matters. These two realms are totally incompatible in the modern scientist’s perspective; God simply cannot be directly experienced empirically. The world’s most famous atheist propagator, Richard Dawkins, writes that “the theist’s answer is deeply unsatisfying, because it leaves the existence of God unexplained.”[4]

There is another strand in the Islamic intellectual realm that has tried to bridge the gap between science and religion; they are often called religious reformists or Muslim modernists. These thinkers have recognized that modern science has something to offer the world and humankind and have not seen a direct contradiction between Islam and modern science. Instead, they view science and religion as complimentary. Science explains the functions of the physical world while religion explains the metaphysical elements of the universe. It is similar to a physician being able to understand the physical elements of an individual’s body and how the body interacts with microscopic germs and viral infections while recognizing that the physician cannot know the individual’s deepest thoughts, feelings, and character make-up. One such thinker, the late Murtada Mutahhari of Iran, tried to harmonize empirical science with Islamic principles while still recognizing the shifting nature of science. Mutahhari went so far as to say that man may one day learn how to bring the physical elements of life together and see a physical being come to life. He saw no problem with this idea because he said that this is simply learning another physical law and that it is simply bringing together “the conditions”[5] for life and not actually creating life itself—that power is for God alone. Mutahhari also criticizes some theist’s understanding of God who fill in gaps where the ordinary laws of nature are being contravened; he states that the belief of people who have such a negative theology have a weak foundation for faith because they only see God where things or events cannot be explained. “The Qur’an never cites cases in which it would appear the natural order has been disrupted and has broken down in demonstration of tauhid. It cites cases having natural elements and causes familiar to people; it calls the system itself to witness.”[6]

It is within this framework that this essay will briefly analyze both the Qur’anic and the scientific outline of the Universe’s origins and nature. I will use a number of verses to illustrate the Qur’anic account and I will rely upon the well-known Big Bang Theory as the leading scientific explanation for the beginning of the Universe. This essay will delve directly into the rhetorical and intellectual battle described above by comparing a religious and a scientific explanation for the origins and meaning (or non-meaning) of the cosmos.

Qur’anic Observation

The Qur’an is replete with verses describing the heavens and the earth and the rest of the physical world. It is not a text that gives detailed scientific explanations for the physical realm but it does call upon human beings to observe and study the physical realm as a way to knowing and proving God; the physical realm is a place in which one can find meaning. One such instance calls upon mankind to observe the realm of plants: “Then from it We bring forth vegetation from which We produce the grain, in clusters, and from the palm-tree… low-hanging clusters [of dates], and gardens of grapes, olives and pomegranates…Look at its fruit as it fructifies and ripens. Indeed there are signs in that for a people who have faith.”[7] The physical realm and its functions are regarded as “signs”, things that signify something else beyond the apparent, for all people. Empirical observation is the starting point to understanding a deeper nature of things—namely that there is a Creator that has power over the universe. It is this discourse that leads some religious scholars to attempt to harmonize religion and empirical science.

Qur’anic Creation

The Qur’anic verses about creation are scattered and discuss the universe in terms of “the heavens” and “the earth”. The creation story is not in one place in the text. Verses are woven into the text itself, perhaps as continuous reminders. The formative verses regard God as the creator. The following are a sample: “It is He who created for you all that is in the earth”[8]; “It is Allah who created the heavens and the earth”[9]; “He created the heavens and the earth with reason”[10]. God creates ex nihilo; logically God has to be before He can create. There is no mention of how the elements of existence were created or out of what. In other words, there is no description of the function that God took to create anything. The only verse that hints at how God creates describes God as “the Originator of the heavens and the earth; and when He decides on a matter, He just says to it, ‘Be!’ and it is.”[11] Again, the argument of God creating ex nihilo is reinforced by the attribute of “Originator” and God’s function is described as proclaiming “Be!” and “it is”. This vague verse is not something that describes in any detail what this even means, nor does it directly connect it to physical creation as it describes this function as deciding on a matter—this might have a variety of explanations.

The organization of the universe is depicted in the following: “Have the faithless not regarded that the heavens and the earth were interwoven and We unraveled them, and We made every living thing out of water? Will they not then have faith?”[12] The heavens and the earth are depicted in some pre-organized fashion, “interwoven” and God has an active role in unraveling them just as we saw in previous verses about God as an active creator. One can take from this that all material was once as one, together, in a unit. This unit was then “unraveled” and separated, perhaps formed into their current design.

God is described as creating the heavens and the earth in time: “Indeed your Lord is Allah, who created the heavens and the earth in six days”[13]; “Certainly We created the heavens and the earth, and whatever is between them, in six days”[14]. The term day in the Qur’an is ambiguous as it is described in different places and in two different circumstances as being different time periods. “He directs the command from the heaven to the earth; then it ascends toward Him in a day whose span is a thousand years by your reckoning.”[15] Here a day to God is described as a span of one thousand years to humankind. In another verse the span of a day is described as an even longer period: “The angels and the Spirit ascend to Him in a day whose span is fifty thousand years.”[16] Thus, the Qur’an leaves room for interpretation as to what “day” means in regards to how long it actually took God to create. Also, creation and organization seem to be different. As is stated in Q 21:30 above, there was a substance created by God—the heavens and the earth—before God “unraveled” it.

Qur’anic Order

The Qur’an describes the universe as ordered and purposeful. “It is He who made the stars for you, so that you may be guided by them in the darkness of land and sea. We have certainly elaborated the signs for a people who have knowledge.”[17] The stars serve a purpose for humankind, for navigation; specific parts of creation serve a purpose and help order mankind’s life. Additionally, the universe is ordered and structured. The Qur’an speaks of the heavens being made in layers and the earth being pegged with mountains.   “He created the heavens without any pillars that you may see, and cast firm mountains in the earth lest it should shake with you, and He has scattered in it every kind of animal. And We sent down water from the sky and caused every splendid kind [of plant] to grow in it.”[18] The heavenly and earthly structures seem to serve a functional purpose for mankind. The vegetable cycle of growth from water is also described which hints at a united system that has been set out for humans to benefit from. “It is He who made the sun a radiance and the moon a light, and ordained its phases that you might know the number of years and the calculation [of time]. Allah did not create all that except with reason. He elaborates the signs for a people who have knowledge.”[19] Celestial systems are described here as functioning to make night and day, for humans to know time. These are all systems that humans interact with daily and they are described as such.

The Qur’anic systems, however, are not Newtonian systems that run purely on their own. “He draws the night’s cover over the day, which pursues it swiftly, and [He created] the sun, the moon, and the stars, [all of them] disposed by His command.”[20] God is described as taking a very active role in the functionality of these systems. This is directly connected to the Qur’anic language that mentions that the physical realm is to be observed to understand that there is a Creator and a God. While celestial order, the movement of the moon and the placement of the distant stars, is attributed to God, even mundane things that humankind typically considers itself in control of are described as having God’s hand involved. In regards to growing plants the Qur’an illustrates a hypothetical conversation between humankind and God: “Have you considered what you sow? Is it you who make it grow, or are We the grower? If We wish, We surely turn it into chaff…”[21] In sum, the order of the world and the universe is attributed to God’s power and design of natural systems with a purpose.

Scientific Origins

The Big Bang Theory is the leading scientific construction of the origins of the universe. This theory was first posited when Edwin Hubble “made the observation that the universe is continuously expanding… This observation means that it has taken every galaxy the same amount of time to move from a common starting position to its current position.”[22] This is known as Hubble’s Law. The theory posits that there is one starting point for the universe and that a huge explosion rendered the creation of matter over a long period of time. “All matter and energy existed in an infinitely small point of infinite density a long time ago, and has since been expanding as our universe. One important note here is that the Big Bang was not an explosion in the universe, but rather it is an explosion of the universe.”[23]

After this explosion of the universe there was a time period in which matter and anti-matter existed in a hot, glowing state. As the universe expanded, per Hubble’s Law, that material cooled and matter was able to form in extremely simple particles. This finally led to the creation of what we deem atoms. This is mostly speculative, though we can try to trace this information through experiments in laboratories. “Only through further research and discovery will it be possible to completely understand the creation of the universe and its first atomic structures, however, maybe we will never know for sure.”[24]

Scientific Order

This all took place 1.5 billion years ago[25] and as the universe expanded and matter cooled, galaxies, stars and planets took shape. The processes that took place are complicated and, again, much of it is speculative. What we do know is that this all took place within a system of order that we interact with daily, physics. As Silk states, “cosmology, the science of studies of the universe, is developed by extrapolating locally verified laws of physics to remote locations in space and time.”[26] Newtonian physics is assumed and taken as the foundational set of laws for how the universe developed and it is with the use of this system—in conjunction with observation—that we have developed our theories about the expansion, cooling, and formulation of matter over billions of years.

What is not answered, and cannot be answered by empirical evidence, is the mystery of what existed before existence. If the Big Bang is the origin of all material that we know, did anything exist before this explosion? The limits of empirical observation—in a strictly sensual experience interpretation—do not allow science to answer this. Of course, this is contingent on the truth of the fact that there was a vacuum before the explosion of the universe.

Religious and Scientific Cosmologies

The Qur’anic account of the creation and development of the universe is fundamentally different than the Big Bang Theory due to the foundational epistemological difference: there is a God and this can be known through observation and the recognition of signs. Empirical science cannot deduce this or the opposite claim without using Aristotelian logic which is not purely empirical—it is also metaphysical. It is beyond the purview of science to affirm or deny this claim.

Despite this gap there seems to be parallels between the Qur’anic account and the scientific account. Both point to a unit that was expanded over time into what we have today. The Qur’an describes this as the unraveling of the heavens and the earth and the Big Bang Theory posits an explosion of the universe. Time and expansion seem to play a role in both cosmologies—the cooling of material and the formation of matter depended on time and God’s creation is described in time.

Science may be able to fill in the details of the Qur’anic creation narrative—at least as long as the Big Bang is taken seriously as a theory. The scientific details seem to compliment the Qur’anic concept but that also relies upon a notion that Qur’anic text can be interpreted according to human knowledge. For instance, harmonization would require the formulation or re-interpretation of the term “day” in regards to the time God created the universe. God’s “unravelling” would have to be considered as the explosion of the Big Bang. Similarly, we may have to consider the term “sky” in the following verse as “space”: “We have built the sky with might, and indeed it is We who are its expanders.”[27] The opposite is also a possibility, perhaps the Qur’an should be taken as the foundational text and scientific knowledge re-interpreted to fit the Qur’anic terms.

However, again, because of epistemological inconsistencies between Qur’anic knowledge and empirical knowledge, attempting to thoroughly harmonize the two systems may be impossible and even unwise. Science is also ever-changing and theories often develop and are discarded. Building one’s faith upon science is building one’s faith on an ever shifting foundation. What may be said is that the bifurcation between science and religion can be partially bridged by using them in correct ways and within their own systems. As Mutahhari stated, “Where faith has been, and science not, individuals’ humanitarian efforts have produced no great effect…Where science has been, with the place of faith left empty…all the power of science has been expended on selfishness, egoism, acquisitiveness, ambition, exploitation, subjugation, deceit and guile.”

*These words are just thoughts and are not to be taken as definitive research.


[1] John W. Livingston, “Western Science and Educational Reform in the Thought of Shaykh Rifaa al-Tahtawi,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 4 (1996), 545

[2] William Chittick, Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul; The Pertinence of Islamic Cosmology in the Modern World, (Oxford: Oneworld, 2007), 13

[3] Ibrahim Kalin, “The Sacred versus the Secular: Nasr on Science,” in Library of Living Philosophers: Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ed. L. E. Hahn, R. E. Auxier and L. W. Stone, (Chicago; Open Court Press, 2001), 445

[4] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (New York: First Mariner, 2008), 171

[5] Murtaza Mutahhari and R. Campbell (Tr.), Fundamentals of Islamic Thought: God, Man and the Universe, (Berkeley, CA: Mizan Press, 1985), 204

[6] Mutahhari, 202

[7] ‘Ali Quli Qara’I, The Qur’an: With a Phrase-by-Phrase English Translation, (Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, 2006). Q 6:99

[8] Q 2:29

[9] Q 14:32

[10] Q 39:5

[11] Q 2:117

[12] Q 21:30

[13] Q 7:54

[14] Q 50:38

[15] Q 32:5

[16] Q 70:4

[17] Q 6:97

[18] Q 31:10

[19] Q 10:5

[20] Q 7:54

[21] 56:63-65

[22] http://www.umich.edu/~gs265/bigbang.htm

[23] http://burro.astr.cwru.edu/stu/advanced/cosmos_bigbang.html

[24] http://www.umich.edu/~gs265/bigbang.htm

[25] Joseph Silk, On the Shores of the Unknown: A Short History of the Universe, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 1

[26] Silk, 6

[27] Q 51:47

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About The Author

Trent Carl

Trent Carl originally from Houston, Texas, now resides in Chicago, Illinois. He is currently a student at DePaul University, where he is studying in the Islamic World Studies Department with an interdisciplinary focus. He is the Educational Coordinator for the DePaul Muslim Students’ Association (UMMA) where he organizes programs and engages the Muslim student population in various activities, including discussions and book groups. Additionally, he is also the Vice President of the DePaul Students’ for Justice in Palestine (SJP). He is interested and engaged in personal development and critique. On a broader scale, he hopes to bring about social reform on both the communal and national level, and as a result is involved with several projects related to that end.

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04 2011

4 Comments Add Yours ↓

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  1. T #
    1

    I think, perhaps what the author was getting at was that modern scientific epistemology – or perhaps, more precisely scientistic – does not allow for one to claim the existence of something that is outside of the scope of empirical inquiry; in other words, empirical evidence in, empirical/material conclusion.

    So the author’s use of science was very narrow indeed.

    [Reply]

  2. FZ #
    2

    Good article. But there is a huge flaw in one of the main premises it relies on. When discussing the argument that God can be proved using observation and signs, it concludes “It is beyond the purview of science to affirm or deny this claim.” This is completely untrue and taints the rest of the article since the author has made a basic blunder.
    The problem seems to be the definition of what constitutes scientific research and scientific “facts” as they were. Science is based on observations, empirical evidence + a philosophical (or “theoretical” as they would prefer) analysis to explain those findings. The argument of design or observing the signs and makings of a creator fall completely in that category.
    On top of the fact that many theists – including notable Ulema – have proved this in their books and also proved its accordance with the principles of science itself, as established by the modern proponents of science.

    We don’t need science to prove God exists; but if science does so, we don’t need to deny it either.

    [Reply]

  3. FZ #
    3

    Good article. But there is a huge flaw in one of the main premises it relies on. When discussing the argument that God can be proved using observation and signs, it concludes “It is beyond the purview of science to affirm or deny this claim.” This is completely untrue and taints the rest of the article since the author has made a basic blunder.
    The problem seems to be the definition of what constitutes scientific research and scientific “facts” as they were. Science is based on observations, empirical evidence + a philosophical (or “theoretical” as they would prefer) analysis to explain those findings. The argument of design or observing the signs and makings of a creator fall completely in that category.
    On top of the fact that many theists – including notable Ulema – have proved this in their books and also proved its accordance with the principles of science itself, as established by the modern proponents of science.
    We don’t need science to prove God exists; but if science does so, we don’t need to deny it either.

    [Reply]

  4. Abbas Naqvi #
    4

    Trent,

    A great piece and a good summary of some of the views of Science in relation to Islam. I think your last paragraph really highlighted the problem I usually observe from faith-based individuals. They tend to justify religion through the lens of science, because of its empirical characteristics. However, as you pointed out, that can be very faulty, because science in its very nature is ever-shifting and self-correcting.

    [Reply]



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