Cosmology of the Qur'an

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This article analyzes the nature and structure of the physical universe as represented in the Qur'an and the Sunnah.

Introduction[edit]

This article is designed to uncover and explain the cosmology presented in the Qur'an and the Sunnah. More specifically, it will explore the Qur'an's understanding of the nature and structure of the physical universe.

To no surprise, “Islamic Cosmology” was not advanced beyond that of any of its ancient neighbors, and in fact is far less sophisticated and accurate in its understanding than the Greeks or Romans that had preceded them by centuries. While other civilizations had (for example) long before realized that the earth was a globe, the Qur'an betrays no understanding that the earth is anything but flat.

Now, it is recognized up front that (as in almost every other ancient text), some of what is reflected in the Qur'an was meant to be taken literally, while some is allegorical or symbolic. But such recognition does not give the reader license to simply reject some descriptions which are obviously in error without good reason. In fact, the cosmology suggested by the Qur'an and the Sunnah is remarkably consistent, regardless of the specific purpose of the particular story being read.

This is because at no point was the purpose of the Qur'an or the Sunnah to describe the structure of the universe. In almost every instance, such descriptions exist only as side effects of the other religious or ethical lessons that were the real objectives of the texts we consider. If a detail of cosmology is contained in an allegory, yet itself has no allegorical purpose, then it must be accepted as the actual understanding of the author. So, while we have only a handful of direct statements concerning cosmology, a lot can still be determined from the occasional intriguing detail accidentally dropped by the authors as part of other discussions.

The wealth of such hints provide a compelling resource, and provide a clear picture of what Prophet Muhammad thought the universe looked like.

Analysis[edit]

The Heavens and the Earth[edit]

Any accounting of the cosmology of the Qur'an must begin with the fact that the Islamic universe is extremely small and simple. It consists entirely of two (and only two) components; the heavens and the earth.

There is no recognition of any of the other features of the universe that modern peoples take for granted. There is no concept of solar systems, of galaxies, or of “space.” There is no hint that the earth is a planet like the other planets visible from it, or that stars are other suns, just very far away. Qur'anic cosmology is primarily limited to that which is visible to the naked eye, and where the authors attempt describe what is not actually visible, they are invariably wrong.

The fundamental status of the “heavens and the earth” as the two key components of creation is emphasized repeatedly in the Qur'an, and it is the “separation” of the two that stands as the initial creative act of Allah.

Do not the Unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together (as one unit of creation), before we clove them asunder? We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?

The exclusivity of these two venues is also repeatedly stressed. There is (for example) no third place within which things might exist or conversations might take place. Whenever the authors of the Qur'an want to make a point concerning Allah’s omniscience, for example, the phrase “in heaven or on earth” is invariably used as shorthand for the entire universe.

O our Lord! truly Thou dost know what we conceal and what we reveal: for nothing whatever is hidden from Allah, whether on earth or in heaven.
Say: "My Lord knoweth (every) word (spoken) in the heavens and on earth: He is the One that heareth and knoweth (all things).
Knowest thou not that Allah knows all that is in heaven and on earth? Indeed it is all in a Record, and that is easy for Allah.
To Allah belong all things in heaven and earth: verily Allah is He (that is) free of all wants, worthy of all praise.

The “heavens and the earth” are also described as a sort of “container” within which the entire Universe (that man experiences) operates. There is only heaven, earth, and the things between them.

Not for (idle) sport did We create the heavens and the earth and all that is between!

Not surprisingly, the nature of this space “between the heavens and the earth” is described according to the straightforward (if false) perception of a human standing on the ground. Looking in all directions, the Earth appears to be basically flat, and the circular horizon gives the impression of standing at the center of a flat disc. Looking up, the sky (heaven) appears as a solid blue dome reaching its greatest height directly overhead, and anchored at or beyond the horizon. This is essentially (as we will discuss in detail) what we find in the Qur'an.

Additionally, the Qur'an is clear that when Allah created the heavens and the earth, the earth came first.

Say (O Muhammad, unto the idolaters): Disbelieve ye verily in Him Who created the earth in two Days, and ascribe ye unto Him rivals? He (and none else) is the Lord of the Worlds. He placed therein firm hills rising above it, and blessed it and measured therein its sustenance in four Days, alike for (all) who ask; Then turned He to the heaven when it was smoke, and said unto it and unto the earth: Come both of you, willingly or loth. They said: We come, obedient.

And

He it is Who created for you all that is in the earth. Then turned He to the heaven, and fashioned it as seven heavens. And He is knower of all things.

So there we have the basic framework. The earth is a flat disc, and the heavens are a solid dome (actually seven solid domes) overhead. For a look at more of the details, let us first consider the heavens.

The Heavens and their Denizens[edit]

As seen from the earth, the dome of the innermost heaven extends overhead, although in actuality they are more correctly described as seven concentric domes with the disk of the earth at their base.

It is He Who hath created for you all things that are on earth; Moreover His design comprehended the heavens, for He gave order and perfection to the seven firmaments; and of all things He hath perfect knowledge.
So He completed them as seven firmaments in two Days, and He assigned to each heaven its duty and command.

These seven heavens are solid objects; this can be shown in several ways. For starters, they stand as barriers that both protect (as does a roof) and contain.

The protective nature of this roof is shown in verses such as:

And We have made the heavens as a canopy well guarded: yet do they turn away from the Signs which these things (point to)!

And the fact that they are solid is shown by references to pieces of the heavens falling and potentially injuring residents of the earth.

See they not what is before them and behind them, of the sky and the earth? If We wished, We could cause the earth to swallow them up, or cause a piece of the sky to fall upon them. Verily in this is a Sign for every devotee that turns to Allah (in repentance).

In fact, they are so substantial that it is even conceivable to climb up onto them using a ladder.

If their spurning is hard on thy mind, yet if thou wert able to seek a tunnel in the ground or a ladder to the skies and bring them a sign,- (what good?).

And finally, the heavens are apparently heavy enough to require physical supports of some sort. Contrary to some claims, the Qur'an acknowledges that such supports are required, but also explains that they are invisible.

Allah is He Who raised the heavens without any pillars that ye can see; is firmly established on the throne (of authority); He has subjected the sun and the moon (to his Law)! Each one runs (its course) for a term appointed. He doth regulate all affairs, explaining the signs in detail, that ye may believe with certainty in the meeting with your Lord.

The authors here take it as obvious that the heavens require support of some kind. But their emphasis is on their invisibility, not their actual absence.

To further expound on the nature of the seven heavens, we need additional help from the hadith. Here we learn the distances between each heaven, as well as what is on the other side of the furthermost.

Narrated Al-Abbas ibn AbdulMuttalib: I was sitting in al-Batha with a company among whom the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) was sitting, when a cloud passed above them. The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) looked at it and said: What do you call this?

They said: Sahab.

He said: And muzn? They said: And muzn. He said: And anan? They said: And anan. AbuDawud said: I am not quite confident about the word anan. He asked: Do you know the distance between Heaven and Earth? They replied: We do not know. He then said: The distance between them is seventy-one, seventy-two, or seventy-three years. The heaven which is above it is at a similar distance (going on till he counted seven heavens). Above the seventh heaven there is a sea, the distance between whose surface and bottom is like that between one heaven and the next. Above that there are eight mountain goats the distance between whose hoofs and haunches is like the distance between one heaven and the next. Then Allah, the Blessed and the Exalted, is above that.

Ignoring the giant mountain goats which are never mentioned in the Qur'an itself, the outermost heaven lies beneath a sea that is as deep as the distances between adjacent heavens. That Allah’s “throne” is above such waters is mentioned in the Qur'an as well as the hadith.

He it is Who created the heavens and the earth in six Days - and His Throne was over the waters - that He might try you, which of you is best in conduct. But if thou wert to say to them, "Ye shall indeed be raised up after death", the Unbelievers would be sure to say, "This is nothing but obvious sorcery!"

There are however no mentions of galaxies, quasars, galaxy clusters or empty space. Simply water, a throne, and Allah himself.

Additional details concerning the individual heavens are found in the accounts of Muhammad’s “night journey.” Rather than quoting at length, readers are referred to Sahih Bukhari 9:93:68 for the long version. But here are the key points.

Each of the seven heavens is populated by multiple angels and a few other folks as well. These heavens are entered through doors in the solid domes, each with an angelic guard and each populated by a resident prophet. For example, immediately above the dome of the first heaven is where Muhammad met Adam, and discovered (in the absence of true geographic knowledge) the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The second heaven is the home of the Prophet Idris. Aaron is in the fourth heaven, Abraham the sixth, and Moses the seventh.

The Celestial Objects[edit]

Inside the nearest heaven (i.e. less than 73 years away) are the stars and (apparently) also the sun and moon. We can be certain that the stars are inside this closest heaven, as the Qur'an is quite explicit on this point.

We have indeed decked the lower heaven with beauty (in) the stars.
So He completed them as seven firmaments in two Days, and He assigned to each heaven its duty and command. And We adorned the lower heaven with lights, and (provided it) with guard. Such is the Decree of (Him) the Exalted in Might, Full of Knowledge.

The idea that the stars might actually be objects on the scale of the sun, but much farther away was clearly missed by the authors of the Qur'an.

The Sun and the Moon[edit]

The sun and moon are a bit more ambiguous, as all we know is that they are in the “midst” of the heavens, and not explicitly inside the lowest of them.

And made the moon a light in their midst, and made the sun as a (Glorious) Lamp?

These two lights (along with the stars and planets) follow prescribed paths along the curved walls of the solid heavenly domes.

It is He Who created the Night and the Day, and the sun and the moon: all (the celestial bodies) swim along, each in its rounded course.
It is not permitted to the Sun to catch up the Moon, nor can the Night outstrip the Day: Each (just) swims along in (its own) orbit (according to Law).

And at the end of their daily paths across the sky, the sun (and presumably also the moon and stars) pass through the earth’s flat disk near the far Western edge using openings filled with water.

Until, when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it set in a spring of murky water: Near it he found a People: We said: "O Zul-qarnain! (thou hast authority,) either to punish them, or to treat them with kindness."

Once out of view of the humans that populate the top of the earthly disc, their motion stops, and they rest for the night in particular resting places.

And the sun runneth on unto a resting-place for him. That is the measuring of the Mighty, the Wise.

At some point during the night, however (and here again we call to the hadith for details) the sun must negotiate its return the next day with a direct appeal for Allah’s permission.

Narrated Abu Dhar: The Prophet asked me at sunset, "Do you know where the sun goes (at the time of sunset)?" I replied, "Allah and His Apostle know better." He said, "It goes (i.e. travels) till it prostrates Itself underneath the Throne and takes the permission to rise again, and it is permitted and then (a time will come when) it will be about to prostrate itself but its prostration will not be accepted, and it will ask permission to go on its course but it will not be permitted, but it will be ordered to return whence it has come and so it will rise in the west.

And that is the interpretation of the Statement of Allah:

And the sun Runs its fixed course For a term (decreed). that is The Decree of (Allah) The Exalted in Might, The All-Knowing.

With permission to rise received, the sun passes back through the earthly disk near its Eastern edge to commence the next day. While no “muddy pools” are specifically mentioned for the sunrise, the description of people living nearby the exit point mirrors the description of the place where the sun set.

Until, when he came to the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had provided no covering protection against the sun.

Eclipses of the Sun or Moon[edit]

The Qur'an demonstrates no understanding whatsoever of eclipses. Perhaps this is understandable. The hadith claim that Muhammad only experienced one solar eclipse during his lifetime, an experience which frightened him into a spectacular act of piety. But the Qur'an only makes a single reference to eclipses, and that is a lunar eclipse that will take place at the end of the world.

In fact, the Qur'an actually makes a statement that would conceivably make eclipses impossible.

It is not permitted to the Sun to catch up the Moon, nor can the Night outstrip the Day: Each (just) swims along in (its own) orbit (according to Law).

For a solar eclipse to occur however, the sun and the moon actually must (from the perspective of the earth) "catch up" to each other in their "orbits." But since the moon itself is not visible at that time, the authors of the Qur'an never noticed this.

But then, when discussing the end of time the Qur'an assumes that a lunar eclipse (which can only occur when the sun and moon are on opposite sides of the earth) can occur at the same time the sun and moon finally do “catch up” to each other.

He asketh: “When will be this Day of Resurrection?”
But when sight is confounded
And the moon is eclipsed
And sun and moon are united,

The “uniting” of the sun and the moon not only demonstrate a singular instance when they do “catch up” with each other, but also indicate that the authors of the Qur'an believed they were comparable in size. This is of course only an illusion of comparative distance.

Night and Day[edit]

The fact that the authors of the Qur'an did not realize that the sun and moon actually cause eclipses (as opposed to simply experiencing them) is similar to their failure to realize that the sun actually causes day and night. In the Qur'an, night is not simply the absence of day. Night and day are each specific, tangible creations of Allah, and they engage in a form of balanced conflict independent of the celestial bodies.

Thou causest the night to gain on the day, and thou causest the day to gain on the night; Thou bringest the Living out of the dead, and Thou bringest the dead out of the Living; and Thou givest sustenance to whom Thou pleasest, without measure.
Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day,- there are indeed Signs for men of understanding.
He draweth the night as a veil o'er the Day. Behold, verily in these things there are signs for those who consider!
That is because Allah merges night into day, and He merges day into night, and verily it is Allah Who hears and sees (all things).

Day and night are clearly entities independent from the sun, moon or any other celestial objects. Even when considered in the same verse, night and day are independent of the sun, with no recognition that the sun causes either of them.

Your Guardian-Lord is Allah, Who created the heavens and the earth in six days, and is firmly established on the throne (of authority): He draweth the night as a veil o'er the day, each seeking the other in rapid succession: He created the sun, the moon, and the stars, (all) governed by laws under His command. Is it not His to create and to govern? Blessed be Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds!
And He hath made subject to you the sun and the moon, both diligently pursuing their courses; and the night and the day hath he (also) made subject to you.
It is He Who created the Night and the Day, and the sun and the moon: all (the celestial bodies) swim along, each in its rounded course.
’Seest thou not that Allah merges Night into Day and he merges Day into Night; that He has subjected the sun, and the moon (to his Law), each running its course for a term appointed; and that Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do?
He created the heavens and the earth in true (proportions): He makes the Night overlap the Day, and the Day overlap the Night: He has subjected the sun and the moon (to His law): Each one follows a course for a time appointed. Is not He the Exalted in Power - He Who forgives again and again?

So, if the sun does not cause day and night, what is its purpose other than merely being the brighter of the two major celestial lamps?

Well, it turns out that the purpose of these objects is primarily time and calendar keeping.

He it is that cleaveth the day-break (from the dark): He makes the night for rest and tranquillity, and the sun and moon for the reckoning (of time): Such is the judgment and ordering of (Him), the Exalted in Power, the Omniscient.
It is He Who made the sun to be a shining glory and the moon to be a light (of beauty), and measured out stages for her; that ye might know the number of years and the count (of time). Nowise did Allah create this but in truth and righteousness. (Thus) doth He explain His Signs in detail, for those who understand.

The Stars, Planets and Meteors[edit]

It is not obvious from the translations of the Qur'an that the authors of the Qur'an actually distinguished between stars and planets, as the same word is often translated to mean either. But as ancient peoples generally knew that planets were different from ordinary stars (they moved) it is a safe assumption that the earliest Muslims were equally aware.

But the mistaken (if understandable) belief that stars are very small nearby objects is not merely reflected in the placement of them inside the nearest dome. As with most other ancient people, the authors of the Qur'an believed that meteors literally were “falling stars.” Yet with the unmistakable flavor of Arab martial creativity, they do not fall without purpose. Verse 67:5 tells us they are weapons against devils and jinn.

And we have, (from of old), adorned the lowest heaven with Lamps, and We have made such (Lamps) (as) missiles to drive away the Evil Ones, and have prepared for them the Penalty of the Blazing Fire.

This appears to be part of the protective role of the heavens.

And (the Jinn who had listened to the Quran said): We had sought the heaven but had found it filled with strong warders and meteors.

The Earth and its Denizens[edit]

The authors of the Qur'an felt a lesser need to describe the nature of the earth than the heavens, since much of the earth’s nature was obvious to the people that lived upon it. There was simply much less to explain. But the descriptions that do exist provide us with unassailable conclusions.

First and foremost, the earth is flat. Repeatedly, the authors of the Qur'an use the same word to describe the “spreading out” of the earth that Arabs used to discuss the spreading out of a “carpet,” a usage that translators often make use of.

And the earth We have spread out (like a carpet); set thereon mountains firm and immovable; and produced therein all kinds of things in due balance.
"He Who has, made for you the earth like a carpet spread out; has enabled you to go about therein by roads (and channels); and has sent down water from the sky." With it have We produced diverse pairs of plants each separate from the others.
(Yea, the same that) has made for you the earth (like a carpet) spread out, and has made for you roads (and channels) therein, in order that ye may find guidance (on the way);
And the earth- We have spread it out, and set thereon mountains standing firm, and produced therein every kind of beautiful growth (in pairs)-
And We have spread out the (spacious) earth: How excellently We do spread out!

In fact, at one point the Qur'an even emphasizes how much flatter the earth would be were it not for the mountains that disrupt the view.

One Day We shall remove the mountains, and thou wilt see the earth as a level stretch, and We shall gather them, all together, nor shall We leave out any one of them.

And in the same way one would stake down a tent or a carpet to keep it from shifting or blowing away, the mountains are described as serving this same purpose.

And He has set up on the earth mountains standing firm, lest it should shake with you; and rivers and roads; that ye may guide yourselves;
And the mountains as pegs?

Perhaps the one unclear facet of Islamic cosmology is the fact that the Qur'an mentions without explanation that there are (like the heavens), seven earths:

Allah is He Who created seven Firmaments and of the earth a similar number. Through the midst of them (all) descends His Command: that ye may know that Allah has power over all things, and that Allah comprehends, all things in (His) Knowledge.

The seven concentric domes of the heavens are fairly straightforward. The seven different earths are a bit more difficult to picture. One hint is given by the Qur'ans mention that in the same way “things” can “come down from” or “mount up to” the heavens, there are also things that can “come forth out of” or “enter within” the earth.

He it is Who created the heavens and the earth in Six Days, and is moreover firmly established on the Throne (of Authority). He knows what enters within the earth and what comes forth out of it, what comes down from heaven and what mounts up to it. And He is with you wheresoever ye may be. And Allah sees well all that ye do.

This leads to the conclusion that the seven earths are stacked one atop the other, similar to a stack of coins. This view is confirmed in the hadith:

Narrated AbuHurayrah: While Allah's Prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions were sitting clouds came over them and Allah's Prophet (peace be upon him) asked [...] "Do you know what is below you?" On their replying that Allah and His Messenger (peace be upon him) knew best, he said, "It is the earth." He then asked, "Do you know what is under that?" On their replying that Allah and His Messenger (peace be upon him) knew best, he said, "Under it there is another Earth with a journey of five hundred years between them," and so on till he had counted seven earths with a journey of five hundred years between each pair. He then said, "By Him in Whose hand Muhammad's soul is, if you were to drop a rope to the lowest earth it would not pass out of Allah's knowledge."...

Where are Paradise and Hell?[edit]

Islamic cosmology takes a perfectly prosaic position in terms of Paradise and Hell, and places them firmly within the cosmos that consists of the heavens and the earth. The description of Muhammad’s “night journey” shows each of the seven heavens already populated with the departed prophets in Paradise. This is consistent with the Qur'ans description of the size of Paradise.

Be quick in the race for forgiveness from your Lord, and for a Garden whose width is that (of the whole) of the heavens and of the earth, prepared for the righteous,-
Be ye foremost (in seeking) Forgiveness from your Lord, and a Garden (of Bliss), the width whereof is as the width of heaven and earth, prepared for those who believe in Allah and His messengers: that is the Grace of Allah, which He bestows on whom he pleases: and Allah is the Lord of Grace abounding.

If the heavens (to include the seventh and largest) are already populated with denizens of Paradise, the width of Paradise would be precisely that of heaven and earth.

And since Paradise is on the other side of the first heaven, it follows that Hell is below the surface of the first earth, filling the spaces beneath and between the seven earths. This is consistent with the descriptions of hell as being a completely enclosed place.

For them there is Hell, as a couch (below) and folds and folds of covering above: such is Our requital of those who do wrong.
Among them is (many) a man who says: "Grant me exemption and draw me not into trial." Have they not fallen into trial already? and indeed Hell surrounds the Unbelievers (on all sides).

Further, the direction of hell, when it is mentioned, is invariably “down.”

That Day shall they be thrust down to the Fire of Hell, irresistibly.

Elsewhere, it is described as an underground dungeon.

It may be that your Lord will have mercy on you, but if ye repeat (the crime) We shall repeat (the punishment), and We have appointed hell a dungeon for the disbelievers.

And in yet another reference, an observer is directed to “look down” in order to witness a denizen of hell.

(A voice) said: "Would ye like to look down?" He looked down and saw him in the midst of the Fire.

And so, we have the Islamic Universe in completion.

Conclusion[edit]

The Qur'an is not a book of science. As such, it makes no extended effort to describe the cosmos in the way a textbook might. Yet dealing as it does with universal questions of creation, purpose and fate it cannot avoid revealing its cosmological framework as it describes the workings of Allah.

In so doing, while it never comes out and says “this is the form of the universe,” a consistent and comprehensive cosmology still reveals itself. And to no surprise, this proves to be the mythical cosmos of 7th century Arabia rather than an accurate description of the real universe.

In the Qur'an, the entire universe is very small and contains simply the earth and its surrounding heavens. There are no galaxies, other solar systems, or such a thing as “outer space.”

The earth is the top-most of seven, flat discs, surrounded by the seven solid concentric domes of the heavens. The celestial objects that do exist (sun, moon, stars and planets) are quite small, very close, and they follow semi-circular paths within the innermost of the seven heavenly domes. When they are not in the sky above the earth, they are resting somewhere underneath it, except while petitioning Allah’s permission to return the following day (or night). Paradise exists between the seven heavens, and hell exists between the seven earths.

All of this is submerged in a cosmic sea, above which is the throne of Allah.

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See Also[edit]

Translations

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