Cosmology of the Quran

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The Qur'anic universe comprises "the heavens and the earth, and all that is between them". Many verses expand on the various elements of this scheme, without going into great detail. Overall, a picture emerges of a flat earth (and perhaps seven of these), above which are seven heavenly firmaments of uncertain shape (commonly assumed to be domed; more recently some historians have argued that the Qur'anic heavens are flat) and held up without visible pillars. Lamps adorn the lowest of these heavens. The sun and moon circulate in them in a partly ambiguous manner. Allah resides in heaven above the creation, sitting on a throne. Academic work has situated this picture within the context of earlier Mesopotamian and Biblical cosmological concepts, while noting its own distinctive identity.

Relatively few modern academics have made dedicated attempts to piece together the cosmography of the Quran, in whole or in part. One of the most comprehensive such surveys has been conducted by Mohammad Ali Tabatabaʾi and Saida Mirsadri of Tehran University in 2016 (which can be read for free using a monthly free article allowance).[1] They note that the new movement in the field commenced with Kevin van Bladel's work regarding individual elements of the picture in the context of the journeys of Dhu'l Qarnayn[2] and the heavenly cords (asbab) by which he traversed the world, and which, for example, Pharaoh attempted to reach by building a tower[3].

By taking the Quranic descriptions in their own right and in the context of the more ancient cosmologies of Babylon and the Bible, but without appeal to later works of tafsir or hadith, which show the influence of Hellenistic (Greek) ideas acquired by the Muslims after the advent of Islam, Tabataba'i and Mirsadri argue that in various ways the Quranic cosmology has its own distinctive characteristics as well as inherited concepts, just as it interacts with the ideologies of its environment, taking some things and rejecting others. Their observations in particular are regularly cited in this article.

Cosmology of the Quran

The heavens and the Earth

Any accounting of the cosmology of the Qur'an must begin with the fact that the Islamic universe is extremely simple. It consists entirely of three components: "the heavens and the earth, and all that is between them" (see for example Quran 50:38), the latter of which contains such things as clouds (Quran 2:164) and birds (Quran 24:41). More often, just the heavens and earth are shorthand for the entirety of creation.

To Allah belong all things in heaven and earth: verily Allah is He (that is) free of all wants, worthy of all praise.

There is no indication 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 it goes beyond this, invariably strays from what has been learned by scientific investigation.

The fundamental status of the “heavens and the earth” as the two main 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 (this verse has an interesting parallel in Syriac Christian literature).

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?

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. Then He ordained them seven heavens in two Days and inspired in each heaven its mandate; and We decked the nether heaven with lamps, and rendered it inviolable. That is the measuring of the Mighty, the Knower.
Qur'an 41:9-12


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.

The Earth and its waters

Tabataba'i and Mirsadri note that the Qur'an "takes for granted" the flatness of the earth, a common motif among the scientifically naive people at that time, while it has "not even one hint of a spherical earth"[4] Meanwhile, certain Christian scholars of the 6th century influenced by the ancient Greeks, in dispute with their counterparts in the east, believed in its sphericity, as noted by van Bladel.[5] Damien Janos in another paper on Qur'anic cosmography has similarly noted that while the exact shape of its boundaries are not described, "what is clear is that the Qurʾān and the early Muslim tradition do not uphold the conception of a spherical earth and a spherical universe. This was a view that later prevailed in the learned circles of Muslim society as a result of the infiltration of Ptolemaic astronomy".[6]

Repeatedly, the Qur'an uses various Arabic terms that convey a flat earth, spread out like a carpet. For a much more comprehensive compilation of verses, see Islamic Views on the Shape of the Earth.

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.
And Allah has made the earth for you as a carpet (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.

As Tabataba'i and Mirsadri note[7], the mountains are heavy masses described as pegs to prevent the earth from shaking.

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;
Have We not made the earth as a wide expanse, And the mountains as pegs?

One unclear facet of Islamic cosmology is that the Qur'an likens the creation of the earth to the seven heavens:

Allah it is who hath created seven heavens, and of the earth the like thereof. The commandment cometh down among them slowly, that ye may know that Allah is Able to do all things, and that Allah surroundeth all things in knowledge..

Tabataba'i and Mirsadri observe that the plural for the earth (al ard) is never used in the Quran, though most Muslim commentators interpreted this verse to mean seven earths. Instead, they consider the verse to be likening the earth to the heavens in shape and extent (i.e. a flat expanse) as part of a broader argument in their paper that the Qur'an describes a set of seven flat, stacked heavens (see below).[8]

In the hadiths, the idea of seven earths, one above the other is already apparent.

Narrated Salim's father: The Prophet (ﷺ) said, "Any person who takes a piece of land unjustly will sink down the seven earths on the Day of Resurrection."
Sa'id b. Zaid reported: I heard Allah's Apostle say: He who took a span of earth wrongly would be made to wear around his neck seven earths on the Day of Resurrection.

(For a more comprehensive analysis of Islamic literature covering the the Seven Earths, see: Science and the Seven Earths).

Janos notes that Sumerian incantations dated to the 1st millenium BCE mention both the seven heavens and seven earths (citing Wayne Horowitz, who translated them as "the heavens are seven, the earths are seven").[9] Tabataba'i and Mirsadri similarly note from Horowitz that this tradition was popular in the near east in first millennia BCE and CE, though also that only the seven heavens, but not seven earths found their way into the Hebrew literature.[10]

While contrasting the Biblical view of fresh and salty waters with the two seas of certain Qur'anic verses (fresh and salty - see for example Quran 25:53 and the quest of Moses to find their junction in Quran 18:60), they note another difference to the Biblical and Mesopotamian cosmologies, which is that the Qur'an does not explicitly mention an ocean encircling the flat disk of the earth.[11]

The two seas are very much on the surface of the earth.

He hath loosed the two seas. They meet. There is a barrier between them. They encroach not (one upon the other). Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny? There cometh forth from both of them the pearl and coral-stone. His are the ships displayed upon the sea, like banners.
And not alike are the two bodies of water. One is fresh and sweet, palatable for drinking, and one is salty and bitter. And from each you eat tender meat and extract ornaments which you wear, and you see the ships plowing through [them] that you might seek of His bounty; and perhaps you will be grateful.
And [mention] when Moses said to his servant, "I will not cease [traveling] until I reach the junction of the two seas or continue for a long period."

The seven heavens and their denizens

The shape of the heavens

Illustration of Qur'anic cosmography based on the analysis of Tabataba'i and Mirsadri. Their own copyrighted illustration is available in their paper[12] The shape of the heavens in the Qur'an is uncertain.

While many classical Muslim scholars, and modern academics (due to their interpretation of other ancient cosmologies) tend to assume that the Qur'anic heavens are domed, Tabataba'i and Mirsadri observe that there is no indication in the Qur'an that they touch the earth's boundaries. The sun and moon are placed in the heavens (Quran 71:16 and Quran 78:13), the lowest of which are adorned with lamps Quran 41:12. Janos discusses verses Quran 21:30 and Quran 36:40 in which the sun and moon (as well as night and day) move in a "falak" (an ambiguous term that may have meant a circuitous course/sphere/hemisphere - see Geocentrism and the Quran), but notes that this was not considered semantically identical with the samawat, or heavens, and they were not necessarily conceived as having the same shape.[13]

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.

The following is a summary of the arguments Tabataba'i and Mirsadri employ to argue that the Qur'anic heavens are flat:[14]

  • They interpret Quran 51:47 ("We have built the heaven with might, and We it is Who make the vast extent (thereof).") to mean that the heavens are continually expanded, which favours a flat expanse rather than a dome (it could be added in that case that the next verse about spreading the earth, with the same grammatical form, too fits this view). They also consider that verses mentioning invisible pillars (see below) favour a flat, roof like firmament.
  • Verses in which the seven heavens are likened to the earth (their interpretation of Quran 67:12 mentioned above), including in terms of their width e.g. Quran 57:21 "a Garden whereof the breadth is as the breadth of the heavens and the earth".
  • These heavens are arranged in layers (Quran 67:3, Quran 71:15), which more obviously suggests flatness, and this word tibiqan is similar to the Babylonian tubuqati, suggesting that seven superimposed flat heavens is a belief they have in common.
  • While interest in the heavens (as opposed to their contents) is largely absent from pre-Islamic poetry, the poems of Umayya ibn Abī al‐Ṣalt (d. 5 / 626) likened the heavens to seven floors one above another, and the carpet shaped earth to the uplifted heaven ("And [he] shaped the earth as a carpet then he ordained it, [the area] under the firmament [are] just like those he uplifted").
  • Despite the obvious potential use of tents as an analogy for the heavens, the Qur'an does not do so. Mountains act as pegs to stabilise the earth rather than hold down a heavenly tent canopy.
  • The notion of a flat sky was common in ancient Mesopotamia and the near east (as also noted by Janos, citing Horowitz[15]) though some scholars instead say that the universal belief of the scientifically naive peoples of the world was that it was dome shaped. Those who suppose that the pre-Islamic Arabs had a dome shaped conception due to their tent dwellings ignore the evidence that Mecca was an urban environment with flat roofs.
  • They argue that the Qur'an's ideological antipathy to the Bedouins would have extended to their use of tents for pagan practices, and for this reason may have rejected any possible existing analogies with the heavens.

They note that Janos too favours a flat heavens interpretation. For him, it was enough that the Qur'anic firmament is likened to a bināʾ (structure) or saqf (roof) (Quran 2:22, Quran 21:32, Quran 40:64); They note that the word saqf originally seems to have referred to flat roofs, including in the Qur'an Quran 16:26, Quran 43:33; and arranged in layers as mentioned above - they agree with him on the strength of this latter point, though he is also open to the dome-shaped view based on tafsir sources rather than any internal evidence, while van Bladel relies mainly on pre-Qur'anic sources for his discussion of whether the Qur'anic heavens are a dome, tent or roof.[3]

Further evidence that they do not mention is found in Quran 21:104 and Quran 39:67, which state that the heavens will be rolled up/folded up come the day of judgement.

The Day when We shall roll up the heavens as a recorder rolleth up a written scroll.
No just estimate have they made of Allah, such as is due to Him: On the Day of Judgment the whole of the earth will be but His handful, and the heavens will be rolled up in His right hand: Glory to Him! High is He above the Partners they attribute to Him!

On the other hand, the moon, and probably the sun, are within the seven heavens according to Quran 71:15-16, which may lend support to the assumption shared by some of Muhammad's companions and various classical scholars that the heavens are domed, given that these celestial bodies, as well as the night and day, are said to float in a falak (see above). This verse is mentioned by Tabataba'i and Mirsadri without comment on the potential difficulty.[16] In van Bladel's analysis of the Qur'anic cosmography, the sky has gates[3], which perhaps offers a solution (in the Syriac Alexander legend, the sun passes through gates, but in a dome rather than flat sky[2]).

See ye not how Allah has created the seven heavens one above another, And made the moon a light in their midst, and made the sun as a (Glorious) Lamp?

Solid firmaments held without visible pillars

Tabataba'i and Mirsadri notice that, as with other ancient cosmologies, the Qur'anic sky/heaven is a solid object.[17] Unlike with the heavenly pillars in the Bible, the Qur'anic heavens are raised without visible pillars[18] (Quran 13:2 and Quran 31:10; Ibn Kathir in his tafsir notes two views on what is a somewhat ambiguous phrasing, as though the author was hedging his bets: "'there are pillars, but you cannot see them,' according to Ibn `Abbas, Mujahid, Al-Hasan, Qatadah, and several other scholars. Iyas bin Mu`awiyah said, 'The heaven is like a dome over the earth, meaning, without pillars.'"[19]).

It is Allah who erected the heavens without pillars that you [can] see; [...]

While Tabataba'i and Mirsadri take these to be invisible pillars, Julien Decharneux in his book on Quranic Cosmology reads these verses as denying that any form of pillars hold up the firmament, noting that other verses refer to Allah holding the heavens (Quran 22:65 and Quran 35:41). He observes that this is in contrast to the Biblical view but in line with various Syriac Christian writings in the centuries leading up to Islam.[20]

Great are the works of God; deep and wondrous are his thoughts. He suspended the sky without pillars [d-lā ʿamūdē], and made firm the earth without supports.
Aphrahat, Demonstrations 14:34, quoted by Julien Decharneux[21]

Remzā (mentioned below) commonly refers to a 'sign, gesture or symbol' in Syriac, associated with divine powers.[22]

[The firmament] became like an arch hanging and standing without foundation [d-lā šatīsē], borne not by columns [law ʿamūdē], but by the remzā.
Jacob of Sarugh, Homilies 3:35, quoted by Julien Decharneux[23]

Tabataba'i and Mirsadri note that various verses describe the heavens as a structure or edifice with no fissures, though fragments of it may fall on the earth.

[And] who created seven heavens in layers. You do not see in the creation of the Most Merciful any inconsistency. So return [your] vision [to the sky]; do you see any breaks?

And the fact that the sky/heaven is solid is shown by the concept of pieces 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).

These heavens are described as strong.

And We have built above you seven strong (heavens)

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?).

It is a guarded roof (presumably a reference to shooting stars chasing devils in other verses):

And We made the sky a protected ceiling, but they, from its signs, are turning away.

Quran 81:11 adds that the sky is like a covering that can be 'stripped away', while Quran 21:104 states that it will eventually be rolled or folded up like a parchment and Quran 39:67 says that the heavens will then be held in Allah's hand. This will occur after it has been slit (furijat Quran 77:9), rent asunder with clouds (Quran 25:25), split (inshaqqat Quran 55:37, Quran 84:1, Quran 69:16 with angels appearing at its edges Quran 69:17). The heaven will become as gateways (Quran 78:19, a possibility also alluded to in Quran 15:13-15).

To further expound on the nature of the seven heavens, the hadith are helpful. 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 9:93:608 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 idea that the rivers of paradise are connected to Earth is also found in Sahih Bukhari 4:54:429 and Sahih Muslim 40:6807, also likely potentially to the word 'sarab' in Quran 18:61).[24] The second heaven is the home of the Prophet Idris. Aaron is in the fourth heaven, Abraham the sixth, and Moses the seventh.

The scale (al-mīzān)

The sun and the moon [move] by precise calculation,

And the stars and trees prostrate.
And the heaven He raised and imposed the balance
That you not transgress within the balance.
And establish weight in justice and do not make deficient the balance.

And the earth He laid [out] for the creatures.

A mysterious verse occurs in the 55th surah, al-Rahman. In an opening passage entirely about the signs to be seen in the creation of the heavens and earth, verse 7 says "And the heaven He raised and imposed the balance". The word translated "balance" in verse 7 is al-mīzān, used elsewhere to mean scales of justice. Academic scholars generally believe the next two verses digressing about justice in terms of literal scales were placed there by a confused editor when the Quran was compiled. As so often with 21st century academic scholarship of the Quran, the meaning has become clearer by comparing with contemporary Syriac literature. Julien Decharneux has identified a precedent in two 6th century CE writers, Narsai and Jacob of Sarugh, two of the Syriac Christian authors whose writings are often paralleled in the Quran:

On the second day, the command proceeds forth: “Let there be a firmament!” And it divided the waters, half for the height [i.e. the heavenly realm] and half for the earth. “Let the firmament become a solid instrument in the middle of waters. And let it support the waters above its surface lest it be burnt up.” O Command which stiffened the waters, watery substance, and made them a solid substance that it supports the waters. O Scale [matqālā] which divided the waters, the great cistern, and gathered them in two oceans for the heights and for the abysses.
Narsai, Homilies on Creation 1:47–54 translated by Julien Decharneux[25]
He made the firmament, a dwelling-place, on Day Two. He commanded the wind which was hovering above the raging sea, and it stood between water and water to separate them. His command went into action and He separated them and weighed them [w-tqal ennūn], and set them in their places as He pleased.
Jacob of Sarugh, Homilies 3:29, quoted by Julien Decharneux[26]

Thus it seems that here the Quran is referring to a firmament that fairly divided the waters above and below it.

The gates of the heavens

As Nicolai Sinai notes,[27] this is further supported by the sky (al-samā) having gates, a common cosmological idea in antiquity[28] (see: Quran Quran 7:40, Quran 15:14, Quran 78:19, Quran 5:11 of which Allah holds the keys Quran 42:12), of which the opening causes the water to fall and drown the people of Noah once he's safe in the boat (Quran 54:11-12; cf. Genesis 7:11 and 8:2[29]), which would seem to presuppose the Biblical notion that the firmament separates the waters above.

Then We opened the gates of the sky with pouring waters

The sky is also the source of vivifying precipitation[30] (e.g., Quran 2:22, Quran 30:24, Quran 43:11, Quran 45:5, Quran 50:9, Quran 71:11 and Quran 41:39), with it's life giving qualities to 'dead' soil shown as proof of Gods ability to resurrect the dead (e.g. Q 43:11 '“and Who sent down out of heaven water in measure; and We revived thereby a land that was dead; even so you shall be brought forth”), in line with the contemporary view of the qualities of the celestial waters, that are consistent with the fish miraculously regaining life in Q 18:61 and 63, that meaningfully takes place where the heavenly ocean joins the lower part of the world,[31] which Angelika Neuwirth notes is the exegetical view most in line with the Qur'anic evidence.[32]

The stars, the sun, and the moon

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

See ye not how Allah has created the seven heavens one above another, And made the moon a light in their midst, and made the sun as a (Glorious) Lamp?
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.

These two lights, as well as the night and day float in a circuitous course/sphere/hemisphere (a falak).

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 surface 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 turning to the hadith for details) the sun must negotiate its return the next day with a direct appeal for Allah’s permission.

It is narrated on the authority of Abu Dharr that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) one day said: Do you know where the sun goes? They replied: Allah and His Apostle know best. He (the Holy Prophet) observed: Verily it (the sun) glides till it reaches its resting place under the Throne. Then it falls prostrate and remains there until it is asked: Rise up and go to the place whence you came, and it goes back and continues emerging out from its rising place and then glides till it reaches its place of rest under the Throne and falls prostrate and remains in that state until it is asked: Rise up and return to the place whence you came, and it returns and emerges out from it rising place and the it glides (in such a normal way) that the people do not discern anything ( unusual in it) till it reaches its resting place under the Throne. Then it would be said to it: Rise up and emerge out from the place of your setting, and it will rise from the place of its setting. The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said. Do you know when it would happen? It would happen at the time when faith will not benefit one who has not previously believed or has derived no good from the faith.

The hadith also occurs in Sahih Bukhari 4:54:421 (note that Khan inaccurately translates maghribiki here as "the west" instead of "your setting place") where it is presented as the interpretation of Quran 36:38 quoted above.

With permission to rise received, the sun passes back through the flat earth 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.

Solar and lunar eclipses

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 that 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,
Qur'an 75:6-9

The “uniting” of the sun and the moon not only demonstrates a singular instance when they do “catch up” with each other, but suggests that its author assumed the common perception that the sun and moon are of comparable size and distance.

The stars, planets, and meteors

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 heaven. As with most other ancient people, the authors of the Qur'an believed that meteors literally were “falling stars” (see: Shooting Stars in the Quran). 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.

Indeed, We have adorned the nearest heaven with an adornment of stars And as protection against every rebellious devil [So] they may not listen to the exalted assembly [of angels] and are pelted from every side, Repelled; and for them is a constant punishment, Except one who snatches [some words] by theft, but they are pursued by a burning flame, piercing [in brightness].

See also Quran 15:16-18 and Quran 72:8-9.


The term used in 15:16 is burūjan, which is commonly translated, and has been understood by most to mean 'constellations/zodiac signs' or 'great stars'. However the word can also mean 'towers', and some classical commentators have suggested this meaning (along with mansions or castles),[33] and some modern Muslim translators have used this interpretation.[34]

We have set in heaven constellations/great stars/towers (burūjan), and decked them out fair to the beholders, and We have guarded them from every outcast Satan, except someone who may eavesdrop, whereat there pursues him a manifest flame.

Islamic scholars Gabriel Said Reynolds[35] and Julien Decharneux[36]support this interpretation of towers on the firmament, with the idea of the skies/heavens (samā) being a protected celestial fortress in both the Quran itself (e.g. Quran 41:12, Quran 21:32) and biblically related traditions.

The throne ('arsh) of Allah

Tabataba'i and Mirsadri note that Allah seems to reside in the Qur'anic heaven, while his footstool (kursi) extends over the heavens and earth and his throne (arshi) is carried by angels (Quran 39:75 and Quran 40:7). This is very much similar to the Judeo-Christian view.[37]

Have ye taken security from Him Who is in the heaven that He will not cause the earth to swallow you when lo! it is convulsed? Or have ye taken security from Him Who is in the heaven that He will not let loose on you a hurricane? But ye shall know the manner of My warning.
[...] His Throne doth extend over the heavens and the earth [...]
Those who bear the Throne, and all who are round about it, hymn the praises of their Lord [...]
Then on that Day, the Resurrection will occur, And the heaven will split [open], for that Day it is infirm. And the angels are at its edges. And there will bear the Throne of your Lord above them, that Day, eight [of them].

The locations of Heaven and Hell

Tabataba'i and Mirsadri observe that for the Qur'an, there is almost no reference to what is beneath the earth, except as no more than a geographic location. There is no concept of an underworld, unlike Mesopotamian mythologies, as well as those of Egypt and Greece.[38]

The Qur'an repeatedly described Jannah (Paradise) as comprising "Gardens from beneath which the rivers flow". Though not reflected in English translations, in every instance the definite article 'al' is used i.e. "the rivers". This is also noted by Tommaso Tesei, who has detailed how "sources confirm that during late antiquity it was widely held that paradise was a physical place situated on the other side of the ocean encircling the Earth. In accordance with this concept, it was generally assumed that the rivers flowing from paradise passed under this ocean to reach the inhabited part of the world." A notion of four rivers following a subterranean course from paradise into the inhabited world also occurs in contemporary near eastern and Syriac sources.[39]

Though again not reflected in many English translations, the rivers are also always described as running below/underneath (taḥt / تحت) paradise and the people in paradise (e.g. Quran verses 3:15, 3:136, 3:195, 3:198, 4:13, 4:57, 4:112, 5:12, 5:18, 7:43, 25:10, 47:12, 98:8) rather than simply 'in' (fee /في) paradise, giving weight to this interpretation.

So Allah rewarded them for what they said with gardens [in Paradise] beneath which rivers flow, wherein they abide eternally. And that is the reward of doers of good.

The concept also appears in numerous sahih hadiths about Muhammad's night journey which mention the Nile and Euphrates, for example:

The Prophet (ﷺ) added:

I was raised to the Lote Tree and saw four rivers, two of which were coming out and two going in. Those which were coming out were the Nile and the Euphrates, and those which were going in were two rivers in paradise. Then I was given three bowls, one containing milk, and another containing honey, and a third containing wine. I took the bowl containing milk and drank it. It was said to me, "You and your followers will be on the right path (of Islam)."

[...]The Prophet (ﷺ) met Adam over the nearest Heaven. Gabriel said to the Prophet, "He is your father; greet him." The Prophet (ﷺ) greeted him and Adam returned his greeting and said, "Welcome, O my Son! O what a good son you are!" Behold, he saw two flowing rivers, while he was in the nearest sky. He asked, "What are these two rivers, O Gabriel?" Gabriel said, "These are the sources of the Nile and the Euphrates."[...]

Later 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. This is discussed with many narrations in an article on the website.[40] 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'anic 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 might seem reasonable that Hell is at the level of the lowest earth, as appears in hadith. This is consistent with Qur'anic 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).

And that humans who do not believe or are not righteous are told they will be put in the 'lowest of low' (which many classical tafsirs have stated means hell,[41] among other interpretations).

Indeed, We created humans in the best form.

But We will reduce them to the lowest of the low,

except those who believe and do good—they will have a never-ending reward.
And those who disbelieved will [then] say, "Our Lord, show us those who misled us of the jinn and men [so] we may put them under our feet that they will be among the lowest."

The direction of hell on the day of judgement or from the perspective of those in paradise at least, when it is mentioned, is invariably “down.”

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

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.
Qur'an 37:54-55

And so, we have the Islamic Universe in completion.

See also

External links


  1. Tabatabaʾi, Mohammad A.; Mirsadri, Saida, "The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself", Arabica 63 (3/4): 201-234, 2016,  also available on
  2. 2.0 2.1 Van Bladel, Kevin, “The Alexander legend in the Qur‘an 18:83-102″, In The Qur’ān in Its Historical Context, Ed. Gabriel Said Reynolds, New York: Routledge, 2007
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 van Bladel, Kevin, "Heavenly cords and prophetic authority in the Qur’an and its Late Antique context", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 70 (2): 223-246, 2007, 
  4. Mohammad Ali Tabatabaʾi and Saida Mirsadri, The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself p. 211
  5. Van Bladel, Kevin, Heavenly cords and prophetic authority in the Qur’an and its Late Antique context pp. 224-226
  6. Janos, Damien, "Qurʾānic cosmography in its historical perspective: some notes on the formation of a religious wordview", Religion 42 (2): 215-231, 2012  See pp. 217-218
  7. Tabataba'i and Mirsadri, The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself p. 211
  8. Ibid. pp. 211 and 221
  9. Janos, Qurʾānic cosmography in its historical perspective p. 221
  10. Tabataba'i and Mirsadri, The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself p. 209
  11. Ibid. pp. 213-214
  12. Tabataba'i and Mirsadri, The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself pp. 217
  13. Janos, Qurʾānic cosmography in its historical perspective pp. 223-229
  14. Tabataba'i and Mirsadri, The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself pp. 218-234
  15. Janos, Qurʾānic cosmography in its historical perspective pp. 216-217
  16. Tabataba'i and Mirsadri, The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself pp. 215
  17. Ibid. p. 209
  18. Ibid. pp. 216 and 220
  19. (English) Tafsir of Ibn Kathir for verse 13:2
    (Arabic) Tafsir of Ibn Kathir for verse 13:2
  20. Julien Decharneux (2023), Creation and Contemplation: The Cosmology of the Qur’ān and Its Late Antique Background, Berlin: De Gruyter, pp. 144-148
  21. Ibid. p. 146
  22. Ibid. pp 210-211
  23. Ibid. p. 146
  24. Tesei, Tommaso. Some Cosmological Notions from Late Antiquity in Q 18:60–65: The Quran in Light of Its Cultural Context. Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 135, no. 1, American Oriental Society, 2015, pp. 19–32,
  25. Julien Decharneux (2023), Creation and Contemplation: The Cosmology of the Qur’ān and Its Late Antique Background, Berlin: De Gruyter, p. 208
  26. Ibid. p. 209
  27. Samāʾ | heaven, sky entry. Sinai, Nicolai. Key Terms of the Qur'an: A Critical Dictionary (p. 412). Princeton University Press.
  28. Anthony, Sean W., Dr.. Muhammad and the Empires of Faith: The Making of the Prophet of Islam. University of California Press. Kindle Edition. Location 1134 - 1145. The cosmological notion of humankind being blocked from accessing Paradise by gates and, thus, the existence of a heavenly gatekeeper is quite an ancient one and by no means exclusive to Jewish, Christian, or Muslim sacred cosmology. Indeed, where “the keys to heaven” as opposed to “the keys of Paradise” motif appears first in the Islamic tradition is in the Qurʾan itself.
  29. Genesis 7:11-8:2. New American Bible (Revised Edition) (NABRE).
  30. Samāʾ | heaven, sky entry. Sinai, Nicolai. Key Terms of the Qur'an: A Critical Dictionary (p. 412). Princeton University Press.
  31. Tesei, Tommaso. Some Cosmological Notions from Late Antiquity in Q 18:60–65: The Quran in Light of Its Cultural Context. Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 135, no. 1, American Oriental Society, 2015, pp. 19–32, (pp. 28-29)
  32. Cosmology Entry. Space in cosmological context. Encyclopaedia Of The Qur’an. pp. 445-446. Angelika Neuwirth. 2001. Read online for free here: Encyclopaedia Of The Qur’an ( 6 Volumes). Page 15/325 / 482 of 3956 of PDF
  33. E.g. Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs on verse 15:16. (Though the tafsir/commentary is attributed to Ibn Abbas, the prophets cousin, it is widely accepted to be at least largely a forgery - however it does give us an educated medieval Muslim's view on this verse).
  34. See Quranx on verse 15:16. Ahmad Khan has used 'towers' and Marmaduke Pickthall uses 'mansions'.
  35. Gabriel Said Reynolds. 1st Edition. The Qur'an and its Biblical Subtext. Copyright 2010. Published March 1, 2012 by Routledge 2012. ISBN 9780415524247. Taylor and Francis Group. A full in-depth analysis of the relevant verses and evidence stated for this meaning can be found on pp 114 - 131.
  36. Creation and Contemplation: The Cosmology of the Qur'ān and Its Late Antique Background (Studies in the History and Culture of the Middle East Book 47) Decharneux, Julien. 2023. (p. 313). De Gruyter.
  37. Mohammad Ali Tabatabaʾi and Saida Mirsadri, The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself pp. 208-210
  38. Mohammad Ali Tabatabaʾi and Saida Mirsadri, The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself p. 212
  39. Tesei, Tommaso. Some Cosmological Notions from Late Antiquity in Q 18:60–65: The Quran in Light of Its Cultural Context. Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 135, no. 1, American Oriental Society, 2015, pp. 19–32,
  40. Where is Paradise and where is Hell? -
  41. E.g. Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas on verse 95:4-6.