Cosmology of the Qur'an
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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 claims explicitly and implicitly that the earth is 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 Muhammad the founder of Islam thought the universe looked like.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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 the fact that they are solid is shown by references to pieces of the heavens falling and potentially injuring residents of the earth.
In fact, they are so substantial that it is even conceivable to climb up onto them using a ladder.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
These two lights (along with the stars and planets) follow prescribed paths along the curved walls of the solid heavenly domes.
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.
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.
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.
And that is the interpretation of the Statement of Allah:
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.
Eclipses of the Sun or Moon
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
This appears to be part of the protective role of the heavens.
The Earth and its Denizens
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
Where are Paradise and Hell?
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.
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.
Further, the direction of hell, when it is mentioned, is invariably “down.”
And in yet another reference, an observer is directed to “look down” in order to witness a denizen of hell.
And so, we have the Islamic Universe in completion.
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, and below which a cosmic whale.
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