Modern Cosmology and the Qur'an

by Matthew Mitchell

Cosmology is the branch of astronomy concerned with the origin, structure, and evolution of the universe as a whole. Throughout history, science and religion have sought to explain the universe, and often have conflicted in their explanations. Modern cosmology which applies particular mathematical relationships and scientific theories in search of an explanation is mostly a product of the twentieth century.

Today's cosmological research is based on a mathematical description of the universe which Albert Einstein developed in the context of his theories of special and general relativity in the early 1900s. These theories involve a lot of very sophisticated mathematics for a full understanding. Basically they concern the laws of motion under high speeds approaching the speed of light (special relativity) and the impact of strong gravitational fields (general relativity) applied to the explanation of cosmological phenomena. What is a wonder and an indication of the universality in Islam, is that several of the key scientific findings in modern cosmology, according to some scientists seem to be reflected in the Holy Qur'an, revealed by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) nearly 1400 years ago. These findings are: (a) the "big bang theory" of how the universe began; (b) the expansion of the universe and (c) relativity of time.

The "Big Bang Theory" and the Unity of Creation

Most cosmologists today have accepted the "big bang theory" in describing the origin of the universe. This theory states that the universe began at a single hot, dense point, or "singularity". Out of this point developed what is often referred to as "cosmic soup," a constant interchange between matter and energy with no separation between stars and planets or the heavens and the Earth as we recognize them.

The Qur'an, in Sura 21:30, appears to be consistent with this theory:

"...Do not the Unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together (as one Unit of Creation) before we clove them asunder."

This verse unambiguously describes the initial unity of all creation and subsequent division of the universe into the phenomena we observe. Yusuf Ali, in the notes to his English translation of the Sura, points out, that as man acquires more knowledge about the physical world; he is also bound to expand his awareness of the overriding unity in the cosmos. As an example, he cites the discovery of the direct correlation between measurements of sunspot activity and changes in the Earth's magnetic field. There are many other examples in our daily life, including the influence of the moon on the tides and womens monthly cycle, the influence of the Earth's magnetic field on the migration of birds, gravitational and centrifugal forces that keep the solar system bound together in harmony...preventing planets from flying away and crashing into each other. In essence, the initial unity of creation continues to exist, not in the form of a singularity, but through various bonding relationships that allow multiple forms of creation to maintain their linkage to the initial "oneness" of the universe.

The Expansion and Structure of the Universe

The Qur'an points to the continued expansion of the universe in Sura 51:47

"...We built the heaven with might and We expand it wide."

In 1929, American astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that the farther a galaxy was from the Earth the greater the speed of its outward movement. In fact, he found the movement of a galaxy to be directly proportional to its distance. This means that if a galaxy is ten times as far away as another galaxy, it is moving at ten times the speed. Based on this discovery, and other observations, scientists have concluded that the universe is expanding. Furthermore, Dr. Haruk Nurbaki, in his book, Verses of the Koran and Facts of Science, states that the Qur'an also suggests a structure of the universe which corresponds to modern scientific findings. Sura 67 states:

"...It is He (Allah) who created the seven heavens, one above another."

Dr. Nurbaki correlates the reference to the seven heavens with the descriptions of cosmic regions by modern scientists. He states that when you look at space from Earth you are surrounded by seven magnetic fields extending into the infinity of space. These fields consist of (i) the spatial field occupied by Earth and the rest of the solar system; (ii) the spatial field of the Earth's galaxy, the Milky Way; (iii) the spatial field occupied by a "local cluster" of galaxies to which the Milky Way belongs; (iv) the central magnetic field of the universe represented by a collectivity of clustered galaxies; (v) the band represented by quasars, which serve as "star hatcheries"; (vi) the field of the expanding universe, represented by the receding galaxies; and (vii) the outermost field of space representing infinity.

The Relativity of Time

Dr. Mansour Hassab-Elnaby in a paper entitled "A New Astronomical Qur'anic Method for the Determination of the Greatest Speed C" asserts that the Qur'an establishes a time/space reference system, which is indicative of the relativity of time and the constancy of the speed of light (represented by "C" in scientific notation). Albert Einstein used these concepts to establish his well-known "field equations" which provide the mathematical explanation for the interaction of matter, energy, space and time in the universe. The basis of Dr. Hassab-Elnaby's paper is Sura, 32:5 which he quotes as follows:

"God rules the cosmic affair from the heavens to the earth. Then this affair travels to Him (i.e. through the whole universe) in one day, where the measure is one thousand years of your reckoning."

Thus the Qur'an suggests that time is not absolute in the universe, a discovery made only in the early part of the twentieth century. Sura 32:5, according to Dr. Hassab-Elnaby implies a "cosmic affair" of extremely high speed, making it possible to travel, in one day, the distance the moon travels around the Earth over a period of 1,000 years. The use of the lunar calendar in reckoning Earth time is explicitly stated in Sura 10:5

"...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)."

Furthermore, Dr. Hassab-Elnaby uses the mathematical relationship given in Sura 32:5 - one day of "cosmic reckoning" equal to a thousand years of "Earth reckoning"- along with established scientific data on the movements of the Earth and the moon to calculate the speed which provides a linkage between the two systems of reckoning time. The resulting speed is 299,792.458 kilometers per second, which he points out is exactly, to the decimal point, the speed of light recorded by the United States National Bureau of Standards.

The Qur'an as Part of Universal Order

The correlation between the findings of science in the past century and the Qur'an highlights the importance of preserving the written word, emphasized in Islam because it bridges space and time, providing inspiration and verification for those separated from direct contact with the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his Companions. It has also led some scientists to take a closer look at the Qur'an.

Dr. Maurice Bucaille of the French Academy of Science, author of The Bible, the Koran and Science, states that, "...It comes as no surprise to learn that Religion and Science have always been considered to be twin sisters by Islam and that today, at a time when science has taken such great strides, they continue to be associated. Furthermore, certain scientific data are used for a better understanding of the Qur'anic text. What is more, in a century where for many, scientific truth has dealt a deathblow to religious belief, it is precisely the discoveries of science that, in an objective examination of the Islamic Revelation, have highlighted the supernatural character of certain aspects of the Revelation."

Islam encourages man's search for knowledge to both enhance appreciation of the cosmic order and augment his capability to serve as a representative of Allah in governing the affairs of the Earth. Sura 32 seems to call attention to the importance of observing the heavens in this search. It states:

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

The Qur'an also contains passages which show that space exploration and the physical experience of moving outside the Earth's atmosphere are part of a Diving plan to assist mankind in the search for knowledge. Sura 55:33 states:

"...O assembly of Jinns and Men, if you can penetrate the regions of the heavens and the Earth, then penetrate them! You will not penetrate them save with a power."

In addition, Sura 15:24-25 states:

"...Even if We opened unto them a gate to Heaven and they were to continue ascending therein, they would say: our sight is confused as in drunkenness. Nay, we are a people bewitched."

In the sense of Sura 55, Allah already has granted humans "the power" to travel to the moon and set up international communities in space. The Jinn, mentioned in Sura 55 could be interpreted as extraterrestrials, different from humans, who may also be involved in space exploration. Furthermore, what we now know about the physical experience of space flight by human astronauts...weightlessness and the sight of Earth as a blue sphere against a black background...could explain the bewilderment, expressed in Sura 15, of a person knowing nothing about space travel would feel in ascending the heavens in a space vehicle. Thus, important evidence seems to be emerging in the modern world that the Qur'an contains revelation which transcends space and time, forming a part of the cosmic order to guide the path of mankind and strengthen the bond between religion and science.


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May / June 1998
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