It is difficult, on first reading, to divine the great scientific message imparted by this verse. The scientific description of the earth contained in the verse must be a humiliation to those who see the earth as no more than an accident in the universe.
We have described elsewhere the chain of divine wonders in the structure of the earth. The 23.5 degrees inclination of its axis is a matter for such delicate computation that it is possible for neither physics nor philosophy to pre-calculate it. For example, if the earth was inclined 25 degrees, the polar caps would melt in a few hundred years, and the oceans would be flooded with ice. If the slant was 22 degrees, on the other hand, Arctic ice would invade the whole of Europe, and life would be possible only in the equatorial regions of the earth. The All-Mighty emphasizes this important insight at the beginning of the verse in the description of spreading out and ordering.
Again, this spreading out and ordering of the earth is closely related to its rotation on its axis every 24 hours. If the earth had completed one revolution every 30 hours, such tremendous winds would have ensued that the earth would have become a hurricane-ridden desert for living things. If, on the contrary, the earth had rotated every 20 hours, most plants would have been unable to complete their biological activity and fallen victim to droughts.
The spreading out and ordering mentioned in the first part of the sacred verse, then, is obtained for the rotation of the earth by the harmonious inclination of the earth’s axis. This result, if ever, if left to chance could be achieved, if ever only after millions of trials.
God’s presentation, in various parts of the Qur’an of His marvels of order and measure, aims at closing all doors to unbelief with the mathematical and physical order of the earth and the universe.
The most significant message of the verse is the proper balance of things produced from the earth. What are these things, and what are these harmonious measures?
Scientific research to date links the chain of life to the balanced interactions between plants, animals and bacteria. The bacteria are charged with transferring nitrogen from animals to plants. Plants produce the oxygen needed by animals and other organisms, and animals supply both carbon dioxide and–through bacteria–nitrogen to plants.
While the chain of life proceeds in this manner, it is imperative that the proportion of oxygen in the air remains close to 20%. This is where the most delicate of subtleties begins. All smoke and exhalations are converted by plants into oxygen. One would need a computer to calculate the ratio of plant species needed to maintain the oxygen in the air at 20%.
There has to be a divine computer that can regulate the amount of plants needed for the smoke from chimneys and the oxygen consumption of humans and provide the necessary oxygen to the air. This incredible calculation can only be considered as a divine miracle. The Qur’an declares: ‘The things produced in the earth are subject to proper balance’ and its wisdom reaches us across a gulf of fourteen centuries, from a time when none of the above facts were known.
Millions of years ago, a vast blanket of flora covered the earth. The purpose of this was to increase the oxygen balance of the atmosphere. Dinosaurs, the animals benefitting from these plants, roamed on earth. Finally, the oxygen ratio began to exceed 20%. The consumption of the plants by dinosaurs and their exhalation of carbon dioxide was no longer able to balance the gigantic production of oxygen by the plants.
At this point, a vast geological upheaval occurred, and both the flora and the dinosaurs vanished from the face of the earth. Then, God produced all fish, birds and mammals at the same time. (That is the latest valid hypothesis, the views of the diehard evolutionists having been superseded some time ago.)
As the verse tells us, the volume of plants is in such harmonious balance that a tree has been assigned to purify the fumes of every smoking chimney. Man–including those who think they believe–is in such heedlessness that he can never fathom these delicate calculations of Divine Omniscience, and for this reason cannot intuit the secret of ‘Provider of the worlds.’ The respect, accorded in Islam to trees and the importance assigned to planting new trees stand in recognition of the above facts.
Let me now provide some further incredible calculations.
For nearly every illness, the Great Creator has fashioned a plant or microbe as a cure. How can the ignorant, altogether lacking evidence, call this system a coincidence! To create the earth, to settle human beings there, and then to keep ready all the botanical and bacterial remedies for all their ailments in the laboratories of nature!
There are enough foxglove plants in the world to provide digitalis to cure all heart patients. There are also enough hashish plants to ease the sufferings of all the painfully ill, yet the medicine of that plant has become black market stuff under the pressure of heedless selfishness and is used to provide pleasure for the lunatic fringe.
Another example of the things produced in harmonious balance in the earth: until about a hundred years ago, firewood met the heating and energy requirements of men. If coal and oil had not been discovered, the forests would all have been the last of their kind on earth. But just at the right moment, the divine computer delivered the coal and later, the oil, that it had prepared millions of years ago, and in such measure as to provide enough for all human beings. Unfortunately man, the prisoner of egotism, is now preparing for the greatest war in history with oil as the centre of the controversy. And what of the House of Islam? Because it has not truly embraced the Qur’an, because it has been unable to understand it and to realize new scientific advances, it now stands dazed, looking in bewilderment at even the wealth gushing from its own backyard.
Let us now look at the proper balance of the earth’s constitution in terms of its metals.
We do not know the proportions of metals in the central core of the earth and the liquid mantle surrounding it. But in the crust on which we live, the elements are distributed in such proportion that it is as if a scientific committee had provided a shopping list and the orders had been met by an infinitely powerful factory. Each substance is present in the earth’s crust to the exact proportion that the level of civilization ordained by God demands. Compounds of silicon, iron and potassium are the basic substances for residential construction. If even one of these had been missing, we could not have cities.
Until recently we didn’t know what blessing water is. Today we know that the calcium bicarbonate in water is the best organizer of digestion. Vital substances such as salt are distributed over the earth in such proportion that man has almost arrived in a fully equipped biological laboratory.
Have you ever considered that sea water has been evaporating, and then returning to the seas by rivers, for millions of years? During this process, new substances are transported to the seas from land, and yet the composition of sea water never changes. Observe the magnificence of this miracle of the divine computer: millions of events take place, yet the harmonious balance imposed by God on the earth’s produce does not change. For the Guarded Tablet is also, in a sense, a law of the Qur’an.
Returning to metals, there are some whose names have been heard of only in the last 150 years, such as beryllium, uranium, cadmium, tungsten, tantalum and gallium. When these were first discovered, everyone regarded them merely as laboratory curiosities. Only later was it realized that these are the indispensable building blocks of advanced technology. From the utilization of atomic energy to high temperature technological activities, each one of these metals represents some essential property, and their presence on earth is adjusted according to the part they were predestined to play.
One of the greatest wonders of the planet earth, which the All-Mighty furnished before lowering man upon it, are the radioactive substances of the world. These are present in the earth’s crust in such perfect proportion that its measure could not be ordered by any scientific committee. On the one hand, there is uranium-235 to provide nuclear power, safe in its natural setting yet dangerous when purified; on the other hand, carbon-14 to enable biological activity. And how wonderful are mineral springs whose waters, which bear moderate amounts of radioactive substances, dispense health to millions of people all over the world.
Consider what we have said about the radioactivity of the earth from the reverse point of view. If uranium had been present in the earth in the form of its uranium-235 isotope exclusively, the world would have become a witch’s cauldron a short time after it was formed. On the other hand, if uranium-235 had not been present in uranium-238 in the proportion of 0.7%, we could not have obtained atomic energy. God has invested uranium-235 with such a characteristic that it can be converted to nuclear power only when it is separated, and does not pose a danger in its natural matrix in uranium-238.
Many biological events could not take place, but for the presence of carbon-14 in the atmosphere. If this substance, which has a proportion of one ppm (parts per million), had been slightly more common, it would have constituted a lethal hazard. And if the sodium-24 isotope were present in mineral springs, taking a bath would be like being present at Hiroshima when they dropped the bomb. Although the main substance in mineral springs is sodium, its isotopes other than sodium-24 are predominant.
Indeed, we could never exhaust commentary on this verse if we were to fill volumes. I have therefore been content to offer only a short summary. Let us read and re-read it with due reverence and wonder:
‘We have given the produce of the earth in harmonious balance and proper proportion.’