Then He applied His design or turned to the sky (or heaven) which was yet but smoke (Arabic: dukhan) and said to it and to the earth, ‘Come, both of you, willingly or unwillingly.’ They both responded, ‘we do come in obedience’ (al-Fussilat, 41.11).
Sura ‘Fussilat, which may be translated as the chapter of ‘Detailed Explanations’, is the second chapter in the Qur’an beginning with the letters ‘Haa’ and ‘Mim’ and was frequently recited by our beloved Prophet.
The eleventh verse quoted above follows a verse explaining the creation or genesis of the world. As with the other verses in the Qur’an, this verse has many profound meanings but I shall try to explain it from the point of view of geophysics.
On reading the verse several times over, we must note with care the subtle meanings which lie beyond the ordinary in the declarations of God Almighty. I would like to draw the attention of the reader to these points in what follows:
a) ‘Then He turned to the heaven which was yet but smoke.’
This expression discloses a special secret. For when God Almighty wishes something, He simply says ‘Be’ and it is. Why does the verse specifically indicate that ‘He turned to the sky’? It is drawing our attention to the fact that an important scientific insight is about to be revealed.
b) He sends out a call for cooperation to the earth and the heaven. He orders them to ‘come (and cooperate with each other) whether you like it or not. Again, in the power of God Almighty and the certainty of His commands, there can be no such thing as the insubordination of the created. The command ‘come, even if unwillingly indicates that there is difficulty in the cooperation of the earth and its heaven. Further, it is indicated that the heaven which harmonizes with the earth is the one closest to the earth.
Let us now investigate the relationship between the earth and its ‘closest heaven’ in terms of the precepts of contemporary geophysics. Until quite recently, it used to be assumed that life would originate on any planet having the proper temperature. In recent years, however, space explorations have revealed that the possession of an atmosphere is one of the most difficult things for a planet to achieve. In other words, there is a baffling opposition between a planet and its atmosphere (which might be called its ‘nearest heaven’). For the atmosphere consists of gaseous atoms in the ‘near sky’. In all large planets these atoms are assimilated to the surface of the planet, while in small planets the gravitational force is insufficient to bind the atoms. These gases then escape, leaving the planet barren.
Now let us reread the sacred verse in the light of this very brief information, and in particular the second sentence:
‘Come, both of you, (come together) willingly or unwillingly.’
The molecules and atoms in the atmosphere try to escape into space, while the earth tries to attract and captivate them. In other words, their partnership is unwilling; it is forced.
The scientific magnificence of this sacred verse consists in the fact that it is telling us this secret fourteen centuries ago. Fifty years ago no one was aware of this fact.
In order to ascertain the inner meaning of the sacred verse, let us expand our knowledge of geophysics a little further. What are the conditions for the formation of an atmosphere on a planet and so, by implication, on earth?
For the formation of an atmosphere, the motions leading to the escape of molecules have to be counterbalanced by the gravitational attraction of the earth. This is an almost impossibly difficult condition to fulfil. For all planets throughout the universe, the odds may be less than a billion to one. This is the fact that the chapter ‘Detailed Explanations’ expresses.
‘And then He turned to the heaven.’
This statement contains the secret of how God Almighty renders all things possible. From the standpoint of geophysics, these extremely difficult conditions require the preservation of three important balances:
1. Atmospheric temperature,
2. Proportionate gravitational attraction on the part of the earth,
3. The non-violation of this balance by various radiant energies arriving from space.
The ability of molecules to escape is dependent on heat. Environmental heat should obey the following characteristics:
a) The distance of the earth to the sun. If the earth were closer to the sun, the heat produced in the environment of the atmosphere would cause all the molecules to ‘boil off and escape. On the other hand, if the earth were farther away from the sun, the molecular movements would slow down, the molecules would condense and be assimilated by the earth.
b) The heat the earth receives from the sun must be evenly distributed over the earth’s atmosphere. For this the earth has to rotate on its axis with a definite velocity. If it rotated too slowly, sudden cooling would be absorbed by the surface in that region. If it were to rotate too fast, the various regions would not get the chance to be heated evenly.
The earth, therefore, must rotate at its present speed. However, this balanced rotation is likewise insufficient to dispose of the question of heating. For next the equator of the earth, which receives a larger portion of the sun’s energy, begins to heat up, while the Poles cool even further leading to the condensation and absorption of the atmosphere at the Poles. So the axis of the earth must remain tilted, balancing the heated regions by continually interchanging them. This is why the axis of the earth is slanted 23.5 degrees.
The declaration ‘They both responded, we come willingly’ at the end of the sacred verse gives expression to this inner meaning, God’s order, ‘come, (cooperate, come together)’ points simultaneously to the automatic inclination of the earth and its possession of a moderate rotation. For the earth, too, takes the appropriate physical measures demanded of it by the command.
c) The earth has to retain the heat it gains, to store it for a certain period. In other words, the earth needs a ‘blanket’. This blanket is provided by the gaseous carbon dioxide in the air. But before the atmosphere had formed, where was the carbon dioxide to regulate the heating process? We know from geophysics that the initial atmosphere of the earth was composed primarily of carbon dioxide.
The sacred verse reveals this secret as well. What does ‘which was yet but smoke (dukhan) mean?’ It is known that in its initial period, the earth possessed an atmosphere consisting mostly of smoke (carbon dioxide). It was thanks to this primordial gas that the earth retained its heat and was able to form the atmosphere of today.
Modern physics defines terrestrial gravitation as follows: The sum of the active gravitational forces of the atoms comprising the earth. This means that if the escape of the atmosphere is to be prevented by gravitation and its absorption avoided, the earth gas is to possess a definite volume and density. It can easily be seen that when the earth possesses a specific density and volume, the atmosphere can be constituted without difficulty. Unbelievable subtleties, however, underlie this event. We may list these as follows:
a) The earth has to contain certain materials in a definite proportion. It has to have sufficient metals in reserve to support the existence of life and civilization, and gas to comprise large amounts of non-metals. This means that the density of the earth is not a crude but rather a very difficult calculation, involving the simultaneous consideration of many essentials.
b) The gravitational balance of the earth has to be constituted in such a way that while the atmospheric molecules are being balanced physically, they must also be chemically inert. The surface of the earth’s crust, the soil, the mountains and oceans should not have a structure that would react with the atmospheric gases, which is equivalent to saying that it should not be absorptive of the atmosphere. For instance, if the earth, or more specifically the earth’s crust were made of carbon, it would both exhaust the oxygen through chemical reactions and would absorb the nitrogen, whereas in fact the earth’s crust is comprised of silicon compounds with structures that leave them inert when brought into contact with the inner shell of the atmosphere.
c) Two other significant points regarding the earth‘s gravity relate to mailers of physical structure. Firstly, within the material density of the earth, the balanced distribution of magnetic materials such as iron has to be achieved. Further, the molten core at the centre of the earth and the semimolten metals surrounding it must maintain equilibrium with the earth’s crust.
We thus see that the gravitational balance of the earth requires many calculations; calculations of such magnitude and finesse that they could only be evaluated by the vast program of a giant computer.
No matter how harmonized it may be, there is such a torrential rain of particles from space that can always after the atmospheric equilibrium. It imparts violent velocities to molecules, yet an equilibrium is upheld through the presence of:
a) A magnetic field (the ‘magnetosphere’) which surrounds the earth, with a diameter equal to a hundred earth diameters. This field acts as a vast screen towards all particles and energies coming from space. This insight will be explained in detail in the interpretation of a separate verse.
b) Black holes are thought to be located at various distances to the earth. All excess energies emitted from within the Milky Way galaxy are absorbed by these centres of intense gravitation.
c) Further, the atmosphere protects itself within its own structure from the upper regions towards the lower. The filtering of particles in this protective screen is performed by the ozone layer. Isotopes of nitrogen also contribute to this protection.
It will ready be conceded that there are many things about the atmosphere that we don’t yet know. What is important is that science discovers and bears witness to a fresh miracle of our great Creator each new day.
Such are the facts we find when we set out by interpretation the word ‘heaven’ in Verse 11 as the sky of the earth in Verse 12.
It is also possible to take the word ‘heaven’ in a general sense, and to approach its interpretation from a different angle. It is known that the Glorious Qur’an declares the existence of seven different heavens. We know very little about the spatial physics of these heavens; at present, we know nothing whatsoever about the dimensions and spaces involved.
As for the man characteristics of the atmosphere, the escape velocity for any object or molecule is 11.3 kilometres per second. Normal atmospheric conditions are balanced with care as outlined above, so that atmospheric molecules cannot attain this speed.
According to Prof. De Lymak Spitser, the earth absorbs part of the atmosphere it requires, especially nitrogen. The active and violent nature of the oxygen in the atmosphere is counterbalanced by nitrogen. Furthermore, the gases we call ‘noble gases’ (helium, argon, neon, krypton, xenon, radon), which prevent the combination of nitrogen and oxygen in the course of time and particularly during lightning strokes, are also present in the atmosphere in trace but optimal amounts. The atmosphere always maintains its nitrogen/oxygen balance in the proportion 5/1.
All these magnificent geophysical systems find their origin in the secrets revealed to us in this verse by God. If we now re-read the verse in the light of all these scientific facts, we are in a much better position to appreciate what a wonderful marvel of science it embodies.