In cosmic jargon, a planet is said to be at “opposition” when the Sun is on one side of the Earth and the planet is on the opposite side. On 27 August 2003, the Sun, Earth, and Mars lined up in rare opposition: the orbits of Earth and Mars were at their closest possible, placing Mars closer to Earth than it has been in almost sixty thousand years – some 34.65 million miles (55.75 million kilometers) from Earth.1
It is We Who have built the universe with (Our creative) power, and, verily, it is We Who are steadily expanding it. (Qur’an 51:47)
In astronomical terms, this is a very short distance. It is estimated that within our own solar system the distance between the Sun and Pluto, the ninth and usually farthest planet from the Sun, is about 4.6 billion miles (7.4 billion kilometers) at aphelion (the point of the orbit that is farthest from the sun). It may be hard to believe that the Sun, Pluto, and all the intra-planetary bodies were once one giant mass. But this is what the Solar Nebular theory, the most popular account for the creation of solar systems, postulates.
According to the Solar Nebular theory, the emergence of a solar system begins with cosmic gas. A large cloud of gas and dust (a nebula) – believed to have initially come into existence through a slow process of conglomeration – slowly starts to lose peripheral matter as it slowly rotates. This collapse, as the theory goes, happens gradually as the force of gravity pulls the nebular matter inward (toward its center of gravity), overpowering the force of expansion due to gas pressure.
As the cloud collapses, it starts to spin faster in conformance with the Law of Conservation of Angular Momentum. The combination of the increased spin and the attraction of gravity cause the nebula to flatten into a spinning pancake-like structure with a bulge at the center. Slowly, the heavier regions within this evolving structure begin to contract gravitationally and condense. Eventually, the sun forms the center and planets form around it, rotating in the same direction and along the same plan (with exceptions, for example, in our solar system, Venus, Mercury, and Pluto spin “backward” – perhaps due to collisions during the formation stage). The centripetal force, a corollary to gravitational force, prevents the planets from drifting out of orbit. It is a very delicate balance.2
It is reported that Kant and Laplace presented the Solar Nebular hypothesis in the eighteenth century3Yet, this hypothesis that consists firstly of the coalescing of planetesimals* to form the solar nebular cloud, and then the differentiating of this cloud into planets, appears to have been referred to in the Qur’an since the seventh century. For example, in 71:14, God may be alluding to the phased nature of the birth of the Solar System. Verses 15 and 16 are further quoted to give the context of this Qur’anic revelation, i.e. the creation of the Solar System:
Seeing that it is He that has created you in diverse stages? See you 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? (71:14-16)
In 41:11 there is a verse about stage one – the formation of the nebular cloud; and, in 21:30 about stage two – the cleavage of the nebular cloud into our solar system:
Then He comprehended in His design the sky, and it had been (as) smoke: He said to it and to the earth:
“Come you together, willingly or unwillingly.” They said: “We do come (together), in willing obedience.” (41:11)
Have the unbelievers not beheld that the heavens and the earth were a solid mass, then We separated them . . . (21:30)
The Arabic word sama (plural samawat) is routinely translated as meaning “heaven” (also sometimes as firmament) in the mainstream translations of the Qur’an. However, in our context here, sky would be a more accurate term. [The Qur’an refers to Heaven itself (the place where good deeds will be rewarded) as either Janna or Firdaws, but never as sama.]
On several occasions, the Qur’an refers to seven skies (seven heavens) being stacked one above the other (as if in levels), for example, in 71:15, as quoted above. There is no consensus among Muslim scholars as to where these seven heavens lie. But if we look at our solar system we find that it consists of an average sized star that we call the Sun and nine planets orbiting the Sun. These planets in outreaching order are Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. “Above” the Earth, therefore, there are six planets and seven interplanetary skies; there are also seven orbits, beginning with the Earth's orbit, up to Pluto’s orbit.
In my opinion, however, the seven skies oft-noted in the Qur’an refer to these seven interplanetary “skies,” and not to the orbits. The Qur’an is rather explicit when reference is made to celestial orbits, and the Arabic word falak (aptly translated as orbit) is then used:
It is not permitted to the Sun to catch up the Moon, nor can the Night outstrip the Day: Each (just) floats along in (its own) orbit (according to Law). (36:40)
The fact that the sun “swims” in its own orbit - at the formidable speed of about 140 miles per second (225 km per second) - was finally realized in the 1910s when the American astronomer Harlow Shapley characterized our existence in the universe4Humanity was in for an “astronomical” surprise.
Our sun, it turned out, is but one of over 100 billion stars that make up our galaxy (the Milky Way) and that rotate around the galactic center (the center of our galaxy) in a near circular orbit. Most of these stars are closer to the galactic center than our sun. The distance from the center of our galaxy to the Sun is about 26,000 light-years (a light-year is about 6 trillion miles or 9.5 trillion kilometers and it is the distance that light travels in a year). The Milky Way itself measures about 100,000 light-years across.5
It is not permitted to the Sun to catch up the Moon, nor can the Night outstrip the Day: Each (just) floats along in (its own) orbit (according to Law). (Qur’an 36:40)
This discovery closed the chapter on the heliocentric (sun-centered) model of the universe as popularized by Nicolai Copernicus in the sixteenth century and which held sway until well into the twentieth century. We live in an average-size solar system in a universe that is comprised of a potentially infinite number of galaxies.
My point is that most of the cosmological revelations in the Qur’an pertain to the creation of our solar system. Conventionally, 21:30, for example, is often ascribed to the Big Bang theory for the creation of the universe. It seems to me that these verses may be interpreted as referring to the creation of our solar system. Yet, all cognitively defensible interpretations of the holy text are equally valid. This is a component of the miraculous nature of the Qur’an – its fixed text but flexible interpretation. And, I would argue, the same can be said for the Bible.
So, in this spirit, let us resume our celestial reflections. Could it be that the six-day creation account found in both the Bible and the Qur’an starts here (i.e., six days for the formation of the Solar System or even our galaxy and not necessarily for the creation of the whole universe)? Which begs the question, are these days necessarily days as we know them? Is it explicitly stated in either of the holy books that a day is necessarily made up of twenty-four hours? The answer is no. Let us review two key verses from each book. Cross-referencing between the two holy books is not unwarranted. Muslims believe that it is the same God who revealed both books.
He Who created the heavens and the earth and all that is between, in six days, and is firmly established on the Throne (of Authority) . . . (Qur’an 25:59)
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. (Bible, KJV Genesis 1:1)
Reference is made to the creation of “the earth.” There is no compelling reason to assume that the six-day narrative pertains to the creation of the whole universe. Reference may be to the creation of the Solar System or just the Galaxy. Second, there is no particular reason to theorize that the six days are days as we know them now.
Let us ask a simple question here, what is a day? It is the time it takes the Earth to revolve around its axis (24 hours). Given that the Milky Way is a gigantic spiral disk with a bright, central bulge, what would be a day for our galaxy? The time for it to revolve around its axis (galactic center) is estimated to be 225 million years.6
It is estimated that up until now the Sun has completed 20 revolutions around the galactic center - that is a time span of 4.5 billion years (the estimated age of our planet); or, if we look at it in another way, 20 days. Six days in this sense, therefore, is equivalent to 1.35 billion years. We must also wonder whether the time it takes the Earth to revolve around its axis has been twenty-four hours since “day one.” Ultimately, time is a relative measurement.
Einstein’s 1905 theory of time and space, Special Relativity, proposed that distance and time are not absolute. The ticking rate of a clock and the length of a “yardstick” depend on the motion of the observer. The closer you approach the speed of light - about 186,000 miles per second or 300,000 kilometers per second - the slower your watch seems to be ticking relative to others. Another way to put it is, the faster you travel through space, the slower you travel through time. Imagine a vehicle capable of such maneuvering - this is, in effect, a time machine.7
It may not be very helpful to think about this too much, but if you have seen Paramount Pictures’ 2002 sci-fi movie Clockstoppers, imagine: you, moving at a speed approaching the speed of light, would see everyone else as if they were the ones functioning in “hypertime.” This notion of a “hasty” human attitude is reiterated in the Qur’an; and, the whole idea of time relativity is also suggested several times in the Qur’an. Two examples follow. When looked at in the light of Relativity, these verses make perfect sense and are quite revealing:
Yet they ask you to hasten on the Punishment! But God will not fail in His Promise. Verily a Day in the sight of your Lord is like a thousand years of your reckoning. (22:47)
The angels and the spirit ascend unto him in a Day the measure whereof is (as) fifty thousand years. (70:4)
Further, Relativity posits time and space as being one insolvable unit called space-time, as the fabric of the universe, as it were. As such, time and space as we know them only started from the moment the universe was conceived… with a “big bang.”
The Big Bang theory (BBT) is the most popular scientific theory on the origin of the universe. Its most popular version, the -inflationary universe,- presented by Alan H. Guth in 1980, postulates that the universe was created some fifteen billion years ago in an escalatory manner from a cosmic explosion of a -Primary Nebula- (singularity) – that is, an infinitely condensed matter - that cast matter in all directions. The theory holds for an initial expansion rate faster than the speed of light8Guth"s inflationary notion came into being in order to account for the fact that if the initial explosion was linear, as held the traditional version of the theory, first theorized by George Lemaitre in 1927, it would not explain the differential interstellar and intergalactic distances. The distances are such that some celestial regions could never have been in proximity at any point in time if the expansion had always simply proceeded at the speed of light9The big bang could not have happened at a particular place in the universe, because before it happened, as the theory goes, there was no universe. Rather, there was nothing, except for the singularity which started it all. Quantum mechanics tries to explain how, before spacetime, subatomic particles in this singularity interacted to produce an unfathomable amount of energy which was the initial spark of creation. It is believed that every particle has its anti-particle (as every matter has its anti-matter) that is a complete opposite (for example, in charge, spin, etc.). When these two antagonists meet, they annihilate each other in a tremendous burst of energy that would humble a nuclear explosion. Einstein"s famous relativity equation E=mc2 (where E denotes Energy, M mass and C the speed of light) suggests that energy and matter are interchangeable. Thus, matter was created from this primary explosion which kicked off a rapid expansion of space, and (we think) space has been expanding ever since. In the early 1920s, Edwin Hubble observed that galaxies were moving away from each other at a rate proportional to the distance between them. As galaxies moved away from us, the light they emitted was red-shifted. That is, light waves shifted to longer wavelengths (a phenomenon known as the Doppler Effect). The faster the object moved, the greater the shift. From these observations, Hubble formulated the Hubble"s Law, which helped cosmologists determine the age of the universe, and proved that the universe was expanding10The Qur'an explicitly foretold this fact: It is We Who have built the universe with (Our creative) power, and, verily, it is We Who are steadily expanding it. (51:47)11The BBT also predicted the existence of residual cosmic background radiation (the glow leftover from the explosion itself). This radiation was discovered in 1964 by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who later won the Nobel Prize for their discovery.12
If the universe is expanding, then it inevitably emerged from an ever-smaller mass. Go back long enough (to time zero) and you have the singularity that exploded with a -big bang,- By the same token, Einstein"s 1915 theory of General Relativity offers the antithesis scenario for the BBT. If the gravitational force pulling the matter of a massive star inward exceeds that of its gas pressure, it will collapse onto itself creating a -black hole.- Does a similar -black- fate await the universe? In Stephen Hawking's Universe documentary, Hawking contends that the concept can be extrapolated to the whole universe. If the universe has too much matter, it will eventually collapse onto itself under the influence of its own gravitational force. This bleak scenario is called the Big Crunch. By contrast, if the universe has too little matter, it will continue to expand indefinitely stretching ever thinner and colder. This bleak scenario is called the Big Chill. If the amount of matter present (i.e. the average density of our universe) is equal to a certain hypothetical value, the -critical density,- a state of perfect balance occurs, leading eventually (albeit hypothetically) to a static universe. The ratio of the average density to the critical density is known as Omega. In a state of perfect balance, corresponding to a flat geometry of the spacetime -fabric of the universe,- Omega equals one13Now imagine if in the instance following the big bang, Omega was anything but one. The universe would have either quickly collapsed onto itself (Omega >1), or quickly headed to a big chill (Omega <1). This predicament is known as the Flatness Problem. Guth"s inflationary notion again comes to the rescue. It posits that the initial rapid expansion caused spacetime to flatten, forcing Omega toward one, regardless of what its initial value actually was. In other words, even if the pre-inflation spacetime was curved like a sphere (Omega>1) or hyperbolic like a saddle (Omega<1), the initial expansion thrust forced it into flatness (zero curvature). As it stands, we can only detect too little matter in the universe and our best estimates of Omega lie well below one. We have observed that not only is the universe expanding, it is doing so at increasing rates. Is the universal matter being slowly transformed into energy, thus driving us faster toward the Big Chill? To counter this bleak scenario and in their quest for idealism (Omega equals one), scientists are on the look out for some undetectable -dark matter- that would tip the scales. In the final analysis, it is generally believed that the universe is infinite in time and space and is destined to expand forever. But things get murky when we talk about forever. How long is forever? We can conceptualize what eternity means, even though we cannot comprehend it. Can we say the same of God?
With this debate of an expanding universe comes the open/closed universe debate, with all its philosophical and scientific controversies. The consensus among scientists is that this is an open universe, expanding and not limited in space. This means that astrophysicists cannot apply the laws of thermodynamics to help decipher the mysteries of the universe, as these only apply to closed systems. Of special interest is the Second Law of Thermodynamics (Law of Increased Entropy), which states: -Energy spontaneously tends to flow only from being concentrated in one place to becoming diffused or dispersed and spread out.-14Thus, had the universe been closed, the Primary Nebula could not have formed or existed in the first place, unless -someone- had introduced it into the system. Moreover, the mathematical precision that governs the universe certainly defies the Law of Increased Entropy. To admit creation, one has to first admit the existence of a moment when the universe did not exist. Both science (especially the BBT) and religion agree on this point. Science says energy can neither be created nor destroyed (Principle of Conservation of Energy), or simply put, nothing comes from nothing. So, there must have been a master source of energy and matter that started it all: where did the primary nebula come from? I employed the investigation philosophy employed by the fictitious detective character Sherlock Holmes while reflecting on this celestial quandary: when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. I came up with the following argument that vindicates the existence of God: If there is nothing in the universe, then the existence of God is not required. But there is something. And since nothing comes from nothing, there was an original very first something. This very first something is the originator of everything else; and it is a unity. It must be the most supreme something to ever exist because it needs nothing else to originate. And since it was there first, before everything else, before time itself, and its existence is independent of anything else, it will therefore be there after everything else. And since nothing can overwhelm it, it is omnipotent. And since it exists in no defined locality, it is omnipresent. This most supreme something is God, the originator and creator of everything else.
Whether you choose to believe cosmological theories, no matter how skeptical you are, you must concede that there was an originator for everything. The precision and order (and can we dismiss the mesmerizing wonder of the cosmos?) that govern our solar system and sustain the universe is indicative of an omnipotent guardian. In fact, the very laws of physics are clarion proof of order, not randomness. Order needs a maintainer. God gave us ample revelations; His holy books are too accurate to be dismissed as coincidental. Above all, He gave us intelligence, curiosity and the power to reason. The inquisitive mind of the human and our insatiable appetite for knowledge promise magnificent scientific breakthroughs to unimagined realms and dimensions. We have come a long way since the last opposition. But we are still crawling, attempting to decipher the complex and exquisite codes of the universe and life.