In this path of loving, how can it possibly be That we see the world through You, and yet we don’t see You?
What is the universe? The search for the answer to this fundamental question has been the starting point of philosophy and science. However, believers, mostly turn to religion for an ultimate answer. Most Muslim thinkers have considered the Divine Names as the primary things to be comprehended through which we can gain knowledge of the cosmos. And growing numbers of people have suggested that the universe is a hologram which makes us images of a higher reality. The first question that comes to mind is this: Can God’s manifestation, as explained in Sufi texts, promote to a holographic universe? The article, however, does not aim to answer this question, but rather to show that holographic model of the universe can feed our imaginations to perceive self-disclosure (tajalli) of God in everything. For this purpose, we will first concentrate on the main characteristics of a hologram, explore what is meant by a holographic universe, and then use these as metaphors to understand the cosmos in terms of God’s names.
What is a Hologram?
Holography is an imaging technique much like photography. However, in the case of holography, the image of the object is three-dimensional. The main instrument behind this dimensionality is the laser light. Let’s see how we can obtain a hologram, for example, of a flower. To achieve this, a beam of laser light is separated into two by a beam-splitter. One beam falls directly onto light-sensitive film. The other beam is reflected from the flower and then shines onto the same film. When these two beams overlap, they form an interference pattern on the film which is called a “hologram.” The pattern, which looks like the ripples formed by rain drops on a pond, can be seen once the film is developed. A three-dimensional image of the flower is produced as soon as the hologram is illuminated by another laser light. That is because the whole message of all the visual aspects of the flower is enfolded on the two-dimensional surface of the film. Actually, what happens is the revelation of the flower information, as recorded in the interference pattern. The startling feature is that if we cut the hologram in half and then illuminate one piece by a laser, we will still be able to produce the entire image. Even, if we keep cutting the film into smaller and smaller pieces, every single piece will still possess the whole information of the flower. Furthermore, we can see the different sides of the flower when we look at its image from different angles, giving us a convincing illusion of seeing a three-dimensional object.
The Holographic Universe
The idea that universe can be a hologram is brought forward by the fact that not only light waves, but also matter waves, can display the behavior of interference. A deeper level of interpretation for a holographic universe arose through the theoretical models that try to explain the coordinated action of the four fundamental forces in nature. These theories suggest 11 dimensions of space-time which actually appear four-dimensional on a human scale. This would, in a way, imply that the information of reality in eleven dimensions is projected onto the four-dimensional space-time substrate that we live in. However, it is with Gerard’t Hooft’s “Holographic Principle” that the holographic nature of all physical systems became apparent, for it explains how a three-dimensional physical system can be described by a theory based on a system’s two-dimensional surface area. Thus, the idea of a “holographic universe” was on stage once this principle had been applied to universe, the biggest physical system we know of. With the holographic model of universe comes the realization that each point in the universe contains the whole universe in itself: every grain of sand is connected to every planet in the cosmos, just as every subatomic particle comprises a web of interconnections by which it becomes intertwined with the human cell. David Bohm is one of the 20th century scientists known for recognizing this wholeness in nature. Bohm’s interpretation of the universe as a hologram came as an explanation to a 1982 experiment, performed by Alain Aspect and his team, which revealed how fast sub-atomic particles communicate with each other. Actually, the communication is found to be so fast, even faster than speed of light, as if particles “knew each others’ fates.” Bohm suggested that particles do not need any signal to communicate with each other simply because the separation between them is an illusion. The explicit separateness is a projection from a higher level of reality, that he calls Implicate Order, where everything is connected. The particle acts as if it knows the other particle’s fate because it has the other particle’s information within itself. Another scientist who saw the holography in action is neurophysiologist Karl Pribram. He was trying to find which specific locations in the brain are assigned to store our memories. His experiments revealed there is no such localization. Pribram claims that the pattern formed by the interference of electrical signals from each nerve cell in the brain is where, in fact, the memories are “stored.”
Many Muslim thinkers, from Ghazzali to Ibn al Arabi, have presented God as Light, and all entities in the cosmos as the dim reflections of that Light. The Qur’an affirms this approach with its many verses, one of the best known being that “God is the light (nur) of the heavens and the earth” (24:35). However, since God has neither resemblance nor similarity to any of His creatures, this kind of description should not be considered as a likeness to the light we know of, but as a metaphor. The symbolism of light is used mainly to explain the relationship between God and creation. But first, one should know about Divine Names to understand this relationship.
In point of fact, in the Qur’an, the verses generally end with a mention of some of the Divine Names-The Life Giver, The Slayer, The Forgiver, The All-Provider, The All-Knowing, The Creator, etc. Actually, we name Him “Creator” after witnessing the effect of this name on creation. For example, we witness mercy on creation and so we call Him “The Merciful.” Everything from physical beings to the sciences manifests God’s names in some mode or another. All types of hearing originate from Him being “The All-Hearing.” “The All-Just” shines in the way the planets are placed in their orbits, while “The All-Provider” can be seen in how each and every animal is taken care of. Medicine reflects “The All-Healing,” while geometry reflects “The All-Shaping.” To explain God’s manifestation (zohur), Said Nursi once gave the example of the sun and its light in his Sixteenth Word: We can think the light from the sun as God’s light and its attributes as God’s attributes. For example, the heat of the white light can be thought as God’s Power, and brightness as God’s Knowledge. The moment the sun reflects, let’s say on a mirror, its heat and brightness are also there in addition to its image. In a similar manner, God manifests Himself in all beings with all His attributes. However there is ranking in this manifestation which depends upon the being’s abilities and quality. We can use the analogy of light to see how different qualities give rise to different manifestations. A flat mirror has the ability to produce the image of the object with its original size and shape, while mirrors in fun houses can cause distortions depending on the curvature. Actually, in Sufism, the fact that the Names are various and are being manifested to varying degrees is given as the reason for variety in the universe as well as in human beings. And thus, human beings, created with the most complex abilities, have the highest place in the ranking, while the heart, the subtlest faculty of a man is considered as the center of manifestation.
Taking the analogy of light further, and using the allegory of a hologram, we can better visualize the relationship between the creation and God and the idea of ranking in His manifestation. In our analogy, laser light represents God’s attributes, the hologram (film) represents four-dimensional space-time, and the interference pattern corresponds to interfering with God’s names. Therefore, everything in the cosmos can be viewed as a pattern of Divine Names enfolded throughout space and time. As a result, one can conclude that the
Divine Names are not so much ontological entities but simply the effect of such interference, like two lights overlapping. God’s attributes give birth to all existent things just as laser light interference gives birth to a hologram. This analogy is consistent with the Sufi texts that draw the distinction between God’s Names (asma) and Attributes (sifat). Imam Rabbani, a well known Islamic scholar, emphasizes this distinction in his Letters. Divine attributes (such as Existence, Having No Beginning, Eternal Permanence, Being Unlike the Created, Self-Subsistence, Life, Knowledge, Power, Speech, Will, Hearing, Seeing, and Creating) are the features that cannot be separated from God Himself (Dhat). But once God discloses Himself, the effects of the Attributes are manifested and we call these effects Divine Names. In a nutshell, this means, the Attributes are the sources of Names, just as the light is the source of interference.
Furthermore, with the analogy of space-time as a hologram, if we cut the space-time into an infinite number of pieces, the whole universe is present at every location. Mahmud Shabstari expresses perfectly such an interconnection and unity in all creation in his Gulshan-i Raz (The Mystic Rose Garden):
Know the world is a mirror from head to foot,
In every atom a hundred blazing suns.
If you cleave the heart of one drop of water,
A hundred pure oceans emerge from it.
If you examine closely each grain of sand,
A thousand Adams may be seen in it.
In its members a gnat is like an elephant;
In its qualities a drop of rain is like the Nile.
The heart of a barley-corn equals a hundred harvests,
A world dwells in the heart of a millet seed.
In the wing of a gnat is the ocean of the life,
In the pupil of the eye a heaven;
What though the grain of the heart be small,
It is a station for the Lord of both worlds to dwell therein. (Translated by E. H. Whinfield)
This way of looking at everything may lead a believer to embrace the doctrine of wahdat-al wujud, the interpretation of oneness of existence. This results in the denial of the existence of the universe and because of the belief that the only thing that exists is God. One remark necessary at this point is that this might sound a lot like pantheism. However, a critical distinction is that in pantheism, what is denied is God, not the universe. Actually, many people, in trying to integrate the perspective of holographic universe with Sufism, adopt the Sufi belief “hama ost,” meaning “All is He,” another name for wahdat-al wujud. But the holographic metaphor, as presented above, may better serve in our attempt to understand God’s Unity (tawhid) without denying the universe. Thinking all beings as an interference of God’s names is consistent with the faith that every entity is a Divine location. However, note that we drew the distinction between Divine Names and Divine Attributes. Every being is kept in existence through God’s names. Things exist not because God abides in them with his infinite Being. In other words, and most importantly, it is not that God Himself is everywhere in the cosmos, but rather that His Names are present at every point. He does not dwell in cosmos, but is, instead, the source of cosmos. He is eternal-while cosmos ceases to exist once its connection to Him is cut. This standpoint is referred in Sufism as “hama az ost,” meaning “All is from Him.” In this view, the existence of universe is not denied but its level of existence can be questioned. If the true existence is defined as God’s Absolute existence, the universe does not have a true existence but is still in a mode of existence which is temporal and contingent. This existential challenge is explained by Islamic thinkers through the example of a shadow. The relationship of creation to the Creator is like that between a shadow and the actual shape. Thus, the likeness witnessed in a shadow and a hologram is such that we can conceptualize God’s manifestation-but He is not limited by these dimensions.
In fact, the similitude of hologram can also help us to conceive the spiritual unveiling. Interference patterns originating from different objects can be recorded on the same film by projecting the laser beams at different and varying angles. In such a case, depending on the direction and frequency of the beam that you send through the film, a different three-dimensional image will appear. Two points to emphasize are that the use of laser light is necessary to see the higher dimensionality, and that one can see different realities. In a similar fashion, in a spiritual journey, a traveler needs to have radiance from God’s light to be able to witness further dimensions. With the light of God, spiritual unveiling occurs and a Sufi may see different instances of a reality depending upon His station, which Divine name He is reflecting on or reciting, etc. Thus, the complex information that every element in the universe can reveal about every other entity depends on the fact that God’s names denote each other. We can further use the notion of interference to delineate the concept of ranking in God’s manifestation. In an interference pattern, not all points have the same brightness. The degree of brightness depends on the location and the way the two lights overlap. There are even points where no light can be observed. This, however, does not mean there is no light there; it simply cannot be seen due to destructive interference. Extrapolating this into God’s manifestation, every entity is a Divine location, even if it cannot manifest Him.
To end this train of thought, we should find an answer to a mysterious question. If everything in four-dimensional space-time comes into existence once a higher reality is projected on the void of darkness by God’s Light, what, then, is that higher multidimensional reality? It is a reality which can only be witnessed by those who see behind the appearance of things-by those who free themselves from the material world and carnal desires. It is, perhaps, the Preserved Tablet (Lawh al-Mahfuz) mentioned in chapter, The Constellations (Buruj). Ultimately, this is a question that can only be answered by those who have purified their hearts and can see beyond.