AND THE HEAVEN, WE HAVE CONSTRUCTED IT MIGHTILY, AND IT IS SURELY WE WHO HAVE VAST POWER, AND KEEP EXPANDING IT. (DHARIYAT 51:47)
In this work we study a verse from the Qur’an, the 47th verse of the Sura al-Dhariyat (The Winds that Scatter), under the light of new discoveries in the field of astrophysics. We note that recent evidence about the accelerating expansion of the universe is also strongly consistent with this verse, although this has shocked the scientific community. In the last part of the article, we discuss possible relations of “metaphysical dimensions” and the concept of “the seven layers” with the word “sama” (translated in to English as “heaven”) as mentioned in the verse.
The existence of the universe is perhaps one of the greatest mysteries in science and philosophy. No convincing argument has been ever put forward that has enabled us to understand this amazing event, not since the beginning of modern science. Religions like Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, on the other hand, explain that the Creator built our robust universe directly out of physical nothingness, independent of any cause. Therefore, the initial creation of such universe would be impossible to explain physically (M. F. Gulen, from his conference on “Evolution and reality”).
In his translation of the relevant verse, S. Yildirim has noted that God keeps the universe expanding and He will continue to do so. Yildirim attributes two meanings to the word musiun in the verse; the first is the owner of great power, strength and wealth; the second is one who expands. Thus, it should not be a surprise to learn that this verse is indeed describing a continually-expanding universe. This might further lead Muslims to think that the Creator has not left the universe unattended after the Big Bang, but rather it is He who has kept creating and expanding it.
In the 1920’s a discovery was made that completely changed our perception of space. It was discovered that distant stars depart from the solar system and leave us even more and more alone in dark space. Then, Fr. Georges-Henri Lemaître, a Belgian astrophysicist, mathematician, and Catholic priest, proposed the idea of the expanding universe. Despite its finite size, it was believed that the universe was expanding.
We can explain this fact simply by an analogy. Think of a toy balloon with spots on it. Mark one of those spots and inflate the balloon. As we inflate it, we observe that all other spots on the surface of the balloon move away from the marked one. So, if we replace the balloon with our universe, the spots will be the stars and planets. If the universe is expanding indeed, then we expect them to be moving away from each other. In other words, the distances between heavenly bodies must be increasing.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a gigantic ruler to measure such immense distances. However, there are other means, such as measuring wave frequencies. Consider the following analogy: Someone throws one ball every second toward a target. Assume that balls travel with constant velocity. If the thrower is stationary, the target will receive one ball every second. However, if the thrower is moving towards the target, it will receive balls more frequently because the balls will be less spaced out. The converse is true if the thrower is moving away from the target. So it is actually the wavelength which is affected; as a consequence, the perceived frequency is also affected. That is, the distances between the waves emitted by objects moving away from us (wavelength) must be increasing, so the frequency decreasing. Likewise, think of an ambulance siren coming towards you and going away from you. It is a good example showing that while an acoustic source that is approaching us emits a higher frequency, the same source radiates lower frequency when going away from us. In physics this is known as the Doppler effect.
This phenomenon does not only occur with sound waves, but also with electromagnetic waves. When we think of the spectrum of light, violet at one end has the shortest wavelength and red at the other end has the longest wavelength of visible light. So, any wave of light shifting toward red means the source is moving away from us. It has been determined that the frequency of light emitted by the elements within distant stars shift to a lower frequency, which is called a red shift.
It is this shift that makes astrophysicists think that the universe is expanding. One mustn’t be confused by red shift. This terminology is just used to explain in what direction the frequency is actually shifting on the spectrum. Those signals captured from distant stars have a much smaller frequency (much higher wavelength) than that of red light and they are indeed in the microwave regime and shifting to even much smaller frequency radio waves.
In 2002, an article presenting new evidence of the accelerating expansion of the universe was published by the Royal Astronomical Society. It was not so long ago, only five years, that general opinion concurred with a decelerating expansion. However, the first evidence found by two astronomers in that year led us into a universe that expands in an accelerating fashion, contrary to previous views. This result was absolutely unexpected, because many scientists believed that expansion would slow down due to gravity. Another interesting fact is that if space were to cease expanding, this would be in contradiction to the above verse. God, however, by never allowing this to happen, shows how futile the actions of those who deny His verses are and how extensive His power is, as well as how purposefully He creates.
The groups who worked in the above study figured out, from the brightness of supernovas in distant galaxies, that the universe must expand more and more in the future due to a peculiar dark energy within it. The concept of dark energy was first postulated by Einstein, who named it the “cosmological constant.” However, since this did not fit in well with his theory of general relativity, he withdrew it and said that it was a scientific blunder. Since then, dark energy has had a rather controversial history.
A team of 27 astronomers, directed by Professor Efstathiou of Cambridge University, proposed strong evidence supporting the existence of dark matter, based on completely novel techniques. Their results, which were consistent with previous supernovas, showed that the universe is indeed full of dark matter. Professor Efstathiou thinks that the explanation of dark energy might include additional dimensions like creation (Big Bang) as well. Fr. Lemaître also proposed the expanding universe theory at an opportune time since Edwin Hubble would soon release his red shift observations that strongly supported an expanding universe and, consequently, the Big Bang theory. Here, the Big Bang is seen as the beginning of a continuous expansion.
The verse seems to tell us miraculously that the expansion of the universe will not cease, despite our limited knowledge of the physical reason for its acceleration.
Another article, published in Nature, presents us the first and deepest picture of space taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. This caused the astronomers to compete in solving the mysteries of the arts of God. The picture, also known as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, was broadcasted and published in various programs and journals. It has not only shown us the farthest stars of the universe, but the youngest as well. It was very difficult to detect such weak light with the former technology. This picture reveals the embryonic universe, with an age of only 500 million years old. Estimated age of the universe is 13-14 billion years. Three physicists from American Natural History Museum in New York started a competition to publish an article on the Ultra Deep Field picture after the data was disclosed. They hope to answer many questions about the past and future universe. A group at the Stony Brook University, New York, directed by Kenneth Lanzetta, analysed the embryonic samples in the picture to try to discover when various galaxies had been born and how they had evolved. Two other groups are studying the motions of stars and galaxies, as the picture is a result of data collected over a month.
Having looked at the expansion of universe under the light of recent discoveries, now we turn our attention to two other arguments that could be relevant to expansion. Namely, ether (a substance which it is believed fills up the vast universe and which is the ultimate building block of the space), and the seven-layer-universe.
Despite the Michelson-Morley experiment, which argued against theory of luminiferous ether, the propagation of electric, light, or heat in space shows the existence of a substance through which they flow. The Michelson-Morley experiment is nothing more than just a test of the non-existence of certain qualities of ether. For example, in order to show the existence of photons, of which light is made up, we cannot go beyond showing the features of photons. In other words, depending on how we have defined its qualities, we can observe different aspects in the photon, ether, or anything else. In fact, even today, we don’t really know what a photon really is, although we observe its affects every day. In short, it is not possible to show the non-existence of phenomena that cannot be absolutely defined. Instead, we can only test the existence of the properties that we have defined and attributed to them, and thus we better understand their nature of existence in the context of those pre-defined qualities. Hence, the existence of ether is still controversial and needs more thorough research.
Regarding the seven-layer-universe, on the other hand, how is it possible for ether to manifest itself in seven heavens? It may be that these seven layers are not all posed above our heads, but rather that they may be found one with another. The universe is composed of many systems and networks that are the building blocks of their counterparts on larger scales. Each system is governed by laws, which differ slightly from one another. Inside the atom there exists a proton with its unique organization and in a proton we find quarks. For example, communication between protons and electrons is mediated by the electromagnetic force, while the quarks inside the protons communicate via the strong force. These interleaved circles show us that the universe is indeed composed of numerous layers.
We may use these layers for the metaphysical world as well. The human being is not only composed of matter, but also has a mind, a soul, and intelligence. Although these components are accepted as existing by all, their exact nature has not yet been explained by positive sciences.
It seems that the universe is composed of at least two different worlds: The material world (physical) and the immaterial (metaphysical) world. Are these two worlds completely separate, or do they have some features in common? In fact, the existence of humanity might prove to be this common set. But, it may also be true for the universe itself. Nursi states that the distant galaxies, stars and planets are not empty, but home to many spirits and angels who have their own consciences. Thus, one can say that despite the boundaries which separate these two worlds, such as different numbers of temporal and spatial dimensions, they constitute a whole, the Universe. The interaction between them will never fail as long as the universe exists.
The existence of two separate worlds is not that difficult to believe, but there is more:
It is He Who (prepared the earth for your life before He gave you life, and) created all that is in the world for you (in order to create you – the human species – and make the earth suitable for your life); then He directed (His Knowledge, Will, Power, and Favor) to the heaven, and formed it into seven heavens. He has full knowledge of everything. (Baqara 2:29)
The Qur’an calls the heaven where the sun, moon and stars are the lowest heaven or the heaven of the world (Mulk 67:5). The other six heavens may be the heavens of the worlds of the Hereafter.1 We are not sure whether this seven-layer heavens can only be attributed to the physical universe. It might be able to apply to the universe as a whole, with its all seen and unseen layers as well. Even the worlds of angels and spirits may be expanding in accordance with the laws therein, to show how the power and the wealth of God are comprehended in those worlds as well. Although our Earth is finite, the expansion may not be restricted to our finite world, but it may continue in infinite worlds as well.
It is possible that the space being filled with ether has an important role in paving the orbits of planets or stars, as well as other heavenly bodies. We believe that future studies on dark matter, ether, and string theory will help us to better understand the expansion process of the universe.
1. What the Qur’an means by seven heavens has been interpreted in different ways. For further information see Unal, 2006, p. 19.