When we look around us, we find ourselves on a vast terrain made up of grasslands, forests, deserts, plains and mountains. There are fresh water lakes and rivers making their way through the landscape. The landmass is surrounded by vast oceans stretching as far as the eye can see and further beyond. When we look up, we see drifting white clouds in the background of an uninterrupted bright blue sky. Every morning the life-giving bright sun rises from the east illuminating our surroundings and bringing its warmth with it. In the evening as the sun sets in the west, everything is enveloped by the darkness of night. The sun is replaced by the moon, and the blue sky by a deep darkness studded with innumerable stars giving a splendid display. What a beautiful set up for mankind to dwell in, explore and learn.
We have learned that though the surface of the earth appears flat, we live on a spherical planet that is squashed at its poles and swollen at the equator. Though heavenly objects seem to move around us, in fact it is the earth which is moving, rotating on its axis with a slight tilt giving rise to the repetition of night and day, as well as the seasons of the year. The earth is also moving at a high speed in an elliptical orbit around the sun, as are eight other planets (including the dwarf planet Pluto). These planets orbiting around the sun make up our solar system. Our sun is one of the billions of stars present in the spiral-shaped Milky Way Galaxy. The next galaxy which is closest to ours is called the Andromeda Galaxy. Galaxies are grouped in clusters and we belong to the Virgo Supercluster. Our initial observations estimated close to 200 billion galaxies in the universe, but more recent estimates put this figure ten times higher, approximately two trillion galaxies in the observable universe. The vastness of the universe if not beyond our imagination, is definitely beyond the depth of our vision.
The Qur’an says:
…مَا تَرَىٰ فِي خَلْقِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ مِنْ تَفَاوُتٍ فَارْجِعِ الْبَصَرَ هَلْ تَرَىٰ مِنْ فُطُورٍ ثُمَّ ارْجِعِ الْبَصَرَ كَرَّتَيْنِ يَنْقَلِبْ إِلَيْكَ الْبَصَرُ خَاسِئًا وَهُوَ حَسِيرٌ
…You can see no flaw, no incongruity and no imperfection in the creation of the Most Gracious (God). Then look up once more (to heaven). Do you see any flaw? Look again and yet again (to find out any confusion in Divine law). (The result will only be that) your eye will return to you dazzled while it is weary (and you will be unable to find any discordance). (Qur’an, Surah al-Mulk, 67:3-4).
Up until the 20th Century, it was thought that the universe is stationary. But now we know that the galaxies are moving apart, in fact they are accelerating away from us in all directions. In other words, the universe is expanding. The Qur’an says:
وَالسَّمَاءَ بَنَيْنَاهَا بِأَيْدٍ وَإِنَّا لَمُوسِعُونَ
As for the heaven, We have built it with (Our) Mighty power, and verily We are surely its expanders. (Qur’an, Surah al-Dhariyat, 51:47).
The physical universe that we experience every day is confined by space and time. According to Einstein’s special relativity, space and time should be viewed as one entity, the three-dimensional space and the time make one four dimensional space-time. According to special relativity time is not uniform throughout the universe and is influenced by the frame of reference of the observer. Time dilates – meaning that it moves slowly for a fast-moving object.1 Time is also influenced by being in the vicinity of massive objects. So for instance, if there are two very accurate clocks that give the same time on the surface of the earth; if one of them is sent to the top of Mount Everest, time will pass faster for the clock at the summit as compared to the one which is left behind on the surface of the earth.
If the earth is moving around the sun, and the sun itself is moving in our galaxy, and all of the galaxies are grouped in clusters, then what is it that keeps the heavenly objects in their orbits and stars close enough to form our solar system and galaxies?
In the seventeenth Century, Sir Isaac Newton described this force which governs the motion of heavenly objects, as well as the movement of physical objects in our daily life as gravity. The earth or other objects are attracted to each other via the force of gravity and are influenced by them as long as they are in that object’s gravitational field. For example, the tidal waves in the sea are produced due to the gravitational field of the sun and the moon.
While Newtonian physics explains the motion of objects through the concept of gravity, at the beginning of the 20th Century, Albert Einstein completely changed the concept of gravity through his theory of general relativity. According to him a massive object like the sun causes the space-time to curve resulting in a pull felt by nearby objects which we call gravity.2 Think of the shape of a piece of cloth in whose center is a heavy ball. The cloth will be stretched and anything on the surface of the cloth will tend to fall towards the ball in the center and feel a pull similar to a gravitational pull.
This vast universe confined by space-time is made up of matter and energy. Simply speaking, matter is something which has a mass (resistant to motion when a force acts upon it) and it occupies space - for example a car has more mass than a bicycle. Energy is the ability to do work or bring change. According to Einstein’s general relativity, energy and mass are really two aspects of the same reality and this is described mathematically as E=mc², where E = energy, m= mass, and c = the speed of light. A practical application of energy-mass equivalence is the energy produced in the nuclear reactors and during nuclear explosions through the breakdown of uranium.
Matter exists in solid, liquid and gaseous forms (plasma is the rare fourth form of matter). The particular form of matter depends on how closely packed the constituent molecules of that object are. For example, water at room temperature exists in a liquid form; cooling the surroundings will change it into a solid form (ice); and boiling it will transform it into a gaseous state (steam), which on cooling again will transform into a liquid form (e.g. water particles on the cover of a boiling pot). The water molecule is made up of two atoms of hydrogen attached to one atom of oxygen.
Hydrogen and oxygen are examples of what we call the elements which make up the basic constituents of all matter. There are over a hundred different elements known to us, some existing naturally, while others are produced in the lab.
An object’s elemental constituency and the interaction amongst its molecules determines its properties; so for example, a sword made of the element iron has properties different from a diamond which is made up of carbon atoms.
What makes an element like carbon distinct from other elements such as iron, oxygen and hydrogen is its basic unit - the atom. Each atom has a central nucleus made up of sub-atomic particles called protons and neutrons which are surrounded by a cloud of electrons. The number of protons, neutrons and electrons in each atom makes it a distinct element and gives it its ensuing properties.
The protons and neutrons are themselves made up of smaller particles called quarks. We always observe quarks as a set of three - and independent quarks are not observed. Quarks are held together by what is called the strong nuclear force which also holds the nucleus of an atom together. The strong nuclear force is made up of virtual particles that pop in and out of existence all of the time.3 Most of the mass of the neutrons and protons is because of the strong nuclear force (remember mass and energy are two forms of the same reality).
While a strong nuclear force holds the matter together, another force called the weak nuclear force is responsible for the decay of radioactive elements like uranium and the release of radioactivity.
In an atom, the sub-atomic particle proton carries a positive charge and the orbiting electrons carry a negative charge. Negatively charged electrons are held close to the nucleus containing positively charged protons in an atom by another force called the electromagnetic force. This force is also responsible for all of the chemical and biological reactions that take place between the atoms.4 It is also the force which we experience when we touch something. Although, when we interact with another object we never actually touch it at a sub-atomic level, but instead we feel a repulsion of electromagnetic force which appears as a touch. Depending on the atomic structure of that object it appears hard, soft or fluid-like. Inserting one’s hand in water or cutting something simply displaces the atoms without actually touching anything!
The charged particles of an atom like an electron can transmit energy known as electromagnetic radiation (EMR); for example, the transmission of energy from the sun. The EMR has both an electric and a magnetic field, oscillating in the wave form at different wavelengths. The spectrum of the EMR ranges from low frequency radio waves and microwaves (used for heating food) to high frequency x-ray and gamma rays. Within this spectrum of EMR is visible light, so the light that comes from the sun or a bulb is electromagnetic radiation! Different colors of light correspond to different wavelengths of this EMR.
Therefore, besides the sub-atomic particles there are four fundamental forces or interactions in nature called the strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force, electromagnetism and gravity which hold the material universe together. Stephen Weinberg, Sheldon Gand and Abdul Salam in the 1970’s showed that electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces can be combined and this is known as electroweak force.
Light not only behaves as a moving wave, but also as moving particles called photons, thus the wave-particle duality for the nature of light. In other words, light can behave for us as a wave or as a particle depending on which set of experiments are being used to study its properties. This leads us to the concept of Model Dependent Realism5, which means that our concept of external reality is based on a particular model of the external reality, for example in some experiments light behaves as a wave. The same reality can be interpreted through a different model in which light behaves in the form of particles, nevertheless it remains a type of electromagnetic radiation.
Wave-particle duality is one of the key concepts of 20th Century physics known as Quantum Physics (quanta means a packet of energy).
Another main tenant of Quantum Physics is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which tells us that there are limits to our ability to simultaneously measure the position and velocity of a particle. The more precisely we measure the speed, the less precisely we can measure the position of a particle and vice versa. This tells us about a fundamental uncertainty in nature where the future is determined by probabilities of various outcomes without a definitive certainty.6
The third aspect of quantum mechanics is that all of the variable aspects of an object exist only in relation to other objects. For example, the speed of a moving object is always in relation to another object. Similarly, time depends on the frame of reference of the observer. The variables of an object manifest themselves when it interacts with other objects. Merely observing a phenomenon can actually cause a change in it.
The universe has much more to it than just the visible matter which makes up the stars, galaxies, planets, plants, animals, and human beings. It must have much more “matter” or “something else” to account for the clustering of visible matter to form the stars and galaxies. This “something else” has never been directly observed as it does not interact electromagnetically with the visible matter, but its presence is indirectly observed due to its gravitational effect; for example the bending of light known as gravitational lensing. This matter is called the dark matter. In fact, only 5% of our universe is made up of visible matter, 25% is dark matter, and 70% is what is called dark energy. (Remember matter and energy are two aspects of the same reality). Dark energy is present in what we call the empty space. There is more energy in the empty space than in the visible objects7 and we do not know what the dark matter and dark energy are made up of and so we really only interact with a tiny fraction of what exists, but there is a lot more out there which we have no idea about.
If the universe is expanding and the galaxies are moving apart, then in the distant past they must have been closer together. It is estimated that some fourteen billion years ago, all of the matter and the energy in the universe was concentrated in a very tiny region of unimaginable density and temperature. Georges Lemaitre in the 1920’s proposed that the universe started to expand from this state in an event now known as the “Big Bang”:
أَوَلَمْ يَرَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا أَنَّ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ كَانَتَا رَتْقًا فَفَتَقْنَاهُمَا وَجَعَلْنَا مِنَ الْمَاءِ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ حَيٍّ أَفَلَا يُؤْمِنُونَ
Do those who disbelieve not see that the heavens and the earth were (once) one mass all closed up, then We tore them apart. And it is from water that We created all life. Will they not believe (in the face of all this). (Qur’an, Surah al-Anbiya’, 21:30).
The evidence for this explanation of the origin of the universe is the discovery of cosmic background radiation (CMBR) left over from the very hot and dense early universe that would have existed after the big bang. Moreover, the detection of a certain amount of helium in addition to hydrogen as predicted by this theory further cements the idea that the universe started from what is known as the Big Bang Theory.
The universe, since its beginning, has been expanding like a balloon expands when it is filled with air. Soon after the big bang, there was a period of immense inflation in which the space expanded even faster than the speed of light, as supported by the discovery of tiny fluctuations in the background CMBR.8
When the physicists attempt to explain the origin of the universe employing Einstein’s theory of general relativity, that theory predicts the existence of a point at which the temperature, density and curvature of the universe are all infinite, also known as singularity. In other words, it means that the general relativity breaks down and is unable to explain how the universe started.9
For a universe that is of an extremely small size, as it is thought it must have been at the beginning of space-time, quantum mechanics will have to be employed in order to understand its behavior and properties. On the other hand, gravity which keeps the stars and galaxies together is best explained by general relativity. Thus, a unified theory combining general relativity which deals with gravity and large structures like the stars and galaxies and quantum mechanics which deals with the existence at a sub-atomic level, something known as the “quantum theory of gravity” will have to be used to explain the beginning of the universe, but no such theory currently exists. At present, general relativity is not fully consistent with quantum mechanics.10
Without a working and generally accepted quantum theory of gravity, physicists have attempted to combine general relativity with quantum mechanics in a theory known as Loop Quantum Gravity. According to this theory, the space itself is made up of a quanta of something which gives rise to gravitational field. Another theory in this area of research, is known as the String Theory.11 Neither of them however are well accepted standard models of the quantum theory of gravity.
Another idea that has been proposed is to consider the concept of a multi-verse instead of a uni-verse in which multiple universes with different sets of laws of physics exist, instead of only our observable universe. In this model, there is a spontaneous quantum creation of universes, like the appearance of bubbles of steam in boiling water.12 Many bubbles appear and disappear - each bubble representing a tiny universe. Some of these bubbles expand, and last long enough to form a large universe like ours and possibly have stars, galaxies and intelligent life.
What can be said about this model is that the spontaneous appearance of multiple universes is a possibility, though at present we have no empirical evidence to back up this claim. We do not know if this model is a reality or just a figment of the imagination of some physicist trying hard to disprove the existence of God. Moreover, what these physicists do not explain is what is this “boiling water” or for some “boiling oatmeal”13 in which these tiny universes are appearing spontaneously through “quantum fluctuations”?
Some people have even suggested that the universe started from “nothing”, but “nothing” does not mean “nothing” but it actually means “something;” and “nothing”, which really is “something” is empty space and the laws of physics. So the universe started from “space” and “laws of physics.” Where did the space and laws of physics come from, is not to be asked as there is no answer to it. Moreover, the “empty space” has “non-zero energy” in it. So now we have space, energy and laws of physics from which the universe arose spontaneously14 and just as sub-atomic particles can appear and disappear spontaneously, some have suggested that empty space can also come into existence from nothing. This looks more like an explanation given by J.K Rowling in the Harry Potter series rather than a serious physicist giving a scientific explanation.
However, some people will wish that they lived in such a universe where things can just pop into existence from nothing. So when the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) asks them about the origin of a large unexplained deposit in their bank account they can argue that it originated from “nothing”, just as our entire universe originated from “nothing”. It looks like at singularity not only general relativity breaks down, but also the reason and logic of some physicists!
The notion that a self-existing universe has originated from non-existence is absurd. If our universe is one of the infinite numbers of multi-verses, then the question still remains that where did they all originate from? Is the source of origin of the universe a self-existing entity or not? If the source is not self-existing then the question will still remain that where did it all come from? On the other hand if the source is self-existing then it is God, you can call it empty space, energy, multi-verse or any other terminology that suits you (see Chapter 3). The idea of a universe without God is an irrational idea with no logical answer to it:
أَمْ خُلِقُوا مِنْ غَيْرِ شَيْءٍ أَمْ هُمُ الْخَالِقُونَ
Were they created of nothing, or were they themselves the creators? (Qur’an, Surah al-Tur, 52:35).
In the first section of this chapter, I described a brief overview of the physical universe as explained from physics. The visible matter makes up a small portion of what we know exists, and the dark matter and dark energy makes up a much larger portion of existence with which we do not interact with, like the visible matter. In the next few pages, I will attempt to paint a picture of the reality as described by Muslim philosophers and mystics. Philosophy is important in understanding the reality because the main subject of philosophy is existence (Please refer back to Chapter 3 to review some of these concepts).
Existence (Arabic: al-wujud) is a self-evident reality. The most fundamental concept that we can make about anything is that it exists. Some raise doubts about the reality of existence. If I get scared from a snake, it means that both the snake and I exist otherwise there was no need to get scared from it. Therefore, existence is a reality.
Existence is the commonality between everything that exists. What is common between a man, a horse and a banana is that they all exist. Existence is the source of all of the manifestations, and if something is perceived then it must exist. Non-existence does not exist; and it has no attributes as it does not exist.
When we explore the reality we not only ask whether something exists or not but also what is it? This makeup of something is called its quiddity (Arabic: mahiyya). Therefore, we make two concepts about everything - first does it exist, and second what is it?
Existence is the commonality between everything that exists, but the difference between a man, a horse and a tree lies in their quiddity or makeup. Thus, existence has primacy over quiddity. The quiddity of something is a secondary mental construct about a particular existence.
Existence is one reality but in different degrees. For example, light is a reality but has different degrees depending on whether it’s coming from an ordinary bulb or from the sun. Both are examples of light therefore they are the same in their quiddity, but different in the degree of their existence.
If existence is a graded reality, then is there any existence which is higher than the material existence? Material existence by its nature is confined by four-dimensional space-time. It is also divisible into smaller units all the way to atoms and beyond. Material existence is also perishable.
For example, if someone has $1,000 and it is distributed to 10 people equally, then they all will have $100 each and the donor will be left with nothing.
But meta-physical realities have attributes different from the material realities.
For example, knowledge is a meta-physical reality; that does not occupy space. If a person increases in their knowledge, they will not start to bloat physically. Knowledge is not physically visible, there is no difference in the physical appearance of an astronaut and a surgeon, unless they are in their professional clothing. Similarly, knowledge does not decrease by distributing it to others. For example, a teacher can teach algebra to their students without losing the knowledge of algebra for themselves. The same teacher can teach fifty students in class at the same time, each learning algebra according to their capacity to learn, without any deficiency in the knowledge of the teacher. In fact, as opposed to material objects, knowledge is something which increases by distributing it. Therefore, we must acknowledge the existence of the meta-physical realities which behave differently from material objects.
In the hierarchy of existence, after the material realities comes the soul, and then the pure intellect or spirit. The soul is devoid of matter, but depends on it for action. It also has the potentiality for perfection. The intellect is higher in existence than matter, and the soul, it emanates from the Divine. It brings perfection to both the soul and the material objects.15
If the material realities exist in the material realm, then the meta-physical realities should exist in a meta-physical realm. There must be realms beyond the material universe where these realities exist. Islamic theologians, philosophers and mystics have talked about multiple realms of existence beyond the material realm. The Qur’an also talks about the existence of seven different realms of existence:
اللّٰهُ الَّذِي خَلَقَ سَبْعَ سَمَاوَاتٍ وَمِنَ الْأَرْضِ مِثْلَهُنَّ يَتَنَزَّلُ الْأَمْرُ بَيْنَهُنَّ لِتَعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللّٰهَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ وَأَنَّ اللّٰهَ قَدْ أَحَاطَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عِلْمًا
It is God Who has created seven heavens and (He has created) as many earths. The (divine) law permeates through them. (He tells this to you) so that you may know that God is Possessor of all power to do every desired thing and God encompasses everything in His knowledge. (Qur’an, Surah al-Talaq, 65:12).
The lowest of these heavens is the one in which we live and it is filled with stars and galaxies:
إِنَّا زَيَّنَّا السَّمَاءَ الدُّنْيَا بِزِينَةٍ الْكَوَاكِبِ
Verily, We have beautified and embellished the lower heaven (the heaven visible to you) with an excellent embellishment, the stars and planets. (Qur’an, Surah al-Saffat, 37:6).
Beyond the material world lies a realm called the barzakh (buffer) or the intermediate realm where the soul exists. This realm is in between the material realm and the world of intellect; this is the realm of the soul:
حَتَّىٰ إِذَا جَاءَ أَحَدَهُمُ الْمَوْتُ قَالَ رَبِّ ارْجِعُونِ لَعَلِّي أَعْمَلُ صَالِحًا فِيمَا تَرَكْتُ كَلَّا إِنَّهَا كَلِمَةٌ هُوَ قَائِلُهَا وَمِنْ وَرَائِهِمْ بَرْزَخٌ إِلَىٰ يَوْمِ يُبْعَثُونَ
Behold! when death approaches one of them he says (making entreaties repeatedly), Send me back, My Lord! send me back, So that I may do righteous (deeds) which I failed to do (in the worldly life). Never, that can never be, (is the answer he receives). It is but a word (of excuse) which he utters. And there is a barrier (buffer) behind them which shall remain till the day when they shall be raised to life (again). (Qur’an, Surah al-Mu’minun, 23:99-100).
Beyond the realm of the barzakh are other realms such as the world of pure intellect (ʿaql). The experience in these meta-physical realms is much more intense than the physical realm. The experience in these realms is more permanent and there are less limitations and restrictions in perceiving their realities. They work with different physics and are higher in the degree of existence than the material realm.
As compared to higher realms of existence, the material realm is like a shadow, an illusion, and a deception of the reality. It is a restricted interface to a higher degrees of existence. Things in this material realm are often not how they appear to be, there is constant change in them, and they do not last long.
وَمَا الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا إِلَّا مَتَاعُ الْغُرُورِ
And the life of this world is nothing but enjoyment of delusion. (Qur’an, Surah Ale ʿImran, 3:185).
Our stay in the material realm of existence is also very brief. It is a common experience that when we look back at our lives it appears that not a lot of time has passed. It was only yesterday that we were going to school, or started our job or got married - though many years or even decades may have passed since that event:
قَالَ كَمْ لَبِـثْتُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ عَدَدَ سِنِينَ قَالُوا لَبِثْنَا يَوْمًا أَوْ بَعْضَ يَوْمٍ فَاسْأَلِ الْعَادِّينَ قَـالَ إِنْ لَبِثْتُمْ إِلَّا قَلِيلًا ۖ لَوْ أَنَّكُمْ كُنْتُمْ تَعْلَمُونَ
(God) will (then) say, What number of years have you lived on the earth? They will say, We remained only for a day or part of a day (we have no exact idea), but ask those who keep the count. (God) will say, You sojourned but a little while, if only you knew (what loss you have incurred by missing doing good). (Qur’an, Surah al-Mu’minun, 23:112-114).
The higher realms of existence do have a concept of space, but their spatial layout far exceeds anything in the material realm. The likeness of the material realm as compared to the higher realms, is like that of a fetus in the womb of the mother compared to living outside of the womb after birth. The fetus in the womb cannot possibly imagine the vastness of the world outside waiting for one, just as humans cannot imagine the vastness of the higher realms of existence.
سَابِقُوا إِلَىٰ مَغْفِرَةٍ مِنْ رَبِّـكُمْ وَجَنَّةٍ عَرْضُهَا كَعَرْضِ السَّمَاءِ وَالْأَرْضِ
(Mankind!) Advance quickly, outstripping one another, towards the protection from your Lord and (towards) a Garden the extensiveness of which is (beyond measure) as the extensiveness of the heaven and the earth… (Qur’an, Surah al-Hadid, 57:21).
There is a concept of time in the higher realms as well, though the experience of time leans more towards permanence and eternity, as opposed to transience and temporal events. As we know that time is relative and will depend on the level of existence, thus the concept of time will also vary. A day in that realm could mean a thousand years in relation to our time:
يُدَبِّرُ الْأَمْرَ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ إِلَى الْأَرْضِ ثُمَّ يَعْرُجُ إِلَيْهِ فِي يَوْمٍ كَانَ مِقْدَارُهُ أَلْفَ سَنَةٍ مِمَّا تَعُدُّونَ
He plans the scheme from the heaven (and sends it) to the earth, then it shall ascend to Him in (the course of) a day the duration of which is a thousand years according to your computation (in this world). (Qur’an, Surah al-Sajdah, 32:5).
Or it could even be 50,000 years depending on which realm of existence we are talking about.
تَــعْرُجُ الْمَلَائِكَةُ وَالرُّوحُ إِلَيْهِ فِي يَـوْمٍ كَانَ مِقْدَارُهُ خَمْسِينَ أَلْفَ سَنَةٍ
The angels and the Spirit ascend to Him in a day the measure of which is (equal to) fifty thousand years. (Qur’an, Surah al-Maʿarij, 70:4).
If there are higher realms of existence, then where are they and how come we do not experience them? In my understanding, we do not access the higher realms of existence just by travelling a physical distance in a certain direction. The higher realms are right beside us, we just have to have the ability to part away the covering of space, just like parting the two panels of a curtain to look beyond the material realm. All of us experience the higher realm of barzakh, when we fall asleep. The act of sleeping and experiencing dreams during sleep is through accessing the realm of barzakh to a certain extent. I will discuss this more in the next chapter (Chapter 14).
Another question that comes to mind is if there is any movement of objects between different realms? In other words, can things come to our realm of existence from the higher realms, or similarly can things move from the material realm to the higher realms?
There are several stories in the Qur’an which talk about the descent of food from the heavens to the earth. In the story of Prophet Jesus (‘a) and his companions, the Qur’an narrates:
إِذْ قَالَ الْحَوَارِيُّونَ يَا عِيسَى ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ هَلْ يَسْتَطِيعُ رَبُّكَ أَنْ يُنَزِّلَ عَلَيْنَا مَائِدَةً مِنَ السَّمَاءِ ۖ قَالَ اتَّقُوا اللّٰهَ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ مُؤْمِنِينَ 112 قَالُوا نُرِيدُ أَنْ نَأْكُلَ مِنْهَا وَتَطْمَئِنَّ قُلُوبُنَا وَنَعْلَمَ أَنْ قَدْ صَدَقْتَنَا وَنَكُونَ عَلَيْهَا مِنَ الشَّاهِدِينَ 113 قَالَ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ اللّٰهُمَّ رَبَّنَا أَنْزِلْ عَلَيْنَا مَائِدَةً مِنَ السَّمَاءِ تَكُونُ لَنَا عِيدًا لِأَوَّلِنَا وَآخِرِنَا وَآيَةً مِنْكَ ۖ وَارْزُقْنَا وَأَنْتَ خَيْرُ الرَّازِقِينَ 114 قَالَ اللّٰهُ إِنِّي مُنَزِّلُهَا عَلَيْكُمْ ۖ فَمَنْ يَكْفُرْ بَعْدُ مِنْكُمْ فَإِنِّي أُعَذِّبُهُ عَذَابًا لَا أُعَذِّبُهُ أَحَدًا مِنَ الْعَالَمِينَ 115
(Recall the time) when the disciples said: O Jesus, son of Mary! Would your Lord consent to send down to us a table spread with a sure and lasting food from heaven? He said: Keep your duty to God, if you are true believers. They said: We desire that we may eat of it and that our hearts be at rest and that we may know that you have indeed spoken the truth to us and that we may be among the witnesses thereto. Jesus, son of Mary, prayed: O God, our Lord! send down to us a table spread with a sure and lasting food from heaven that it may be to us a (source of) festival ever recurring, to the first of us and to the last of us and (serve as) sign from You and provide sustenance for us, for You are the Best of providers of sustenance. God said: I will surely be (always) sending it (the food) down to you but whosoever shows ingratitude afterwards, I will surely punish him with a punishment which I will give to no one else in the whole world. (Qur’an, Surah al-Ma’idah, 5:112-115).
Similar events (or miracles) have been reported as happening to the Tribes of Israel and Mary (‘a) - the mother of Prophet Jesus (‘a).
If there is a movement between the realms, then there should be a concept of a door or opening though which things can travel. The Qur’an gives a concept of “opening” or a “door” in the heavens, perhaps similar to the concept of a “space-time wormhole”:
وَفُتِحَتِ السَّمَاءُ فَكَانَتْ أَبْوَابًا
And the heavens shall be opened as if there were doors. (Qur’an, Surah al-Naba’, 78:19).
As for the movement from the material realm to higher realms, we have one instance in the Qur’an where Prophet Muhammad (S) was taken from the material realm of existence to a higher realm and then returned back within one night. His journey is described as a two-stage event – the israʾ - the physical journey upon the earth from Mecca to Jerusalem, and the meʿraj – the journey from Jerusalem into the heavens:
سُبْحَانَ الَّذِي أَسْرَىٰ بِعَبْدِهِ لَيْلًا مِنَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ إِلَى الْمَسْجِدِ الْأَقْصَى الَّذِي بَارَكْنَا حَوْلَهُ لِنُرِيَهُ مِنْ آيَاتِنَا ۚ إِنَّهُ هُوَ السَّمِيعُ الْبَصِيرُ
Glory be to Him Who carried His servant by night from the Holy Mosque (at Mecca) to the Distant Mosque (at Jerusalem), the precincts of which (too) We have blessed, that We might show him some of Our signs. Infact, He alone is the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing. (Qur’an, Surah al-Isra’, 17:1).
After travelling from Mecca to Jerusalem, the night journey of the Prophet continued to the highest possible point in existence. The Qur’an narrates this event as below:
وَهُوَ بِالْأُفُقِ الْأَعْلَىٰ ثُمَّ دَنَا فَتَدَلَّىٰ فَكَانَ قَابَ قَوْسَيْنِ أَوْ أَدْنَىٰ فَأَوْحَىٰ إِلَىٰ عَبْدِهِ مَا أَوْحَىٰ مَا كَذَبَ الْفُؤَادُ مَا رَأَىٰ أَفَتُمَارُونَهُ عَلَىٰ مَا يَرَىٰ وَلَقَدْ رَآهُ نَزْلَةً أُخْرَىٰ عِنْدَ سِدْرَةِ الْمُنْتَهَىٰ عِنْدَهَا جَنَّةُ الْمَأْوَىٰ إِذْ يَغْشَى السِّدْرَةَ مَا يَغْشَىٰ مَا زَاغَ الْبَصَرُ وَمَا طَغَىٰ لَقَدْ رَأَىٰ مِنْ آيَاتِ رَبِّهِ الْكُبْرَىٰ
And he (Prophet Muhammad (S)) attained to the zenith of heights (in his spiritual ascension). Then he drew near to Him and afterwards he descended. So that he became (as it were) one chord to two bows or closer still. Then He revealed that excellent and mighty revelation which He had to send to His servant (Muhammad), Whose heart (mind) made no mistake in (the interpretation of) that which he saw (during the ascension). Will you doubt and dispute with him concerning that (sight) which he saw with his own eyes (it being no figment of imagination)? And, of course, he saw Him (in His another manifestation to him) yet another time. It was near the Sidrah which stands at the farthest end, near where also is the Garden which is the real eternal abode. (This was) when the sublime thing (the Divine Manifestation) which was to cover Sidrah had covered it. (When he saw the Divine Manifestation) his eye deviated not (from the certainty of the Truth) nor did it wander away (from the invincible faith on which he stood). (It was the moment when) he saw the greatly important signs of his Lord. (Qur’an, Surah al-Najm, 53:7-18).
In this chapter, I have given a description of the observable universe as explained from physics. Although our understanding of the physical universe has increased tremendously, there is lot more to know for which we have very limited understanding, for example the dark matter and dark energy. Some have attempted to give this notion that existence (universe) has come from non-existence which is an irrational and absurd idea. Without incorporating monotheism there is no rational explanation for the existence of the universe. But what the physics tells us about is only a description of the observable universe.
Based on revealed sciences, we understand that the scope of existence is far beyond the material realm of existence which is another way of describing the concept of the multi-verse. The material realm of existence is a very limited interface to a much larger meta-physical reality. All of us experience the meta-physical realm during the daily process of sleep. Those with a higher level of spirituality can access those realms even when they are awake however what is certain is that all of us will move to those realms after our death:
كُلُّ نَفْسٍ ذَائِقَةُ الْمَوْتِ ۖ ثُمَّ إِلَيْنَا تُرْجَعُونَ
Every living being shall encounter death, then you shall be made to return to Us. (Qur’an, Surah al-ʿAnkabut, 29:57).
- 1. Rovelli, Carlo. The Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Qravity, Riverhead Books, New York 2014.
- 2. Ibid.
- 3. Krauss, Lawrence, A Universe from Nothing. Why There is Something Rather than Nothing, Atria, New York, 2012.
- 4. Hawking, Stephen and Mlodinow, Leonard, The Grand Design, Bantam Book Trade, New York, 2010.
- 5. Ibid.
- 6. Rovelli, The Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Qravity.
- 7. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.
- 8. Krauss, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.
- 9. Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design.
- 10. Rovelli, The Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity.
- 11. Ibid.
- 12. Hawking and Mlodinow, The Grand Design.
- 13. Krauss, Lawrence, A Universe from Nothing: Why there is Something Rather than Nothing, Atria, New York 2012.
- 14. Ibid.
- 15. For further details see Bidaya al-Hikma by ʿAllama Taba’taba’i.