In the Beginning….The Qur’an and Muslim Thinkers on Creation

By Norreddin Mahammed

Hubble's Deepest View of Universe Unveils Never-Before-Seen Galaxies. The faintest and reddest objects in the image are galaxies that formed 600 million years after the Big Bang. No galaxies have been seen before at such early times. Credit: NASA, ESA, G. Illingworth (UCO/Lick Observatory and the University of California, Santa Cruz), R. Bouwens

INTRODUCTION: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” An abundance of myths, religious doctrines and scientific theories have been developed to answer these fundamental questions about the world and man’s place in it. In early times, especially, many societies elaborated cosmogonie myths which gave an account of the origination of the world or the universe. Some postulated a world created from the void by the power and wisdom of an omnipotent and omniscient God; for others creation did not take place ex nihilo but from an already existing substance. Some communities envisaged the world as the offspring of a primordial father and mother; others believed that the created order emerged progressively, like the growth of a fetus. Some creation stories feature prominently in the sacred writings and beliefs of the world’s great religions. Traces of others survive in the customs and traditions of many lands and in the symbolism used in arts and crafts. This  article is one of several responses which was presented in a special issue of UNESCO Courier magazine to questions about our origins, the expansion of the universe and the ultimate destiny of the universe.  

“God created the heavens and made the stars”

 With the advent of the three great monotheistic religions, all creation – material and intangible, natural and supernatural – was attributed to a single omniscient and omnipotent god. Mythological cosmogonie concepts were replaced by more speculative ways of thinking. Islam, like Judaism and Christianity before it, did not escape this upheaval, although traces of ancient cosmogonies survived in certain popular traditions and literary allusions, and were reflected in forms of architecture and music.

The Qur’an – the Word of God as “recited” by its last messenger, the Prophet Muhammad, does not provide a continuous narrative of the creation of the cosmos, but contains many direct allusions to it. God, “the Lord of the Worlds”, is the Creator of the universe: “In truth, We have created all things according to Our Law” with “seriousness” and perfection. “Thou seest in the Benefactor’s creation every thing in true proportions.” Inveighing against the polytheists, He declares: “Do not the unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together, before We clove them asunder? We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?”

Thus, before the heavens and the earth were formed, they were inextricably joined. Water is the source of life. The worlds, the heavens, the earth and life thus appeared in several stages: the universe and its inhabitants were the result of a process of gradual differentiation. “God is He Who created seven firmaments and of the earth a similar number. Through the midst of them descends His command: that ye may know that God has power over all things, and that God comprehends all things in His Knowledge.” According to some scholars, the number seven, which appears elsewhere in the sacred text, indicates an indefinite plurality.

In addition to those verses that allude specifically to the creation of the universe, there are others which inform us of its organization and arrangement, notably on “the nearest heaven”. God created the heavens “without visible pillars” and “established” in them many heavenly bodies: constellations of stars, or “lamps”.

As proof of His bounty, this harmonious stellar arrangement is useful to mankind:

“It is He Who has made for you the stars that they may guide you in the depths of darkness on land and sea”, as it is also “He who created the night and the day, the sun and the moon, each in a navigable sphere”. “It is He Who made of the sun a brightness and of the moon a lamp, and Who determined the phases of the moon so that ye may know the number and the count of the years.”

Direct allusions to the creation in the Qur’an must be considered primarily as “signs” of God’s omnipotence. Their fragmentary nature and the mysteries they conceal are typical of Qur’anic predication, for “God conceals what He wills and alone knows the unknowable”. 

Islamic Cosmogony

So is all speculation forbidden in Islam? Certainly not: the signs must be deciphered and their true meaning understood. According to Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, “there is no Qur’anic verse that does not have four meanings: the exoteric, the esoteric, the limit and the divine project”. We need, therefore, to go beneath the surface of the facts. The quest for God’s truth calls for reflection on this “miracle” of the creation of a diverse sensory world, while God is spirit pure and unique.

Avicenna [1] made a major contribution to Islamic cosmogony. In his metaphysics, he classifies beings according to whether they are necessary or possible. In essence, the necessary being is by its nature unique; it has no cause nor does it consist in multiplicity. As First Principle, Pure Intelligence and Pure Truth, the necessary being is God. Creation is an intellectual act. It is the knowledge that God has of Himself; it is the Primary Emanation or Primary Intelligence. From this primary creation new entities emerge. After a series of contemplations and intelligences the Tenth (active) Intelligence is reached, from which springs a flux of sublunary matter and the multitude of human souls. This is “our” world, the world of the senses and corruptible matter.

Avicenna’s theory of emanation, with its continuous creation of differentiated and hierarchical beings, has been the subject of lively debate in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Thus, Averroes, [2] who wished to restore a cosmogony which conformed to Aristotelian concepts, rejected the notion of hierarchy between separate intelligences. He considered the idea of successive emanations from a single Being as fundamentally absurd. According to him the cosmos proceeds from an “eternal beginning” of which the manifestation, without creative cause, is simultaneous and continuous, with God as Prime Mover.

For Al-Ghazali, [3] all these contortions were simply metaphors for establishing the necessity of the Demiurge and the reality of creation. Rejecting philosophical speculations, he considered that only the way of the heart – for God is pure love – can lead to knowledge. By seeking communion with God it becomes possible for some to raise themselves from the “lower world” – that of the sun, moon and stars – to the “upper world” wherein dwell the “luminous substances”, the angels.

Several schools of thought reject emanationism, which appears to limit and even exclude God’s freedom in the act of creation. To uphold the idea of divine omnipotence, the Ash’arites, [4] for example, go so far as to deny intermediary causes and the universal cause. They consider that matter is indivisible, and reduce its multiple differentiations to a transcendent principle, which is God the Creator. The idea of the indivisibility of matter leads to the recurrence of creation. In each of its parts and at any given moment the universe is, or can be, subject to modification. Furthermore, it cannot be eternal: its cohesion and duration are matters for the free will of God.

Esotericism and philosophy

Nevertheless, many currents of Islamic thought, including hermeticism, Shi’ite speculation (and its Ismaili variants), and some mystics, have given Avicenna’s cosmogony a better reception. In such thinking, modes of philosophical and theosophical knowledge, visionary and prophetic perceptions often merge in a single theory. Typical of these currents, but also descended from other cultural traditions, is Suhrawardi’s philosophy of light. [5] Starting from verses of the Qur’an in which God is qualified as “Light on Light”, Suhrawardi identifies separate intelligences as pure lights, each one emanating from another. The Tenth Intelligence is the Angel of Revelation, the Holy Ghost, the one who spoke to the Virgin Mary and to the Prophet Muhammad.

A universe is affixed to each of these primordial lights. The cosmos is the sum of these universes, including the lights that govern them and the radiation they mutually reflect. It is organized into four worlds: the world of pure intelligence, the world of celestial spheres, the world of sublunary elementary beings, and the world of subtle forms and images. The latter world, which is halfway between the worlds of the sensory and the supra-sensory, plays a leading role in Suhrawardi’s reasoning, where rational speculations and imaginative visions are resolved. It sets out and opens up the path to a refined gnosis.

These concepts bear witness to the fact that in Islam, cosmogony is ontologically necessary for accession to the Supreme Truth. As theory and reflection on the formation of the cosmos, it englobes all aspects of the process of creation. But in its ultimate development it can become one with God Himself. In fact, many Muslim mystics maintain that the cosmos was created to satisfy God’s desire for self-knowledge. Did not Ibn ‘Arabi [6] state that “God wished to see His own essence so as to demonstrate His mystery to Himself?” So the final consequence of the oneness of Being – “there is no Being but the Pure Being” – is that cosmogony is a reflection of this divine desire. It thus attains a metacosmic level which only the most vertiginous form of knowledge is permitted to reach!

These concepts, which had wide currency in the intellectual circles of classical Islam, engendered many passionate arguments. It is extraordinary that this philosophical and religious ebullition did not hold back scientific studies of astronomy and cosmography.

Date reading posted on Simerg: April 23, 2011

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Notes:

[1] Avicenna (Ibn Sina). Born 980 AD near Bukhara. Died 1037. A great thinker who wrote over 240 works and contributed to many fields of knowledge.

[2] Averroes (Ibn Rushd), born at Córdoba in 1126, was a champion of Aristotelian thought. His philosophical works exercised great influence on the Jewish and Christian intellectuals of medieval Europe. Although he was doctor and adviser to several rulers, he often had problems with the zealous representatives of  “official” Islam, for whom the prescriptions of the sharia took precedence over all forms of speculation. He died in Morocco in 1198.

[3] Abu Hamid Mohammed Ghazali (1059-1111). Islamic theologian and philosopher, taught in Baghdad until 1095, then spent ten years travelling as a sufi through many parts of the Islamic world. The insights he gained from his meditations and mystical experiences are enshrined in one of his major works, The Revival of the Religious Sciences.

[4] Ash’arites: members of a school of theology which takes its name from its founder, Abu Hassan al-Ash’ari (c. 873-943).

[5] Yahya Suhrawardi (born 1155 in Media, in what is now northwestern Iran) originated a revival of traditional metaphysics in Shi’ite Islam. He set forth a body of Islamic doctrine in which he integrated ancient wisdom (notably inherited from ancient Persia), classical philosophy and mystical practices. Imprisoned and executed at Aleppo in 1191.

[6] Ibn ‘Arabi, Andalusian theosophist, was born at Murcia in 1165 and died at Damascus in 1240. Editor

This article, including the introduction, originally appeared in The UNESCO Courier, May 1990. For the complete issue of this fine magazine please click Imagining the birth of the universe

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About the author: At the time the article was first published in UNESCO Courier, Algerian Norreddin Mahammed taught mathematics and the history of science at the University of Lille, France. He is the author of a number of scientific publications, notably on algebraic topology.

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One thought on “In the Beginning….The Qur’an and Muslim Thinkers on Creation

  1. Norreddin Mahammed’s article about creation is an important contribution. افلا تنظرون إلى الإبل كيف خلقت. وإلى السماء كيف رفعت وإلى الأرض كيف….

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