Academic journal article Islam & Science

In the Beginning: Islamic Perspectives on Cosmological Origins-II

Academic journal article Islam & Science

In the Beginning: Islamic Perspectives on Cosmological Origins-II

Article excerpt

How did the cosmos come into existence? When? With what? How did the material for its creation come into existence? Is there an end to this beginning? These questions about the origin of the universe and its composition are foundational; they create worldviews. In Islamic tradition there are four distinct and often intertwined approaches to these questions: (i) sacred cosmology, based on the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet; (ii) philosophical cosmologies; (iii) illuminationist and mystical cosmologies; and (iv) contemporary perspectives on scientific cosmology. This second part of the article continues description of Islamic sacred cosmology and focuses on elements of the cosmos.

Keywords: Sacred cosmology; Islamic perspectives on origins; history of cosmology; creation theme in the Qur'an; constituent elements of the cosmos.

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A systematic exploration of Islamic cosmology can be conceived as consisting of four distinct and mutually interacting perspectives, spanning fourteen hundred years of Islamic tradition. The first to appear was the "Sacred Cosmology", which came into existence as a result of intense reflection on the creation theme of the Qur'an by the Companions of the Prophet, their successors (tabi'in) and their successors (tabd tabi'in). This was followed by various philosophical cosmologies, which were generally influenced by Greek philosophy. The third strand of cosmological writings in Islamic tradition emerged as a result of the appropriation and transformation of philosophical cosmologies through a long process of reformulation which attempted to remove elements of these cosmologies which were foreign to Islamic worldview. The fourth strand consists of contemporary Islamic perspectives on modern scientific cosmological theories, which only deal with the physical cosmos.

In the previous installment of this article (1) we explored various aspects of the Sacred Cosmology regarding the creation of the Throne and the Footstool, the Guarded Tablet and the Pen, and the Heavens and the Earth. Traditional formulations of the hierarchical cosmology of the Qur'an then describe creation and the attributes of entities which fill the cosmos: the sun and the moon; stars and planets; the night and the day; clouds, water, winds, rain, and oceans; thunder, lightening, and thunderbolts; mountains and rivers. In addition there are non-physical entities such as time and beings of other realms, for instance, the angels and the jinn. It should be kept in mind that these descriptions often depict the creation and elements of the cosmos from a perspective much higher than the physical plane and, therefore, the vocabulary used here should not be confused with that used in physical descriptions.

Constituent Elements of the Cosmos

The Qur'anic Data

Before we proceed with the theme of the creation of the various elements that fill the cosmos, it is important to note that the Qur'anic descriptions of the cosmos--and indeed of everything created by God--are replete with an embedded teleology to which the Qur'an constantly draws the attention of its faithful readers. This teleological orientation of the entire created order makes every existing thing a sign and a pointer, an ayah, to the One Who created it; all elements in the Qur'anic cosmos have been created for a reason and each and every thing has a purpose and role: Indeed in the heavens and the earth there are signs for the believers; and in your own creation and in (the creation of] animals which have been scattered [on earth], there are signs for people who wish to believe, and in the alternation of the day and the night, and in the means of provision which Allah sends down from the sky-with which He brings the earth back to life after it has been dead--and in the blowing of the winds, there are many signs for people of understanding. (2)

These and other verses of the Qur'an which describe the creation and function of various cosmic entities and processes were received and understood by its first bearers (that is, the Prophet and his Companions), not so much for their scientific content but for the three fundamental aspects of the message of the Qur'an for which the elements of the cosmos were signs: (1) tawhid: that there is only one Creator Who has created the universe and all that it contains for a fixed duration and for a purpose; (ii) risalah: that this Creator has sent guidance for humanity from time to time through His prophets, Prophet Muhammad being the last such messenger and the Qur'an being the last revelation; and (iii) ma'ad: that there is a return to the Creator for all who have come into this world. …

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