THE CONQUEST OF SPACE
EVOLUTION OF THE HEAVENS
The expansion of the Universe is one
of the most imposing discoveries of modern science. Today it is a firmly
established concept and the only debate centers around the way this is taking
It was first suggested by the general theory of
relativity and is backed up by physics in the examination of the galactic
spectrum; the regular movement towards the red section of their spectrum may be
explained by the distancing of one galaxy from another. Thus the size of the
Universe is probably constantly increasing and this increase will become bigger
the further away the galaxies are from us. The speeds at which these celestial
bodies are moving may, in the course of this perpetual expansion, go from
fractions of the speed of light to speeds faster than this.
The following verse of the Qur'an (sura 51, verse
47) where God is speaking, may perhaps be compared with modern ideas:
"The heaven, We have built it with power.
Verily. We are expanding it." 'Heaven' is the translation of the word
sama' and this is exactly the extra-terrestrial world that is meant. 'We are
expanding it' is the translation of the plural present participle musi'una of
the verb ausa'a meaning 'to make wider, more spacious, to extend, to expand'.
Some translators who were unable to grasp the
meaning of the latter provide translations that appear to me to be mistaken,
e.g. "we give generously" (R. Blachere). Others sense the meaning, but
are afraid to commit themselves: Ramidullah in his translation of the Qur'an
talks of the widening of the heavens and space, but he includes a question mark.
Finally, there are those who arm themselves with authorized scientific opinion
in their commentaries and give the meaning stated here. This is true in the case
of the Muntakab, a book of commentaries edited by the Supreme Council for
Islamic Affairs, Cairo. It refers to the expansion of the Universe in totally
From this point of view, three verses of the Qur'an
should command our full attention. One expresses, without any trace of
ambiguity, what man should and will achieve in this field. In the other two, God
refers for the sake of the unbelievers in Makka to the surprise they would have
if they were able to raise themselves up to the Heavens; He alludes to a
hypothesis which will not be realized for the latter. 1) The first of these
verses is sura 55, verse 33: "O assembly of Jinns and Men, if you can
penetrate regions of the heavens and the earth, then penetrate them! You will
not penetrate them save with a Power."
The translation given here needs some explanatory
a) The word 'if' expresses in English a condition
that is dependent upon a possibility and either an achievable or an unachievable
hypothesis. Arabic is a language which is able to introduce a nuance into the
condition which is much more explicit. There is one word to express the
possibility (ida), another for the achievable hypothesis (in) and a third for
the unachievable hypothesis expressed by the word (lau). The verse in question
has it as an achievable hypothesis expressed by the word (in). The Qur'an
therefore suggests the material possibility of a concrete realization. This
subtle linguistic distinction formally rules out the purely mystic
interpretation that some people have (quite wrongly) put on this verse.
b) God is addressing the spirits (jinn) and human
beings (ins), and not essentially allegorical figures.
c) 'To penetrate' is the translation of the verb
nafada followed by the preposition min. According to Kazimirski's dictionary,
the phrase means 'to pass right through and come out on the other side of a
body' (e.g. an arrow that comes out on the other side). It therefore suggests a
deep penetration and emergence at the other end into the regions in question.
d) The Power (sultan) these men will have to
achieve this enterprise would seem to come from the All- Mighty.' There can be
no doubt that this verse indicates the possibility men will one day achieve what
we today call (perhaps rather improperly) 'the conquest of space'. One must note
that the text of the Qur'an predicts not only penetration through the regions of
the Heavens, but also the Earth, i.e. the exploration of its depths. 2) The
other two verses are taken from sura 15, (verses 14 and 15). God is speaking of
the unbelievers in Makka, as the context of this passage in the sura shows:
"Even if We opened unto them a gate to
Heaven and they were to continue ascending therein, they would say: our sight is
confused as in drunkenness. Nay, we are people bewitched."
The above expresses astonishment at a remarkable
spectacle, different from anything man could imagine. The conditional sentence
is introduced here by the word lau which expresses a hypothesis that could never
be realized as far as it concerned the people mentioned in these verses.
When talking of the conquest of space therefore,
we have two passages in the text of the Qur'an: one of them refers to what will
one day become a reality thanks to the powers of intelligence and ingenuity God
will give to man, and the other describes an event that the unbelievers in
Makkah will never witness, hence its character of a condition never to be
realized. The event will however be seen by others, as intimated in the first
verse quoted above. It describes the human reactions to the unexpected spectacle
that travelers in space will see: their confused sight, as in drunkenness, the
feeling of being bewitched...
This is exactly how astronauts have experienced
this remarkable adventure since the first human space flight around the world in
1961. It is known in actual fact how once one is above the Earth's atmosphere,
the Heavens no longer have the azure appearance we see from Earth, which results
from phenomena of absorption of the Sun's light into the layers of the
atmosphere. The human observer in space above the Earth's atmosphere sees a
black sky and the Earth seems to be surrounded by a halo of bluish color due to
the same phenomena of absorption of light by the Earth's atmosphere. The Moon
has no atmosphere, however, and therefore appears in its true colors against the
black background of the sky. It is a completely new spectacle therefore that
presents itself to men in space, and the photographs of this spectacle are well
known to present-day man.
Here again, it is difficult not to be impressed,
when comparing the text of the Qur'an to the data of modern science, by
statements that simply cannot be ascribed to the thought of a man who lived more
than fourteen centuries ago.
Having called modern concepts on the formation of
the Universe to mind, reference was made to the evolution that took place,
starting with primary nebula through to the formation of galaxies, stars and
(for the solar system) the appearance of planets beginning with the Sun at a
certain stage of its evolution. Modern data lead us to believe that in the solar
system, and more generally in the Universe itself, this evolution is still
How can anybody who is aware of these ideas fail
to make a comparison with certain statements found in the Qur'an in which the
manifestations of divine Omnipotence are referred to. The Qur'an reminds us
several times that: "(God) subjected the sun and the moon: each one runs
its course to an appointed term."
This sentence is to be found in sura 13, verse 2;
sura 31, verse 29; sura 35, verse 13 and sura 39, verse 5. In addition to this,
the idea of a settled place is associate with the concept of a destination place
in sura 36, verse 38: "The Sun runs its course to a settled place. This
is the decree of the All Mighty, the Full of Knowledge."
'Settled place' is the translation of the word
mustaqarr and there can be no doubt that the idea of an exact place is attached
How do these statements fare when compared with
data established by modern science?
The Qur'an gives an end to the Sun for its
evolution and a destination place. It also provides the Moon with a settled
place. To understand the possible meanings of these statements, we must remember
what modern knowledge has to say about the evolution of the stars in general and
the Sun in particular, and (by extension) the celestial bodies that
automatically followed its movement through space, among them the Moon.
The Sun is a star that is roughly 4.5 billion
years old, according to experts in astrophysics. It is possible to (distinguish
a stage in its evolution, as one can for all the stars. At present, the Sun is
at an early stage, characterized by the transformation of hydrogen atoms into
helium atoms. Theoretically, this present stage should last another 5.5 billion
years according to calculations that allow a total of 10 billion years for the
duration of the primary stage in a star of this kind. It has already been shown,
in the case of these other stars, that this stage gives way to a second period
characterized by the completion of the transformation of hydrogen into helium,
with the resulting expansion of its external layers and the cooling of the Sun.
In the final stage, its light is greatly diminished and density considerably
increased; this is to be observed in the type of star known as a 'white dwarf'.
The above dates are only of interest in as far as
they give a rough estimate of the time factor involved, what is worth
remembering and is really the main point of the above, is the notion of an
evolution. Modern data allow us to predict that, in a few billion years, the
conditions prevailing in the solar system will not be the same as they are
today. Like other stars whose transformations have been recorded until they
reached their final stage, it is possible to predict an end to the Sun. The
second verse quoted above (sura 36, verse 38) referred to the Sun running its
course towards a place of its own.
Modern astronomy has been able to locate it
exactly and has even given it a name, the Solar Apex: the solar system is indeed
evolving in space towards a point situated in the Constellation of Hercules
(alpha lyrae) whose exact location is firmly established; it is moving at a
speed already ascertained at something in the region of 12 miles per second.
All these astronomical data deserve to be
mentioned in relation to the two verses from the Qur'an. Since it is possible to
state that they appear to agree perfectly with modern scientific data.