Evolution of the Heavens
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 continuing.
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 to it. 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.
The Expansion of the Universe
The expansion of the Universe is the most imposing discovery of modern science. Today it is a firmly established concept and the only debate centres around the way this is taking place.
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 unambiguous terms.