The descriptive miracles of the Qur’an

THE QUR’AN addresses those who do not believe in God and asks them to consider the world around them, in which the signs of creation are evident. This is how the non-Muslim, A.J. Arberry, translates one such verse:

‘Have not the unbelievers then beheld that the heavens and the earth were a mass all sewn up, then We unstitched them and of water fashioned every living thing? Will they not believe?’ (21:30)

Clearly the above passage could not have been directed at those Bedouin who wandered the sands of Arabia a thousand years ago, for what would they have known about the heaven and the earth, or the constituents of life? In our own time, however, there are many who claim that the ‘Big Bang’ makes belief in God redundant; this passage answers that claim. It does not say, ‘In the beginning there was a big bang.’ Rather, in poetic words (though I don’t know if this particular translation is literal), it echoes the modern belief that all matter was once held in a mass of infinite density which, at one stage, split apart to give, eventually, life as we know it today. The question is direct, to the point: ‘Have not the unbelievers then beheld… Will they not believe?’ Indeed. There are so many signs. Stephen Hawking writes that if the density of the universe one second after the ‘Big Bang’ had been a thousand billionth greater, the universe would have collapsed on itself and if it had been the same amount less, it would have been empty. And yet here are we today after innumerable other impossible possibilities, sitting, breathing, looking, reading, thinking. In the face of blindness to the wonders of the heavens and the earth, it is only right that the Qur’an should provide mankind with descriptive miracles.

The passage above provides two for us already. It was not known in seventh century Arabia that all matter derived from a single entity; indeed, it is not ‘known’ today, but it is the conclusion of advanced technological research. Nor was it known that all living things are composed of protoplasm, the main component of which is water.

‘Then He directed Himself to the heaven while it was smoke and said to it and the earth, “Become, willingly or by compulsion.” They said, “We become willingly.’ And He completed them as seven heavens within two days and inspired in each heaven its command. And we adorned the nearest heaven with lamps and as protection. That is the determination of the Exalted in Might, the Knowing.’ (Qur’an 41:11-12)

I believe it is only in the last ten years, since the Hubble Space Telescope became operational, that we have been able to see pictures of new stars forming out of a nebula, which is a cloud of gas and dust. Modern cosmologists believe that the whole universe originated in this manner. The verse above describes the heaven (what we usually call the universe) as having been smoke. This is a rather apt description, given that smoke is composed of gas and dust; all the more so when we look at a photograph such as that of the Lagoon nebula.

‘And the heaven We constructed with strength, and indeed, We are [its] expander. And the earth We have spread out, and excellent is the preparer. And of all things We created two mates; perhaps you will remember. So flee to God.’ (Qur’an 51:47-50)

I was watching a documentary some time ago about the expansion of the universe. The scientists, who undoubtedly have better minds than I, had set out to observe a slowing in the expansion of the universe which, they hypothesised, would have to eventually occur. To their surprise, they actually discovered that the expansion was accelerating. I recall shouting at the television as they puzzled about the force behind it. ‘It’s God,’ I yelled at them, as they failed to even consider it, and I thought of this verse. ‘God built it with strength,’ I told the television, ‘and He is its expander.’

Earlier, sitting in my Geography of South Asia class at SOAS, taking notes on plate tectonics and the creation of the subcontinent from two separate land masses, I couldn’t help thinking of the verse which followed. Study plate tectonics and you will see how the earth spread out over millions of years. I don’t know if that is what was meant with these words, but as I learnt of the shifting rocks that day, I couldn’t help thinking this way.

Chapter twenty-four of the Qur’an is known as the sura of Light. It begins, ‘A sura which We have sent down and made [that within it] obligatory and revealed therein verses of clear evidence that you might remember.’ It goes on to present us with verses of clear evidence that we cannot ignore.

‘God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His Light is like a niche within which is a burning wick; the burning wick is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly star lit from a blessed olive tree, neither of the East nor the West, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. God guides to His light whom He wills. And God presents examples for the people, and God is Knowing of all things.

Such niches are in houses which God has ordered to be raised, that His name may be mentioned therein; exalting Him within the morning and the evenings, men whom neither commerce nor sale distracts from the remembrance of God and performance of prayer and giving of the ordained charity. They fear a Day in which the hearts and eyes will turn about – that God may reward them according to the best of what they did and increase them from His bounty. And God gives provision to whom He wills without account.

But the disbelievers – their deeds are like a mirage in lowland which a thirsty one thinks is water until, when he comes to it, he finds it is nothing, but finds God before him, and He will pay him in full his due; and God is swift in account. Or like darknesses within an unfathomable sea which is covered by waves, upon which are waves, over which are clouds – darknesses, some of them upon others. When one puts out his hand, he can hardly see it. And for he whom God has not granted light – for him there is no light.

Do you not see that God is exalted by whomever is within the heavens and the earth and by birds with wings spread? Each has known his prayer and exalting, and God is knowing of what they do. And to God belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth, and to God is the destination.

Do you not see that God drives the clouds? That He brings them together; then He makes them into a mass, and you see the rain emerge from within it. And He sends down from the sky, mountains within which is hail, and He strikes with it whom He wills and averts it from whom He wills. The flash of its lightening almost takes away the eyesight.

God alternates the night and the day. Indeed in that is a lesson for those who have vision. God has created ever creature from water. And of them are those that move on their bellies, and of them are those that walk on two legs, and of them are those who walk on four. God creates what He wills. Indeed, God is over all things competent. We have certainly sent down distinct verses. And God guides whom He wills to a straight path.’ (24:35-46)

Look how the Qur’an addresses us. The parable it uses to describe the unbelievers could not present a more different example from the environment in which Muhammad preached: ‘darknesses within an unfathomable sea which is covered by waves, upon which are waves, over which are clouds – darknesses, some of them upon others.’ If we were to descend below the surface of the sea we would in fact encounter different levels of darkness, the seven colours of the light spectrum being absorbed at different depths in the first 200 metres, until only blue remained. Below a depth of 1000 metres there is no light at all. The verse also mentions waves, upon which are waves, over which are clouds. It is now known that very deep waters contain internal waves, due to them being of higher density than the waters above.

Later we are asked, ‘Do you not see that God drives the clouds?’ We know that cumulonimbus clouds begin to form when the wind pushes cumulus clouds to the convergence zone. As updrafts causes the cloud to stretch into the cooler regions of the atmosphere, water droplets form, which grow until the updrafts are no longer able to support them. At this point they fall from the cloud as rain. This verse then describes hail clouds as mountains. In fact, it is known that cumulonimbus clouds which release hail reach a height of up to thirty thousand feet (like mountains).

Having brought up hail, the Qur’an then says, ‘The flash of its lightening almost takes away the eyesight.’ It is interesting to note that clouds become electrified when hail falls through their supercooled region. When the hailstone comes into contact with an ice crystal, electrons flow from the latter to the former, so that the hailstone becomes negatively charged. The lighter, positively charged particles are carried to the upper part of the cloud by updrafts, whilst the hail falls to the lower part of the cloud. The negative charges accumulated in the lower part are then discharged as lightning.

In a chapter entitled, ‘The Bee’, the Qur’an reminds us to reflect on the blessings with which we have been bestowed. In his commentary on the Qur’an, Muhammad al-Ghazali writes:

‘Now we come to the second of the themes mentioned earlier and that for which Surat an-Nahl is justly celebrated: its magnificent and beautiful evocation of the natural world as a manifestation of Divine generosity and blessings to us as human beings for which, in justice, we should be endlessly thankful but for which we all too often display arrogant ingratitude.

The subject is introduced by an affirmation of Allah first as the Creator of the universe and then as the Creator of man, mentioning our tendency, despite our most humble origin, to dispute our Lord’s sovereignty: “He created the heavens and the earth with truth. He is exalted above any partner they attribute to Him! He created man from a drop of sperm and yet there he is, an open challenger!” (34-4)

Then in an extended passage of intense lyrical beauty Allah gives us a list of some of the many gifts He has bestowed on us without any effort on our part whatsoever. …
Things mentioned are the rain and the crops and fruit it makes possible, the workings of the universe, the huge variety of creatures, the oceans and all the benefits we get from them, and how the very physical geography of the earth is beneficial for us.

We can see why Surat an-Nahl has the alternative name of Surat an-Ni’am (Blessings) and an ayat which follows this list encapsulates it all: “If you tried to number Allah’s blessings, you could never count them. Allah is Ever Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (16:18) And the only thing Allah asks of us in return is to remember Him and thank Him for them, remembering that our thanks is a matter of action as well as words.’

Muhammad al-Ghazali, 1998, Journey Through the Qur’an: The Content and Context of the Suras, Dar Al Taqwa, England, pp. 184-5

In the midst of these words recalling the provision with which God has provided us, the Qur’an is yet again accurate in is description. We read:

‘And your Lord inspired to the bee, “Take for yourself among the mountains, houses, and among the trees and that which they construct. Then eat of all the fruits and follow the ways of your Lord laid down.” There emerges from their bellies a drink, varying in colour, in which there is healing for people. Indeed in that is a sign for a people who give thought.’ (16:68-9)

It is the particularity of the original Arabic which is of interest here. The imperative attakhithi translated as ‘take’ is a feminine form, which is used when all those that it refers to are female; the masculine form would be used even if a group contained only one male. In the above passage, therefore, God is addressing female bees. We now know that worker bees; those that collect pollen and build the hive; are female. The male drones’ only purpose is to impregnate the queen bee.

The above examples are only some of what I call the descriptive miracles of the Qur’an. They are miracles in that we would not ordinarily expect to find such descriptions in a text originating in the seventh century. In an age when people claim that science proves that there is no God, the Qur’an answers back.

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