Cosmology of the Quran
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The Qur'anic universe comprises "the heavens and the earth, and all that is between them". Many verses expand on the various elements of this scheme, without going into great detail. Overall, a picture emerges of a flat earth (and perhaps seven of these), above which are seven heavenly firmaments of uncertain shape (commonly assumed to be domed; more recently some historians have argued that the Qur'anic heavens are flat) and held up by invisible pillars. Lamps adorn the lowest of these heavens. The sun and moon circulate in them in a partly ambiguous manner. Allah resides in heaven above the creation, sitting on a throne. Academic work has situated this picture within the context of earlier Mesopotamian and Biblical cosmological concepts, while noting its own distinctive identity.
Relatively few modern academics have made dedicated attempts to piece together the cosmography of the Quran, in whole or in part. The most comprehensive such survey has been conducted by Mohammad Ali Tabatabaʾi and Saida Mirsadri of Tehran University in 2016 (which can be read for free using a jstor.org monthly free article allowance). They note that the new movement in the field commenced with Kevin van Bladel's work regarding individual elements of the picture in the context of the journeys of Dhu'l Qarnayn and the heavenly cords (asbab) by which he traversed the world, and which, for example, Pharaoh attempted to reach by building a tower.
By taking the Quranic descriptions in their own right and in the context of the more ancient cosmologies of Babylon and the Bible, but without appeal to later works of tafsir or hadith, which show the influence of Hellenistic (Greek) ideas acquired by the Muslims after the advent of Islam, Tabataba'i and Mirsadri argue that in various ways the Quranic cosmology has its own distinctive characteristics as well as inherited concepts, just as it interacts with the ideologies of its environment, taking some things and rejecting others. Their observations in particular are regularly cited in this article.
Cosmology of the Quran
The heavens and the Earth
Any accounting of the cosmology of the Qur'an must begin with the fact that the Islamic universe is extremely simple. It consists entirely of three components: "the heavens and the earth, and all that is between them" (see for example Quran 50:38), the latter of which contains such things as clouds (Quran 2:164) and birds (Quran 24:41). More often, just the heavens and earth are shorthand for the entirety of creation.
There is no indication of any of the other features of the universe that modern peoples take for granted. There is no concept of solar systems, of galaxies, or of “space.” There is no hint that the earth is a planet like the other planets visible from it, or that stars are other suns, just very far away. Qur'anic cosmology is primarily limited to that which is visible to the naked eye, and where it goes beyond this, invariably strays from what has been learned by scientific investigation.
The fundamental status of the “heavens and the earth” as the two main components of creation is emphasized repeatedly in the Qur'an, and it is the “separation” of the two that stands as the initial creative act of Allah.
Additionally, the Qur'an is clear that when Allah created the heavens and the earth, the earth came first.
The Earth and its waters
Tabataba'i and Mirsadri note that the Qur'an "takes for granted" the flatness of the earth, a common motif among the scientifically naive people at that time, while it has "not even one hint of a spherical earth" Meanwhile, certain Christian scholars of the 6th century influenced by the ancient Greeks, in dispute with their counterparts in the east, believed in its sphericity, as noted by van Bladel). Damien Janos in another paper on Qur'anic cosmography has similarly noted that while the exact shape of its boundaries are not described, "what is clear is that the Qurʾān and the early Muslim tradition do not uphold the conception of a spherical earth and a spherical universe. This was a view that later prevailed in the learned circles of Muslim society as a result of the infiltration of Ptolemaic astronomy".
Repeatedly, the Qur'an uses various Arabic terms that convey a flat earth, spread out like a carpet. For a much more comprehensive complilation of verses, see Islamic Views on the Shape of the Earth.
In fact, at one point the Qur'an even emphasizes how much flatter the earth would be were it not for the mountains that disrupt the view.
One unclear facet of Islamic cosmology is that the Qur'an likens the creation of the earth to the seven heavens:
Tabataba'i and Mirsadri observe that the plural for the earth (al ard) is never used in the Quran, though most Muslim commentators interpreted this verse to mean seven earths. Instead, they consider the verse to be likening the earth to the heavens in shape and extent (i.e. a flat expanse) as part of a broader argument in their paper that the Qur'an describes a set of seven flat, stacked heavens (see below).
In the hadiths, the idea of seven earths, one above the other is already apparent.
Janos notes that Sumerian incantations dated to the 1st millenium BCE mention both the seven heavens and seven earths (citing Wayne Horowitz, who translated them as "the heavens are seven, the earths are seven"). Tabataba'i and Mirsadri similarly note from Horowitz that this tradition was popular in the near east in first millenia BCE and CE, though also that only the seven heavens, but not seven earths found their way into the Hebrew literature.
While contrasting the Biblical view of fresh and salty waters with the two seas of certain Qur'anic verses (fresh and salty - see for example Quran 25:53 and the quest of Moses to find their junction in Quran 18:60), they note another difference to the Biblical and Mesopotamian cosmologies, which is that the Qur'an does not mention an ocean encircling the flat disk of the earth.
The two seas are very much on the surface of the earth.
The seven heavens and their denizens
The shape of the heavens
While many classical Muslim scholars, and modern academics (due to their interpretation of other ancient cosmologies) tend to assume that the Qur'anic heavens are domed, Tabataba'i and Mirsadri observe that there is no indication in the Qur'an that they touch the earth's boundaries. The sun and moon are placed in the heavens (Quran 71:16 and Quran 78:13), the lowest of which are adorned with lamps Quran 41:12. Janos discusses verses Quran 21:30 and Quran 36:40 in which the sun and moon (as well as night and day) move in a "falak" (an ambiguous term that may have meant a circuitous course/sphere/hemisphere - see Geocentrism and the Quran), but notes that this was not considered semantically identical with the samawat, or heavens, and they were not necessarily conceived as having the same shape.
The following is a summary of the arguments Tabataba'i and Mirsadri employ to argue that the Qur'anic heavens are flat:
- They interpret Quran 51:47 ("We have built the heaven with might, and We it is Who make the vast extent (thereof).") to mean that the heavens are continually expanded, which favours a flat expanse rather than a dome (it could be added in that case that the next verse about spreading the earth, with the same grammatical form, too fits this view). They also consider that verses mentioning invisible pillars (see below) favour a flat, roof like firmament.
- Verses in which the seven heavens are likened to the earth (their interpretation of Quran 67:12 mentioned above), including in terms of their width e.g. Quran 57:21 "a Garden whereof the breadth is as the breadth of the heavens and the earth".
- These heavens are arranged in layers (Quran 67:3, Quran 71:15), which more obviously suggests flatness, and this word tibiqan is similar to the Babylonian tubuqati, suggesting that seven superimposed flat heavens is a belief they have in common.
- While interest in the heavens (as opposed to their contents) is largely absent from pre-Islamic poetry, the poems of Umayya ibn Abī al‐Ṣalt (d. 5 / 626) likened the heavens to seven floors one above another, and the carpet shaped earth to the uplifted heaven ("And [he] shaped the earth as a carpet then he ordained it, [the area] under the firmament [are] just like those he uplifted").
- Despite the obvious potential use of tents as an analogy for the heavens, the Qur'an does not do so. Mountains act as pegs to stabilise the earth rather than hold down a heavenly tent canopy.
- The notion of a flat sky was common in ancient Mesopotamia and the near east (as also noted by Janos, citing Horowitz) though some scholars instead say that the universal belief of the scientifically naive peoples of the world was that it was dome shaped. Those who suppose that the pre-Islamic Arabs had a dome shaped conception due to their tent dwellings ignore the evidence that Mecca was an urban environment with flat roofs.
- They argue that the Qur'an's ideological antipathy to the Bedouins would have extended to their use of tents for pagan practices, and for this reason may have rejected any possible existing analogies with the heavens.
They note that Janos too favours a flat heavens interpretation. For him, it was enough that the Qur'anic firmament is likened to a bināʾ (structure) or saqf (roof) (Quran 2:22, Quran 21:32, Quran 40:64); They note that the word saqf originally seems to have referred to flat roofs, including in the Qur'an Quran 16:26, Quran 43:33; and arranged in layers as mentioned above - they agree with him on the strength of this latter point, though he is also open to the dome-shaped view based on tafsir sources rather than any internal evidence, while van Bladel relies mainly on pre-Qur'anic sources for his discussion of whether the Qur'anic heavens are a dome, tent or roof.
On the other hand, the moon, and probably the sun, are within the seven heavens according to Quran 71:15-16, which may lend support to the assumption shared by some of Muhammad's companions and various classical scholars that the heavens are domed, given that these celestial bodies, as well as the night and day, are said to float in a falak (see above). This verse is mentioned by Tabataba'i and Mirsadri without comment on the potential difficulty. In van Bladel's analysis of the Qur'anic cosmography, the sky has gates, which perhaps offers a solution (in the Syriac Alexander legend, the sun passes through gates, but in a dome rather than flat sky).
Solid firmaments and invisible pillars
Tabataba'i and Mirsadri notice that, as with other ancient cosmologies, the Qur'anic sky/heaven is a solid object. Unlike with the heavenly pillars in the Bible, the Qur'anic heavens are raised up by invisible pillars (see also Quran 31:10; Ibn Kathir in his tafsir notes two views on what is a somewhat ambiguous phrasing, as though the author was hedging his bets: "'there are pillars, but you cannot see them,' according to Ibn `Abbas, Mujahid, Al-Hasan, Qatadah, and several other scholars. Iyas bin Mu`awiyah said, 'The heaven is like a dome over the earth, meaning, without pillars.'").
They note that various verses describe the heavens as a structure or edifice with no fissures, though fragments of it may fall on the earth.
And the fact that the sky/heaven is solid is shown by the concept of pieces falling and potentially injuring residents of the earth.
These heavens are described as strong.
In fact, they are so substantial that it is even conceivable to climb up onto them using a ladder.
It is a guarded roof (presumably a reference to shooting stars chasing devils in other verses):
To further expound on the nature of the seven heavens, the hadith are helpful. Here we learn the distances between each heaven, as well as what is on the other side of the furthermost.
They said: Sahab.He said: And muzn? They said: And muzn. He said: And anan? They said: And anan. AbuDawud said: I am not quite confident about the word anan. He asked: Do you know the distance between Heaven and Earth? They replied: We do not know. He then said: The distance between them is seventy-one, seventy-two, or seventy-three years. The heaven which is above it is at a similar distance (going on till he counted seven heavens). Above the seventh heaven there is a sea, the distance between whose surface and bottom is like that between one heaven and the next. Above that there are eight mountain goats the distance between whose hoofs and haunches is like the distance between one heaven and the next. Then Allah, the Blessed and the Exalted, is above that.
Ignoring the giant mountain goats which are never mentioned in the Qur'an itself, the outermost heaven lies beneath a sea that is as deep as the distances between adjacent heavens. That Allah’s “throne” is above such waters is mentioned in the Qur'an as well as the hadith.
There are however no mentions of galaxies, quasars, galaxy clusters or empty space. Simply water, a throne, and Allah himself.
Additional details concerning the individual heavens are found in the accounts of Muhammad’s “night journey.” Rather than quoting at length, readers are referred to Sahih Bukhari 9:93:608 for the long version. But here are the key points.
Each of the seven heavens is populated by multiple angels and a few other folks as well. These heavens are entered through doors in the solid domes, each with an angelic guard and each populated by a resident prophet. For example, immediately above the dome of the first heaven is where Muhammad met Adam, and discovered (in the absence of true geographic knowledge) the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The second heaven is the home of the Prophet Idris. Aaron is in the fourth heaven, Abraham the sixth, and Moses the seventh.
The stars, the sun, and the moon
The stars are inside the closest heaven, as the Qur'an is quite explicit on this point.
The sun and moon are a bit more ambiguous, as all we know is that they are in the heavens, and not explicitly inside the lowest of them.
These two lights, as well as the night and day float in a circuitous course/sphere/hemisphere (a falak).
And at the end of their daily paths across the sky, the sun (and presumably also the moon and stars) pass through the earth’s flat surface near the far Western edge using openings filled with water.
Once out of view of the humans that populate the top of the earthly disc, their motion stops, and they rest for the night in particular resting places.
At some point during the night, however (and here again turning to the hadith for details) the sun must negotiate its return the next day with a direct appeal for Allah’s permission.
The hadith also occurs in Sahih Bukhari 4:54:421 (note that Khan inaccurately translates maghribiki here as "the west" instead of "your setting place") where it is presented as the interpretation of Quran 36:38 quoted above.
With permission to rise received, the sun passes back through the flat earth near its Eastern edge to commence the next day. While no “muddy pools” are specifically mentioned for the sunrise, the description of people living nearby the exit point mirrors the description of the place where the sun set.
Solar and lunar eclipses
The Qur'an demonstrates no understanding whatsoever of eclipses. Perhaps this is understandable. The hadith claim that Muhammad only experienced one solar eclipse during his lifetime, an experience which frightened him into a spectacular act of piety. But the Qur'an only makes a single reference to eclipses, and that is a lunar eclipse that will take place at the end of the world.
In fact, the Qur'an actually makes a statement that would conceivably make eclipses impossible.
For a solar eclipse to occur however, the sun and the moon actually must (from the perspective of the earth) "catch up" to each other in their "orbits." But since the moon itself is not visible at that time, the authors of the Qur'an never noticed this.
But then, when discussing the end of time the Qur'an assumes that a lunar eclipse (which can only occur when the sun and moon are on opposite sides of the earth) can occur at the same time that the sun and moon finally do “catch up” to each other.
But when sight is confounded
And the moon is eclipsed
And sun and moon are united,
The “uniting” of the sun and the moon not only demonstrates a singular instance when they do “catch up” with each other, but suggests that its author assumed the common perception that the sun and moon are of comparable size and distance.
The stars, planets, and meteors
It is not obvious from the translations of the Qur'an that the authors of the Qur'an actually distinguished between stars and planets, as the same word is often translated to mean either. But as ancient peoples generally knew that planets were different from ordinary stars (they moved) it is a safe assumption that the earliest Muslims were equally aware.
But the mistaken (if understandable) belief that stars are very small nearby objects is not merely reflected in the placement of them inside the nearest heaven. As with most other ancient people, the authors of the Qur'an believed that meteors literally were “falling stars.” Verse 67:5 tells us they are weapons against devils and jinn.
This appears to be part of the protective role of the heavens.
The throne ('arsh) of Allah
Tabataba'i and Mirsadri note that Allah seems to reside in the Qur'anic heaven, while his footstool (kursi) extends over the heavens and earth and his throne (arshi) is carried by angels (Quran 39:75 and Quran 40:7). This is very much similar to the Judeo-Christian view.
The locations of Heaven and Hell
Tabataba'i and Mirsadri observe that for the Qur'an, there is almost no reference to what is beneath the earth, except as no more than a geographic location. There is no concept of an underworld, unlike Mesopotamian mythologies, as well as those of Egypt and Greece.
The Qur'an repeatedly described Jannah (Paradise) as comprising "Gardens from beneath which the rivers flow". Though not reflected in English translations, in every instance the definite article is used i.e. "the rivers". This is also noted by Tommaso Tesei, who has detailed how "sources confirm that during late antiquity it was widely held that paradise was a physical place situated on the other side of the ocean encircling the Earth. In accordance with this concept, it was generally assumed that the rivers flowing from paradise passed under this ocean to reach the inhabited part of the world." A notion of four rivers following a subterranean course from paradise into the inhabited world also occurs in contemporary near eastern and Syriac sources.
The concept also appears in numerous sahih hadiths about Muhammad's night journey which mention the Nile and Euphrates, for example:
I was raised to the Lote Tree and saw four rivers, two of which were coming out and two going in. Those which were coming out were the Nile and the Euphrates, and those which were going in were two rivers in paradise. Then I was given three bowls, one containing milk, and another containing honey, and a third containing wine. I took the bowl containing milk and drank it. It was said to me, "You and your followers will be on the right path (of Islam)."
Later Islamic cosmology takes a perfectly prosaic position in terms of Paradise and Hell, and places them firmly within the cosmos that consists of the heavens and the earth. This is discussed with many narrations in an article on the Islamqa.info website. The description of Muhammad’s “night journey” shows each of the seven heavens already populated with the departed prophets in Paradise. This is consistent with the Qur'anic description of the size of Paradise.
If the heavens (to include the seventh and largest) are already populated with denizens of Paradise, the width of Paradise would be precisely that of heaven and earth.
And since Paradise is on the other side of the first heaven, it might seem reasonable that Hell is at the level of the lowest earth, as appears in hadith. This is consistent with Qur'anic descriptions of hell as being a completely enclosed place.
The direction of hell on the day of judgement or from the perspective of those in paradise at least, when it is mentioned, is invariably “down.”
And in yet another reference, an observer is directed to “look down” in order to witness a denizen of hell.
And so, we have the Islamic Universe in completion.
- Tabatabaʾi, Mohammad A.; Mirsadri, Saida, "The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself", Arabica 63 (3/4): 201-234, 2016, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24811784 also available on academia.edu
- Van Bladel, Kevin, “The Alexander legend in the Qur‘an 18:83-102″, In The Qur’ān in Its Historical Context, Ed. Gabriel Said Reynolds, New York: Routledge, 2007
- van Bladel, Kevin, "Heavenly cords and prophetic authority in the Qur’an and its Late Antique context", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 70 (2): 223-246, 2007, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40379198
- Mohammad Ali Tabatabaʾi and Saida Mirsadri, The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself p. 211
- Van Bladel, Kevin, Heavenly cords and prophetic authority in the Qur’an and its Late Antique context pp. 224-226
- Janos, Damien, "Qurʾānic cosmography in its historical perspective: some notes on the formation of a religious wordview", Religion 42 (2): 215-231, 2012 See pp. 217-218
- Tabataba'i and Mirsadri, The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself p. 211
- Ibid. pp. 211 and 221
- Janos, Qurʾānic cosmography in its historical perspective p. 221
- Tabataba'i and Mirsadri, The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself p. 209
- Ibid. pp. 213-214
- Tabataba'i and Mirsadri, The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself pp. 217
- Janos, Qurʾānic cosmography in its historical perspective pp. 223-229
- Tabataba'i and Mirsadri, The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself pp. 218-234
- Janos, Qurʾānic cosmography in its historical perspective pp. 216-217
- Tabataba'i and Mirsadri, The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself pp. 215
- Ibid. p. 209
- Ibid. pp. 216 and 220
- (English) Tafsir of Ibn Kathir for verse 13:2
(Arabic) Tafsir of Ibn Kathir for verse 13:2
- Mohammad Ali Tabatabaʾi and Saida Mirsadri, The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself pp. 208-210
- Mohammad Ali Tabatabaʾi and Saida Mirsadri, The Qurʾānic Cosmology, as an Identity in Itself p. 212
- Tesei, Tommaso. Some Cosmological Notions from Late Antiquity in Q 18:60–65: The Quran in Light of Its Cultural Context. Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 135, no. 1, American Oriental Society, 2015, pp. 19–32, https://doi.org/10.7817/jameroriesoci.135.1.19.
- Where is Paradise and where is Hell? - IslamQA.info