For centuries, space was considered to be a cold vacuum of emptiness, a fixed permanent entity in which the cosmic drama is playing itself out, writes DR YUSUF NOOR.
THE universe is largely empty space; planets, stars and galaxies occupy relatively small regions of space. Our planet is surrounded by space, too, but it is filled with atmospheric gases, micro-organisms and dust particles. Far beyond the atmosphere there are vast tracks of eternal darkness commonly referred to as space. Is such space empty?
For centuries, space was considered to be a cold vacuum of emptiness, a fixed permanent entity in which the cosmic drama is playing itself out. The introduction of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity transformed this long-held view. Scientists today describe space as an elastic medium which can stretch, shrink and curve. The universe is in a state of expansion. This is not due to the flying-apart of galaxies through existing space but the result of space expanding between the galaxies and pushing them apart.
Space, although invisible and imperceptible to us, has a mathematically precise structure. The point may be appreciated if we remind ourselves of the countless electromagnetic waves that daily traverse the space arena. Space not only assist in their transmission but ensures that their correct frequency arrive at the receiving instrument. Television and radio broadcasting will not be possible without this feature of space.
We live in three-dimensional space corresponding to the directions backward-forward, left-right and up-down. However, there is another dimension, not a space dimension but a time dimension. Travelling through three-dimensional space also means travelling through one-dimensional time. Motion in space is inextricably linked to time. Scientists for this reason refer to the universe in terms of a four-dimensional space-time structure.
Even on a microscopic scale (from a quantum perspective) space is alive. There is a continuous creation and destruction of virtual particles, wild energy fluctuations and field changes. Gravity, too, is everywhere. In fact, as we shall see later, gravity is described as the manifestation of curved space. Space therefore is a dynamic concept; it can stretch, change shape, has mathematical features and there is a continuous creation and destruction of particles. Armed with this information, we can now proceed on to how the Quran views space-time.
The Quran captures the essence of the modern understanding of space: ‘He (it is) who made heavenly space a structure’ (Quran 2:22). Space is not mere emptiness as accepted for centuries but is referred to as a structure, a piece of work consisting of parts joined together in some definite manner. Many physicists today do not consider space and time to be fundamental concepts. Like everything else, it is composed of ultra-microscopic constituents arranged in an orderly fashion. Space may therefore be defined as a kind of atomised structure, as the verse indicates. The concept is further developed in the following two verses:
- ‘By the heavenly space, the nature of which is a network or like a fabric’ (Quran 51:7). If the reader could imagine space to be constructed of countless thin wires running in different directions, like a three-dimensional grid, this is one of the Quranic ideas of space, which is precisely how it is described in modern terms. Another analogy forthcoming from the verse is to compare space-time with threads interwoven like the threads of a pliant fabric.
Scientists often speak about the fabric of space-time. This description suggests that space (actually space-time which is also how the Quran views it – see below) emerges as a result of tiny threads stitched together. Quran 10:5 states: ‘He it is who made the sun a source of light and the moon (a body) that reflects light and ordained that it (the moon) moves in space and measured out phases for her that you may know how to compute the number of years and how to measure (time).’
The verse illustrates an important principle; when a celestial body, like the moon for instance, moves in space, it does so within a specified time. Motion is space and time is therefore interlinked. Quran 21:302 (discussed under the birth of the universe), which describes the origin of the universe, refers to the beginning of space and time. In Quran 2:1173 there is an allusion to the primal origin of the universe (which includes space and time). Why primal?
The Quran is providing a clue of something more fundamental than space and time. Space and time are not ultimate concepts but consist of smaller parts, a kind of atomised structure. Since space and time are structural entities and are connected as pointed out, we may infer that the Quran views space-time in terms of a combined space-time structure.
- ‘By the heavenly space which is expanding and curving back (on itself) to return to its original state’ (Quran 86:11). The verse relates the elastic and curved nature of space, (and the destiny of the universe which will be reviewed in another article). This interpretation is supported by Quran 51:474 quoted before, which alludes to the expansion of space, and Quran 21:1045 which looks at the fate of the universe. The latter states that space will be ‘rolled-up’ i.e. curved around on itself. This will happen in the far distant future, when the expansion will grind to a halt and the universe will start to contract.
This will be brought about by the overwhelming gravitational forces suggested by the following three verses quoted under article, galaxies and planetary systems: Quran 13:26 which states that the lifespan of celestial bodies and hence of the universe is determined by gravitational forces; Quran 77:257 which refers to the attractive nature of gravity – gravity will ‘pull’ the universe inwards, and Quran 15:168 which speaks about the powerful gravitational force of a black hole.
As space continues to shrink, its curvature will steadily escalate towards the beginning of existence. The curvature will become infinite, creating a boundary, in other words a singularity (which resides at the heart of a black hole) through which space and time cannot have continued.
The singularity concept referred to earlier in Quran 21:302, describes the initial state of the universe as a ‘single unit of creation, closed-up and devoid of space’. Another verse, Quran 15:279 refers to the violent temperatures in the beginning. These terms are key features of a singularity. The very idea of a ‘closed’ universe implied by Quran 86:11 and the other passages, points to the curved nature of space. A closed universe is one which after billions of years of expansion will curve around on itself, contract and revert to its former state, the singularity. Such a universe is finite but has no boundary, rather like the curved surface of a sphere except that it is four-dimensional.
Quantum view of space
The quantum perspective of space is expressed in the Quran as follows: ‘Do they (the sceptics) not look at heavenly space above, how We constructed it and adorned it and it has no gaps?’ (Quran 50:6). Firstly, the passage refers to the building of space. Space is a framework that requires construction. Quran 2:22 above, complements this understanding. Secondly, the verse appeals to the non-believer to reflect on the properties of space:
- How it was designed;
- its decoration (with countless space objects running their courses according to precise mathematical laws (Quran 55:7)10 and
- the absence of ‘gaps’.
Quantum physics teaches us the impossibility of finding a volume of space devoid of everything. On the contrary, as discussed before, it is filled with ceaseless microscopic activity and ever-present force fields. The absence of gaps in space, according to a distinguished quantum physicist, is the most profound observation in this field. Space according to the Quran is therefore an ever-changing concept and is ultimately the handy work of God.
Note that the Quran often combines scientific verses with others of a moral and metaphysical nature. This is to emphasis its unified approach – all aspects of life are part of the same deal. The idea of using concrete physical phenomena as a vehicle for expressing metaphysical ideas is an illustration of the Book’s rational approach to matters pertaining to faith. For instance, just as real as space-time is, so is the reality after death. The nature of space is a 20th century concept. Could a mortal 1 400 years ago, when the Quran appeared, have made such predictions?
Featured image: The universe is largely empty space; planets, stars and galaxies occupy relatively small regions of space. Our planet is surrounded by space, too, but it is filled with atmospheric gases, micro-organisms and dust particles. Far beyond the atmosphere there are vast tracks of eternal darkness commonly referred to as space. Is such space empty? (Photo SHUTTERSTOCK)
- Binaa – derived from the root banaa, which means structure, framework.
- Do not those who deny the existence of God see that the heavens and the Earth were [once] a closed-up single unit of creation devoid of space, which We then parted creating space [and time]? And We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe? (Quran 21:30).
- To Him belongs the primal origin of the universe (Quran 2:117).
- With power, skill and energy did We lay the foundation of the universe according to specified conditions and certainly We are steadily expanding it (Quran 51:47).
- A long period from now, We shall roll up space-time as written scrolls are rolled up. And as We brought into being the first creation so We shall bring forth a new creation (Quran 21:104).
- Your Lord is He who raises the celestial bodies with an invisible pillar and is firmly established on the throne of authority. He has subjected the sun and the moon (and all other celestial bodies) to His (gravitational laws) each pursuing a course for a term appointed (in accordance with those laws). He governs everything that exists (Quran 13:2).
- Have We not made the Earth draw to itself the living and the non-living? (Quran 77:25).
- We have set up (unseen) structures in space, (derived from) large stars which become manifest through their great (gravitational) force, and are gateways (Quran 15:16).
- The hidden forces [of nature] were created [in the beginning long] before [the creation of man] out of intense heat (Quran 15:28,29).
- The sun and the moon follow prescribed pathways according to calculations (Quran 55:5).