It is interesting that the Quran mentions iron as an example, and not any of the other elements, to illustrate a deep truth about the universe, writes DR YUSUF NOOR.
STARS, like everything else, are born, live and die. They are formed when a cloud of hydrogen and helium gas collapses under its own gravity. As the cloud shrinks, gravitational energy is released which heats up the collapsing mass of gas.
Just like falling water can generate electricity, so too stars can ‘fall together’, producing energy and heat. The temperature continues to escalate with shrinkage, and when it reaches a critical level (about 15 million k), thermonuclear reactions are ignited and the newly formed star turns on. These reactions involve the fusion of hydrogen nuclei to produce helium nuclei. In essence, four ‘bits’ of hydrogen are converted to one ‘bit’ of helium. The mass discrepancy (one helium ‘bit’ is lighter than four hydrogen ‘bits’) is released as energy, some of which is poured out into space and the remainder of which is used to help keep up the body of the star. The stability of the star is a direct result of the balance between two forces – gravity trying to implode the star and heat pressure trying to explode it.
There is only so much hydrogen in a star. When the hydrogen stores are depleted, thermonuclear reactions temporarily cease and energy production stops. The inwardly directed gravitational force now dominates. This compresses the star, causing it to release another spurt of energy. This extra energy jams helium nuclei together.
The successive fusion of 2,3,4 … helium-4 particles respectively yield beryllium-8, carbon- 12, oxygen- 16 and so on. (The figures 4,12 and 16 indicate the number of protons and neutrons in each element.) The process continues right up till the iron stage. Stars, therefore, not only produce light but they are chemical factories as well. We will discuss the Quranic account of the origin of chemicals.
Quranic verses on chemical synthesis in stars
We will now turn our attention to what the Quran has to say about this subject. Concerning the creation of atoms, the Quran declares: ‘We sent down iron and (it is Us) that brought it into existence through (a process of) growth’ (57:25). The Book informs the reader of the extraterrestrial origin of iron (and by implication the other chemical elements) and its formation through gradual chemical build-up.
A key word is ‘growth’, which means to increase in size, weight and complexity. As stated earlier, the successive joining of helium particles produces ever larger, heavier and more complex elements, until the iron stage. It is interesting that the Quran mentions iron as an example, and not any of the other elements, to illustrate a deep truth about the universe, the origin of elements in stars (see shortly).
Iron is a complex element; its creation requires the formation of simpler precursor elements. The implication is that if iron was synthesised in the stars so too were the other elements.
It is very likely that the synthesis of iron and other elements began from simple gases, such as hydrogen and helium. This is suggested by a number of other relevant passages. In Quran 41:11 there is an unmistakeable reference to the gaseous nature of the early universe. According to Quran 41:12 this gaseous material would be fashioned into multiple cosmic systems. Such systems may be deduced to be star systems (galaxies) evident from chapter 79 verses 1, 2, 3; 55:5; 36:38 and 19:65 – for explanation of these verses see the article on galaxies and planetary systems (article 2). This means that stars have primarily a gaseous composition.
Quran 57:25, quoted above, states that iron and all the other elements were produced beyond Earth, which involves a process of growth, the creation of ever larger elements. Iron is a complex element and it is therefore reasonable that the synthesis of such chemical elements begins from simpler and smaller nuclei, such as hydrogen and helium. The latter two gases are the main constituents of stars.
Quran 53:49 (see shortly) alludes to the generation of energy and heat in stars. If, as assumed, growth in other words fusion also happens in stars, it is perfectly reasonable to connect energy production with fusion, two critical functions of stars. It follows that from the Quran, the formation of iron and other elements proceed in stars.
 ‘He applied His design to the primordial universe when it was still hot, hazy and gaseous’ (41:11).
 ‘He then decreed that it (the gaseous matter) be fashioned into multiple cosmic systems’ (41:12).
 ‘Consider the stars, planets and groups of stars that set, rise and set again. They move silently and effortlessly through space with steady motion unperturbed. Yet they outstrip each other quickly in speed’ (79:1,2,3).
 ‘The sun and the moon (and all other celestial bodies) follow (orbital) pathways calculated’ (55:5).
 ‘The sun moves in an orbit of its own’ (36:38).
 ‘Your Sustainer is the creator of the heavens and the Earth and what is between them’ (19:65).