Select your language  


Modern Cosmology in the Islamic Worldview

Bruno Guiderdoni, Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris
(from Science and the Spiritual Quest Conference: June 7-10, 1998)



  In what sense could the theories and data of modern science ``fit'' in the world view elaborated for centuries by Islamic thinking? To address this issue, we have first to recall that the Islamic tradition envisages a strong connection between faith and the pursuit of knowledge, which is considered as ``a religious duty incumbent to all Muslims, Male and Female''. The nature of this knowledge is three fold: it is religious through the study of the Koran and the submission to its prescriptions and prohibitions, intellectual through the investigation of the world and reflection upon it, mystical through inner enlightenment directly granted by God to whom He wants among His servants. As a matter of fact, these three paths to knowledge must necessarily converge to a unique Truth, since God Himself is unique. In this prospect, there cannot be any actual contradiction between the results of scientific investigation and the religious doctrines,provided they are not a complete illusion. However, and precisely for that reason, the connection of the evolving results of science with the symbolic teachings of religion should be more subtle that the ``cheap concordism'' which would consist in taking the literal meaning of some Koranic verses as alluding to ``scientific facts'', and in interpreting allegorically those whose literal meaning seems to be discrepant. This is rather the metaphysical worldview of Islam which could provide clues for criticizing the reductionalist interpretations of the discoveries brought forth by modern science, and for grasping their possible meaning. In this context, this lecture will address the possible interpretation of some basic features of modern cosmology in terms of the Islamic teachings on the nature of reality. The fundamental mystery which subtends physics and cosmology is the fact that the world is intelligible. The Koran strongly recommends to ponder and meditate upon the Creation to find the traces of the Creator in its harmony. Hence the so--called ``cosmological verses'' which are frequently quoted as one of the many miracles included in the Koranic text.The exploration of the world is encouraged, provided the explorer is wise enough to recognize that the harmony that is present in the cosmos originates in God. By looking at the cosmos, the intelligence He put in us constantly meets His Intelligence. Several Koranic verses draw the reader's attention to the numerical order that is present in the cosmos. The cosmic regularities which are a consequence of God's Will can thus be qualified as ``mathematical regularities''The esoteric doctrines of Islam go one step further. According to the views of the Akbarian school, funded after the work of Muhyi-d-din Ibn Arabi (1165 -- 1240), the Creation is God's self-disclosure to Himself through the veils and signs of the creatures. The things “are” not, since only God is. They only own a given preparation to receive being and qualities from God. The (relative) stability of cosmic phenomena is rooted in God's (absolute) immutability. However, the status of the cosmos is paradoxical, between absolute Being, God Himself, and absolute nothingness. As a consequence, we cannot expect to reach clear--cut statements about the fundamental reality of the world. According to the Islamic theology, God does not act by fixing the laws of physics and the initial conditions and letting the world evolve mechanistically. As a matter of fact, there is nothing like secondary causes, simply because God, as the “primary” Cause, does not cease to create again the world at each instant. In this continuous renewal of creation, the atoms and their accidents are created anew at each time. The regularities that are observed in the world are not due to causal connection, but to a constant conjunction between the phenomena, which is a habit or custom established by God's Will. This principle of the Islamic theology apparently contradicts the views of modern science, which of course stipulate the existence of secondary causes. But we must understand the negation of causality by the Islamic tradition as an emphasis on the metaphysical mystery of the continuous validity of the laws.This questioning on causality is not an obstacle to our scientific investigation of the cosmos. On the contrary, it prompts us to reflect upon the way God acts, and shows His signs “upon the horizons”(Koran, 41:53). In the Middle Ages,the distance to God's throne was “measured” by the Arab astronomer al-Farghani to 120 million km, under simple assumptions on the properties of the planetary spheres in the paradigm of the Ptolemaic cosmology. This ``spatial horizon'' was eventually evacuated by the scientific revolution of the Renaissance and the emergence of the Newtonian paradigm. In a simplistic interpretation of the standard Big--Bang model, which has been rather fashionable during the last decades, God takes place at the horizonof the singularity t=0 and at the ``particle horizon'' located 15 billion light-years from us. Now, it is indeed possible that quantum cosmology will evacuate the notion of an initial singularity.The universe might have emerged as a quantum fluctuation of the vacuum. Moreover, according to the theory of chaotic inflation, our observable universe is only a bubble located somewhere in an infinite number of ``patches'' of the physical universe, which could even have different values for the constants of nature. Is there still a ``place'' for God if the universe emerges from a random fluctuation of ``nothing'', if it has no spatial and temporal boundaries, if the constants themselves could have any value? The answer to this question should be negative, according to many scientists who emphasize the efficiency of ``selection principles''to explain the cosmic order observed in our local patch. But, in fact, the horizon is always there: why are the laws of quantum physics valid? As far as we can push it back, the existence of an horizon seems to be required by the nature of our intelligence. The renewal of creation taught by the Islamic doctrines also means the continuous appearance of new creatures. At each level of the cosmos, there are always new things. God is infinite and ``self--disclosure never repeats itself''. So God's self-disclosure is endless. What appears in the Creation exactly corresponds to the flow of possible things. This is why, according to al--Ghazali (1058 -- 1111), ``there is nothing in possibility more wondrous than what is'', because what is actually reflects God's desire to show up to us. This helps us understand the Prophetic saying : ``Curse not time, for God is time.'' The production of an infinite number of ``patches'' of the physical universe described by chaotic inflation, reflects God's eternal self-disclosure. The appearance of ``emerging properties'' at all levels of complexity, and particularly the appearance of life and intelligence, is another aspect of this continuous self-disclosure. This is why Ibn Arabi comments: ``God does not become bored that you should become bored.''Now modern cosmology tells us that Man is at the top of a huge cosmic building. The apparition of Man was made possible by many ``coincidences'' in the laws of physics and the values of the constants, which fix the properties of the cosmic and terrestrial structures. The extension of time behind us and of space around us is a necessary condition for our very existence,as the vast extensions of the deserts of sand and iceare necessary for the ecological balance of the earth. So we should not invoke our smallness to refuse our spiritual vocation. This is not the quantityof space and time which matters, but the quality of complexity that our existence manifests. Moreover, in spite of the vast extension of space and time, our location at the center of the observable universe makes the partial reconstruction of our past possible. Finally, the strongest connection between science and the spiritual questmight be found in the very nature of these pursuits.The philosophical definition of scientific truth is a debated issue. But what we can define with great accuracy is the method that leads to the development of scientific knowledge. In other words, the philosophical ``truth'' of science lies it the fecundity of its method. So cosmology, as well as the other sciences, is mainly an on--going process. We can view this process as continuous approximation of truth, and indeed, it is sometimes so. But, at other periods of its development, science has opened completely new paths. We can also defend the point that the scientific pursuit leads to both a growth of our knowledge and a growth of our ignorance, since the number of theories that do not work increases in the process, and the answers to our questions immediately suggest new questions the existence of which was not even suspected previously. There are surprising similarities between this open process leading to the growth of scientific knowledge, and the pursuit of religious knowledge as it is viewed by the metaphysical doctrines of Islam. Here, the dogmas represent what can be said, and must be said, about the spiritual vocation of Man. But, of course, theideas we make about God are limited to our own understanding.They immediately become idols if we think we have gotten the truth. So we have to get the highest idea about God, by destroying the idols we continuously make in ourselves. We can progress only if we know that we do not know, in an apophatic approach to God. In this prospect, we must resist to the tantalizing idea to transform God into a ``God--of--the--gap'' who only fills up the ``hole of incompleteness'' that is present is our knowledge. On the contrary, the growth of scientific knowledge, and the pursuit of the spiritual quest both require the existence of this hole.God is not ``in the hole''. He has created the hole as an intrinsic property of our intelligence so that we can find Him. Thus, for a Muslim cosmologist, the exploration of the cosmos is a way of worshiping God. God's creation of Man makes science possible since our intelligence finds the trace of God's Intelligence in the harmony of the world. However, there is a significant difference between the scientificpursuit and the spiritual quest, which deals withthe ending point of our existence. Contrary to the scientific pursuit, the spiritual quest is not limited to the intellectual search for truth and the production of useful outcomes.It primarily aims at transforming Man, so that he can be prepared to the After life, which is also a broader locus for knowledge.

Association Sirius d'Astronomie
B.P 18, Cité du 20 Août, Constantine-25000, Algérie
Tel: 071-56.06.58 | Fax: 031-93.52.23

All rights reserved © Sirius 2004

WebmasterC. Mouatsi