The Quran and Extraterrestrial Life
HE vision of the universe that the Quran presents is poles apart from the one held by the philosophers and sages of all the past ages. At the time of the Quranic revelation, it was Greek astronomy which dominated the minds of men everywhere in the world and all civilizations seemed to have been influenced by the same. This domination continued uninterrupted until the time of Copernicus. It was universally believed that the heavens consisted of layer upon layer of some transparent plastic material, studded with bright heavenly bodies we know as stars. To be more specific, the following was the sum total of the entire knowledge of the people of that age:
- The earth was composed of a mass of dust, rock, water, air and minerals. It was a stationary mass, with a near flat surface neither rotating around itself nor revolving around any other heavenly body.
- The earth occupied a unique position in the cosmos, the like of which did not exist anywhere else in space. It remained fixed and stationary in its mooring while the Heavens perpetually revolved around it.
Evidently, this concept of the universe eliminated the possibility of the existence of life elsewhere. The only habitat for life the people of that age knew, was this earth—suspended as they thought it was in mid-space. Contrary to this, the Quran admits neither the uniqueness of the earth nor its being stationary. On the issue of the number of earths, it declares:
Allah is He Who created seven heavens, and of the earth the like thereof...1
It needs to be explained here that the figure 'seven' can be treated as a specific term of the Quran in this verse and many other similar ones. As such it would mean that the universe comprises many units of heavens, each divided into groups of seven (a perfect number), each having at least one earth to it which will be supported by the entire system of that heaven (galaxy). Referring to that system in general, a more specific verse on the existence of extraterrestrial life runs as follows:
And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and of whatever living creatures (da'bbah) He has spread forth in both...2
Da'bbah covers all animals which creep or move along the surface of the earth. It does not apply to animals which fly or swim. It is certainly not applicable to any form of spiritual life. In Arabic a ghost will never be referred to as da'bbah, nor an angel for that matter. The second part of the same verse speaks not only of the possibility of extraterrestrial life, but it categorically declares that it does exist—a claim which even the most modern scientific researchers have not been able to make so far with any measure of certainty. Yet, this is not all that this verse reveals. Wonder upon wonder is added when we read at the end of this verse, that He (Allah) will bring together the life in the heavenly bodies and the life on earth when He so pleases:
...And He has the power to gather them together (jam-'i-him) when He will so please.3
Jam-'i-him is the Arabic expression in this verse which specifically speaks of bringing together of life on earth and the life elsewhere. When this meeting of the two will take place is not specified, nor is it mentioned whether it will happen here on earth or elsewhere. One thing however, is definitely stated: this event will most certainly come to pass whenever God so desires. It should be kept in mind that the word jama' can imply either a physical contact or a contact through communication. Only the future will tell how and when this contact will take place, but the very fact that more than fourteen hundred years ago such a possibility was even predicted is miraculous in itself.
This revelation of the Quran was made at a time when cosmology as a science was not yet born. A different age of conjectural visualization prevailed which had to go a long way before it could contemplate the existence of extraterrestrial life. Even today such claims are only found in science fiction.
Scientists have still not been able to completely shake off their earlier scepticism regarding the existence of life in space. No definitive evidence has as yet been discovered in its support. Scientists are still talking of only 'chances'.
Professor Archibald Roy of the University of Glasgow is one of the many prominent enthusiasts deeply committed to probing into the possibilities of intelligent life forms on celestial bodies. He writes:
'At various international conferences on the problem of extraterrestrial life, the question has been discussed and it has become clear that not only is there a chance of recognizing that a signal is of intelligent origin but it would also be possible to enter into communication with the intelligent species and exchange information.'4
Not everyone shares Professor Roy's enthusiasm on this subject. Dr. Frank Tipler of Tulane University, New Orleans, can be counted amongst the sceptics. He bases his pessimism on mathematical calculations. To him the appearance of intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe through the blind processes of material evolution defy the law of large numbers. The evolution of life here on earth is dilemma enough for scientists to resolve. For it to repeat itself through a collusion of such an enormous number of chances as defy human calculations is a mathematical impossibility. Dr. Tipler states:
'... extraterrestrial intelligences are not here. We just have to interpret this fact. Most astronomers cling to a belief in extraterrestrial intelligence against the evidence because of a philosophical principle: the copernican idea that our place in the cosmos must be completely typical. But we know this idea is false. The Universe is evolving: the cosmic radiation shows that there was once a time when no life existed because it was too hot. Thus, our place is atypical in time. In particular there must be a first civilization, and it happens to be ours.'5
Dr. Tony Martin, former vice-president of the British Interplanetary Society, holds similar sceptical views. Yet, despite all this opposition, Dr. Roy's scientific dream seems, at least partly, to have come within reach of realization. In the United States, NASA has already secured governmental approval for a major search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Other scientists of international fame like Professor Sagan, are also strong supporters of this cause.6
MAZING IS IT NOT that what the Quran asserted as a fact, around fourteen hundred years ago, is just beginning to appear as a feasible reality to the scientists of today! The Quran goes a step further when it predicts that man shall one day make contact with extraterrestrial life.
The time for the full realization of this prophecy has not yet arrived, but its signs are appearing on the horizon. This demonstrates that the prophecies of the Quran run ahead of human scientific progress. Every new era witnesses the fulfilment of some more revelations which previous eras had no means to testify. Hence it should be clearly understood here that Quranic prophecies are intrinsically different in nature from those implied in science fiction.
It has never been uncommon for human fancy to take flight from the springboard of the known facts of nature in the direction of things to be. But seldom does the future testify to the predictions implied in such fictional flights. Moreover, all works of fiction invariably remain confined to the possibilities created by the knowledge of the age. Fiction writers always take their cue from current knowledge to visualize what may emerge tomorrow. Most often however, their guesses prove to be as wild as wild can be. The future as it is carved, does not follow the dictates of their vision. This can only lead to the inevitable conclusion that the exercise of human imagination in relation to the unknown has its limitations.
To illustrate the limitation of any particular era with regard to its imaginative scope, the genius of Leonardo da Vinci can be quoted as a befitting example. He attempted to visualize the possibility of human flight but could only conceive it in relation to the then available knowledge. Science and technology had not, until then, advanced to a stage where the human mind could envisage the image of man flying with the help of machines driven by fire. Thus, to visualize even a rudimentary aeroplane lay beyond the limits of Leonardo's potential.
The case of the Divine scriptures, however, is a different matter altogether and the knowledge expressed in them cannot be confined to any particular era. Moreover, chance has no role to play in their fulfilment. The scientific discoveries of subsequent ages have never proved any Quranic prophecy to be wrong.
So we must look forward with well-founded hope for the realization of even such prophecies as rest with the future to decide. The prophecy about the meeting of life here and the life elsewhere belongs to the same category which remains as yet unfulfilled. May we live long enough to witness the glorious day when life on earth will establish some sort of communion with life in space.
- Translation of 65:13 by Maulawi Sher Ali.
- Translation of 42:30 by Maulawi Sher Ali. (Note: The word 'da'bbah' in brackets has been added by the author).
- Translation of 42:30 by the author.
- ROY, A. E., CLARKE, D. (1989) Astronomy: Structure of the Universe. Adam Hilger Ltd., Bristol, p.270
- TIPLER, F. (November, 1991) Alien Life. Nature: 354:334–335
- Mc KIE, R. (September, 1985) Calling Outer Space: Is Anybody There? Readers Digest:31–35