In the beginning: islamic perspectives on cosmological origins.
Keywords: Cosmology; sacred cosmology; the Beginning and the End; the Guarded Tablet and the Pen; the Throne and Footstool; creation theme in the Qur'an.
To speak of the Beginning at such a late hour, when the signs of the End are so rapidly manifesting, may seem pointless, but this would only be the case if we were to forget that we have been advised to plant the tree in hand even if we see the Hour coming. This Prophetic counsel does not merely indicate the limits of a believer's deeds in a legislative sense, it also points toward one of the two qualities of iman (faith) which are its adornments--raja' (hope) and khawf (fear). Yet, to speak of the Beginning at this time of the temporal cycle, when the cosmos has become so old and humanity so forgetful of the true meaning of existence, has its own peculiar dictates--especially in the presence of the reigning scientism which will not admit any truth unless it can be tested in a laboratory, even though most of what now passes as cosmology is mere speculation. These speculations have, of late, gained currency to such an extent that one only need say words like "Big Bang" and every half-literate person would respond with we believe and we obey (sami'na wa ata'na), without asking for proof; such is the power of the scientism that has permeated every sphere of public and private life. It is this approach to all things--even things which fall outside the purview of science--that makes it difficult for anything else to gain audience, even though this "something" be rooted in the most sacred sources.
The Beginning is beyond the purview of science--at least the science of our day--yet it is a "moment" (if one can call it that) which has received a great deal of attention recently not only by the scientific community but also from the general public, as scores of books being published on the subject indicate. These works attempt to construct a scientific scenario for the Beginning--the time beyond the reach of science, when nothing had yet come into existence, not even time.
When nothing had yet come into existence, there was the One, the First (al-Awwal), whose transcendence can only be defined via negativa, by erasing from the mind any impurity foreign to the idea of pure divinity (uluhiya). It is through an intense and systematic weeding out of every description, adjective (siffah), and image (sura) suspected of directing our understanding (ma'rifa) or imagination (wahm) to a created object (shay') other than God that we can arrive at the Qur'anic conception of the Creator: He is not like anything, (1) neither engendering nor engendered. (2) All that
God has us know positively about Himself is His singular Uniqueness, His extreme remoteness from everything else.
As He is The First (al-Awwal), He created everything that exists, that has ever existed; as He is the Last (al-Akhir), everything perishes except Him. (3) When He desired to create, He simply said, "Be" (kun), and it was. (4) This, and many other Qur'anic verses on the origins, are not only a natural point of departure for Islamic perspectives on cosmology, they also provide a methodology to construct a coherent view of Islamic perspecitves on cosmology. This exploration begins with the Qur'anic data, especailly the so-called "cosmic verses" of the Qur'an. It then examines how these were understood by the Prophet and his Companions. This leads us to the exploration of early tradition of sacred cosmology which came into existence through reflection on these Qur'anic verses and the sayings of the Prophet and his Companions. This is followed by an account of the subsequent developments in Islamic tradition which produced many philosophical cosmological schemes. Some of these were conceived under the influence of Greek thought, which was translated into Arabic between the eighth and the eleventh centuries. In later centuries, as Islamic philosophy moved away from Greek thought toward a more spiritual, illuminating Hikmah (Wisdom) tradition, a different kind of cosmology came into existence. This tradition looked at existence as so many manifestations of Divine Names. Though differentiable from one another, all of these cosmologies retain a central core derived from the basic Qur'anic data on the Beginning and the End.
Thus, a systematic exposition of Islamic cosmology can be conceived as consisting of four distinct parts:
1. Sacred Cosmology
2. Philosophical Cosmologies
3. Illuminationist Cosmology
4. Islamic perspectives on modern cosmology
The Qur'an refers to God as the Creator (al-khaliq) in the absolute sense. That is to say He brings into existence what was non-existent. In addition to al-Khaliq, the Qur'an contains several other Most Beautiful Names (al-asma' al-Husna) directly referring to Allah's creative power. Some of these Names (asma') are al-Bari' (the One Who differentiates), al-Musawwir (the Giver of Form), al-Mubdi' (The Beginner), al-Badi' (The Originator), and al-Fatir (the Splitter). Reflected in verbal forms, the act of creation is often described in the Qur'an through certain key verbs which are full of movement. These include khalaqa (to create), fatara (to split asunder), ansha'a (to originate), abdaba (to produced first), ja'ala (to bring forth), and wada'a (to put).
The creation theme of the Qur'an, let us note, is not limited to the creation of the physical world. In fact, the physical world exists below worlds upon worlds of cosmic orders of another. Populated by angels, who traverse the vast realms of the cosmos in times not measurable in human terms, this unknowable cosmos has Allah's Throne ('arsh) and His footstool (kursi). In addition, there are other non-physical things such as time (which is of many kinds) which were also created by the Creator. Then there is light and darkness; there creation is sometimes mentioned in the same manner as the creation of the heavnes and the earth: Praise and thanks be to the One who created the heavens and the earth and [who] created light and darkness. (5)
The act of creation is often described by the Qur'an with verbs such as bana (to built), rafa'a (to raise), dahaha (to spread out), awsa'a (to make wide); fataqa (to tear apart), and sawwa (to perfectly finish something). The first thing to note is that these verbs are not static or immobile; they are pregnant with force and movement. Second, this rather incomplete list of verbs yields different meaning mental associations and conceptual frameworks--all to assist us to ponder the unfathomable reality of creation, which lies beyond the realm of human conceptions. To raise (rafa'a) already implies the presence of something to be raised, as does the verb fatara--which Ibn 'Abbas said he did not understand until he heard two Bedouins disputing the ownership of a well and one of them said "it belongs to me, because I was the one who tore it apart (fatartuha), I began it (bada'tuha)." Likewise, Ibn 'Abbas said, Fatiri's-Samawati wa'l-Ard means Badi'i's-Samawati wa'l-Ard. (6)
All Qur'anic descriptions, it must be noted, remain within the framework of Qur'an's own specific teachings about creation: that the creation is for a purpose and for a fixed duration (al-ajal al-musamma), the precise knowledge of the end of this duration remains unknwown to all save the One who has appointed this term for existence and its termination. The end of existence is to take place at this pre-determined Hour (assa'ah), which no one can hasten or delay; no one has knoweldge about it, not even Prophets: And they ask you about the sacah, when will it come, the Qur'an states regarding the insistance of certain leaders of the Quraysh who wanted this information as a "proof" for the Prophethood of Prophet Muhammad, say: its knowledge is with my Lord. (7) And when the limit would have been reached, no one will be able to delay the Hour. (8)
With regard to creation, we are told that there are signs (ayat) in creation. These signs direct our attention to something beyond themselves. It is this "beyond-the-signs" Being, to Whom everything belongs, (9) Who remains the constant point of reference in the Qur'an. The Qur'anic creation theme encompasses everything--from a soaring eagle flying over the Himalayas to the tiniest ant crawling on a barren mountain in the burning plains of Arabia, and from numerous creatures living under tons of snow in the Arctic ocean to various species of bees constructing their hexagonal beehives in diverse climes and regions. But before the Himalayas and the plains of Arabia and the Arctic Ocean can be differentiated into nameable places, we must return to the initial act of creation, which customarily begins with an account of the Throne ('arsh) and the Footstool (kursi), before describing the creation of the heavens and the earth.
The Throne and the Footstool
Sacred cosmology has paid a great deal of attention to the Throne ('arsh) of Allah, mentioned twenty-six times in the Qur'an, (10) and to His Footstool (kursi), mentioned only once in the "greatest ayah of the Qur'an", (11) ayatu'l-kursi--the verse of the Footstool: (12) Allah--there is no deity save Him, the Ever-Living, the Self-Subsistent, the Self-Existing; neither slumber overtakes Him, nor sleep. His is all that is in the heavens and earth. Who is there to intercede with Him, save by His leave? He knows all that is before them and that is behind them, whereas they cannot know anything of His knowledge, save what He wills. His Footstool (kursi) overspreads the heavens and the earth, and their protection wearies Him not. And He alone is truly exalted. (13)
The Qur'an does not mention anything about the creation of the Throne or the Footstool; rather, they are already present when the creation theme appears. We are told that Allah created the heavens and the earth in six days and His Throne was on water. ... (14) Other verses referring to the Throne, tell us that Allah is seated on His Throne in Majesty (7:54, 10:3, 13:2, 20:5, 25:5 , 32:4); that He is the Lord of the Great Throne, Rabb ul-'arsh'il-'azim (9:29 , 21:22, 23:86, 27:26, 43:82). In addition to "Great" (Azim), the Qur'an uses two other descriptors (siffat) for the Throne: Noble (al-Karim) and Glorious (al-Majid). These descriptors are also two of the ninety-nine Beautiful Names of Allah, and they have been used for the Qur'an itself. The first occurrence of the Noble Throne is in a verse of surpassing beauty, overflowing with majesty and grandeur: Allah is sublimely Exalted, [He is] the Sovereign, the Truth, there is no deity save Him, the Lord of the Noble Throne; (15) the second occurs in the flow of a context relevant to our discussion here and is preceded by two of Allah's Most Beautiful Names (al-Ghafur, al-Wadud): He is the One Who creates in the first instance and to Whom is the return. He is All-Forgiving, Full of love [for His creation], the [owner] of the Glorious Throne. (16)
In another verse, we are given a closer description of the Throne. This verse occurs in a beautiful passage which graphically depicts the journey of the God-conscious toward Paradise:
Those who remained conscious of their Lord will be taken toward Jannah in groups (zumara) until they will arrive in its proximity, when its gates will be opened and its guardians will say to them, 'peace be upon you, well have you done; enter, then, herein to abide forever'. And they will say: 'All praise and thanks to Allah, who fulfilled His promise to us, and made us the inheritors of Jannah, wherein we may dwell as we please.' And how excellent a reward it is for those who do righteous deeds. (17)
After this comes the description of the Throne: And thou shall see angels surrounding the Throne, extolling their Lord's glory and praise. And a just judgment will have been passed on people and it will be said: 'All praise is due to Allah, the Sustainer of the worlds'. (18)
This is the nearest we are taken to the Throne in the Qur'an. Jalal al-Din as-Suyuti (84 /1445- 11/1505) quotes a ?adith on the authority of ash-Sha'bi
that the Messenger of Allah, upon whom be Allah's peace and blessings, said: "The Throne is of a red hyacinth (yaqutah Hamara'). One of the angels looked at it and its magnitude. Then Allah revealed to him: 'Verily, I have placed in you the power of seventy thousand angels, each having seventy thousand winds, so fly!'--And the angel flew with the power given to him and the wings, just as Allah wanted him to fly. He stopped, looked at his place, and he had not budged at all". (19)
The early cosmographical tradition seems to understand both the Throne and the Footstool being located in the farthest reaches of the cosmos and enveloped by light (Nur). "Below Allah," we are told in a hadith, on the authority of Sahl bin Sa'd, "there are 70,000 veils of light and darkness. No one has heard anything about the beauty of those veils but that his soul departed. (20) In another tradition it is said that "between the Throne and the angels are seventy thousand veils of light." (21) Abu al-Shaykh (22) relates a hadith, on the authority of Zurara b. Abi Aufi, that the Prophet asked Jibril whether he had seen his Lord. Jibril shuddered and said, "as it is, between me and Him there are seventy veils of light. If I ever came close to the one nearest to me, I would get burnt." (23) Ibn 'Abbas is reported to have said: "The heavens and the earth, in relation to the abysses beyond them--where there is no heaven and no earth--are like a tent in relation to a desert. What would that tent amount to for someone on this earth?" (24)
The Footstool is said to be under Allah's Throne. (25) The Prophet is reported to have said to Abu Dharr,"O Aba Dharr, the seven heavens in comparison to the Footstool are like a little circle drawn in an expansive desert. And the excess (fadl) of the Throne over the Footstool is like the excess of the expansive desert over that little circle". (26)
"The Footstool is the place for two feet," another Hadith tells us, "and the Throne is such that no one can fathom its measure." (27) Based on the Qur'anic descriptions and the sayings of the Prophet, the cosmos was conceived by the early Muslim scholars as a hierarchical structure with the Throne at the highest limit and the Footstool below it.
The Guarded Tablet (al-lawh al-mahfuz) and the Pen (al-Qalam)
Sacred cosmology conceived the Guarded Tablet (al-law? al-mahfuz) and the Pen (al-Qalam) as integral parts of the creation theme. The Qur'an refers to itself as being recorded and preserved on the Guarded Tablet. (28)
The Pen has been mentioned in the very first revelation which began the descent of the Qur'an: Read in the name of Thy Sustainer, who has created, created Man out of a germ-cell. Read, for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful, who taught with Pen; taught insan what he knew not. (29)
It has been narrated on the authority of Anas, who said that the Messenger of Allah said, "Allah has a Tablet, its one side is made of red hyacinth (yaqutah hamara'), the other of green smaragd (dhumurrdah khadra'). His Pen is light; with it He creates; with it He provides provisions [to creation], with it He gives life; with it He [causes creation to] die, with it He honors and with it He debases; and with it He does what He wishes--every day and night." (30) In another tradition, we are told on the authority of Ibn 'Abbas that "Allah's Messenger said: "God created a Tablet from a white pearl (durra bayda' the two sides of which are made of a green chrysolite (zubar jadda khadra'), and the writing on it is of light. Every day He looks at it 360 times. And He gives life and takes it, He creates and gives the means of subsistence, and He does whatever He desires." (31)
These condensed formulations were to become the focus of successive generations of Muslims who attempted to understand mystical, legal, moral, and physical dimensions of the traditions about the Tablet and the Pen. In fact, the Islamic tradition conceives the Tablet and the Pen as being the ultimate records of all that was to come to pass by way of existence, may that be of beings or events. The number of a hadith which mention the Tablet and the Pen are not numerous, but their transmission through some of the closest Companions of the Prophet have granted them the foundational position in the making of Sacred Cosmology. A hadith mentioned by Abi al-Dunya in his Makarim al-Akhlaq, Abu al-Shaykh in his Kitab al-'Azama, and al-Bayhaqi in his Kitab Shu'ab al-Iman tell us on the authority of Anas that "the Messenger of Allah said: "Allah has a Tablet made of a green chrysolite under His Throne. On it He has written: Verily, I am Allah; there is no deity save Me. I am Merciful, and I am asked for Mercy. I brought into existence creatures [numbering] some 300 and a few tens (bid'a 'ashra wa thalathmiya'), who so ever from the creation comes witnessing that there is no god except Allah, will enter Jannah.'" (32)
In fact, the Pen was the first thing created by God, for Abu Ya' la cites a sound tradition from Ibn 'Abbas stating that "the Messenger of Allah said: 'the first thing which Allah the Most High created was the Pen. And He commanded it to write everything.'" (33) A variation of this hadith, cited by al-Tabarani with a sound chain states, on the authority of Ibn 'Abbas, states, "Allah's Messenger said: 'When Allah created the Pen, He said to it: 'Write!'--And it kept moving with [this command, recording] whatever was to come into existence until the Last Day.'" (34) Yet another tradition, this time on the authority of Ibn 'Umr, tells us that "the Messenger of Allah said: 'Indeed, as the first thing Allah--the Most High--created, He created the Pen. It is of light, extending over a distance of 500 years. Then He gave it His Command, and it kept moving with whatever comes into being until the Day of Resurrection. So, accept as true whatever comes to you from Allah through His power.'" (35)
Another hadith going back to Abu Sa'id al-Khudri, one of the Ashab as-Suffa (the people of the Bench), found in both the Kitab az-'Zama of Abu al-Shaykh and Kitab Shu'ab al-Iman of al-Bayhaqi, states that "the Messenger of Allah said, 'there is a Tablet in front of Allah; on it are 315 codes of Law (shari'ah). The Most Merciful (ar-Rahman) says: 'By My Might and Glory, none of My servants will come to Me, denying neither of these, that I shall not enter him into Paradise'". (36)
These traditions not only situate the entire scheme of creation in the Divine realm, they also provide us a means to reflect on numerous questions arising out of our limited human conceptions of time and destiny, for we are told in another tradition that "pens have been lifted", implying that events have a different temporal order when we are contemplating cosmological origins. We will have more to say on these when we discuss creation of time.
Qur'anic Description of the Creation of the Heavens and the Earth
As-Sama', the Arabic for the sky, and its derivatives are one of the most common Qur'anic words. Generally translated as "heavens", as-Sama' refers to the unfathomable vast space "above" the Earth--that is above when viewed from the Planet itself. With the advancements in technology, space travel has rendered much of the directional aspect of the spatial structure of the cosmos rather difficult for common understanding; what appears to be the "sky" to us on earth, may not be so when viewed from another planet. Yet, from the perspective of the residents of Earth, spatial coordinates remain firmly established. And the statement that the heaven is vaulted over the earth like a dome makes perfect sense, as far as the view from below is concerned. As regard the view from above, the heavens and the Earth are said to be encompassed by the Footstool. Since the Qur'an addresses humanity and its claim is that it guides humanity toward a Straight Path, it has a spatial frame of reference, which is both physical as well as non-physical. Some things are above others; there is a crooked path and there is a Straight Path. There are layers upon layers of light and darkness, both physical as well as spiritual. Allah Himself is said to be the Light of the heavens and the Earth, in the celebrated Verse of Light, upon which scores of Muslim scholars wrote commentaries, as we shall see later. We are also told that Allah is the Protector of those who believe, taking them out of darkness into the light--whereas those who are bent upon denying the Truth, their helpers are the evil forces which take them out of light into the darkness. (37)
The Qur'an describes the creation of the heavens and the Earth in its own characteristic manner--sometimes in specific terms, sometimes generally, sometimes merely in a passing manner, at others in detail. One of more detailed descriptions is as follows:
Verily, your Sustainer is Allah, who has created the heavens and the earth in six days, who then mounted His Throne. He covers the day with the night, which is in swift pursuit. And [He created] the sun and the moon and the stars subservient to His command. Hallowed is Allah, the Sustainer of the worlds. (38)
In the order of the Qur'an, the first reference to the creation of the heavens occurs in al-Baqarah, just before the first mention of the creation of the first man, Adam: (39)
O humankind, worship your Sustainer, Who has created you and those who lived before you, so that you might remain conscious of Him, Who has made the earth a resting place for you and the sky a canopy, and has sent down water from the sky and thereby brought forth fruits for you sustenance; do not, then, claim others as His rivals, when you know [that He is One]. (40)
Seven verses later, we are told that He is the One Who has created for you all that is on earth, He then turned His attention toward the sky and fashioned it into seven heavens; and He has full knowledge of everything. (41)
This fashioning of the sky into seven heavens, which is sometimes claimed to be a later feature of Islamic cosmology a la Ptolemy, is, in fact, deeply embedded in the Qur'an and the sacred cosmology based on the traditions of the Prophet. These seven heavens are layered, one upon another, all in perfect harmony, in synchronization with each other, and the rest of the cosmos; there is no flaw in this.
[Hallowed] be He who has created seven heavens, layer upon layer; no fault will thou see in the creation of the Most Merciful. Turn thy vision [upon it]; canst thou see any flaw? Yet, turn thy vision [upon it] once again and yet again; [and every time] thy vision will fall back upon thee, dazzled and truly defeated. (42)
In another verse, the Qur'an asks rhetorically: Have you not seen how Allah has created the seven heavens, layer upon layer, and has set up within them the moon as light and the sun as a lamp? (43)
What is meant by this layering of the heavens, with the lowest of the seven heavens having been adorned by stars? (44) This layered space definitely refers to the physical structure of the cosmos, but is not limited to it, for there are unfathomable worlds in these seven heavens which were made from steam or smoke (dukhan). (45) Each of these heavens is separated from each other by a distance of 500 years, we are informed in a sound tradition. "We were with the Prophet," al-'Abbas bin 'Abd al-Muttalib narrates,
when he asked: 'Do you know what is the distance between heaven and earth?' We answered: 'Allah and His Messenger know best." He said: 'Between them there is a distance of 500 years; and from every heaven to another heaven there is a distance of 500 years. The diameter of every heaven is 500 years. Above the seventh heaven there is a sea, the distance from its surface to its greatest depth is as much as the [distance] between the heaven and the earth. Then, above that, there are eight mountain goats (aw'al); the distance between their knees (rukba-hunna) and their hoofs (azlafa-hunna) is like the distance between the heaven and the earth. Still above this, there is the Throne; the distance between its lowest and uppermost part is like the distance between the heavens and the earth. Above that, there is Allah, the Praised and Exalted. (46)
Of course, modern readers would ask what it all means. What units are being used for the measurements? And what does it mean to have eight mountain goats (awcal) in the heavens? Such folklore! These questions are natural at such a late hour in the history of humanity, when the traditional understanding of the cosmos has become obscure; even the vocabulary used in these traditions is difficult for the contemporary reader, so much so that words such as aw'al (translated here as "mountain goats") seem to have lost their comprehensiveness. The mountain goats mentioned in this tradition are, of course, not the goats grazing on a certain mountain. It is well known that Capricorn, the zodiacal constellation between Sagittarius and Aquarius, is identical with the Arabian mountain goat. The constellation of Capricorn, with two stars of Aquarius before it, resembles a throne with a footstool in front of it. (47)
The distances mentioned in the tradition should likewise be understood within the context of the tradition. The cosmic distances mentioned in the tradition give an indication of the enormous distances between the heavens but are, however, not arbitrary numbers. They belong to a cosmic system in which the physical cosmos is seamlessly linked to the spiritual; the latter being the mother engendering the physical cosmos. Under the influence of modern science, it is generally assumed that the "primitive people of the past", having no tools to measure such enormous distances, invented numbers, but this view assumes that there is only one way of acquisition of knowledge--the way of modern science.
Further, it assumes that all human beings, including the Prophets of God, gain their knowledge from the ordinary sense data. Both of these assumptions are untenable in view of the special nature of Prophetic function. The Prophets of God were human beings, but they were human beings of a different order. Their sources of knowledge were not limited to what other human beings have been granted. For us, the cosmic dimensions mentioned in the above tradition may remain obscure, yet there can be little doubt that they describe the features of the cosmos in which the Sun and the Moon--indeed all planets, stars, and constellations--traverse their appointed course, in perfect harmony and balance with each other, displaying a cosmos filled with immense beauty and order. The number "500 years" mentioned in the tradition is connected with an entire system of reckoning time according to the movement of the celestial objects.
The stations or mansions (manzila, pl. manazil) (48) of the Moon, numbering 28, are distinguishable even by the naked eye. There are 28 manazil (halting places) of the Moon, each corresponding to one night during its 28-day revolution in a lunar cycle. On each of these 28 nights, the Moon halts near a star or group of stars. Each of these mansions was known in Arabic with its own name. (49) The Qur'an specifies that Allah has determined the manazil of the Moon so that humanity might compute time:
He is the One Who has made the sun a radiant (diya') and the Moon a light (nur), and has determined for it halting places (manazil) so that you might know how to compute the years and measure [time]. None of this has Allah created without truth. (50)
Of course, in addition to the purely physical stations of the Moon, the course of the planets and stars is full of signs:
And they have a sign in the night; We withdraw from it the day, and lo! They are in darkness. And the sun traverses [its course] to the point of its rest--that is laid down by the decree of the Almighty, the All-Knowing. And the moon--for which We have determined stations (manazil) till it becomes like an old date-stalk, dried up and curved (al-'urjun); neither the sun can overtake the moon, nor can the night can overtake the day; each float in their own orbit. (51)
Yet, speaking of the purely physical aspect of the movement of the Moon, its 28 stations were used to divide the solar zodiac into 28 equal parts of approximately 12 50'; thus the 28 anwa' (identified with the 28 manazil of the moon) are determined by 28 stars or constellations constituting 14 pairs. The twenty-second manzil is called sa'd al-dhabih (later latinized as Capricorni, identified with the mountain goat, the tenth sign of the modern zodiac). These details may provide clues to the discerning readers about the cosmic dimensions determined by 28 steps of 500 years.
In common usage, the seven heavens have retained a certain degree of acceptability, but the concept of seven earths has become totally foreign to the earth-bound dwellers of our planet. Yet, even a cursory understanding of the cosmic symmetry is enough to realize that the seven heavens would have seven corresponding earths. The Qur'anic reference to the creation of seven earths has always remained a central aspect of sacred cosmology.
Allah is He who has created seven heavens and, like them, of the earth. Through all of them flows down His command, so that you might come to know that Allah has power over everything and that Allah encompasses all things with His knowledge. (52)
Commenting on this verse, Ibn Kathir (700/1300-774/1372) quotes a hadith on the authority of 'A'isha, "found in the compilations of the two Shaykhs", in his Tafsir: "Whoever oppressed another on earth, even to the measure of a [single] forearm, will be shackled by the measure of seven earths". Bukhari has a variant of this hadith, on the authority of Ibn 'Umar, in which the Prophet is reported to have said that this oppressor will be "buried under" (khusifa) the seven earths. (53)
Ibn Kathir also quotes these, with full chains of narration, etymology of words, and their meaning in the chapter on the creation of earth in his celebrated history, Bidaya wa nihaya. (54)
It is noteworthy that Ibn Kathir felt the need to refute those who "have taken this [number] to mean the seven aqalim", for "they have spent their energies in meaningless pursuit, have drowned in the disputation, and gone against the Qur'an and the hadith." (55)
So far, we have explored three facets of the Sacred Cosmology: the Guarded Tablet and the Pen; the Throne and the Footstool; and the Heavens and the Earth. The Qur'anic creation theme contains several other elements. These include the creation of mountains, oceans, heavenly objects (such as the Sun and the Moon, and the stars), the night and the day, time, water, winds, clouds, rain, and oceans. Furthermore there are descriptions of certain physical phenomena such as floods, thunder, and lightening. All of these became themes for the Sacred Cosmology, which had its own peculiar way of ordering material. Invariably it began with Qur'anic data, then approached the Prophetic traditions, then reflections by the Companions and by those who followed them. The close affinity of this methodology to that used in other branches of early Islamic tradition such as Hadith, tarikh (history), 'ilm al-rijal (science of biography), is noteworthy.
(To be continued)
(1.) ash-Shura: 11: Laysa kamithlihi shay'un (Nothing is like unto Him).
(2.) Sura of Sincerity (Ikhlas) of the Qur'an contains, in a highly condensed form, this definition via negativa: Say: He is Allah, the One; Allah--the
Everlasting (al-samad); neither endgendering nor engendered; and none is His equal.
(3.) ar-Rahman: Everyone perishes except the face of Thy Lord. Another path to understanding the meanings of Allah's being the First and the Last is provided by the Prophetic supplication: "O Allah, Sustainer of the seven heavens, the Lord of the Great Throne, Our Sustainer and Sustainer of everything, the Sender of Tawrah and Injil, the Splitter of seeds and pits, there is no deity except Thee, I seek refuge in Thee from the evil of everything, for in Thy hand is their forelock, Thou art the First, for there was nothing before You; Thou art the Last, for there is nothing after You; And Thou art the Manifest, for there is nothing above You; and Thou art the Hidden, for there is nothing behind You; free us from our debts and deliver us from poverty". Quoted from Ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur'an al-'Azim, tahqiq Sami bin Muhammad Salama, 8 vols. (Riyad: Dar Tayyaba li'l nashr wa'l tawzi', 3rd edition, 1425/2004), vol. 8, 6-7 (hereafter Tafsir Ibn Kathir), who cites from Muslim 2713; also in Musnad of Abu Ya'la (Vol. 8, 210) on the authority of 'A'isha, who notes that the Prophet used to say this supplication before sleeping.
(4.) Ya Sin: 82.
(5.) al-Ancam: 1.
(6.) See Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Vol. 6, 532. He cites al-Bayhaqi, Fi Shu'ab al-Iman, number 1682.
(7.) al-A'raf: 187.
(8.) Yunus: 4 ; an-Nahl: 61.
(9.) To Allah belongs all that is in the heavens and the earth (Lillahi ma fi's-samawati wa'l-ard ...) is a phrase that is repeated in the Qur'an several times. This refrain serves to constantly remind an attentive reader of the Qur'an that, ultimately, the Owner of all that exists is the One who created it in the first place. See at-Tawbah: 116; Yunus: 66; al-Ma'idah: 18; and numerous other references.
(10.) Out of some thirty-one instances of its occurence in the Qur'an, the word 'arsh refers specifically to Allah's 'arsh twenty-six times; once it is used for the throne of Prophet Yusuf (Yusuf: 100); the other four instances mention the throne of the Queen of Sheba in an-Naml: 23, 38, 41, and 42.
(11.) "The Greatest ayah of the Qur'an", afdal'l ayah fi kitab Allah: Ahmad bin Hanbal narrates in his musnad: "'Abd al-Razzaq narrated to us, Sufyan narrated to us, from Sa'id al-Jariri, from Abi al-Saalil, from 'Abd Allah bin Riyah, from his father--who is Ibn Ka'b--verily the Messenger of Allah, upon whom be peace, asked: 'which ayah of the Qur'an is the greatest?' [Ibn Ka'b] said: 'Allah and His Messenger know best.' The Prophet asked this again, and yet again, and then said: 'ayatu'l-kursi', [and the Prophet added]: 'may Allah bless your knowledge, O Aba al-Mandhir, by the One in Whose Hand is my soul, it has tongue and lips, it praises the King, near the foot of the Throne.' Musnad Ahmad, Vol. 5, 141; also in Sahih al-Muslim, 810, where it is reported from another chain of narrators without the last oath.
(12.) al-Baqarah: 255. Specifically referring to Allah's kursi, this word appears only once in the Qur'an; a second usage (Sad: 34) refers to the kursi of Sulayman.
(13.) The two Most Beautiful Names of Allah appearing in this verse, al-Hayy, al-Qayyum, render a translator's job impossible. There are simply no equivalents in English. For the sake of brevity, most translators use superlatives with descriptive nouns (Ever-Living, the Self-Existing), yet such translations fail to convey the meaning of the original. Al-Qayyum, sometimes translated as Self-Existing, sometimes as Self-Subsisting, is the One who needs no other being for existing in any sense whatsoever; al-Hayy, translated here as the Ever-Living, denotes the One Who knows of no state comparable to "not living".
(14.) Hud: 7.
(15.) al-Mu'minun: 116.
(16.) al-Buruj: 13-15.
(17.) az-Zumar: 73.
(19.) As-Suyuti, Jalal al-Din, Kitab al-Hay'a as-Saniyya fi'l-Hay'a as-Sunniyya (The Radiant Cosmography in the Cosmography of Tradition). A critical Arabic edition with translation and commentary by Anton M. Heinen (Beirut: Orient-Institut der Deutschen Morgenlandischen Gesellschaft, 1982), 2; hereafter al-Hay'a as-Saniyya. This edition is based on nine of approximately sixty extant manuscripts--an indication of the popularity of the work through several centuries. As-Suyuti's book is a concise summary of the sacred cosmology as handed down to him through generations of narrators. "This is a book on cosmography (fi'l 'ilm al-hay'a)," he informs us in a short introduction, "which I have compiled from the traditions (min'l-athar) and old narrations. It was my goal that those with intelligence might rejoice and those with eyes may take heed. I gave it the title: "The Radiant Cosmography (al-Hay'a as-Saniyya) in cosmography of tradition (fi'l-hay'a as-sunniyya), see al-Hay'a as-Saniyya, 1.
(20.) al-Hay'a as-Saniyya, 5
(22.) Abu al-Shaykh is the immediate source of As-Suyuti's work.
(25.) Ibn Abi Hatim and Abu al-Shaykh, through the intermediary of as-Suddi, quotes the saying of Abu Malik that the Footstool is under the Throne. al-Hay'a as-Saniyya, 2.
(26.) al-Hay'a as-Saniyya, 3.
(27.) Reported by al-Firyabi, Ibn Abi Hatim, Ibn al-Mundir, al-Tabarani, and al-Hakim (in his al-Mustadrak), authenticated in accordance with the criteria set by the two shaykhs [al-Bukhari and al-Muslim], from Ibn 'Abbas. al-Hay'a as-Saniyya, 4.
(28.) Nay, but this is the Glorious Qur'an, [preserved] in the Guarded Tablet, al-Buruj: 22. That the Qur'an has been preserved and cannot be corrupted is a central doctrine of Islam. This has been confirmed as there has been no corruption of the text of the Qur'an over the last fourteen hundred years. Speaking in the first person, Allah states in the Qur'an: Behold, it is We Ourselves who have sent down from on high this remembrance, and behold, it is We who shall truly guard it (al-Hijr: 9). In al-Waqi'ah: 8 the Qur'an speaks of itself as being the Noble Qur'an, [preserved] in a well-guarded Book (kitabim-maknun).
(29.) al-'Alaq: 1-5. If the Arabic word insan is accepted as an English word derived from Arabic to the extent that, like so many other words of Arabic origin which do not need italicizing anymore, it will resolve the issue of gender equality while referring to human beings, for insan is neither masculine nor feminine.
(30.) Reported by Abu al-Shaykh, from Malik bin Dinar, from Anas, al-Hay'a as-Saniyya, 6.
(31.) The chain of this hadith includes al-Dahhak, al-Hay'a as-Saniyya, 7.
(32.) al-Hay'a as-Saniyya, 6.
(33.) Another similar hadith, once again cited on sound authority. al-Hay'a as-Saniyya, 7.
(37.) al-Baqarah: 257.
(38.) al-A'raf: 54.
(39.) It is important to keep in mind that the order of the Qur'anic revelation is different from the order in which the "Book between two covers" has been presented to humanity. It is generally agreed that the mushaf (lit. a collection of sheets, here meaning sheets of parchment containing the Qur'an, that is, a compiled copy of the Qur'an) was arranged in its present order by the command of its Sender during the life of the Prophet. For a detailed study of this, and many other primary aspects of the Qur'anic text, see al-Azami, M. M., The History of the Qur'anic Text; from Revelation to Compilation (Leicester: UK Islamic Academy, 2003).
(40.) al-Baqarah: 21-22.
(41.) al-Baqarah: 2 .
(42.) al-Mulk: 3-4.
(43.) Nuh; 15.
(44.) And, indeed, We have adorned the skies nearest to the earth with lamps... (al-Mulk: 5); also as-Saffat: 6: Behold, We have adorned the skies nearest the earth with the beauty of stars.
(45.) Fussilat: 11.
(46.) Reported by Ahmad b. ?anbal in his Musnad, Abu Dawud, al-Tirmidhi--who declared it to be hasan--Ibn Majah, Ibn Abi 'Asamm in his Sunna, Abu Ya'la, Ibn Khuzayma, al-Tabarani, al-Hakim--who classified it as sahih--and Abu al-Shaykh. al-Hay'a as-Saniyya, 8.
(47.) For this connection see Heinen's commentary on al-Hay'a as-Saniyya, 1-2.
(48.) The word manzil from the root n-z-l, expresses the idea of halting, a temporary stay. It has different usages in different contexts. In astronomy, it may refer to the mansions of the Moon; in Sufi literature, it is the stage in the spiritual journey; in everyday language, it is a place noun.
(49.) "A complete list of the 28 mansions is reported by 'Abd al-Malik b. Habib (d. 238/852), on the authority of Malik b. Anas (d. 17 /7 5)." Kunitzsch, P., "Al-Manazil" in Bosworth, C.E. et al, The Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1 1), 374-6.
(50.) Yunus: 5.
(51.) Ya Sin: 37-40. 'Urjun: the raceme of the date-palm, when it becomes old and dry, it curves like the crescent.
(52.) at-Talaq: 12.
(53.) "The two Shaykhs" is an honorific reference to al-Bukhari and al-Muslim. Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Vol. 8, 156, who cites Bukhari 2453 and Muslim 1612. The variant is to be found in Bukhari 5454.
(54.) See Ibn Kathir, Bidaya wa nihaya, Vol. 1, 16, "What has been said regarding the seven earths".
(55.) Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Vol. 8, 156.
"In the Beginning" is the first chapter of a work in progress, In the Beginning: Islamic Perspectives on Origins. The first part of this book explores various aspects Of cosmological origins, the second that of biological origins. Muzaffar Iqbal is the President of Center for Islam and Science, Canada; Email: Muzaffar@cis-ca.org.