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An Introduction to Islam: 5. Islam's View of the Universe and Man

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An Introduction to Islam: 5. Islam's View of the Universe and Man

Khaled Nusseibeh

Islam’s View of the Universe:

The universe, according to Islam, is created and originated by God. He is the sovereign in the universe who both expands and terminates it in his apportioned time. Hence, all the laws (sunan ar.) that pervade the universe are under His hegemony. If He should so will, he may terminate the effect of those laws- though they are invariant and unchanging. Existence is an orderly cosmos and not a chaos.

The Qur`an continually enjoins people to reflect on and discover nature and the universe. Although the scientific spirit has receded in the later ages of Islam, it is very positively depicted in the Qur’an; nevertheless, it is a scientific spirit that repudiates paganism and that portrays the world as being a manifestation of Divine sovereignty: To quote from the Qur’an:

Introduction to Islam
Table of Contents

Introduction to Islam

Fundamentals of Islam

Sources of Doctrine in Islam

Doctrine in Islam

Islamic View of Man and the Universe

Suffis and Suffism

Islam in the Modern World - Interfaith Dialogue

“May He be glorified, for whatever is in the heavens and the earth is His, all are submissive to Him.” (2:116)

It is not surprising, hence, that through the encounter with other civilizations, Muslim scholars, scientists and thinkers were in the main not reluctant to assimilate the knowledge of those civilizations, to creatively develop it, but also to intermesh it with the fundamental paradigms and worldview of Islam. It should be mentioned, however, that there existed varied orientations among Muslims vis a vis external culture, ranging from the zealots to the Herodians, to use the terms of the British historian Toynbee. For instance, the philosophers such as Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Al-Kindi, Ibn Rushd and others were deeply influenced by and very positively disposed toward Greek philosophy and science, while the 13th century theologian, Ibn Taymiya, repudiated Greek philosophy and logic as having exercised an insidious influence on Muslim scholastic theology, or to use its Arabic term Ilm Al-Kalam.

To prove the existence and unity of God the Qur`an perennially highlights the order and design of the universe. Each created thing is endowed with a definite and defined nature which constitute an ordered form of existence. However, everything is limited in both the theology and cosmology of the Qur`an. All created things have an inherent nature and are subject to laws of behavior that God endowed them with. The Qur`an states: “Everything has been created by us according to a measure”. All existence is contingent and finite, and it is God alone who is self-sufficient, necessarily existent and unlimited.

Islam’s View of Man

In Islam’s view, God created two distinct species: namely, humankind and the jinn. The former was created from clay and the latter from fire. The descent of Adam and Eve due to their eating from the forbidden tree as a consequence of Satan’s deception- a story already occurring in the Judeo-Christian tradition- is related in the Qur’an. However, the Christian doctrine of original sin is not affirmed, as God accepted the repentance of Adam and Eve and made mankind His vicegerents on earth. To quote from the Qur`an:

“When your Lord said to the angels, ‘I am setting on earth a vice-regent,’ they said, ‘Will you place therein one who will act corruptly in it and shed blood, while we extol Your praise and sanctify You?” (2:30)

Thus, the angels protested to God against man’s creation, but lost in a competition of knowledge against Adam, who was taught the names of all things. The Qur`an declares man to be the finest of all creatures and he willingly bore the trust which the heavens and the earth refused to bear. All of creation was subjected to man, who by virtue of the rational faculty with which he was endowed, was enjoined to, and entrusted with, the development of civilization. In such endeavor he may be, either righteous or corrupt, a monotheist or an unbeliever. As the Qur`an affirms, there is no compulsion in faith and religion; in other words, faith belongs to the domain of individual freedom and choice. Moreover, life and existence were not created in vain, but were brought into being so that God is obeyed and worshipped. Thus, Islam is profoundly teleological while affirming theodicy in creation.

It must be noted that Islam views human nature as fallible and faltering- that man is oppressive and prone to ignorance- despite his lofty station in the universe. By contrast to angels who are instinctively obedient to God, man is inclined to error. Pride is the cardinal sin of man- a sin which detracts man from submission to a unique God, and which makes him ascribe partners to Him. In Islam, the most heinous of transgressions is shirk or polytheism.

Knowledge, it must be mentioned, is essential for man shouldering the responsibility of vice-regency on earth. To reiterate a point earlier made, the Qur`an emphasizes knowledge of the physical universe as a means to fulfilling the purpose of God in creation, namely, worshipping and obeying the Creator. The following two quotations from the Qur`an are illustrative:

“Have they not seen that We lead the water to the parched land, so that We bring forth crops from which their cattle and themselves can eat? Do they not perceive?” (32:27)

“It is He who has spread out the earth, and He placed in it mountains and rivers, and of every fruit He has made parts therein. He covers the night with the day. Surely in that are signs for a people who ponder. And in the earth are tracts neighboring one another, and gardens of grapes, and plantations, and palm-trees of one root and of different roots, watered by the same water. And We distinguish in produce some of them above others. Surely in that are signs for a people who comprehend”. (13:3,4)

Repentance and Satan and Resurrection in Islam:

In the story of the fall of Adam, Satan figures prominently as- owing to the sin of pride- he refused to honor Adam as God commanded. Previously, Satan had had an honored standing but became the nemesis of man. In Islam, the role of Satan is to beguile people through chicanery until the last day. The role of the Prophets of God, on the other hand, is to guide people to repentance and the righteous path. Repentance of people restores them to the state of sinlessness in which they were born.

It may be deduced from the scriptural texts of Islam- i.e. the Qur`an and Sunnah- that invariant laws pervade life and the universe. However, Islam affirms the occurrence of the miraculous as having been a vindication of the Prophets; thus, Noah was saved from the deluge, Jesus was immaculately born, Abraham was saved from the fire, and so forth. Muslim thinkers have dealt with the apparent contradiction between the invariance of universal laws and the Qur`an’s recognition of the miraculous event. The received wisdom is that the invariance of laws prevails in the universe, but God may intervene to effect exceptional phenomena. It may be mentioned that the Ash`ari school of theology, which is the dominant one in Sunni Islam, affirms Divine voluntaristic intervention in the natural world- and perhaps this was a reaction to the naturalism of the philosophers who questioned the notion of Divine intervention in existence- while the Andalusian Ibn Hazm and Ibn Taymiya emphasize the notion of cause and effect permeating the universe at the behest of God.

Islam affirms that the dead will be resurrected and that judgment will be pronounced on every soul. To quote from Surat Al-Zalzalah which powerfully captures one of the scenes of the day of resurrection:

“When the earth quakes with a mighty quaking, and the earth casts forth its burdens, and man says, ‘What ails her? On that day, she will make known her tidings, that your Lord has revealed to her. On that day, people will issue forth in concourses to behold their deeds. So, whoever has done an atom’s weight of good, will behold it. And whoever has done an atom’s weight of evil, will behold it. (99:1-8)

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