Islam and the Nature of the Universe
[It is God who raised the skies without support, as you can see, then assumed His throne, and enthralled the sun and the moon (so that) each runs to a predetermined course. He disposes all affairs, distinctly explaining every sign that you may be certain of the meeting with your Lord] (Ar-Ra`d 13:2)
The last of the Abrahamic religions, following Judaism and Christianity, Islam considers the creation of the universe as ultimate proof of the existence of one Creator who “is that dimension which makes other dimensions possible; He gives meaning and life to everything” (Rahman) According to the teachings of Islam, Allah (God) is the one and only god, the absolute Creator of the universe, its components and its laws. Allah is the beginning and the end of all things, and this is the foundation for Islam’s teachings.
The Qur’an is the word of Allah as passed down to Muslims through the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the existence of only one version of the Qur’an (there are no dissimilarities between any two copies) attests to the reverence in which Muslims hold it. For Muslims, the Qur’an, containing the word of Allah, provides irrefutable proof of His existence. Along with the Qur’an, nature provides another source for the proof of Allah’s existence. This intimate relationship between the Qur’an and nature is shown in the phrase ayat, which refers to signs of Allah’s existence in nature and also refers to the verses in the Qur’an.
In Islam, the world as man knows it, begins and ends with Allah. Unlike Christianity and Judaism, the creation process is not described in detail, but referred to as a starting point for Allah’s power. The creation story in Islam is described in the Qur’an as the creation of the universe by Allah’s will with a single command: “Be!” Several verses in the Qur’an highlight Allah’s power of creation: [Creator of the heavens and the earth from nothingness, He has only to say when He wills a thing: “Be,” and it is] (Al-Baqarah 2:117) and, [That is how God creates what He wills, when He decrees a thing, He says “Be,” and it is] (Aal `Imran 3:47).
In this manner, Allah created the heavens and the earth, the sun and the moon, and the rest of the universe. He created the plants and the animals, and placed them on Earth, and He decreed upon them the laws by which the natural order of all creation functions. The universe is an independent entity, it exists according to those laws and does not require (divine) intervention, yet it cannot “warrant for its own existence and it cannot explain itself” (Rahman). In Islam, this in itself is considered conclusive proof of Allah’s existence. The laws placed by Allah take into account all natural phenomena and provide further proof for Allah’s greatness, which the Qur’an describes in detail. [He ushers in the dawn, and made the night for rest, the sun and moon a computation. Such is the measure appointed by Him, the Omnipotent and All-Wise] (Al-An`am 6:96). Natural law, as decreed by Allah, “reflects and issues from the order that exists in the Divine Realm” (Nasr) where Allah exists.
Mankind & Nature
Man was created from clay, and is thus part of nature, not separate from it. This relationship with nature materialises in Islamic living in several ways, the most significant and obvious being death. Muslim burials require the corpse to be washed, have all items removed, and placed in the ground within three days—for an easier return to the earth whence it came.
Within Allah’s universe, man was given a special place. In Islamic teachings, in contrast to those of Christianity, man was not made in God’s image. Rather, Allah distinguished man from His other creations by breathing His own spirit into man. This preferential treatment of God’s creation gave man two privileges not made available to the rest of creation: (1) freedom of choice and (2) specialised knowledge or “creative knowledge” (Rahman).
Freedom of choice allows man the ability to make the decision whether or not to worship Allah and follow His will. The universe, as described before, is governed by the laws decreed for it by Allah, and has, therefore, been in submission to Allah since its creation. Man, however, was given the ability to think, rationalize, and argue the presence of a creator, and then decide whether to submit to Him or not.
An Open Invitation to Knowledge and Learning
Creative knowledge was first displayed—according to the teachings of Islam—when, after the angels questioned Allah as to why he had created man in the form of Adam, Allah challenged the angels and Adam to name objects. The angels were unable to bestow names upon things, whereas Adam could, giving him superiority over those that he had named and demonstrating his Creator’s power.
As part of man’s privilege, Islam, through the Qur’an, invites man to discover the laws of nature and the ways in which the universe exists. There is no threat to Allah’s supremacy in this way, because if Allah wills something to remain a mystery (such as Himself) then man has no possible way of discovering whatever Allah chooses to remain hidden. On the contrary, when man sees for himself the extent to which the universe has been meticulously planned and provided for, Allah’s infinite wisdom becomes apparent. Man is invited to question, discover, explore, and manipulate the world around him and use it for his benefit.
There are three types of learning encouraged in Islam, all of which will (or should) inevitably lead to acknowledgement and recognition of Allah’s power. These are: (1) the discovery of nature, its laws, and how it can be used for the benefit of mankind; (2) the exploration of the history and the geography of the physical world and its peoples; and (3) knowledge of oneself (Rahman).
This encouragement to learn and discover has led to a proliferation of Arab scholars in the fields of the natural sciences and mathematics. In Islamic philosophy, one must always seek knowledge, both within and without, as knowledge illuminates the path on which one must travel. Ignorance is an unfavourable state of being, as the process pf acknowledging the existence and power of Allah is one of enlightenment through knowing.
“Nature exists for man to exploit for his own ends, while the end of man himself is nothing else but to serve God, to be grateful to him, and to worship him alone” (Rahman). Islam suggests that nature was created by Allah specifically for mankind’s use and so must be recognised and respected as a gift for which man must be grateful. There are three reasons for creation: (1) “to serve as a collection of signs, or ayat, of the power and goodness of Allah”; (2) “to serve Allah and to be submissive to God’s will”; and (3) “for the use of humans” (Timm).
Natural law in Islam is based on the laws Allah created for nature, which as mentioned earlier, reflected the laws of Allah’s divine realm. Man is expected to discover Allah’s will and to follow it, because “Islam suggests that discovering the truth, learning the truth, and believing in the truth are all possible” (Ezzati).
Allah created the universe, bestowed human beings with a privileged position within it, and left the world to function under the laws He had decreed for it. Allah observes how people treat the bounty He has given them, and the universe is allowed to exist, with little intervention, for a certain length of time. At the end of this time, following portents of the end of the world as we know it, mankind is brought in front of Allah for Judgment Day. Islam’s eschatology places Allah’s role as mankind’s judge as the progression from His role as mankind’s Creator, and man will be punished or rewarded for his deeds in Allah’s universe.
Islam is a natural religion, in that its teachings advocate the utilisation of nature for man’s benefit, along with the preservation of the universe that Allah has placed in mankind’s safekeeping.
Ali, A. Al-Qurān: A Contemporary Translation. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Ezzati, A. Islam and Natural Law. London: ICAS Press, 2002.
Nasr, S.H. Religion and the Order of Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Rahman, F. Major Themes of the Qur’an. Chicago: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980.
Timm, R.E. “The Ecological Fallout of Islamic Creation Philosophy.” Worldviews and Ecology: Religion, Philosophy and the Environment. Eds. M.E. Tucker and J.A. Grim, New York: Orbis Books, 1994. 83-95
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