By Jan-e-Alam Khaki
November 20th, 2015
EXPLORATION of the universe is a fascinating subject. While many do not even bother to think about it, there are many who spend sleepless nights in reflection. Great strides have been made since Greek and Muslim thinkers in the early and mediaeval ages shared their insights on the way they thought the universe had been created, and how it evolved and functions.
In the Quran, there is enormous encouragement regarding the exploration of two kinds of universes: the self and the external world (aafaak wa anfus). There are numerous verses (some say more than 800, others say the entire Quran) which focus on these universes. In one such verse, Allah says: “We shall show them Our signs [aayaat] on the horizons [aafaaq] and within themselves [anfus]. ...” (41:53). The mention of horizons is important because these show the farthest limits of our vision, not facts, and when we think we are closer to the horizon, it stretches farther away.
Perhaps in this sense, Hazrat Ali reportedly said: “You think you are a small creature? Within you lies the biggest world [aalam al-akbar]”. Exploration of these internal and external worlds is what characterises Islam. From the epistemological perspective, Islam stands for unfolding the secrets of both worlds.
The ultimate aim of religion is searching for the truth.
Iqbal views the purpose of the creation of the world as ‘uncovering’ (uryani) or ‘unfolding’. He says: “Ye dunya da’wat-i-deedar hai farzand-i-Aadam ko/ ke har mastoor ko bakhsha gaya hay zauq-i-uryani” (this universe is meant for viewing for the offspring of Adam; each covered being has been given the desire to be uncovered so that others may see it.
Each seed, for example, yearns to be a tree; each bud longs to be a full-blown flower; each child is restless to be a fully developed man or woman. These extraordinary cause-and-effect phenomena leading to marvellous creations are described by the Quran as the ‘signs’ of God, because, in Quranic language, they are like billboards pointing towards their Creator.
Emphasising exploration, the Quran refers to the ‘wise ones’ (ulul al-baab), who pay attention to both zikr and fikr. It says: “Lo! In the creation of the heavens and the earth and [in] the difference of night and day are signs [aayaat] for those of understanding, who remember Allah, standing, sitting, and reclining, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth” (3:190-191). From this perspective, the ultimate aim of religion, so it seems, is searching for the truth or divinity through the exploration of His signs spread in the self and in the universe.
Again, Iqbal beautifully encapsulates this thought in popular verse. He says: “Gulzar-i-hast-o-bood na begana waar dekh/ hai dekhney ke cheez isse baar baar dekh” (Do not look at the marvellous garden of being like a stranger; this is a ‘thing’ worth seeing; look at it again and again). According to him, human beings should not look at this world in the manner of tourists, but with enlightened eyes, an inquisitive mind, passionate ears, a compassionate heart and a searching soul.
Many societies have been able to explore the universe more than others due largely to an overwhelming scientific spirit, science-friendly attitudes, access to multidisciplinary studies and highly sophisticated technology, enabling policies, creative and meaningful educational approaches and dedicated scientists and their supporters. Science, in modern times, has been a great tool of exploration of the universe. It has moved human beings from mere theological and theoretical debates to a practical demonstration of access to the heights of the stars, and the depths of the oceans.
The Quran, time and again, advises us to “travel through the earth” (29:20) to learn more about the lived history and divine work and how they both have interacted with each other and with what consequences.
Muslim scholars, including Iqbal, lament that Muslims, after a brief spell of intellectual engagement with the world, again shifted their gaze towards theoretical and theological debates losing sight of the observational, experimental and experiential outlooks as a means of exploring the world, while others in the same periods (since the 14th-15th century), particularly in the Western world, predominantly focused on the exploration of the universe. They consequently made astonishing discoveries leading to the Industrial Revolution followed by many other revolutions/developments in the centuries to come.
In order to reorient ourselves and expedite our march towards exploration of the universe, our homes, educational institutions, community institutions and government policies regarding knowledge production and education should encourage an open-enquiry approach to studying the world around us. Also, we should encourage critical thinking about the way we look at the world and how it functions. Instead of wasting time on proving how the ‘other’ is wrong, we need to focus on more productive pursuits.
Jan-e-Alam Khaki is an educationist with an interest in the study of religion and philosophy.