Let’s say that one day we discover extraterrestrials knocking on our atmosphere. No doubt, this would be a shock to the world. But would the mere existence of these aliens shake the core foundation of all world religions? Would a heavenly revealed religion come to a screeching halt with the revelation that there is other intelligent life in the universe? Not at all.
For starters, here is this verse in the Qur’an: “And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the living creatures that He has scattered through them: and He has power to gather them together when He wills.” (Surat Ash-Shuraa 42:29).
The Arabic term used for the phrase “through them” is fihima, which can only mean the living creatures can exist both within the heavens and on Earth.
One could interpret the “living creatures” to be angels, since the term “heaven” used here is often used to denote the realm of God. There are two problems with this interpretation, however.
First, there is another verse in the Qur’an where God makes a clear distinction between “living beings” and angels: “And to Allah doth obeisance all that is in the heavens and on earth, whether moving (living) creatures or the angels: for none are arrogant (before their Lord).” (Surat An-Nahl: 16:49).
Second is that the term used for “heaven” in Arabic (sama) is not synonymous with Paradise (jannah), as is common in English terminology, which we often attribute to the residence of God and angels.
As the scholar Muhammad Asad explains in his translation, The Message of the Qur’an: “The term sama (“heaven” or “sky”) is applied to anything that is spread like a canopy above any other thing. Thus, the visible skies which stretch like a vault above the earth and form, as it were, its canopy, are called sama: and this is the primary meaning of this term in the Qur’an; in a wider sense, it has the connotation of “cosmic system”.”
It’s also worth noting that the first chapter of the Qur’an, the one that all Muslims recite in their daily prayers, contains the verse “Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds,” (Surat Al-Fatihah 1:2).
Notice the plural of “worlds”. The meaning here is that God is the Creator, Sustainer, and Master of all worlds in our universe—and, inevitably, any inhabitants within those worlds.
Yusuf Ali, whose translation of the Qur’an is one of the most widely read in the world, also comments on this, saying that “It is reasonable to suppose that Life in some form or another is scattered through some of the millions of heavenly bodies scattered through space.”
The existence of extraterrestrial beings is not outside the bounds of Islamic thought, and so it falls upon proof, not conjecture (and vague, grainy footage of discs in the sky), to confirm or deny their existence.
Plurals & Synonyms
However, it’s also important to note that in the preceding verse, the plural “worlds” does not necessarily apply to celestial bodies alone.
The advent of quantum mechanics and string theory has given rise to the insight that our physical universe is made up of more dimensions than our four observable dimensions.
Initially, scientists believed that space and matter consisted of four dimensions: width, height, length, and time.
But with the discovery of Dark Matter and the fact that our universe is expanding, according to the most accepted theory so far among cosmologists (which the Qur’an alludes to in Surat Adh-Dhariyat 51:47), scientists have found that other dimensions beyond our comprehension exist. Or, as Einstein discovered, space is not “nothing”. Furthermore, string theory suggests the existence of multiple—or parallel—universes.
Muslims have been acquainted with multiple dimensions and parallel worlds long before such terms were even coined. Jinn is an Arabic term used in the Qur’an to describe beings that live beyond our perception. As Muhammad Asad points out, the term is popularly attributed to “genies” or “demons”, when its actual meaning has a far wider implication than that.
The term Jinn is derived from the Arabic verb janna, which is best described as something that is “veiled from sight” and “can thus be applicable to all kinds of invisible beings or forces.”
The fact that Jinn are concealed from our senses, implicate that they live in dimensions beyond our perception. In fact, developments in quantum mechanics suggest that our universe could be made up with as many as eleven or 24 separate dimensions.
The Qur’an often refers to “the realm which is beyond the reach of human perception” and so it’s entirely possible that, as we live in our own observable four-dimensional space, the remaining dimensions beyond our perception host their own denizens as well.
Furthermore, it’s entirely possible that our universe is merely one of many “multiverses”.
Michio Kaku is one of the leading physicists in the world today. He succinctly explains how the multiverse theory works as such: he likens it to our universe being an expanding bubble, with other bubbles being an offshoot of it.
These other universes could be at varying stages of development, some beginning, some ending, and some developing side-by-side with ours. The prospect of many universes existing separate from each poses no problem in Islamic thought.
As Muslims, we see it not as a refutation of God’s power, but as an even greater magnification of His limitless abilities, that He has the power to create and manage the minute and massive details in all universes, while never being wearied by doing so.
The process of creation is ongoing, and it’s entirely possible that other universes parallel to ours are being created as we speak. There are several verses in the Qur’an that mention this ongoing process of creation:
“Say: “It is Allah Who originates creation and repeats it: then how are ye deluded away (from the truth)?”” (Surat Yunus 10:34).
“Or, Who originates creation, then repeats is, and who gives you sustenance from heaven and earth?” (Surat An-Naml 27:64).
“See they not how Allah originates creation, then repeats it: truly that is easy for Allah.” (Surat Al-‘Ankabut 29:19).
Perhaps the term “creation” refers to both the creation and reproduction of mankind and also the creation and reproduction of multiple universes at large. The Qur’an also mentions, in many places, “seven heavens”:
“He it is who has created for you all that is on earth, and has applied His design to the heavens and fashioned them into seven heavens; and He alone has full knowledge of everything.” (Surat Al-Baqarah 2:29).
It is important to note here that the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic, and so any attempt at translating it into English or any other language results in a loss of many metaphors and idioms common in Arabic.
One such idiom, as Muhammad Asad points out, is that “in Arabic usage – and apparent in other Semitic languages as well – the number “seven” is often synonymous with “several”…just as “seventy” or “seven hundred” often means “many” or “very many”… This, taken together with the accepted linguistic definition that “every sama is a sama with regard to what is below it” (sama meaning heaven or sky) may explain the “seven heavens” as denoting the multiplicity of cosmic systems.”
The possibility of life on other planets—in other universes even—has always been considered to be in the realm of Star Trek and Stargate. However, the more we learn about our universe the more we have seen that science fiction is becoming science fact.
Sadly, many people fret and fray that such things would either be blasphemous or would somehow extinguish belief in God. But as we’ve seen, both claims are erroneous. The existence of aliens and parallel universes must stand on its own merits and scientific proofs.
And if such things do exist, then so be it; the Islamic faith would remain unchanged, undisturbed, by them.
Muhammad Asad beautifully sums up the Islamic position on extraterrestrial life, multiple universes and dimensions in the following passage:
“The Qur’an refers often to “the realm which is beyond the reach of human perception” (al-ghayb), while God is frequently spoken of as “the Sustainer of all the worlds” (rabb al-alamin): and the use of the plural clearly indicates that side by side with the “world” open to our observation there are other “worlds” as well – and, therefore, other forms of life, different from ours and presumably from one another, and yet subtly interacting and perhaps even permeating one another in a manner beyond our ken.”
And, as always, Allah knows best.29:19
References: “The Quran and Extraterrestrial Life”, Sheikh Muhammad b. Ibrâhîm Dûdah. IslamToday.net
“Michio Kaku Explains String Theory” http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=kYAdwS5MFjQ#!