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COSMOLOGY. In Islamic cosmology, the cosmos or the universe (al-`alam) is defined generally as “everything other than God.” This definition, universally accepted in Islam, has its basis in the Qur’an. It is emphasized repeatedly in the Qur’an that God is “lord of all the worlds” and that to God belongs “everything in the heavens and the earth” and “what is in between.” The sum total of “everything other than God,” which constitutes the entire Muslim cosmos, is identified with what the Qur’an refers to as “all the worlds” and “everything in the heavens and the earth.”


The cosmos is also identified with the whole created order (khalq) that, according to the Qur’an, comes into existence through the divine creative command kun (“Be!”). For this reason, the term kawn, which is etymologically related to the word kun and which conveys the meaning of engendered existence, is often used by Muslim cosmologists to refer to the whole cosmos. Consequently, one of the terms used to denote cosmology is `ilm al-kawn, meaning literally “the science of the cosmos.”

The above traditional Muslim definition of the cosmos is of great significance to contemporary Muslims as far as their encounter with modern cosmology is concerned. First, in contrast to modern cosmology, which either ignores or rejects altogether the existence and reality of God, and views the cosmos as a completely independent order of reality or even as the one and only reality, Islamic cosmology is theocentric. The idea of the cosmos in Islam is inseparable from the Qur’anic conception of God.

The most fundamental teaching of the Qur’an is that God is the central reality. Although from a certain point of view the cosmos is not God, and there is a fundamental distinction between the two, the cosmos is always defined in relation to this central reality that, in fact, is its metaphysical source and origin as well as its ultimate goal. Indeed, God enters into the definition of the cosmos. And the various cosmological schemes or theories developed by the different schools of Islamic cosmology represent so many ways of looking at the relationship between God and the cosmos. The nature of this relationship is one of the most fundamental issues to have engaged the minds of Muslim cosmologists over the centuries.

Second, in contrast to Islamic cosmology, which deals with all the worlds or the whole cosmos, modern cosmology has in view only a small portion of this cosmos, namely, the physical world. Modern cosmology might have discovered a lot of new facts about the physical universe that were unknown to ancient and medieval cosmologists, and it might have extended the boundaries of that universe far beyond those they had ever known. However, judging by their qualitative contents, the dimensions of the modern cosmos, limited as it were to the physical realm, are far smaller than those of the traditional Muslim cosmos.

Islamic cosmology inquires into the nature and reality of the nonphysical worlds without neglecting the physical world. In fact, it has made important contributions to the development of natural and mathematical studies of the physical cosmos. Clearly, Islamic cosmology covers a far wider domain of rational inquiry than what we find in modern cosmology. As defined by the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-Safa’), a secret brotherhood of philosophers and scientists in tenth- and eleventh-century Islam, which wrote the influential Rasa’il (a collection of fifty-two treatises covering almost every branch of medieval philosophy and science), the cosmos is “all the spiritual and material beings who populate the immensity of the skies, who constitute the reign of multiplicity which extends to the spheres, the stars, the elements, their products and to man” (Nasr, 1978, p. 53).

Sources of Islamic Cosmology. For Muslims, the Qur’an is the most important source of cosmological knowledge. It provides Muslims with knowledge of general cosmological principles that determine the dimensions and boundaries of the Muslim cosmos, both temporally and spatially speaking, and that also serve as a necessary background for the scientific study of that cosmos.

These cosmological principles are either explicitly stated or derived from the metaphysical teachings of the Qur’an through their application to the cosmic domain. According to the Qur’an itself, its verses are of two kinds, the muhkamat (clear) and the mutashabihat (ambiguous). Many cosmological ideas that have been developed in Islam are derived from verses of the second kind. Cosmological meanings contained in such verses have been arrived at primarily through ta’wil (symbolic or esoteric interpretation) that presupposes a deep spiritual insight and the soundness of the faculty of intellectual intuition, as distinct from the faculty of ratiocination or discursive reasoning, on the part of the interpreters, who seek to understand the inner meanings of those verses.

For example, the Qur’anic metaphysical statement “God is the First and the Last, the Outward and the Inward” (surah 57.3) has immediate implications for the cosmos. To say that God is al-Awwal (the First) means that the cosmos has an origin or a beginning. And to say that he is al-Akhir (the Last) means that the cosmos has an end. In other words, the world of multiplicity comes from the One God and returns to the One God. The cosmos therefore has not come into existence by chance or without any ultimate purpose.

On the contrary, it is a purposive world. This fact finds strong support in numerous Qur’anic verses that state categorically that the whole universe is created in truth and by the truth (bi-al-haqq) and not in vain (see, e.g., surahs 16.3 and 21.16). Muslims view the cosmos as being governed by teleological principles. A discussion of these principles has a legitimate and indeed an important place in Islamic cosmology and by extension in the particular sciences, such as the physical and the biological sciences.

If the first pair of the four Divine Names mentioned above, the First and the Last, can be said to have determined the temporal boundaries of the cosmos, then the other pair, the Outward and the Inward, determines its spatial boundaries. How this latter pair of names shapes directly the Muslims’ vision of the cosmos is more difficult to see if one were to accept only a logical interpretation of the names. This is because looking at the cosmos through the two names presents two different pictures, one being the reverse of the other.

According to one traditional interpretation, to say that God is the Outward or al-Zahir (the Manifested) means that the cosmos is contained or enclosed by God. If the cosmos is divided into its physical and nonphysical parts, then, following the same principle of outwardness, it is the physical world that is enveloped by the nonphysical parts. And to say that God is al-Batin (the Hidden) means that the cosmos is a reality that lies outside God and that veils him. If the same relation is now considered between the different parts of the cosmos itself, then it is the physical world that lies outside the spiritual world and that hides the latter.

The two different pictures of the cosmos that result from a consideration of the Divine Names, the Outward and the Inward respectively, might be best represented geometrically by means of two concentric circles. In the first picture, in which God is viewed as the Outward, the inner circle represents the cosmos while the outer circle represents Divine Reality. In the second picture, in which God is viewed as the Inward, we have the reverse. The inner circle now represents Divine Reality whereas the outer circle represents the cosmos. By further considering the hierarchy of existence within both Divine Reality itself and the cosmos, this simple geometric representation can be enlarged to include more concentric circles, each of which represents a particular state of existence. Within this geometric scheme, Muslim cosmologists found a means of integrating elements of pre-Islamic cosmology into the Qur’anic cosmological perspective.

Allusions to the dimensions of the cosmos are also to be found in those Qur’anic verses that speak of the seven heavens and the seven earths, of the Divine Throne, `arsh, and the Divine Footstool, kursi (see surahs 20.5 and 2.255), of the cosmic mountain Qaf and of the cosmic tree. Then there are those verses which refer to such complementary pairs as light and darkness, this world and the next world, paradise and hell, the origin and the return, spirit and body, sun and moon, and day and night. All these pairs too allude to the dimensions of the Muslim cosmos. Even the term “Muslim cosmos” itself is derived directly from the Qur’an. Everything in the cosmos, says the Qur’an, is a Muslim because it submits willingly or unwillingly to the Will of God as manifested in the laws of the cosmos. Submission to the divine will is precisely what the word Muslim means.

The most popular of all Qur’anic verses that deal with general cosmological principles are the Throne Verse (2.255) and the Light Verse (24.35). The Light Verse in particular has been commented on by many famous Muslim thinkers, including al-Farabi (d. 950), Ibn Sina (d. 1037), the Ikhwan al-Safa’, al-Ghazali (d. i i i i ), and Mulls Sadra (d. 1641). In these commentaries are to be found some of the most important cosmological speculations by classical Muslim thinkers, which seek to harmonize pre-Islamic cosmology with cosmological data contained in the Islamic revelation.

For example, the Ikhwan al-Safa’ identified the heaven of the fixed stars in the Ptolemaic system of eight concentric spheres with the kursi mentioned in the Throne Verse. Further, they equated the `arsh of the Qur’an (see also surah 9.129, referring to God as the Lord of the Throne, and surah 69.17, referring to eight angelic bearers of the Divine Throne) with the highest heaven, that is, the ninth and starless heaven that Muslims have added to the Ptolemaic scheme to account for diurnal motion. The Ikhwan called this heaven the Muhit or the outermost sphere, while many other Muslims named it falak al-aflak, meaning the sphere of spheres or the supreme heaven. In their commentary on the Light Verse, the Ikhwan interpreted light (al-nur) as the Universal Intellect, niche (mishkdt) as the Universal Soul, glass (zujdjah) as the prime form (al-surah al-ula), a shining star (kawkab durri) as individual form (al-surah al-mujarradah), the blessed olive tree (shajarah mubarakah zaytunah) again as the Universal Soul, and light on light (nur `ald nur) as the light of the intellect over the light of the Soul (see Nasr, 1978, p. 77).

Another revealed datum that has influenced traditional Islamic conceptions of the cosmos refers to Laylat al-mi’raj, the Prophet’s miraculous night journey (see surahs 17.1 and 53.11-18) from the earth to the Divine Throne, an event ever fresh in the memory of every generation of Muslims until our present times, because every year it is celebrated by Muslims all over the world. About the journey itself the Qur’an tells us very little. We are told only that the Prophet was transported fromMeccatoJerusalem, then taken to the heavens until he reached the farthest Lote tree (sidrat al-muntaha; surah 53.14) before being finally brought to the Divine Throne.

Detailed descriptions of the journey are given in the hadiths. Thanks to this second most important source of knowledge in Islam, we have more information not only about the journey fromMeccatoJerusalembut also about the Prophet’s ascension fromJerusalemto the Divine Throne through all the heavens and about the throne itself. There is a description of every heaven through which the Prophet had passed. He was accomparied  throughout the journey by the archangel Gabriel, who acted as his guide. The only exception was during the final stage of the journey from the Lote tree to the Divine Throne, when the Prophet alone was given the honor of being transported on a beautiful rafraf (narrow piece of silk brocade) (see account given by Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti [d. 1505), translated in A. Jeffery, Islam: Muhammad and His Religion, Indianapolis, 1958, pp. 42-46).

The language used to describe the entire journey is largely a symbolic one. The farthest Lote tree symbolizes the outermost region of the universe, and the Prophet’s passage through every heaven symbolizes his journey through all states of being in the cosmic hierarchy. The final goal of the journey is to go beyond the cosmos itself, that is, to reach the Divine Presence. Undoubtedly, the Prophet’s nocturnal ascension to the Divine Throne has a great significance for Islamic cosmology. On the basis of the data given in both the Qur’an and the hadiths concerning that event, Muslims have been presented with a clear picture of the total dimensions of the cosmos. That event has also taught them the ultimate purpose of cosmology.

The highest goal in the study of the cosmos is to enable oneself to visualize it as a book of symbols that can be meditated on and contemplated for spiritual upliftment or as a prison from which the human soul must escape to attain true freedom. This view concerning the role of the cosmos in man’s spiritual journey to God, inspired by the Prophet’s mi’raj, was enthusiastically shared by many members of the two main traditions of Islamic cosmology. One is the tradition that is against Greek and other foreign learnings and that relied solely on the Qur’an and hadiths for cosmological knowledge. Religious scholars, such as Abu Muhammad al-Isfahani (Abu’ al-Shaykh, d. 979), the eleventh-century alKhatib al-Baghdadi, and Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 1505), who can be regarded as among the leading representatives of this tradition but whose cosmological works are little known to the modern world, insisted that, in the study of the cosmos, it is more important to contemplate the cosmos as a book of divine signs than to speculate rationally about it.

The other cosmological tradition, represented mainly by philosophers of various schools and scientists, but also by a number of leading theologians and Sfifis, sought to synthesize cosmological ideas taken from nonIslamic sources and the cosmological teachings of the Qur’an and hadiths. Among many representatives of this tradition, vast knowledge of scientific cosmology was no obstacle to acceptance of a spiritual or metaphysical cosmology in which such ideas as the symbolic interpretation of all natural phenomena, the concept of the interiorization of the cosmos, and a spiritual journey through the universe to what lies beyond it are particularly important. On the contrary, as we find in the “visionary recitals” of Ibn Sina (see Corbin, 1980; Nasr, 1978, chap. 15), which were no doubt inspired by the Prophet’s mi’raj, they had the spiritual ingenuity of transforming scientific facts drawn from many sciences of the day into cosmic symbols that were to act as guide posts for the traveler on the path of spiritual perfection in his journey through and beyond the cosmos to the Divine Presence.

As a source of cosmology the Qur’an provides us mainly with knowledge of general principles, but it is much more comprehensive and detailed than all other sacred books of the world in its accounts of cosmogony, cosmography, the qualitative contents of the cosmos, such as the angelic realm, eschatological events, and other cosmic phenomena. However, it is generally the case that concerning all these aspects of the cosmos the Qur’anic accounts are complemented by those given in the hadiths in a more detailed manner. The beginning of cosmological speculation in Islam must be traced back to the commentaries and interpretations of cosmological data contained in these two main sources by the first few generations of Muslims.

There were two main traditions of Islamic cosmology. The indigenous tradition, which was strongly opposed to Greek and other foreign sciences, formulated a cosmology based almost entirely on Islamic sources, namely the Qur’an, hadiths, and transmitted sciences. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a leading contemporary historian and philosopher of Islamic science, has likened the position of this indigenous cosmology within the total Islamic cosmological tradition to that of Prophetic medicine within the general body of medical knowledge stored within the house of Islam.

The other tradition, which had a far greater impact than the first on the historical and philosophical development of Islamic science, had developed a number of cosmologies that were partly inspired by ideas and theories inherited from pre-Islamic cosmological systems. The most important of these were Hermetic, Pythagorean, and Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmologies made available to the Muslims mainly through translations of Greek sources, Mazdean cosmology from Persia, and certain forms of Indian cosmology. However, all the elements that had been borrowed from these non-Islamic sources were fully integrated into the more universal Qur’anic cosmological perspective.

Historical Development of Islamic Cosmology. We can identify the historical beginning of Islamic cosmological thought with the first cosmological speculations and utterances on the subject made by some of the most distinguished companions of the Prophet, whom Hasan al-Basri (d. 728) referred to as the ahl al-batin (people of inwardness), meaning those possessed of an esoteric cast of mind and a sound knowledge in the science of ta’wil of both the Qur’an and hadiths, particularly the sacred hadiths (hadith qudsi). Prominent among these companions were `Ali ibn Abi Talib, ibn `Abbas, Ibn Mas’ud, and Abu Hurayrah.

Ibn `Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet, told us that he learned from the Prophet the esoteric meaning of the seven heavens and the seven earths mentioned in the Qur’an. In his commentary on this sacred text, which continues to be widely read in traditional Muslim circles and which is popularly referred to as tafsir Ibn `Abbas, he gave many insightful clarifications of the meanings of verses related to cosmology, and also delved into the symbolic meanings of letters of the alphabet which appear at the opening of some chapters of the Qur’an.

To cite just a few examples, he defined the qualitative contents of the Muslim cosmos through his explanation of the meaning of the Qur’anic term `alamin (“all the worlds”). He explained the nature and number of angelic bearers of the Divine Throne. Then, there is his description in symbolic language of the form of the angel in charge of each of the seven heavens as well as his mention of its name. This shows that from the very beginning of Islamic cosmological thought, there has been a close relationship between cosmology and angelology. Ibn `Abbas is also an important early source of a detailed account of the Prophet’s mi’raj.

But, without doubt, it was `Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, the fourth rightly guided caliph of Sunni Islam and the first imam of Shi`i Islam, who enjoyed the greatest respect and influence in the domain of both exoteric and esoteric sciences. In what has survived of his sermons, letters, poems, and proverbs, as preserved mainly in the Nahj al-balaghah (The Way of Eloquence), a late ShN compilation by Sharif al-Radi (d. 1015), we meet for the first time in Islam a number of technical expressions of an almost philosophical nature as well as tendencies toward an analytical intellectual discourse. Of interest to historians of Islamic cosmology is `All’s reference in one of his poems to man as al-`alam al-saghir (microcosm). It was the earliest explicit mention of this important cosmological idea in Islamic sources.

Many traditional sources have also attributed to `Ali the origin of several distinctively Islamic arts and sciences, such as the art of khan (calligraphy) and the science of numerical symbolism of the alphabets (`ilm al-jafr). According to Bel-Mughus al-Maghribi, a sixteenth-century historian of alchemy, `Ali also inherited the alchemical art from the Prophet. In Islam, both the science of alphabetical symbolism and alchemy have always had a very close link with cosmology. The cosmological teachings of `Ali as inherited and further developed by both his distinguished blood and intellectual descendants must have served as important foundational elements in the early development of Islamic cosmology. His idea of the analogy between the microcosm and the macrocosm, and his use of numerical symbolism for the letters of the Arabic alphabet, found fuller and more systematic exposition in the cosmological writings of the later period, such as those of Ikhwan al-Safa’ and Ibn Sins.

Among the most distinguished of `All’s early intellectual successors were Hasan al-Basri and Ja’far al-Sadiq (d. 765). Both were Sufis, but the former, a disciple of `Al! who lived long enough to witness the Muslim community of the first three generations, was a Sunni and the latter the sixth imam of Shiism, although he was revered too by many Sunnis. From the point of view of the later development of many schools of Islamic cosmology, the alchemical and other esoteric teachings and writings associated with the intellectual circle of Imam Ja’far are of particular importance. Jabir ibn Hayyan, the greatest alchemist of Islam, also belonged to this circle.

In many alchemical writings attributed to Jabir, in which the author claims to be expounding the teachings of his master, Iman Ja’far, we find many cosmological schemes which betray a strong influence of Hermetic, Pythagorean, Aristotelian, and Neoplatonic cosmologies. The Jabirian cosmology is a remarkable synthesis of cosmological and scientific ideas drawn from diverse sources. There is a place in it for the Neoplatonic theory of emanation of the world and depiction of the cosmos as a hierarchy of concentric spheres; a place for the Pythagorean concept of cosmic harmony arising from the qualitative or symbolic properties of numbers; a place for the magic square or the Ming Tang taken from Chinese science thanks to the numerical symbolism inherent in it; and there is a place for Hermetic science of alchemical and astrological symbolisms based on the maxim, “that which is lowest symbolizes that which is highest,” in which the sulphur-mercury principle is of fundamental importance. However, the alchemical perspective predominates.

The central idea in Jabirean cosmology which connects the different elements together in a coherent way is the cosmological concept of the balance. The balance is the cosmic principle by means of which the correct proportion of elements is reached. It refers to the harmony of the various tendencies of the Universal Soul that determines and orders the qualities of cosmic existence. In Jabir’s cosmological scheme, which he presented as a hierarchy of concentric circles, the Universal Soul exists below the intellect, further above which is the First Cause (God). Below the Universal Soul is the world of substance, which is the principle of the physical cosmos.

Jabirean cosmology exerted a great influence on the cosmological thought of Ikhwan al-Safa’ and on Ismd’ili and Sufi cosmologies, especially that of Ibn al-`Arabi (d. 1240). But during the period that separates Jabir from Ikhwan al-Safa’ and the flowering of Fatimid Isma’ili thought, there emerged another school of Islamic cosmology that was more rational and scientific in its intellectual outlook. This is the Peripatetic school of philosopher-scientists founded by al-Kind! (d. c.873), further developed by al-Farabi, which reached its greatest height with Ibn Sins. Muslim Peripatetic cosmology is based on a synthesis between Aristotelian philosophy as interpreted mainly by the Neoplatonists and the cosmological teachings of Islam.

Al-Kind! argued for a closed and finite cosmos. He also believed in the doctrine of creatio ex-nihilo. In contrast, both al-Farabi and Ibn Sina maintained the theory of emanation to explain the existence of the world of multiplicity from the One. The picture of the cosmos associated with this school was the one largely used in Islam by its astronomers. Prior to and parallel to the development of Peripatetic cosmological thought we can refer to the various schools of kalam (dialectical theology), especially the Ash’aris, who possess what we might call an atomistic cosmology.

Al-Ghazali, the most well known of the Ash`ari theologians, criticized severely Peripatetic thought. This criticism helped to pave the way for the emergence of the Illuminationist school of philosophy of Suhrawardi and the mystical philosophy of Ibn al-`Arabi. Each of these schools developed its own cosmology as well. Ibn al-`Arabi’s cosmology, which constitutes a grand synthesis of all the cosmological ideas that have been developed earlier and those produced by his own creative genius, became the dominant cosmology in many parts of the Islamic world until today. InIran, Mulls Sadra, while being greatly influenced by Ibn al-`Arabi’s cosmology, attempted to create his own synthesis. Mulls Sadra’s contemporaries in the Malay world, such as Hamzah Fansuri and Nur al-Din al-Raniri, were busy interpreting and writing Ibn al-`Arabi’s thought in Malay. The cosmological writings of these Malay thinkers continue to be read and discussed.

Many Muslim intellectuals, including scientists, are now interested to know what past Muslim cosmologists have written on the subject of cosmology. Their encounter with modern cosmology has forced them to reexamine Islamic cosmological heritage in a more favorable light.

[See also Philosophy; Theology.]


Bakar, Osman. Tawhid and Science. Penang andKuala Lumpur, 1991. Chapter 5 deals with the atomistic cosmology of the Ash’aris. Chittick, William. The Sufi Path of Knowledge.Albany,N.Y., 1989. This book provides a wealth of information on Sufi cosmology as interpreted by Ibn al-`Arabi.

Corbin, Henry. Avicenna and the Visionary Recital. Translated by Willard R. Trask.Irving,Texas, 1980. Contains Ibn Seta’s three short treatises on symbolic cosmology in which he gives an important place to angels. The most comprehensive work in a Western language on Ibn Sina’s angelology.

Fakhry, Majid. A History of Islamic Philosophy.New YorkandLondon, 1983. Although it is a general introductory work on Islamic philosophy, it makes many references to the cosmological ideas of leading Muslim thinkers.

Haq, Syed Nomanul. Names, Natures, and Things: The Alchemist jabir ibn Hayyan and his Kitdb al Ahjar (Book of Stones).Boston, 1994. A good discussion of some of the principles of Jabirean cosmology. Heinen, A. M. Islamic Cosmology: A Study of as-Suyuti’s al-Hay’s assaniyah fi’l-hay’s as-sunniya.Beirutand Weisbaden, 1982. A very useful work on the cosmology of religious scholars that is based totally on traditional Islamic sources.

Naguib al-Attas, Syed Muhammad. The Mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri.Kuala Lumpur, 1970. It contains a good discussion of the metaphysical cosmology of Fansuri, the first Malay thinker to write on the subject in the Malay language.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study.London, 1976. Chapter III provides a good summary of Islamic cosmology and cosmography and clarifies their significance for Islamic science.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines.Boulder, 1978. The first comprehensive work on the subject. Although it was written more than three decades ago, it is still the best work on Islamic cosmology.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. “The Cosmos and the Natural Order.” In Islamic Spirituality: Foundations, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, pp. 345-357. World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest, vol. 19.New York, 1987. An excellent summary of the views of different schools of Islamic cosmology.

Schuon, F. Dimensions of Islam. Translated by P. Townsend.London, 1970. Chapter 1 t is an excellent discussion of the dimensions of the Muslim cosmos based on revealed data in the Qur’an and on the teachings of the hadiths.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/cosmology/

  • writerPosted On: November 6, 2012
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