modern cosmology and the islamic prospect :
a dialogue in the quest for knowledge

Bruno Guiderdoni, Paris, 19. September 2001

I propose that the metaphysical prospect of Islam could provide the cosmologist with clues for interpreting the possible meaning of the discoveries brought forth by modern science. In such a context, this lecture addresses some of the current successes and puzzles of cosmology in terms of the Islamic teachings on the nature of reality: the intelligibility of the universe, fine-tuning in structure formation, and the universality of the laws of Physics. The elimination of explanations in terms of final causes is now at the heart of the development of modern cosmology, and I suggest that it drives us to an endless exploration of the cosmos. According to Islamic mysticism, the cosmos is one of the loci of God's self-disclosure, and new phenomena are continuously put into existence. As a consequence, the quest for knowledge in the Islamic prospect is also endless. The articulation of science and religion could be found in this kind of metaphysical "convergence" of the different routes to reality. Finally, I emphasise the difference between science and religion in the purview of the Hereafter, and the significance of gratefulness, fear and perplexity, as three modes of the everyday bewilderment that accompanies the quest for knowledge.

How could the description of the universe by modern cosmology fit in the worldview elaborated by Islamic thinking mostly during the Middle Ages? Is it possible to state that the Islamic doctrines could be of some interest today for a cosmologist? What is the nature of the "connection" between religion and science on cosmological issues? I would hereafter defend the point that it is the metaphysical prospect of Islam that could provide clues for grasping the possible meaning of the discoveries brought forth by modern science. In such a context, this lecture will address the possible interpretation of the some of the successes and puzzles of modern cosmology in terms of the Islamic teachings on the nature of reality.

According to a commonly-acknowledged idea, science deals with „facts" whereas religion deals with „meanings". If science attempts to answer the „how" and religion the „why", there should not be any conflict between the two. Unfortunately, the situation is not so simple. It is true that science deals with efficient causes and religion with final causes, to use the technical words of the Aristotelian philosophy. But the general trend in the development of sciences is that the efficient causes push the final causes backwards and eventually eliminate them.

This progressive replacement of the explanation in terms of final causes by the explanation in terms of efficient causes has been happening in the West since the Renaissance. In the Middle Ages, the Jews, Christians and Muslims shared the same prospect on the world, even if there were already long-lasting controversies and hot debates on cosmological issues. The men and women of faith of the Middle Ages did not see only things and phenomena around them: they primarily contemplated symbols and looked for spiritual unveiling through their study of the cosmos. The epoch of the medieval synthesis between the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology and the teachings of the Holy Scriptures has passed away, and the development of modern science has led to a profound spiritual crisis in the West. Man has lost his central place in the cosmos and has been rejected onto a standard planet orbiting a standard star in a standard galaxy located somewhere in the dull immensity of space. Such a science is value-neutral and devoid of any meaning. To quote it with the words of Claude Levi-Strauss, „The universe has meaning only with respect to Man, and Man has no meaning".

The conflict between science and religion ceased in the West when religion admitted that it has nothing to say on cosmology. The fields simply do not overlap because science has colonised the whole of „reality". To do so, it has defined „reality" as being only what can be studied scientifically. Theologians now have to explain why God appears to be hidden under the thick curtain of the phenomena. Ideas such as those of kenosis and tsimtsum that flourished respectively in Christian and Jewish theological thinking have undergone a fascinating revival, and are now used by these theologians to explain why God retires to let the cosmos apparently be ruled by its own laws, without any sign of direct divine intervention. The emphasis is put on the (relative) independence granted by God to the laws of nature, and on the (relative) freedom granted by God to Man.

As it is well known, the Islamic tradition has always taught that God is nearby and continuously acts in Creation. „Each day some task engages Him." So Muslim theologians are unable to follow the path of some of the Western theologians in the direction of a Creator who would let His creation behave by itself with so much independence that He finally becomes a new kind of Deus otiosus, either by will or by experience of human weakness. God is hidden, but He is also apparent, according to His beautiful Names azh-Zhahir wa-l-Batin. The Creator is so Great that His creation has no flaw. But He is also apparent in/through His creation.

The fundamental mystery that subtends physics and cosmology is the fact that the world is intelligible. For a believer, the world is intelligible because it is created. The Koran strongly recommends to ponder and meditate upon the Creation to find the traces of the Creator in its harmony. Hence the so--called "cosmological verses" which are frequently quoted as one of the intellectual miracles included in the Koranic text: "In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are signs for men of sense; those who remember God when standing, sitting and lying down, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth, saying: `Lord, You have not created this in vain. Glory be to you! Save us from the torment of the fire'." The exploration of the world is encouraged, provided the explorer is wise enough to acknowledge that the harmony that is present in the cosmos originates in God. By looking at the cosmos, the intelligence God has put in us constantly meets the Intelligence He has used in creating the things. The Koran mentions the regularities that are present in the world : As well as "you will find no change in God's custom" , "there is no change in God's creation." Clearly, this does not mean that the Creation is immutable, but that there is a "stability" in the Creation that reflects God's immutability. The reader's attention is also drawn to the "numerical aspect" of cosmic regularities. The Koran says : "The Sun and the Moon [are ordered] according to an exact computation (husban)" So a Muslim cosmologist is not surprised that the laws of Physics we design and use to describe cosmic regularities are based on Mathematics.

We live in a very peculiar epoch for the understanding of the structure and history of the cosmos. In the last decades, there have been spectacular breakthroughs mainly due to the extraordinary development of observing techniques. As a consequence, we have acquired a treasury of images we are the first generation to contemplate: the image of the earth in the darkness of the sky, the wide diversity of appearance of the surface of other planets and satellites in the Solar System, the mapping of our Galaxy at all wavelengths, the discovery of very energetic phenomena such as star explosions, or the potential census of billions of distant galaxies in deep surveys. We now have access to distances, epochs and structure sizes that were simply unthinkable at the epoch of the Middle Ages when the Arab astronomer al-Farghani computed the distance to God's throne from the assumptions of the Ptolemaic cosmology, and found a value of 120 million km. These new images have deeply changed our awareness of the cosmos.

To understand the structure of the universe, the cosmologists must track its history. This history is theoretically reconstructed from the data by means of elaborated mathematics. No doubt there is a good deal of bold speculations and crazy ideas in the interpretation. But reality resists, and not all theories are in agreement with the facts. On the contrary, the standard theory now appears as a powerful tool to guide new discoveries. To cut a long story short, cosmologists now think that the universe is expanding, and that the expansion phase started from a dense, hot stage called the Big Bang. During the expansion, the matter/radiation content of the universe dilutes and cools, and the relative abundance of various species of elementary particles change. About 100 sec after the Big Bang, light nuclei begin to form. About 1 million year after, the universe becomes neutral and transparent, and the light emitted by the so-called last-scattering surface at that epoch is observed as the 2.725 K black body radiation of the Cosmic Microwave Background. The story is now well documented, but there are several topics for which our incapacity to solve recurrent puzzles probably points at the metaphysical structure of reality. In the following, I would like to briefly address two of these puzzles.

The first puzzle deals with fine--tuning in structure formation. Regions that are separated by more than 30 degrees on the last-scattering surface have never been in causal connection before, and should have widely different temperatures, in contrast with the remarkable isotropy that is actually measured. This is the so-called „isotropy problem". Moreover, the density of the universe is close to unity, and the spatial geometry is almost flat, whereas all values for the density parameter are a priori possible. This is the so-called „flatness problem". As a result, our observable universe seems to have emerged for a very peculiar set of initial conditions. In parallel, it is now clear that these patterns are necessary conditions for the appearance of complexity in the universe. For instance, a very large density parameter would have produced a fast collapse in a time scale much lower than the stellar lifetimes that are necessary for the chemical enrichment of the interstellar medium (and the subsequent formation of planets), whereas a very low density parameter would have resulted in a very diluted universe, with low mass structures that are unable to retain their gas. Of course, a philosophical explanation in terms of final causes can be introduced to give meaning to this type of fine-tuning (and other cosmic coincidences gathered under the term of anthropic principle). It can be divine intervention in a religious prospect, or a natural trend of matter towards self-organisation, in a pantheistic prospect. But this is unacceptable for modern science. As a matter of fact, the elimination of explanations in terms of final causes is at the heart of the development of cosmology. The current explanation of the isotropy and flatness problems (and other related puzzles) is that the universe has undergone a stage of exponential inflation that has inflated a small, causally-connected patch beyond the size of the observable universe, and has erased spatial curvature. This explanation avoids the introduction of any argument on final causes about the set of initial conditions the universe started from.

By the same token, the origin of the inhomogeneities that will produce the large-scale structures after gravitational amplification is explained by inflation: they are simply quantum fluctuations inflated to macroscopic scales. The problem is that the current theory is not able to predict the amplitude of these fluctuations, which is measured at the relative level of one part on 100 000 (Q=10-5) on the last-scattering surface. When a complete theory of inflation emerges, it will have to predict this value, which now appears only as a free parameter. But it is already clear that this value is also a necessary condition for the appearance of complexity in the universe. With Q=10-6, gas cannot cool in the potential wells of haloes and no stars can form. With Q=10-4, galaxies are so dense that frequent stellar encounters hamper the existence of stable planetary orbits, which are a necessary condition for the existence of living ecosystems that draw their energy from stellar radiation. Again, our observable universe seems to have emerged for a very peculiar set of initial conditions.

The cosmologists have a new theory that avoids the introduction of final causes: it is called chaotic inflation. In chaotic inflation, inflation eternally takes place and makes new patches of exponentially-inflating space-time that causally decouple one from each other. Subsequently, the inflationary stages turn into the normal expansion phases. In this context, the laws and constants of physics are fixed by symmetry breaking and get different values in the different patches. Consequently, with an infinite number of realisations, we must not be surprised that there is at least one patch of the universe that has the values of the laws, constants, and of Q suited to the appearance of complexity. The question of knowing whether this theory is testable is still open. But it is not our concern here.

At the current stage of explanation, the apparent fine-tuning in the universe is not due to a peculiar set of initial conditions, but to the exploration of a range of possible values in various patches of the universe. We simply live in a patch that has values suited to the existence of complexity. But this type of explanation ignores the „power" allotted to the principles of quantum mechanics and the fundamental field theory. When an over-arching field theory is developed (maybe some kind of super-symmetric string theory), it will turn out that it has the possibility of generating patches where complexity is possible. So we shall have to push our explanation forwards again to a broader theory. This quest appears to be endless. The irony is that, when cosmologists try to evacuate final causes, they make new theories and discover new phenomena, but they always face the same type of puzzle. The existence of fine-tuning in the universe surely tells us something about reality. But what? Man can readily understand that it is a divine sign. If he does not, the door is open to an endless exploration of the cosmos that displaces and magnifies the puzzle, till he finally acknowledges it. „Whichever way you turn, there is the Face of God."

The second puzzle deals with the universality of the laws. Some cosmologists use the word „universe" for each of these causally-disconnected patches, and the word „multiverse" to name the ensemble of all these patches generated by chaotic inflation. Of course, there is some ideology in the choice of the names. According to its symbolical etymology, the universe is a sign that is directed „towards the One" (unum versus). Do many worlds suggest many gods? In any case, in the mind of some of those who promote the multiverse, new cosmology seems to be more sympathetic with polytheism than with monotheism. However, all these patches of the universe are actually linked by the fact that they are ruled by the same principles of quantum physics and the same over-arching field theory. For that reason, there is actually a single universe. Why are the laws of quantum physics so universal?

Here again, modern cosmologists do not wonder enough about the continuous validity of the laws. There has been a long controversy in Islam on the existence and status of the secondary causes. It is well known that the Ash`arite theology strongly questions the very existence of causality. The position is that there are no secondary causes, simply because God, as the „primary" Cause, does not cease to create again the world at each instant. In this continuous renewal of creation (tajdid al-khalq), the atoms and their accidents are created anew at each time. As a consequence, the regularities observed in the world are not due to causal connection, but to a constant conjunction between the phenomena, which is a custom established by God. This principle of the Islamic theology should be primarily understood as an emphasis on a metaphysical mystery: the continuous validity of the laws. God's permanence makes creation behave regularly in spite of the continuous renewal: „you will not see a flaw in the Merciful's creation. Turn up your eyes: can you detect a single crack ?"

The renewal of creation taught by the Islamic doctrines also means the continuous appearance of new creatures. According to the views of the Akbarian school, funded after the work of Muhyi-d-din Ibn Arabi, who died in 1240, the Creation is God's self-disclosure to Himself through the veils and signs of the creatures. The things "are" not, since only God is. They only own a given preparation to receive being and qualities from God. As a consequence, since the status of the cosmos is paradoxical, between absolute Being and absolute nothingness, we cannot expect to reach clear--cut statements about the fundamental reality of the world. The ultimate reality is hidden, and our descriptions will always be approximate.

God is infinite and "self--disclosure never repeats itself". So God's self-disclosure is endless. At each level of the cosmos, there are always new things continuously "poured" into disclosure. What appears in the Creation exactly corresponds to the flow of possible things. This is why, according to the great theologian and mystic al-Ghazali, who lived in the XIth century, "there is nothing in possibility more wondrous than what is", because what is actually reflects God's desire to show up to us. This helps us understand the Prophetic saying: "Curse not time, for God is time." After all, the production of an infinite number of "patches'' of the physical universe described by chaotic inflation could fit in this view of God's eternal self-disclosure. The appearance of "emerging properties" at all levels of complexity, and particularly the appearance of life and intelligence, is another aspect of this continuous self-disclosure. This is why Ibn Arabi comments: "God does not become bored that you should become bored." We cosmologists surely understand this, since we are continuously astonished by the beauty of the phenomena unravelled by our new observing tools.

The apparition of the human being was made possible by many anthropic "coincidences" in the laws of Physics and the values of the constants, which fix the properties of the cosmic and terrestrial structures. The extension of time behind us and of space around us is a necessary condition for our existence, as well as the vast extensions of the deserts of sand and ice are necessary for the ecological balance of the earth. But this is of little interest in front of our spiritual call for an endless quest: the quest for knowledge that is the core of our nature and dignity.

As a matter of fact, there is in the human being a „faculty of knowing "that is described in the Koran according to a threefold aspect: „And it is God who brought you forth from your mother's wombs, and He appointed you for earing, and sight, and hearts." Earing (as-sam`) is our faculty of accepting and obeying the textual indications, that is, the Koran and the Sunnah which are the two sources of religious knowledge; Sight (al-basar) is our ability to ponder and reflect upon phenomena, and is closely related to the rational pursuit of knowledge; The inner vision (al-basirah) symbolically located in the heart (qalb, or fu'ad) is the possibility of getting knowledge directly from God, through spiritual unveiling. This is why the Koran orders the Prophet (Peace and Benediction be upon him) to repeat: „Lord, increase my knowledge." As a consequence, knowledge can be acquired following three routes: first, the study of the Holy Scriptures and the submission to the revealed Law, second, the investigation of the world and reflection upon its order and marvels, third, inner unveiling granted by God to whom He wants among His servants.

These three routes to knowledge are necessarily convergent because they help the human being find God. But their convergence cannot be rational, which would mean that knowledge is limited to rational knowledge. Here we have to emphasise a subtle point: the possible contradiction between science and religion cannot be solved if the spiritual vocation of the Human is not considered as the central issue. The Human is not created for knowing creation (as capax mundi), but for knowing God (as capax Dei). As a consequence, the convergence of the various routes towards knowledge and the grant of salvation are simultaneous outcomes of the spiritual quest, and take place in the Hereafter, that is, in God Himself who is the Gatherer of all opposite aspects of reality. We would like to advocate this type of metaphysical convergence, so that truth can be defined in this world as the ability of knowledge to bring the knower closer to the Truth (al-Haqq), which is one of God's most beautiful names.

However, there is a significant difference between the scientific pursuit and the spiritual quest, which deals with the ending point of our existence. Contrary to the scientific pursuit, the spiritual quest is not limited to the intellectual search for truth and the production of useful outcomes.It primarily aims at transforming the Human, so that he can be prepared to the Afterlife. Let us come back to Averroes and Ibn Arabi who happened to meet in Cordoba, probably around 1180. Averroes, who then was already a renowned Philosopher, defended that human reason was able to reach all the truth accessible to the Human, and not less than what was brought by revelation under the veils of the dogmas and symbols for the benefit of those who are not experts in science. Averroes has heard that the young Ibn Arabi has been granted spiritual enlightenment and he was eager to meet him. Ibn Arabi reports on their meeting: "When I entered in upon [Averroes], he stood up in his place out of love and respect. He embraced me and said, "Yes." I said, "Yes." His joy increased because I had understood him. Then I realized why he had rejoiced at that, so I said, "No." His joy disappeared and his color changed, and he doubted what he possessed in himself." Then comes the explanation of these strange exchanges. Averroes asked the crucial question which we are interested in : "How did you find the situation in unveiling and divine effusion ? Is it what rational consideration gives to us ?" Ibn Arabi replies, "Yes and no. Between the yes and the no, spirits fly from their matter and heads from their bodies." and he reports on Averroes' reaction: "His color turned pale and he began to tremble. He sat reciting, "There is no power and no strength but in God", since he has understood my allusion."

Ibn Arabi alluded to eschatology, by recalling that even if reason can go very far in its attempt to grasp reality, nobody has been intimately changed by one's scientific knowledge. According to the teachings of Islam, we shall have to leave this world at the moment of our death, in order to pursue our quest for knowledge, and enter another level of being which is a broader locus for God's self-disclosure. The Islamic tradition promises that the quest for knowledge will end when the elects contemplate God's Face on the so-called "Dune of Musk" (al-kathib) that is located on the top of the heavenly Gardens, at the last frontier of creation. Religion is providentially revealed to prepare us to face absolute Reality, which is another name of God. But this end of the quest will not be the end of knowledge. On the contrary, the elects' contemplation of God will continuously be renewed, as they will know, according to the Koranic verse, "what no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what has never passed into the heart of any mortal." Our reason could estimate that this is impossible, since we do not conceive "how" this can physically happen. But indeed, the "Dune" is the locus of the answers to the "why" questions, without "how".

Because of our spectacular progress in the scientific understanding of the universe, we have forgotten contemplation, which is necessary to the Human. It is this kind of awareness that can help „ reconcile " science and religion, and not a low-level concordism. To conclude, we would like to mention three qualities that seem to be relevant for all those who, as scientists and believers, keep a continuous tension towards Truth. These are gratefulness (shukr), fear (taqwa) and perplexity (hayrah). Gratefulness is for the marvels of the cosmos, fear for the sense of Transcendence it inspires, perplexity for the continuous existence of unsolved puzzles that points at more fundamental mysteries. These qualities are known in religious and mystical knowledge. In the Islamic prospect, we can add that gratefulness refers to the „ Names of Beauty " (asma' al-Jamal), and fear to the „ Names of Majesty " (asma' al-Jalal) that show up in the worlds, whereas perplexity refers to the coexistence of opposite qualities that can be solved only in Allah who is the „ Name of the synthesis " (ism al-jami'). The spiritual pursuit is not limited to the intellectual contemplation of truth, but it aims at salvation, which is the ultimate meaning of the Human. Gratefulness, fear and perplexity are three modes of the fundamental bewilderment that is produced by the contemplation of the cosmos. This bewilderment is a way of worshipping God. Such an attitude should lead scientists to an increasing sense of responsibility in the technological applications of modern science.

Bruno Guiderdoni arbeitet am Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris (, CNRS, 98bis Boulevard Arago, F-75014 Paris, France.

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