Islam, science and creation myths

Copyright 2003 by Zeeshan Hasan. First published in Bangladesh in the August 15th, 2003 issue of Star Magazine.

It has become fairly commonplace for Muslim conservatives with any knowledge of modern science to read evidence of the 'Big Bang' theory of cosmology into the Qur'an. However, God can not logically be be inserted into the scientific picture of the big bang, as God can not be described as a physical observable; this favours a religious framework which separates itself from science. Given these problems, the Qur'anic verse which is typically interpreted as talking about the Big Bang is better dealt with as story; specifically, as a summary of the earlier Biblical creation story. Additionally, the existence of earlier Mesopotamian mythological elements in the Biblical story will be examined to show how the divine revelations of the Qur'an and Bible have changed over time to accommodate specific historical needs. The results will support a view of revelation as dynamic and evolving, which ultimately argues against the possibility of a single set of universally applicable Islamic laws.

First, let us look at the following Qur'anic verse, which has been used to claim that Islam predicts the Big Bang.

Have not the unbelievers then beheld that the heavens and the earth were a mass all sewn up, and then We unstitched them and of water fashioned every living thing? (Qur'an 21:31)
Some explanation is appropriate here. According to the Big Bang theory which has been the standard model of the beginning of the cosmos for the last several decades, the universe began at a particular instant billions of years ago as an infinitely small point of concentrated energy (technically called a singularity) which expanded and subsequently cooled into the matter of the observable world around us. In fact, this is the only theory which explains why astronomers observe every star to be moving away from us; the expansion of the big bang is still continuing, and as space gets bigger, everything moves away from everything else. The details of this theory are more subtle than the name might indicate; in fact the Big Bang itself was not simply an explosion of existing matter and energy into an existing space over an existing time. Rather, since space is related to matter, and time to space, and matter to energy (by Einstein's theories of relativity), the Big Bang was the beginning of all the matter, energy, time and space which constitute the cosmos. The initial singularity existed, then, in the very first moment of time, and in the very first (and at that moment, the only) location in space; although it may seem difficult for us to picture these concepts with our commonplace notions of time and space. Once we realize that the Big Bang was the starting point of both time and space in our universe, though, it becomes more complex to reconcile monotheist views of creation with it. Many Muslims, as well as other monotheists, find the big bang theory to have a convenient gap for divine action; their assumption is that if the Big Bang created the universe, God created the Big Bang. However, from a strictly scientific perspective this convenient gap does not exist. This is a direct result of time and space as we know them coming into existence at the moment of the Big Bang; the implication is that if God created the Big Bang, that creative act had to happen outside time and space. But this places the creative act of God forever outside the realm of all science. It is then logically impossible for science to ever say anything or give any clues to the creative act of God. Monotheists may of course still believe that the big bang was caused by God, but such an assertion has nothing to do with any kind of science.

Hopefully this can be made a bit clearer by a short detour into the philosophy of science; by definition, science deals only with observable phenomena, and makes predictions only about observable phenomena. This is central to our notion of physical experiment and physical law; experiments such as those done in secondary schools with colliding billiard balls work as science precisely because the position, mass, speed and directions of the balls can be observed with acceptable accuracy. These observations can then be generalized into physical laws such those of Newton, which can bee seen to hold for other observable objects.

When the question arises, then, as to what God or any kind of religion have to do with science, the answer from a scientific perspective will always be: nothing at all. God does not enter into the picture as God, unlike a billiard ball, is not an observable phenomenon. To paraphrase the standard view of the philosophy of science; one cannot measure God's position, length, breadth, width, mass or velocity. Therefore by definition God can have no bearing on any scientific theory, and no scientific theory can have any bearing on God.

Let's see how this works with the Big Bang. The monotheist assumption made earlier was that God existed prior to, and was the cause of, the Big Bang. But even from a purely logical perspective, since time began with the Big Bang, any statement we make which involves the phrase 'prior to the Big Bang' is meaningless, because there is no definition of time before the big bang. All physical observables are by definition observations of matter or energy at specific times and places. All of these observable physical properties came into being with the Big Bang, so there can be no observables before it. In that case there is no 'before the Big Bang' as far as science is concerned. In purely scientific terms, there cannot be any cause to the Big Bang, God or otherwise.

So what are the Qur'anic verses on creation referring to, if not the Big Bang? A simple answer presents itself; since Islam sees itself as a continuation of the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is only natural that the Qur'an contain a retelling of the Biblical creation story. The Qur'anic verses quoted earlier serve as a summary of the Biblical account given below.

When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep (tehom), while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light... and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.(Genesis 1:1-13)
The account starts with the world 'a formless void', and earth, sky and sea were not fully formed until the third day. Hence the Qur'anic description of the heavens and earth as a 'mass all stitched up'.

And God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. (Genesis 1:1-13)
The Biblical account above is obviously not scientific by modern standards; it reflects the view of the ancient world that the blue sky is really like made of water like the sea, only prevented by crashing down by the dome of the firmament. At the same time, this decidedly unscientific account is apparently the source for the Qur'anic unstitching of the heavens and the earth.

And God said, 'Let the waters under the sky be gathered together in one place, and let the dry land appear.' And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, 'Let the earth put forth vegetation...' And it was so... And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.(Genesis 1:1-13)
Perhaps the most interesting word in the above account, though, is the word for the primordial sea or 'tehom', which apparently existed before God started creating the heavens and earth. This serves as a clue to the existence of a much older tradition than the Biblical one underlying this account, which we will come to later. The water referred to in the Qur'an as the source of all life could either be this mysterious 'deep', or the waters mentioned below as the source of marine life;

And God said, 'Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.' And it was so. God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day and the lesser to rule the night, and the stars... And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. And God said, 'Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky... and there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. (Genesis 1:9-23)
From a modern perspective it is also impossible to think of a day or a night occurring before the creation of the sun or moon; but in the Biblical account above, there were three such days. The story continues with the creation of the animals of the earth's surface, including man, on the sixth day (Genesis 1:24-31). Then finally we get to the conclusion of the P creation story, which is a justification of the sabbath as the Jewish weekly day of rest.

And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work he had done in creation. (Genesis 2:2-3)
All of the above Biblical passages were from the Old Testament source that modern Biblical scholars refer to as 'P', or the 'priestly' source, due to its role in contributing much of the legal and ritualistic material found in the first few books of the Bible. One of P's characteristic concerns is justifying Israelite religious practices through his historical narrative. This shows us the apparent reason for the creation narrative spanning seven days. P uses this to establish the seventh day as the shabbat, the Jewish weekly day of rest, from the example of God himself. The shabbat law is made explicit in a later passage in P, which contains most of the laws and commandments which Judaism traditionally attributed to Moses:

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days shall you labour and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work... for in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day; therefore Yahweh blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it (Exodus 20:8-11)
P's account thus contains all the elements of the Qur'anic account, but with much greater detail. The Qur'anic verse with which we started thus seems to be a summarized retelling of the P's creation story. The Qur'anic retelling is continued in the following passage:

Surely your Lord is God, who created the heavens and the earth in six days, then sat Himself upon the Throne, directing the affair... It is He who made the sun a radiance, and the moon a light, and determined it by stations, that you might know the number of the years and the reckoning. (Qur'an 10:3 and 5)
So P's week-long creation story of heavens, earth, sun and moon is retained in the Qur'an, but the detailed breakdown of each day is eliminated. This makes sense, as there is no ritual day of rest in the Muslim week; Fridays are marked for congregational prayers, but there is no religious law against working on that day. The sabbath-establishing rationale of P's week-long story no longer exists in a Muslim framework. An additional point worth noting is that the fact that the Qur'an accepts P's six days of creation is the strongest evidence that the Qur'anic creation story can not be talking about the Big Bang or any other physical cosmological theory, as none of these could possibly have taken place in six days.

Now that we've gone through P's creation account, we can come to something very interesting; namely, a second Biblical creation story. The remarkable thing is that P's account is neither the only nor the oldest creation story in the Bible. The oldest creation narrative is that of the source which Biblical scholars refer to as 'J' or the 'Yahwist' source, as it always calls God by the Israelite tribal name of 'Jehovah' or 'Yahweh'. J's creation story comes in the second chapter of Genesis, right after the P account:

These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the Lord (Yahweh) God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up, for the Lord (Yahweh) God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground, then the Lord (Yahweh) God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord (Yahweh) God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord (Yahweh) God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:4-9)
J is very different from both P and the Qur'anic account. J has nothing about the heavens and earth being separated, or the week-long story which P is concerned with, quite possibly because it pre-dates the weekly ritual of the sabbath which was the reason for P's structure. J had its origins as the ancient tribal history of the Israelites, and portions of it date from as early as 1200 BC. As a tribal history, it begins with the creation of Adam, the tribe's earliest ancestor. P's view of God as cosmic creator reflects much later concerns; it probably dates from the Babylonian conquest of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the 8th and 6th centuries BC. After the fall of Judah, the last independent Jewish kingdom, the Israelite ruling classes were exiled in Babylon. There they needed to redefine their God as more than a tribal deity tied to the land of Israel, which was lost to them. The solution was to establish the Israelite God as the explicit creator of the entire world, thus extending his influence over the Israelites even in exile. Since the Qur'an also sees God as a cosmic creator rather than a tribal one, it only naturally follows P's seven-day account, with the explicit separation of heavens and earth and creation of aquatic life from water.

So P's creation story was the basis for the Qur'anic summarized story. But this leads to remarkable conclusions concerning the cultural roots of the Qur'anic story, because when we start asking how the move was made from J's tribal history to P's creation of the cosmos, we can see traces of non-Israelite influences. P's week-long creation story was apparently derived from a retelling of J using images derived from more ancient and decidedly polytheist Babylonian creation myths. These portrayed the creation of the world as the slaying of a deity representing formlessness or chaos (often depicted as the sea) and the molding of the heavens, earth etc. from the slain corpse. Accordingly, in the P story God does not create the world out of nothing, but from a pre-existing primordial 'deep' or sea. 'Tehom' the Hebrew word which P uses to describe the 'deep' or the initial formless, watery chaos, is apparently derived from the word 'Tiamat'. Tiamat is not a Hebrew word at all, but was rather an ancient Babylonian goddess who personified the pre-existing primordial sea in Babylonian myth. In the Babylonian mythology, Tiamat and her consort Apsu personify the primordial formless chaos from which everything else emerges. Even the gods of Babylon are formed in the belly of Tiamat, as recounted in the Babylonian creation epic, Enuma Elish (Akkadian for 'When the gods on high') which dates back to at least 2000 BC:

When above the heaven had not (yet) been named,
(And) below the earth had not (yet) been called by a name;
(When) Apsu primeval, their begetter,
Mummu, (and) Tiamat, she who gave birth to them all,
(Still) mingled their waters together,
And no pasture land had been formed (and) not (even) a reed marsh was to be seen;
When none of the (other) gods had been brought into being,
(When) they had not (yet) been called by (their) name(s, and their) destinies had not (yet) been fixed,
(At that time) were the gods created within them. (Enuma Elish, Tablet 1, lines 1-9)
This is followed by the slaying of first Apsu and later Tiamat. Tiamat's slayer is Marduk, who was thus justified in his position as chief god in the Babylonian pantheon;

Tiamat (and) Marduk, the wisest of the gods, advanced against one another;
They pressed on to single combat, they approached for battle.
The lord spread out his net and enmeshed her;
The evil wind, following after, he let loose in her face.
When Tiamat opened her mouth to devour him,
He drove in the evil wind, in order that (she should) not (be able) to close her lips.
The raging winds filled her belly;
Her belly became distended, and she opened wide her mouth.
He shot off an arrow, and it tore her interior;
It cut through her inward parts, it split (her) heart.
When he had subdued her, he destroyed her life;
He cast down her carcass and stood upon it. (Enuma Elish, Tablet 4, lines 93-104)

Following the slaying of Tiamat, Marduk cuts her to pieces and forms the world from the portions. The similarity to P's account of God separating the waters to form the heavens, seas and earth are obvious. As in the Bible, the separation of heaven from sea required establishing the roof of the firmament to prevent the waters of the sky from crashing down.

The lord rested, examining her dead body,
To divide the abortion (and) to create ingenious things (therewith).
He split her open like a mussel(?) into two (parts);
Half of her he set in place and formed the sky (therewith) as a roof.
He fixed the crossbar (and) posted guards;
He commanded them not to let her waters escape.
He crossed the heavens and examined the regions.
He placed himself opposite the Apsu, the dwelling of Nudimmud.
The lord measured the dimensions of the Apsu,
And a great structure, its counterpart, he established, (namely) Esherra,
The great structure Esherra which he made as canopy. (Enuma Elish, Tablet 4, lines 135-145)

The above verses tell of the creation of the dome or 'canopy' which prevented the waters of the sky from falling down in the ancient world view. The similarity with P's account is obvious. Comparison of the Babylonian creation account also helps us to understand the puzzling question of how P could think of days and nights passing even before the creation of sun and moon. In Enuma Elish, Marduk defines day and night by means of stars, reflecting a Babylonian fondness for astrology, leaving the moon for later.

He created stations for the great gods;
The stars their likeness(es), the signs of the zodiac, he set up.
He determined the year, defined the divisions;
For each of the twelve months he set up three constellations.
After he had defined the days of the year by means of constellations...
The moon he caused to shine forth; the night he entrusted (to her).
He appointed her, the ornament of the night, to make known the days. (Enuma Elish, Tablet 5, lines 1-5, 12-13)
It may well be in imitation of Marduk's order of creation that P narrates the first days and nights taking place before the creation of the sun and moon, even though that seems illogical from our modern perspective. The Bible's lack of concern for astrology apparently causes this confusion, as it leads P to lump the creation of stars together with the sun and moon, leaving no heavenly bodies to define day and night.

P's retelling thus turns J into a continuation of earlier creation stories of the ancient world. This does not imply that P believed in the gods of Babylon; in fact his whole motive seems to have been to strengthen the religion of the Israelites in exile by giving them a more omnipotent image of God. J's creation myth, with it's all-too human scale, was apparently not sufficient to establish Yahweh's stature as higher than the Babylonian gods, whose creation myths were told on a much larger, cosmic scale. P's solution was to appropriate the images of Marduk's slaughter of Tiamat and his creation of the world from her corpse for Yahweh, while simultaneously dividing the creation into a seven day framework in order to establish the Jewish sabbath.

The assimilation of polytheist images for the purpose of establishing monotheism may seem bizarre from our perspective, since we are the product of millennia of monotheist thinking in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions. However, in Biblical times there was evidently no difficulty with accepting images of God which seem difficult from our developed monotheist perspective. It seems likely that the Bible was itself in the process of assembling a monotheist picture of God over many centuries, and in the meantime it was acceptable to glorify God as the creator of the universe in language which echoed the tale of Marduk slaying Tiamat, especially since this enabled P to reinforce the sabbath as the ritual day of rest.

Finally done with our lengthy detour into Israelite and Babylonian religion, we can finally come back to the Qur'an. The remarkable thing is that the Qur'an keeps P's week-long creation story, along with it's Enuma Elish-derived story of the splitting of the heavens and earth from a single primordial entity. Muslims have been blissfully unaware of this, even though the Qur'anic use of P's Babylonian-inspired account requires some sort of explanation, since it seems to contradict the commonplace view that the Qur'an is divine revelation and hence pure of any trace of polytheism, mythology, etc. While it is impossible to question the divine origin of the Qur'an in a Muslim context, the traces of non-monotheist Babylonian myth in the Bible and the Qur'an can be dealt with if we realize that is basically similar to an old Muslim philosophical debate about the nature of revelation. This was the argument over whether the Qur'an was created by God or existed eternally alongside Him as an uncreated divine truth.

The argument can be briefly summarized; medieval Muslim philosophers argued as to whether the Qur'an was created by God for the particular historical occasion of Muhammad's prophecy, or whether it was uncreated, and hence eternal and ahistorical (in the manner of Plato's eternal forms, since classical Muslim philosophy was largely inspired by Greek philosophy). Both sides of this argument believed that the Qur'an was the word of God; the question was whether God intended the same divine word to apply to all times (implying an uncreated and unchanging revelation) or different words to hold for different times (implying that the revelation itself changed over time). Our investigation into the Biblical and Babylonian roots of the Qur'anic creation story is a powerful argument for the Qur'an (and revelation in general) being created by God for specific historical circumstances, and hence in time-specific language. Since the creation story can be seen to change over time between J's tribal history, P's Babylonian-inspired cosmic creation myth and finally the Qur'an, we must conclude that each of these revelations was created for a specific historical context and to address specific religious needs.

The debate of uncreatedness versus historical specificity of revelation is not just academic. It has immense consequences for Muslim law, since the concept of an uncreated and ahistorical Qur'an implies that Qur'anic laws should be applied to all times and places. However, if the Qur'an was indeed created by God specifically for Muhammad's time, then there is no reason that those time-specific laws should be applicable outside those particular historical circumstances. The task then becomes to search for the ethics underlying the Qur'anic laws, which would represent their eternal and unchanging aspect. The power of modern historical and Biblical scholarship is that it provides empirical evidence for a changing revelation which was created by God for specific times and places, and hence negates the idea of universally applicable Qur'anic law.

Finally, we may look at what the Qur'an has to say about all this. Although it does not address the development of revelation directly, support for a view of a created, historical context-specific revelation can be found in the verses discussing abrogation (Arabic naskh) of older revelations by newer ones. The following Qur'anic verses are illuminating;

And when We exchange a verse in the place of another verse - and God knows very well what He is sending down - they say, 'Thou art a mere forger!' Nay, but the most of them have no knowledge. Say: "The Holy Spirit sent it down from thy Lord in truth, and to confirm those who believe, and to be a guidance and good tidings to those who surrender." And We know very well that they say 'Only a mortal is teaching him.' The speech of him at whom they hint is barbarous; and this speech Arabic, manifest. (Qur'an 16:102-5)
The naskh referred to above seems to be the replacement of old Biblical stories by new Qur'anic ones. Hence the countering of the allegation that Muhammad was being coached by a local Jew in Biblical materials; this is denied as altogether impossible, as the stories that Muhammad is telling are Arabic, and different from those of the Hebrew Bible. In the specific example of the creation story, P's account has been retained only in summary, with references to Tiamat and the justification of the sabbath having been removed or condensed. But at the same time, the Qur'an repeatedly asserts that it is continuing the Judeo-Christian revelation; the implication is that the revelations themselves are created for each age, and are changing from one divine messenger to the next.

From our perspective, the idea of historical naskh also holds an useful assumption that each revelation addresses specific needs and circumstances; hence P's revelation can contain references to the Babylonian myth of Marduk and Tiamat, as the need of that time was to integrate Babylonian ideas to create an image of the Israelite God as a cosmic creator, a necessary step in the development of true monotheism. Muslims naively consider themselves part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but have not explored the Bible and its pre-Biblical roots sufficiently to understand what that really means. The Qur'an has really been considered the only revelation worth thinking about, and because it could be considered in isolation, revelation has been considered to be an isolated, ahistorical event. This separation of revelation from history in turn leads to a conservative and unchanging view of religion as a whole. However, the Biblical evidence is that the divine revelation as represented in the Judeo-Christian tradition has changed greatly over time, incorporating different ideas at different times. The Judeo-Christian revelations were not the same as the Qur'anic one, but through a process of evolution gradually evolved to the point where the Qur'an fit as a next step. Given that, it is reasonable to assume that Islam is still evolving and will continue to evolve over time, and that this may not be condemnable innovation, but rather part of the larger divine plan of the religious evolution of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religion.

A final word should be said about creation stories and their relationship to science, since that was what we started off with. Of course religious Muslims, Christians and Jews may continue believing that 'God created the Big Bang', but it should be recognized that this is a purely religious statement, with the same meaning as the words 'God created the heavens and the earth'. Simply inserting words of scientific theory into a religious statement does not make this it a scientific statement. The divergence between science and religion occurs at a basic philosophical level, and is not simply a matter of terminology. Ultimately the scientific view of the world is just as a sequence of events; as 'some things that happen'. God is not observable, so saying 'God does something' is really same as saying that 'something happens, and for a subjective purpose which we are referring to as God'. The insertion of subjective purpose into life is the key contribution of religion; science by itself is a completely objective study, and contains no hint of meaning, morality or ethics. Religion enters into the physical world only in an existentialist and subjective manner, through the provision of the subjective comforts in which science is lacking. The Big Bang is just one example of the complete objectivity of science; hence it does not require a God to explain it. The Qur'anic account of creation should not be considered an explanation for the Big Bang, but as an assertion of purpose to the universe as divine creation.

When looked at in this way, it is impossible for science and religion to ever agree with each other or contradict each other. The two are simply different ways of looking at the world. If we look at evolution in the same way as the Big Bang, as a purely physical process which has nothing to do with the religious creation story of Adam, the supposed conflict between evolution and religion disappears. The Adam story should therefore not be seen as competing with the evolutionary one, but as providing subjective meaning to human existence through the assertion that God created humanity. The details of the physical processes of creation, whether through the Big Bang or through evolution, is in all cases irrelevant to religion. No material sequence of events can require or demonstrate the presence of God; only faith can insert it.

From this perspective, the entire body of 'Islamic science' becomes questionable. Based on our analysis, the mixing of scientific and religious perspective which it involves cannot result in any useful development of either science or religion. Its purpose is rather as propaganda. Muslim conservatives, much enamoured of the progress represented by modern technology and science, have used the notion of 'Islamic science' to make their religious views seem more attractive and modern; this is all the more necessary since the Islamic legal structures which they advocate in the same breath are so obviously medieval.