Was the World Created in Six Days?
The Quran is a book that should be approached warily, it is not a popular fiction novel that can be read in one go with a 97.5% comprehension rate. It is more like a philosophy book. You cannot read Plato’s Dialogues without keeping your mind sharply focused on every line, on every word. But this, also, is an understatement. The Quran is not only philosophical, but also historical. While you only need the rudimentary basics of Greek history to understand Plato, you need much more than that if you want to understand the Quran. This article will discuss two common misunderstandings people commit when reading the Quran, one philosophical the other, historical.
In verse 7:54, the Quran says:
Indeed, your Lord is Allah, who created the heavens and earth in six days and then established Himself above the Throne. He covers the night with the day, [another night] chasing it rapidly; and [He created] the sun, the moon, and the stars, subjected by His command. Unquestionably, His is the creation and the command; blessed is Allah, Lord of the worlds.
Readers unacquainted with the Islamic Philosophical Tradition may see resemblance between this and the Biblical account of the creation of the universe. Readers with even the most rudimentary knowledge of science will find in this verse a scientific error: the universe was made in 168 hours! A careful reading of the verse shows the opposite.
Islamic Scholar View on Creation of the Universe
Ibn Taymiyah, the 14th century renowned scholar, says that it is obvious that the days mentioned in this verse do not refer to days as we human beings conceive them i.e. a 24-hour-period. What we refer to as a “day” is the period of time between two sunrises. The word “day”, then, is indicative of a period of time. Ibn Taymiyah points out that the verse says that God created “the heavens and earth” in six time periods, that is six stages. If the heavens were not yet created at the onset of creation, then how can the “day” in the verse refer to the time between two sunrises? The sun did not even exist then. Nor did the earth. Ibn Taymiyah says time can only be calculated by the movement of elements. Thus, the “day” mentioned in the verse has a duration that fits the movement of some elements other than the uncreated sun. What this means is that the heavens and earth were created in six stages, each stage having a duration of time other than 24 hours. Ascribing a 24-hour-period to creation of the heavens and the earth i this instance would be anachronistic.
How Could the Time Period be Calculated if Nothing Had been Created Yet?
A critical and curious mind may wonder how is it possible that there be “some other elements than the uncreated sun”
when the universe and all in it had not yet created. Isn’t it true that Muslims believe God created the universe ex nihilo (from nothing)? This critical-curiosity can easily be quenched. The verse does not, explicitly, refer to the universe as a whole. The verse could just easily apply to the creation of the Milky Way; not the entire universe. Also, if we were to interpret the verse to refer to the universe as a whole, then why not posit the existence of entities outside our universe and embrace the multiverse theory?
Now let’s turn the attention to historical misunderstanding. The Chapter 111 of the Quran states that Abu Lahab, the Prophet’s uncle, will be punished in Hell for the persecution of his own nephew, Muhammad. Abu Lahab’s wife strewed thorns on the path that led to Muhammad’s house; so, when Muhammad returned home, his feet would bleed from the torn skin. While Muhammad was in prostration next to the Kaabah, Abu Lahab made sure the entrails of a camel got thrown on Muhammad’s head. Chapter 111 was a consolation to Muhammad who suffered so much under this man’s hatred. When reading the chapter some people have seen a contradiction where none exist.
Chapter 111: a Conundrum?
Reading Chapter 111, some people ask how Muhammad could simultaneously ask Abu Lahab to become a Muslim, while having it mentioned in the Quran that Abu Lahab will be punished in Hell. How can you oblige one person to accept a faith while telling him that he will burn along with his wife in hell? Ibn Taymiyah points out that the chapter gives no indication that Abu Lahab was told about the chapter. Abu Lahab did not know that a chapter of the Quran consigned him to Hell; hence, the absurdity doesn’t arise. The chapter, in fact, was a prediction that turned out true. If Abu Lahab turned Muslim, the prediction would have been false. But till the day he died, Abu Lahab hated Muhammad and did not embrace Islam. Without understanding the history of Muhammad’s time in Mecca, the chapter will make no sense.
Did Abu Lahab and his Wife Know about Chapter 111?
Some readers may contend that there is historical evidence that Abu Lahab heard the chapter. Ibn Kathir has a narration where Abu Lahab’s wife wanted to stone Muhammad to death because she was told about the chapter. This report, if looked at closely, does not negate Ibn Taymiyah’s claim that Abu Lahab didn’t know about the chapter. Abu Lahab’s wife heard that Muhammad criticised her husband. She need not necessarily have heard the actual chapter and conveyed it to Abu Lahab. We know that Muhammad had an inner-circle of disciples, which he disclosed information to that he did not make public. Muhammad could have recited the chapter to his closest disciples who then would have rejoiced in public, saying to people that Muhammad had criticised Abu Lahab. The report by Ibn Kathir does not explicitly mention that Abu Lahab’s wife heard the actual chapter. It only says she heard about the chapter. This subtle distinction is the same one we make between listening to the actual words a person said, and listening to what others have said about those uttered words.
The Quran tells people that it should be read slowly, critically, and with deep thought:
“Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an, or are there locks upon [their] hearts?” (47: 24). The Quran is not a book that can be read in one sitting or that can be understood properly in one evening. In this it resembles other of the great books of the world, especially the philosophical and historical works. It is unfortunate that many so-called expert on islam today who do not even know the Arabic language proffer different views on Islam, and Muslims. The same would not be acceptable in any other field of study. No Biblical scholar without sound knowledge of Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek would be considered as expert in the field, neither would a so-called French Literature expert who does not know French Language.