The interpretation of the first verse of Al-Isra’a chapter reads:
“Most glorified is the One who summoned His servant during the night, from the Sacred Mosque to the farthest Mosque, whose surroundings we have blessed, in order to let him see some of our signs. He is the Hearer, the Seer.” [17:1]
What are the signs that the Prophet saw?
As Muslims, only a sincere examination of the Quran offers any real opportunity to envision the signs that the Prophet saw during his summoning. As always, let us start by finding the other places in the Quran that talk about those particular signs.
In the Star chapter we read verse 18 which is interpreted as follows:
“He saw great signs of his Lord.” [53:18]
Another verse in the Quran that talks about the signs that the Prophet saw is in Chapter 81:
“Surely, he saw (what he saw) at the clear horizon.” [81:23]
We can gain more insight into the signs that the Prophet saw by reading the interpretation of Chapter 53 from the beginning. At first glance, it seems that all we learn are some of the properties of the location where the Prophet saw the great signs but not the signs themselves. The signs he saw were at the “highest horizon” and the “tree where everything ends”. Can the location provide hints about what the signs might be?
Remarkably, both chapters 53 and 81 share a common feature. In both chapters, God swears by some very special stars:
By the star if it collapses. [53:1]
But nay! I swear by the invisible stars. [81:15]
Interpretations of 81:15 explained the verse as talking about the planets perhaps because early Muslims thought that they were unusual stars that disappear and reappear again. A word from the same root, “khanas”, can be found in only one other place in the Quran. Chapter 114 describes satan as being invisible. This is confirmed by what we know from other descriptions of satan in 7:27.
“…for he (satan) and his clan see you from where you don’t see them” (7:27)
Clearly satan is invisible as opposed to disappearing then reappearing again.
This leads us to the correct interpretation of 81:15:
But nay! I swear by the invisible stars. [81:15]
Given the current knowledge that God bestowed on us, those two verses accurately describe one of the most bizarre astrophysical concepts in the universe, a black hole. The first verse of Chapter 53 gives a brief but surprisingly accurate depiction of the process that forms a black hole, essentially a collapsed star. Verse 81:15 emphasizes that what is described is indeed a black hole. No type of star except for a black hole can be invisible. A black hole is invisible because not even light can escape its strong gravitational pull. By reading the next verse in chapter 81, we get an even more vivid picture of a black hole, as if we are looking at it through a powerful telescope.
Runabouts swept out of sight. [81:16]
ABOVE: Gravity draws gas from a companion star onto a black hole in a swirling pattern. As the gas nears the event horizon, a strong gravitational red shift makes it appear redder and dimmer. When the gas finally crosses the event horizon, it disappears from view; the region within the event horizon appears black (Source: NASA Science News)
NASA's two most powerful Observatories, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, have independently provided what could be the best direct evidence yet for the existence of an event horizon, the defining feature of a black hole. No object except for a black hole can have an event horizon, so evidence for its existence offers resounding proof of black holes in space. The word “horizon” used in the Quran to describe the location where the Prophet saw the signs is the same exact word used by scientists today to describe the area around the black hole.
Unfortunately, there is currently no way to know what is inside the event horizon of a black hole. As observers, the time dilation effect, as well as the gravitational shifting of light, keep us from being able to even watch an object break through the event horizon. If a volunteer astronaut was sent down, it would be a one-way trip, with no means to report back what he or she saw. Vision might be tricked as images of faraway objects are distorted in strange ways, since the black hole's gravity bends the incoming light. Interestingly, the Quran negates that what the Prophet saw might be due to the eyes being tricked:
“The eyes did not waver, nor were they in the wrong.” [53:17]
Even more amazing is the fact that inside the black hole classical theories of physics fail to model or measure what happens. A new theory that scientists are finding very promising as a potential unifying theory is called String theory.
One of the essential features of string theory is that it only constitutes a consistent theory when its tiny strings are vibrating in a 10-dimensional space-time. For decades, physicists have been struggling to understand nature at the extremely small scales. The length of a string is of the order of the Plank-length or 10^-35 meter. Indeed, to describe what is a very small distance by any measure, there wouldn’t be a more eloquent or truer statement than the one presented by God in 53:9.
“And was at a distance of but two strings or nearer.” [53:9]
ABOVE: Diverse modes of vibration can be induced in any string. Quantum mechanics allows the waves to be interpreted as particles. H loops of string about 10^-35 meter long are fundamental constituents of matter, then their vibrational energies are the masses of elementary particles such as electrons, quarks and photons. (Source: “Explaining Everything”, Scientific American, Jan 96).
So what happens inside the black hole? As I mentioned before, string theory proposes a 10-dimensional space-time. Six of the ten dimensions are hidden while the remaining four (3 dimensions + time) have been expanding since the big bang. Some physicists speculate that energy intense enough to activate the missing 6 dimensions might be present in the center of a black hole.
To explain what this means, I will use the analogy of an ant walking on a thin telephone wire seeing the universe as a one-dimensional straight line. A more informed ant walking on a sheet of paper might think that the universe is two-dimensional. By leaping to a third dimension, and looking down at the piece of paper from an elevation, the ant can see that there is a lot more to the universe than the sheet of paper. “Observing” the universe from a higher dimension will certainly provide a better picture of reality. To even imagine what it would be like may be impossible.
In a figure of speech, Einstein described the very small portion of this universe that we can see and detect as “the tail of the lion”. The signs that the Prophet saw at the place described in chapters 17, 53, and 81 are definitely far greater than even the finest scientists’ minds can imagine. One thing is certain, what we see in this life is only a very small portion of reality as emphasized in 30:7.
“They know an apparent portion of the low-life and they are totally oblivious to the Hereafter” (30:7)
We may have not fully answered the question that we set out to answer, but by using the Quran as our only guide we are certainly closer to the truth. As with the universe, the more one looks at the Quran, the closer one gets to the truth and the more questions arise. For example, what is the tree described in 53:14. As God bestows on us more knowledge, perhaps we can try to answer some of those questions in the near future. Meanwhile, the Quran never ceases to amaze us. With God’s help, we should always seek knowledge so that we can defeat ignorance and arrogance. It is a Quranic fact that the ones that God bestows knowledge on can achieve remarkable feats.
As a side note, some theoretical physicists think that the six hidden dimensions predicted by string theory may be like branches connecting our universe to other universes. This may explain the source of the elusive “dark matter” that is holding our galaxy as well as other galaxies together. A hidden dimension may connect to matter in another universe that could be exerting the gravitational force necessary to keep the galaxies from breaking apart as a result of their rapid spin. One could speculate that because there are six hidden dimensions, this may hint to potentially six other universes in addition to our own.
“This is the book, no doubt, in it guidance for the cautious.” (2:2)
Tomorrow our understanding of the Quran and the Universe will evolve, except if God wills otherwise. This article reflects my personal interpretation of the Quranic verses as of September 13th, 2001. Please be humble by following the example set by the angels in 2:32, verify all information within for yourself as commanded by God in 17:36, and remember that simply “none” is the cautious answer to God’s question in 45:6.
By Ayman (firstname.lastname@example.org)