‘I’m not a scientist – I’m a Geographer.
This means I love the world around me, and I study how humans impact our natural environment. The entire system in which we live functions in a fine and delicate balance and every action has a knock-on impact on all living things, from the smallest organisms to the largest predators, trees and oceans. Our actions matter: that’s why I love studying the natural world. From a religious perspective, Islam has only served to reinforce respect for our natural environment by explaining that it is a gift from God and a source of blessings for us.
The Holy Qur’an states:
And with Him are the keys of the unseen; none knows them but He. And He knows whatsoever is in the land and in the sea. And there falls not a leaf but He knows it; nor is there a grain in the deep darkness of the earth, nor anything green or dry, but is recorded in a clear Book.
The idea that the Earth works in one unified system has always been fascinating. The Earth is an ecosystem in which every part is dependent upon every other part. So for example, if the number of weeds in a pond increases, it impacts breeding of pondlife so fewer young are born, then the animals which eat those have less food and may starve. Changes to the plant life can upset the balance – change anywhere in the delicate balance forces change along with the whole system.
As a teenager, I was fascinated by Jim Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis: that the Earth itself is a self-regulating organism and that, without human interference, it would rebalance itself naturally and address any changes by adapting. As an explanation she explained that fires occurred naturally in woodlands and that after fires had finished, the ash returns to the soil, enriching it and improving quality to enable more trees to grow. In this system, all the nutrients required are contained and nothing is wasted, even if there is a temporary loss.
So, in my academic and personal life, I have been looking down. There has been enough to keep me busy before I looked up to the stars. But last year, it was 50 years since man first walked on the moon. What an amazing feat of humanity – that we reached out beyond our limits to see what we could find. Watching the documentaries and programmes, trying to grasp a small fragment of the awe and wonder which people felt in those momentous days. This was a moment of pause, a chance to look up.
To be honest, I have been reluctant to ponder over the bigger questions about the origins of the universe. It feels so remote, so distant and almost so incomprehensible; my mind struggles to grapple with the vast concepts. As always, you can start by looking at the Qur’an for guidance and direction. The Holy Qur’an says; ‘Do not the disbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were a closed-up mass, then We opened them out? And We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?’
This fits with my understanding of evolution – that the first lifeforms on Earth were in the oceans and they eventually evolved to live on land. Evidence for this is found in fossils and palaeontology. So, what does the first part mean? That the heavens and earth were a closed-up mass? This is where my own education is limited so I have to refer to others with more knowledge.
The NASA website divides it into the short answer and the long answer:
- The Short Answer:
The big bang is how astronomers explain the way the universe began. It is the idea that the universe began as just a single point, then expanded and stretched to grow as large as it is right now (and it could still be stretching).
- The Longer answer:
In 1927, an astronomer named Georges Lemaître had a big idea. He said that a very long time ago, the universe started as just a single point. He said the universe stretched and expanded to get as big as it is now, and that it could keep on stretching. Just two years later, an astronomer named Edwin Hubble noticed that other galaxies were moving away from us. And that’s not all. The farthest galaxies were moving faster than the ones close to us. This meant that the universe was still expanding, just like Lemaitre thought. If things were moving apart, it meant that long ago, everything had been close together. When the universe began, it was just hot, tiny particles mixed with light and energy. It was nothing like what we see now. As everything expanded and took up more space, it cooled down. The tiny particles grouped together. They formed atoms. Then those atoms grouped together. Over lots of time, atoms came together to form stars and galaxies.
The first stars created bigger atoms and groups of atoms called molecules. That led to more stars being born. At the same time, galaxies were crashing and grouping together. As new stars were being born and dying, then things like asteroids, comets, planets, and black holes formed!
The fourth Khalifa, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (ra) explained it in his book ‘Revelation, rationality, knowledge and truth’. This Quranic concept of the beginning and the end of the creation is undoubtedly extraordinary. It would not have been less amazing if it had been revealed to a highly educated person of our contemporary age, but one is wonder-struck by the fact that this most advanced knowledge, regarding the perpetually repeating phenomenon of creation, was revealed more than fourteen hundred years ago to an unlettered dweller of the Arabian desert.
Scientists are still forming their ideas about how the universe was formed. New technologies and explorations into further parts of space bring new information and this enables scientists to adapt their current theories. No doubt in years to come, more knowledge will be harvested from space exploration.
But I’m always drawn back to my original love: Geography. The world is a perfectly designed and balanced system, it is impossible that such system developed by chance. But Earth is only one small, minute part of a much larger universe, the limits of which are not fully known. It cannot be that this system is without a designer and an architect, it could not have happened so perfectly just by chance. So, whether you are looking up at the stars or down at the earth, it’s clear that the harmony is designed by God and that we, in our own small existence, are also a cog in the wheel of life.
By Sarah Ward
1. Holy Qur’an 6:60
2. Holy Qur’an 21:31