Creating Heavens and Earth

A while ago, I came across an interesting though pointless debate regarding an apparent contradiction in the Qur’an about the time it took for Allah Almighty to create the heavens and the earth. That debate sent me off on a tangent to philosophically contemplate on the definition of a day.

The Qur’an is replete with verses, which state that the earth and the heavens were created in ‘six days.’ Following is a partial list of the verses that speak about this matter.

Name Chapter # Verse #
Surat Al-‘A`rāf 7 54
Surat Yūnus 10 3
Surat Hūd 11 7
Surat Al-Furqān 25 29
Surat As-Sajdah 32 4
Surat Al-Ĥadīd 57 4

The actual Arabic word in the verses listed above is سِتَّةِ اَيَّامٍ, which is transliterated as ‘sittati ‘ayyāmin’. There is no dispute amongst Muslims and non-Muslims, as far as I see, on the meaning of sittati, which means six for everyone. It is the word ayyāmin that is problematic for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Common-sense dictates that the word day probably refers to the way we define the word in an ordinary language such as English. It can be treated as the 24-hour time period that we in the 21st century are commonly accustomed to. However, I do not know if the people of pre-Islamic Arabia also defined day in the similar 24 hour format.

In my humble opinion, to truly understand the notion of time of pre-Islamic Arabia, it is imperative to know the time-measuring devices that were used by the peoples of the Arabian peninsula. What is defined as day today cannot possibly be the definition of day in Arabia at the time of the Prophet primarily because the standard definition of a second, which subsequently defines minutes, hours and days was established in 1960s. Time, as measured by a sundial, is different as measured by a modern digital watch. The discrepancy is described by the equation of time.

Furthermore, the difference between lunar and solar calendars also complicates matters. The bottom line is that notion of a day becomes terribly complicated if one deeply reflects upon it. So, what does the Qur’an mean by six days? If the six days are defined using the 24-hour format of modern times, then the Qur’anic claim appears to contradict the model of the Universe as described by contemporary science i.e., the Big Bang Theory.

Preachers like Dr. Zakir Naik, obviously have something to say about this. Following is his take on the issue:

This response of Dr. Naik is actually to another question, which is about an apparent contradiction in the Qur’an regarding the length of time for creation. In the verses I have stated before, the earth and heavens appear to be created in 6 days. But verses 9 to 12 of Surah Fussilat, Chapter 41 seem to suggest that the earth and the heavens were created in 8 days. The issue arises primarily due to an incorrect translation of a key word which causes much confusion.

The Arabic word ثُمَّ (thumma) which starts verse 11 of Surah Fussilat is translated as ‘then’ by many translators. But according to Dr. Naik, the correct translation is ‘moreover’ or ‘simultaneously.’ Yusuf Ali is the only translator who has used moreover.

creator-of-heaven-earth-3

Going into the semantics of thumma is another debate and beyond the scope of this blog-post. What I want to stress in this post is that according to Dr. Naik, the word ‘sittati ‘ayyāmin’ refers to six ‘very long periods.’

Of the six English translators I refer to on quran.com, Shakir is the only one who has translated it as ‘six periods of time’ much like Yusuf Ali is the only one who has translated ‘thumma’ as moreover.

This does raise some interesting questions. Firstly, if Qur’an is a clear book, as it claims to be, why did it choose to confuse people in the first place by using apparently contradictory descriptions in different places? Why is the clarity of Qur’an only evident to Shakir in case of translating the word ‘ayyamin’ to (long) periods of time and to Yusuf Ali in translating ‘thumma’ to moreover.

Secondly, what does this numerical division of creation-time mean in any case? What do the ‘six periods of time’ signify? Does it not sound better to say that the creation of the heavens and earth took a very long time instead of saying that it took precisely six, extremely long periods of time to create the earth and the heavens and then leave us to only speculate the exact length of these six so-called periods?

If anything, Qur’an seems to be unnecessarily obfuscating a simple fact about creation. On a personal note, I think it is rather pointless to debate whether the earth and heavens were created in 6 days or not. As scientific knowledge advances and newer theories gain credence, sly Muslims apologists will continue to offer explanations that superficially resolve the seeming contradictions in the Qur’an. However, the debate is pointless insofar as it has no direct impact in making us more ethical i.e., more compassionate and more merciful. The purpose of the Qur’an, as some argue, is to provide healing and mercy and guidance to people.

But how can people be guided if there is no clarity of thought? The pointless debate continues…

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