Q. Science has determined that life cannot exist in the vastness of open space, all life requires some form of energy source for survival. Such energy typically comes from stars, and life forms on the planets that orbit these stars. The universe was created some fourteen billion years ago and it is still expanding, and it is estimated to contain trillions of stars with orbiting planets (more stars than there are grains of sand on earth). All of these stars, solar systems, and galaxies have a finite life, including our own solar system which will end in about five billion years. Eventually the universe is supposed to stop expanding and will collapse onto itself, leaving nothing except Allah (this is alluded to in the Qur'an). Allah will then create everything anew, and the course of all these series of events will take many billions of years.

The Qur'an exhorts mankind to do good in this life with the promise of a blissful and eternal afterlife. Given all of the above information, I have two questions: 1) is the promise of an afterlife used metaphorically given that everything is finite, in other words, life ends on earth (which would mean we need to adjust our traditional understanding of the Qur'an and expectations), or 2) is it possible that there is some realm that is eternal that we're as yet unaware of and there will be an eternal afterlife (as Allah promises in the Qur'an)?

A. There are several problematic factors that influence the interpretation of the Qur'an. Professor Abdullah Saeed of Melbourne, AU identifies one such as the "textualist" approach, in which everything from the Qur'anic text is taken in a literal sense. The theological thrust behind this idea is that God does not lie so therefore whatever the Qur'an says is true. Now every Muslim agrees that what the Qur'an says is true, but the textualist takes this a step further. He goes to the point of denying metaphor, or imposing his theological conclusions upon science, and if there is a contradiction, then he opts for what he deems the Qur'anic perspective. Another problem is the idea of reading the Qur'an as a scientific text when it clearly is not. Even when it makes what may seem to be scientific claims, those are to be contextualized. One example is in the Qur'an where it states in Chapter 55 that basically everything is transitory and only the 'face of God' is eternal. This, for some, means that even heaven and hell will be destroyed. But is this the intent of the verses? Or do the verses simply refer to the earth, since the Qur'an is concerned with human conduct on earth, and NOT upon providing information about the cosmos?

Professor Fazlur Rahman states in his book "Major Themes of the Qu'ran" that "The Qur'an speaks not of the destruction of the universe, but of its transformation and rearrangement with a view to creating some new forms of life and new levels of being (1994:111). He refers also to Q14:48: "The day when the earth shall be transmuted into something else and the heavens as well." If one reads this verse in light of the scientific findings you have referenced, we understand that there is some sort of destruction of things as we know them. But we can believe that either God will create everything anew, or that there will simply be a transmutation of things as we know them. It is also possible, as some scholars reason, that any talk of heaven or eternality of life is in the realm of "God-talk," just to spur us to be good citizens of the cosmos without thinking of the questions that scientists ask, because those are in the realm of science, not of the Qur'anic exhortation to be righteous. A believer may comfort himself with the concept of eternality as being outside of the ambit of the principles of what will happen to the cosmos since the very concepts of heaven and God are beyond human rationalization: "Laysa ka mithlihi shay" There is nothing like unto Him, and yet we are told there is a throne in the heavens. These are clearly beyond rational, scientific perception.

Given that we are speaking of how humans perceive the Qur'an, please understand that this answer is itself an attempt at applying fallible human reasoning to exegesis. I am being very careful because some Muslims might misinterpret a clearer answer as atheistic thought and even the denial of God's existence. Yet, some RELIGION SCHOLARS (notably Hindus and some medieval Muslim philosophers) would go the route that all of the Qur'anic exhortations are simply to make our stay here one of conscious, human, moral existence, and that scientific reality as to what WILL actually happen is another field of research. Jay Gould calls it "NOMA" (non-overlapping magisteria), i.e., religion has its ambit, and science has its ambit. And Allah knows best.

Posted January 24, 2021