TIME: An Islamic Perspective

 For most of mankind throughout time, Time has been something that existed, simply and plainly, in which they lived, and out of which they departed in to the realm of another kind of Time. Time for them was something stable, the same for everyone else, was always there, moved forward, was irreversible, and would be there forever, up until eternity. It flowed stealthily in a linear movement, or perhaps cyclically, but would not stop. It repeated itself, as the historians said, or, in 7000-year cycle as some others conjectured, but kept moving forward. Little surprise therefore, that not much energy was devoted to the study of Time. Mankind moved forward, taking it as a matter of fact and as part and parcel of everyday existence.

Prophet Muhammad’s arrival gave Time a new personality. He gave it new characteristics and led the Muslims to a deeper perception. He said it was malleable: it could be stretched or shrunk. What’s more, it could be brought to standstill or speeded up.

Against pagan idea that the gods are also caught in a cycle of Time, he announced that God was above Time. He was asked, “Tell us about the beginning of the affair.” He answer, “There was Allah, and there was nothing else.” So Allah was, and He was above Time. He also informed that time did not start with the creation of the physical universe. It is older than that. He said, “Allah determined the creations fifty thousand years before the creation of the heavens and the earth.” Another version adds: “And now Allah is, What He was.” That is, He is, He was before the creation of Time, space and matter. Thus, He is above Time, and above everything.

The revelation he brought spoke of the relative nature of Time. It said (32:05),

“He rules (all) affairs from the heavens to the earth: In the end will (All affairs) go up to him, on a Day, the space whereof will be (as) a thousand years of your reckoning.”

The prophet also informed that Time could be arrested. In a report preserved by Muslim he said, “One of the Prophets of the past conducted Jihad. He reached a town at the time of afternoon Prayers. He addressed the sun and said, ‘You are under command, and I am under command.’. O Allah, hold if on for me for a while.’ Accordingly, it was held back until Allah gave him victory over the town.”

Some scholars suggest that Time was arrested, others that it was stretched for him; and he is widely believed to be an Israeli Prophet.

As regards Time’s shortening a report says, “The hour will not  strike before time shortens so that a year will be like a month, a month like a week, a week like a day and a day like an hour.”

Some of the new concepts introduced by Islam touched time as well. One was that of “Barakah” a divinely induced increase over and above the principal. It could be applicable to wealth, progeny or time. A part from other work, Ibn Assakir wrote the history of Damascus in 80 volumes. It demands a whole rack that shares no other book. Ibn Jawzi’s average was dozens of pages per day. How could they do it? It was “barakah” in Time.

Actually, the Islamic concept of Time, gave Time new dimensions. The Prophet spoke of different times of the day and night as well as of the year round, that assured greater rewards for rituals performed therein. A short nap after deep-night Prayer (tahajjud), before dawn, promised “sights” and “visions” into the “unknown” that take one to new horizons, new shores, new meanings. In Islam, time came alive.

Is there one time or several? There is that Geological Time, the Biological Time, the Quantum Time, and the elusive Space-Time! Islam answer that for human reference there could be several times. Allah knows all their times. On the other hand there is certainly a different Time in Allah’s reckoning. Allah knew of the creations and their times, before their creation. There is a clock in the heavens.

Some astrophysicists thought that the Big Bang would reverse into a big-crunch, resulting in the reversal of time. Muslim scholars remained skeptic about it. They thought that notwithstanding the Big Bang theory being true or false, the big-crunch will happen or not, time will keep marching. Big bang or big-crunches are mere events in Time. Time would last destruction of the world. Thus, they were freed from thy tyranny of Time and, (well prepared by the Qur’an and Sunnah for the scientific culture of the modern times), were not much surprised, nor were as excited, (nothing excites them anyway), when Einstein showed that Time was not fixed. It is relative: depending upon from where it is measure. But, for the Western world: mechanical of mind, materialistic of heart (“time is money”), time’s relativity was the “news of the century.” It still puzzles many. So, when Hawking proposed that time could be reversed, it deepened their mystery and his book, A Brief History of Time, sold in millions. In time, however, Hawking reversed his hypothesis.

Some Muslims too seem to treasure some puzzle with reference to Time. Preserved in several collections, a hadith says: “Allah says, ‘Son of Adam insults Me. He says, “O bad times.” Lo, let no one say, “O bad time,” For, I am al-dahar. I alter its nights and days, and when I wish, I shall withdraw the two.”

Another version adds: “And I bring about its kinds (and rulers).”The textual word for what is translated as “Time” is “al-dahar.” But this Arabic word carries much wider connotations than the translated words used in other languages. “Dahar” is time, age, period, epoch, era , aeon, a long periods of time.

Some Muslims take the opportunity to take on the apparent meaning of the words, “I am Time,” conjecturing that Allah is Time, in some sense, in some mysterious way.

But the second half of the report removes the puzzle about the term “al-dahar” by saying, “I alter the nights and the days.” Thus, Allah is “al-dahar” in the sense that He is the Controller of Time, both the short-term time as well as its long-term version. And, since Allah is the Controller of Time and all that happens within its range, to curse time, or blame it for any event is to blame Creator and Controller of Time.

God cannot be thought of as Time, i.e., to say that Time running through the universe is another form of the Supreme Deity or a manner of His existence. If that was so. Then, as Nawawi points out. “al-Dahar” would have been one of the Names of Allah, which it is not. Moreover, such a meaning defies logic. For allah says, “He alters its night and day.” If He was Time, He would be altering Himself, shortening Himself, lengthening Himself, and so on; which are all illogical propositions. Therefore, the apparent meaning is not the intended meaning.

For those who have decided not to subscribe to the beliefs of Islam, Time is equivalent of nature and Nature is equivalent of God. That is, for whatever happens, the credit goes to Nature i.e., Time.” Hence they are called “dahriyyun” in Islam. Allah said about them:

“And they say: “What is there but our life In This world? We shall die and we live, and nothing but time can destroy us.” but of that they have no knowledge: They merely conjecture:”

The scientists do not seen to have surpassed the ancient “dahriyyun.” They count the Big-Bang event as the beginning of time. But since calculations fail beyond Max Planck constants, they can only go back to 10-43 seconds after Big Bang. So, in truth they do not know when Time started. As for us, we believe that since mathematical laws that govern the sub-atomic particles must have been there before the Big-Bang event, time must be traced back to a point before the Big Bang.

Further, since the Big Bang theory does not explain everything, leaving out several issues unresolved, the issue of Time also remains unresolved for the scientists. They Discuss Time in volumes – time in and time out- without getting anywhere.

Our belief is that perhaps the present Time’s phase will end with the final blow of the Trumpet – when life will be destroyed altogether. A new kind of Time will be brought into existence whose one day will be equal to 50,000 years by present count. Speed limits will be defied.

To explain, today’s science places a limit on achievable speed: 300,000 km. a second. It is the speed of light and nothing can travel faster than light. But, in the New World men will be able to travel through vast distances to reach up to those in other Paradises. Perhaps light itself will be given new speed, for a Prophetic report says that those of lower ranks will see those of higher ranks as we see stars. And they will be able to visit each other. Thus, it can be assumed that both light as well as humans will be able to move at speeds greater than that of present-day light. (At the present speed, humans, if they traveled at the speed of light – an impossibility in terms of physical laws- can reach the nearest star in 4 years if they travel at the speed of light! And that’s the nearest star. Who in Paradise will be interested in undertaking such a journey, if that remains the speed limit)?

Einstein’s equation of e=mc2 places a limit on how fast anything can travel: it is the speed of light, 300,000 km per second. But to travel at this speed, matter will have to lose all its mass. However, mass actually increases with increase in speed. And an object travels closer and closer to the speed of light, it will assume mass of infinite proportions. This will require infinite energy to push matter to the speed of light. And, therefore, a more successful way to achieve the speed of light would be to go on reducing the mass. Ultimately, for matter to travel as fast as light, it will have to have zero mass, like a photon.

But the Prophet broke this barrier of time which results from the limit placed by Einstein’s equation. It is reported that when he came back from his nocturnal journey (al-isra wa al-mi’raj) which took him to the seven heavens, his bed was still warm. He had traveled billions of kilometers in a second. How could he have managed it? We do not know. But we do know that he traveled on a special vehicle called “Buraq.” As the hadith reports it placed one foot here and another in the horizon. But that is figurative. It must have traveled faster than that.

One of the best things reported to us from our past times, about Time, was said not by a wise ascetic, but by an ice-vendor. He was saying, People. Be kind upon one whose capital is melting.”

That’s the main point about Time: little realized by Muslims, but has been of immense consequence to them. Quantum physics tells us that even sub-atomic particles seem to be aware of Time. When will Muslims become aware of it?

Source: Young Muslim Digest

Edition: July 2008 (Editorial)

Note: There are slight variations in the translation of the verses of Quran with the actual article.

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