16 Nov The Mystery of Time and Knowledge
The Mystery of Time and Knowledge
It appears that the time of the coming of rain and the sex of the baby in the mother’s womb can be known in advance. Are these then no longer to be counted among the “five mysteries” mentioned in the Qur’an?
The question concerns the mystery of “time” and “knowledge” which governs all five things mentioned in the verse:
The knowledge of the Hour is with God. It is He Who sends down rain, and He Who knows what is in the wombs. And no one knows what it is that he will earn tomorrow and no one knows in what land he is to die. God is all-knowing, All-Aware. (Luqman 31:34)
Let us look at each of the five briefly in the order given.
- God alone knows when and how the Hour, the Resurrection will happen.
As the Qur’an states this as a fact and principle, it is improper for a Muslim to offer an opinion on the matter without saying “God knows.” We affirm the truth of this from the well-known hadith that tells when the archangel Gabriel came and asked the Prophet to explain iman, Islam, and ihsan. Gabriel confirmed the answers he got by saying “sadaqta” (he has spoken truth). Gabriel’s last question was: “When will the Resurrection take place?” The Prophet answered, “The one asked does not know more than the one asking.” Thereafter, he mentioned certain of the signs and portents of events that would occur close to the time of the Resurrection. Such was the courtesy of the Prophet when asked about one of the “five mysteries.” Both the Prophet and Gabriel in fact had some certain knowledge of it, but only God knows when it will happen.
As for how the Resurrection may take place, in terms of likely physical causes, we may surmise many, any of which might suffice to bring it about: such as, a comet striking the earth, or the sun, according to the laws of thermodynamics, extinguishing or exploding, or people may unintentionally initiate some sort of chain reactions beyond their control, and so on and so forth. But, again, only God knows the when and how.
- The second “mystery” mentioned in the verse is that it is God who sends down the rain.
This is one of the two points raised in the question. People claim to know when it will rain by meteorological analysis, and therefore argue that there is no longer any point in counting rain as one of the mysteries. No doubt some people who put forward such claims have it in mind to generate unease and doubts about the perfection of the Book and the faith. Muslims must nevertheless deal sensitively with such questions, even if they conceal a blasphemous intent.
I begin by asking how much of what people claim to know though modern science and technology is truly related to the unseen or what is beyond our perception. In fact, their guesswork about rainfall, done after all the conditions for it and the signs of it have already begun to be experienced in the visible world, has nothing to do with knowing the Unseen (ghayb) at all.
Let me explain this by a simple example.
Turn off the ventilation of a room full of people, and introduce some carbon dioxide into the air in the room, measure the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. Then make a forecast about how many minutes later the people in the room will feel some kind of headache. What if our forecast turns out to be accurate? Will we have known the Unseen? No. The Unseen is defined precisely as that which God assigns only Himself to know. Guessing whether (or roughly where) it will rain tomorrow is not knowing the Unseen. Knowing in all details where, when and how much rain will fall, let’s say, in one, five or ten years’ time-that would be knowing the Unseen. Let alone in one or five years’ time, can people forecast even how much rain will fall the next day? Moreover, we sometimes see that what the meteorologists forecast does not turn out to be accurate; sometimes, even the opposite of what was forecast takes place. That tells us that they do not know for certain, but only make calculated guesses.
Besides, it does not need so many gadgets and apparatuses to know whether the rain, whose symptoms have already become apparent in the visible world (‘alam al-shahada), will fall or not. There are many common folks who make accurate guesses on the basis of personal experiences acquired over years of observation, and what they say is not less accurate than what the meteorologists say. Let me tell you one of my memories, since it is related to the subject.
Some American scientists came to do research in a village. They saw a shepherd hastily herding his goats back into the fold instead of heading out to the pasture which was in the opposite direction. The scientists were surprised and felt the need to ask why. The shepherd told them it would rain soon and went on with his business. The scientists checked their instruments and saw no chance of a rain. However, it began to rain after a while. The scientists also took refuge in the fold and asked the shepherd how he knew that it would rain. He said, “I have observed over years and learned that the goats lower their tails between their legs before the rain comes.” Upon this, some of the scientists despised their expensive gadgets for not being better than a goat’s tail!
Therefore, in the light of hygrometry, hydrostatics, dynamics, meteorology, climatology and other sciences, by observing atmospheric phenomena-the clouds, their density, humidity, change in the air pressure, currents, winds, frontal systems, etc.-and then, using highly sophisticated instruments such as radars, computers and satellites, making forecasts, people are only observing signs and symptoms which are already there and even then only making guesses about the likelihood of rain. Some people seek to present this guesswork as if it were knowing the Unseen, knowing the exact time or amount of the rainfall, and by so doing they pretend to refute the verses of the Qur’an. Their doing so is nothing but a sign of ignorance and impertinence.
I will mention one of the miraculous sayings of the Prophet, which is scientifically accepted today. He said:
“No year is more rainy than another.”
We understand from this hadith that the same amount of rain falls on the world each and every year. However, it is unknown to us where and how much it will rain. That is of the Unseen and cannot be known.
- The third thing mentioned in the verse is the second point asked about in the question. It is God Who knows what is in the wombs.
Some people say that doctors can know what is in the wombs, boy or girl, by ultrasound and other medical procedures. It would be better if they reflected on the fact that to know something whose signs and symptoms have already begun to be experienced in the visible world, has nothing to do with knowing the Unseen at all.
People also claim to be able to predict the sex of an unborn embryo because they can find out the set of sex chromosomes, XX or XY, in the fertilizing sperm. Again, being able to tell the sex chromosomes of a sperm, whether in or out of the womb, has nothing to do with knowing the Unseen. In one of his enlightening sayings, the Prophet said:
“If male dominates, it becomes a boy, or if female dominates, it becomes a girl.” (This hadith has nothing to do with being dominant in male-female relationships, as wrongly understood by some interpreters in the past.)
The fact is that if the sperm with male set of chromosomes (XY) first arrives, manages to penetrate the membrane of the ovum and fertilize it, then it becomes a boy; but if the female set first arrives and does so, then it becomes a girl. Having some certain knowledge about the cause and determining agents of a future event, does not justify any claim to knowing the future in advance; to advance such a claim is sheer self-delusion.
The Qur’an says it is God Who “knows what is in the wombs”; it uses the word ma here. It does not say it is God Who knows whether it is a boy or a girl in the womb. The “what” relates not merely to the sex of the unborn, but also to the question of whether it will be born at all, and if so, how long it will remain in the womb, whether it will be born alive, what its natural endowments and character will be, its merits or foibles, what sort of a new individual it will be, prosperous believer or wretched evil-doer, what role it will play in life, a blessing or a curse to its parents and society, and the whole entail and outcome of its existence in this world and the Hereafter. To know all these is unique and peculiar to God. So what is truly of the Unseen is here indicated by the inclusive word ma, and it is not just a matter of gender. What the Qur’an refers to is comprehensive, general, and universal. Only knowledge of this level could be rightly called knowledge of the Unseen. Claiming the same for anything that humans can and do know is sheer delusion and folly.
To make the point clearer, consider this simple analogy:
Standing on one side of a garden fence, you see an apple tree. The root and trunk of it are on your side, but its branches and leaves are bending over onto the other side, so you are unable to see them. When it is the season to give fruit, you say that the branches on the other side are full of apples now. When people check, they see that it really is so. Does this mean that you knew the Unseen? Or are you just reporting an ordinary event that everyone can normally know? Certainly the latter. This is exactly the same as knowing the sex of the unborn baby in the womb. It is not knowing the Unseen, but merely giving information about a tree whose roots are in the visible world and whose branches are bending into the Unseen. To attempt to invalidate the Qur’anic verse on the basis of such a slight and false claim to knowledge of the Unseen is absolute foolishness.
- The fourth point in the verse is “no one knows what he will earn tomorrow.”
“Earn” here means not only “earn one’s livelihood” in a physical and financial sense, but also to reap the consequences (good or ill) of one’s conduct generally. Nobody knows what tomorrow may bring forth. All physical and spiritual enlightenment and solace are within this earning. What a scientist adds to his knowledge and experience is also an earning, and God alone knows when and how much it will be. Sometimes you read several volumes of book, but you do not gain a line’s worth of knowledge; on the other hand, sometimes a single line may yield to you whole books’ worth of knowledge and flood your sources of inspiration.
However, even if we take the reference in only the financial sense, it is not possible to know even how much people on fixed wages will earn tomorrow. For an unexpected gift, or unexpected expenditure, some accident or natural disaster, may dramatically alter the day’s earnings. I see no point in giving more examples on this argument and say as the Qur’an says, “no one knows what it is that he will earn tomorrow.”
- The fifth point is “no one knows in what land he is to die.”
God alone knows where, when and how one will die. The moment at which Azrail, the archangel of death, or his helpers will pronounce “It’s time” is unknown to us. As no one raises any objection to this, I leave it there.
The five mysteries summed up in the verse are governed by God’s Knowledge and Law. We know some things in ordinary life, but this amounts to nothing compared to Divine Knowledge. Our knowledge is made up from superficial acquaintance with certain things, signs and symptoms of which are given from the Unseen to the visible realm. We cannot answer with any precision questions as to when, how or where. This is particularly and acutely clear in the case of rainfall, and human life and death. These remain great mysteries, and full knowledge is with God only.
Verily, God [alone] is All-Knowing, All-Aware.