According to modern science, it took billions of years for the universe to get to where it is now. However, we are told in the Qur’an:
Indeed, your Lord is Allah, who created the heavens and the earth in six days.
So how do we reconcile this? Many atheists use this verse to discredit the scientific accuracy of the Qur’an. It’s quite simple really.
Firstly, what does the word “day” in this verse actually mean? Is it like the day how we understand it through the rotation of the earth or is it something else? It seems that these days that Allah is referring to is something else that is more grand than what we are accustomed to in this world. This is because there are other places in the Qur’an where the word “day” is shown to mean something else and not how we understand it in this world. Take a look at the following two examples:
The angels and the Spirit will ascend to Him during a Day the extent of which is fifty thousand years.
And indeed, a day with your Lord is like a thousand years of those which you count.
If Allah can extend a day to be a thousand or fifty thousand years, then can He not also extend it to be billions of years? Even classical Muslim scholars realized that these six days could not be in reference to how we understand days on earth because our counting is based on the rising of the sun each day, whereas, the sun did not exist before the creation of the heavens and earth. This is why scholars like Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 1210) interpreted the verse about six days to mean that the creation was created in six stages.
Secondly, in classical Arabic the word “day” (يوم) can be used to refer to any period of time.
Could the Days Be Referring to Stages?
There is an interesting report mentioned in Ibn Kathir’s (d. 1373) highly popular tafseer book with regards to the following verse:
And indeed, a day with your Lord is like a thousand years of those which you count.
Ibn Kathir narrates a report coming from Muhammad ibn Sirin (d. 729), a student of the companions of Muhammad (pbuh), that he heard from a man who converted to Islam from the people of the book saying:
“Allah created the heavens and the earth in six days. He made the period of the world six days and the Hour the seventh day. Certainly, the six days have passed and you are in the seventh day. The similitude of that is of the pregnant woman when she enters her last month. The moment she gives birth, it would be complete.”
That’s pretty interesting. It is as if he is saying that the whole story of creation ends on the seventh day. We know through the Qur’an and Sunnah that we are in the last days and that the Hour will begin very soon. For example, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is reported to have said:
“I and the Last Hour have been sent like this and (he while doing it) joined the forefinger with the middle finger.“
If correct, would this give some support to ar-Razi’s interpretation of stages? There is a hadith in which the six days seem to be mentioned and the earth is described to be coming together in stages. The hadith states that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is reported to have said:
“Allah, the Exalted and Glorious, created the clay on Saturday and He created the mountains on Sunday and He created the trees on Monday and He created the things entailing labor on Tuesday and created light on Wednesday and He caused the animals to spread on Thursday and created Adam (peace be upon him) after ‘Asr on Friday; the last creation at the last hour of the hours of Friday between afternoon and night.”
In this hadith, Adam is created last on the seventh day. However, the reliability of this hadith is heavily debated among scholars and many criticized it saying that it goes against the Qur’an and is mistakenly attributed to the Prophet (pbuh). Some of the critics include Yahya ibn Ma’een, Abd al-Rahman ibn Mahdi, Imam Bukhari, Ibn Taymiyyah, and Ibn Qayyim. For argument’s sake, let us assume that it is reliable. Then we can ask were these days outstretched to thousands or millions of years or was each thing created in an instant on that day? What does “day” here actually mean? Is it possible that this hadith is in reference to the creation of the the planet earth alone and is not connected to the six days of the creation as a whole? This was suggested by the likes of Sh. Al-Albani.
According to our modern understanding of science, time is relative not absolute so what is the frame of reference? The simple answer to these questions is we do not really know. This is all from the knowledge of the unseen. Allah and His Messenger have revealed some parts of it to us but not the whole picture.
What should be clear from the above is that this should not lead any Muslim to some sort of crisis of faith in light of modern science. It’s really not that serious. Science is a great tool to understand the observable universe, however, it lacks in many ways as well. It is important to ask two questions whenever we come across a scientific finding:
- What is the science exactly saying on it?
- What is the level of confidence in it in the scientific world?
In my experience over the years, I have found that when it comes to the observable universe, science is a really great tool to understand the world. However, when it comes to things that we cannot directly observe, then it is often nothing more than speculation. This is especially true when they try to project something onto the past billions of years ago based on observable phenomenon in the present. You’re not going to get anything definitive but just opinions on the best way to describe the data in a way that it makes sense. Naturally, some opinions will describe it better than others and they will become the dominant ones. However, as soon as someone else comes along and describes it better or new data is found that contradicts the dominant opinion, then the opinions will change. Remember, we’re talking about things that took place billions of years in the past. The only one that knows what really happened in the beginning of the universe is Allah.
“I did not make them witness to the creation of the heavens and the earth or to the creation of themselves.”
This is why a Muslim should never have any doubt proudly claiming: we believe whatever has been revealed to us through the Qur’an and Sunnah to be true and we acknowledge that when it comes to the unseen, we do not have the whole picture but just parts and pieces of it.
While I was looking into this topic, it reminded me of the concept of the cosmic calendar popularized by the highly influential 20th century scientist Carl Sagan. It basically breaks down the whole 13.8 billion year history of the universe in one year. It’s just a method to help visualize the chronology of the universe. According to it, we are literally in the last hour of the last day of Dec 31 of this cosmic calendar. Modern humans only came into existence at 11:48 PM of Dec 31 according to it.
You can see a picture of the calendar here.
Why Couldn’t Allah Create It All At Once?
This is another angle to consider. It is not a new question but has been asked in the past as well. Why did Allah take six days to create the heavens and earth when He could do so in an instant? The answer is that He certainly could without a doubt, however, He chose to do it this way for some wisdom. Some scholars tried to point out that wisdom while others chose to remain silent about it. According to Ibn Jawzi (d. 1201), the reasons for creating it over a period of six days were the following:
- He wanted to create something each day to show His power to the angels and those who witnessed it.
- He was preparing things for Adam and his offspring before Adam existed, to emphasize Adam’s high standing before the angels.
- Doing things in a short time is more indicative of power, and deliberation is more indicative of wisdom. Allah wanted to manifest His wisdom in that, just as He manifested His power when He said, “Be!” And it is.
- He taught deliberation to His slaves, because if the One Who does not make mistakes created the universe in a deliberate manner, then it is more appropriate for those who are vulnerable to making mistakes to do things in a deliberate manner.
- Creation was accomplished step by step, lest anyone think that this happened as the result of an accident of nature.
The reasons mentioned by Ibn Jawzi are not definitive but just his own opinion.
Finally, I’ve put together a short video on this topic and included Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan’s commentary in it as well which I found useful: