The Qur'an and the Nature of Life

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Written by Martyr Murtada Mutahhari   
Here we intend to carry out a Qur'anic study of the problem of life to find out the specific viewpoint of the Qur'an about life. In particular, we intend to study the view that the Qur'an takes of the relation between life and the supranatural world and Divine will.

The Noble Qur'an recurringly mentions life. In many of its verses, the coming to life of creatures, the different stages of life, the system involved in the creation of living creatures, the effects of life such as intelligence, consciousness, perception, hearing, sight, guidance, inspira­tion, instinct and the like are mentioned as the `signs' indicative of Divine wisdom and design. Each of these constitutes an interesting subject in itself, but here we do not intend to discuss them.

One of the themes discussed by the Qur'an in relation to life is that life is in the hands of God; it is God Who gives and takes away life. By this, the Noble Qur'an means that life is not within the control of anyone except God; no one else can give life or take it away. The issue that we now intend to discuss is this.

In the Surat al Baqarah, the Qur'an quotes Abraham (A) as saying to a tyrant of his time:

My Lord is He Who gives life and causes to die. (2:258)

In the Surat al Mulk, God is described in these words:

... He Who created death and life. (67:2)

There are many verses in the Qur'an which consider God as the sole giver of life (Muhyi) and death (Mumit), and the giving and taking away of life is directly attributed to God and considered His exclusive prerogative. Also, in the verses where some of the prophets are described as bringing the dead to life, the Qur’an is careful to point out that such a thing could occur only with God's permission (idhn). An example is found in the verse:

...a Messenger to the Children of Israel saying, "I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I will create for you out of clay as the likeness of a bird, then I will breathe into it, and it will be a bird, by the leave of God. I will also heal the blind and the leper, and bring to life the dead, by the leave of God .... (3:49)

On the whole, it is one of the points of difference between the theists (ilahiyyun) and the materialists that whereas the theists consider the origin and source of life and its Creator as transcending matter, the materialists consider matter itself to be the creator of life. However, something which is significant in this regard is that there is a subtle but enormous difference between the logic of the Qur'an and the usual logic of the theists regarding the thesis that God is the creator of life. This subtle difference is another of the miraculous characteristics of this noble scripture. We believe that if theistic thinkers become familiar with this logic, they can, once for all, release themselves from the harassment of the materialists and also liberate those poor creatures too from the clutches of their fancies and error.
The Problem of Origin of Life

Ordinarily, when (theistic) thinkers want to relate the matter of life to God and Divine will, they bring up the problem of origin of life on the earth and the question regarding the cause of the first emergence of life. Conclusive scientific evidence indicates that life had a definite begin­ning on the surface of the earth, that none of the various types of living creatures, including animals and plants, have always existed since eternity. This is because the earth itself has a limited age. Moreover, it was not in its estimated life of several million years always fit for life. We observe that each individual of a species is always born from another individual belonging to that species. Wheat comes from wheat, barley from barley, horse from horse, camel from camel, and man from man. It is not the practice of nature that an animal or plant, for instance, should come into existence from a mass of sheer dust. Always, the origin of a living creature is traceable to another living creature from which it separates in the form of a seed or sperm and grows in a suitable location.

Now, how did life start in the beginning and through what means? Does every one of these innumerable species end in an individual living creature that is the source of its particular species? If that is the case, how did that first creature come into existence, for nature seems to disallow the emergence of a living creature without a speed, sperm or something that should have separated from a living creature? Hence, (they point out), we must admit that an exception to the rule must have occurred. In other words, a miracle had occurred and the Divine hand had emerged from the hidden to create that first living creature.

Or is it possible that all these species. have had a single source and root, and are members of a family of species? On the basis of this hypothesis, too, we confront the same problem. That is, even if we suppose all the species to have been derived from a single unicellular organism, the same question emerges as to how that first living creature came into existence. Isn't it the case that science has proved that a living creature cannot come into existence except from another living creature? Hence, was there an exception to the rule and a miracle, in that the will of God interfered to create instantaneously a living cell?

It is here that the adherents of the materialist outlook are forced to put forward certain hypotheses which are incredible to themselves. The theists, on the contrary, consider it as an evidence for the existence of a creator and state that a supranatural power did interfere to create the first living creature, and that it was the will of God that led to its emergence. Such was the view of Darwin, who was personally a theist. After having solved the problem of the branching out of species for himself, he arrives at one or several living creatures who first emerged on the earth's surface without having been reproduced by another living creature. He says regarding them: `As for these, they came to life through the Divine breath.'

Crissy Morrisen, in the book "The Secret of Man's Creation", says in this regard:

Some say that the corpuscles of life escaped from one of the planets and after wandering in the atmosphere for ages and consecutive centuries descended on the earth's surface. Such a belief is not acceptable, because it is impossible that they should have survived the space's absolute cold, and even if, supposedly, they could survive that danger, the cosmic rays that are scattered in space would have destroyed them. Even if they could pass through this stage, they must have come down accidentally in a very favour­able point such as oceanic depths, where several conditions existed simul­taneously and a suitable environment was created for them. After all these problems, the question still arises about the origin of life and as to how it did emerge in other planets. Today it has been proved for certain that no environment however favourable and conducive to life can create it. Similarly, no kind of chemical synthesis or combination can create a life corpuscle. The problem of life still remains one of the unsolved problems of science.

Some say that a miniscule particle of matter, of a microscopic size, coagulating with a large number of particles of atomic size, disturbed their equilibrium and assumed the form of life through their inclusion and exclusion. Nonethe­less, no one has claimed until now that he has produced life with the means of chemical action and reaction.

By this discussion Crissy Morrisen intends to prove that the hand of a creator is involved in the origin and beginning of life, because it cannot be explained by material or natural causes. Concerning the origins of man and the great metamorphosis that resulted in the emergence of an intelligent creature with an extraordinary capacity for discursive thought and a power that could create the sciences, he says: "The emergence of man as an intelligent and thoughtful creature is too profound to be considered an effect of material changes in which a creator's hand was not involved." This was a sample of the mode of thought and argument of this group in relation to life and the Divine will. There is no need to cite more or less similar statements of others that do not differ essentially from the passage quoted.

As we know, till now man has not been able, despite all his efforts, to produce with scientific means the substance that makes up the living creatures. For instance, he has been unable to produce with chemical substances an artificial wheat grain possessing the properties of a living grain, which may grow into a plant when sown and develop ears. Nor has he been able to produce artificially the sperm of an animal or man with the capacity to develop into an animal or man. Nevertheless, scientists have not ceased in their efforts, and as yet it has not become conclusively clear for them whether they would be able to do so in the future or if this matter lies beyond man's scientific and technical capacities.

This topic too, which relates to the future has, like the problem of the origin of life, created a controversy throughout the world. Inevitably, that group of theists who, with their above-mentioned approach and logic, say that the creation of life is in the hands of God, are of the opinion that, in this question too, man's efforts in the field are bound to be fruitless. Since man has no control over life, which is exclusively subject to the Divine will, man cannot create life anytime at his will with the scientific and technical means at his disposal. The prophets who raised the dead were able to do so with the leave of God. It is not possible for anyone to perform such an act without the permission of God. And should anyone want to do such a thing with the leave of God, it would mean that such a man has joined the ranks of the prophets and performed a miracle, and, of course, God does not carry out a miracle except at the hands of His prophets and awliya.

This group of theists consider man's present incapacity in this regard as the proof of their claim. When they observe that man has produced wheat grains that do not differ in any way in their chemical composition from natural wheat but are devoid of the characteristics of life, they point out that that is because life depends exclusively on the will of God and the creation of life requires God's permission, which He does not give to anyone except His apostles.

We said that the Noble Qur'an explicitly affirms that life lies in the hands of God and that it negates the role of anyone else in the creation of life. However, the Qur'an never refers to the matter of the origin of the human species or the beginning of life in order to affirm this point. On the contrary, it points as evidence to the present empirical order and considers the current, ongoing system of life as the system of creation, becoming and development. But when it wishes to describe God's creatorhood in relation to life, it does not make recourse to the first day. In this respect, it makes no distinction between the first day and the subsequent days. Rather, it points to the present orderly changes of life as the changes of creation. For instance, in the blessed Surat al­Mu'minun it states:

We created man of an extraction of clay, then We set him, a drop, in a receptacle secure, then We created of the drop a clot, then We created of the clot a tissue, then We created of the tissue bones, then We garmented the bones in flesh; thereafter We produced him as another creature. So blessed be God, the fairest of creators! (23:12-14)

This noble verse mentions the systematic transformation and changes that occur in the embryo and considers these developments as a developing series of creations. In the Surat Nuh, it states:

What ails you, that you look not for majesty in God, seeing He created you by stages? (71:13-14)

In the Surat al-Zumar, it states:

He creates you in your mothers' wombs creation after creation in threefold shadows. (39:6)

In the Surat al-Baqarah, it is stated:

How do you disbelieve in God, seeing you were dead and He gave you life, then He shall make you dead, then He shall give you life, then unto Him you shall be returned. (2:28)

In the Surat al-Hajj, it states:

It is He Who gave you life, then He shall make you dead, then He shall give you life. (22:66)

There are many verses on this theme and all of them consider the present current order as the system of creation. The splitting of the grain and the seed under the ground, the growth of plants and herbs, the greening of the trees in spring-time - all of these are mentioned as part of the ever new and perpetual Divine creativity. In no place does the Qur'an consider the role of Divine creativity and will in the creation of life as relating exclusively to the first man or the first living creature that emerged upon the earth's surface, or consider only that organism or grain as the creature of God and the product of the Divine will.

The Noble Qur’an also mentions the creation of Adam, but not for the purpose of affirming monotheism (tawhid), or for the sake of the argument that since Adam was the first man, that proves that creation did occur and that `God's hand emerged from its sleeve' to create human life. God's hand has never been concealed within a sleeve.

There is a strange point worthy of notice in this regard. The Qur’an makes use of the story of Adam to convey many teachings of a moral and educative character, such as: man's capacity for attaining to the station of God's vicegerency; his abundant capacity for knowledge; the angels' humility in front of knowledge; man's capacity for attaining superiority over the angels; the harm of greed, the harms of pride, the effects of sin in causing man's decline from the sublimest of stations; the role of penitence in man's salvation and his return to the station of proximity to God; warnings against the danger of misleading satanic insinuations, and the like. But it never relates the special and exceptional situation of Adam in his creation to the subject of tawhid and theology, for the objective behind its mention of Adam's story was a moral and educative one. It was not intended as an evidence in favour of tawhid. Moreover, it confines itself to mentioning Adam, and says nothing about how the life of the other animal species originated on the earth.

We have mentioned earlier the customary approach of the theists who when confronted with the absence of an explanation for the beginning of life in the first living creature say, "It was the Divine breath which brought it into existence." But the Qur’an considers the life of other human beings also to be the result of the Divine breath, in the same way as it considers the life of Adam as being due to the Divine breath.

In one place the Qur’an relates God as saying to angels regarding Adam:

(And when thy Lord said to the angels `See, 'I am creating a mortal of clay of mud moulded.) When I have shaped him, and breathed My spirit in him, fall you down, bowing before him!" (16:28-29)

In another place it says:

We created you, then We shaped you, then We said to the angels: Bow yourselves to Adam.' (7:11)

It is clear that, in this verse, creation, the blowing of the Divine breath and the veneration of angels is ascribed to all human beings in general. The Qur'an states in the Sura Alif lam sajdah:

...Who has created all things well and He originated the creation of man out of clay, then He fashioned his progeny of an extraction of mean water, then He shaped it, and breathed His spirit in it. And He appointed for you hearing and sight, and heart; little thanks you show. (32:7-9)

As pointed out by the exegetes and as indicated by the context itself, the pronoun in sawwahu (he shaped it) relates to sulalah (progeny), not to al-'insan (man).



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