(Summary: This article analyses the possibility of extraterrestrial life according to the Islamic worldview, against the backdrop of modernity's obsession with the subject. It describes the meaning and significance of life in Islam and how knowledge about extraterrestrials, is not essential. The article then focuses on Allah as the Lord of the worlds; Allah creates what people do not know; the worlds of the jinn and angels; the question of seven earths; and the question of dispersing creatures throughout the heavens and earth.)
One of the features of modern civilization is its obsession with the possibility of extraterrestrial life, intelligent or otherwise. According to a survey conducted in 2012 by the National Geographic Society, 36% of Americans believe UFOs exist. A further 47% said they were undecided, while only 17% gave a resounding no (livescience.com)
The trend is well-represented both in science and in science fiction. For example, space agency NASA has recently awarded a grant to a group of astronomers to search the universe for signs of alien civilizations. A group of scientists at the University of Nottingham suggests that there are at least 36 ongoing intelligent civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy which is estimated to have between 100 billion and 400 billion stars (forbes.com).
Astrobiology is an interdisciplinary scientific field concerned with the existence, origins, nature, distribution, future, and searches for extraterrestrial life. Those beliefs may yet evolve into an organized faith. They may eventually replace religion in many parts of the world.
Regardless, the situation is understandable.
Life as an accident
It is a scientific principle that existence in general and life on earth, in particular, are mere accidents. They came about as a result of a series of coincidences. People, too, are purposeless accidents.
Thus, if a life accident happened on earth, it could happen anywhere else, provided some necessary conditions are available, such as the right temperature and water. Scientists believe billions of planets can evolve and support life.
This claim supports two principles: The Copernican principle and the mediocrity principle (Britannica). According to the former, the earth is not in a central, nor favored position. It is just another, yet average planet. There are no advantaged "observers."
According to the second principle, there is nothing special about the earth and life on it. There is nothing special, nor privileged, about people either. Everything about the planet is inadvertent and mediocre.
Stephen Hawking epitomized this viewpoint: "We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star."
The position of Islam
In Islam, Almighty Allah is the Creator of life, which has its physical and metaphysical dimensions. Life also has two halves: this temporary world and the everlasting afterlife.
Allah created people and communicated the truth to them through His holy messengers and His sacred revelations. People were created but to worship their Creator, to live their lives according to His will and command. In the process of doing so, people will be guided and instructed concerning many things needed for the fulfillment of their existential mission. They will also discover many other things that will make their lives additionally meaningful and gratifying.
This life is not everything. Accordingly, people cannot, and should not, know everything. Many things are withheld from them, some because they are unessential for people's earthly assignments, others because they are beyond people's capacities, and others because of certain reasons known only to the Creator and Sustainer of life.
People's journey on earth is one of qualified learning and discovery. The whole thing will culminate in the situation of the Hereafter when all veils will be lifted, and when people's understanding and vision will be total and definite. People do not need to know everything to succeed in this world. They need to pass and move on. Both supreme success and knowledge of "everything" await in the Hereafter.
Thus, central to the Islamic ethics of exploring and learning are faith, patience, contentment, and pragmatism. Knowledge ought to be allied with the truth, faithfully serving it.
Knowledge about extraterrestrial life is inessential
As far as extraterrestrial life is concerned, Islam did not furnish us with clear-cut knowledge about it. It is neither a yes nor a no. However, that does not mean that people should hasten into the field and try to find answers. The open-ended position of Islam is not an invitation.
Instead, that is a test. It is furthermore proof that such knowledge is inessential. It does not bring any significant benefit regarding people's earthly purpose, nor does being ignorant about it invite any harm.
Life is too short and too valuable, so it must be spent on more immediate and more important concerns. Carelessly delving into the theme of extraterrestrial life could be an intellectual and spiritual trap. Still, if any aspect of extraterrestrial life suddenly becomes integral to those immediate and critical concerns of people, dealing with it in the light of the revealed guidance and wisdom should not be a problem. If there is anything or nothing, Islam is fine with it either way. In any case, the journey of life goes on, at the end of which awaits Jannah (Paradise) and Jahannam (Hell). People should be able to distinguish between a highway and a sidewalk.
Islam is against being obsessed with something that does not warrant obsession. Just as it is against neglecting something that demands fascination and passion, life is all about setting things right and prioritizing them.
The prospect of extraterrestrial life is by no means part of religion. So, moderately and justifiably talking about it or not, can hardly affect one's spiritual status.
Nonetheless, the subject cannot be entirely dismissed owing to the following considerations.
First: the Lord of the worlds
Allah is the "Lord of the worlds" (al-Fatihah, 2), which entails limitless probabilities and could mean anything.
It is normally said that the "worlds" imply humanity, angels, the jinn, and all that exists. But only Allah knows what He has created and still does.
As the active Creator, he does what He wants and is not answerable to anybody: "He is not questioned about what He does, but they will be questioned" (al-Anbiya', 23).
Second: Allah creates what people do not know
Allah says that He creates that which "you do not know" (al-Nahl, 8). This, too, contains infinite possibilities, theoretically at least. It can be about this world or the Hereafter, about the earth or the heavens, or the physical or the spiritual realm of existence. The subject is indefinite.
Nevertheless, generally speaking, we must believe whatever the Qur'an and the Prophet's authentic Sunnah say, without unnecessarily pushing to know further. If learning something is critical, the revelation would have enlightened us more about it.
We cannot consult too much science either, as science is still in the dark concerning most of its fundamental astrobiological and astrophysical subjects. That can only increase doubt and uncertainty. We likewise must believe that complete knowledge and power over all things belong to Allah alone. Man knows only that which Allah wants him to know.
As angels declared on behalf of all creation: "Exalted are You; we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, it is You who is the Knowing, the Wise" (al-Baqarah, 32).
Third: the jinn and angels
Both the earth and heavens are home to the jinn and angels' multitudes, affirming the intimate and even reciprocal relationship between physics and metaphysics.
The Prophet (pbuh) for instance, said: "Verily I see what you do not see, and I hear what you do not hear. The heaven is creaking, and it should creak, for there is no space in it the width of four fingers, but there is an angel there, prostrating to Allah. By Allah, if you knew what I know, you would laugh little and weep much, and you would never enjoy women in your beds, and you would go out in the streets, beseeching Allah" (al-Tirmidhi).
Meteors (shooting stars) are used for stoning the jinn who eavesdrop on the transmission of Allah's commands from one group of angels to another throughout the expanses of the seven heavens (al-Saffat, 6-10).
Fourth: seven earths
Allah says that He created seven heavens. He created seven earths as well (al-Talaq, 12). This is supported by several authentic hadiths of the Prophet (pbuh).
Most commentators of the Qur'an believe that there are seven earths in layers, one above the other, and between every two earths there is a distance like that between heaven and earth.
A weaker opinion is that the seven earths are in layers, one above the other, with no gap.
The weakest view is that seven earths mean seven continents (regions or zones) (Ibn Kathir).
Commenting on a hadith Ibn Kathir says: "Those who explained this hadith to mean the seven continents have brought an implausible explanation that contradicts the letter of the Qur'an and the hadith without having proof." However, all scholars advise against dwelling extensively on the issue of seven earths, because it has been mentioned only once in the Qur'an and somewhat indirectly in a few authentic hadiths.
The only reliable source for this particular knowledge is the revelation. Unquestionably, there must be profound wisdom behind not revealing more. If there were any significant benefits for humanity in disclosing more knowledge about this, Allah would certainly have given more.
An example of excessive interpretation is this account, which is sometimes ascribed to Abdullah b. 'Abbas: "Seven earths: in every earth is a prophet like your Prophet, an Adam like your Adam, a Nuh like your Nuh, an Ibrahim like your Ibrahim, and an 'Isa like your 'Isa."
Fifth: dispersing creatures throughout the heavens and earth
Allah says: "And of his signs is the creation of the heavens and earth and what He has dispersed throughout them of creatures. And He, for gathering them when He wills, is competent" (al-Shura, 29).
The key word in the verse is "creatures" (dabbah).
To some commentators of the Qur'an, dabbah exclusively means physical living and crawling creatures (animals). They then interpret that although the heavens and earth are mentioned, only the earth, as a way of linguistic particularization, is intended for dabbah. It is common in many languages to relate a thing to a group, although that thing applies only to a member or group members.
We can understand the verse to the effect solely through the earth – including its atmosphere – Allah dispersed creatures (physical living forms). However, many scholars reckon that dabbah implies all living and moving beings - physical or otherwise - including mankind, angels, and jinn. This understanding does not confine any particular living form to any of the earth or the seven heavens. Tentatively, they can be found anywhere.
As al-Razi concluded: "It is not far-fetched to say that Allah might have created in the heavens such types of creatures (animals) as move or walk (live and behave) like mankind on the earth."
Man as an honorable being and the climax of Allah's creation
The Qur'an is explicit that man was created as Allah's vicegerent (viceroy) on earth. He represented the climax of Allah's act of creation. That's why man was created last after each of the seven heavens, and the earth had been fashioned. Moreover, Allah created man (Adam) in His own image, as taught by the Prophet (pbuh) (Muslim).
Man's physical and spiritual being embodies the meaning, purpose, and creativity of the entire universe. He is a microcosm, reflecting the macrocosm. Allah also made all created in the heavens and on the earth subservient and serviceable to man.
The Qur'an says: "Do you not see that Allah has made subject to you whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth and amply bestowed upon you His favors, (both) apparent and unapparent? But of the people is he who disputes about Allah without knowledge or guidance or an enlightening Book (from Him)" (Luqman, 20).
The verse emphatically ends that the essence of these things can be obtained only through the revealed knowledge. Man can't take hold of it on his own. Such is not within the purview of reason.
The Qur'an furthermore reveals that man was greatly honored and favored over most of the creation: "And We have certainly honored the children of Adam and carried them on the land and sea and provided for them of the good things and preferred them over much of what We have created, with (definite) preference" (al-Isra', 70). As a sign of that honor, angels were asked to bow down and prostrate to Adam, the father of mankind (al-Baqarah, 34). Similarly, Satan admitted to Allah that He had favored man (Adam) over himself. That was the main reason why Satan rebelled and vowed to destroy Adam and his progeny. Hence, dishonoring and debasing man became Satan's raison d'etre. In Satan's book, there is no manner of destruction of man that is more rewarding than that.
All these factors show that it is improbable that there are intelligent alien beings and alien civilizations out there, which could rival the purpose and legacy of mankind.
To have human-like creatures other than on the earth is implausible in equal measure. Allah clearly stated that He would create (His) vicegerent on the earth (al-Baqarah, 30).
The definite article "the" before "earth" denoted the current planet earth, about which all listeners – then and now - were familiar with (and Almighty Allah knows best).
In general, the creation of the heavens and earth has been associated with the creation of mankind, and their existence has been rendered subservient to the existence of humans. The breakdown and eventual destruction of the heavens and earth will be connected with the end of mankind and its earthly charge.
And finally, the heavens and earth will be re-created on the Day of Judgment to accommodate people's resurrection, their judgment, and their eternal abode.
The Qur'an informs: "On the day when the earth shall be changed into a different earth, and the heavens (as well), and they shall come forth before Allah, the One, the Supreme" (Ibrahim, 48).
Respect, confusion, and scientific arrogance
As expansive and complex as the heavens and earth are, they are the context of mankind's existence. They are replete with signs that man is invited to explore, and with which - together with the signs of the revelation - he is to direct and enrich his life.
Unlike non-believers, believers do not explore the universe to look for the truth. As truth-holders, they do so to widen their understanding of the existential reality and enhance their performances and experiences as the servants of Allah.
In the believers' case, the more and deeper they venture, the more signs they discover and read. Consequently, the more affluent and better people they become, the heavens and earth become an inexhaustible repository of meaning, import, and beauty.
Their mantra is: "Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly (in vain); exalted are You (above such a thing); then protect us from the punishment of the Fire" (Al-'Imran, 191).
On the other hand, the more and deeper the non-believers venture, the more perplexed and more confused they become. The more they discover and learn, the less they know. Consequently, the hollower and more pessimistic they turn out to be. The heavens and earth become an inexhaustible repository of worthlessness and curse. It starts breeding nothing but arrogance, which quickly spirals out of control. No thing or idea is held intrinsically sacred or pure in the process.
The condition causes science and education to function as if they are two dreadful whips in the hands of Satan – and his associates. They become the main sources of misguidance and falsehood.
There is no other way to comprehend the rationale behind all those insulting dogmas relating to humanity, earth, and life, which have been engendered in the name of science, progress, and civilization. Otherwise, how else can someone claim that life is an accident, that people are a breed of monkeys, that life is purposeless, that pleasure-seeking is the highest good, that the earth is trivial in terms of consequence, etc.?
Non-scientific forms of ignorance – and arrogance - do not produce these affronts. People generally tend to respect the advances of inborn human nature and values. Only when extraordinary scientific strides are made, that people lose their way at once.
Non-believers are obsessed with extraterrestrial life – and with the possibility of conquering it - because they need to run away from themselves and try other options. The truth is perhaps "out there".
Also, so much material and immaterial damage have caused the earth that life on it is not sustainable in the long run. Other alternatives should be explored so that people's irresponsible behavioral models could continue ad infinitum. Positively, nobody cares about the earth – or the heavens. All people care about is their greed and their selfish interests.
Believers know that the earth is their only home, which necessitates responsible thought and action patterns. The heavens are neighborhoods. If there are neighbors out there, we should try to get to know them, if possible. If not, the circumstance changes nothing.
Neither knowledge nor ignorance about extraterrestrial life should get the better of people. Terrestrial life must go on, and terrestrial wellbeing must be sustained first and foremost. Every moment is a step closer either to Jannah (Paradise) or Jahannam (Hell).
People's ultimate destinies do not depend on extraterrestrial life or on aliens. Their destinies are in their own hands and their terrestrial midst.
The truth is down here.