The Strange Beauty of the Universe

Peace, one and all…

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As the previous few posts will testify, in recent days I’ve been watching vidoes about the universe, time and the possibility of extra dimensions.  Although I am no scientist, I find such documentaries endlessly fascinating.  This is partially because it is refreshing to look at such questions from different angles.  That is, I enjoy these programmes as works of translation.  In other words, they translate the (to me) largely unintelligble language of mathematics and physics into terms I can grasp much more easily; they speak in a tongue I can understand and hear.  And, once I can begin to understand I can begin to converse with an idea: I can begin to formulate my own response

Watching these programmes, I was struck by both the strange beauty of the universe we live in, and also by the difficulty (if not the impossibility) of coming to terms with it fully, in the raw so to speak.  In other words, the scientists all seemed to struggle to convey what they were trying to say in ordinary language, resorting to the language of mathematics to offer complex descriptions of these proposed extra-dimensional realities.  Reflecting on this, we seem to return once again to the issue of language, of methods for describing reality, as opposed to experiencing it.  And, in order to fully understand scientific ideas, one must really attempt to learn scientific language.  Without such an exercise in translation, discussion is impossible.

Another thing that struck me was the apparent similarity between the parallel universes of contemporary physicists and those of the mystics.  In almost all of the world’s religious/mystical traditions complex descriptions of other worlds are found.  Although there are important differences, they all seem to posit the existence of metaphysical realities beyond this one.  The thought that occured to me was again one of language: to what extent, if any, are the descriptions of physicists and the descriptions of mystics the same?  Are they both using their own very different languages to point towards the same ideas?  Is such a comparison valid in any useful sense?

As I travelled home yesterday, I found myself reading Gerhard Bowering’s interesting article entitled Ideas of Time in Persian Sufism.  In his article, Bowering refers to examples drawn from Sufi hagiographies of Muslim mystics of subverting the normal flow of time.  In one source, Awhad al-Din Kirmani was apparently able to communicate individually with some 70,000 disciples in the course of a single night.  Abu Hafs Suhrawardi was apparently shown in a dream by Ruzbihan Baqli how to ‘fold’ or ‘roll up’ time.  Other examples of time-defying feats include, speed recitation of the Quran (tayy al-huruf), as well as bilocation.  Of course, on one level, these tales are miracle stories, most probably designed to point towards the extraordinary status of such figures.  They may also be seen as teaching stories, in which the saint in question performs such miraculous feats for a specific reason (i.e. there is a moral to the story).  Perhaps there might also be another way of seeing such stories – as alluding to the idea that it is possible to move beyond this dimension?  Or, put another way, that it is possible to step beyond conventional time, into a timeless moment.  Perhaps this is what is being alluded to by the phrase ibn waqtihi (or ‘son of his moment’)?

At any rate, after watching these videos, the question of meaning remains.  If true, what do these ideas mean?  For sure, as the You Tube comments reveal, there are many who feel strongly about the existence of extra dimensions: some see these things as proof for the existence of God; others see it as proof that our notions of God are an attempt to anthropomorphise this strange universe (or multiverse) in which we live.  Perhaps, in one sense, in a multiverse of infinite possibilities, an infinite number of meanings are possible.  In other words, there still remains one fundamental question for each and every one of us: what does this mean to me?  And further, how will I make use of this understanding? 

Thus, it seems, the why? and what now? remain to be explored individually.  For myself, questions of universal reality, personal meaning and moral imperative always bring me back to Surah al-`Asr, one of the shortest and most thought-provoking chapters from the Quran:

‘By (the Token of) Time (through the ages), Verily Man is in loss, Except such as have Faith, and do righteous deeds, and (join together) in the mutual teaching of Truth, and of Patience and Constancy’ (103:1-3, trans Y. A. Ali)

In our immediate context, this surah provides me with an orientation towards these questions and a method of practical action.  We should explore time; we should seek to learn about the universe’s hidden secrets.  And yet, it is individual faith and action that represents purpose.  Moreover, that purpose is communal: truth should be shared mutually, as should the inner qualities of patience and of constancy.

Wa akhiru da’wana an il hamdu lillahi rabbil alameen.

Ma’as salama,
Abdur Rahman

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