The size of the universe is mind-boggling. There are many billions of suns out there and many of them have planetary systems. It makes poor economic sense that these should be dead worlds without a purpose. We have learned that the cosmos is a marvel of efficiency and that nature is seldom, if ever wasteful. The Earth, vital as it is for our existence, is a mere spec in this vast cosmic construction. The fundamental question that has puzzled scholars for centuries is, Is there life out there? No one knows for sure but we have sufficient knowledge to speculate intelligently to provide a likely answer to this serious question. It is a serious question since the search for extra-terrestrial (ET) life is a search for who we are, where we came from and what is our significance in the universe. Another important reason for space exploration is the alarming rate at which the world’s population is increasing. The Earth has limited resources. Looking for a place elsewhere has become a pressing issue.
The building blocks of life are everywhere
The two key ingredients of life are organic material and water. Organics are not confined to Earth but have been detected through radio telescopic observations in comets, meteorites, interstellar-space in other galaxies. Almost all contain carbon which played a pivotal role in the origin of life on Earth. Water has also been discovered in extra-Earthly regions. Comets are laden with water and there is good evidence that rivers of water once flowed on the now cold and dry Martian surface. Life as we understand it at its most basic level is all about physics and chemistry. Since the laws of physics and chemistry and the building blocks of life are universal, it is reasonable that the assembly of the latter under the influence of such laws (the same that occurred in the primitive Earth) is going on elsewhere i.e. ET existence is a real possibility.
At this stage it is important that we distinguish between fiction and careful scientific reasoning. I am specifically referring to UFO’s. There is no concrete evidence that little green men are visiting our planet. Approximately 98% of so-called UFO sightings can be accounted for. The common explanation ranges from hoaxes, atmospheric phenomena, religious propaganda to even intelligent conspiracy theories presumably designed to divert peoples’ attention from the real issues of economics and poor social conditions. It is the remaining 2% that are unexplained. These involve level-headed people that are generally concerned about their weird experiences of UFO sightings, alien abduction and operations performed on them by aliens. The best explanation is that these are visual hallucinations as a result of brain dysfunction. Such individuals are often obsessed with UFO’s and alien creatures. What is remarkable is that their descriptions of alien-beings and spaceships bear an uncanny resemblance to images that appear in TV fiction programs of aliens.
If there is no evidence that alien spaceships are traversing our skies and I am arguing that there may be advanced civilizations out there, then why have we not made contact? There may be several reasons for this- let me mention one. The cosmos is a mighty big place. There may be countless exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) but few of them will be suitable to sustain life and even fewer will evolve higher intelligence. Looking for intelligent life beyond our Earthly borders is like looking for a needle in a hay stack.
The Quranic view
What does the Quran say about this intriguing subject? Verse 10-61 states: “Not even the weight of an atom in the Earth or in the heavens escapes thy Sustainer’s knowledge and neither is there anything smaller than that or larger, but is recorded in (His) clear record”. In its usual characteristic style the Quran makes a philosophical statement (God’s all-embracing knowledge) and links it up with a scientific fact discussed below. The reason is to give its philosophical message more appealing power and to emphasize its unified approach. What the passage conveys is that there are particles smaller than atoms and that atoms and sub-atomic particles are minute universal entities which have physical properties like weight. We know that the architecture of the atom is maintained by the forces of nature. So if atoms can exist here and elsewhere as suggested by this verse, then the forces of nature must be operative throughout the universe. This understanding is supported by 2 verses. 35-1 states: “Originater of the heavens and the Earth who created the forces of nature which are (forms of) energy, messenger (particles) moving at a great speed, two, three or four”. 31-20 tells us that, “God has subjected whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the Earth (to His laws so that they be of use to you)”. The universal distribution of atoms and the uniformity of the laws of nature as pointed out by these verses is consistent with a universal creation process.
The unity of life
Although life-forms can be tenacious and thrive under the most adverse conditions, there are certain basic requirements for it to kick off and take a foot hold. It requires water, organic and inorganic material and energy processers i.e. an Earthly environment. There are several verses which supports this line of reasoning: “We have made every living thing from water” (21-30); “He evolved you from water” (25-54); “He evolved you from the fundamental constituents of the Earth” (20-30); “He it is who created multiple cosmic systems and of the Earth a similar number” (65-12). The last verse points to the existence of other Earth-like worlds (and other solar systems, see shortly) and by implication they are the most likely to support the origin and development of life. The environment is one of the most important factors in shaping the cause of evolution. It follows that if there are planets out there that are Earth-like and given the basic requirements for life and the fact that evolution is about successful adaption to specific environments, such life forms would at least share some features with their terrestrial counterparts. There biology would not be fundamentally different. One can therefore imagine on other Earth-like worlds the evolution of eyes in a well-lit region, echolocation technology in murky waters, animals having a thin musculature and spindly legs in areas where gravity is weak and so on.
The multiplicity of other solar systems is expressed in 71-15” ..” Do you not see that God has created multiple solar systems (consisting of) several layers one above the other, (and created them) in stages and set up in each one of them a moon that reflects light and a sun that generates light”. I have interpreted the Arabic word samawat as solar systems for the following reasons: The context of the verse- the sun and moon are essential bodies of such systems; 23-17 alludes to the creation of multiple orbits “above you” while 55-5 states that celestial bodies move according to precise mathematical laws. These are features of a solar system. In fact 65-12 and 71-15 consider the prototypical situation of a planet like the Earth with its orbiting moon revolving around a star like the sun. it appears that the Quran is referring to those solar systems which are most likely to support life. This is understandable since it speaks about Earth-like worlds, a moon and a sun, not just any star, but a star like our sun. This distinction is important. Not all stars are suitable to sustain life. For instance, very large stars rapidly burn up their fuel and thus have a relatively short lifespan. They exist only for a few hundred million years, too short to allow the evolution of complex life forms. Our sun has an average mass and a low fuel turnover and therefore a much longer lifespan, about 10 billion years, sufficient time for the development of advanced life. Note also that verse 71-15 refers to one sun only. The gravity of two or more companion suns (2 or 3 star systems are common throughout the universe) is likely to make planetary orbits unstable and hence life improbable. It is further clear that such systems consist of layers or orbits which are created in stages so that at any one time we will find them in a particular state of development. This is precisely what astronomers observe when scanning the skies- solar systems in various stages of development.
Preparing the reader to identify with ET existence and providing the reasons why this is very likely, the Quran proceeds with the following statement: “Amongst His signs is the origin and evolution of the heavens and the Earth and the living creatures that He has scattered throughout them” (42-29)- an unambiguous statement about the existence of life beyond Earth across the universe. The living creatures according to the Arabic term are creeping and crawling beasts like fish, insects, tetra pods and walking animals which may include upright walking species.
Advanced ET life
“All beings in the heavens and Earth submit themselves before Him, willingly and unwillingly….” (13-15). While verse 42-29 above speaks of creatures in general, reference is made here to a higher form of existence, not necessarily human beings, but beings having a faculty of discernment. All such beings submit to God i.e. the divine laws in the Quranic context. In the material realm all beings must obey the biological laws prescribed for them and in the physical world their individual personalities are subject to the law of cause and effect. Atheists are included as indicated by the term submit willingly or unwillingly. Although they do not submit to God willingly, they are nevertheless without being aware of it subject to His will (the law of cause and effect or the moral law which will be discussed at a later stage). The existence of speaking beings on Earth and elsewhere is implied in 21-4: “My Sustainer knows whatever is spoken in the heavens or Earth”. These two verses illustrates that advanced ET beings possess the same two features that are distinctly human- faculty of thought and speech.
The first contact
Our first contact with civilizations elsewhere will be one of the greatest moments in the history of man. The momentous event will come to pass as predicted in the Quran: “He has the power to bring into contact life and Earth and elsewhere at a time (in the future) in accordance with His will” (42-29). The Arabic word for contact means in a physical sense or via communication. Note once again the advanced nature of the Arabic language. His will should not be loosely applied, but means a term set by God. His will conveys the inevitability of the event and that is part of the divine scheme. Although time of contact depends on technological progress, man’s ingenuity is but a reflection of God’s creative skill. Thus in the final analysis the time of contact will be determined by God.
On a philosophical note; as we gaze up at the sky and observe the stars, it is a compelling thought that other beings and creatures may inhabit them. We can imagine a time in the distant future when a vast intergalactic network of communications will be set up linking various civilizations across the universe. We will become galactic citizens who share a common origin and a common goal. We have all come from the stars (our bodies are made of atoms created in long forgotten stars) and we are the pinnacle and purpose of evolution. But this should make us humble and privileged that we have been chosen by the universal consciousness to assist the advancement and evolution of the cosmos. To conclude- Could an illiterate dessert dweller 1400 years ago have given such an account of the possibility of ET existence?