The Dial Watch Issue in the Treatise of Mi’raj (Ascension): The Physics of Time and Space
Though modern science keeps metaphysical phenomena out of its domain of research and indeed Islam does not necessarily need the endorsement of science to validate its principles, it is very interesting to observe that recent findings in modern physics give clues about the theoretical possibility of the Mi’raj of the Prophet (PBUH).
While explaining the lofty aspects of the Mi’raj (the ascension of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to the heavens) in his treatise on the Mi’raj, Imam Bediuzzaman Said Nursi says that he attempts to expound the issue without taking the deniers of Islam into consideration and he explains the reason for this attitude. Yet he sometimes pauses and responds to the questions which he thinks might come from those kinds of people whom he says are “among the audience”. This is like taking a break and deigning to make yourself get down into the dust and dirt for a while, when you are on top of the lofty and pure truths and ecstasy. That is, it is really self-sacrifice to engage with spiritually boring nuisances which doubt and denial implicate, while you are in the middle of the joy emanating from divine truths. As a compassionate man, Imam Nursi, not finding it in his heart to leave that denier in his darkness and eternal decline, wants to make a path and ignite a light for those kinds of people. Just as the respected imam spares time for bothersome questions, considering them important, we are going to support those answers with findings of the modern physics of today. Sciences like physics, which are products of human effort, may not explain thoroughly all the events that Islam reports with their limited area of coverage, but the case for the Mi’raj is different.
We are going to explain the aforementioned questions and answers in the treatise of the Mi’raj with the eye of a physicist. Then we will focus on the compliance of the results of the theory of relativity with the questions and answers. The findings that were proposed by the theory of relativity and verified by experiments and which are related to the nature of time and space are quite conducive to understanding the issue of the Mi’raj rationally. Later, we are going to present the speculative consequences of this theory which are theoretically possible and discussed by prominent physicists. These consequences have been verified mathematically, but they have not yet been confirmed experimentally (technically it is not possible yet); nevertheless, they endorse the Mi’raj strongly.
Another point which needs to be noted is that the questions which the Imam tries to answer are in the field of mechanical physics, which is now outdated due to the developments in physics in the last seventy years, thus rendering these questions meaningless. Today every student in natural sciences and engineering departments must have received the information that time and space are relative.
1. The aforementioned questions in the treatise of the Mi’raj and the dial watch issue
“And the following comes to mind: O atheist! You say: “Man is only able to ascend to a height of one or two kilometers with a thousand difficulties by means of a plane. How then could someone come and go bodily within a few minutes covering a distance that would normally take thousands of years?” When we consider this question in the treatise of the Mi’raj, we realize that time and space are regarded in the same category. The distance has been stated as thousands of years and ‘year’ is a unit of measurement for time. Imam Nursi responds summarily as follows: If Allah is able to make someone advance a distance of a thousand years within a year under the effect of the gravity of a mass like the Earth, He is able to make anybody advance any distance within any time frame if He wishes. We will see the term gravity used here in the theory of relativity in a different role as a key element. The Imam gives some numbers (distance with time unit). The annual average speed of the Earth is 30 km/s and the distance that it takes in a year is 940 million km and he measures this as a distance of twenty-five thousand years. When you consider time like space, you see it in the space and time chart of the Earth and the Moon (vertical axis time).
He does not forget the last part of this question and asks it again: “And it comes to mind: You say: ‘It is impossible to cover a distance of a thousand years within a couple of weeks’”. The response which is given points to the different speeds of beings among His creatures which Allah has made mobile, that is, the things which have different velocities at the same time period may cover different distances. For example, the speed of sound in the air is 300 m/s, and the speed of light in a vacuum is 300000 km/s, and while sound covers 300 meters in a second, light travels 300000 km. The speed of the spirit and imagination has been neither defined nor measured by modern physics. We learn that the Mi’raj took place in the velocity of the spirit. By saying “it is clear that it takes a longer time to experience what you see in your dreams in a short moment” he puts an end to the issue. I do not know whether the Imam was aware of the theory of relativity which was written by Einstein in 1905. The consequences of this theory were later verified through experiments. The consequence of this theory is explained in the following way: Time may slow down and space may be folded up, just like bast’uz zaman – tayyu’l makan. As formulated by the Imam, “it means one single moment becomes a day for one man and a year for another. Yes, similar events have been confirmed through experiments, though they are not just in these scales.
The Imam wants to show that time may be different for two different people by means of the example of a dial watch. He describes a different system than the usual classical watch indicators. He wants us to imagine ten different watch indicators and each one of them is ten times longer than the other one consecutively, and all of them are fixed in the same focal point (to show that they move in the same time period). Technically, he comes up with a logarithmic scale of 60. A photo of a watch which does not suit this description, but has many stick indicators is next to this column. Since it must be technically difficult to make a watch which has many indicators fixed in the same centre, its small sticks have been fixed in different centers. But the centers must be synchronized harmoniously.
Let us make an explanation in order to figure out things clearly: Consider the racers on a two-meter running track. We will inspect the first moments when the racers turn with a thirty degree angle. The length of the arch that the farthest racer makes is twice as long as the arch of the racer who is in the middle, because their distance to the center which they turn around, that is the rate of semi-diameter, is two. Though the racers scan the same angle in one moment (say one second and their angular speed is the same) there are different length scales of arches responding to the same angle. Each circle that each racer draws is different (the length of the sticks represent the magnitude of velocity). For one second, the value of velocity from the outer to the inner is as follows: 2, 1, 1, 58, 1, 05, 0, 52 and 0 m/s.
Now, consider a stick as long as the semi-diameter of the orbit of the Earth and this stick draws an arch of 30 km and turns 0,000014 degrees when it turns one second. It seems as if the first meter of this stick almost remains in its place. 500000 km of the stick has taken only 1 km distance (drawn the arch) for the same angle. 5 thousand km of the stick has drawn a one-meter arch. In the same one second, the different places of the stick have drawn different arches and covered different distances and the places closer to center have hardly moved at all. Briefly, the Imam shows that things which have different velocities will cover different distances in the same moment through a one-system dial watch. Maybe he meant the picture next to the column by the watch with ten sticks, because they resemble the watch with ten sticks and they are not bad. The round values of their rotating around the Sun are as follows, from the closer to the farther away: 1/4, 1/2, 1 (guess which one?), 2, 12, 30, 84 and 165 years.
I will give two examples which will be helpful to understand this issue. In the event of a solar eclipse, the moon comes in front of the Sun and covers it. How can it ever be possible for the Moon to cover the Sun since it is smaller than the Sun? It can do so because when the centers of the Sun and the Moon stand in the same line, since they correspond to the same angle but have different arch lengths (corresponding to the semi-diameter of the Moon and Sun), in the eye of an observer, as it may be seen in the picture, the covering takes place. Another example is that rockets launched into space from the northern hemisphere are launched from the south as much as possible, because due to the rotation of the Earth around its own axis, the objects have a speed. That speed decreases towards the poles and it climaxes at the equator. Since the equator is the farthest point to the axis of the Earth, the speed gained is the greatest. Briefly, while a person covers 40075 km distance a day, his speed is 40075 km/day, as long as he goes to the north, his speed varies such as 10000 km/day, 500 km/day and 10 km/day. Thus, when the rocket is launched closer to the South Pole, it will have the greatest speed, that is, the most kinetic energy possible. In this way, the launching may be carried out with less energy.
The Imam concludes then as follows: “Now, since time is a colour or line of movement, any principle operating in movement also operates in time.” That is, “time also varies and differs like movement.” Today physics confirms this result but it infers it from a very different angle. Let me remind you of this; it is obvious that the dial watch example is given to rationalize the fact that time is not absolute and it may vary, otherwise, it is not important whether it has a physical reality or not.
2. Time and Space in the Theory of Relativity
Albert Einstein presented the consequences of special relativity in one of three important essays which he published in 1905. This theory considers the principle of the unchangeableness of the physical rules essential. Rather than stating that “everything is relative”, it was a theory based on unchangeableness! That is, the physical rules should have stayed unchanged in systems which move in a fixed speed comparatively. For example, are the formulas given to explain the fall of an apple through the angles of a man who is standing on the ground and a man who is walking at a fixed speed the same? While they are the same in Newton’s laws of motion, they are different in terms of electromagnetic laws. If you take the unchangeableness of these as a principle, then you need to keep the velocity of light fixed according to different references. Besides, the velocity of light should have been the ultimate speed for physical objects. Suppose an object is approaching us with half the velocity of light. If this object sends us light through its headlamps we do not see it coming with 1, 5 but with 1 velocity of light. There was a payoff of this consideration, that is, if velocity = space/time and the velocity of light is fixed, both the time and space will not be absolute and they need to vary according to moving persons. In the picture next to the paragraph it is seen that the dial in the watch in the spaceship extends further than the dial in the watch on the ground.
We have reached the point which the Imam wanted to explain through the dial watch in a very different way; “with regard to two men, it means one single moment becomes a day for one man and a year for another.” Without making it too complicated, the result that was reached is as follows: Suppose that one man sets off on a voyage with a craft in space, and the other man on the ground measures that time for the man in the spacecraft gets slower. You may calculate this measurement. If the man on the ground spends ten years, the man in the craft in space spends seven years (in the picture you see a dramatically aged old man). In the same way, the distance also must shorten according to a person moving fast (in the figure the diameter of velocity of the ball in the direction of movement, which is represented by v, is shortened as the velocity of light nears to c). Do these theoretical changes have practical correspondences? Yes, many examples of them have been discovered in the course of time. For example; after production of the atomic clock, that is, when the devices which calculate the nano-seconds were produced in the 70s, three of them were kept in a safe place and the other two of them were put in two different planes, one of them was orbiting around the world in accordance with its rotation direction and the other one was orbiting in the opposite direction. When the planes returned, a slowdown proportionate to the calculation of the theory of relativity was determined in the clocks. Today, unless the GPS system considers this slowdown percentage in time while locating specific points on the earth through satellite, it fails. Science magazine reported in 2006 that two magnetic stars were approaching each other by 7 mm every day. 7 mm is an extremely small number regarding the sensitivity of light-year distance. The time period, which was calculated as 0.059029997929613 of a second, was quite a sensitive test result (it nearly turns 20 times in a second) and the data which was discovered confirms the theory of relativity.
The time interval for these distances is quite huge regarding the distance in the Mi’raj event. Yet these studies have shown that time between moving objects and persons is not the same and it may vary; that is, the result that the Imam tries to reach through the dial watch example exists as a matter of principle. Thus, “one single moment is one day for one man and one year for another man “.
We are going to give two examples to see how science comprehends the issue. It is mentioned in a popular physics book as follows: “It was impossible for people to reach to the stars before the theory of special relativity. But, space is relative – that is, it varies according to the one who moves. For the one who moves at a speed close to the velocity of light, space is shortened and time is extended, and thus there is an opportunity for future astronauts to journey to the stars and beyond. We are on the eve of new beginnings, like a child who opens the first page of a book. Newtonian physics has been able to take us to the moon, and the physics of Einstein shows the way to the stars. We are living in quite an exciting age (P. Hewitt, Conceptual Physics). Muslims have always been the exceptions to those who believed that “it was impossible…to reach to the stars”, because the Mi’raj event is an extremely interesting journey to beyond the stars! Another example is from the book titled About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution by Paul Davies (notice what is said about time): “The life-span of the neutrons is nearly 15 minutes and they cannot travel too much within this time period. Just at that point, time-wrap comes into play. If the neutron goes too fast its life-span extends enormously through our view. For example, if the neutron has trillions electron volt energy (the scientists tried to give that level of energy to protons in Cern) it gains a billion time-wrap, that is, 15-minute life-span of neutrons turn into 35 thousand years. That means such a neutron travels
in space for 35 thousand years before being annihilated and this is enough for them to move from CygnusX-3 (a group of stars which is source of X-Ray) and reach Earth. This is a wonderful time-wrap. If you go as fast as this neutron you are going to live a billion years with the time of the world.” It is represented in the next picture how attraction curves time and space; it even curves light and goes ahead in its way. A star seems like two from the world when it comes towards us as its light is curved.
Einstein later put forward his theory of general relativity. One consequence of this theory was that it foresaw the Big Bang event, and the other was that time is slowed down when the attraction is intense. This means that the watch of a man in space and of a man on the ground show different times, because since the man on the ground was strongly affected by the Earth’s gravity, his watch is slower compared to the watch on the man in space, even though the difference is small. Irrespective of the issue that we just mentioned above, this is another mechanism which shows that time slows down. Briefly, gravity’s shortening effect on time is explained in the treatises as follows: “Is not a wisdom which makes the quite heavy Earth travel around the sun like a whirling dervish with a divine law called the sun’s gravity able to elevate a body of a human being to the heaven of the Most Merciful like a lightning flash with the gravity of the compassion of the Most Merciful and the attraction of the love of the Eternal Sun?”
All these developments, such as the slowing down of time according to the movements of persons and objects and the gravity they are exposed to, are very well known as physical truths today. It is possible to use bast’ul zaman for the slowing down of time, that is, some work which takes one person a long time to do may be handled within a few minutes by someone else. In the words of the Imam, a day for one person may be a year for someone else. In this situation, when a speed calculation is made according to the theory of relativity, the speed of a man who lives a day must be 0.9999962469 times the velocity of light. This is nearly the velocity of light itself. It is obvious that time itself is subjected to the law of change which is available in movement. But the level of change is far from explaining the Mi’raj event as an extraordinary incident in terms of quantity. There are findings of physicists which they have reached through Einstein’s theory of relativity, and which show the possibility of a higher level of comprehension of the event of the Mi’raj.
3. Some mathematical speculative studies and journey through time
Carl Sagan (1934 –1996) was famous in the field of astronomy, presented many TV shows on scientific topics and wrote science-fiction novels. In his novel “Contact”, which was later filmed, the protagonist is supposed to travel through galaxies/stars within a couple of years. Though the shortening of time which the special theory of relativity envisages may be considered to be possible, millions of years would be needed for something like that. Finally he called his friend Prof. Kip Thorne from the California Institute of Technology (CALTEC), one of the leading universities in the USA, and asked him whether it was possible to cover long distances in a short time through the general theory of relativity. We may suppose that if Sagan had asked the question in the following way, it would not have been wrong: “Dear Kip, I heard that the Prophet Muhammad of the Muslims travelled to places in space further than what the astronauts have discovered so far. Is this possible according to the last findings in science which you are aware of?” Carl Sagan asked a similar question. Kip Thorne, after working on the issue for a while, showed that such an event was possible through the theories of relativity and quantum. Although that was a theoretical work on paper, it was published in the most respected journals of physics.
What did Prof. Thorne find? He discovered a concept called a wormhole, which is a hypothetical topological feature of space-time that would be, fundamentally, a “shortcut” through space-time. Briefly, imagine the space that we live in as a two-dimensional flat held paper (like a map). We mark two opposing points on the edges, say one is al-Quds (Jerusalem) and the other is Mecca. You may go from one point to the other over the flat paper through one of several paths. According to the conception which Prof. Thorne found, it was possible to bring two points over each other leaving 2-3 cm between them by curving the paper, that is, he showed that it is possible to curve space like a flexible sheet and thus to bring together two points. When one point comes under the other one, it would be possible to travel from Mecca to al-Quds without spending any time. Of course, for such a curving to be possible, there would be a need for extreme gravity. Is there any reason for such a gravity to happen? In the same essay, it is explained why there could be such gravity. Prof. P. Davies summarizes the issue in the following way: “The idea of a wormhole is quite speculative and marginal, but we understand from the nature of gravity along with quantum physics that that kind of situation is theoretically possible. However, practically it is too expensive a proposal. To be able to carry out such a thing, you need to grab a black hole (an instantaneously interesting center of attraction!) and customize its inside to turn it into a wormhole. That is a kind of engineering in the scale of the cosmos. Briefly, if theoretically there is a wormhole, this fact shows the possibility of the paradox of tunneling in time.”
The fact that what Imam Nursi says about the journey of Mi’raj being theoretically verified by modern physics should be very interesting. Is something like that really possible? It is concisely stated in the same treatise as follows: “Is not He able to elevate the body of a human being to the heaven of the Most Merciful like a lightning flash with the gravity of compassion of the Most Merciful and the attraction of the love of the Eternal Sun?” Besides, the conclusion which has been reached does resemble the passage in the Fifteenth Letter: “There are two ways to reach to Laylatul Qadr at last night: First: Travelling through all the year and reaching it. To be able to get this closeness you need to delete all the year and this is the path of the people of Sufism. The people of Sufism mostly prefer this path. Second: The corporeal body, which is bound to time, is isolated from his material cover and he rises up spiritually and experiences the Laylatul Qadr at last night along with the Laylatul Eid (Festival night) on the next day in the present moment, because the spirit is not bound by time. Once the feelings of human being get to the level of the spirit, the present time expands. Time which is past and future for others becomes present time for him.”
It is an indisputable fact that the truth of the Mi’raj is bound to the resolution of the mystery of time and space. In the question at the beginning of the article there was implicit acknowledgement of a concept of time which was streaming anyway in the universe and binding and controlling everything. Actually, this concept of absolute time was the assumption of the old physicists, especially Newton. With Einstein’s theory of relativity, time and space were dealt under the same category and these were not considered as absolute in themselves and could change according to mobile and immobile objects. The theory of relativity has shown that time can be slowed down with two different mechanisms, which were supported by experiments. In spite of all these explanations the physicists admit that they cannot solve the mystery of time completely. Briefly, modern physics responds positively to the question of ‘how a human being can go a thousand-years-distance within a couple of minutes’ and it verifies this fact with experiments which it carries out. When we contemplate deeply, we conceive that the ascension in the Mi’raj is beyond the comprehension of modern sciences. Nevertheless, the possibility of the event within the framework of physical principles is debated among prominent physicists.
Sceptics or critics may object, but we can’t help feeling the joy in this situation. Taking courage from the tawafuqaat (synchronicities) in Sikka-i Tasdiq-i Ghayby, a book of Nursi’s, we can say that: it is truly amazing to see how Allah (SWT) employs the smartest men in the most serious institutions of the world to clarify the ascension (Mi’raj) of His loved one (PBUH). A TV show called ‘Nova’ highlighting travel through time as a main theme was aired on the American TV channel PBS in 1999. Many scientists such as Prof. Carl Sagan and Prof. Kip Thorne were interviewed during the show. They related the “myths and legends” of classical and ancient civilizations, while mentioning travel through time and they said that there were various stories regarding this concept. I would like to end my article by quoting a little excerpt from that narration. This is a connection that a non-Muslim Western scientist makes between the Mi’raj event and travelling through time based on recent findings in modern physics.
“Ancient legends of time distortion are, in fact, quite common. One of the most poetic descriptions of time travel occurs in a popular medieval legend describing a monk entranced for a minute by the song of a magical bird. When the bird stops singing, the monk discovers that several hundred years have passed. Another example is the Moslem legend of Muhammad carried by a mare into heaven. After a long visit, the prophet returns to Earth just in time to catch a jar of water the horse had kicked over before starting its ascent.” (Time Travel, PBS, October 12, 1999)
An event that took place 1400 years ago and today can only be understood by science through complex theories of time and space, none of which were known at that time, must be the truth.
Authored by Dr Halil Ibrahim PIRAHMEDOGLU