Muhammad and the Universe

A dozen surprising things gathered from Lesley Hazleton’s book The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad and Discovery Channel’s documentary How the Universe Works.

  1. The Big Bang happened everywhere. The Big Bang happened here and everywhere else because the whole universe was crammed into a tiny space in that moment, 13.7 billion earth-years ago. We don’t know what caused the Big Bang, but we do know that the laws of physics allow for something to arise out of nothing. The laws of physics were also created out of nothing during the Big Bang.The First Muslim
  2. Muhammad was almost never born. His Meccan grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib, who owned the freshwater spring closest to the Kaaba Sanctuary and who took in the profits from selling water to pilgrims, had promised in his earlier years to sacrifice one of his sons—if he had ten of them living into adulthood. Having ten living sons was improbable, but was also a sign of great divine grace. His terrifying vow silenced the Meccan leaders who wanted to challenge al-Muttalib over his water rights. When the time came to fulfill that vow, the sacred stone of Hubal picked Abdullah, Muhammad’s future father.
  3. We are all stardust. Every atom in our bodies was forged inside a star, the place where atoms collide and fuse into new, heavier atoms, releasing or absorbing energy in the process. For the molecules of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, or nitrogen to take their places inside our bodies, scores of stars had to die off in tremendous explosions called supernovae that sent their atoms flying across the universe.
  4. Muhammad was an orphan. Childhood mortality was so high in Mecca during the seventh century AD, that well-off families sent their babies away from the foul, smoky air of the city to be nursed and cared for by Bedouin women on the Arabian steppes. Muhammad was taken out of Mecca after his birth and returned only when he was five. His father had died before he was born and his mother would die when he was six, leaving him an orphan at the mercy of his wealthy relatives who put him to work as a camel boy on caravans.

    Gas cloud after a supernova explosion

    Gas cloud after a supernova explosion

  5. Iron is a star killer. A star goes through shorter and shorter and hotter and hotter nuclear fusion stages. Hydrogen fusion, helium fusion, carbon fusion, oxygen fusion, and silicon fusion are all exothermic. But a star cannot fuse elements past iron because that kind of nuclear reaction takes in energy instead of releasing it. Up to that point there is a balance between the forces of gravity pulling inwards, and the fusion-released energy directed outwards from the star. Once iron gets created, gravity wins, the star collapses in an instant, the energy at its core grows so big and so fast that the star explodes into a supernova. During the explosion, chemical elements heavier than iron are created: gold, platinum, uranium—those called “rare.”
  6. The Satanic Verses brought peace to Mecca for a day. When Meccan leaders rejected the idea of a unique supreme being as revealed by Muhammad and continued to worship their local divinities Lat, Uzza and Manat, Muhammad longed for a divine message that would reconcile him with his own people. Then God revealed to him Sura 53 that acknowledged the three Meccan divinities as His daughters. They were, the revelation said, giant birds that flew over the earth and intervened on behalf of those who worshipped them. The Meccans were happy with a revelation that acknowledged the faith of their ancestors, but not so the angel Gabriel, who visited the prophet and scolded him for listening to Satan’s false revelations.  Muhammad was overcome with fear and the next day rejected the local Meccan divinities as imaginary beings. His message of “There is no god but God” soon drove him out of Mecca, and into exile to Medina.How the Universe Works
  7. There is a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. It is 4 million times the mass of our sun, 26,000 light-years away from our solar system, in the constellation Sagittarius A*. There are dozens of smaller black holes in the neighboring Andromeda galaxy. In fact black holes are everywhere, as they are left behind by massive stars that collapse when they run out of fuel.
  8. The third Jewish tribe of Medina never saw it coming. After expelling two of the three Jewish tribes of Medina for rejecting the Quranic message and refusing to acknowledge him as a prophet, Muhammad designated a militant hardliner and a dying war hero to decide what to do with the third tribe, the Qureyz, in the aftermath of Meccan army’s siege of Medina of 627 CE. The Qureyz had been loyal to Muhammad, defended Medina together with everybody else, but had been set up to look like traitors, enough to warrant their public punishment. The verdict was death for men, slavery for women and children, and confiscation of all property. Muhammad personally oversaw the massacre during the three days it took the believers, working in shifts, to behead and throw the bodies of all the Qureyz men (400 to 900 people) in common graves.
  9. Our solar system used to be a violent place. In the beginning, 4 billion years ago, our solar system had over 100 planetoids that kept crashing into each other until only eight were left orbiting the sun. The first four planets of our solar system are rocky planets, the other four are gaseous planets, with rings of gas and dust around them. Saturn and Jupiter have over 60 moons each, and every moon is different in make and size. Jupiter’s huge magnetic field reaches all the way to Saturn and keeps its neighboring Earth safe from most asteroids, meteors and comets.

    Pilgrims circling the Kaaba in Mecca

    Pilgrims circling the Kaaba in Mecca

  10. Muhammad’s dying wish was lost to his followers. In his crowded sickroom, Muhammad asked for writing materials to make his last wishes known. Instead of bringing a scribe, his nine wives and the other people close to the prophet began arguing amongst themselves, afraid of finding out whom the prophet wanted as his successor. For Muhammad, who might have suffered from bacterial meningitis, the clamor of their angry voices became unbearable. He asked them all to leave. Omar, one of his closest advisers, said then: “We have the Quran, the book of God, and that is sufficient for us.” Soon after Muhammad’s death, and in the absence of his will, two main factions formed—Sunni and Shia—who are arguing to this day about the right way of practicing Islam. (See Lesley Hazleton’s After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam.)
  11. We are at the beginning of a cosmic renaissance. During the past decade strange notions such as dark matter and dark energy became mainstream. Every year new and exciting discoveries allow us to see further and further into the past, well into the dark ages of our universe, a billion or so years after the Big Bang, before the stars began igniting, before there was light.
  12. Muhammad was buried where he had died. The prophet died on June 8, 632 CE. His funeral was delayed as the council of elders decided his successor. Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, the obvious candidate to become the first caliph, kept vigil over the prophet’s body and didn’t join the council. When the elders chose abu-Bakr as Muhammad’s successor, Ali denied him the funeral that would have consecrated his election. Instead, Ali and his kinsmen dug a grave right there in the sickroom. In the dead of night, they buried the prophet’s body at the foot of the platform serving as bed, and marked the spot with a simple stone slab.


Last week I read the profile of Alexander Vilenkin written by Steve Nadis for the September 2013 issue of Discover Magazine. Vilenkin is a cosmologist at Tufts University near Boston, and he proposes that “the Big Bang was not a one-off event, but merely one of a series of big bangs creating an endless number of bubble universes.”


10 thoughts on “Muhammad and the Universe

  1. Thank you for your post! I’ve started reading Lesley Hazleton’s book and also got to meet her at Harvard back in spring (where we talked together at some length, and she signed my copy!); however, I have yet to read the rest of the book to be able to state my opinion regarding the book as a whole. Your #10 and #12, though, were familiar to me, and I’m so happy that Mrs Hazleton has mentioned these widely-corroborated facts which are usually ignored in broader, ‘politically correct’ Moselm circles. At any rate, I also thank you, too, for bringing them up.

    I had two observations to make, however, on your #6 and #8, and my discussing them is only intended to render this whole post/page more informative for your readers, and is by no means an attack on what you’ve ‘reproduced’ here, because that’s exactly what you’ve done, and, if anything, Mrs Hazleton is to be the right addressee of my ‘rumination’ here. Upon closer investigation, both these so-called facts (on ‘Satanic Verses’ and on the fate of the third Jewish tribe) seem problematic when one puts them back in their original context and subjects them to historiographic AND historical evaluations.

    Both these accounts have very shaky historiographic foundations, and the people who have reported them are not 100% reliable regarding their other narrations–actually far from it. And that’s how Islamic historiography works: ‘narrators’ (are supposed to) relay ‘traditions’ and ‘narrations’ (hadiths and revayats) from the Prophet and the prominent figures of the early days of Islam, and historiographers (e.g. Tabari, on whose monumental work Mrs Hazleton bases many of her readings) report these accounts and use them to flesh out a ‘historical’ narrative of what supposedly took place in those days. Later on, other historiographers (e.g. Mrs Hazleton herself) get to evaluate and accept/reject these earlier accounts. In both of these cases (#6 and #8), the early historiographers who have reported them seem to have based their accounts on untrustworthy sources, and, therefore, such accounts always need to be taken with a (substantial) pinch of salt.

    For instance, #6 clearly goes against what the Prophet and the new revelations he had brought were all about. One only needs to take a look at the verses of the Qur’an (on which Mrs Hazleton already gave a wonderful TedTalk a number of years ago) and see how the fiercely anti-polytheistic message of the Qur’an rejects any such intimations, i.e. that the three famous idols of Meccan tribes were by any means related to Allah. The Qur’an, from the beginning to the end, is a thorough rejection of ‘false gods’, and the Meccan or other polytheisms are the target of its unflinching critique. The unity of God and finality of Muhammad’s Prophethood are the two most important tenets of Islam (Shia or Sunni makes no difference here), and the Qur’an closely follows both throughout (on this issue, I suggest Frithjof Shuon’s key text, _Understanding Islam_ [1963]). Also, the possibility of ‘Satan’ be(com)ing the source of ‘any’ revelation to the Prophet, even if decried as false at the time, cannot theologically be sustained. Same can be said regarding ‘Gabriel scolding the Prophet’, and although some sects or schools of thought within Islam have entertained such ideas mostly to emphasise the possible ‘fallibility’ of the Prophet, the Qur’an itself is again the best arbiter of truth in this regard. Interestingly, it is the same Sura/Chapter 53 which begins by confirming the Prophet’s infallibility, at the very least in relaying the revelations brought down to him by Gabriel, and such messing-ups through the agency of Satan or Gabriel’s ‘corrective missions’ are unthinkable within the terms of and the coherent framework established by the Qur’an.

    On #8, it is important to note that the Qureyz/Qurayza had not been “set up” to look like traitors; this, of course, came as totally unheard-of to me, and the fact that the Qurayza tribe had accepted the arbitration of the dying war hero mentioned above (Sa’d ibn Mu’adh) must say something about their own sense of having betrayed their city/failed in their betrayal against the Islamic polity. Up to this part (that they had been “set up”), I think, is historically unsustainable. As to the second part of the claim that they were massacred the way described here, I should note that, although an outline of such an account has been reported by certain sources (again both Shia and Sunni), from a historiographic stance, one needs to point out that literally ALL of these narrations go back to the account as provided by a member of the Qurayza tribe who had converted to Islam; also, most of the subsequent narrators (‘chain of narrators’, to use the proper technical term) who have reported the incident are highly suspected of falsification in their work and much of what they’ve said have historically been ruled as outright fallacious. (Some of these narrators are infamous for their intentional falsifications of the hadiths of the Prophet for political gain/purposes and are routinely left out of most religious jurors’ [faqihs’] accounts.) However, this is not the only problem: from a ‘historical’ point of view, too, such a punishment just does not square with other widely-corroborated historical details regarding the life of the Prophet, his conduct in/after battles and especially towards the defeated (e.g. see the aftermath of the conquest of Mecca or the Battle of Hunayn [and how during the latter the Prophet made rounds scolding and stopping those who wanted to harm and/or kill POWs]), or the Qura’nic message that Mrs Hazleton herself has repeatedly drawn on (both in her TedTalk on the Qur’an and in other interviews).

    Looking forward to discussing these points in more detail if you or your readers so desired!

    Sincere thanks,

    • Thank you Kasra for reading my post and for commenting on it. I’m grateful for your taking the time.
      I hope that when you read “The First Muslim” you will appreciate the level of research and analysis that Ms. Hazleton has put into her work. For both of the contentious issues above (#6 and #8), she uses as primary sources Abu-Jafar al-Tabari’s Tarikh al-Rusul wa-al-Muluk, “History of the Prophets and Kings,” and Muhammad ibn-Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, “The Life of the Messenger of God,” with plenty of quotations. As I understand, these are the canon when it comes to the biography of the prophet. Ms. Hazleton acknowledges each time an account is controversial, she analyzes each possibility, and then highlights the most plausible one.
      (For #8, the person who set up the Qurayz, according to ibn-Ishaq, is Nuaym ibn-Masud, a Ghatafan clan leader secretly converted to Islam. Ms. Hazleton all but gets out of the way when providing this detail, leaving most of it to quotes from ibn-Ishaq. See page 229.)
      In a way, Ms. Hazleton uses the same method employed by ibn-Ishaq himself. Referring to ibn-Ishaq and al-Tabari, Ms. Hazleton writes:
      “Reading them, one senses their awareness that they are walking a fine line between their responsibility to history on the one side and tradition on the other. This delicate balancing act between history and faith goes hand in hand with their acknowledgment of the elusiveness of definitive fact —a quality as slippery in the hyper-documented world of today as it was in the oral tradition of theirs. Instead of aspiring to omniscience, then, they included conflicting accounts and left it to their readers to decide for themselves, though they did indicate their point of view. Throughout ibn-Ishaq’s work, for instance, there are phrases such as “it is alleged that” and “so I have been told.” In fact when several eyewitness accounts seem to contradict one another, he often sums up with “As to which of these is correct, only God knows for sure”— a statement that verges on a helpless “God knows!””
      Hazleton, Lesley (2013-01-24). The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad (p. 9). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

      Obviously, I cannot have an opinion about these primary sources myself. I don’t know what other sources are out there, apart from those presented in “The First Muslim” – the sources you refer to. I’m a casual reader of history, not a scholar. My blog is a journal of what I read while I work on my historical novel. I always pick up books from across the spectrum, books that explain how minute interactions between interesting historical characters happened. I read these books in an effort to understand and build my own characters with the complexity of real people and real history. One thing I learned reading history books over the years is that the past was messy. That even those people whom we hold in the highest regard had episodes in which they acted like real people, with worldly motivations and conflicting feelings. Ms. Hazleton’s book, as she states it, is intended to honor the Prophet Muhammad by presenting him as a real human being.

      Thank you for being part of this conversation, Kasra. History is as fluid in the light of new discoveries, new interpretations, new understanding, as science. I hope you find the documentary about the universe as fascinating as Ms. Hazleton’s book and I’m curious what perspective you might have on reconciling the two narratives.

      • Dear Roxana:

        Thanks for the reply and many apologies for the belated response; I’ll try to keep it short this time.

        As I said, my main problem is with how these two “canons,” as you rightly put it, got some of their information. To depend on them based on their centrality in historiographic tradition is one thing; to critically scrutinise their claims, reports, accounts, &c, is rather another thing which, of course, is not expected from the non-scholar reader of history–however, it might be something that Ms Hazleton, and other writers like her, could/should try to explore by going beyond the historical decrees that these so-called canons issued hundreds of years ago. I just wanted to remind us all that not all these claims have the same weight as or are as fairly well-documented as the others, because that ‘relative reliability’ is something one misses by merely looking at the uniform-looking entries you’ve reproduced here. It’s about time writers in English also started questioning these canons, which have been subjected to a myriad of critiques in Arabic, Persian, and other languages of the Islamic world. The question of ‘in/fallibility’, too, is of central importance here, and I think that’s the real line which divides believers in the truth of a religion, its main figures, &c, from mere observers who are by definition positioned outside this realm. (And there’s no guarantee that one such observer can ‘objectively’ assess that which happens inside only because they assume they can as well see, understand, and judge all that is going on there.) That’s why I have my doubts regarding those “episodes” that you spoke of, with their characteristic “worldly motivations” and “conflicted feelings,” because, to begin with, the attitude itself is entirely based on this faith in one’s own ‘outsider’ objectivity.

        As to the juxtaposition, of course, it came as a novel and innovative historiographic move to me. Also, it was ‘doubly’ informative and fun (i.e. easily digestible) to read. I was trying to find a common thread in both narratives though, which I failed to locate, at least in my first couple of passes. (For a moment, I thought there was something to be found in the Ka’ba picture with star-looking pilgrims circling around it, but I think I just read too much into it.) So I’d say it’s a nice innovation as far as reading practices are concerned; I’m not so sure about the exact historiographic/historical value of it. (Maybe I had the wrong set of expectations, and you could undeceive me.)

        By the way, Roxana, Alexander’s Sogdian wife, or its equivalent in Persian means ‘little light’ :-)

        Thanks again,

        • Thanks, Kasra! I knew about Alexander’s wife, and I knew the name had to do with “light” but that’s where translations began to diverge, from dawn’s light to little light:) In any case, I love my name.

          I’m sure Ms. Hazleton looked at tons of sources for her book, not only the canon. In fact, she mentioned at some point that she borrowed so many books from the University of Washington Library that her boathouse on the lake sank lower than normal. I also trust her critical thinking in analyzing all those sources. But, if you have a chance, check out the Bibliography section in her book, and, if you don’t see the sources you have in mind listed there, would you please post them here? I love reading conflicting accounts of history. I started this website with the idea of posting about things that might not be what we think they are.

    • Thanks, Mindy! That documentary is actually quite accessible. So is the profile in Discover Magazine. I didn’t know most of the stuff presented there. That’s why I brought it here, to share my excitement about the progress and conquests of the human mind. Most of the theories presented there were validated during the last couple of decades. It’s incredible how much we learned about the universe in such a short period of time. Makes me feel so proud of our scientists.

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