Is time travel possible? Before answering this question, one should halt in making giant leaps of imagination. The concept of time travel as depicted in the movie “Back to the future” has to be suspended. Let us pause and reflect on what is really scientifically known about time travel before we explore the Quran on the same topic.
It is now widely ascertained through experimental validation of theory of relativity that the pace of marching forward in time is not fixed. It is not a constant rate and this pace can be cranked up or slowed down. Thanks to the 2014 blockbuster movie Interstellar, people can perceive how this relativity of time can alter life experiences.
We can either march forward in the future faster or slower relative to other objects. There are two main variables that alter the speed of our march.
Influence of Gravity
The closer an object is to the centre of gravitational field, the slower its march forward in time. Consequently the further away an object is from the centre of a gravitational field the more time it experiences compared to an object close to the center.
For example, a person living at the top of a skyscraper would have clocked more seconds of life than someone living at the bottom floor. This effect is minuscule but grows with increasing distances. For instance an orbital satellite experiences an extra 38 microseconds each day compared to an object on the surface of the earth. The clocks on the satellite therefore have to be adjusted at fixed intervals to synchronize with the clocks on our planet. The accuracy of GPS satellites that orbit above 20,000 km will be hampered if this adjustment factor was not taken into consideration. In pure physics terms, this phenomenon is called gravitational time dilation and has been confirmed through many tests of general relativity. Two of the more renowned experiments are Pound–Rebka experiment and Gravity Probe A.
Influence of Speed
The faster an object travels, the lesser time it experiences. The late Carl Sagan’s television series Cosmos in the 1980’s made the “Twin Paradox” term popular that was before, known only within the scientific community. The Twin paradox is a thought experiment that evoked much pondering within scientific elite at the start of the 20th century. Similar to space exploration, the concept exploded into mainstream consciousness in the late 70’s.
The twin paradox assumes identical twins who decide to clock times. One sits on a park bench while the other travels in a spacecraft around the earth at light speed. The twins decide to meet after the travelling twin has completed several million laps of the planet. The conclusion of the experiment was that compared to the stationary twin, the other would have experienced a lot less time and therefore would have aged less. In scientific terms this phenomenon is known as relative velocity or kinematic time dilation.
(Late Carl Sagan explaining Time Dilation in the video)
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In a test conducted in 1971 that was dubbed as Hafele–Keating experiment, it was confirmed that gain in time is observed by the clocks moving fast towards east. The reference frame assumed a stationary center of the earth. Slightly lesser gains were observed for objects moving at high speeds towards west, owing to the eastward rotation of the earth. These experiments were carried out using commercial airliner with extremely precise atomic clocks onboard. The difference of time between the clocks would have been even more pronounced if the speed of aircraft was higher.
Time Travel in Islam, Christianity and Judaism
Time travel events have been part of Islamic tradition and have been recorded in the Quran.
There are at least four separate events in the Quran where time travel has been mentioned. A couple of these events are also recorded in the old testament. Interestingly, these events cover both kinematic and gravitational time dilation. They are mentioned below:
- Parable of the Hamlet of Ruins
- Story of the Sleepers of the cave
- Throne of Sheeba (Saba)
- The Night Journey (Isra wal Miraj)
Parable of Hamlet in the Ruins
The Quran contains a parable (chapter 2: verse 259) that is one of the most popularly quoted and commented events in the Islamic tradition. It relates a person coming across a town in ruins and asking God if resurrection after such devastation was possible? He questions renewal of life after death. According to some Islamic scholars, the person mentioned in this story was Prophet Uzair (Ezra). The same event is also found in Judo-Christian sources which identify the person as Jeremiah. Nonetheless, leaving aside the identity, it is the event itself that calls for far greater attention.
The Qur’anic verse reads:
Or (take) the similitude of one who passed by a hamlet, all in ruins to its roofs. He said: “Oh! How shall God bring it (ever) to life, after (this) its death?” But God caused him to die for a hundred years, then raised him up (again). He said: “How long didst thou tarry (thus)?” He said: (Perhaps) a day or part of a day.” He said: “Nay, thou hast tarried thus a hundred years; but look at thy food and thy drink; they show no signs of age; and look at thy donkey: And that We may make of thee a sign unto the people, look further at the bones, how We bring them together and clothe them with flesh.” When this was shown clearly to him, he said: “I know that God hath power over all things.”
Looking at this story from the perspective of relativity theory, one can notice that the prophet and the objects mentioned herein remained spatially confined while time moved on. When he was reawakened after a hundred (lunar) years, he noticed that his food remained intact whereas the donkey had reduced to bones, almost fossilized. Time had moved differently for each subject (the person, food articles and his ride).
A scientific explanation of the event would yield the conclusion that each of them was perhaps bubbled inside separate gravitational fields. The magnitude of gravitational force for the food article being the highest greatly reduced the speed of its march forward in time.
Story of Sleepers of the cave
The story of the sleepers of the cave (Ashab al Kahf) is perhaps the most revisited stories in the Quran and evokes interest in all age groups. In Judaic tradition this event is commonly is known as the story of seven sleepers. The Quran has deemed the detail on their number unimportant. It is about how a group of pious youth fled the persecution by their people for their belief. They along with their dog sought refuge inside a cave. It is believed by many including Maulana Mawdudi (famous Islamic scholar) that their cave was located in Ephesus, modern day Turkey.
Translation of three verses from the Quran are copied below:
[18:19] When we awakened them, they asked each other, “How long have you been here?” “We have been here one day or part of the day,” they answered. “Your Lord knows best how long we stayed here, so let us send one of us with this money to the city. Let him fetch the good lawful food, and buy some for us. Let him keep a low profile, and attract no attention.”
[18:25] They stayed in their cave three hundred years, increased by nine.
[18:26] Say [To them], “God is the best Knower of how long they stayed there.” He knows all secrets in the Heavens and the earth. By His grace you can see; by His grace you can hear. There is none beside Him as Lord and Master, and He never permits any partners to share in His kingship.”
As can be noted from the verses above, sleep befalls them while in the cave. When they woke up, they sent out from among them a member to bring food. When that person reaches town, he discovers the vast changes that have occurred. His coin is found to be 100’s of year old. The Quran mentions the figure of 309 years. Similar stories have been part of the folklore across different cultures.
Herein again the sleepers and their dog remain confined in the cave where time slowed down while time marched on swiftly for the outside world. Similar to the event mentioned earlier, this points to gravitational time dilation.
In the movie Interstellar, an hour on Miller’s planet equated to 7 years on the ship orbiting outside its gravitational field. This illustration of time dilation can help our understanding of sleepers in the cave.
Throne of Sheeba
The queen of the south or queen of Saba was a historic figure who at the time of prophet Solomon ruled in what is said to be present day Yemen. It is mentioned in the Quran that Prophet Solomon had control over non-organic, plasma life forms the Muslims regard as jinn. Just like angels who are spiritual beings, jinns are a life form that can be categorized as as unconventional. In the Quran (chapter 27: verse 38-39) it is mentioned that the throne of Sheeba was transported from over 1000 miles within a blink of an eye by one of the jinns. Only an object that can travel with the speed of light can achieve this feat in a matter of seconds.
Whether kinematic time dilation was an actor at play here is subject to deliberation. The conclusions that can be ascertained are that matter can be transported at light speed or close to light speed and secondly God has bestowed power to one of his creatures to be fast enough to achieve time dilation.
The Night Journey (Isra wal Miraj)
Isra wal Miraj are two parts of the night journey that was taken by the prophet Mohammad (PBUH). In the first part, the prophet traveled from Bait ul Haram to Bait ul Maqdas (Mecca to Jerusalem). This part of the journey in Arabic is described as Isra. The second phase of the journey was from Jerusalem to the heavens (Miraj). This event is briefly mentioned in the Quran in chapter 17. A more detailed account of this journey comes from the Hadith. Interestingly this journey may encompass both kinematic and gravitational time dilation during Isra and Miraj respectively.
According to some scholars, the total event took a third of the night which amounts to around 3.5 hours (approximate date 23rd February 621 AD). In other accounts it is said that the sound of the door latch was the last thing the prophet heard before starting his journey and the latch was still moving as he returned. Thus indicating incredibly short time for the whole journey. Based on this fact and discounting dilation many scholars have deduced that it may have been journey of the spirit.
The prophet (PBUH) traveled on Al Buraq which is described as a winged steed that moved with unimaginable speed. The journey involved moving from east to west and back again. It is during this part of the journey kinematic time dilation would have been achieved. The prophet (PBUH) after reaching Bait ul Maqdas (in Jerusalam) ascended to heaven. This ascension to heaven would require coming out of a gravitational field which in turns also explains the gravitational time dilation that would have occurred.
The itinerary of the whole journey was not that of a few moments. Accounts in the hadeeth describe a journey that was much longer. The prophet Mohammad met several prophets and performed prayers on the way. he eventually reached the Lote tree (Sidrat ul Muntaha), where he met his maker.
Note that in the first two mentioned events in the Quran, time had moved slower for the subjects and faster for the ambient objects. If gravity in a conservative space is reduced, the reverse would happen. That is time lapse for the subject will increase and for the ambient will decrease. Thus making it possible for the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) to conclude his eventful journey in a small passage of time from a reference point in Mecca.
We live in an age when the “wormhole theory” is broadening our horizons and helping us explore the possibility of Interstellar travel. If we open our minds than we find that science of today helps us prove rather than disprove religious miracles. With the discovery of antimatter, thinking only inside a material realm would limit our progress in understanding the world around us.
This article attempted to explain the events in Islam that involve time dilation. The explanation has been kept simple and written in a language that avoids the use of unnecessary scientific terms. A deeper explanation will hopefully be the subject of a future article or an ebook that would appeal to more science savvy audience.
Dr Haroon Junaidi, the author of this article, completed his doctorate from Scotland in Renewable Energy. He frequently writes for convergence stride on social as well as religious issues.
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