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The Essence of Time
Oct 1, 2006

St Augustine’s confession expresses the situation most people experience after contemplating the nature of time. Time has puzzled many philosophers. Zeno, Avicenna and St. Augustine even questioned its existence. They claimed that physical time does not exist and has a subjective presence only in our minds. Time has captured psychologists and neurobiologists due to its curious aspects as well. However, physics has played the main role in answering most of the puzzling questions. Does time have a beginning? Is the asymmetric nature of time’s direction from past to future just an illusion? Is time-travel possible? Is it still reasonable to associate time with ether? Can time exist if no event is happening?

In addition to all these questions, there is one aspect of time that will attract a believer in God and that is time’s fascinating connection with the act of creation and the continuity of physical processes. In this article, we choose to probe down to subatomic distances in an attempt to understand the act of creation and clarify the meaning of time, leaving cosmological time aside. Along the way, we will visit what some Muslim scholars have said regarding the issue. It is, however, useful to look first at the view of modern physics on time.

The classic and modern view on time in physics

The best known physicist who wrote on time is Newton. For Newton space and time were separate and were backgrounds on which physical processes evolved. Therefore, time can exist with or without events. As, according to Newton, time is a linear continuum of instants and each instant exists by itself, we can only talk about the existence of the present. In this approach time is absolute, meaning that it is the same everywhere in the universe. So your “now” is the same with my “now” no matter how fast each of us is moving. One consequence of this classic and commonsense view is that time-travel is not possible. At the beginning of the twentieth century, after the work of Hermann Minkowski and Einstein’s relativity theory the question “What is time” received the answer, “time is the fourth dimension,” which has become almost a cliché. It is not only difficult for us to visualize the fourth dimension itself, but also its relation with space. In Minkowski’s space-time, a time dimension can turn into a space dimension by a rotation, just as the length of an object can turn into its height by simply rotating the object. Actually, it is wrong, after all, to think of space and time as two independent things. As soon as there is space, there is time by default. An event happens in space-time at a particular space-time location and space-time spans all through these locations on which many other events happen. In 1919, in an interview he gave for The New York Times, Einstein explained the shift in the view of space-time: “Till now it was believed that time and space existed by themselves, even there was nothing, no Sun, no Earth, no stars, while now we know that time and space are not the vessel for the Universe but could not exist at all if there was nothing, no contents, namely, no Sun, no Earth, and other celestial bodies.”1

The new notion of space-time has also changed the deep-seated belief that only the present is real, because in the space-time present, the past and the future all exist together. “Physicists prefer to think of time as laid out in its entirety-a time space analogous to a landscape-with all past and future events located there together. It is a notion sometimes referred to as block time. Completely absent from this description of nature is anything that singles out a privileged special moment as the present or any process that would systematically turn future events into the present, then past, events. In short, the time of the physicist does not pass or flow.”2 The above view of the universe, described by Paul Davies, has been called “The Block Universe”; this view has also been supported by many philosophers like Leibniz and Spinoza. It is not wrong to say that it is not time that flows but it is us who are flowing by changing our space-time location in the space-time landscape at each instant. Simply put by Aristotle, “Time is motion.” There is a very nice example given by Rumi, also used by Imam al-Rabbani, given to explain the non-real nature of matter, which also explains how space-time comes into being with motion. Imagine a stick that is spinning at high speed with a fixed light on one side. Even though the light is fixed at just one point, once the stick is spun at high speed, we see a circle of light.

The theory of special relativity has also revealed that time is not absolute: Time actually slows with motion and stops when the speed reaches that of light. This effect becomes apparent only at speeds close to the speed of light at the quantum world and is not noticeable to us since the human scale motion is far too slow. The relative nature of time enters the general relativity theory as well with a theory that explains gravity as the curvature of space-time. One of the striking features of the equations of general relativity, which was noticed first by Godel in 1949 and then by many others, is that they allow for closed time-like curves in space-time. This means the possibility of time travel, at least theoretically.

A time scale we know nothing about

Modern view of time as explained above is valid up to atomic scale and has taken its place in the basic structure of quantum theory. However, science has no experimental ground to reveal anything about the nature of time at Planck’s scale or at smaller levels. The Plank scale corresponds to a time of 10-44 seconds and a distance of 10-35 m. This is a distance which is a hundred times a million times a million times a million smaller then the atomic nucleus. At such distances the quantum theory does not work. We have neither the necessary theory nor the necessary experimental facility to say anything about time.3

Relation of time with the act of creation

Long before revolutionary changes in the view of physical time at the beginning of the twentieth century there were always metaphysical explanations for what time really is; one of these was that of René Descartes. In his meditation on God’s existence, he argues that God must and does continually recreate the world at each instant. Therefore, time is a divine process of recreation. There are two points in Descartes’ statement. One is that creation is a continuous act and the other is its relation with time. We are all aware that the continuity of creation is found in the teachings of the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an. It is not that God created the universe at the beginning and left it to evolve according to laws. When it comes to the relation of creation to the essence of time, Descartes view, at first, may be considered to be a metaphysical speculation. But it may also be an inspiration which Descartes received from a divine scripture.

Many Muslim scholars as well have taken Qur’anic verses on creation as references for their meditations on the nature of time. Ibn al-Arabi, in his Kitab Ayyam al-Sha’n writes about the structure of time and takes the Qur’anic verse Every day (yawm) He is in a new manifestation (sha’n) (Rahman 55:29) as a reference. The Arabic word “yawm” which means day is interpreted not as a time period that we call “day” but as a day in God’s Divine Presence. In Qur’an, the special word “sha’n” is used while talking about God’s acts to distinguish these from human acts. Besides sha’n (God's act of creation) is always associated with the smallest and finest of times that leads to the fact that His acts happen with an incredible speed. There are few Qur’anic verses about the incredible speed of creation. One is:

God creates whatever He wills; when He decrees a thing, He does but say to it “Be!” and it is (Al Imran 3:47).

And the other is:

Our commands are done within the blink of an eye (Qamar 54:50).

Both verses imply not only that God creates whatever He wills without any difficulty but also the speed which His acts and His commands are carried out. Therefore, most scholars interpreted verse 55:29 as “God is in a new manifestation or at an affair at each instant.”

Now going down to sub-atomic levels where we come closer to the recreation at each instant and reading the following lines from The Words by the Turkish Islamic scholar Said Nursi we are better able to understand the essence of time:

“Indeed, the transformations of particles are the motion and meaningful vibrations that proceed according to the dictation and principles of “The Clear Record” (Imam-i Mubin) which is a title of Divine Knowledge and Command and is the arrangement of the past origin and future progeny of everything in the World of the Unseen. They proceed by means of transcription from “The Clear Book” (Kitab-i Mubin), which is a title for Divine Power and Will and is formed of the present and the Manifest World and consists of the free disposal of that power and will in the creation of things. Thus, this motion and meaningful vibration proceed from the writing and drawing of the words of Power in ‘The Tablet of Effacement and Reaffirmation,’ which is a metaphorical page, and the reality of the stream of time.”4

The terms Imam-i Mubin and Kitab-i Mubin are used in the Qur’an in the following verses respectively.

And we have vested (the knowledge and authority) of everything in the manifest record. (Ya Sin 36:12)

The unbelievers claim, “The Last Hour will not come upon us.” Say: “Nay, but, by my Lord, Who is the Knower of the unseen, it will most certainly come upon you.” Not an atom’s weight of whatever there is in the heavens or in the earth escapes Him, nor is there anything smaller than that, or greater, but it is recorded in a Manifest Book. (Saba 34:3)

The term Imam-i Mubin, which is interchangeably used with Lawh al-Mahfuz by many Islamic scholars, is associated with Divine Knowledge and Command. Since Divine Knowledge encompasses everything, the Imam-i Mubin includes the past, present and future as well as the world of unseen. Time from azal (eternity in past) to abad (eternity in future) are found in Imam-i Mubin. Kitab-i Mubin, however, embraces only the present. We understand from the above Qur’anic verse that, Kitab-i Mubin accommodates the inward (batin) meaning of creation as well as the outward (zahir). The passage of time lies in a close relationship between Imam-i Mubin and Kitab-i Mubin. Time passes when God’s command proceeds from the Sphere of Divine Knowledge to the Sphere of Divine Power. Since we are restricted in time and are only witnesses to the Book of the Universe, that is, Kitab-i Mubin, we see only the present, instant after instant. In a way, we witness recreation instant after instant, a creation that continues completely unnoticed due to the incredible speed of God’s commands from Imam-i Mubin to Kitab-i Mubin. The interpretation given by Ibn al-Arabi to the Qur’anic verse Nay, (although they admit that We were not so,) they are in a confused state of mind about a new creation (after destruction) (Qaf 50:15) is that: There is continuous renewal of creation in every instant. What people see in the first instant is not identical to what they saw in the previous instant. So people are in confusion about this. Actually, through the manifestation of His Names, God continuously creates, annihilates and re-creates the universe.

Creation, time and the continuity of physical events

Keeping in mind the connection between Imam-i Mubin and Kitab-i Mubin and the renewal of creation at each instant, we can now contemplate on another puzzling issue: The continuity of physical events. Even before quantum mechanics revealed the discontinuous nature of sub-atomic particles, some philosophers argued that it is the mind’s apprehension of discrete events as being continuous that leads us to conclude that things around us are continuous. The best known macro scale examples are watching a motion picture in cinema which is actually seeing 60 images one after another in one second, and looking at a burning light bulb which is, in fact, light that is flickering many times. Even though these processes are discrete in nature, our mental snapshots one after another gives the impression that these processes are continuous. How about the discontinuity in the micro world? Professor Whitehead nicely explains the discreteness of the (motion of) electron in the following lines:

“It is not wrong to assume that an electron does not continuously traverse its path in space. The alternative notion as to its mode of existence is that it appears at a series of discrete positions in space which it occupies for successive durations of time. It is as though an automobile, moving at the average rate of thirty miles an hour along a road, did not traverse the road continuously, but appeared successively at the successive milestones remaining for two minutes at each milestone.”5

At this point it is agreeable to look further down to the distances that are smaller than Plank length, the smallest physical arena we can think of, where physics meets metaphysics and the act of creation takes place. This locus may well be the realm of discontinuity as well, as it is at this locus that materialization takes place. At this locus we may be able to witness God’s repeated acts of creation and annihilation and re-creation again, if we were able to probe down so far. So at the sub-atomic level, the transformation of particles can all be viewed as the vibrations that occur while God’s command is carried out from Imam-i Mubin to Kitab-i Mubin and back to Imam-i Mubin. Hence, there is the continuous cycle of coming into existence and dying in the Book of the Universe, if we call not appearing in the universe for a fraction of a fraction of a second dying, of course.

Taking the Qur’anic verse 28:886 as a reference, Nursi says “Existence continuously comes from God and returns to and perishes in God’s Knowledge”7 and he claims that there is no absolute nothingness (‘adam) since nothing can escape from God’s Sphere of Knowledge. In other words, even if something ceases to exist in the physical universe, or something that has not been even created or seen yet has some mode of existence, as it exists in God’s Knowledge. Because in God the ideas of all things are fixed, Imam-i Mubin, the title of His Knowledge, is also associated with a’yan thabita, which means fixed prototypes, where the latent realities of things exist.

Time versus dahr

Other than the term “zaman”, meaning time, the term “dahr” is also used in some Qur’anic verses (45/24).8 Scholars give different views on the use of the latter word; the widely accepted one is that “dahr” means a long period of time, an eon. Sadruddin Konevi calls God “Dahr-i Daim” meaning “everlasting dahr” and identifies this as the eternal time which does not have relative aspect but includes relative and temporal time (zaman). According to him, dahr is the essence of time. This helps us to understand the Prophetic saying: “Curse not dahr, for God is dahr.”


We have seen what physics has to say about time, but we will never know if science can grasp the whole truth. Moreover, science cannot tell anything about the nature of time for and smaller than “Plank era.” We either stop at that point and do not question further or break the tenets of positivism. Islamic scholars and intellectuals have always linked time to God’s act of creation. Said Nursi further linked the passage of time to the relation between Imam-i Mubin and Kitab-i Mubin. Being a creation in space-time we are bound to relative time and have only the perception of events in time. But it may well be that innermost essence of time lies not in the material world but in the Unseen.


  1. The New York Times, December 1919.
  2. Paul Davies, “The Mysterious Flow,” Scientific American (September 2002).
  3. To probe down such small distances we need a particle accelerator much more powerful than the one proposed by SSC (Superconducting Super Collider) project that had been canceled by US Congress after spending $2 billion.
  4. Said Nursi, The Words, The Thirtieth Word.
  5. Alfred N. Whitehead, Science and Modern World.
  6. Everything is perishable (and so perishing) except His “Face” (His Eternal Self and what is done in seeking His good pleasure (Qasas 28:88).
  7. Said Nursi, The Letters, “The 15th Letter.”
  8. And they say: “What is there but our life in this world? We shall die and we live, and nothing but time can destroy us.” But of that they have no knowledge: they merely conjecture (Jathiya 45:24).