Cosmic contradictions

Global-warming deniers are crackpots as bad as those who thought the Earth was flat, according to Sir Andrew Motion, the new president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (and ex-English Poet Laureate). It’s interesting to me that to consider the Earth is flat is perceived in this most disparaging way – by a poet of all people. And I’m no global warming denier or Flat-Earther.

If you didn’t know the earth was a sphere you would naturally believe it flat as what we see is a horizon all around us i.e. the edge of a flat earth. Climb up high enough and it quickly starts to curve. I once went up to 60,000 feet in Concorde and yes, I can assure you the earth is definitely curved at that height. (11 miles up). So I can safely assume that as you go higher it gets more and more curved until it becomes round. Now I’m no scholar, my only qualification being an honours graduate of the madrassah of hard knocks, so I thought it wise to ask those more knowledgable than myself. Is the earth flat or round? Answer: it’s both.

So according to sacred law the earth is flat (so I am told), which is why the times of prayer are defined by the setting and rising of the sun over the perimeter of what is the flat disc that we all perceive wherever we live. In the desert at night the sky is seen as a vast hemispherical chronometer and guide which moves slowly and majestically over our heads…whereas we know that scientifically the earth is spherical, rotating and moving itself through the cosmos.  So, Mr Motion (appropriately named methinks), it’s not that simple. If we know the earth is a sphere why then is the rising and setting of the sun so critical. (and of the moon come to that). But our human experience, unless we are orbiting in a satellite, is of the daily event of sunrise and sunset,  so for the purpose of prayer it is definitely flat. Someone tell me if I have this wrong.

So the great cosmos of sun and stars we see is, in other words, just a giant astrolabe to orientate us to the direction and times of prayer. We weren’t some accident who happened upon the universe of planets, stars, suns and moons in some random fashion like a bunch of time travellers who landed in space vehicles. It appears it was all made for us. In the open deserts of Mauritania or Morocco this sight must be truly awesome. Where the constellation Orion rises over the horizon is also, according to the Mauritanians, the direction of prayer – i.e. Makka. I’ve tested this in Spain and it holds true but I don’t know if this applies elsewhere in the world.

This touches very much on the heated disagreement in North America about the prayer direction (fascinating as it is peculiarly American). Some intelligent American scholars I know have seized upon a football or a balloon and a piece of string to illustrate how the polar route is the shortest route to Makka as if our prayers are like aeroplanes. In view of what I have previously said about the flat earth disc and sharia law, I wonder if they are missing the point. Fortunately where I live in Andalusia we are not faced with this dilemma. The aggressive selling of the “scientific” viewpoint in the last century makes it yet more difficult to see the wood for the trees and to have a balanced viewpoint. We have to all relax and learn to live with this paradox as every year when Ramadan arrives the whole world community divides on its disagreement about another very cosmic thing– moon sighting.

§ See for a selection of awesome cosmic time lapse movies (illustrated above) of the milky way.

About Ian Whiteman

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1 Response to Cosmic contradictions

  1. Faatimah says:

    We covered Astronomy with Shaykh Hamza last semester; I think he would really enjoy this piece if he hasn’t already read it. Learning to live with this paradox, embrace it and allow it to help us in our spiritual practice was one of the main objectives and wonders of this class.
    Jazak Allah khair,

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