The heavenly abode of divinity and the physical sky (al-sama’, very often in the plural: al-samawat) are in Arabic in general and in the Qur’anic language in particular as inseparable as in many other languages. The mythological concept of the space of the divine in an upper world marks all monotheistic religions and many other religions too.
The Qur’anic notion of Islamic revelation as the process of a divine message being sent down from God to mankind (inzal, tanzil) is only one example. The complementary notion to heaven is earth (al-ardh). The whole cosmos consists of both spaces ‘heaven and earth’ (alsamawat wa-l-ardh) – although sometimes the Qur’an adds: ‘and what is between them’ (Surah Al-21.16) – and is God’s creation and property. The Arabic word for ‘heaven/sky’ (al-sama’) and its plural alsamawat occur more than 300 times in the Qur’an. The conjunction ‘heaven and earth’ – almost always, since Sumerian mythology, in this order – appears more than a hundred times.
The divine voice in the Qur’an describes the beginning of God’s creation of the universe in the following way:
‘Have not the unbelievers then beheld that the heavens and the earth were a mass all sewn up, and then We unstitched them and of water fashioned every living thing? Will they not believe?’ (SurahAl-Anbiya', 21: 30). In a diﬀerent version the Qur’an claims: ‘It is He who created for you all that is in the earth, and then He lifted Himself to heaven and levelled them seven heavens…’ (Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:29). And yet another cosmogonical verse says: ‘Then He lifted Himself to heaven when it was smoke, and said to it and to the earth, “Come willingly, or unwillingly!” They both said: “We come willingly”’ (Surah Fussilat, 41:11).
A miraculous spatial and material aspect of the sky/heaven consists in the fact that it is ‘a roof well protected’ (Surah Al-Anbiya’, 21:32), which God raised ‘without pillars’ (Surah Ar-Ra'd, 13:2), and that ‘He holds back heaven lest it should fall upon the earth’ (Surah Al-Hajj, 22:65). The seven heavens evoke the seven climates and the seven spheres of antiquity; in Surah At-Talaaq, 65:12 God creates seven earths, symmetrical to the seven heavens.
Each of the seven heavens was assigned a special function (Surah Fussilat, 41:12), heaven carried celestial constellations (Surah Al-Hijr, 15:16) and the ‘lower heaven was adorned with stars’ (Surah As-Saffaat, 37:6). One of the most important and most often quoted divine signs in the Qur’an is rain (‘water from heaven’) (Surah An-Nahl, 16:65), which alone makes earthly life possible. The verb used for God’s ‘sending down’ rain from the sky is the same as the verb denoting ‘to reveal’.
Heaven is the space of God and of diﬀerent ranks of angels. The seven heavens are also the place of God’s throne (arsh) (Surah Al-Mu'minun, 23:86), a symbol of power and absolute divine rule. The imagery of God’s throne, its position in heaven and the role of the angels surrounding it (Surah Az-Zumar, 39:75) was much discussed in exegetical literature, which tried to harmonize the sometimes contradictory Qur’anic details.
God punishes by sending down plagues from heaven (Surah Al-Baqarah, 2:59). As portentous signs for the approaching Day of Judgement, cosmic catastrophes will shake heaven and earth. God will ‘roll up heaven like a scroll’ (Surah Al-Anbiya', 21:104), ‘heaven is split asunder and turns crimson like red leather’ (Surah Ar-Rahman, 55:37), and so on. Here, heaven seems to be less the place where God resides than the physical ﬁrmament.
The dualistic Qur’anic topography of sky/heaven and earth is intertwined with another dualistic topography, the eschatological spaces of paradise and hell.
The heaven/earth imagery fulﬁls the function of showing the beholder the inﬁnite wisdom of the creator and thus leading him to accept the existence and unity of God; the details of the paradise/hell imagery serve as a promise to the believer and a threat to the unbeliever. The two topographies are usually kept apart, but partly overlap in Qur’anic exegesis of the night-journey of the Prophet (Surah Al-Isra’, 17:1), which led him through the wonders of heaven, through paradise and hell, to his encounter with Jibril (Surah An-Najm, 53:13–16). Some commentators located ‘paradise in heaven’.
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