Why civilizations are either saved or destroyed
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Experiences of human beings from all walks of life are shaped by struggle, as Allah said:
لَقَدْ خَلَقْنَا الْإِنسَانَ فِي كَبَدٍ
We have certainly created man in hardship.
Surat Al-Balad 90:4
Developments in organizations, technology, and control over nature have made life easier, but have also shifted our struggle to new domains; engaging in struggle is the inevitable human condition in this life. An intriguing question that begs an answer is this: what is it in the relationship between humans and nature that mandates a struggle? And is there any escape?
In the Quran, Allah informed us about this relationship in a very elegant way to prompt our intellectual curiosity: the secret is in the underlying processes of events. These processes are explained from the most complicated to the most simple in Surat Al-Waqi’ah.
Human beings are the most advanced form of life that we know about. Yet while we might feel that we are in control of our lives, Allah brings our attention to the fact that we do not have any control. The process of life always end with death, our helplessness in avoiding this destiny sheds light on the reality of an underlying natural process, decreed by Allah, through which life takes shape, completes its cycle, and comes to an end.
نَحْنُ خَلَقْنَاكُمْ فَلَوْلَا تُصَدِّقُونَ أَفَرَأَيْتُم مَّا تُمْنُونَ أَأَنتُمْ تَخْلُقُونَهُ أَمْ نَحْنُ الْخَالِقُونَ نَحْنُ قَدَّرْنَا بَيْنَكُمُ الْمَوْتَ وَمَا نَحْنُ بِمَسْبُوقِينَ عَلَىٰ أَن نُّبَدِّلَ أَمْثَالَكُمْ وَنُنشِئَكُمْ فِي مَا لَا تَعْلَمُونَ وَلَقَدْ عَلِمْتُمُ النَّشْأَةَ الْأُولَىٰ فَلَوْلَا تَذَكَّرُونَ
We have created you, so why do you not believe? Have you seen that which you emit? Is it you who creates it, or are We the Creator? We have decreed the time of death for you, and We are not to be outdone, in that We will change your likenesses and produce you in a form which you do not know. And you have already known the first creation, so will you not remember?
Surat Al-Waqi’ah 56:57-62
This process of human life is dependent on other forms of life, plants and animals, to provide us with sustenance. There again, we might feel in control as we farm and harvest, yet if the natural process is interrupted, we would find ourselves starving to death.
أَفَرَأَيْتُم مَّا تَحْرُثُونَ أَأَنتُمْ تَزْرَعُونَهُ أَمْ نَحْنُ الزَّارِعُونَ لَوْ نَشَاءُ لَجَعَلْنَاهُ حُطَامًا فَظَلْتُمْ تَفَكَّهُونَ
Have you seen that seed which you sow? Is it you who makes it grow, or are We the grower? If We had willed, We could have made it dry debris and you would be left in wonder.
Surat Al-Waqi’ah 56:63-65
Our form of life, like all other forms of life, are dependent on another more elementary process of water purification, as life cannot exist without water. If that process is interrupted as well, life as we know it would be impossible.
أَفَرَأَيْتُمُ الْمَاءَ الَّذِي تَشْرَبُونَ أَأَنتُمْ أَنزَلْتُمُوهُ مِنَ الْمُزْنِ أَمْ نَحْنُ الْمُنزِلُونَ لَوْ نَشَاءُ جَعَلْنَاهُ أُجَاجًا فَلَوْلَا تَشْكُرُونَ
Have you seen the water that you drink? Is it you who brought it down from the clouds, or is it We who bring it down? If We had willed, We could have made it bitter, so why are you not grateful?
Surat Al-Waqi’ah 56:68-70
For process of water purification to take place, yet another natural process is required. A difference in energy is needed for water to be extracted from its impurities and then supplied back into the cycle. This energy comes in the form of heat causing evaporation, the way in which water is returned to the atmosphere and repeats the cycle anew.
أَفَرَأَيْتُمُ النَّارَ الَّتِي تُورُونَ أَأَنتُمْ أَنشَأْتُمْ شَجَرَتَهَا أَمْ نَحْنُ الْمُنشِئُونَ
Have you seen the fire that you ignite? Is it you who produced its tree, or are We the producer?
Surat Al-Waqi’ah 56:71-72
The order of processes mentioned in these verses are from the most complicated to the most elementary, with the more fundamental processes involved in each of those above them. For example, energy is required for water purification and for all forms of life as well, while water is only required for life, as energy can exist without water.
With this understanding we ask: what process is more elementary than energy? Here, Allah brings our attention to a natural process that is so fundamental and pervasive, it shapes everything in our life from the smallest atoms to the most massive super galaxies. This is the thermodynamic process of entropy, the natural tendency for clumps of matter and energy to devolve into a state of disorganization.
فَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِمَوَاقِعِ النُّجُومِ وَإِنَّهُ لَقَسَمٌ لَّوْ تَعْلَمُونَ عَظِيمٌ
Then I swear by the positions of the stars, and indeed it is an oath most great, if only you knew.
Surat Al-Waqi’ah 56:75-76
Since the process of entropy is not easily described as compared to more the overt natural processes mentioned earlier, it is hinted to here by its effect: the locations of the stars. The importance of this process is doubly emphasized, first by swearing by it and then by expressing the greatness of the oath and our inability to encompass its entire implication.
Entropy is the phenomenon of the universe continuously moving towards a state of disorder in an irreversible process. Without entropy, new states of energy would not be created and thus energy could not be utilized, water would not be available, and life would cease to exist.
It was the great scientist Ludwig Boltzmann who concluded that entropy guarantees time could only move in one direction, toward the future. However, the greatest evidence for the existence of entropy was discovered by Edwin Hubble, who demonstrated from astronomic observation that the universe is continuously expanding and accelerating. By investigating the locations of the stars, as mentioned in the Quranic oath, Hubble uncovered a fundamental natural law that generations before him could never have conceived.
With the discovery of entropy, a new question emerges: Is there something that is even more basic than entropy that would not be subjected to it? Allah provides the answer in the same passage. The divine word preceded all creation and is itself exempt from the natural law of entropy.
إِنَّهُ لَقُرْآنٌ كَرِيمٌ فِي كِتَابٍ مَّكْنُونٍ
Verily, it is a Noble Quran in a protected register.
Surat Al-Waqi’ah 56:77-78
The divine will came first and only thereafter could there be creation, as Allah said:
بَدِيعُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ ۖ وَإِذَا قَضَىٰ أَمْرًا فَإِنَّمَا يَقُولُ لَهُ كُن فَيَكُونُ
He is the Originator of the heavens and the earth. When He decrees a matter, He only commands it to be and thus it is.
Surat Al-Baqarah 2:117
Returning to the struggle of the human condition, people must strive to form any organization or engage in any creative or constructive activity because it always involves opposing the law of entropy.
In his book Why Information Grows, Cesar Hidalgo explores the effect of information growth on developing economies. He concludes that growth of knowledge and know-how is the only way for economies to develop against the “destructive” forces of entropy. Hidalgo’s approach explores the effect of knowledge, in general, on the economic growth of societies, but he does not address knowledge related to values that can sustain human development.
With this in mind, Allah tells us that the only way to build order against the dismantling forces of entropy is to establish the core values that are addressed in divine revelation and that are embedded in natural law. The only reason great and powerful civilizations of the past were lost to history was because their people eventually degenerated into destructive sins and habits:
وَمَا كَانَ رَبُّكَ لِيُهْلِكَ الْقُرَىٰ بِظُلْمٍ وَأَهْلُهَا مُصْلِحُونَ
Your Lord would not have destroyed the cities unjustly while their people were righteous.
Surat Hud 11:117
Any civilized order can only sustain itself as long as it upholds values prescribed by the Creator of the universe. The destruction of the ancient kingdom of Israel at the hands of the Babylonians, the fall of the Roman capital to the Visigoths, and the burning of Baghdad by the Mongols, each tragedy was preceded by the collective failure to heed divine instructions based upon universal values.
In sum, entropy is the most basic process in nature that pervades all other processes and is only preceded by the divine word. The word in the form of revelation is the means by which human beings can form lasting order against the natural forces of chaos and disorder. Knowledge is often viewed positively in both secular and religious circles, yet it cannot be denied that some currents of modern science have led to the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century, leading some of the world’s brightest scientific minds to sound the alarm about potentially dangerous technological developments. From here, we must warn humanity that the proliferation of knowledge in the modern age, without moral values and ethical principles to guide them, will only bring about our destruction sooner or later.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.