By Hafiz Mahmut, Edited and modified by the MuslimAnswers.net Team
Question: In connection to the proofs for the Existence of Allah, some people say that Infinite regress (Tasalsul) is in fact possible, and there is no logical impossibility involved at all. What do we say to this?
بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيم
To begin with, I like to look at these concepts from a mathematics or physics point of view as I am a scientist rather than a ‘pure philosopher’, and I disagree with philosophers on many points.
Now, I will explain infinity in simple terms, and then hopefully you all can come to some sort of understanding with this elucidation. I have to warn you that this is a topic of uncertainty and there is no consensus among the scholars as of what infinity really is. As I mentioned, I will approach it from the mathematical point of view of a physicist rather than that of a pure philosopher who uses abstract analogies which do not occur in reality. If anyone has any doubts regarding infinity after my general and brief explanation, please do not hesitate to ask further questions.
a) Infinity is an idea whose reality we cannot understand or grasp, as it does not exist in our world. This might be due to our limited capacity or it could be that we are living in a realm with limitations so we cannot make heads nor tails of infinities.
b) Infinity is not a huge number and is not even considered a number. It just does not have an end, so it is endless and boundless! When something does not stop (no end) and carries on forever then that is infinite! However, we cannot say that it grows or diminishes, it is just as it is!
One cannot measure infinity, as I mentioned it is an idea/concept without an end. A geometrical line is considered as having an infinite length as it does not have ends. If it did have just one end it would be considered as a ray at least geometrically speaking. Even though in the abstract infinite points can be assigned to a line, yet this does not reflect the reality, since in actual life we do not observe this. It is not something tangible, and we don’t experience it.
c) We can also describe a sequence of natural numbers as infinite or even numbers or odd numbers or a decimal such as 0.66666… may be considered as infinite as there is no reason for the recurring 6 to have an end.
Infinity has nothing to do with how big a number is; it cannot even be compared with big numbers. However, conceptually it is frequently used in mathematics and physics to simplify our equations in certain cases so we can understand the laws of nature better. In some cases we get rid of infinities to make things simpler by using certain tricks which are all approximations; we use these approximations to make our calculations easier all the time. We employ techniques such as Taylor series, or Laurent series for holomorphic functions to investigate how certain functions behave near singularities (which may arise from infinities, etc.) along with many other similar methods.
d) The properties of infinities always give infinities (infinity times infinity is infinity, infinity plus a number is infinity) or they lead to undefined operator behaviors (zero times infinity or infinity divided by infinity).
e) One thing that I have to clarify is that some people are under the misconception that there is a sort of ‘uncertainty’ as to how we should define Infinity. However, there is no uncertainty in defining ‘Infinity’, it just does not exist in our universe as an actual entity! It is an idea, a concept that is not real! We have no clue about it, and we have better conceptualization of mythological animals like unicorns and phoenixes than we have of the concept of Infinity! So the people should be aware of this.
e) Infinities may also come under different sizes (which is again an idea) in set theory.
f) We can also approach infinities by using limit, but this is also problematic (like 1 over infinity may be considered as zero but still it does not make sense as infinity is not a number, and this assumption or ‘result’ leads to contradictions).
g) There are also physical and cosmological infinities along with infinities in mathematics. Even though these are similar in nature yet they are conceptually different. They are all undefined (when infinities arise in our physical models that is a sign of failure in our theory or model). So in physics, we have a method called renormalization which is used to eliminate infinities to make sense of our model or to get a sensible understanding of our theory. The reason why for example string theory was seen as a good model was due to these infinities not occurring, it seemed like a finite theory although it has also its own shortcomings like any other theories- we don’t have a complete model yet.
h) Cosmological infinities are also a great concern for us. For example Big bang is considered to have started with an infinite density in the finite past as well as infinite densities at the center of black holes but we have no concrete evidences that they do actually exist apart from their occurring in our mathematical equations. If they really do exist we can consider them as actual infinities. There is no consensus upon the interpretations of these infinities, be it regions, densities, etc.
M-theorists or particle physicists are reluctant to accept these as actual infinities, whereas others see them as artifacts. Hence we need a complete theory including the quantum effects to understand the subtleties of these laws and what these so called infinities mean. Also there are certain mechanisms at play which separate us from understanding these effects at the beginning of the Big Bang or at the center of black holes, as we are kind of insulated from being affected by these regions. Similarly, it seems that, as far as physics is concerned, we don’t know if the universe is finite or not as we cannot reach to the outer boundaries of our universe, and it seems like we will never know the answer to this matter.
We try to understand the Universe through Einstein’s field equations which give us information about the geometry of the Universe through mass distribution but not the general topology of the Universe, which require other complete advanced models.
j) My conclusion is that it is a waste of time and dangerous to bring up the discussions of infinite regress or anything related to infinity, as even the experts in these mathematical sciences have no consensus and no full understanding of the aforementioned issues let alone laymen discussing it for the sake of argument or to win over an opponent via so called intellectual debates which are intangible and not based on concrete evidences.
As the Qur’an states ‘refrain from Dhann’ (where there is no certainty, but assumption).
This is mentioned in Surah an-Najm (Verse 53:28):
وَمَا لَهُم بِهِ مِنْ عِلْمٍ ۖ إِن يَتَّبِعُونَ إِلَّا الظَّنَّ ۖ وَإِنَّ الظَّنَّ لَا يُغْنِي مِنَ الْحَقِّ شَيْئًا
(The translation being: “And they have thereof no knowledge. They follow not except assumption, and indeed, assumption avails not against the truth at all”)
Another statement in the Qur’an that brings attention to this is what is found in the last part of Verse 6:119:
وَإِنَّ كَثِيرًا لَّيُضِلُّونَ بِأَهْوَائِهِم بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ ۗ إِنَّ رَبَّكَ هُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِالْمُعْتَدِينَ
(The translation being: “…And indeed do many lead [others] astray through their [own] inclinations without knowledge. Indeed, your Lord – He is most knowing of the transgressors”)
[As a note, we see that among the reciters, Imaams ‘Asim, Hamza, Kisai, Khalaf Al-‘Aasher recite it as [لَّيُضِلُّونَ] laYUdhilluna (dhamma on the letter YA) which means many lead others astray, while Imaams Naafi’, Ibn Kathir, Abu ‘Amru, Ibn ‘Aamir, Abu Ja’far, and Ya’qoob recite it as [لَّيَضِلُّونَ] laYAdhilluna (fatha on letter YA) which means ‘they lead themselves astray’. So the combination of both meanings show that people lead themselves as well as others astray through their own inclinations without knowledge.]
This theme is also mentioned in other parts of the Qur’an either directly and indirectly.
Thus, we should follow what the Qur’an commands us to do rather than following our own desires to prove ourselves right or defeat our opponent. The hearts belong to Allah alone, and He will change whomever He wills. How can we hope to change everyone else while we don’t even know ourselves properly?
However, if I am forced to say something about this, the most I can say is that Infinity is defined as something without bounds and endless and Allah describes Himself as the First and the Last; He has no bounds, so in reality if we accept the actual existence of infinity then we have infinite entities which resemble Allah. However, Allah is nothing even like the similitude of anything that exists (as mentioned in Verse 42:11), so accepting actual infinities in real life would cause an Aqeedah issue. Of course, even this is a type of argument that may have an effect more on the Muslims than the non-Muslims, since we are bringing up a Qur’anic Ayah to buttress our point; however, if one sees that a non-Muslim may accept this as a strong point, then we may discuss this as well with him, though it will not be possible to do so in every case.
To conclude, we pray for Allah protect us from idle discussions and bless us with certainty as ignorance, confusion and destruction all lie with uncertainty. May Allah guide all those who truly seek His Way and keep us on the straight path. And may Allah bless and grant peace to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, his Family and Companions. Ameen.
(Below we are presenting some additional questions that have come up after reading the above article. We may add more questions and their respective answers as appropriate, or deal with future questions in separate articles)
Question: You have mentioned that you are looking at this from the scientific viewpoint rather than the philosophical one. But we see that most Muslim scholars even today have treated this matter philosophically, for example, by means of the Kalam Cosmological Argument and other related philosophical arguments. What would say about such arguments?
Answer: The main problem is to understand science, philosophy, and the structure of languages in a simple manner that everyone can comprehend easily and relate it to themselves and to their own experiences. Since most people lack of understanding of these sciences, I think it is not appropriate to use arguments from these fields. The irony is that even those who use such arguments lack the in-depth understanding of these sciences. We need to use a simple language that everyone could understand and relate to, including children, illiterate people, elderly Muslims, and Non-Muslim people of all backgrounds. As the Prophet ﷺsaid: [يسِّروا ولا تعسِّروا] “Make things easier, do not make things more difficult”; or as the Qur’an says:
ادْعُ إِلَىٰ سَبِيلِ رَبِّكَ بِالْحِكْمَةِ وَالْمَوْعِظَةِ الْحَسَنَةِ
(Its translation being): “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction…”
We can also see this from other Verses of the Qur’an and from the life of the Prophet ﷺ and how he dealt with everyone, from bedouins all the way to kings.
As a scientist in the physical sciences, as well as a scholar in Islamic sciences I am familiar with the Kalaam Cosmological Argument, science-related arguments, and philosophical arguments used for proving the existence of God. However, even though these arguments are intellectually stimulating and one can get a buzz out of these debates, this is completely against the simple message of Islam. People unnecessarily complicate things. We need to make things simple; I will Insha’ Allah write an extensive article about this issue with examples to make my point clear. But very briefly, these arguments should be kept on a scholarly level and are not normally seen as the arena for laymen. The audience of Islam is largely for people without science or philosophy background.
Question: So given the progress in physics, would you say that such arguments are to be modified or rejected altogether?
Answer: Yes, some of these arguments need to be modified and some definitely need to be rejected altogether. Since physical sciences have developed, some of the so-called philosophical arguments can be explained by the physical sciences and we need to point out these issues and sort them out properly. There are many mistakes in traditional Tafseers (exegesis of the Qur’an) which stem from this type of understanding, and these mistakes are being carried on to this day and age, and unfortunately not many people are brave enough to tackle these problems.
Question: If such arguments are to be rejected, then many will ask, then on what basis should a non-Muslim join the Muslims in believing, without a doubt, that Allah exists?
Answer: The Prophet ﷺ always used simple arguments and so did those who follow him and yet many people accepted Islam. You will not find a single philosophical argument in the letters of the Prophet ﷺto the Kisra of Persia, or to the Roman Emperor. Rather, what you will find are simple statements like you are a shepherd, people have rights over you, and so forth; the exhortations were more about his relationship with the society, and his experiences, rather than the construction of abstract analogies.
This is where wisdom plays a key role. In the Qur’an you will never see these type of philosophical arguments, all the stories from the Prophets (Alayhimaa As-Salaam) are simple and they relate to our life experiences. However, certain verses may be taken out of context easily and can be used as a philosophical argument as well as presented as so-called “scientific proof”. This is a misinterpretation of human understanding and not related to wisdom. I am not against science or philosophy at all, but we should study these subjects and tackle their related questions with wisdom and understanding and not share it with common people- otherwise it may definitely lead to confusions.
Note that even the Prophet ﷺshared some knowledge with Abu Bakr (RAA) and not with ‘Umar (RAA), he shared some other knowledge with everyone, but some he ﷺkept some of it to himself only. However, nowadays people want to show off their knowledge and their intellect for fame or for egoistic purposes under the disguise of promoting Islam. This is in fact due to their lack of discipline in Tasawwuf and their internal spiritual growth as well as not knowing their own selves properly.
Question: So after reading this present article and a previous one as well (linked here) someone might ask that if we hold that one should not use “scientific miracles”, and also cannot use “linguistic miracles of the Qur’an”, and not even “intellectual arguments”, then so many will ask that why should anyone objectively reach the conclusion that Islam is correct?
Answer: Intellectual arguments are part of life and should in fact take place, but we should know our limits, know when to stop and have the wisdom to sagaciously promote our arguments. Again, I am not at all against science or philosophy, but we should not forget that people are not our enemies and we should win them over with good character and manners, rather than proving them wrong and belittling their intellect. Scientific miracles narrative is an issue on its own, and I need to make a short article and video about that soon with examples from Qur’an Insha’ Allah.
But in here, I am referring to the quality of wisdom, knowing one’s limits, taking care of the opponents rather than “proving them wrong”. We are all slaves of Allah, whether we are Muslim or Non-Muslim. If we really want goodness for Non-Muslims then we act in a good simple manner. If you claim you know and that they do not know some important point, then you may indeed be correct; but nevertheless, you should be patient, expect the reward from Allah, and not with the intellectual stimulation (or satisfaction we can even say) that inevitably comes out of the one who is more knowledgeable and can defeat his opponents in these arguments.