The law of the conservation of matter and energy states that by taking the universe to be a closed system, the total amount of matter and energy in the world is fixed. It cannot be added to or subtracted from. One form of matter or energy may turn into another form, but the net amount is fixed. This simple and scientific principle can provide much insight and inspiration for those interested in spirituality.
In this article, we will investigate some of its implications in regards to Islam, and will use this as a frame of reference to understand the different planes of existence.
A Zero-Sum Game
According to the law of conservation, nothing is lost nor gained. All that happens in the world of matter is only displacement, exchange, and transformation — but not creation or destruction. This realization can help mitigate one’s joys and sorrows equally. If you happen to gain something, keep in mind that it is coming from somewhere. Any addition to your life necessitates an equal subtraction from elsewhere else. And if you happen to lose something, be rest assured that it is not lost. It cannot be lost. There is no real gain or loss whatsoever in this world. We can transcend beyond both our suffering and our arrogance by trying to remember this in everyday life. The key is to not be caught up by the forms on the surface, but to try to settle into their abiding substratum. That abiding substratum is always there. External shapes and colours change, but existence is the same. This helps us drop our preferences and distinctions between the different modes and manifestations of existence, since we are then confident that nothing is ever actually lost. Thus the Quran says:
And if any good befalls them, they say, ‘This is from Allah;’ and when an ill befalls them, they say, ‘This is from you.’ Say, ‘All is from Allah.’ What is the matter with these people that they would not understand any matter? (4:78)
All enticing pleasures of the world are facets of the same matter and energy which sustain all phenomena. There is a limited number of elements in the world, which constitute all the myriad forms and colours that we observe. Anything and everything that we observe is made of molecules that were once a part of another object. Our bodies are in a constant exchange of oxygen and carbon with our surroundings, including other bodies. Realizing this symbiosis with all other beings can help one overcome both desire and aversion, because then the dualities and separations fade. The other side, whether they seem to us fair and desirable or foul and repulsive, are really made of the same substance.
In other words, there is no ‘other’ in the true sense of it. We are all one and united with each other, and we incessantly ‘borrow’ each other’s matter and energy in the dance of life. For this reason, why should one resent and detest another, or wish to possess or exploit another? It is the same basis of matter and energy that is constantly being recycled into different forms, shapes, and colours. One may be the base of the vase while the other is the handle, but it is still all made of the same clay.
- “The fruits of this world / Are coloured pieces of clay / What’s the blessing of this world / But to give bread and take away?” (Rūmī, Dīvān-i Kabīr, Ghazal 2944)
From Greece to India
Muslim philosophers have long observed this world as consisting of a cycle of generation (kawn) and corruption (fasād). The prime matter (māddah) of all phenomena is the only thing that is fixed, but that is substantiated only through a form (ṣūrah) that gives it a particular mould. Metaphysical matter is indifferent with respect to various forms, for it can equally take one form or another. In this sense there is ultimately no separation or contrast between seemingly opposite entities. As Rumi points out, the attractive food on the plate has an opposite entity in reality as well:
“Although the world appears like a bride, / It’s also yelling that it doesn’t abide.
Generation tells you, ‘Come after me!’ / But corruption is warning, ‘It’s not what you see!’
You are enamoured by the verdure of the spring, / Wait for the fall, when withers everythings.
The refuse that you see in the washroom today / Is the same fatty food that you saw yesterday” (Rūmī, Mathnawī, vol. 4, line 1594, 1596-1597 and 1602)
This can be matched with the principle of ‘emptiness’ in Buddhism, which states that nothing has a fixed substance or identity. Rather, all forms that we observe are impermanent and in a constant state of flux. Nothing has an independent essence of its own, but all things are interdependent.
As Chandogya Upanishad says, ‘That thou art’ (tat tvam asi). Each of us is an extension, stretch, and continuation of the other, and of the same one reality.
- “What’s all the shouting, conflict and wrath? / Aint we travel-mates on the same path / Who’ve the same provision, train and bath?” (Rūmī, Dīvān-i Kabīr, ghazal 783)
The law of conservation can also help us better understand what is meant by the cyclical nature of time, as taught by many ancient schools of spirituality and philosophy. This is reflected in the Ouroboros symbol, depicting a snake swallowing its tail. It is worthy to note:
- “…that our strictly linear, evolutionary idea of time… is something peculiar to modern man. Even the Greeks of the day of Plato and Aristotle, who were much nearer than the Hindus to our ways of thought and feeling and to our actual tradition, did not share it. Indeed, Saint Augustine seems to have been the first to conceive of this modern idea of time.” (Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, p. 19)
The notion that time is linear is much like the impression that the earth is flat. If we are focused narrowly on what is directly and immediately before us, both theories seem to be intuitive. However, from a broader perspective, we are not at the center of the universe, and world history is not a biography of humankind in particular. The fixed substance of matter and energy is constantly being recycled, on both the micro and the macro level. This notion can be confirmed by verses of the Quran that talk about the immutability of God’s words, custom, and creation (10:64, 30:30, 33:62, 35:43, 48:23).
Beyond Good and Evil
One of the most subtle, sublime, and unique teachings of the Quran is concerning the stages of repentance. Not only does God forgives one’s sin and revokes one’s punishment, but He transforms one’s evil deeds to good deeds:
"Except for those who repent, attain faith, and act righteously. For such, Allah will replace their misdeeds with good deeds, and Allah is Ever-Forgiving, Ever-Merciful" (25:70)
If vice and virtue are essential properties of actions, then one cannot be turned to another. Likewise, one is neither a saint nor a sinner in one’s essence. A possible explanation for this is that an act is a form of energy, and that it can be converted to another form. Just as mechanical energy can turn into heat, a sin can turn into a good deed. Based on this, we can say that tajarrud (immateriality, liberation, nirvana) means transcending the limits and distinctions, and being able to absorb seemingly contradictory qualities to transform impurity to purity.
This view can help one practice zuhd (disinterestedness, renunciation) with respect to material objectives. Eating is not a way of gaining anything, but it is only a transformation of one material to another. The same can be said about anything else which may seem attractive at first. Hence, it comes down to this question: ‘Do I want to make this transformation?’ Upon realizing this notion, one would pursue and seek something only if that particular form of matter matters. Otherwise, there is no problem and one is not disturbed by how things unfold. If something does not work out, it is all right, because nothing is lost. Thus, one will no longer be so excited and fascinated about the glamour of the world.
Consider the case of greed and haste. You would rush to snatch something when there is a fear of missing out. But remember that nothing is lost. Things only change form. Instead of looking at its surface colour and form, look at its underlying substance. This way, there is no need to be greedy or possessive about anything, because that object will always be there for you, as it has ever been. This is helpful in curtailing one’s prolonged hopes and ambitions with respect to material goals.
“If you are realistic and observe from a distance, / You’ll choose poverty over wealth and abundance.
Even if you’re a king, when your time is up, / You’re one with the bum who only had a cup.
they proclaim your name five times a day, / But there’ll come a day when you’re off on your way.
The dust on which you walk is above / The heads of millions; be gentle thereof”
(Saʿdī, Mawāʿiẓ, qaṣīdah 51)
The Quran says:
"Allah has allowed trade and forbidden usury" (2:275).
Besides its apparent meaning for legislation, this could also refer to the laws governing this world. Given the fixed and limited amount of matter and energy in the universe, it is impossible to have any real ‘interest’. The total amount of matter in the world does not grow. But trade is permissible because trade is a transaction from one side to another. Hence, at a more subtle and inward level, this verse could be directing our attention to what is possible and what is impossible to achieve in this world.
“The ladder of ego is what the people pursue, / Distinguished by ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘you’.
Everyone on this ladder is bound to fall; / Sooner or later, there will be a call.
Those who climb higher are the maddest of all: / Their bones will break harder when they fall”
(Rūmī, Mathnawī, vol. 4, lines 2764-2765)
In another verse of the Quran, God says:
"There is not a thing but that its sources are with Us, and We do not send it down except in a known measure’ (15:21).
This is one of the most profound verses of the Quran. There are boundless treasures of all things with God in the higher planes of existence, but what comes down to this world is only a known share. The very substance of the material world is limited.
Loving a clod is not so clever; / Seek its Source, which shines forever.
The trees of the garden they don’t take to the town; / Only a branch or two they choose and cut down.
From the other world, there is just a ray / That comes to this world of matter and clay, / So that greed and envy do not fade away.
(Rūmī, Mathnawī, vol. 2, line 712, line 3241, and line 2080)
The above points effectively amount to what is known as ‘one taste’ (samarasa) in some Eastern traditions. Whether one is honored and admired, or criticized and abused, they are just manifestations of the same reality. This is where one starts to realize that the unitive substratum of matter and energy is, in fact, an expression of the divine unity which pervades all planes of existence. In other words, the law of conservation can help one grasp the absolute oneness of God in a more concrete way.
Imagine the world of matter as a plastic balloon filled with water. The size of the balloon and the volume of its water are fixed, but the balloon’s shape can vary. Anything that we do in the world is like pulling or pushing the balloon on one side or another. It is an illusion to think that we can change the amount of water available. At most what we can do is to make an impression on the surface of the balloon. Even that will soon disappear as it is replaced by another impression, given the balloon’s plasticity. Is that something to hanker for, or to be stressed about on this earth?
- ‘One tends to feel bliss for what they would never miss, and tends to grieve for what they would never achieve. So do not consider your highest achievement to be the fulfilment of a pleasure or the satisfaction of a rage. Rather, let it be the extinction of a wrong or the revival of a right. Let your delight be in what [good deeds] you have sent forward, your regret for what you have left behind, and your concern about what lies after death.’ (Nahj al-Balāghah, Letter 66)
A Criterion for Immateriality
Given the pervasive applicability of the law of conservation to the world of matter, it can be used as a standard to define materiality. Anything that is material is subject to the law of conservation, and vice versa. Hence, if we can find something that can undergo real gain or loss, or real augmentation or diminution, then that thing is immaterial in its essence. In other words, if something can expand without a contraction elsewhere, or can be destroyed without being replaced by something else, then we are dealing with the immaterial (mujarrad).
One example is emotions. There is no fixed net level for emotions. One person – or all anyone, really – can have no emotions, some emotions, or a lot of emotions. There can be love instead of hatred, without necessitating any reduction elsewhere. Therefore, emotions are by nature immaterial. Meanwhile, the Quran says:
‘Allah has not put two hearts within any man’ (33:4).
It is said that this verse was initially revealed in refutation of a polytheist who set up himself as an opponent of the Prophet, claiming to have two hearts (Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-ʿAẓīm, 9:3112. Thaʿlabī, al-Kashf wa al-Bayān, 8:6). However, on a more general level it is understood as that one cannot love or aspire to two things that are categorically different and opposed to one another. In other words, just like an optimization problem, one can only have one objective function, unless two functions exactly coincide with each other. It could also relate to the practical implications of love, which are bound by our limited resources. The amount of care, thought, and attention that we can dedicate to an object of love is delimited by the boundaries of our time, energy, and mental capacity.
Another example would be the divine qualities. God is described with opposite attributes. He is the First and the Last, the Apparent and the Hidden, the One Who gives and the One Who takes, the One Who guides and the One Who misleads, the One Who repairs and the One Who breaks. In the world of matter, this is impossible because of the law of conservation. The Quran says:
‘To Allah belong the east and the west: so whichever way you turn, there is the face of Allah! Allah is indeed All-Embracing, All-Knowing’ (2:115);
‘He is with you wherever you may be, and Allah sees whatever you do’ (57:4).
Knowledge: The Spring of Life
Perhaps the clearest example of something immaterial is knowledge. The body of one’s knowledge expands during one’s life without an equal shrinkage of some matter or energy elsewhere to compensate that. It may also diminish due to old age or illness without any replacement. Similarly, the body of human knowledge has increased throughout history since knowledge can be accumulated and transmitted from generation to generation.
It is by nature immaterial, even though it may be stored in material records or transmitted via energy. The same formula can be known and used by numerous people, without the number of its users causing a proportionate drain on some resource. This is a clear example that falls outside the law of conservation of matter and energy.
Angels are another clear example of immaterial beings. The Quran describes them as being constantly in worship and obedience of God, without any interruption or exhaustion:
‘and those who are near Him do not disdain to worship Him, nor do they become weary. They glorify [Him] night and day, and they do not flag’ (21:19-20; also see 7:206, 41:38).
Operating on God’s glorification and praise instead of on food and drink is an indication of immateriality. These are the channels which direct God’s decree to the lower planes of existence (Quran, 79:5). The narrations also say that the heavens and the earth are filled with the angels, and that there is an angel charged with every raindrop or leaf that falls. Yet, they do not crowd the space for one another since they do not exist in a physical sphere.
Likewise, the Quran encourages us to transcend the limits of materiality. The glorious light of the Lord is to be found
‘In houses Allah has allowed to be raised and wherein His Name is celebrated; He is glorified therein, morning and evening, by men whom neither trading nor sale distracts from the remembrance of Allah, establishing the prayer, and paying the alms. They are fearful of a day wherein the heart and the sight will be transformed’ (Quran, 24:36-37).
According to the Quran, these most chosen servants of God are ‘those who are constantly in prayer’ (70:23). This means that their remembrance and prayer are not physical acts, because the physical plane is governed by the law of conservation, which allows for only one physical occupation at a time.
“Gabriel’s energy is not from food; / It’s from meting the Creator of existence, renewed”
(Rūmī, Mathnawī, vol. 3, line 13)
In the material world, light is a close approximation and representation of the immaterial. Although it is a form of electromagnetic energy and thus governed by the law of conservation of matter and energy, it is viewed as something transcendent. For instance, the same light can be seen by a number of observers, without one’s vision reducing the amount of light available to others. Similarly, when light shines on pure and impure objects, it is not affected by their property. When the Quran says, ‘Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth’ (24:35), perhaps it is in part referring to His immateriality.
Brain and DNA as the Soul
To prove the existence of the soul, it is often argued that all bodily cells are replaced after a while, but the person’s identity is maintained throughout their life. Hence, there must be something beyond the body – called the soul – which maintains one’s individual continuity. This is commonly understood as saying that there is a dead end where some observed phenomena cannot be explained through physiological processes. It is as though there is a chasm, where matter ends and the soul begins. Such a dualistic view of existence is metaphysically flawed and scientifically unsound. A more plausible understanding of this is to view the body and the soul as two aspects of the same reality, and as extensions of one another.
There is an element of knowledge in DNA since it is a coding of a cell’s genetic information. While the cell’s matter perishes and is replaced by new matter, the code is sustained and is passed on to the next generation. The element of knowledge in DNA is immaterial. This is, in fact, what gives continuity to an organism despite its material replacement. Therefore, what is called soul (nafs) or the spirit (rūḥ) in religious sources can be matched with DNA in modern science. This neither denies the existence or reality of the soul, nor does it make the soul material, but it gives it a scientifically acceptable interpretation.
Another observation is that a large portion of brain cells do not die, but subsist throughout one’s life. This does not mean that the soul is the brain, but it removes the chasm between the physical and the spiritual. The brain could be a material vehicle where immaterial properties and functions manifest. Again, the criterion is that any process which falls outside the law of conservation would be an immaterial property of the organism, and can thus be identified as the ‘soul’ of that being.
There is no rivalry when it comes to immaterial qualities and positions. Since we are so accustomed to the world of matter – governed by the law of conservation – we tend to apply the same law to spiritual affairs. It is common to discuss or inquire about the station of one prophet or saint with respect to another. It is as though there is a limited space and a single continuum of spiritual stations, in a materially quantitative way. But the material limitations which are a direct consequence of the law of conservation do not apply to the spiritual realm.
The same can be said about spiritual rewards. God is very generous with multiplying the rewards of good-doers (2:261, 6:160, 27:89, 28:54, 28:84, 34:37, 53:31, 57:28), and even in raising their faithful relatives to their ranks without lowering their position (52:21). Similarly, the Prophet said:
“Whoever establishes a good custom will have its reward and the reward of anyone who acts upon it, without reducing anything from their rewards. And whoever establishes an evil custom will have its burden and the burden of anyone who acts upon it, without reducing anything from their burdens.” (Ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad, 4:362. Muslim, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, 3:87. Ibn Mājah, Sunan Ibn Mājah, 1:74, ḥ 203. Nasāʾī, Sunan al-Nasāʾī, 5:76-77. Kulaynī, al-Kāfī, 5:9-10, ḥ 1. Ṣadūq, al-Khiṣāl, 1:240, ḥ 89)
After describing the pure Heavenly wine, the Quran says:
‘Its seal is musk, for such let the viers vie’ (83:26).
Elsewhere it says:
‘And hasten towards your Lord’s forgiveness and a Paradise as vast as the heavens and the earth, prepared for the Godwary’ (3:133).
When the Quran encourages everyone to hasten to God’s mercy and forgiveness, to vie for Paradise, and to compete in doing good, it is not as though there are a limited number of seats available there. Rather, the system of laws governing the Hereafter is categorically different from the system of laws in this world. In another similar verse this is clarified by the second half of the verse:
‘Take the lead towards forgiveness from your Lord and a Paradise as vast as the heavens and the earth, prepared for those who have faith in Allah and His messengers. That is Allah’s grace, which He grants to whomever He wishes, and Allah is dispenser of a great grace’ (57:21).
Again, this should be understood in a non-rivalrous setting. This is exactly what makes Paradise an ‘abode of peace’ (6:127), where the greetings and prayers of its inhabitants, the angels, and God are all ‘peace, peace‘ (10:10, 13:24, 14:23, 36:58, 39:73, 56:26).
A topic of great debate among both Muslim philosophers and Muslim theologians has long been physical resurrection. The apparent texts of the Quran and hadith clearly talk about physical pains and pleasures in the Hereafter. But the problem is how that can be compatible with eternity. Most thinkers have accepted it based on scriptural evidence, without having a complete metaphysical explanation for it, as Ibn Sina has famously admitted. Some thinkers have pointed out a fine distinction between physicality and materiality, where one does not necessitate the other. Their answers, in short, are that while there is no material substance in the Hereafter, there are physical bodies. They also clarify that there are different levels of resurrection.
The law of conservation can provide further insight into this topic. If we define the material world as a plane of existence that is governed by the law of conservation of matter and energy, then the Hereafter would be otherwise. It is too simplistic to think of the Hereafter as being the same as this world, with the difference that pain and pleasure are not mixed there, and that it lasts forever. Rather, it is categorically different.
The Quranic descriptions of the Hereafter are incompatible with the law of conservation. As cited above, the Quran describes Paradise as extending over the breadth of the heavens and the earth [3:133,57:21]. There is no limit to the pleasures of Paradise. Its inhabitants can have whatever they wish:
“A spring where the servants of Allah drink, which they make to gush forth as they please” (76:6);
“There they will have whatever they wish, and with Us there is yet more” (50:35; also see 16:31, 25:16, 39:34, 41:31, 42:22, 43:71).
These descriptions show the connection between eternal bliss and the ‘will’ of the felicitous. In this sense, God’s actions depend on His will alone:
“All His command, when He wills something, is to say to it ‘Be,’ and it is.” (36:82).
With respect to Hell, the Quran says:
‘Indeed those who defy Our signs, We shall soon make them enter a Fire: as often as their skins become scorched, We shall replace them with other skins, so that they may taste the punishment. Indeed Allah is All-Mighty, All-Wise’ (4:56).
Although the Quran’s descriptions of the Hereafter must be viewed symbolically and not literally, the image used in this verse can be meaningful. The idea that the skins are consumed by fire, and they are then replaced by new skin, is compatible with the law of conservation. Similarly, the Quran says concerning Hell:
‘Whenever it subsides, We shall intensify the blaze for them’ (17:97);
‘Every time that a nation enters [Hell], it will curse its sister [nation]’ (7:38).
Likewise, God has promised to fill up Hell with the wrongdoers from humans and the jinn (7:18, 11:119, 32:13).
These verses show that inhabitants of Hell operate on a level of rivalry and mutual cursing. They resent the presence of one other in the Fire, unlike the people of Paradise who will be ‘[intimate like] brothers, [they will be reclining] on couches, facing one another’ (15:47).
Hell will never be filled, but will ever be thirsty for more sinners:
‘The day when We shall say to Hell, ‘Are you full?’ It will say, ‘Is there any more?’’ (50:30).
This may suggest that there are some stages of God’s punishment which are eternal and boundless.
In short, resurrection cannot be material because the Hereafter is boundless. It could have, as Mulla Sadra has suggested, forms that are divested of matter. The limited number of molecules in the world of matter have repeatedly been recycled into the bodies of billions of people. To think of our afterlife as involving similar bodies as in this world would be too simplistic, and against the Quran’s descriptions. One may object that an immaterial interpretation of the otherworldly pleasures and pains would be unfaithful to the apparent text of the Quran and hadith. That is true, but a material interpretation would be unfaithful to more fundamental principles that are more apparently established in the scriptures. Besides, pleasure and pain are by nature immaterial. It is more consistent and logical to realize that when talking about a categorically different realm to an audience who have not experienced it, one would have to describe it using images and expressions that are familiar to them.
Material beings can be defined by things that are governed by the law of conservation of matter and energy. There is a fixed pool of them available, and all that happens at the material plane is transformation. One cannot win a competition without someone else losing. Whenever there is a limited resource, the success of one entails the failure of another. Any material gain is only a transaction from one hand to another, a transfer from one pocket to another. And that is soon bound to slip away from our hands, just as it slipped out of someone else’s hands in order to reach ours. If we realize this and contemplate it, we will no longer be obsessed with material possessions, we will not exult when we gain something, and we will no longer be upset when we lose it. That is the quintessence of zuhd. However, in the immaterial world, such as the planes of knowledge, emotions and the Hereafter, there is no limit and thus no competition.
Taken with slight modifications from The Muslim Vibe