ExtraTerrestrial Lifeforms: A Religious View – OpEd


After the death of the Prophet Muhammad’s son Ibrahim, his companions tried to comfort him by saying that the sun eclipsed due to the greatness of  his loss. The Prophet corrected them by reminding them that the sun and moon are signs of God; and to not add any superstitions to why an eclipse happens. A very wise religious lesson. 

On the other hand, on February 13 in 1633, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei arrived in Rome for a trial before the Roman Catholic Inquisition, accused of defending Copernican theory that the Earth revolved around the sun, instead of the other way around. Galileo was found to be suspected of heresy, and ended up being sentenced to a form of house arrest.

When the inquisition condemned Galileo for writing that the earth might not be the center of the solar system, the Roman Catholic Church was supporting the philosophy and science of the Greco-Roman world because it seemed to support the religious idea that the earth, life in general and human life in particular, should be the center of God’s world. 

Today very few religious people think that if the earth revolves around the sun, it makes humans less important to God. The value, meaning and importance of a human life is not a scientific issue; it is a religious issue. 

So too, when before the end of this decade, astronomical evidence of stars with earth-like planets, at the right distance from their star to have liquid water, and an atmosphere with oxygen, is found; there will be no need to deny the evidence and condemn the scientists as anti-religious. 

Religious people need to know that the Torah and the Qur’an clearly teach that the Living God created the whole universe to be conducive to the universal evolution of life. 

The Zabur of David says, “Your kingdom is a kingdom of all worlds; and Your dominion is for all generations.” (Zabur-Psalms 145:13); and the Qur’an says, “We have not sent you but as a blessing for all the worlds.” (Al-Anbiya 107). Muslim commentators say this refers to the 18.000 worlds created by Allah. Our world is one of them. (Mir’at-e-Kainat, vol.1, p.77) 

“The number of potentially habitable planets in our galaxy is much greater if we can expect to find several of them around each low-mass star — instead of looking at ten stars to look for a single potentially habitable planet, we now know we can look at just one star and find several of them,” adds co-author Rory Barnes. Compact systems around Sun-like stars have been found to be abundant in the Milky Way. 

Unlike the Italian inquisition’s condemnation of Galileo, no Muslim or Jewish astronomer was ever condemned by a Muslim or Jewish inquisition, because Jews and Muslims never had an institution like the inquisition. 

Giordano Bruno (1548 – 1600) an Italian Dominican friar, mathematician, poet, cosmological theorist, and Hermetic occultist. He is known for his cosmological theories, which extended the Copernican model. He proposed that stars were distant suns surrounded by their own planets, and he raised the possibility that these planets might foster life of their own, a cosmological position known as cosmic pluralism. He also insisted that the universe is infinite and could have no “center”.

Starting in 1593, Bruno was tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisition on charges of denial of several core Catholic doctrines, including eternal damnation, the Trinity, the divinity of Christ,  the virginity of Mary and reincarnation. The Inquisition found him guilty, and he was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600. After his death, he gained considerable fame, being particularly celebrated by 19th- and 20th-century commentators who regarded him as a martyr for modern science.

Also, because both Muslims and Jews had many philosophers who were critics of  Aristotle’s and Ptolemy’s science, most Medieval Jewish and Muslim religious leaders did not feel they had to prevent new science from disagreeing with classical Greek science. 

For them it was evident that, as it is written in the Zabur of Prophet David, King of Israel; “The heavens declare the glory of God. The universe proclaims God’s handiwork.” (Psalms 19:2) And as the Qur’an proclaims over and over again, “Whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth exalts Allah” (Qur’an 57:1, 61:1, and 64:1)

New discoveries will always change the scientific understanding of God’s universe; but the religious  belief that the whole universe exalts God and reveals God’s glory will always remain the same. 

One of the first studies of images captured by Nasa’s new James Webb Space Telescope found that there were 10 times more galaxies just like our own Milky Way in the early Universe than previously thought. This just provides more evidence that God’s creation is more and more amazing. 

Or as the great poet Jalal al-Din al-Rumi taught, “Ritual prayer can be different in every religion, but (monotheistic) belief never changes.” (Fihi Mafih)  

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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