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Last Updated: 2012/05/12
Summary of question
How many spheres are there in the entire universe and what is the difference between a sphere and a sky?
How many spheres are there in the universe and what are the distinct features of a sphere? What is the difference between a sphere and a sky?
Concise answer

According to an ancient opinion, sphere refers to the ethereal bodies which are made up of nine levels or layers seven of which are named as kawakib sab’a (the seven planets). The eighth sphere is named as falak al-borouj (sphere of fixed stars) or thawabit (the fixed) and the ninth sphere is called falak atlas (sphere of atlas or the starless heaven) or muhaddad al-jihat (sphere with limited aspects). This is the end of the world of physical objects - elemental and ethereal.

Based on the explicit wording of the Quran, all the planets, celestial bodies and galaxies are adornments of the sky of the world (first sky). We are unable to understand this very sky what to speak of the other seven firmaments or seven levels of the universe. The other skies, however, are beyond the sphere defined for the first sky.

Detailed Answer

Astronomy in Ancient Theosophy

As per the opinion of ancient theosophists, the world of creation is made up of three levels namely the world of intellects (abstract things), the world of souls (medium between material and abstract things) and the material world or the physical universe. The material world is also divided into two kinds: the elemental objects and ethereal objects. The elemental objects are the external and worldly objects which are made up of material elements that are constantly subject to changes and variation. As for the ethereal objects, they have static and unchangeable forms created from a subtle (latif) material.[1] When we speak of spheres (the subject of this discussion), we mean this level of ethereal objects.[2]

According to the cosmology of ancient theosophy, elemental objects are passive and influenced by ether or ethereal objects. The spheres or the ethereal worlds are themselves made up of levels which encompass the four elements. The first sphere which encompasses the world of elements is called falak awwal (the first sphere) or lunar sphere because there is the moon in this sphere. (For this reason, the elemental world is called a world under the moon sphere.) The second sphere is named mercury which is situated next to the first sphere in a convex manner overlapping the moon sphere as well as the world of material elements. Thus, the next spheres named after one of the stars are located in a way such that they encompass one another. They are Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Then there are the seventh sphere or the sphere of stationary things which is divided into twelve zodiac stars or signs.[3]  According to ancient astronomers, the effects of these twelve signs interfere with the effects of the lower spheres. On the whole they affect the growth and management of various features in the existents of the material world.[4] The last sphere which encompasses all other spheres and is the end of the world of physical objects - elemental and ethereal – is called Falak al-Aqsa (the remotest sphere) or falak atlas (sphere of atlas or the starless heaven) or muhaddad al-jihat (sphere with limited aspects).

Therefore, the physical world including the elements and ethers constitute nine intricate spheres with each sphere being higher than the lower spheres encompassing them and is considered their contriver.[5]

Every sphere is said to have special features and signs that are harmonious with these spheres.[6] Also, a part of the occult sciences relate to understanding of the spirituality of spheres related to the properties of each star or planet and how they influence the material world.[7]

When it comes to the veracity of these sciences and their being right and wrong, or valid and invalid, there are very important issues that need to be discussed in their appropriate place and occasion. However, briefly we point out that according to the narrations of the Ahlul-Bayt (a.s.), what is in the hand of the claimants of this sciences is incomplete, defective and full of mistakes.[8] In addition, studying astronomy and dependence on astronomical sciences have been strongly frowned upon because it entails deviations and tends to have negative impacts on various aspects of human life.[9]

The Seven Heavens

Sky or heaven and creation and their high position in the universe are considered to be some of the important Quranic concepts. If we give a careful look at the Quranic verses about heaven, we come across special features. For example, it has been said that blessings descend form the heavens or that the gates of the heavens are open to some people and that the blessings which have been promised are in the sky.[10] As well, some Quranic verses warn by saying “Are you secure of those in the heaven that He should not make the earth to swallow you up?”[11]

These and many other verses show that ‘heaven’ is something beyond human perception. Based on the explicit wording of the Holy Quran, the planets and celestial bodies as well as the galaxies are only adornments of the sky (first firmament)[12] which we are unable to understand whereas, in fact, there are seven firmaments and seven levels. No matter what those seven levels or firmaments are, they are higher and other than this level which has been defined for the first heaven.

Given that it has been stated in the verses and narrations that the heavens are home to the angels and that the angels come down from the heavens bringing with them divine commands or that the heavens have gates that are not open to the unbelievers and we know, meanwhile, that the angels are created from God’s light, therefore, we can conclude that the creation of the heavens and the beings in them do not have any resemblance and relationship with the current system on earth.[13]

Hence, it can be said that the heaven has enveloped the universe and there is not one heaven but seven heavens the closest of which to the earth is named ‘the sky of the world’. It is the sky which is visible to us and which is decorated with planets, stars and galaxies.

The universe can be assumed in the form of a walnut having seven shells and there is another world in between each shell, and the world e.g. the earth is the kernel of the walnut which is the heaviest and the most material aspect of this world situated in the center of the seven intricate worlds.  Therefore, the earth, solar system, stars and galaxies are situated inside the kernel of the world referred to in the Quran as earth (which is the material world). The other remaining six worlds are situated in the upper shells which in the Islamic culture are called the angelic world, kingdom of divine lights, divine world and so forth.[14]

The Holy Quran says in this regard:

«فَقَضاهُنَّ سَبْعَ سَماواتٍ في‏ يَوْمَيْنِ وَ أَوْحى‏ في‏ كُلِّ سَماءٍ أَمْرَها وَ زَيَّنَّا السَّماءَ الدُّنْيا بِمَصابيحَ وَ حِفْظاً ذلِكَ تَقْديرُ الْعَزيزِ الْعَليم‏»[15]

“So He completed them as seven firmaments in two Days, and He assigned to each heaven its duty and command. And We adorned the lower heaven with lights, and (provided it) with guard. Such is the Decree of (Him) the Exalted in Might, Full of Knowledge.”

Nonetheless some of the past scholars have gone to interpret the seven heavens in the Quran with the seven levels of stars or planets which have been derived from the Ptolemy[16] astronomy. However, this point is not congruous with what the Holy Quran has said because the seven heavens depicted in the Quran refer to all the stars and planets located in the sky of this world.

On the other hand, the mystical view about the nine spheres which are considered as the ethereal worlds (contrary to the mere material interpretation of the seven planets) which have some resemblance with the upper levels that have been referred to in the Quran as the seven heavens.

When it comes to combining between the opinion of ancient theosophists about the spheres and their comparison with the seven heavens in the Quran, it seems that there have been people in every period who, willing or unwillingly, have tried to apply this Quranic reality to the sciences or theories of those times. Some of those interpretations are very material. For this reason, ancient scholars have also tried to interpret the seven heavens which have been pointed out in the Quran on the basis of the old astronomy but those interpretations are opposed with the outward meaning of the Quran. Therefore, considering the ambiguities which presently exist about the heaven and cosmos, it is difficult to pass any judgment regarding the interpretation and conformity of this Quranic reality with various sciences. Moreover, some of the mystics have, in their statements concerning the seven heavens, adopted a method which is independent from that of the ancient astronomy. They have interpreted the seven heavens as the spiritual worlds. For example, Ibn Arabi has interpreted the seven heavens in the Quran as such:

“The seven heavens refer to spiritualities; the first of those heavens is the earthly world and the faculties of the souls and jinn, the second of them is the world of soul and the third is the world of the heart, the fourth is the world of intellect, the fifth is the world of secret, the sixth is the world of the spirit, the seventh is the world of concealment. The Commander of the Faithful, Ali (A.S.) makes reference to this point. He says, “I am more acquainted with the ways of the heavens than the ways of the earth.”[17]

For further information in this regard, you can refer to question 1755 (site: en1742).



[1] - Sayyid Muhammad Khalid Ghaffari, Glossary of the words of Shaykh Ishraq’s Works, p. 59, Association of Cultural Works and  Figures

[2] - In fact, ether is a fifth element other than the four elements which constitute the substance of the spheres and which are not subject corruption, tearing and healing. Ibid, p. 60.

[3] - Amoli, Sayyid Haider, Tafsir al-Mohit al-A’zam wal-Bahr Khadhm, vol.2, p. 211, Islamic Printing and Publication Center.

[4] - Ibid, vol.3, pg. 545.

[5] - Sayyid Ja’far Sajjadi, Glossary of Islamic Sciences, vol.1, p. 257, Tehran University Press.

[6] - For further information in this regard, you can refer to “Ahkaam al-Nojum by Abu Rayhan Muhammad bin Ahmad Beiruin, Majlis Printing House.

[7] - Himiya as a branch of occult sciences undertakes the study of constellational power and influence on the elements and existents. (Dehkhuda).

[8]   - «إِنَّ النَّاسَ يَقُولُونَ إِنَّ النُّجُومَ لَا يَحِلُّ النَّظَرُ فِيهَا وَ هِيَ تُعْجِبُنِي فَإِنْ كَانَتْ تُضِرُّ بِدِينِي فَلَا حَاجَةَ لِي فِي شَيْ‏ءٍ يُضِرُّ بِدِينِي وَ إِنْ كَانَتْ لَا تُضِرُّ بِدِينِي فَوَ اللَّهِ إِنِّي لَأَشْتَهِيهَا وَ أَشْتَهِي النَّظَرَ فِيهَا فَقَالَ لَيْسَ كَمَا يَقُولُونَ لَا تُضِرُّ بِدِينِكَ ثُمَّ قَالَ إِنَّكُمْ تَنْظُرُونَ فِي شَيْ‏ءٍ مِنْهَا كَثِيرُهُ لَا يُدْرَكُ وَ قَلِيلُهُ لَا يُنْتَفَعُ بِهِ الْحَدِيثَ»

Wasail al-Shia, vol.17, p. 141.

[9]  - « َّاعَةِ الَّتِي نَالَ فِيهَا النَّفْعَ وَ أَمِنَ الضُّرَّ ثُمَّ أَقْبَلَ ع عَلَى النَّاسِ فَقَالَ أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِيَّاكُمْ وَ تَعَلُّمَ النُّجُومِ إِلَّا مَا يُهْتَدَى بِهِ فِي بَرٍّ أَوْ بَحْرٍ فَإِنَّهَا تَدْعُو إِلَى الْكِهَانَةِ وَ الْكَاهِنُ كَالسَّاحِرِ وَ السَّاحِرُ كَالْكَافِرِ وَ الْكَافِرُ فِي النَّارِ سِيرُوا عَلَى اسْمِ اللَّهِ»

Wasail al-Shia, vol.11, p. 373.  There are many narrations about astronomy and palmistry in Shia books. The Shia Imams’ views can be inferred from these narrations.

[10] - “And in the heaven is your sustenance and what you are threatened with.” Al-Dhariyat, 22.

[11] - أَمِنْتُمْ مَن فِي السَّمَاءِ أَنْ يَخْسِفَ بِكُمُ الأَرْضَ  [Al-Mulk, 16.] We know that God is Omnipresent and He does not have a place;  He is not in the heavens. For further details in this regard, see: Al-Mizan, vol.19, p. 600.

[12] - “Surely We have adorned the nearest heaven with an adornment, the stars.” Al-Saaffat, 6.  “So He ordained them seven heavens in two periods, and revealed in every heaven its affair; and We adorned the lower heaven with brilliant stars and (made it) to guard; that is the decree of the Mighty, the Knowing.” Fussilat, 12.

[13] - Al-Mizan.

[14] - Vide: Ali Akbar Khanjani, Khuda Shenasi Tabi’ei, p. 59, from Islamic Encyclopedia collection, prepared by Hojjatoleslam Malekiyan Isfahani, 1387 (2008).

[15] - Fussilat, 12.

[16] - Claudius Ptolemy, was a Greek-Roman citizen of Egypt who wrote in Greek. He was a mathematician, astronomer, geographer, astrologer, and poet of a single epigram in the Greek Anthology.

[17] - Ibn Arabi, Tafsir Ibn Arabi, vol.1, p. 25, Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, Beirut, 1422, (translation).


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