QUASARS AND THE GRAVITATIONAL LENS EFFECT
Allah is the light of the heavens and the Earth. The metaphor of His light is that of a niche in which is a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, the glass like a brilliant star, lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the east nor of the west, its oil all but giving off light even if no fire touches it. Light upon light. Allah guides to His light whoever He wills and Allah makes metaphors for mankind and Allah has knowledge of all things. (Surat an-Nur, 35)
Quasar is the name given to extremely dense and bright bodies that look like stars and emit radio waves in space. Quasars are the brightest known bodies in the universe. The brightness of the brightest quasar in the universe is more than 2 trillion times greater than that of the Sun (2x1012); it is approximately 100 times greater than the total light emitted by a galaxy such as the Milky Way.1
The word "noor" in the verse means “light, brightness, daylight, shining, illumination.” The light referred to in the verse is suggestive, in terms of its brightness, of these celestial bodies known as quasars. Because other expressions in the verse describe the visibility of quasar light and the source of that light in the very wisest terms. (Allah knows the truth.)
The word “durriyyun”, meaning “bright,” in the expression "kaannaha kawkabun durriyyun” in the verse, itself meaning “like a brilliant star,” is highly compatible with the scientific description of quasars as “bright, stellar bodies”.2 In addition, the verse speaks of “giving off light even if no fire touches it.” It is probable that this is a reference to the way quasars burn without fire - nuclear fusion. Since oxygen is not naturally present in space, there can be no question of the brightness of quasars having anything to do with fire. The burning taking place here does so as hydrogen atoms are compressed and produce helium. The energy released during this process then illuminates space.
The expression “light upon light” in the verse may well be a reference to the “gravitational lens effect” in astronomy. (Allah knows the truth.) Many astronomers investigating the sources of light in the universe will easily understand this description in the verse. The effect in question refers to the way light from a source behind a body with a very dense mass, such as a black hole, departs under the effect of that dense body and reaches us. It appears that there is therefore more than one source of light of the images we see. Due to this “gravitational lens effect,” an object appears to be somewhere different to where it actually is, and in greater numbers.
The term “a niche in which is a lamp” in the verse may be interpreted as the niche being the area of gravitational lens effect of a black hole. (Allah knows the truth.) It is significant that in describing the effect that arises, NASA scientists use the analogy of the effect of a drinking glass:
The gravitational effect of the galaxy on the distant quasar was similar to the lens effect of a drinking glass on a distant street light – it created multiple images lenses here too.3
In his book The Whole Shebang, regarded as one of the leading books of the 20th century by the New York Times, the science writer Timothy Ferris clarifies the subject as follows:
As light from a Quasar travels towards us… it may pass through either side of an intervening cluster of galaxies. The warped space surrounding the cluster can act as a lens, with a result that we see two images of what is (or was) actually one quasar.4
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope caught a single quasar in space producing images of five separate stars for the very first time. Bodies with a high density – a group of galaxies here – produce more than one image by giving rise to the gravitational lens effect, bending the light from objects behind them, in this case quasars.
The illustration shows a quasar appearing to be in four separate places due to the gravitational lens effect. The images, obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope (Chandra), represent a distance of 11 billion light years.
The reference in the verse to “light on light” may be a description of reflected light forming more than one image. In addition, the term “neither of the east nor of the west” in the verse is in all likelihood a reference to the uncertainty of the light’s source. (Allah knows the truth.)
Quasars are the brightest objects in the universe, and are the nuclei of growing galaxies with the black holes in their center. Black holes, that arise as the result of the contraction of stars and gasses belonging to galaxies, are the source of quasar energy. Quasars’ brightness is spread by stars falling into the black holes at the centers of galaxies.5 Thinking of the “lamp” in the verse as a quasar, the “niche” may well be a reference to the “black hole” that feeds the quasar. (Allah knows the truth.)
Einstein suggested that due to the effect described as the “gravitational lens,” bodies in space could bend light and that it was possible for an observer to see several images from one single source.6 However, this effect was only observed for the first time in the quasar known as the “Twin Quasar” in 1979. Quasars were first discovered in 1963, 14 centuries after the revelation of the Qur’an. The status of the heavenly bodies described in verse 35 of Surat an-Nur is in surprising agreement with our current scientific knowledge. This and a great many other scientific miracles are clear proof that the Qur’an is the revelation of our Omniscient Lord, the Creator of all things.
If a star is immediately behind the black hole, as in the illustration, the star will appear to be both to the right and to the left of the black hole.
Gravitational lens effect
2 http://www.thefreedictionary.com/quasar; http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap951022.html
4 Timothy Ferris, The Whole Shebang, 1997, p. 61.
5 http://www.tiscali.co.uk/reference/encyclopaedia/hutchinson/m0028790.html; http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/quasars.html