by Erik Winkel

First published in Journal of the Ibn 'Arabi Society, Vol. 51, 2012.

Time is not real

Time in Ibn ʿArabi, and from Parmenides
(and Heraclitus) to Julian Barbour

by Eric Winkel

Time is a notch in a circle

The antikythera – the 'ancient Greek computer'[1] – and the astrolabes of the Islamic world come from a perspective that measures time not as duration but as distance on geared circles. We start then with the idea that time is a distance, a notch in a circle; it is a ratio of distances, a relation of one thing to another. In the following passage, Ibn ʿArabi (1165–1240 ce) describes timing and time period in terms related to the prayers that are to be performed throughout the 24-hour day, and then he generalizes. He writes:

Section on the Timings (awqāt, singular waqt): I do not mean by the discussion here on timings of the prayers timings only, but rather I mean time as time, whether it is connected to worship or to something else. Therefore, let me make you aware of its meaning and its significance as we begin with the times set down by Law for prayers.

We say, Time is an expression for the assignment of something which does not accept an existence in itself to be assigned; it is the notch as we assign; we assign to the globular shape a first and a middle and an end, but itself it does not accept the first, the end, nor the middle ontologically. But we take it primarily with the principle of notching and assigning.[2]

Along a circle there is no beginning, middle and end. If you notch a place and start turning the circle, you can fix a beginning, middle and end, but the notch is arbitrary and non-existent. With Heraclitus, the phrase is ξυνὸν γὰρ ἀρχὴ καὶ πέρας ἐπὶ κύκλου περιφερείας (103), 'The beginning and the end are common in the circle's circumference.'[3] Ibn ʿArabi continues:

So, time is a notch assigned on the period (zamān), as the period is circulating, as he said, on him peace, that the period has revolved to as it was on the day God created it. So God created it circulating, and the times are assigned thereon. Then, God made the Orbit of Atlas and realms not yet assigned today, whose assignment has not become visible, like a cup of water in the river before it is in the cup.[4]

The circularity of a great time period is, we shall see below, a cycle of seventy-eight thousand years. But before we have great orbits and notches made by celestial bodies in their relation to each other, we have the water in the river prior to entering the cup. The idea of the cup in the river is similar to Heraclitus' description: ποταμοῖσι τοῖσιν αὐτοῖσιν ἐμβαίνουσιν ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεῖ (12), 'When entering rivers themselves, other and other rivulets are flowing'. Then, after the undifferentiated circle come the notches, including the twelve zodiacal houses. The paradigmatic story of human beings discovering timings is told by Ibn ʿArabi here:

This person has a sight which designates therewith these notches and distinguishes one from another by signposts made for him therein. He puts his eyes on one of the assignments and then the orbit revolves around these signposts of the notches which this observer has designated, and it disappears [sets] from him. He continues to stand in that place until this signpost ends. He knows from that that the orbit has circled one revolution with respect to this observer, not with respect to the orbit, so this revolution is called a day.[5]

Ibn ʿArabi then continues with the descriptions of a week, a month and a year. All of these periods, though, have no real being – they are only relations, one celestial body in comparison or relation to another. He says, '[Scrutinize] that all of that has no being in itself, that it is relations and ascriptions. What is existent is rather the orbit itself and the orbiting body, not the time itself or the period. They, the timings, are rather assignations on them.'[6]

If we carry this description of time being relational to its conclusion that there is no ontological reality to time, we enter a battle that has raged from the ancients until today. The physicist Fotini Markopoulou says, 'There are two kinds of people in quantum gravity. Those who think that timelessness is the most beautiful and deepest insight in general relativity, if not modern science, and those who simply cannot comprehend what timelessness can mean and see evidence for time in everything in nature.'[7] Perhaps the fullest description of timelessness and contemporary physics is found in Julian Barbour's work. He is described as the 'foremost time-denier, who has devoted an eloquent book to the subject, using language that Parmenides would have found perfectly sympathetic'.[8]

Introducing his insight into timelessness, Julian Barbour pulls back the curtain for us so that we may witness Galileo's discovery of the equation for distance and speed. Galileo timed a ball rolling off a table, describing parabolic motion. Since this is something we may remember from school, we tend to jump quickly across a number of assumptions. (Barbour notes that it was so novel then that Galileo spent a year working it out.) We simply assume that time flows and may be brought onto a graph with a time axis (t) and a velocity axis (v). But as he points out, Galileo's clock was literally the drip-drip of water from a barrel. 'It is water,' Barbour reminds us, 'not time, that flows. Speed is not distance divided by time but distance divided by some real change elsewhere in the world.'[9]

If speed does not prove the existence of time, then, doesn't the arrow of time? Entropy says that eggs shatter when dropped, but the resultant blob later does not spontaneously form a perfect eggshell. But against the argument that entropy means there must be time, M. Saniga writes,

To our senses, time appears to 'flow', 'pass', proceed inexorably from the past through (the unique moment of) the present into the future – the fact commonly known as the arrow of time. Yet, almost all of the fundamental equations of physics are strictly time-reversible and, in addition, they do not leave any proper place for the concept of the present, the 'now'.[10]

What happens when we suspend assumptions about time? The answer, disturbingly enough, may be that we cannot find a real time. We find, instead, things in relation to other things, not things in relation to some absolute, independent watch-ticking time.

Relations and background

The time-period, Ibn ʿArabi says, 'has no being in itself; it is relations and ascriptions'.[11] As with timelessness, there are two camps, one that sees absolutes and the other that sees relations. One says that things are objective, real, solid and predictable. The other says that things are real only as they relate to other things. In physics, the two camps are identified by their use of background. One camp depends on a background, assuming an absolute time-clock that ticks and tells us when things are happening in an absolute space which exists whether something is in it or not. The other camp seeks background independence, trying to describe the world without absolute time and space. John Baez writes,

The struggle to free ourselves from background structures began long before Einstein developed general relativity, and is still not complete. The conflict between Ptolemaic and Copernican cosmologies, the dispute between Newton and Leibniz concerning absolute and relative motion, and the modern arguments concerning the 'problem of time' in quantum gravity – all are but chapters in the story of this struggle.[12]

Consider a particle, pushed in a direction, floating through space until it hits something else. Its entire history, its entire trajectory, can be known if the initial condition is known. This is the claim of Newtonian mechanics, and it suggests that the universe is a giant mechanism that some god started (gave the initial conditions to) who now sits idly by as the particles move along their trajectories. Any theory dependent on a background has to deal with the initial conditions question. Where and when in absolute space and absolute time was the initial push made? Roger Penrose illustrates this question with the image of a god having to pin a tiny box, 'just 1 part in 10 to the 10 to the 123rd of the entire phase-space volume, in order to create a universe with as special a Big Bang as that we actually find'.[13]

What about a universe created a few feet to the left? Or a few minutes earlier, or later? The background seems to work very well for classical, mechanical, Newtonian reality, but when pushed to cosmology, these kinds of questions arise. If one says the initial conditions had to be just so, otherwise 'I' would not have been created, one has accepted the anthropic principle. Science, whether contemporary or Islamic civilizational, should not accept the arrogance of the anthropic principle. For Leibniz, the response to background dependency was relativity, the idea that things are describable in reference and relation to themselves, not to an absolute background of space and time. What he called the principle of sufficient reason challenges a position where one cannot specify why the tiny box should be here rather than just over there. Similarly, Barbour explains that Einstein saw that 'Newton's use of absolute space was tantamount, in modern terms, to the introduction of distinguished frames of reference... under conditions in which it was completely impossible to find any reason why they should be distinguished. Einstein found this to be an affront to the principle of sufficient reason and was therefore led to say that no such distinguished frames of reference can exist.' This led, then, to his principle of general relativity.[14]

Einstein's insight, physicist Claus Kiefer says, was 'to see that gravity is a manifestation of the geometry of spacetime; in fact, gravity is geometry'.[15] Hence, the background, the absoluteness of spacetime, must be seen instead as dynamical. Things interact with other things, not against a fixed background. But what happens when the insight of general relativity is led to quantum mechanics? There, instead of particles moving along trajectories, we have waves. We cannot fix precisely the momentum and position of the 'particle'. To say 'where' something is, is to describe a wave that extends to infinity, with probabilities of position, some places being higher in probability than others. Only after the wave 'collapses' is the position clarified. We then have two theories – one dealing with 'our' size things up to galaxies (general relativity) and the other dealing with tiny things (quantum mechanics). The attempt to merge them or unify them runs into the problem of time.

One answer to merge the two ends of the spectrum is simply to define the cosmos in terms of the very small. That is, take the theory of small things and apply it to the cosmos. We then get the Wheeler–DeWitt equation.

Ĥ ψ = 0

Here, the Hamiltonian operator Ĥ meets the wave function ψ and equals 0. There is no time in this description of a static, complete, infinite universe. Only with Schrödinger's time-dependent equation, do we find time.

iħ ∂ψ/∂t = Ĥ ψ

However, the time here is the evolution of probabilities, not a position at time, that is, it is not q(t). Therefore, Kiefer points out, 'upon quantization spacetime vanishes in the same manner as the trajectory q(t) vanishes. But as there is no absolute time in general relativity, only space remains, and one is left with [Ĥ ψ = 0].' This is why Julian Barbour suggests that 'general relativity has already been quantized. That happened in 1967 when DeWitt turned the Hamiltonian and momentum constraints of general relativity into wave equations on the timeless configuration space of the Universe.'[16]

Stuart Kauffman and Lee Smolin characterize the 'problem of time in quantum cosmology' we have noted as leading to 'either (A) find an interpretation of the theory that restores a role for time, or (B) provide an interpretation according to which time is not part of a fundamental description of the world, but only reappears in an appropriate classical limit... . The most well formulated attempt of type (B), which is that of Barbour, may very well be logically consistent. But it forces one to swallow quite a radical point of view about the relationship between time and our experience.'[17] However, such a swallow may, I argue below, not only be necessary but may prevent another problem Smolin identifies as a 'religious urge for transcendence' that should not be part of science.

We have, then, a configuration space, which Barbour calls Platonia, where 'time truly does not exist. This also applies to motion: the suggestion is that it too is pure illusion. If we could see the universe as it is, we should see that it is static. Nothing moves, nothing changes.'[18] In this world, 'All we know is that the present Now is real.'[19] Such a philosophical stance shares with some Greek and Arabic descriptions of the world, which may assuage the counter-intuitiveness of 'the present Now.'

No duration over two moments

Ibn ʿArabi describes below the universe as it appears to the observer. He starts with two ends meeting to make a circle, making a circumference. The circumference points to a centerpoint. Lines go from the centerpoint to the circumference. Each line from the centerpoint ends in a point in the circumference. Then, the centerpoint continues until it ends in the circumference and becomes the centerpoint of another circumference, 'half interior to the first circumference and half exterior, making the principle of outward and inward'.[20] And then,

The two ends meet as they did for the first circumference, until it takes on its [first] shape, because it is impossible that it go out in other than its shape. Then there occurs to the circumference what occurred in the first circumference, and so on until infinity. It is what protrudes from these treasure troves which themselves have no end to what they contain. It is the new creation which existence is in always, forever. Some people, or most people, are in confusion about that, just as He said, 'Rather, they are in confusion about the new creation' [Q. 50:15] with every [divine] breath, but in the shape we mentioned.[21]

Then, as the circles continue with each breath, 'the first circle which originated these circles becomes hidden, unrecognized, unperceived, because each circle approximating it or far-fetched from it has its shape.'[22] To visualize this, we start with a circle, which expands to create a pair of linked circles. The linked circles appear as a new circle, hiding the previous circles underneath it, and so on.

From this, we see that Ibn ʿArabi accepts the feeling, the phenomenology, of time without saying that there is in fact an absolute time. His ultimate argument is that time, as he says,

is an illusory thing, non-existent. Because of this, God attributes it universally to Himself, in His words, God is to everything All-knowing [Q. 33:40] and To God belongs the matter, before and after [Q. 30:4], and in the Sunna, the petitioner's phrase is confirmed, Where was our Lord before He created His creation? If Time were an existent thing itself, God would not be truly removed from limitation, as the force of Time would limit Him. So we understand that this phrasing has over it no existent matter.[23]

Here Ibn ʿArabi addresses the perception of time. He considers the concept with the Philosophers, who define time by comparing it to many different matters. He notes that they are using the idea that time is the piece cut out of the movement of the orbits. He then says that 'the theologians define it in comparison with other matters: it is the simultaneity of one event compared to another for which one may ask, When?' These are all faulty, and he falls back on the fact that

the ʿArab defines it as and means by it the night-time and the daytime, and it is our definition in this context. The night-time and the daytime are divisions of the [24-hour] day. From the rising of the sun to its setting is called daytime, and from the setting of the sun to its rising is called night-time; this divisible entity is called a day. This day makes the existence of the great movement visible. There is not in existence[24] itself anything but the existence of the moved, nothing else; nor is the movement time itself; the upshot of this is that time is an illusory matter with no reality.[25]

For Ibn ʿArabi, the convention of the ʿarab, defined as the contemporary audience of the Qurʾan, is the foundation of sound understanding, especially when we are drifting into the strange world of the present Now. The ʿarab is also the basis for linguistic definitions (another foundation for sound understanding), as demonstrated by the title and work Lisān al-ʿarab (The language of the ʿarab) of Ibn Manzur (d.1311 ce).

The 24-hour day of the ʿarab is defined by relations, namely the relation of the Sun to the Earth. But this is not the only day. He says,

When you have confirmed this, then the intelligible, measured day is expressed by an existent Time, and in it appear the Fridays [weeks], the months, the years, the ages, and what is called days. By this is measured the shortest conventional day which is divided into night-time and daytime. The measured Time is what is in excess of this shortest day by which are measured the rest of the long days. He says, In a day whose measure is one thousand years as you count [Q. 32:5]. And He said, In a day whose measure is fifty thousand years [Q. 70:4]. And he [Muhammad], peace be upon him, said about the day of the Dajjal, [it will be] a day like a year, and a day like a month, and day like a Friday [week], and the rest of his days will be like your days. This situation may be because of extreme terror, so the shapes [e.g., months, years] are lifted out [from the usual]; but the clear answer comes from the end of the hadith, in ʿAisha's question, 'So how shall one do the prayer in that day?' He said, 'Measure it.'[26]

Ibn ʿArabi says that 'Measure it' means to use a timepiece. He says that they, the

people of this science, know, using the timepiece, the timings [of the prayers] on a cloudy day when the sun doesn't appear, and when the Dajjal first arrives, the clouds will increase and continue such that day and night will be equal to the eyesight. It is one of the strange formulations which will happen at the end-time. Then that accumulating cloud will come between us and the sky and the orbit-movements as they are. The orbit-movements will appear on the technical instruments which the scientists use, scientists of shape [geometers] and star-paths [astronomers]; they use the devices to measure the night-time and the daytime and the hours of prayer, without doubt.[27]

Before continuing this passage, we need to understand Ibn ʿArabi's ideas on the perception of time. He connects the days of the Dajjal and the confusion about how long a day is – and the information that there will be a day like a year – to the personal perception of time. He says,

It is conventionally known about the human psyche that the nights of intimacy and [lovers] together are short, even though in fact they are of long length, and the nights one is forsaken and tormented are long, even though in fact they are short, as they remarked in the commentary on the days of the Dajjal, that the first day is like a year because of the sudden intensity of the calamity, prolonged, according to them; then like a month, then like a week, and then when they are used to it, like the rest of the conventional days whose moment is neither long nor short. It is as was said about the day of judgment, that its measure is fifty thousand years, because of the rising fright and what creation is seeing in there of intensity, while for the protected people who do not rue the terrible panic the duration is like the fajr prayer [two prayer cycles done lightly/quickly before the subh prayer]. What is the time period of the fajr prayer compared to the time period of fifty thousand years?[28]

In this passage on the perception of time, Ibn ʿArabi mentions Jonah's people, who were given the ability to foresee their punishment. The punishment, of course, loomed large and dilated time. They were then given the good fortune of having this dilated time applied to their enjoyment of this world, which is poetically considered to be fleeting. Ibn ʿArabi describes this and then tells a story of following the footprints of one of them. The person was going very rapidly, because he could not be caught up with, but his footprints showed a very short stride. He says,

So when the calamity was intensified for Jonah's people, and the time period of a blink of the eye was for them at the moment they saw the punishment like a year or longer, it is said that He made in comparison to this length in which they saw themselves a comparable length in which they should enjoy life for awhile; so they stayed in an enjoyable life of the world for a long time which would not have been given to them if not for this calamity. So look at how fine the scale weighs things – one has said that the 'for awhile' that He gave in which they enjoy life ends only at the day of judgment, but God knows best. I met someone who saw one of them. We saw his footprints along the shore. He was in front of me a bit, but I did not catch up to him. I measured the length of his stride in the sand and it was three and a third hand-spans. He was one of Jonah's people.[29]

We have seen that the 'length' of a day varies widely, and that perceptions mislead us in ascribing time. Ibn ʿArabi lists the range of day lengths,

The days are many; there are big ones and small. The smallest day is the time quantum (al-zamān al-fard), and in it emerges Each day He is upon a brilliance [Q. 55:29, kulla yawmin huwa fī shaʾn], so the time quantum is called a day because the shaʾn [brilliance] occurs in it. It is the shortest of time and the most minute. Then, there is no bound to the biggest day. Before it and between the two are the middle days. The first is the day known conventionally and divided into hours. The hours are divided into minutes and the minutes into minute-particles, and so on until infinity, according to some people.[30]

As we consider the day of shaʾn (brilliance), we need to identify the time quantum. Ibn ʿArabi says that the verse, Each day He is upon a brilliance, refers to the 'smallest of the days; a time quantum which cannot be further divided'. He then says, 'He is, in this day, upon brilliances numbered by what is in existence; e.g., the particles of the world which cannot be further divided.' Ibn ʿArabi says, 'He is upon a brilliance with each particle of the world.' Put another way, each particle of the universe is the subject of a divine shaʾn each day. We will put a metric to this below. In the same passage, Ibn ʿArabi explains,

the brilliances are the states of the creatures; they are the location for the states becoming in them, because in them these brilliances are created ever. Therefore, it is not true that one state could last two time periods, because if it were to last two time periods, God would not be, with respect to the particle whose state lasted, its Creator, nor would it be dependent on Him; it would be described as being independent of God, and this is impossible.[31]

To illustrate this concept, take three coins on a table. Move the three coins, move them again, and then move only two. Then move the three again. At the third iteration, one coin was independent of your operation. This tells us that what Ibn ʿArabi is saying here is that every particle in the world, during every day, is under the shaʾn of the divine: if not, the impossible situation of something being independent of God would occur. To put a metric to this, we set up an equation where each day each particle in the world is 'brilliantly lit'. As Ibn ʿArabi said, the number of 'brilliances' is the number of particles in the world, and this occurs every day. So, in a day D, all particles N are brilliantly lit. Each time quantum of the brilliant lighting of each particle is then D/N. The Day in seconds divided by the number of particles N gives the time quantum in seconds. Now, for the metric, we do not know how many particles there are in the world. And for the smallest time, there is no measure specified. However, a candidate for a good metric using natural units is Planck time, which is 5 x 10-44 seconds. In days, that is 4.7 x 10-39 days. When dividing one (day) by 10-39, that is, 'one over one over 1039', the exponential sign changes: we then have 1039 as the number of particles in the world getting lit up brilliantly.

This day measure is part of a week. Haj Yousef explains that the new creation takes place each week, where 'we do not feel the creation in the six days because we are being created but not yet, and we only feel ourselves created on Saturday, which is why it is the Day of eternity.'[32] What we are measuring above, then, is Saturday.[33] Using a perhaps unfortunate metaphor of the computer monitor, Haj Yousef wonders whether we could 'measure the "refresh rate" of creation, which is also the smallest quantum of time, or the length of the moment. As we have noted, this could be expected to be equal to 24 hours (or 24 x 60 x 60 seconds) divided by the whole number of states or entities in the world.'[34] But as he notes, even Ahmad Zewail's Femto-second resolution is 10-15 seconds, far from a Planck time of 10-44 seconds. (Haj Yousef did not consider Planck time here.)

Besides the particles in the world (ʿālam) above, could the process of the creation of the heavens and the Earth in six days be put to this metric? Ibn ʿArabi points out that creation here does not include the Footstool and the Throne, so we are dealing only with the solar system. If we take the process of creation to be 78,000 years, as Haj Yousef counts it using Chapter 7 of the Futūhāt, we get a period, in seconds, of 78000 x 360 x 24 x 60 x 60. This number divided by Planck time is 1054. In comparison, the number of atoms in the Earth is contemporarily figured at 1050 and in the solar system (that is, essentially the Sun) at 1057. In Archimedes' Sand Reckoner (ψαμμίτες),[35] the figure for the grains of sand in the universe is 1063.

For our purposes, the picture that emerges is one where unimaginably large numbers of entities are each, individually shone upon by a brilliant divine light that gives each one of these entities its state at that moment – which is the eternal day of Saturday. The reader may take a moment to ponder every particle in the world – the 109 people on Earth, the 1015 bacteria in each of them, the 1030 bacteria in the world,[36] every cell and spot and grain – being brilliantly lit so many times in a second that if each second were a millimeter, it would reach to the edge of the observable universe. That is quite a contrast with the idle god of Newtonian physics!

Now, before he launched us into the 'smallest of days' passage above, Ibn ʿArabi told us that the state is in the category of divine, 'because it is God that gives it and it is His facing the things He brought into being. Then, because it is one essence, there is no thinking of more than it.' We need to break down the last sentence. He is saying, Because it is of one single ʿayn, that is, essence or entity or thing, there is no intelligible thinking about it (lā yaʿqilu fīhi) more than it (zāʾid ʿalayhi). That is, for the purposes of intellectual or rational investigation – that is, science – the only thing we see is a single time period. If there is only a single time period, with no consideration of sequence, it is the same as saying there is no time. Time is removed from scientific inquiry.

Ibn ʿArabi is saying there are no two identical instants, because nothing can persist for two time periods. He is saying that our perception is completely limited to the moment we are in – the eternal Saturday. We cannot 'step out' of our moment to make intelligible statements about the past or future. Julian Barbour says,

According to many accounts, in both mainstream science and religion, the universe either has existed for ever or was created in the distant past. Creation in a primordial fireball is now orthodox science – the Big Bang. But why is it supposed that the universe was created in the past rather than newly created in every instance that is experienced? No two instants are identical. The things we find in one are not exactly the same as the things we find in another. What, then, is the justification for saying that something was created in the past and that its existence has continued into the present?[37]

For Ibn ʿArabi, the idea that something was created in the past and then continues into the present is impossible, because it would then be independent of God. In fact, it is the assumption of an absolute time in Newton's mechanical world that implies a cosmos independent of the divine. In that view, after the initial conditions are given, the universe simply winds down entropically, a machine wearing down. As Margaret Wheatley characterizes the situation, 'By sheer force of will, because we are the planet's intelligence, we will make the world work. We will resist death. What a fearful posture this has been!'[38]

But if instead each entity receives a brilliant light – the shaʾn which God is upon each day – then we are considering a world energized not once, long ago, but at the tiniest imaginable, shortest time period, which is one moment. But we get confused. We think that this is the same as this next, when in fact each one is a new creation. It is only this one, new creation that is intelligible. Julian Barbour uses the illustration of a jumping cat. As a scientist, he is aware that the cat is made up of some 1026 atoms; each one of these atoms is vibrating, moving, changing at least every Femto-second. Given this, what makes us say the one cat is the same cat a second later? He asks, about the jumping cat, 'Is the cat that leaps the cat that lands?'[39] We are in the territory, then, of Heraclitus, where one cannot step into the same river twice.[40] If we connect these arguments, we see that the domain of science – intelligible thinking – is the single state, where there is no time. Further, the presumption that one could transcend the limitation of the single state – step out of our moment – is the height of arrogance. The presumption implies that we can step out of existence and be independent of God. I suggest the urge to do so, as Smolin characterizes it above, is a religious urge for transcendence that should not be part of science – or religion! For science, in the argument I am putting forward, the single state is the only arena for study; any attempt to step outside and observe magisterially two moments is fundamentally flawed.

It is in this sense of a single time being the same as no time that one may consider Parmenides and Heraclitus as arguing the same point.[41] One of the 'same river twice' fragments from Heraclitus reads as follows.

ποταμῷ γὰρ οὐκ ἔστιν εμβῆναι δὶς τῷ αὐτῷ σκίδνησι καὶ πάλιν συνάγει καὶ ἀπολείπει καὶ πρόσεισι καὶ ἄπεισι (91)

It is not possible to enter in a river itself twice; it fragments and again gathers; it is left behind, proceeds and recedes.

The river is never the same twice – it becomes 'schizoid', as the Greek has it (skidnēsi). If one were to study the river, one would only correctly study that single river at that single time. The sun, as he says, is created new each day: ὁ ἥλιος νέος ἐφ' ἡμέρῃ ἐστίν (6). Even though Heraclitus is talking about change, from a scientific point of view there is only one, single reality one may investigate. If there is nothing but change, that is the same as no change. The Newtonian posture is saying magisterially that there is no change where I stand but everywhere else changes.

For Parmenides, we have Zeno's paradoxes to illustrate that there is a single, unchanging cosmos. (Ibn ʿArabi mentions in Futūhāt 1:440 the faulty logic of those who believe in an absolute background of infinitely divisible time, without using Zeno's paradoxes.) If time or space is infinitely divisible, then one must go half a distance, then half of the new distance, then half of that, and so on – one would never arrive. That one does arrive confirms Zeno and Parmenides – time is not infinitely divisible. Barbour remarks, 'In normal physics, with a notion of time, Zeno's paradox is readily resolved. However, in my timeless view the paradox is resurrected, but the arrow never reaches the target for a more basic reason: the arrow in the bow is not the arrow in the target.'[42] Here we find the meeting of Heraclitus and Parmenides and Ibn ʿArabi. What we perceive as a river is never the same twice; nothing moves because there is no time sequence; nothing stays the same for two periods; and our sense of continuity and persistence is a confusion about the new creation. Barbour's description of such a land, Platonia, uses images of trees and branches, which are highly developed themes in Arabic (usūl and furūʿ). The 'mist is likely to be distributed along thin, gossamer-like filaments that bifurcate and form a tree-like structure.'[43] In this world,

All around NOW, along the filament and to either side of it, are other Nows with slightly different versions of yourself. All such Nows are 'other worlds' in which there exist somewhat different but still recognizable versions of yourself. In other filaments are worlds you would not recognize at all.[44]

The description is reminiscent of the following statement of Ibn ʿAbbas, cited by Ibn ʿArabi. Describing a True Earth (ard al-haqīqah), Ibn ʿArabi says,

She is a pasture for the eyes of the wise ones aware of God, and on her they roam. God has created among all her worlds, worlds in our form; when the wise one sees them, one sees oneself in them. The likes of that was alluded to by Ibn ʿAbbas, in what was reported from him in a hadith about this Kaʿba; [that] she is one of fourteen Houses, and that in every one of the seven Earths, there is a creation like us, up to there being in them an Ibn ʿAbbas like me. This report is verified by the people of unveiled sight.[45]

With Ibn ʿArabi, we see a universe far beyond our conventional perspectives that is at once brilliantly lit up in the tiniest imaginable quantum of time. The infinite is at once intimate.

We have considered perceptions we have about time. What about the conception of time as implied by fossils, for example? Julian Barbour uses the idea of time capsules to explain things that we interpret as continuous sequence. Take a photo album of someone's life story. We seem to be hard-wired to interpret each photo of the infant, the first birthday party, and so on as a continuum. And yet the album – the time capsule – is unitary. We interpret sequence, but that does not mean that there is movement through time. It is meaningful to talk about events that are separate – human beings and dinosaurs, for example – without implying that there is an absolute time of which fossil records are time sequences.

If we accept the idea that time is a notch on an orbit, we can describe the places things are. Ibn ʿArabi, for example, describes how far away the pyramids are by the great orbit of the atlas. He says, 'The pyramids were built when nasr was in asad, while today for us it is in jady. If you make the calculation of that you will get closer to know about the history of the pyramids.'[46] Let us look at that calculation. Let us take nasr to be the constellation Lyra (in Arabic and in contemporary astronomy, ash-shalyāq), with the star Vega. We take asad to be Leo, the star Cor Leonis or Regulus. Then, jady is Capricorn. Using an online astrolabe,[47] overhead Cairo, Vega was in Capricorn from 1100 ce (Ibn ʿArabi's dates are 1165–1240). Vega was in Leo at 10,000 bce. Whether the depiction Ibn ʿArabi saw on a pyramid was of their actual construction or some other foundational date is unclear. In any case, his use of notches in orbits is a way of describing a distant history, without the notions of duration or persistence.

The astrolabe does not require the same set of the notions of time that we might have today. For Galileo, the drip of a water clock meant time, but the assumption was unfounded, because in fact it was water, as Julian Barbour reminded us above, not time that flowed. The geared circles and notches of the astrolabe describe distances and ratios, not necessarily what we assume to be time.

The advance of the notched gears of an astrolabe might be seen to correspond to the advance of still photos in a 'moving picture'. We may see time in the astrolabe as we do in the movie, but that is our interpretation imposed on the technology. But perhaps more accurately we may recognize that the astrolabe points to distance and that the movie is a series of still photos. When they come at us at 24 frames per second, they are perceived as continuous; the perception of the experience is that there is persistence of vision and apparent motion.[48]

In the time capsule model as well as with movies and astrolabes, it is meaningful to use our conventional idea of sequence without actually implying time. Ibn ʿArabi notes that it is the people of unveiled sight who see this. He says,

When you say to someone, You said (qulta) this, and, You said (qulta) that, the ta [denoting the second person singular], for the person of unveiled sight, of the first qulta is different from the ta of the second qulta, because the very one addressed has been made anew with every [divine] breath: Rather, they are in confusion about the new creation [Q. 50:15].[49]

The first cat is not the second cat; the arrow that leaves the bow is not the arrow that hits the target.

It should come as no surprise that Barbour's timelessness is sometimes criticized from purely subjective positions. He recounts Bell's ad hominem remarks against people who accepted Everett's many-worlds interpretation. The remarks seemed to imply that if one has life insurance one is not serious about the idea.[50] In the same way, it should be clear that there are different 'levels of description'. An example of how these levels are dealt with is found in a passage where Ibn ʿArabi explains the co-existence of a statement of belief that is conventionally agreed upon by groups of people and a statement of belief that is utterly individual.

There is nothing like God [Q. 42:11], so it is impossible that one define Him conventionally, because what one person sees of Him is not exactly what another sees of Him; by this the Knowers know Him. A Knower of some matter is not able to connect [communicatively][51] to what another Knower sees from his Lord of Him, because each one of the Knowers sees the One whom nothing is like, and there is no communicative-connection except for likes.[52]

Language depends on an experience in common – a repetition. This is impossible because 'He does not appear [cf., tajallī] in one image to two persons'.[53] Instead,

Among the people of visions there is a common group to whom He appears in like-images. Because of this, the Community comes together [and agrees, tajtamiʿu] on a single agreement [ʿaqd, cf. ʿaqīda] about God. So each one in this group agrees with the other on the essentials about God, as the Ashʿari, the Muʿtazila, the Hanbalis, and the early generations have come to accord. They have come to accord on a single matter with no disagreement from within the group. So it is possible for them to agree conventionally on what they come to accord on. As for the Knowers who are God's people, they know that God does not appear in one image to two persons, nor in one image twice; so the matter for them cannot be pinned down. To each person is a divine appearance special to each, and human beings see Him themselves. When He appears to one in an image and then appears to one in another image, one learns through this appearance something not learned from this other appearance about Reality; like this it is forever. In each appearance one learns that the matter itself is like that for oneself and for others.[54]

The passage above explains how one accepts convention, which is people gathering together to agree upon something, at the same time as one accepts uniqueness. Historically, however, this kind of broad-mindedness was not the rule – and the kinds of controversies that occurred in Western science of the last centuries are found within Islamic civilization too. Barbour speaks of this in this passage:

But if we want to think rationally and as philosophers about these matters, we ought to cultivate a degree of detachment. We must practise Cartesian doubt and, just once at least, question all our preconceptions. I am not persuaded that the people who ought to be best at this – theoretical physicists – do achieve full freedom of thought. Many are passionately committed to an objectively existing external world. They hate anything that smacks of solipsism or creationism. This explains the controversies, virulent at times, about the reality of atoms that took place a century ago, and the equally impassioned debates today about the meaning of quantum mechanics (in many ways a continuation of the debate about atoms).[55]

How might such a 'degree of detachment' be valuable?

There is clearly a sociology of science and an economics. Ideas like timelessness that we have been considering are of great importance, but are unlikely to be financially supported. Julian Barbour describes his experience in this passage:

It may be that the reason why a book like this one, devoted exclusively to the idea that time does not exist, has not hitherto been published by a physicist has a sociological explanation. For professionals working in institutes and dependent on the opinions of peers for research funding, such a book might damage their reputation and put further research in jeopardy. After all, at first it does seem outrageous to suggest that time does not exist. It may not be accidental that I, as an independent not reliant on conventional funding, have been prepared to 'come out'.[56]

He conducted a straw poll of physicists at a conference who supported, at least anonymously, the idea of timelessness and found a majority.

The implication of much of science writings – writings constructed to explain and justify science to a general public – is that people are only interested in scientific products that will improve their material existence. Pure science research into quantum entanglement – how two particles change their spin in concert, simultaneously, no matter how far apart they have been separated – has to be justified as leading to quantum computers that will improve one's ATM experience. One imagines that not all scientists, when they were children, dreamed of such prosaic products. From the perspective of an Islamic civilization, what science should produce is not merely more mechanical knowledge that has no transcendent value. The phrase in the Qurʾan is

They know the outwardness of world-life; but of the next world, they are neglectful [Q. 30:6/7]

The concentration on material means a neglect of spirit. Charles Whitehead remarks,

Materialism creates bad science in many disciplines: biologists who believe that the fundamental principle of all life is a kind of capitalistic competition; cognitive psychologists who regard children as little-scientists-to-be, neglecting just about everything that makes us human; and neuroscientists who treat the brain as a stand-alone person computer which evolved to accomplish work-like executive tasks. Insufficient attention is paid to the social significance of major human universals such as childhood play, song, dance, art, and imagination. Is it right that we should continue to tolerate the dehumanising dogmas asserted in the name of science, and directed at a public which, far too often, appears to lack adequate defences?[57]

Science in Islamic civilization is the study of material, physical things in a way that leads to remembrance – remembrance primarily and primordially of who the Lord is, affirmed in the covenant of Am I not your Lord? They answered, Yes, you are [Q. 7:171]. The continuation of Q. 30:6 above locates the place for reflection to be our selves. In fact, without the study of this world, which we should travel, and ourselves, we would not understand what we need to understand.

Have they not reflected on themselves? [Q. 30:7]
Have they not traveled the Earth? [Q. 30:8]

The assessment of the quality of scientific endeavor in Islamic civilization is therefore two-fold: how well the mechanics are explained and how well the explanations lead to remembrance. The idea that contemporary science has increased knowledge exponentially, for example, is assessed by the above perspective as at best only part of the story. The idea that by itself this exponentially increased knowledge has any real value is absurd, and arrogant; it spawns phrases such as 'As we have systematically overcome our ignorance of the cosmos... '.[58] From the Islamic civilizational point of view, the increase of knowledge about material, physical things has coincided with an increased ignorance about the cosmos.

Support for science inspired by Islamic civilization would include connecting to the kinds of research and discoveries of the 'new sciences', found in places like the Santa Fe Institute, cited just above. Support for science would not be contingent on material results and consumable products but would depend on the inspirational value of knowledge found while reflecting on the physical. These reflections should lead to awareness of the divine meeting.

But most people would deny there is a meeting with their Lord [Q. 30:7]

And finally, support inspired by Islamic civilization would encourage a new style of science writing. Science writing within Islamic civilization should do two things: match contemporary scientific description for rigor and accuracy – emphatically not what we see with creationism – and inspire the sight toward the place the material points.

First published in Journal of the Ibn 'Arabi Society, Vol. 51, 2012.


[1]. For an account of the finding and study of the antikythera, see Jo Marchant (2010). Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000 Year Old Computer. Massachusetts: Da Capo Press.

[2]. Ch. 69 from the Futūhāt: 1:428.3 in the Bulaq edn; 2:17 in the 1999 Beirut edn. For the Bulaq edn, view

[3]. For translations of Heraclitus into Arabic, see my article 'The Fragments of Heraclitus'.

[4]. Fut. 1:428.8.

[5]. Fut. 1:428.12.

[6]. Fut. 1:428.29.

[7]. Fotini Markopoulou (1 December 2008). 'Space does not exist, so time can.', p. 1.

[8]. Sean Carroll (2008). 'What if Time Really Exists?', p. 1.

[9]. Julian Barbour (1999). The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics. Oxford: OUP, p. 96.

[10]. M. Saniga (2003). 'Geometry of Time and Dimensionality of Space', p. 1. Published in The Nature of Time: Geometry, Physics and Perception. Eds. R. Buccheri, M.Saniga and W.M. Stuckey. NATO Science Series II. Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, vol. 95. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Netherlands, pp. 383–92. Julian Barbour addresses the argument of entropy and time in The End of Time, p. 25.

[11]. Fut. 1:428.29.

[12]. John Baez (2001). 'Higher-Dimensional Algebra and Planck-Scale Physics', in Physics Meets Philosophy at the Planck Scale. Eds. Craig Callender and Nick Huggett. Cambridge: CUP, pp. 172–95; p. 173.

[13]. Roger Penrose (2004). The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe. London: Jonathan Cape, p. 730.

[14]. Julian Barbour (2003). 'The Deep and Suggestive Principles of Leibnizian Philosophy', in The Harvard Review of Philosophy. XI:2003, p. 47.

[15]. Claus Kiefer (2008). Does Time Exist in Quantum Gravity?

[16]. Julian Barbour (1993). 'Time and complex numbers in canonical quantum gravity', in Physical Review D, 15 June 1993, 47:12:5428.

[17]. Stuart Kauffman and Lee Smolin (1997). 'A possible solution to the problem of time in quantum cosmology'. Santa Fe Institute Working Paper, no. 97-03-020; 5 March 1997, p. 5.

[18]. Barbour, The End of Time, p. 39.

[19]. Ibid., p. 53.

[20]. Fut. Ch. 369, 3:403.18.

[21]. Ibid.

[22]. Ibid.

[23]. Fut. Ch. 59, 1.325.10.

[24]. (remembering that God is out of existence)

[25]. Fut. 1:325.16.

[26]. Fut. 1:325.20.

[27]. Fut. 1:325.27.

[28]. Fut. Ch. 198, section 8, 20th tawhīd, 2:460.18–24.

[29]. Fut. Ch. 198, 2:460.24–9.

[30]. Fut. Ch. 59, 1:325.35–326.2.

[31]. Fut. Ch. 192, 2:427.3–8.

[32]. Mohamed Haj Yousef (2008). Ibn ʿArabi: Time and Cosmology. New York: Routledge, p. 97.

[33]. See Pablo Beneito and Stephen Hirtenstein (2000). The Seven Days of the Heart. Oxford: Anqa Publishing.

[34]. Haj Yousef, Time and Cosmology, p. 166.



[37]. Barbour, The End of Time, p. 251.

[38]. Margaret J. Wheatley (2006). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, 3rd edn. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, p. 19.

[39]. Barbour, The End of Time, p. 46.

[40]. Ibid., p. 49.

[41]. This is in contrast to the convention that they are opposites – Parmenides arguing for a single state, no change universe and Heraclitus for an ever-changing universe, as in Gordon Belot and John Earman (2001), 'Pre-Socratic Quantum Gravity', in Callender and Huggett (eds.) Physics Meets Philosophy, ch. 10, pp.213–54.

[42]. Barbour, The End of Time, p. 49.

[43]. Ibid., p. 55.

[44]. Ibid., p. 56.

[45]. Fut. Ch. 8, 1:145.35.

[46]. Fut. Ch. 390, 3:607.20.

[47]. Keith's Astrolabes, at

[48]. Tim Smith, Film Perception, p. 1.

[49]. Fut. Ch. 2, 1:86.25.

[50]. Barbour, The End of Time, p. 300.

[51]. That is, if you know the taste of an apple, and I have the same taste experience, I can say, 'This fruit tastes like an apple'. This only is possible if there is a communicative-connection between our shared taste experiences.

[52]. Fut. Ch. 369, 3:427.33.

[53]. Fut. 3:427.36.

[54]. Fut. 3:428.1–9.

[55]. Barbour, The End of Time, p. 252.

[56]. Ibid., p. 337.

[57]. Charles Whitehead, reviewing Charles Tart (2009), The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together, in The Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 17, no. 10–11, November–December 2010, p. 206.

[58]. In the Santa Fe Institute Bulletin 25:2011, 'Transcience: Disciplines and the Advance of Plenary Knowledge', David C. Krakauer, inside cover; in print and also available online in PDF at