As the Qur’an states, shadows prostrate and submit to the will of Allah. Commentators opine that prostration is attributed to shadows and humility to the creation that possess shadows.
“Have they not considered everything Allah has created – its shadows turn to the right and left, prostrating to Allah in utter humility?” (16:48)
Shadows are mostly thought of as being two-dimensional areas of darkness brought about by the absence of illumination due to opaque objects that break the pathway of light. Yet in this verse of the Qur’an, we are told that even shadows that are cast by the creation of Allah prostrate to Him in utter humility!
This means that our understanding of shadows needs review. In his recent book entitled Seeing Dark Things: the Philosophy of Shadows, Professor Roy Sorensen says that shadows should not be confused with their two-dimensional cross-sections that are cast upon the surfaces of objects lying in their way, since shadows are actually three-dimensional in shape.
According to Sorensen, shadows are real, but are not “positive” beings, since they are “holes in the light” – created by opaque material objects when they block light that is incident upon them. He maintains that we can literally see shadows and rejects the commonly accepted view that absences or ‘privations’ cannot be causes.
About the prostration of shadows as mentioned in the above verse, it has been mentioned by scholars that the very movement of the shadow (since there is no shadow that does not move) is its prostration.
Other scholars say that this attribution is not for the shadows but rather the material entities that cast the shadows, because one cannot attribute humility to a non-intelligent entity. This argument is unfounded because the verse speaks of everything that Allah has created, including those that do not possess intellect. Unless, of course, every entity in creation is believed to possess some form of intellect.
The majority of commentators, however, opine that prostration is attributed to shadows and humility to the creation that possess shadows. The apparent meaning of the verse also indicates that shadows prostrate and submit to the will of Allah.
But a shadow is not an entity in itself, one may argue; rather, it is an extension of a material entity and has no independent existence. It is just a privation!
In response, we simply point to the fact that shadows have causality (as recent philosophers have argued) and changing attributes. So why is it so far-fetched to say that they prostrate and submit, like all other creation, to the will of Allah?
One of the contemporary commentators of the Qur’an has posited that it is possible the word ‘prostration’ has been used because the shadows usually fall upon the ground as do the human beings who prostrate.
As numerous other verses of the Qur’an indicate, everything in creation glorifies Allah and submits to His will. Here we see that this is also true for their effects and incidentals.
A more general explanation speaks to the harmony in nature where everything works in systemic order. The earth rotates at a certain speed and the rays of the sun fall on the ground at specific angles. Everything works like clockwork, strictly following preordained laws in complete obeisance to Allah.
At the time of revelation, the Arabs would also sometimes use ‘shadow’ to describe the person who possessed the shadow; since a person (or a thing) cannot be separated from its shadow. However, the structure of this verse points away from this interpretation.
Shadows play an important role in Islamic law. For example, the ahadith explain how one has to use the shadow as a gauge to find out the times of prayer. Before the invention of battery-operated clocks, sundials used shadows to tell time.
Other benefits of shadows include providing shade in hot weather and revealing the form and texture of objects seen.
Isn’t it amazing that the shadows submit to the will of the Almighty yet human beings remain obstinate in their haughtiness?!
Points to Ponder Upon
• What are shadows made of?
• Do shadows have independent existence?
• Do shadows have attributes?
• Are shadows causes?
• How does a shadow prostrate?
Shaikh Tahir Ridha Jaffar is a student in the Islamic seminary of Qom. He is the translator of Sunan an-Nabi, published recently by Al-Fath Al-Mubin Publications.