What does seven firmaments (skies) mean in the following verse: “God is He Who created seven Firmaments and of the earth a similar number…? (at-Talaq 12)

The Details of the Question
What does seven firmaments (skies) mean in the following verse: “Allah is He Who created seven Firmaments and of the earth a similar number…? (at-Talaq 12) “Allah is He Who created seven Firmaments and of the earth a similar number. Through the midst of them (all) descends his Command: that ye may know that Allah has power over all things and that Allah comprehends all things, in (His) Knowledge.”(at-Talaq, 66/12).
The Answer

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When we look at the whole verse, we can see why the word seven is used: in order to make people see the endless knowledge and power of God. The knowledge of Arabs at that time was very limited but they knew about the skies and the earth. Since the aim of the Quran is to teach oneness, the real purpose why it mentions the universe is to strengthen the belief of oneness. Polytheism is an intervention in the knowledge and power of God. Therefore, the endless knowledge and power of God is frequently emphasized – directly and indirectly – in the Quran.

Taking into consideration that Arabs hadve some information about the skies, the Quran builds a truth on this knowledge. The expression “seven skies” is repeated in order to correct the wrong perception that there is only one sky as it seems so and that there were nine skies as it is claimed by the Greek philosophy and in order to show the truth.

The Quran does not address the Arabs of that time only; they are the first people it addresses but it actually addresses all people to come to the world until Doomsday as a universal message.  Therefore, the range of the expressions it uses always has a merciful style that can cover the level of knowledge of all times.

The expression “seven skies” is repeated seven times in the Quran: (al-Baqara, 2/29; al-Isra, 17/44; al-Muminun, 23/86; Fussilat,141/2;at-Talaq, 65/12; al-Mulk, 67/3; Nuh, 71/15). Four of them ara Makkan and three of them Madinan chapters. Thus, the Quran showed the reflections of its endless knowledge by using the expression “seven skies”seven” in a time period of 23 years.

We can explain the issue briefly in articles in accordance with the view of Badiüzzaman Said Nursi, who says “seven layers of the sky” can be evaluated through seven aspects as follows.

1. It is established by science and philosophy that limitless space is not infinite vacuum, but it is filled with matter called “ether”.

2. It is established by science and reason, and indeed by observation, that the bond of the laws governing the heavenly bodies like those of attraction and repulsion, and the conductor and transmitter of forces in matter like light, heat, and electricity is a matter which fills space.

3. It has been established empirically that together with remaining as ether, like other matter, it has various forms and formations. Just as there are three states of the same matter, liquid, gas and solid, like steam, water, and ice, so too there is nothing to reasonably prevent ether from having seven states or levels; it cannot be objected to in any way.

4. If the heavenly bodies are studied carefully, it will be seen that there is a difference in the levels of those lofty realms. For instance, the level which contains the vast cloud-like sphere called the Milky Way does not resemble the level of the fixed stars. The level of fixed stars also appears different to the level of the solar system. We can say with the perception of the heart that the seven big systems differ from one another.

5. It is established by conjecture, sense, inductive reasoning, and experience that if the order and form of a material are changed and if other artifacts are made from that material, it assumes various levels and forms. For example, when a diamond mine is begun to be worked, both ashes and coal and diamonds are produced from the material. And for example, when fire is begun to be formed, it separates into the levels of flame, smoke, and embers. And for example, when water and oxygen are combined, levels like water, ice, and steam are formed. That is to say, it is understood that when a single substance is worked, it may separate into levels. Acting upon this rule, it can be said that when the Creative Power started to work in the substance called ether, different levels formed in it and seven layers of heavens were created from it.

6. The above indications necessarily indicate both the existence, and the plurality, of the heavens. Since the heavens are certainly numerous, and Hazrat Muhammad, the Bringer of the Definite News stated through the tongue of and the Miraculous Qur'an that they were seven, they are definitely seven.

7. Since in Arabic, terms like seven, seventy, and seven hundred express multiplicity, those universal seven levels may comprise multiple levels.

The sunlight of seven colors illuminate everywhere; similarly these seven lights of the truth coming from the sun of proof are bright enough to enlighten the issue.

We can list the seven proofs, each of which shows on its own that the skies consist of seven layers, as follows:

Since the Qur'an of Miraculous Exposition is a pre-eternal address speaking to all the classes of all mankind and the jinn, each of those classes will definitely receive its share from the Quranic verses; and its verses will contain various and numerous meanings, both explicit and implicit, in a way that will satisfy the understanding of each.

Yes, the breadth of the Quranic address and the comprehensiveness of its meanings and indications and its conforming to and flattering all the degrees of understanding from the most uneducated common people to the highest of the elite show that all its verses have an aspect which looks to each class. Thus, as a consequence of this mystery, as an example, seven classes of men understand as follows the meaning of seven various levels from the universal meaning "seven heavens:"

a. A short-sighted and narrow-minded class of men understands the phrase “seven skies” in the relevant verses as seven layers of the atmosphere.

b. While another class of men befogged by astronomy understands it as the famous stars known popularly as the “Seven Planets”, and their orbits.

c. Another group understands it as seven celestial globes resembling our globe, which are inhabited by living creatures.

d. A further group of men understands the solar system as being separated into seven levels, and that there are seven solar systems along with our system.

e. And yet another group understands it as the ether being separated into seven levels when the divine power in the ether started to build and establish things.

f. Another class of men with broader ideas regards all the visible skies gilded with stars as a heaven, and saying that it is this world's heaven, understands that there are six levels of heavens besides it.

g. And mankind's seventh and highest class does not consider the “seven heavens” to be restricted to the Manifest World, and understands that the Worlds of the Hereafter and the Unseen, and this World, and the World of Similitudes all have seven heavens, each of which is an encompassing container and roof.

Similarly, there are many further particular meanings in the universality of the verse, like the above-mentioned seven levels of meaning of the seven levels. Everyone receives his share according to his understanding and everyone finds his sustenance at that heavenly table. (see Nursi, Lem'alar, On İkinci Lem'a, İkinci Sual, İki Mesele-i mühimme).

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