Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim
“The Originator of the heavens and the earth. When He decrees a matter, He only says to it, ‘Be’, and it is.” (Qur'an 2:117)
Verses that refer to the process of creation in the Qur'an are rich with allusion (isharah), and contain tremendous subtlety of meaning. They resonate richly with multiple layered connotations and implications which we, with our present state of knowledge, understand only a little. This is the case for the verses which refer to creation in general, as well as for those which refer to the creation and development of the heavens and the earth, the creation and development of life, the creation and development of human beings, and the creation and development of the first human, Adam. The actual act of creation and God's creative power is, however, focused into a single concentrated word of origination: “Be!”
“The Originator of the heavens and the earth. When He decrees a matter, He only says to it, ‘Be’, and it is.” (Qur'an 2:117)
“For anything which We have willed, We but say the word, ‘Be’ and it is!” (Qur'an 16:40)
“It is He Who gives Life and Death: when He desires a matter, He says to it: ‘Be’ and it is!” (Qur'an 40:68)
“He created him from dust, then said to him: ‘Be’ And he was!” (Qur'an 3: 59)
The verses indicate single commands from which various aspects of creation unfold until the inevitable fulfilment of the intent behind the commands. Should this be viewed as instantaneous creation or as something more complex - that is, instantaneous from one one perspective, and gradual from another?
The Qur'an speaks of the “days of God” (Qur'an 14:5, 22:47, 7:54, 70:4) and it is suggested that the endless properties and potentials that manifest God and display His attributes are the “days of God” - within these days are endless invention and creation which correspond to the eras of the material world, of our universe. However, for God in His essence, there is a single “beginning less and endless day” (Ibn Arabi) so that all of time, all of existence laid out from end to end is, in it's totality, entirely encompassed by God who is beyond the constraints of time. He witnesses, commands, and encompasses all of it as if it were all but a single instant.
He creates with the creative command: “Be!” And whatever He commands enters into being. This creative “Be” encompasses all times and places. Since God is beyond time and place (being the creator of time and place), His command enters from beyond these limited realms and manifests itself in this world of time, place, and form in the best, most appropriate manner. His creative command takes a shape, a form when it enters this universe we live in.
It can enter into this world in multiple places and times (since His presence encompasses it all) as necessary to create what needs to be created - activating whatever sequences of cause and effect and whatever intersecting destinies are required to create what needs to be created and cause what needs to be caused.
From our time delimited perspective, the processes of creation in this world occur slowly and gradually, evolving through many stages, through many different causal chains, perhaps over incredibly long spans of time before the created thing reaches its current form. However, we sometimes imagine that the case must be quite different when God creates with the command “Be”. It is natural for us to envision that God's command “Be” operates differently than the long slow processes of creation and evolution we witness everywhere in nature. We tend to view His command in terms of our own time perception and so assume that “Be!” refers to specific moments of creation in time (so that we perhaps come to believe that the creation of the first living being or the first human were instantaneous creations that disrupt the natural order).
Yet, from a higher perspective, a perspective above time, specific moments of creation are irrelevant. God's command, “Be”, encompasses time itself and the issuance of the command causes existence, all of which is a servant to God, to fulfill the intent behind the command using the potentials and capabilities embedded within it. If the unfolding of cause and effect that leads to fulfillment of the intent takes enormous spans of time (from our viewpoint), it does not alter the reality that God's command, His "Be", underlies the entire process.
As Tabatabai says, “All things, whether they come into being gradually or instantly, are created by Allah, brought into being by His command, that is, by the word, “Be”, as He says: His command, when He intends anything, is only that He says to it, “Be”, and it is (Qur'an 36:82). Many of these things, come into existence gradually - when they are seen in the framework of their gradual causes. But when they are seen in relation to Allah, then there is no graduality in their existence, no gap between the command, “Be”, and their “being”; Allah says: “And Our command is but one, as the twinkling of an eye” (Qur'an 54:50).” (Tabatabai, "Al- Mizan")
What we witness in time is simply the mechanics of the process (the chains of cause and effect) - what we cannot witness is the invisible command that undergirds it all - the metaphysics behind it, the command that calls a thing into existence. So underlying all the forms of this world is the Truth and Power of commands that are veiled from us by the forms and limits of existence and by the boundaries of our perceptions and by the fact that all our instruments of perception operate within the limits of this universe. We are limited in our ability to perceive form, place, and time and we are limited from perceiving what is beyond form, place, and time.
But within the limits of form, place, and time (the limits under which all our material sciences operate) we are urged, by the Qur'an, to reflect on the systems and processes at work in our universe, and at the same time to remain confident that whatever we discover through sincere and contemplative study and inquiry, underlying it all is God's creative and sustaining command. In other words, we are free to discover the methods and mechanics by which creation and alteration and evolution occur in this world. We should also be aware of that which underlies all the marvellous mechanisms of this universe.
All of creation is dependant on God - it emerges from God, it is sustained by God and His command pervades, underlies, and is embedded in the very substance of all existence. He “holds” the creation, the heavens and the earth, sustaining them to prevent a return to nothingness.
“Indeed, Allah holds the heavens and the earth, lest they cease. And if they should cease, no one could hold them [in place] after Him.”
So within the mechanisms of existence is His subtle presence, and within the very foundation of existence, within all “being” flows His commands - he holds all creation “by its forelock”. We need not search for specific instants where creation occurs (the first living creature, the first man etc.) and then feel that this is truly an example of God's creative power - His creative power is never absent and flows continually through every aspect of existence.
Note: No matter how fierce an ideological stand is taken on subjects such as evolution in the creation vs evolution debates, the verses themselves and the rich methodology of the Qur'an resist simplistic facile approaches. To emphatically state that these verses only allow particular modes of interpretation (for example, that evolution cannot be true) and to lock out other interpretations is a fool's errand. There is no clear and firm exegesis which we can point to and say “this, and only this, is the meaning of these verses”. They do not succumb easily to literal interpretation, nor do they succumb to ideological imposition.
When we impose our own ideologies upon the verses of the Qur'an, these impositions will inevitably crumble away over time no matter how desperately fierce our defence. It's best to approach such rich subjects with a healthy appreciation of the limits of our understanding and an acknowledgement of the profound depths contained in the verses of the Qur'an.
The Qur'an informs us of metaphysical realities, of the very essence and nature of existence, of being. It hints at the profound depths of God's creative power which is manifest at every moment, in every iota of existence. The verses on the creation of man are among the most profound verses dealing with the nature and purpose and mystery that lie within humanity, and with the metaphysics underlying our creation. The specific methods (the actual mechanics) through which the material side of this creative process manifests in our universe is for us to discover over time. And so the Qur'an calls upon us to reflect upon the creation, to learn from it, to enquire into its operation and to struggle to comprehend its systems. It does not ask us to accept or reject based on our ideological positions which are based upon interpretation - those interpretations may be flawed from the outset.
Our sciences contemplate on the specific material mechanisms and processes that drive creation, development, and evolution. We are only at the beginning of a long road of discovery. But whatever physical mechanisms are at play in the process of creation, of change, of development, of adaptation, of evolution, the Qur'anic paradigm is so profoundly deep that we should be comfortable that what we discover through reflection and inquiry will lead to an increase of faith, not to loss of it. 
“And there is not a thing but with Us are the treasures of it, and We do not send it down but in a known measure.” (Qur'an 15:21)
Everything in existence is said to descend from the Divine treasuries. These are sometimes thought of as archetypes or templates - as way-stations on the path by which the Divine command descends to implement itself in this universe (although they are also much more than this). Although the origin of all things is in God's inexhaustible treasuries, the manner in which they descend and establish themselves in this universe, this dunya, is through the systemic processes that operate in this world. The systems of cause and effect. In other words, this world operates according to certain mechanisms and processes, some few of which we have discovered and many which we have yet to discover. These mechanisms, these processes through which the universe functions are a part of the sunnah (the norms) set by Allah. “You will not find any alteration in the way of Allah (sunnah Allah) and you will not find any change in the way of Allah (sunnah Allah).” (Qur'an 35:43) So the entry of God's commands into this level of existence, and the descent from the Divine treasures to our universe, follows this norm. Creation and renewal of creation, creation and alteration of creation operate according to the normative processes underlying our universe.
Although all things descend from the divine treasuries, the question remains, how do new creations manifest in this world. Do they suddenly appear as if by a miracle, or do they gradually emerge from the world of the divine treasuries into our world like a shadow or a dream that slowly solidifies in finished form into the physical matter of this world? Or rather, do they follow the normative processes (much of which we still have to discover) that operate within the world, and develop following the complex systems of cause and effect which we observe, and which Allah calls us to witness, to study, and to reflect upon, in the Qur'an.
“Observe! In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the Night and the Day; in the sailing of the ships through the Ocean for the profit of mankind; in the rain which Allah sends down from the skies, and the life which He gives therewith to an earth that is dead; in the beasts of all kinds that He scatters through the earth; in the change of the winds, and the clouds which they trail in their thrall between the sky and the earth; (here) indeed are signs for a people that reflect.” (Qur'an 2: 164)
The verses of the Qur'an seem to indicate a never ending process of creation, interaction, and re-creation, a constant and sustained creation and renewal that operates according to a norm (a sunnah). So creation is not necessarily tied to specific instants but underlies and interpenetrates all existence, even the common processes we witness daily and take for granted, and so is a perpetual, ceaseless process.
The discussion between Nimrood and Abraham in the Qur'an, illustrates the Qur'an's approach by which the natural systems of the universe are considered to be be indicators of God's presence and power.
“Have you not turned your vision to one who disputed with Abraham about his Lord, because God had granted him power? Abraham said: ‘My Lord is He Who Gives life and death.’ He (Nimrood) said: ‘I give life and death’. Said Abraham: ‘It is God that brings the sun up from the East (it is God that sets the underlying forces of the system within which the sun currently rises from the East): Then bring it up from the West.’ He confounded him who (in arrogance) rejected faith. Nor does God give guidance to a people who are unjust.” (Qur'an 2:258)
Nimrood claims he has the power of life and death since he can spare a person's life or take it as he wills. So Abraham, instead of entering into a dispute to prove that it is ultimately God who gives life and death by referring to the supernatural or to miracles, simply indicates that there are systems and processes which run deep within reality and that these are truer indicators of God's presence and His command. “God has caused the emergence of laws and interacting forces so that the sun rises from the East: Cause the sun to rise from the West”, he says, which is like saying, “Change the physics, the methods by which the Universe operates, change this aspect of the sunnah of Allah if you can”. The answer is particularly compelling since it dispenses with superficial notions of God's power and provides a response which should stand even if human technological abilities grow to the point where we perhaps are able to cause the sun to rise in the West. This because whatever we accomplish is accomplished through learning, understanding, and using the mechanics by which the universe operates - it is all accomplished only within the bounds of the sunnah of Allah. Our ability to manipulate the mechanics and physics of this universe is all accomplished within the bounds of the system. Underlying all our accomplishments are the systems of Allah. His presence, His power, His command pervades all of it. We need not harangue and dispute about specific mechanics of how a particular instance of creation happened (when we do this we are in danger of trapping ourselves in a possibly indefensible corner) - instead, rest assured that whatever the mechanics of creation are, God's command and power underlie it all.
1 – Related Articles
2 – Further Reading
Mutahhari's essay on “Spirit, Matter, and Life” in “Fundamentals of Islamic Thought: God, Man, and the Universe”
3 – Systems of the world
The entire system and it's inbuilt logic, intelligence, potential, and complexity is authored and sustained and guided by God and supported by invisible layers of existence which interpenetrate and encompass the workings of this material realm, lending it a deep and profound logic, aspect, and potential. Matter and the forces that regulate their interaction is infused with potentials which allow it to combine and recombine into a bewildering variety of complex forms. God has placed concealed potentials within the nature and systems of the material world - these potentials emerge with the arising of certain architectures - these architectures arise through the action of deeply embedded structural logic which manifests through interconnected re-iterative processes that produce vastly complex superstructures. These forms emerge through processes by which layers of complexity build upon one another. It is as if an inexorable and unfathomable Divine process pushes forms upwards to complexity, or as if Divine attractors pull forms through successive shapes and levels of complexity to create an endless variety of creations.
4 – Why I wrote this article
My intent in writing the article was to underline the astounding metaphysical depth that underlies the entire creation and the entire process of creation. We should not get caught up haggling over the mechanics of creation or with the science of it since the Qur’anic verses and the reliable hadith that give us glimpses of and insights into the metaphysics of mankind's creation and are not literalist descriptions of the physical process itself. There is no warrant for taking an ideological stance concerning the physical process, whatever form it took, because there is no verse or reliable narration that allows us to do that - that states unequivocally that creation happens only in one particular way. So why take a hard and fast stance one way or another about the physical mechanics of creation. The Qur'an encourages us to reflect on the metaphysics of creation and of mankind's nature and clarifies the immense profundity of creation. Whatever our physical sciences uncover about the manifest physical side of creation, it does not in any way alter or invalidate the metaphysics of creation.