Is time an illusion? – Perspectives from physics, film, and faith

Al-Fawaz Ajimoti, Ghana
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Time is familiar to everyone, yet it’s hard to understand and define. The concept of time has always been a fascinating and puzzling topic to many people, of whom I am no exception. I’ve always been fascinated by this topic. Recently, watching Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Inception and Tenet exponentially increased not only my interest but also my curiosity about the concept of “time.”

Interstellar is a space-based movie that explores the complexities of time in a unique and thought-provoking way, especially with its portrayal of time dilation near massive gravitational objects. Inception delves into the subjective experience of time within dreams, blurring the lines between reality and subconscious perception. Tenet takes a mind-bending approach to time, introducing the concept of “time inversion,” where cause and effect can operate in reverse.

Although these are fictional works and have no apparent relation with reality, anyone who has ever watched these movies will find themselves asking the question: What exactly is time? It turns out that it is more complicated than it seems.

According to philosopher Augustine of Hippo (354–430), time cannot be satisfactorily described using one single definition. In his words: “What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asketh, I know not (Confessions 11, c. 14).” (“Time: Religious And Philosophical Aspects”,

Scientific definition of time

Time, from a scientific perspective, is simply defined as the progression of events from the past to the present into the future. It is a fundamental concept used to describe events in three-dimensional space. However, it’s not that simple. “Time seems to follow a universal, tick-tock rhythm, but it doesn’t.” (“A Matter of Time”,

In the Special Theory of Relativity, Einstein determined that time is relative – in other words, the rate at which time passes depends on your frame of reference. “This would mean that ‘the faster a clock moves, the slower time passes according to someone in a different frame of reference.” (Ibid.)

For laymen like myself, I would say this seems to suggest that there is no single universal now moment that all observers share in the observable universe. Different observers have different and unique experiences of the passage of time, depending on their speed and position. The difference between observers’ experiences is what is referred to as “time dilation” in Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Human understanding of time

Mankind has always sought to understand and manipulate time. It is perhaps because time is such a fundamental part of our existence, affecting everything from our biological rhythms to our social and economic systems, that we are so preoccupied with it. Apparently, a concept states that our lives are bound by the “arrow of time.” It is to this effect that, throughout history, we have developed various instruments to keep track of the passage of time; from simple sundials and water clocks to more sophisticated instruments like pendulum clocks and the most recent and most precise atomic clocks.

Although the invention of the clock plays a vital role in measuring and experiencing time – as clocks are tools that help us quantify and organise our understanding of time, some philosophers and scientists are of the view that the concept of time itself would still exist even without clocks, as it is deeply ingrained in our perception of events in the universe.

Albert Einstein, on the occasion of his friend’s death, states: “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For those of us who believe in physics, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” (“What Did Einstein’s Theories Say About the Illusion of Time?”,

Ultimately, the discourse on time itself reveals its illusory nature. Time is not an absolute entity but a subjective construct shaped by human experiences and interactions with the world around us.

Quranic description of time

Like many other topics, the Holy Quran is not silent on the concept of time. It, in fact, addresses time extensively, inviting reflection on its nature and significance, which challenges conventional notions of temporal reality. Highlighting the significance of the celestial bodies – the sun and the moon in measuring time, the Quran states:

ہُوَ الَّذِيۡ جَعَلَ الشَّمۡسَ ضِيَآءً وَّالۡقَمَرَ نُوۡرًا وَّقَدَّرَہٗ مَنَازِلَ لِتَعۡلَمُوۡا عَدَدَ السِّنِيۡنَ وَالۡحِسَابَ

“He it is Who made the sun [radiate] a brilliant light and the moon [reflect] a lustre, and ordained for it stages, that you might know the number of  years and the reckoning of [time].” (Surah Yunus, Ch.10: V.6)

In the Five Volume Commentary, it is written, “By observing the motion of these bodies, we may be able to know that a certain amount of time has passed and that we have moved on from our original position. All reckoning and all calendars depend on the movements of the sun and the moon. The moon moves around the earth and thereby we are able to know the measure of months. The earth moves around the sun and also rotates on its own axis, thus enabling us to measure our years as well as our days.” (Five Volume Commentary, Vol. 3, p. 1221)

The Holy Quran also addresses the relativistic nature of time. It states:

وَاِنَّ يَوۡمًا عِنۡدَ رَبِّكَ كَاَ لۡفِ سَنَةٍ مِّمَّا تَعُدُّوۡن

“And verily, a day with thy lord is as a thousand years of your reckoning.” (Surah al-Hajj, Ch.22: V.48)

We also read elsewhere:

يُدَبِّرُ الۡاَمۡرَ مِنَ السَّمَآءِ اِلَي الۡاَرۡضِ ثُمَّ يَعۡرُجُ اِلَيۡہِ فِيۡ يَوۡمٍ کَانَ مِقۡدَارُہٗۤ اَلۡفَ سَنَةٍ مِّمَّا تَعُدُّوۡن   

“He will plan the Divine Ordinance from the heaven unto the earth, then shall it go up to Him in a day the duration of which is a thousand years according to what you reckon.” (Surah As-Sajdah, Ch.32: V. 6)

Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra in his Tafsir-e-Kabir commented:

“The reference in the verse [Surah al-Hajj, Ch.22: V.48] is to the harsh nature of the punishment that will be meted out to the disbelievers. So Allah, referring to those who seek punishment, states that ‘when the punishment which you seek cometh, your condition will be such that a day will seem to you like a thousand years” (Tafsir-e-Kabir [2023], Vol. 8, p. 195).

How similar is this explanation with Einstein’s metaphor of “beauty and hot stove,” where he simplifies his theory of relativity for laypeople by illustrating how time dilation occurs in extreme circumstances. For further insights on this, please refer to the article, “Einstein and his ‘butt on fire’”,

There are several other verses in the Holy Quran which give hints to the relativistic nature of time. Particularly conveying the relativity and subjectivity that is inherent in temporal experiences. See Ch.20: V.104-105, Ch.10: V.46, Ch.17: V.53 and Ch.23: V.113-114.


The 21st-century Muslims have been constantly accused of ‘Concordism’ – a pejorative term used to condemn the reconciliation of religious prophecies with current scientific discoveries – however, this is but a testament to the consistency of Quranic teachings with creation, as well as its relevance to scientific discoveries. After all, Science is the handiwork of God, and the Quran is his word. (“Science in the Quran: Concordism”,

Therefore, through the convergence of a scientific theory, a cinematic narrative, and Quranic insights, our attention is drawn towards a multifaceted exploration of time – which, although a fundamental aspect of human existence, seems to be relative to our individual experience. It also serves as a reminder of the complexity and vastness of Allah’s creation, as well as the limits of human comprehension.

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