Invariably, the next question that comes to my head--the same question that drives the exploration of the Red Planet--is, "What if they find life, or evidence of it, on Mars?" Would such a discovery throw religion a loop?
Reading the sacred scriptures, one gets the sense that we humans are the only living beings in all of the universe; Earth is the only planet in the vast expanse of the firmament that can sustain life; everything we see around us has been created for us. In fact, the scriptures say just that.
In the Qur'an it says: "It is God who hath created the heavens and the earth and sendeth down rain from the skies, and with it bringeth out fruits wherewith to feed you; it is He Who hath made the ships subject to you, that they may sail through the sea by His command; and the rivers (also) hath He made subject to you. And He hath made subject to you the sun and the moon, both diligently pursuing their courses; and the night and the day hath he (also) made subject to you" (14:32-33).
In Genesis 1:26 it says, "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." Indeed, for decades the Catholic Church maintained that the earth was at the center of the universe, until Galileo and Copernicus proved otherwise.
If we one day discover life on Mars, does that mean religion had it all wrong? Is religion then false? Not at all. The discovery of life on Mars, in fact, would only increase my praise, glory, and adoration for the Most Holy One. Science tells us that the atmospheric and other physical conditions on Mars should not sustain life as we know it. Yet, God can do anything. It is well within His Awesome Power--in fact, quite easy for Him--to create a life form that is perfectly suited to live on Mars. Right here on earth, microbiologists have discovered bacteria that can live in the hot sulfur pits of Yellowstone National Park, a place where human beings could not survive at all. Why could not God do the same on Mars?
He told us this, I think, for two reasons: to test our stewardship of the gift of heaven and earth, and to remind us to thank Him for all of His favors. In fact, the Qur'an hints at such. The conclusion of the passage I quoted above declares: "And He giveth you of all that ye ask for. But if ye count the favours of God, never will ye be able to number them. Verily, man is given up to injustice and ingratitude" (14:34).
God, I believe, wants to test us to see if we squander the gift of the earth and its delicate ecosystems and atmosphere. Do we, in exercising our God-given dominion over the earth, end up destroying it in the process? Or, can we find a way to extract the maximum benefit from the earth and still save it from environmental melt-down? Unfortunately, human history suggests that we have done the former. This may be the "injustice" that the Qur'an talks about in the verse.
Yet it is also important to take a step back and sincerely thank God for all He has given us. He has given us the ability to conquer the earth and inhabit its surface; travel over and explore under its oceans; conquer the air and fly through the firmament. He even has given us the ability to conquer gravity and explore the tiny part of the universe around us. Once we reflect on all these gifts, we must never forget to thank the Lord profusely; we must never be "given up to ingratitude."
So, if we ever do discover life on Mars, I would say, "Glory be to God, Lord of the Worlds." In fact, maybe the Qur'an even hinted that there is life on other planets by giving God the title, "Lord of the Worlds." We'll just have to wait and see.
As a physician, I often wonder at what sort of organism a Martian life form would be, and if I had to guess, I would say that scientists would discover cockroaches. They can survive in any condition. And then I would know for a fact that God has a sense of humor.