The Humble "I"

Muslims, Musings, Modernity

Beyond Rationality

space-cube-by-dan-luvisiLast year I wrote a series of blogs about Islam, the Qur’an and rationality. Like others who have discussed faith & reason in recent times, I too was motivated by the desire to address a popular fallacy: that religion, or religious belief, is irrational. It wasn’t the only reason why I felt to write about these matters, but it was a significant motivator.

The first of these postings was entitled: Reason, Revelation, Religion. Of its two major assertions is that ‘aql (reason, rationale), far from being at odds with religion [Islam], actually complements it. Classical jurists, like Ibn Taymiyyah, argue: ‘The messengers came with knowledge that reason is incapable of attaining to. They never came with what reason deems impossible.’1 Its second assertion is that contrary to the dogma of the New Atheists, that any belief not grounded in science or rationality is clearly false, is itself false. For in the real world there are many beliefs and values which transcend what science and rationality can prove (like the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ Can it justifiably be said that to put stock in such a belief is false or irrational?)

The second, Islam’s Rational Monotheism, sought to show the Qur’an’s use of rational arguments and sound reasoning to justify its core theological truths; presenting five Quranic examples of such a rationalist discourse.

This was followed by a discussion as to how the Qur’an rationalises and vindicates its claim of being God’s Word. How the Qur’an Justifies Itself deployed five arguments as to why this is so. In the blog’s conclusion I insisted that this, and the previous articles on this topic: ‘serve to show the rationality of the Qur’an, and that it is one which is grounded in self-evident matters and everyday experience; accessible to all who care to reflect or pay heed.’ I finished this discussion by stating: ‘Nowhere does the Qur’an require blind acceptance of its fundamental theological principles. Rather, it urges, it cajoles; demands even, that people use their God-given sense of reason and ponder over its assertions and truths. And while the final step is, ultimately, a leap of faith, the actual run up to it is a matter that engages, not just heart and soul, but the faculty of mind and reason too.’

One drawback with rational arguments is that the human creature isn’t just a rational being; and the skeptical mind is, as the Qur’an points out, given to endless argument. Indeed We have displayed for mankind in this Qur’an all kinds of examples. But man, more than anything, is contentious. [18:54]

One way to deal with religious skeptics is to go beyond the rational: to appeal to the entirety of human experience: mind, heart, soul, emotions and lived experience. Thus classical arguments for the existence of God, along with the inimitable nature of the Qur’an; the moral order and fitrah; the fine-tuning of the universe; the life, character and predictions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be on him; as well as experiential knowledge arrived at through works of faith and spiritual illumination, act in concert to form compelling reasons that Islam offers for belief in the existence of God and of heeding His call. Their messengers said: ‘Is there any doubt about God, the Maker of the heavens and earth? He calls you that He may forgive you your sins and grant you respite till an appointed time.’ [14:10]

Al-Bayjuri, one of the most highly accomplished jurist-theologians of Egypt in his age, spells out the nature of faith (iman) and its related levels or types. He states that faith is of five ascending levels:

1 - Faith via trust-based acceptance (taqlid): which is where faith arises out of taking it from an authority one trusts (as a child trusts a parent or teacher), without knowing the formal proofs for it. This characterises the faith of the lay people, in general.

2 - Faith through knowledge (‘ilm): this is where faith results from learning formal proofs and discursive arguments for one’s belief. This is the faith of the learned, in general; and the theologians, in particular.

3 - Faith vis-a-via inner spiritual sight (‘ayan): it is where faith is the result of the heart having a constant and abiding vigilance (muraqabah) of God. This is the faith of those who have attained to the Station of Vigilance (maqam al-muraqabah). Vigilance refers to a profound “watching over” one’s heart and deeds, and a profounder sense of being watched over by God.

4 - Faith based on spiritually witnessing God (mushahadah); which is where the heart witnesses God as though seeing Him. This is the faith of the ‘arifun (gnostics, knowers of God); those blessed with reaching the Station of Spiritual Witnessing (maqam al-mushahadah). One hadith says that ihsan, the spiritual excellence sought of Muslims, is: ‘To worship God as though you see Him, and though you may not see Him, know that He sees you.’2

5 - Faith through witnessing only God. This is where faith reaches the level where no existence is seen save God, and the believer is devoid of all feeling of self or and other than God, and is lost in contemplation of Him. This is the Station of Annihilation, or fana’; a state of “passing away” from all but God.

Beyond this level of faith, certainty and illumination, writes al-Bayjuri, is the faith of God’s prophets and messengers. This is the station that is unveiled to none except the prophets of God, and for which no words may describe the reality of.3

1. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:339.

2. Muslim, no.80.

3. See: Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 90.

By this Book We Rise or Fall

photo_matic_zorman_gaza_3070_copy_largeRecently, it seems that a number of pious people and a few eminent Muslim spiritual leaders have had premonitions and dreams about the quickening of the Hour and the imminent appearance of the Dajjal. Every generation has its warners proclaiming the End of Days being nigh and the doors of Dajjal, the Antichrist, being flung open. So in that respect, ours is no different.

Where our age does differ from others that have passed is that we live in times where all (or almost all) the signs spoken of in the hadiths that foretell the appearance of the Dajjal have now come to pass. The advice from these spiritual authorities, therefore, is to increase in seeking Allah’s forgiveness (istighfar), and to read the first and last ten verses of surat al-kahf (the 18th chapter of the Qur’an), daily or frequently. One hadith says about the Dajjal: ‘Whoever among you encounters him, let him read the opening verses of surat al-kahf against him.’1 Another hadith asserts: ‘Whoever memorises the ten verses from the beginning of surat al-kahf [in a narration: from the end], it will be a protection against the Dajjal.’2

The first six of the ten opening verses of surat al-kahf have as their theme the Qur’an: Praise be to Allah who has sent down the Book to His servant and has not placed in it any crookedness. [But has made it] straight, to give warning of severe punishment from Him, and to proclaim to the believers who do good works that theirs will be an excellent reward, wherein they will remain forever. [18:1-3] Thus this Book from the Majestic Presence is plain and clear in instruction; is glad tidings and a warning; a reminder for the hearts of the faithful; and an intimate comfort to the souls of seekers and knowers alike. In its own words: This Qur’an does guide to that which is most upright. [17:9] And: We have sent down upon you the Book, as a clarification of all things. [16:89]

With that said, let me offer the following six points to meditate upon in terms of just how significant the Qur’an ought to be in our lives as believers:

Firstly, we should realise that the honour, status, preeminence, rank and excellence of the Muslim ummah is inextricably tied with the Qur’an. The Prophet, upon whom be peace, said: ‘Indeed Allah raises a people by this Book, and by it He disgraces others.’3 At the individual level we read in another hadith: ‘The best of you are those who learn the Qur’an and teach it to others.’4

Secondly, Allah, exalted is He, states: O mankind! There has come to you an exhortation from your Lord, and a healing for what is in the breasts, and a guidance and a mercy to the believers. [10:57] Many people talk of Islam’s solution to this problem, or the Qur’an’s solution to that problem – as if one could just punch in a bunch of numbers on some computer and, hey presto, the problem is solved! The Qur’an offers itself, not so much as a solution, but as a healing. And healing, by its very nature, involves time, patience, commitment and consistency; it is a process. Indeed, there is no illness that can afflict our hearts, nor any sorrow, grief, bitterness or agitation, which cannot be mended by the healing capacity of the Qur’an. So let us pour the word of Allah over our spiritual wounds and leave it to work its miracle.

Thirdly, what are the major themes of the Qur’an that help bring about this healing in the human condition? The major themes include: (i) God and His divine unity. While the Qur’an goes out on a limb to tell us that God is utterly dissimilar to His creation, it also says that He is closer to man than his jugular vein. The God of the Qur’an did not create the heavens and the earth in six days/periods and then rest on the seventh; instead He continuously creates and recreates, at each and every instant. Though God cannot be seen, we can sense His effects and can come to know Him through His acts and His attributes as described in the Qur’an. In fact, hearts were created to adore the One true God. Its other main themes are: (ii) The prophetic narratives; that is, of how God’s prophets and their message of monotheism and submission have been received by various communities, and how their warnings about idolatry and immorality were responded to. (iii) Man and his relationship with his Creator, his purpose of being, his duties on earth; as well as helping him to make sense of the existential dilemmas of life, death, suffering and loss. (iv) The Afterlife; the continuation of human existence after death where man will be confronted with all he has done upon earth, be it good or bad, and the requital of his deeds in either heaven or hell. (v) Cosmic phenomena verses; they discuss the natural world and various cosmic phenomena, offering them as proof for a benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient God. The Qur’an sees the whole of the cosmos as a tapestry of signs, each one pointing to God. (vi) The legislative verses; these provide spiritual, ethical, social and juridical precepts and directives which serve to guide and regulate man’s private and public life. It is from these legislative verses that practical Islamic law, morality and spirituality are derived.5

Fourthly, the unfortunate reality today is that many of us Muslims ignore the Qur’an and cast it behind our backs: seldom reading it, referring to it for guidance, or seeking to be transformed by its teachings. Instead, we open our souls to ideas and ideologies that run counter to the Qur’an, and fill our hearts with music, entertainment or other trivia that distracts us from recollecting Allah and the Afterlife. If anything, our lives resemble what is being spoken of in the verse: And the Messenger will say: ‘O my Lord! My people have abandoned this Qur’an!’ [25:30] Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah explains that: ‘Forsaking the Qur’an is of various types: (i) Refusing to listen to it, believe in it, or to pay any heed to it. (ii) Not acting on it or abiding by what it declares to be lawful and unlawful, even if one reads it and believes in it. (iii) To forsake judging by it and being judged by it, be it in the fundamentals of the faith or its branches; and to believe that its does not beget sure knowledge. (iv) Neglecting to ponder over it or comprehend it; not seeking to uncover what the Speaker intended by it. (v) To leave seeking a cure or healing through it for the various diseases of the heart, but rather to seek healing for such illnesses from other than it.’6

Fifthly, to desert the Qur’an and to persist in acting against it, even if one believes it to be Allah’s word, warrants some level of inclusion under the following divine warning: ‘But whosoever turns away from My remembrance, surely will have a life of narrowness and on the Day of Resurrection We will raise him up blind.’ [20:124] And in this neglect, one resembles those unbelievers about whom the Qur’an informs that they said: ‘We hear and we disobey.’ [4:46] And all this will not bode well for a believer, neither in this life nor the life to come.

Sixthly, the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘He who recites the Qur’an and is adept at doing so will be with the devout, noble, recording angels. He who reads the Qur’an and struggles, it being difficult for him, shall receive two rewards.’7 So let us each take to reciting the Qur’an and to adorning our character and conduct with it. Let us drink from its sweet spring to quench our thirst, be illumined by it and be made joyous due to it: Has not the time come for the hearts of those who believe to submit humbly to Allah’s remembrance and to what was revealed of the truth? [57:16]

Allahumma’j‘ali’l-qur’ana rabi‘a qulubina wa nura sudurina
wa jila’a ahzanina wa dhahaba humumina wa
ghumumina ya rabba’l-’alamin
ya arhama’l-rahimin

1. Muslim, no.2137.

2. Muslim, no.809.

3. Muslim, no.816.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.5027.

5. Adapted from Turner, Islam: the Basics (Oxon: Routledge, 2006), 54-62.

6. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2008), 118.

7. Al-Bukhari, no.4937; Muslim, no.798.

Doctrine of the Divine Attributes

allah-calligraphy-3d-1280-720According to Islam, a sound understanding of Allah’s attributes rests on two pillars. The first concerns the doctrine or ‘aqidah – of how hearts should believe in them. The second is tied to practice or ‘aml – of how hearts should take on board their meanings and implications. The latter issue will be discussed in a future post, insha’Llah. In this article we shall discuss the doctrine concerning the divine attributes.

The Qur’an is replete with mention of Allah’s divine attributes, or sifat; though there are certain attributes related in the Qur’an that have stoked fierce controversy. Now a cardinal beliefs of Islam is that Allah is transcendent, unique and is utterly unlike His creation. The Qur’an declares: There is nothing like Him. [42:11] And equal to Him there is none. [112:4] Do you know any like Him? [19:65]

And yet other Quranic passages inform us that: The hand of Allah is above their hands. [48:10] And the face of your Lord shall abide forever. [55:27] The All-Merciful rose over the Throne. [20:5] Your Lord comes … [89:22] Verily you are before Our eyes. [52:48]

Then there are hadiths in the same genre that state: ‘Our Lord descends to the lowest heaven every last third of the night.’1 And that, ‘Allah created Adam in His image.’2 ‘The hearts of the children of Adam are between the two fingers of the All-Merciful.’3 ‘[On the Day of Judgement], people shall be thrown into Hell, and it will keep asking, “Is there any more?” till the Lord of Might and Honour shall place His foot over it.’4 And: ‘Allah, exalted is He, says, “O Adam!” Adam shall reply: ‘Here I am, at Your beck and call!’ Then He shall call out with a voice …’5

Such verses and hadiths seem to compromise Allah’s transcendence; His dissimilarity to creation, and suggest that Allah is a corporeal entity (jism), composed of limbs and parts, and hence not too dissimilar to His creation. So how do these descriptions of Him tally with the Quranic belief in divine transcendence? An array of hermeneutical (interpretational) devices have been resorted to in order to square this circle. At one extreme lies an unyielding literalism that has no qualm in claiming that Allah has a corporeal body, limbs and others physical characteristics akin to human beings. Such blatant anthropomorphism (tajsim, tashbih) is confronted, at the other extreme, by a fierce negation (ta’til) of the divine attributes, stripping Allah to a sort of nothingness. Both these wildly speculative views amount to blasphemy, heresy and outright kufr or disbelief.

In contrast to the above, the following two hermeneutical stances have come to be associated with Sunni orthodoxy: one typifying ‘later’ orthodoxy; the other, a much ‘earlier’ one. The orthodoxy associated with the later scholars – the khalaf – insist that all such texts that speak of the divine attributes must be figuratively explained, if we are to avoid the crime of resembling Allah to His creation: the apparent meaning of the texts cannot be what Allah intends. For them, Allah’s “Hand” refers to His power; His “descending” refers to His angels descending; His “two fingers” mean His will and power; “rising over His Throne” means His dominion over creation; and Adam being created in Allah’s “image/form” means: with the qualities of life, knowledge, hearing and seeing. Recourse to figurative interpretaion or ta’wil has, in this reading, become the hallmark of a later Sunni orthodoxy.6

The earlier imams or religious authorities (the salaf) were, ironically, bitterly opposed to the idea of figurative explanation (ta’wil) when it came to the divine attributes. For them, ta’wil wasn’t a defining feature of orthodoxy, but of deviancy and innovation! Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali wrote:

‘The correct view is that of the pious predecessors (al-salaf al-salih), in their letting the verses and hadiths concerning the divine attributes pass as they came: without asking how they are, or explaining them, or likening them to creation. Nothing contravening this is related from them with any authenticity; especially not from Imam Ahmad. Nor is anything recorded from them proving that they probed into their meanings or propounded analogies or similitudes for them – even though there were some who lived close to the time of Ahmad who did delve into some of this – following the path of Muqatil. They, however, must not be imitated in this. Rather those who should be imitated are the leading religious authorities like Ibn al-Mubarak, Malik, al-Thawri, al-Awza‘i, al-Shafi‘i, Ahmad, Ishaq, Abu ‘Ubayd and their like.’7

Alongside the Sahih collections of Imam al-Bukhari and Muslim, the Sunan works of Abu Dawud, al-Tirmidhi, al-Nasa’i and Ibn Majah are held as the most authoritative hadith canons in Sunni Islam. Of the ‘six canonical anthologies’, Imam al-Tirmidhi’s Sunan is the one that possibly contains the greatest benefit to non-specialist readers. For unlike the other five works, which more or less relate the hadiths and leave it at that, al-Tirmidhi adds a gloss to each hadith: noting the degree of its soundness; what other companions related the hadith; and what jurists based their fiqh ruling on the hadith. After relating the hadith: ‘Assuredly Allah accepts charity and takes it with His right hand,’ al-Tirmidhi glosses the following:

‘A number of the people of knowledge have spoken about this hadith, as well as those reports similar to it regarding the divine attributes, and of Allah’s descending to the lowest heaven each night, saying: The reports about such matters must be affirmed and believed in; they must not be imagined, nor asked how they are. This is what was related from Malik b. Anas, Sufyan b. ‘Uyaynah and ‘Abd Allah b. al-Mubarak. They all stated about such hadiths: “Let them pass without asking how (amirruha bila kayf).” Such is the stance of the people of knowledge from Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jama’ah. The Jahmiyyah, though, reject such hadiths, alleging that this is resemblance (tashbih). But Allah, exalted is He, mentions at various places in His Book [His attributes of] Hand, Hearing and Seeing. The Jahmiyyah give them a figurative meaning, explaining them contrary to how the scholars explain them. Thus they say: Allah did not create Adam with His Hand: instead they claim that Hand means ‘Power’. Ishaq b. Ibrahim stated: “Resemblance is if one claims that Hand is like my hand or similar to it; or Hearing is like my hearing or similar to it. If it is said that Hearing is like my hearing or similar to it, this is resemblance. But to say what Allah says: Hand, Hearing, Seeing – neither asking how, nor claiming it to be like my hearing, or similar to it – then this is not resemblance. Rather it is as Allah, blessed and exalted is He, says in His Book: There is nothing like Him, He is the All-Hearing, All-Seeing.” [42:11]‘8

Ibn Kathir – whose exegesis (tafsir) of the Qur’an has met with widespread scholarly approval, and continues to be hugely popular among the educated laity too – penned the following about the divine attributes:

‘As for His words: He rose over the Throne [7:54], people have taken many [conflicting] stances in the matter; but now isn’t the place to discuss them. Instead, in this respect we travel the path taken by the pious predecessors: Malik, al-Awza‘i, al-Thawri, Layth b. Sa‘d, al-Shafi‘i, Ahmad, Ishaq b. Rahawayh and other leading authorities, ancient and recent, which was to let the verse pass as it came – without inquiring about the modality/howness (takyif), resemblance (tashbih) or denying it (ta’til): the apparent meaning which comes to the minds of the anthropomorphists is negated from Allah, since nothing created resembles Him: There is nothing like Him, He is the All-Hearing, All-Seeing. The issue is as the leading imams have stated, such as Nu‘aym b. Hammad al-Khuza‘i – Bukhari’s shaykh: “Whoever likens Allah to His creation, has disbelieved; whoever denies what Allah described Himself with, has disbelieved. There is nothing in what Allah described Himself with, or in what His Messenger described Him with, that implies resemblance.” Therefore, whoever affirms for Allah, exalted is He, what is reported in the explicit verses or in the authentic narrations – doing so in a manner that befits His majesty, and negating from Him any defects and imperfections – has indeed traversed the path of right guidance.’9

Finally, al-Khatib al-Baghdadi wrote this superb exposition on the subject, the likes of which would be hard pushed to better:

‘With regards to the divine attributes and what is reported in the authentic Sunan about them, the position of the salaf was to affirm them and to let them pass upon their literal sense (‘ala zawahiriha), neither asking about their modality (kayfiyyah), nor resembling them to created things (tashbih). Certain people negated the attributes and so nullified what Allah, exalted is He, affirmed. Others declared them to be real, then went beyond this to a sort of likening them to creation and ascribing to them a modality. The true goal is none other than to tread a middle path between the two methods. For Allah’s Religion lies between extremism and laxity. The rule that is to be followed here is that speech concerning the Divine Attributes (sifat) is a branch of speech regarding the Divine Essence (dhat). The path to follow in the former is the same extreme caution as in the latter. So if it is understood that affirming an Essence for [Allah] Lord of the Worlds is only an affirmation of existence; not of modality, it must be similarly understood that affirmation of His attributes is an affirmation of their existence, not affirmation of their definition (tahdid) or modality (takyif). Thus when we say that Allah has a Hand, Hearing and Sight, they are none other than attributes Allah affirms for Himself. We shouldn’t say the meaning of Hand is power, or that Hearing and Seeing means knowledge. Nor do we say they are bodily organs (jawarih), or liken them to hand, hearing and sight which are organs and instruments of [human] acts. Rather we say: What is obligatory is to affirm them, since they are textually stipulated, and to negate from them any likeness to created things – as per Allah’s words: There is nothing like Him. Also: And equal to Him there is none.’10

Expressions like: letting the texts about the divine attributes pass ‘ala zahir – “upon their apparent meaning”, or ‘ala haqiqah – their “literal meaning”, then this is said in contrast to giving them a figurative meaning – keeping in mind what Ibn Kathir said: ‘the apparent meaning that comes to the minds of the anthropomorphists is negated from Allah, since nothing created resembles Him.’ In short: the way of the salaf was grounded in the principle of imrar: letting the attributes pass as they came, without asking how, while upholding Allah’s transcendence above whatever resemblance or anthropomorphism these terms may suggest.

W’Llahu a‘lam.

1. Al-Bukhari, no.1145; Muslim, no.758.

2. Muslim, no.2612.

3. Muslim, no.2654.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.4848; Muslim, no.2848.

5. Al-Bukhari, no.3348; Muslim, no.222.

6. Consult: al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 158-9.

7. Bayan Fadl ‘Ilm al-Salaf (Kuwait: Dar al-Arkam, 1983), 33.

8. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), 168; no.662.

9. Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 2:230.

10. Cited in al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubula (Beirut: Mu’assassah al-Risalah, 1995), 18:284.

Lessons from the Frontline

Arab-Horsemen-by-a-Watering-HoleIn The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien puts these words into the mouth of the brave though modest Faramir (younger brother to the brave but impulsive Boromir): ‘War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I only love that which they defend …’

In classical Islam, warfare is regulated by an all-important shari‘ah dictum that states about jihad: wujubuhu wujubu’l-wasa’il la al-maqasid - ‘Its necessity is the necessity of means, not of ends.’1 Indeed, Islam’s overall take on war is best seen in the following words of the Prophet, peace be upon him: ‘Do not wish to meet your enemy, but ask God for safety. When you do meet them, be firm and know that Paradise lies beneath the shades of swords.’2 In other words, pursue the path of peace, with the presence of justice; if such a path be denied by belligerence or hostile intent, then be prepared to act differently.

War, invariably, can and does throw up immense carnage and destruction, and brings untold human loss and suffering. Yet it is also where some of the profoundest acts of courage, bravery and heroism are found, as well as invaluable lessons for life. In what follows, we shall look at two battles in the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and their core lessons that need internalising:

The first lesson is from the Battle of Uhud. It began at dawn on Friday, March 25th, 2H/624AD, a year on from the Battle of Badr. The Muslims numbered seven hundred against an enemy three-thousand strong. The prestige of the Makkan idolaters was at stake for the crushing defeat they suffered at Badr – including seventy deaths and just as many taken captive. The Prophet, peace be upon him, positioned his men so that Mount Uhud was behind them. The only way the Makkan cavalry could attack them now was from infront, so the Prophet posted fifty archers on a rise with strict orders to stay put, no matter what happened. This would be an excellent strategy, provided the archers obeyed their orders. But by nightfall, and due to the archers abandoning their post (thus leaving the rear of the army unguarded), the fortunes of war changed and disaster befell the Muslims: the Prophet would be wounded and seventy Muslims would be killed. But it didn’t have to be that way.

The Companion, Bara’ b. ‘Azib, recounts: We encountered the pagans on that day [of Uhud]. The Prophet, peace be upon him, positioned a group of archers and appointed ‘Abd Allah [b. Jubayr] as their leader, saying: ‘Do not leave this position. If you should see us defeat them, do not leave this position; if you should see them defeating us, do not come to our aid.’ When we met the enemy they fled on their heels, to the extent that we saw their women fleeing to the mountains, lifting their dresses and revealing their anklets. Some people started saying: ‘The booty, the booty!’ But ‘Abd Allah said: ‘The Prophet took an oath from me to not leave this post.’ His companions, however, disobeyed. So when they disobeyed, Allah confused them, so they did not know where to go, and because of which they suffered seventy deaths.3

Ibn al-Qayyim comments: ‘This calamity that struck them was as a result of their own actions. Allah said: When a disaster befell you after you had yourself inflicted [losses] twice as heavy, you exclaimed: ‘How did this happen?’ Say: ‘It is from yourselves. Allah is able to do all things.’ [3:165] And He mentioned this very same matter in that which is more general than this, in one of the Makkan chapters: Whatever misfortune befalls you, is for what your own hands have earned, and He pardons much. [42:30] And He said: Whatever good befalls you is from Allah, and whatever calamity befalls you is from yourself. [4:79] So the good and bad mentioned here refer to blessings and misfortunes: Blessings are what Allah favours you with, while misfortunes occur because of your own selves and your misdeeds. The first is from His grace (fadl); the second, His justice (‘adl).’4

So the single most important lesson to learn from Uhud is that whenever we Muslims suffer defeat – be it on the battlefield of swords, ideas, or hearts and minds – we are to blame ourselves, take account of our souls and repent for our sins. There being no other way to correct our course. For despite the enemy attacking the Muslims from their unprotected rear and being the reason why one believer after another was cut down and killed; and despite the enemy being the reason for Muslim flight turning to full-scale panic as the Prophet, peace be upon him, was knocked down by a crushing blow to the head – the Qur’an still laid the blame for these calamities squarely at the feet of the Muslims: When a disaster befell you after you had yourself inflicted losses twice as heavy, you exclaimed: ‘How did this happen?’ Say: ‘It is from yourselves.’ [3:165]

Nor was the defeat the result of the entire army’s disobedience, or even the majority; but because of less than fifty men among a total of seven-hundred! If such can be the consequences of a sin of a tiny minority, what then about the plethora of sins or acts of disobedience committed by a heedless, unrepentant, transgressing majority!

And tragically, as frequent as these verses appear in the Qur’an, we still choose not to internalise them or allow them to enter into our hearts. Instead, we allow our souls to be invaded by a false victim mentality and choose to play the blame game. We accuse all and sundry for our political woes and misfortunes – the West, the rulers, bankers, Zionists, along with a whole host of conspiracy theories which plague our minds and cripple our thinking – but we never accuse ourselves. We are keen to hold to account other people – in a way that contains no pity, mercy or leeway – but are not prepared to take ourselves to any serious account. And yet: Allah never changes the condition of a people unless they change what is within themselves. [13:11] Thus while we are clear about the evils of Assad and his crimes of carnage in Syria; and the shameless hypocrisy and tyranny of al-Sisi et al. in Egypt, we tend to steer shy of the all-important question of why such calamities occurred in the first place. The Quranic reply to this is very likely to be: Say: ‘It is from yourselves.’ [3:165] Isn’t it? And while this does not excuse us from raising our hands in prayer, and giving as much humanitarian aid as possible, we still need to sincerely confront the deeper question.

The second lesson we will consider is the Battle of Hunayn. It is Wednesday morning, February 2nd, 8H/630AD. The Muslim army, now twelve thousand strong, marched towards the valley of Hunayn to encounter the Hawazin tribe and their allies, whose number was perhaps a third of that of the Muslims. It is worth noting that two years earlier, when the Prophet came to Makkah for the lesser pilgrimage, or ‘umrah, only 1,400 people were with him. This was the time when the Prophet, peace be upon him, concluded the peace treaty with the Makkans at Hudaybiyah. A few months later, the same number fought alongside him at the Battle of Khaybar. And in previous battles, their numerical strength had been far smaller. But this time, many of the newcomers to Islam felt a sense of euphoria and over confidence as they observed the size of their army. They felt sure that, having previously won battle after battle with much smaller numbers, such large numbers would make victory a sure certainty. But as soon as the Muslims reached the valley, they were met with a fierce, unexpected torrent of arrows from all directions. Caught off guard, confused and overwhelmed, the Muslims were forced into a chaotic and panicked retreat. And though the Muslims would eventually prevail as victors in this battle (for the Prophet, as ever, remained calm in his wisdom, certainty and faith: he eventually rallied a hundred men and inflicted a most crushing defeat on the enemy), it wasn’t without many of them being slain in the ambush first. The Qur’an says: Allah had already helped you on many fields, and on the day of Hunayn, when you delighted in your numerical strength, it availed you nothing. And the earth, vast as it was, narrowed on you, and you turned back in retreat. [9:24]

Ibn al-Qayyim again: ‘Thus from Allah’s wisdom, transcendent is He, is that He first made them taste the bitterness of defeat and of being overcome – despite their large numbers, strength and preparation – so that heads that were raised in the Conquest of Makkah, should be lowered. For they did not enter His city and sanctuary as Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him, had done: head bowed upon his horse; to the extent that his head almost touched the saddle out of humility to his Lord, humbleness to His glory, and submission to His might. For Allah had made lawful to him His sacred city [Makkah] and sanctuary, and had not made it lawful to anyone before him nor to anyone after him. [All this occurred] so that He could make it clear to those who said, “We will not be defeated today due to our numbers,” that help and victory come from Him alone; that whomsoever He helps, none can overcome; and that whomsoever He forsakes, none can grant victory to. [And that] it was He who took it upon Himself to give victory to His Messenger and to His religion – not because of their numbers that they revelled in. Such numbers, in fact, were of no avail to them, since they turned and fled. But when their hearts were humbled, Allah sent down the removal of their distress and a foretaste of victory by sending down His tranquility upon His Prophet and upon the believers, and by sending an army unseen. Hence from His wisdom is that He sends down His victory and gifts to them when their hearts become humbled and broken: And We desired to show favour to those who were oppressed in the earth, and to make them leaders, and make them inheritors. And to grant them power in the earth, and to show Pharaoh, Haman and their hosts that which they feared. [28:5-6]‘5

The core lesson of Hunayn is, undoubtedly, to never overlook the real, most essential reason for victory: Allah. For victory comes from Him, not from numerical strength. (We do, however, have a duty to tie our camel, as one hadith says, and to then trust in Him.) The Muslims were initially given to taste the bitterness of defeat in order that they might remember precisely this. In fact, large numbers – in the absence of hearts feeling humbled before the majesty and might of Allah – are of little use. Having been taught a lesson in humility; having their pretensions of numerical strength shattered; and having presented their broken hearts to Allah, Allah then granted the believers victory at Hunayn at the hands of a small band of courageous, steadfast Muslims who remained dedicated to the Prophet, peace be upon him.

Allah is with the broken-hearted and will call overconfident, self-assured Muslims to account if they exult in their numbers or their material achievements – as He will call proud establishments and arrogant religiousness to account.

W’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

1. Ibn Hajr al-Haytami citing al-Zarkashi, Tuhfat al-Muhtaj bi Sharh al-Minhaj (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1972), 9:211.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.2991. For comparisons between Jihad theory and Western Just War theory, consult: Kelsay & Johnson (eds.), Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Peace in Western and Islamic Traditions (New York, Westport & London: Greenwood Press, 1991).

3. Al-Bukhari, no.4043.

4. Zad al-Ma’ad fi Hady Khayr al-’Ibad (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 3:214.

5. ibid., 3:418-9.

Celebrating the Prophet

Prophet Muhammad PBUHThere have been times throughout history whereby the heavens have opened and the celestial light cleansed certain human souls who, as a result, were divinely invested with prophethood (nubuwwah) – the highest condition possible for any human being. For a prophet is a bridge, as it were, between heaven and earth; Creator and creation, helping us to recall our purpose of being and our ultimate return.

One hadith has it that Allah sent a hundred and twenty-four thousand such prophets to the peoples of the earth:1 And every people had a guide. [13:7] When the revelatory wisdoms of one prophet faded or were forgotten, the link was reforged by the sending of another prophet. The last person to be invested with prophethood was the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, after whom the prophetic age came to a completion and close. The Qur’an says:  Muhammad is not the father of any man among you, but he is the Messenger of Allah and the Seal of the Prophets. [33:40] As to the remaining ages of this world, the heavenly link would be reforged and renewed by scholars and saints; but never again by prophets.

Rejoicing in the sending of the Prophet, peace be upon him, the Qur’an says: Allah has surely shown favour to the believers by sending them a Messenger from their midst to recite to them His signs, and to purify them, and to instruct them in the Book and in wisdom; whereas before this they were in clear error. [3:164] Not only did the Prophet bequeath to mankind knowledge that could quench their inborn thirst for matters spiritual and sacred, he came with perfect guidance for their temporal affairs too. So for Muslims, the Prophet is by far the greatest of the heavenly gifts to have ever descended upon the human realm; so much so that the shari’ah has actually marked the day on which he was born and when he first received revelation as a commendable day to fast. This, as a heart-felt thanks to our Creator for this precious of gifts and most wondrous of blessings.

The Prophet, upon whom be peace, was once asked about the significance of fasting on Mondays; so he replied: ‘This is the day on which I was born and which revelation first came to me.’2 Elaborating upon this hadith, Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali says:

‘[In it] there is an indication that it is desirable to fast on those days where the favours of Allah upon His servants renew themselves. The greatest of the divine gifts to this nation is the manifestation of Muhammad, peace be upon him, to them and of him being sent to them as a Messenger. Allah, exalted is He, reveals: Allah has surely shown favour to the believers by sending them a Messenger from their midst. For the blessing of him being sent to this nation is far greater than of causing the heavens, the earth, or the sun, moon, winds, night, day, rainfall, food, vegetation or other things to actually exist. For these gifts are for the creation in general – even those of humanity who are disbelievers in Allah and His Messenger and the final meeting with Him; those whose response to the favours and graces of Allah is sheer ingratitude. As for the favour of sending Muhammad, peace be upon him, then by it the blessings of this world and the Afterlife were completed, and the religion Allah chose for His servants perfected. So his acceptance is the actual cause for their felicity in this world and the Afterlife. Thus, fasting on the day that Allah’s favour to His servants is renewed is not only good and excellent, but it is also a way to reciprocate Allah’s favours that are renewed at such times, with an abiding sense of gratitude.

‘Similar to this is fasting the day of ‘Ashura wherein Allah saved Noah from the Flood, and Moses and his people from Pharaoh and his army; drowning the latter in the sea. Both Noah and Moses, peace be upon them both, showed their gratitude to Allah by fasting [that day]. Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him, [also] fasted this day out of emulating those Prophets of Allah. He said to the Jews: “We have more right to Moses than you.”3 He thus fasted that day and instructed others to do so too.’4

Rejoicing in the sending of the Prophet, peace be upon him, is undoubtedly a central aspect of every believer’s faith – for it is his light and life that warms and illuminates believing hearts: O Prophet! We have sent you as a witness, and as a bringer of good news and a warner, and a caller to Allah by His permission, and as a lamp giving light. [33:45-6] As for celebrating the Prophet’s mawlid or birthday, annually, peace be upon him, this is an area of legitimate differing among the scholars and should not be made into a source of division or discord. Those who hold there is a shari‘ah basis to do so, will do so; those who don’t won’t. But none would disagree that celebrating the Prophet’s life on a daily basis – by adhering to his teachings, emulating his character, deepening our love and veneration of him, and habituating ourselves to abundantly invoke salawat or blessing of peace upon him – is where we all need to be heading. And unto that the believer holds!

1. As per Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 5:265. The hadith with its collective chains yields a final grading of hasan; as demonstrated in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadiih al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2005), no.2668.

2. Muslim, no.1162.

3. Al-Bukhari, no.2004; Muslim, no.1132.

4. Lata’if al-Ma‘arif (Riyadh: Dar Ibn Khuzaymah, 2007), 236-7.

Amusing Our Hearts to Death

maxresdefaultOne hadith states: ‘Laugh not too much; for too much laughter deadens the heart.’1 This isn’t to say that laughter or humour must be avoided altogether; for laughter and light-heartedness, in moderation, are prophetic Sunnahs that helps lighten burdens, ease anxiety and bring about joy to oneself and to others. Indeed, there is little virtue in always looking grave and solemn: And that He it is that makes to laugh and makes to weep. [53:43] And as the Prophet, peace be upon him, remarked: ‘O Hanzalah! There is a time for this and a time for that.’2 Yet, as the above hadith shows, to overindulge in laughter is a lethal poison that kills the heart spiritually.

The eleventh century hadith master, ‘Abd al-Ra‘uf al-Munawi points out: ‘Making a habit of laughing diverts one from deliberating over matters of importance.’3 When life becomes little more than “a bundle of laughs,” then the heart’s spiritual death has well and truly set in. Al-Munawi again: ‘The laughter that kills the heart comes from being frivolous and careless in the world. The heart has [spiritual] life and death: its life lies in continuous obedience [to God]. Its death, in responding to the call of other than God; be it one’s ego, desires, or the devil.’4 In fact, in the prophetic teachings, a cheerful countenance and an easy-going nature (one hadith says: ‘The believers are amiable and easy-going: al-mu’minun hayyinun layyinun.’5) is to be tempered with the sobering recollection of God, death, the Afterlife and the imminent Judgement and Accountability. The Prophet, upon whom be peace, urged: ‘Remember frequently the destroyer of pleasures [i.e. death].’6 A heart desensitised to such realities, or numbed to their recollection, is a heart that has had the stuff of life sucked out of it.

The Qur’an warns about being diverted or distracted through things of the world: ‘O you who believe! Let neither your wealth nor your children divert you from remembrance of God. Those who do so, they are the losers.’ [63:9] In houses which God has allowed to be raised up, where His name is remembered. In them is He glorified morning and evening. By men whom neither merchandise nor trade distract from the remembrance of God. [24:36-7] Trade, riches, possessions, and the pursuit of thrills and pleasures so preoccupy most people, so as to make them oblivious to all else; unless hearts are tuned to the higher purpose of their existence. Wealth and children and partaking of permissible worldly pleasures are all lawful, and are to be a means to maintain our connection with God; unless and until they distract us from the worship and remembrance of Him. If we lose ourselves to the world, we ultimately lose everything.

Tragically we are now a culturally obese society, continuously feeding on an excessive diet of trivial amusement and entertainment. This over-consumption of laughter and frivolity, as noted before, distracts most of us from more serious considerations: war, famine, disease, environment, disintegration of society and breakdown of the family; as well as existential issues more serious still, that relate to our Creator, the Afterlife and our purpose of being. Our continued addiction to all this joviality and diversion has made us a society wherein we are, in the words of Neil Postman’s deftly entitled book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

O people! Fear your Lord, and fear a Day when the parent will not be able to avail his child in any way, nor the child to avail his parent. God’s promise is the truth. Let not the life of the world deceive you, nor let the deceiver deceive you concerning God. [31:33]

1. Ibn Majah, no.4193.

2. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2014.

3. Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 2:157.

4. ibid., 5:52.

5. Al-Quda‘i, Musnad, no.139.

6. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2307.

The Natural & Primordial Faith

Plato-and-socrates-590x433During the 4th century B.C., or thereabouts, a series of dialogues or discussions were penned by Plato, one of the greatest of the Ancient Greek philosophers, which dealt with a number of profound existential themes: the origins of moral virtue, the value of justice, the nature of love, the reality of the soul, what defines good governance. Many of the dialogues take the form of Plato’s teacher, Socrates, posing questions to a person or a group so as to help them examine the validity of their beliefs and to wean out any contradictions.

In one such dialogue, The Meno, Socrates takes an ignorant slave boy and, by asking him a series of questions, manages to extract from him the fundamental axioms and rules of geometry. Having done so, Socrates insists that the boy knew the foundations of geometry all along. He had merely forgotten them. In Plato’s belief, each person is born with an innate knowledge of things; including knowledge of what is good and evil, right and wrong. Thus a baby lives close to the truth, but as it grows up it forgets and so falls into ignorance. Through proper inquiry, Plato suggested, knowledge may again be “recollected”.

Now in Plato’s exaggerated conviction about knowledge lies an elemental truth about human nature. The Qur’an makes it known that simply by being born into the human condition, man possesses a certain intuitive knowledge of, and an attraction to, truth, beauty and goodness. In Islam, such an innate recognition is part of man’s primordial nature, or fitrah which, in a way, may be said to resemble the “conscience”. So set your face to the upright religion, the primordial nature which God has instilled in man, says the Qur’an [30:30]. Hence, as turned out from God’s creative hand, man is born pure and innocent, inclined towards virtue, possessing an inborn capacity to sense, as it were, God’s divinity. Man’s fitrah, therefore, is to love God, truth, and beauty, and to feel an aversion towards selfishness, falsehood and evil. Such is his true nature; much as the nature of a lamb is to be gentle or a horse to be swift.

Islam’s view of human nature, therefore, is an optimistic one. Unlike in Christianity, which insists that everyone is born into a state of original sin, the Islamic faith begins with the premise that man is essentially a creature of goodness, and that any veering away from this norm is as a result of his socialisation and upbringing. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said: ‘Each child is born upon the primordial nature, but it is his parents that make of him a Jew, Christian, or Magian.’ [Bukhari, no.1358] These three religions, well-known to the Prophet’s companions and contemporaries, are here contrasted with the “primordial nature” which, as the Qur’an sees it, consists of man’s instinctive recognition of God. Fitrah, in other words, is here equated with Islam.

So in the cosmology of the Qur’an, every human being is born predisposed to Islam, the primordial religion (din al-fitrah), and is perfectly capable of receiving the truths manifested by the light of divine revelation: that God is One, Unique, possessing the attributes of perfection, and that none deserves to be worshipped save Him. But man, when entangled in customs, distractions, whims, selfish desires and false teachings, becomes contentious, slavish, hankering after what is forbidden, and deflected from the pure worship of the One true God. And it is precisely for this that prophets were sent and heavenly scriptures revealed: to help man recollect his purpose of creation and to retrieve this fitrah.

Were it Not for You, I Would Not Have Created Creation

Medina-HDIn his catalogue of hadith forgeries, Mulla ‘Ali al-Qari cites a spurious report alleging that Allah informed His beloved Prophet, peace be upon him: ‘Were it not for you, I would not have created the universe (law laka lama khalaqtu’l-aflaka).’1

But having cited the hadith, al-Qari says that although the hadith is forged (mawdu‘), ‘its meaning is sound.’2 This end assertion, that the hadith has a sound meaning, has raised considerable objection from some people; anger, even! For they feel this claim amounts to exaggeration – ghuluw, to use the Quranic language – about the Prophet, peace be upon him. And surely, as some have been quick to point out, it contradicts the Quranic verse which proclaims in no uncertain terms: ‘I created jinn and men only that they may worship Me.’ [51:56] The reason behind creating creation, they highlight, is worship; not the Prophet!

Yet a browse through traditional scholarly attitudes reveals al-Qari’s claim to be fairly normative. That is, classical Islamic scholarship seems to have been comfortable with this assertion. For instance, Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali reverently said about the Prophet: ‘he is the ultimate purpose behind creating the human race: its essence (‘aynuhu), its quintessence (khulasatuhu) and its very epitome (wasita ‘aqdihi).’3 Another even earlier Hanbali jurist, the highly critical Ibn al-Jawzi, stated: ‘The saints and the righteous are the very purpose of creation (al-awliya wa’l-salihun hum al-maqsud min al-kawn).’4 Of course, it hardly needs stating that the Prophet, upon whom be peace, is at the very head of such a purpose.

Yet for those who are resistant to the law laka - “were it not for you” – notion, or are over sensitive to what counts for exaggeration about the Prophet, peace be upon him, such quotations will have done little to abate their incredulity. The Arabs say: idha ‘arafa sabab, batala ‘ajab - “If the reason is appreciated, the astonishment departs.” Let me close this blog, therefore, with Ibn Taymiyyah’s analysis of the hadith, in the hope of lifting from such hearts their “disbelief”:

‘The excellence of our Prophet over the Angels was demonstrated on the Night of the Ascension (laylat al-mi‘raj) when he reached a station where he heard the “scratching of the pens.” He was now at a station higher than even that of the Angels. Now Allah manifests some of His tremendous power and astounding wisdom through righteous humans – via prophets and saints – in ways He does not do even via Angels. For He combined in the former, qualities that are dispersed throughout the other types of creation. So Allah created man’s physical body from the earth, whereas his spirit (ruh) was created from the Highest Assembly of Angels. This is why it has been said: “Man is a microcosm, but contains the macrocosm.”

‘Now Muhammad, peace be upon him, is the master of humanity, the best of creation and the noblest of them in Allah’s sight. Which is why it is said: “Allah created the universe because of him.” Or “But for him, He would not have created the Throne, Footstool, the heavens, the earth, sun or moon.” But this isn’t a hadith of the Prophet, peace be upon him; whether authentic or weak. It has not been reported by any of those versed in the Hadith science on the authority of the Prophet; nor is it known to have come from any Companion. In fact, it is not known who uttered it.

‘Nonetheless, it is possible to explain it from a sound perspective, such as with Allah’s statement: He has subjected to you whatever is in the heavens and the earth. [45:13] Or by His words: He subjected the ships to you that they may run upon the sea at His command, and subjected the rivers to you. He subjected to you the sun and moon, constant in their courses, and subjected to you the night and the day. And gave you of all you ask Him; and if you count the favours of Allah, you will never number them. [14:32-4]

‘There are other verses similar to these, all of which clarify that Allah created creation for the sake of mankind: even though it is known that in doing so Allah had another wisdom alongside this and greater than this.

‘Here, though, Allah explains to mankind the benefits the creation contains for them, and how they are immersed in His favours. So when it is said, “He did such and such [for this or that reason]“, it does not exclude the possibility that there could be other wisdoms behind the act. Likewise, the statement: “Were it not for so and so, such and such would not have been created”, does not negate the possibility of there being a higher wisdom behind the act. Instead, what it implies is that since the most pious of people is Muhammad, peace be upon him, creating him was a desirable end of deep-seated wisdom, more than in creating anyone else; and that the perfection of creation and the crown of its completion only occurred with [the Prophet] Muhammad …

‘Now since man is the the seal of creation; the last of creation; and its microcosm, their best will also be the best of all creation in absolute terms. Since Muhammad is the essence of humanity, the axis of creation, and the distributor of the collective, he is, so to say, the ultimate purpose behind creating creation. So an objection cannot be raised against the saying, “For him all was created” or “Were it not for him, creation would not have been created.” So if these, and similar words, are explained according to what the Book and the Sunnah indicate, they should be accepted.’5

To sum-up: since creation was created for mankind’s benefit; and since mankind was created to worship Allah; and since the perfection of such worship was manifested in, and by, the Prophet, peace be upon him, it may hence be said that he is the purpose behind creation being brought into existence. This, I hope, should help soothe those hearts that may have harboured undue opposition to the law laka reality, and deepen our connection to the Master of all Messengers.

O Allah, shower abundant blessings and peace upon our master,
Muhammad; the paragon of human perfection,
best of all creation.

1. Those who cite the hadith in their catalogues of weak and forged hadiths include: Ibn al-Jawzi, Kitab al-Mawdu‘at (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 1:214; ‘Ali al-Qari, al-Asrar al-Marfu‘ah fi’l-Akhbar al-Mawdu‘ah, no.385; Suyuti al-La’ali al-Masnu‘ah (Cairo: al-Maktabah al-Tijariyyah, 1964), 1:272; al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1992), no.282.

2. Al-Asrar al-Marfu‘ah, 288.

3. Lata’if al-Ma‘arif (Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm & Mu’assasah al-Rayyan, 1996), 21.

4. Sifat al-Safwa (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Arabi, 2008), 31.

5. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 11:96-98.

Was the Universe Expecting Us?

tarantula-nebula_01_2560x1600-1Freeman Dyson, one of the world’s foremost theoretical physicists, wrote: ‘The more I exam the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense knew we were coming,’1

Today scientists don’t hesitate to acknowledge this wondrous fact of how tailor-made to life our universe is. Or, as Anthony Flew declared in There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, that ‘the laws of nature seem to have been crafted so as to move the universe towards the emergence and sustenance of life.’2

And what precisely is the cause of this enchantment? Or on what grounds do so many cosmologists believe that the universe is compelled, in some sense, for conscious life to emerge in it? Well, it all has to do with our universe’s remarkable fine-tuning of its most basic, fundamental forces. Let me elaborate:


Cosmologists tell us, for instance, that had the force of gravity been a fraction weaker than it is: by 1 part in 1040 (that is, one followed by forty zeros), matter couldn’t have clumped together to form galaxies or stars. The universe would have been a lifeless sea of drifting gas of interminable darkness.

Had gravity been ever so slightly stronger, the universe would be radically different than it is now. Matter would clump together more aggresively. Stars could still exist, but they would be far smaller and burn out much more quicker than the time needed for complex planetary life to evolve. If it did manage to evolve, even insects would need thicker legs to support themselves because of the increased gravitational tug; indeed gravity would crush anything as large as ourselves. And that is assuming that planets could be stable. For in a strong-gravity universe, stars will be packed far closer together, making stellar collisions frequent. Planetry existence would thus be very unlikely, or extremely unstable.

So precisely-tuned is the force of gravity in relation to the other forces which operate throughout the universe that, had the initial explosion of the Big-Bang differed in strength by as little as 1 part in 1060, then the universe would have either collapsed back on itself or expanded too rapidly for stars to form. This incredibly slim margin is likened to firing a bullet at a fifty pence coin at the other side of the universe, billions of light-years away, and actually hitting the target!


A similar story holds true for the force binding protons and neutrons together in an atom: the strong nuclear force. Had it been a tad weaker, only hydrogen atoms could have formed; nothing else. If the strong nuclear force had been slightly stronger, the nuclear furnace which rages within the centre of stars would not be able to produce heavy elements like carbon, which is critical for all biological life. Again, the nuclear force appears to be tuned just sufficiently for carbon atoms to form.

Another example of such cosmic coincidences is the electromagnetic force: the force that causes the interaction between electrically-charged particles. If it was a tiny bit stronger, electrons would be bound to atoms so tightly that no chemical interactions could take place between atoms, which essentially means no life! On the other hand, if it were a fraction weaker than it is, electrons could not be bound to the nucleus of atoms, and thus no molecules could even form to give rise to life.


That our universe seems uniquely tuned to give rise to life; more specifically, human life, is known as the Anthropic Principle. And it remains a source of intense wonder, debate and speculation among scientists, philosophers and theologians since it was fullly appreciated a few decades ago.

All in all there are fifteen cosmological constants which, because they have the values and parameters they have, allow the emergence of a universe capable of supporting complex life.

Some have imaginatively likened the anthropic principle to a series of radio dials, with each instance of fine-tuning representing one dial. Unless all the dials are tuned to exactly the right settings, life would be utterly imposible. In his Just Six Numbers, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, states that such finely-tuned cosmological constants, ‘constitute a “recipe” for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any one of them were to be ‘untuned’, there would be no stars and no life.’3 ‘The chance,’ says Francis Collins, head of the human genome project, ‘that all these constants would take on the values necessary to result in a stable universe capable of sustaining complex life forms is almost infinitesimal. And yet those are exactly the parameters we observe.’4


McGrath tells us that the first few decades of the twentieth century were dominated by a scientific belief that the universe had always existed, and so for most scientists of the time, there was no good reason to deliberate upon what brought it into existence. Religious language about creation was seen as backwardness: mythological nonsense incompatible with cutting-edge scientific knowledge. By the 1960s, though, it became increasingly apparent to the scientific community that the universe did have an origin; a starting point – the Big Bang. Although the idea was initially met with fierce dismissal by some atheist scientists of the day, such prejudice was overwhelmed by the evidence in its favour.5

Both the Big-Bang and the growing realisation of how the universe is finely-tuned for life have seriously altered the tone of the debate in terms of God, science and reason. Nonetheless, as suggestive as fine-tuning may be, its explanation continues to stoke intense debate in scientific, theological and philosophical circles.


Three explanations are offered for the remarkable fine-tuning of our cosmos. The first is a sort of shrug of the shoulder response. That is, things are what they are, or we would not be here to discuss them. We are just very lucky. To this “it’s just the way things are” attitude, Rees writes the following: ‘Many scientists take this line, but it certainly leaves me unsatisfied. I’m impressed by a metaphor given by the Canadian philosopher John Leslie. Suppose you are facing a firing squad. Fifty marksmen take aim, but they all miss. If they hadn’t missed, you wouldn’t have survived to ponder the matter. But you wouldn’t just leave it at that – you’d still be baffled, and would seek some further reason for your good fortune.’6

The second continues to attract a growing number of advocates: There are multiple universes parallel to ours, each governed by different laws and defined by different values. Our universe is simply a result of trial and error in that it is one wherein all the anthropic constants act in concert to allow life. A setback with the “multiverse” hypothesis, its incredulity aside and its seemingly opportunistic reasoning, is that it only postpones the crucial question. Instead of asking how our universe came about, we now must ask how these multiple universes emerged. Another drawback with it has to do with Ockham’s Razor. This is the rule that insists, ‘All other things being equal, simpler explanations are generally better than more complex ones.’ Invoking an infinite number of universes lacking empirical testability or observability, because they are in a different spacetime framework, is indeed extremely complex.

The last invokes divine providence. This is the belief that a wise, omnipotent Maker made the universe, endowing it with purpose, meaning and remarkable beauty for the specific intention of producing man. Stephen Hawking remarked in A Brief History of Time – in what seems like a moment of epiphany: ‘It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.’7


The Qur’an insists: And We created not the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in vain. That is the opinion of those who disbelieve; so woe to the disbelievers because of the Fire! [38:27]

1. Dyson, Disturbing the Universe, 250 – in Barrow & Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford: Calarendon, 1988), 318.

2. Antony Flew, There is a God (USA: HarperCollins, 2008), 114.

3. Just Six Numbers (Great Britain: Phoenix Books, 1999), 4.

4. The Language of God (London: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 74. Cf. the account of the anthropic principle by physicist and Christian theologian John Polkinghorne, Beyond Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 80-92.

5. Why God Won’t Go Away (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011), 84-5.

6. Just Six Numbers, 164-66.

7. A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam Press, 1998), 144. I am not suggesting by this statement that Hawkins is a theist. But simply showing that the universe having a wise, omnipotent Maker is more than within the scope of reason and sound logic.

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