The Humble "I"

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Jihad & Martyrdom, War & Peace

khalid_ibn_al-waleed_battle_warrior_islam_sword_of_allah-1-pngIs Islam a conquest ideology more than an actual religion, as some now claim? Is Jihad identical to ‘perpetual war’ in Islam’s grand political scheme of things? And is the life of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ mostly about blood and gore and body counts? These are the issues addressed here.

Muslim scholars have long identified two types of jihad (lit. “striving” in God’s cause): an outer form of jihad and an inner one. The outer usually refers to state-sanctioned military force (i.e. armed combat), which is waged to defend both religion and realm, fight preemptively, or guard the vulnerable against unjustified aggression. As for the inner jihad (jihad al-nafs), it is the struggle to oppose one’s ego (nafs) and false desires, until they are in submission to God. This inner jihad is known as the “greater” jihad, as per mainstream Sunni scholarship, and can be read about here.

What follows is a perusal through the reality of the outer jihad – as per Islam’s source texts and the words of classical and contemporary Muslim jurists:

1. The outer jihad connotes a wide range of meanings which embraces: (i) the tongue, (ii) the hand and (iii) the sword. It can refer to the act of enjoining others to good and forbidding them from evil, as in the hadith: ‘So whoever strives against them with his hand is a believer; whoever strives against them with his tongue is a believer; whoever strives against them with his heart is a believer. Beyond this, there is not even a grain of faith.’1 It includes speaking truth to power: ‘The greatest jihad is to speak a word of truth in front of a tyrannical ruler.’2 Striving in dutiful service of our parents is also a form of jihad, as in the Prophet’s reply ﷺ to a young man who desired to participate in armed combat, and whose parents were still alive: ‘Strive in their service – fa fihima fa jahid.’3 Then there is that all-important mode of jihad: da‘wah – inviting others to Islam by conveying its teaching: Strive against them with it [the Qur’an], with the utmost striving. [25:52] And of course there is fighting in war. In brief: not all jihad is fighting, but nor is all fighting jihad.

2. Without doubt, jihad in the sense of qital (“fighting”, “military war”) is enjoined on the faithful at numerous places in the Qur’an and is seen as a highly meritorious form of duty and sacrifice in Islam. Al-Raghib wrote about the schematics of jihad in these terms: ‘Jihad is of three types: jihad against the apparent enemy; against the devil; and against the ego (nafs). All three types are included in Allah’s words, exalted is He: And wage jihad in Allah’s path with all the striving that is due to Him. [22:78] And wage jihad with your wealth and your lives in the way of Allah. [9:41] … Jihad is to be waged with the hand and the tongue, as he [the Prophet] ﷺ said: “Wage jihad against the unbelievers with your hands and your tongues.”45 That said, the idea of jihad being a ‘holy war’ is alien to the Islamic vocabulary. When rendered into Arabic, the term reads: al-harb al-muqaddas, which doesn’t exist in any form in the Islamic teachings. War in Islam may be sanctioned or unsanctioned; but never holy.

3. Islam’s overall take on warfare can best be seen in these words of our Prophet ﷺ: ‘Never wish to meet your enemy, but ask Allah for safety. If you do meet them, be firm and know that Paradise lies beneath the shades of swords.’6 That is to say, pursue the path of peace and reconciliation; if such a path be denied by hostile intentions, then be prepared to act differently. The next hadith might also be used as a support: ‘After me there will be conflicts and affairs. If you are able, resolve them peacefully.’Also revealing are these words expressed by the Prophet ﷺ: ‘The most detested of names to Allah are War (harb) and Bitterness (murrah).’8 Given the above; and given also the numerous peace accords or ententes the Prophet ﷺ initiated so as to halt or mitigate the woes of war; let alone how he forgave and pardoned mortal enemies wherever he could, it’s simply fictitious, mischievous or fallacious to describe the Prophet as a ‘war monger’. A reluctant warrior, and a leader who took to combat to safeguard his nation from extinction or subjugation, are far truer descriptions of him ﷺ.

4. In classical Islam, warfare is regulated by an all-important shari‘ah dictum that says about jihad: wujubuhu wujubu’l-wasa’il la al-maqasid – ‘Its necessity is the necessity of means, not of ends.’9 That is, jihad of the military kind is not the goal; it’s a means to a goal. That goal being: the free and unhindered invitation to Islam and the summons to worship God alone. Islam treats war, given the harm, destruction or loss of life that takes place, as a necessary ‘evil’ of sorts: For had it not been for God’s checking some men by means of others, monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques wherein God’s name is often mentioned, would have been destroyed. [22:40] Two or three centuries after Islam’s birth, its jurists would define jihad in terms of armed combat against disbelievers who did not have a peace treaty, for advancing the religion. Al-Kasani said it is: ‘Expending one’s utmost abilities and strength to fight in Allah’s way, with one’s person, property, tongue, or other than this.’10 And al-Qastalani defined it as: ‘Fighting the disbelievers, so as to support Islam and make the word of God supreme.’11

5. This martial jihad has rules and codes of conduct too. Among them is that the head of state carefully evaluate the potential pros and cons of war; ensure non-combatants [civilians] are not killed or wilfully targeted; abide by any peace treaty or international agreement it has signed up to; and keep in mind receptivity to the call of Islam. The classical Islamic doctrine which forbids killing civilians in a military jihad takes its cue from the Prophet’s saying ﷺ: ‘March forth in the name of God, trusting in God and adhering to the religion of God. Do not kill elderly men, infants, young children nor women.’12 And Ibn ‘Umar narrates that the Prophet ﷺ ‘forbade the killing of women and children.’13 After quoting the last hadith, al-Nawawi stated: ‘Scholars agree upon acting by this hadith and forbid the killing of women and children, provided that they do not engage in combat. If they do, the great majority of scholars (jamahir al-‘ulema) hold that they can be fought.’14 And al-Buhuti reminds us: ‘Declaring jihad or not is entrusted to the head of state and his decision, for he best knows the condition of the Muslims and of the enemy.’15 I’ve discussed the difference between acts of terror and a bonafide jihad in: Terrorism is to Jihad as Adultery is to Marriage.

6. This brings us to another vital aspect about jihad in Islam: who may be fought? Are Muslims required to wage jihad against disbelievers due to their disbelief (kufr)? Imam Ibn Taymiyyah takes up the issue, stating: ‘The disbelievers, they are only to be fought on condition of them waging war first – as is the view of the majority of scholars; and as is proven by the Book and the Sunnah.16 Which is to say, Islam permits fighting disbelievers, not because of their disbelief, but only if they initiate war against Muslim societies, or manifest belligerence towards them. The Qur’an says: Fight for God’s sake those that fight against you, but do not transgress the limits. [2:190] Along similar lines, Ibn al-Qayyim, another medieval jurist, held that: ‘Fighting is only a duty in response to being fought against, not in response to disbelief. This is why women, children, the elderly and infirm, the blind, and monks who stay out of the fighting are not fought. Instead, we only fight those who wage war against us.’17

7. Ibn al-Qayyim also said about the Prophet ﷺ: ‘Never did he force the religion upon anyone, and he only fought those who waged war against him and fought him. As for those who entered into a peace treaty with him, or concluded a truce, he never fought them, nor ever coerced them to enter his religion, abiding by his Lord’s order: There is no compulsion in religion. True guidance has become distinct from error. [2:256] … It will be clear to whoever ponders the life of the Prophet ﷺ, that he never coerced anyone to enter his religion and that he only fought those who fought against him first. As for those who ratified a peace treaty with him, he never fought them, provided they kept to their covenant and did not violate its terms.’18 Such was the majority juristic view, that jihad is waged due to hostility; not religious affiliations, and eventually prevailed within Sunni Islam. Thus, the Prophet’s defensive battles, like Badr, Uhud, Ahzab and Hunayn, were where the enemy launched an offensive against the Muslims who then had to defend religion and realm. While battles like Khaybar, Mu‘tah or Tabuk, where the Muslim state was aware of the enemy’s impending aggression, resulted in a need to strike pre-emptively as a form of defence.

8. In light of the above, how do we explain jihad talab – “offensive” war? Classical law manuals almost invariably include the likes of the following statement in their martial codes: ‘Jihad in Allah’s path [is to be waged] every year.’19 Also: ‘It is a communal duty once each year.’20 So how does this square with what’s previously been stated? Well, jihad doctrines were based on defence, not only in terms of actual hostilities launched against Muslims, but also preemptively in cases of likely aggression. This doctrine was devised at a time when the Islamic state was surrounded by other states with whom there was no peace treaty, or who were openly belligerent to it. In such a dog eat dog world, one either attacked first, or else was attacked first. Such was the state of affairs throughout the pre-modern world. The twentieth century, however, changed all that. The U.N. Peace Charter has effectively made peace the default between nation states. As such, Muslim juristic voices began to reflect this new reality: ‘It is essential to note that the world today is united under a single organisation where each member [state] adheres to its terms and conditions. The Islamic ruling in this case is that it is obliged to fulfil all agreements and treaties that the Islamic lands commit themselves to, as is stipulated by the law of fulfilling treaties endorsed by the Qur’an. Based on this, those non-Muslim countries that are members of this world organisation are not deemed as the Abode of War (dar al-harb). Instead, they should be seen as Abodes of Truce (dar al-‘ahd).’21

9. Most qualified jurists and recognised fatwa committees of our age hold – and their word in shari‘ah affairs is authoritative and represents orthodoxy – that a state of war shall not exist between Muslims and others except if hostility against a Muslim land is initiated or barriers to da‘wah erected. Al-Khallaf wrote: ‘The legislated jihad is there to carry the Islamic call and to defend the Muslims against any belligerency. Whoever does not respond to the call, nor resists its taking place, nor initiate hostilities against Muslim polities, then it is not permissible to fight them. A state of security cannot be altered for that of fear … A state of war will not exist between the Muslims and others except in cases where hostility towards Muslims is initiated, or barriers to da‘wah are erected, or harm is perpetrated towards the callers or the call.’22 Inarguably, in an age of the Internet and social media, as well as global movement or displacement, it’s nigh on impossible for countries to erect barriers to prevent the da‘wah to Islam.

10. As for when the Muslim army is in the thick of a religiously-sanctioned war, this is where the following passages of the Qur’an (and their like) come into play: Slay them wherever you find them; drive them out of the places from which they drove you. [2:190-91] Also: Slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them [captive] and besiege them, and lie in ambush for them everywhere. [9:5] And then, of course, there is this: But if they incline towards peace, incline to it too. [8:61] Observing peace accords with non-Muslim polities again demonstrates Islam’s willingness to live peacefully with its neighbours, regardless of their religion. When Muslims are instructed to fight treaty-breakers, it is the breaking of a treaty that invites conflict, not the fact that the treaty-breakers are disbelievers: Will you not fight a people who have broken their pacts and desired to drive out the Messenger and attacked you first? [9:13]

11. If any Muslim state contracts a truce with a non-Muslim one, other Muslim states aren’t bound by this peace treaty. For each Muslim country has its own peace accords and foreign policies that are specific to itself. The cue for this is taken from the Treaty of Hudaybiyah where the persecuted Makkan Muslim fugitives, like Abu Busayr, Abu Jandal and their men, weren’t bound by the treaty ratified by the Prophet ﷺ with the Makkans. Nor was their guerrilla warfare against the non-Muslim Makkans, or their raids against their caravans, seen as a breach of the Prophet’s truce ﷺ: for they were tantamount to being a self-governing state not bound by the political jurisdiction of the Prophet ﷺ. Ibn al-Qayyim stated: ‘The peace treaty between the Prophet ﷺ and the [Makkan] idolaters wasn’t a treaty that included Abu Busayr or his followers.’23 In other words, each Muslim state is required to honour its own international accords, and not aid or support other Muslim states against those with whom they have a pact of non-aggression. Such is the weight that the Qur’an places on covenants of security and peace accords and truces, as Allah says: But if they seek help from you in the affair of religion then it is your duty to help them, except against a people between whom and you there exists a treaty. [8:72]

12. Ibn Taymiyyah once wrote: ‘The Prophet ﷺ was the most perfect in terms of this bravery – which is appropriate for commanders in war. He did not kill anyone [in war] save Ubayy b. Khalaf; killing him on the day of Uhud. He didn’t kill anyone else before or after this.’24 Of the twenty-seven battles (ghazwat, sing. ghazwah) which took place in his life, the Prophet ﷺ participated in nine.25 The total number of deaths on both sides was one thousand and eighteen persons. Of those, seven-hundred and fifty-nine were enemy deaths; two-hundred and fifty-nine were Muslims. In fact, the number of enemy fatalities drops to three-hundred and fifty-nine when speaking of those killed on the actual battlefield.26 Such were the pious restraints that infused the spirit of jihad of the Prophet ﷺ. What’s remarkable, Gai Eaton wrote, isn’t just the rapid pace with which Islam spread across the then known world, rather ‘the fact that no rivers flowed with blood, no fields were enriched with the corpses of the vanquished … they were on a leash. There were no massacres, no rapes, no cities burned. These men feared God to a degree scarcely imaginable in our time and were in awe of His all-seeing presence, aware of it in the wind and the trees, behind every rock and in every valley … [T]here had never been a conquest like this.’27 All this being so, despite the blood-thirsty image that ISIS-like extremists; on the one hand, and Islamophobes; on the other, continue to portray about Islam and the Prophet ﷺ.

13. Speaking of death tolls in war, Dr. Naveed Sheikh’s essay: Body Count, is something of an eye-opener. It’s a statistical study which attempts to put numbers on the human death toll of religious and political violence during the last two thousand years, and relate these to religio-cultural civilisations. These civilisations, as well as their locales, are: Antitheist (former Communist block); Buddhist (East Asia, parts of South Asia); Christian (Europe, the Americas, few parts of Africa); Indic (India, Nepal, Mauritius); Islamic (Middle East, parts of Asia, parts of Africa); Primal-Indigenous (parts of Africa, the Americas before colonialism); and Sinic (China, some neighbouring states). Key findings showed that the Christian world was responsible for the highest death count in history (responsible for 31% of all deaths: 178,000,000); followed by the Antitheist (22%: 125,000,000); then the Sinic world (19%: 108,000,000); then Primal-Indigenous (8%: 46,000,000); after which came the Islamic world (5%: 31,000,000); and lastly the Indic (less than 0.5%: 2,000,000 fatalities). In contrast to the Islamic world, Buddhist civilisation has an exceptionally good press in the West. Yet the Buddhist contribution to world fatalities is three times higher than the Islamic; the Christian world’s being six times higher, while the Antitheist four times. Yet despite only the Indic civilisation having a lower death toll, the Muslim world tends to always be on the receiving end of media charges and stereotypes of violence, murder and intolerance.28

14. Lastly, let’s touch on the following: a believer’s love for martyrdom. In one hadith, we see the Prophet ﷺ relish the following: ‘By Him in whose hand is my life. I would love to be killed in Allah’s way and then be brought back to life; then be killed and be brought back to life; then be killed and be brought back to life; then be killed.’29 The Prophet ﷺ cherished martyrdom, not because of the love of blood and gore; nor for the glory of war itself; nor for the clanging of steel or the thrill of the fight. He loved it because of what it manifested of the highest service and the ultimate sacrifice for God. To surrender to Allah one’s actual life, for a cause Allah loves and honours, is the greatest possible expression of loving Allah. It’s no wonder, then, that the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Whoever dies without partaking in a battle, or even desiring to do so, dies upon a branch of hypocrisy.’30 Believers, though, whilst they long to meet a martyr’s death, strive to live a righteous life. For how can one truly desire to die for God, if one does not sincerely try to live for God?

For much of the twentieth century the ‘ulema examined and reexamined the contents of the Sacred Law, so as to accord Muslims some principled accommodation with the emerging global consensus. Islam’s legal tools were, as it happens, well-equipped for the task at hand. The juristic practices of tahqiq al-manat (identifying the context for laws in order to ascertain their current form and application) and maslahah mursalah (taking account of public interest and utility) moved the jurists of the great centres of Muslim scholarship in the direction of acclimatization, adjustment and adaption. And while it is not Islam’s calling to conform to the age – Islam is, after all, the great global dissent – it can and must furnish Muslims with the spiritual and social technologies required to live in the age and navigate its eclectic mix of challenges. More than that, religion must offer believers insights on how best to heal modernity’s discontents and disillusionments too.

Those doctors of Islamic law who are also blessed with being spiritually rooted in the realities of ihsan, teach us that God’s law exists to instantiate mercy not severity; ease not hardship; good news (tabshir) not alienation (tanfir). They insist that today’s times call for tashil – facilitation; but not tasahul – slackness and over-leniency. And that far from capitulating to the secular monoculture, as the short-sighted or fiqh-less zealots imagine, this path maintained a wise, far-sighted openness to gentleness, which long predated the advent of the modern world. Even in the fourteenth century Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah pointed to this salient fact: ‘The shari‘ah is based and built upon wisdom and [achieving] public welfare, in both this life and the next. It is justice in its entirety, mercy in its entirety, welfare in its entirety, and wisdom in its entirety. Any issue that departs from justice to injustice, mercy to its opposite, public welfare to corruption, or wisdom to folly cannot be part of the shari‘ah, even if it is claimed to be so due to some interpretation.’31

The above discussion about war and peace is the outcome of how most contemporary Muslim jurists have engaged the new global paradigms. As individual Muslims, we are each part of a larger transnational ummah. We each also belong to individual nations which are all committed to the global principle of non-aggression. This arrangement is certainly not perfect. But on the whole it has been instrumental in maintaining a fragile global peace – notwithstanding a few illegal occupations, continued conflicts, and even some modern genocides.

At the turn of the second millennium, Gai Eaton wrote that the West still sees Islam as a religion of war, bent on conquest. ‘They have inherited the fear,’ he insists, ‘which obsessed their ancestors when Muslim civilization was dominant and Christendom trembled before the “heathen” threat.’32 He says that even Westerners who’ve turned their back on Christianity still share these fears and prejudices today. As for Muslims, he feels, historically they’ve seen Christianity, and now the secular West, as inherently hostile. Indeed, even today, many Muslims are convinced (and there is much rhyme and reason behind their convictions) that the ‘Christian’ West will carpet bomb them or shred them with missiles if they step out of line. ‘They react either with impotent fury or with a degree of subservience, but always with a deep sense of injustice.’33 He concluded with this sober resolve: ‘There is, then, no end to this argument, so let me leave it where it is and consider what Islam actually teaches about peace and war.’34 And this, more or less, is what I’ve tried to do here.

1. Muslim, no.50.

2. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.4344; al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.2175, saying: ‘A hasan hadith.’

3. Al-Bukhari, no.3004.

4. Abu Dawud, no.2504. Its chain is sahih, as per al-Nawawi, Riyadh al-Salihin (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2000), no.1357, but with the wording: ‘ … with your wealth, lives and tongues.’

5. Al-Raghib al-Asbahani, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 208; under the entry, j-h-d.

6. Al-Bukhari, no.3024; Muslim, no.172.

7. Ahmad, Musnad, no.695. Its chain was graded sahih by Ahmad Shakir, al-Musnad al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (Egypt: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1954), 2:84-5, despite the presence of two questionable narrators in the chain: Faysal b. Sulayman and Iyas b. ‘Amr.

8. Abu Dawud, no.4950. The hadith, with its various chains, strengthen each other to yield a final grading of sahih. Consult: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1987), no.1040.

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

10. Al-Kasani, Bada’i‘ al-Sana’i‘ (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1986), 7:97.

11. Irshad al-Sari (Egypt: Bulaq, 1887), 5:31.

12. Abu Dawud, no.2614. The chain contains Khalid b. al-Fizr, who has been criticised. Hence the hadith was declared weak (da‘if) in al-Albani, Da‘if al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1990), no.1346. The ruling of not targeting civilians or other non-combatants, however, is well established in other hadiths and juristic consensus.

13. Al-Bukhari, no.3015; Muslim, no.1744.

14. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 12:43.

15. Kashshaf al-Qina‘ (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Nasr al-Hadithah, n.d.), 3:41.

16. Kitab al-Nabuwwat (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985), 140.

17. Ahkam Ahl al-Dhimmah (Dammam: Ramadi li’l-Nashr, 1997), 1:110.

18. Hidayat al-Hiyara (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2008), 29-30.

19. Al-Dardir, Aqrab al-Masalik (Nigeria: Maktabah Ayyub, 2000), 54.

20. Al-Ghazali, Al-Wajiz (Beirut: Sharikah Dar al-Arqam b. Abi’l-Arqam, 1997), 2:188.

21. Abu Zahrah, al-‘Alaqat al-Duwaliyyah fi’l-Islam (Cairo: Dar al-Fikr al-‘Arabi, 1995), 77. Also see: al-Jasim, Kashf al-Shubuhat fi Masa’il al-‘Ahd wa’l-Jihad (Kuwait: Jam‘iyyat Ihya al-Turath al-Islami, 2004), 49.

22. Al-Khallaf, al-Siyasat al-Shar‘iyyah (Cairo: Matba‘ah al-Salafiyyah, 1931), 75.

23. Zad al-Ma‘ad (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 3:274-5.

24. Minhaj al-Sunnah al-Nabawiyyah (Riyadh: Jami‘ah al-Imam Muhammad bin Sa‘ud, 1986), 8:78.

25. Cf. al-Azmi, al-Lu’lu al-Maknun fi Sirat al-Nabi al-Ma’mun (Riyadh: Dar al-Sumay‘i, 2013), 4:374. Ibn Sayyid al-Nas stated, Nur al-‘Uyun (Beirut: Dar al-Minhaj, 2010), 40-1: ‘His ﷺ battles in this period numbered twenty-five; some say twenty-seven, of which he fought in seven.’

26. Muhammad Sulayman Mansurpuri, Rahmatan li’l-‘Alamin (Riyadh: Dar al-Salam, 1997), 468. The casualties and death tolls for each side, and each battle, is tabulated on pp.433-56. In the original Urdu edition, cf. Rahmatan li’l-‘Alamin (Pakistan: Markaz al-Haramayn al-Islami, 2007), 2:462-80.

27. Islam and the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1997), 30.

28. Consult: Sheikh, ‘Body Count: A Comparative Quantitative Study of Mass Killings in History’, in Muhammad, Kalin & Kamali (eds.), War and Peace in Islam: The Uses and Abuses of Jihad (Cambridge: MABDA & The Islamic Texts Society, 2013), 165-214.

29. Al-Bukhari, no.2797; Muslim, no.1497.

30. Muslim, no.1910.

31.  I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2002), 4:337.

32. Remembering God: Reflections on Islam (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2000), 101.

33. ibid., 102.

34. ibid., 102.

Does Science Point towards God or Atheism?

IMG_-os7cg1‘Atheism,’ writes John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, ‘is on the march in the Western world. Noisily. A concerted attempt is being made to marshal the atheist faithful, to encourage them not to be ashamed of their atheism but to stand up and fight as a united army. The enemy is God.’1

If New Atheists are to be believed, science has dispensed with [belief in] God. Atheism is, its high priests and sermonisers tell us, the only viable intellectual position for the modern thinking person. Science and religion cannot be reconciled, they say. In fact, the following has become part and parcel of New Atheism’s central dogma: ‘Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.’2

Indeed, the above claim (that science is the only way to the truth and that it can, in principle, explain everything) is the third of three core arguments in New Atheism’s march against God. The first one being: that science explains how things work, so we don’t need to invoke God as an explanation. The second one: that there is nothing but nature. It’s a closed system of cause and effect. There isn’t a realm of the divine or the supernatural. There is no ‘outside’. This, in a nutshell, is the crux of the science versus religion debate.

Richard Dawkins, who continues to lead New Atheism’s assault on theism or belief in God, has a rather appropriate maxim in this regard. He states: ‘Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “what kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think carefully before you believe a word they say.’3 So let’s take each of these three beliefs of New Atheism and explore just how grounded in evidence or proof they really are:

1. Science explains how things work, we don’t need God as an explanation: Undoubtedly, the achievements of science have been remarkable; utterly astounding, even. Science has improved lives and living conditions, eliminated countless diseases and unveiled the mechanics behind how our universe works. It has also helped put to rest a lot of superstitious fears. For example, people need no longer fear that an eclipse is caused by a terrible demon, or is a bad omen of sorts. Interestingly, during the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ an eclipse occurred, coinciding with the death of his infant son, Ibrahim. To waylay peoples’ superstitions, the Prophet ﷺ announced: ‘Indeed, the sun and the moon are two of God’s signs. They do not eclipse for the death or birth of anyone. If you see an eclipse, hasten to remember God and to prayer.’4 My overall point being is that we have so much to be grateful to science for and to its wonderful conversations and conclusions.

Unfortunately, the very success of science has led many to believe that merely because we know the mechanisms of how the universe works without needing to bring God into the equation, they can confidently conclude there is no God. Now it’s true theists have often been intellectually lazy and invoked God as an explanation for all sorts of phenomena they couldn’t understand or explain. The upshot of this ‘God of the gaps’ strategy is that, as science uncovered the inner workings of these natural phenomena, it pushed belief in God further into the background. And yet, just because science has revealed a mechanism for how the cosmos or any other natural phenomenon works, it doesn’t rationally disprove or deny God’s agency in those natural phenomena. Let me elaborate with the following example:

Take, for instance, an iPod. Now just because one deciphers the inner workings of an iPod, iPhone or iPad, does not mean that it is impossible to believe in the existence of Steve Jobs as the designer of such culturally altering tech. This would be a failure to distinguish between mechanism and agency. ‘Because we know the mechanism that explains a phenomenon, there is therefore no agent that designed the mechanism’ is a logical fallacy; in philosophy, an elemental category mistake. Lennox writes that when Newton discovered the laws of gravity, he didn’t say: ‘I’ve discovered the mechanism that describes the motion of planetary bodies, therefore there is no agent God who designed it.’ In fact, it was quite the opposite. Precisely because he had fathomed the mechanics behind planetary motion, he was moved to even greater admiration for the God who had designed it that way.5 In fact, what animated many towering figures of science, like Newton and Galileo, was that they expected laws in nature because they believed in God the lawgiver.

For Muslims, as with Jews and Christians, we do not believe that God is an alternative to a scientific explanation – as Dawkins et al. wants people to believe. He is not just a God of the gaps. On the contrary, He is the very ground of all explanation; indeed, of all existence. He is the agent behind every single act, occurrence or phenomena in the universe – the ones we know the mechanics of, and the ones we do not. The Qur’an says: God is the Creator of everything. [39:62] For the faithful who believe God’s hand is behind all things and that all things bear the mark of His handiwork, and who know not to confuse mechanism with agency, explanations and conversations of science are to be welcomed, pondered over and celebrated; not nervously anticipated or narrow-mindedly ignored.

2. There is nothing but nature, there is no realm of the divine; there is no “outside”: All well and good as a claim. Now let us apply the Dawkins litmus test: ‘Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “what kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think carefully before you believe a word they say.’

So what’s the evidence for the claim? As it turns out, there really isn’t any! It might be an atheistic hope. It might be an anti-theistic conviction. But it isn’t grounded in any scientific proof. Naturalism – the view that nature is all that there is, and that there is no transcendence or divine realm – is a philosophy that is brought to science. It is not the outcome of science, nor something science necessarily entails. Given that science proceeds by inference from observed data, how can anyone be so scientifically certain that the natural order is all that there is?6

In 1980, in my mid-teens, I was one of millions of viewers utterly enthralled by Carl Sagan’s breathtaking and ground-breaking TV series, Cosmos. The series opened with Sagan saying: ‘The cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be.’ These words of this charismatic astrophysicist and populariser of science were, undoubtedly, the words of a scientist. But they were not the words of science. Sagan’s naturalistic/materialistic worldview was not derived from his science. It was a priori; an assumption about the cosmos that he presupposed. Whether Sagan in his personal beliefs was an agnostic, atheist, or deist is beside the point. The point is that if scientists commit themselves a priori to a materialistic worldview, then the old proverb is likely to apply: ‘To the man who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’

Of course, there is another reason to keep it all materialistic – as the geneticist and atheist, Richard Lewontin candidly wrote: ‘It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept material explanations of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.’7

This frank admission has sort of let the cat out of the bag. What Lewontin is saying is that scientists cannot, must not allow room for anything other than purely natural, materialistic explanations. For to do otherwise would run the risk that God might get a look in. This is the blind faith in materialism that so typifies New Atheism, as well as feeds into the fiction that science is the only tool to understand life and its deepest questions (as opposed to being a tool that works wonders in some places and not so well in others). And this brings us nicely on to the third and final belief:

3. Science is the only way to the truth and can, in principle, explain everything: Evidence? In many ways, this fails the litmus test more pitifully than does the above. Again, this is more a statement of faith and hope than it is hard science. The belief that science is the only path to know the truth objectively and that it can, in theory, deal with every aspect of existence, is also known (pejoratively) as ‘scientism’. Richard Dawkins claims that: ‘Scientists [are] the specialists in discovering what is true about the world and the universe.’8 While Steven Hawking states that ‘philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.’9 Ironically, the degree of faith now placed in science is uncannily religion-like.

Be that as it may, it’s been pointed out often enough that scientism is actually a self-refuting belief. The assertion that only science can deliver true knowledge hasn’t been arrived at by scientific methods. Instead, it’s a personal conviction-cum-dogma. Thus, if the assertion is true, then it is false; if false, then true.10

Between Hawking and Dawkins, not only has today’s philosophy been denigrated, but at a single stroke they’ve disparaged many other disciplines of knowledge too. For the evaluation of philosophy, art, literature, music, or even ethics lies beyond the scope of science. How can science tell us when a piece of music or art is a masterpiece, or just a cacophony of sounds or colours? How can science determine what is morally right or wrong? As the biologist and Noble Laureate, Sir Peter Medawar, has so deftly written: ‘There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and upon his profession than roundly to declare – particularly when no declaration of any kind is called for – that science knows, or soon will know, the answers to all questions worth asking, and that questions that do not admit a scientific answer are in some way non-questions or pseudo-questions that only simpletons ask and only the gullible profess to be able to answer.’ He then states: ‘The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions having to do with first and last things – questions such as: “How did everything begin?”; “What are we all here for?”; What is the point of living?”.’11

Francis Collins, geneticist and Head of the Human Genome Project, hits the bullseye when he writes: ‘Science is the only legitimate way to investigate the natural world. Whether probing the structure of the atom, the nature of the cosmos, or the DNA sequence of the human genome, the scientific method is the only reliable way to seek out the truth of natural events … Nevertheless, science alone is not enough to answer all the important questions … The meaning of human existence, the reality of God, the possibility of an afterlife, and many other spiritual questions lie outside the reach of the scientific method.’12

In 1988, Hawking announced to an entire generation in his best-selling A Brief History of Time that our universe was describable and explainable by a single unified theory in physics – a Theory of Everything. It was a dream Einstein had hoped to achieve or see come to fruition in his own lifetime. On the back of this hopefulness, Dawkins wrote: ‘I am optimistic that the physicists of our species will complete Einstein’s dream and discover the final theory of everything before superior creatures, evolved on another world, make contact and tell us the answer.’ He concludes by pushing the triumphant mood even further, declaring: ‘I am optimistic that this final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue deathblow to religion and other juvenile superstitions.’13 The last fall of Religion, as signalled by a Theory of Everything, would soon became the gospel of New Atheism.

Professor Hawking, meanwhile, pondering over the implications of Gödel’s Theorem in mathematics, wrote a paper in 2002 where he retracted his view about a Theory of Everything, saying it was unattainable: ‘Some people will be very disappointed if there is not an ultimate theory, that can be formulated as a finite number of principles. I used to belong to that camp, but I have changed my mind.’14 In his latest book, The Grand Design (2010), he seems to have gravitated to a grand unified theory once again, this time offering the highly controversial “M-theory” as the most likeliest candidate; as ‘the unified theory Einstein was hoping to find.’15

To conclude: We saw how the three key proofs New Atheism employs to attack belief in God are nowhere near as robust or as categorical as they’re made out to be. Indeed, two of them have no evidence from science whatsoever to support their conclusions: merely aspiration, hope and dogma. So as Dawkins aptly put it: ‘Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “what kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think carefully before you believe a word they say.’

Atheists insist, and New Atheism does so far more pugnaciously, that naturalism and science are joined at the hip. But as we’ve seen, that’s not based on evidence. Instead, it’s a philosophical commitment individual scientists bring to bear upon science. And whilst it’s true naturalistic or materialistic assumptions don’t really figure at all when scientists are studying how things work, they have a more bullish role when studying why things are as they are or how things came to be in the first place. Science, rather than “bury” God, has actually given theists further reasons to deepen confidence and conviction in Him. The universe had a beginning that begs explaining, is one of them. Another is the Fine Tuning of the universe; of just how suited to the emergence of life our cosmos actually is. There’s also the question of why there’s something rather than nothing? Or why the universe is so highly intelligible to us, in terms of mathematical and physical laws? All of these point, not to naturalistic causes, but to a Divine Cause. Yet, due to the bias that shows itself in an entrenched pre-commitment to naturalism, the theistic voice is routinely undermined or muffled in today’s scientific circles.

As Professor Lennox says, it shouldn’t really be a case of science vs. religion. Rather it boils down to this: which assumption does science support – atheism or theism?. Do the findings of science best square with the belief that consciousness and rationality arose via unguided, random natural processes working upon the basic materials of the universe? Or does the theistic belief best fit the evidence – that we were put here by an intelligent Creator-God, who created an intelligible universe, finely-tuned, that we might discover His laws, marvel at His handiwork, and bend our will to His purpose for us? That’s the real issue at stake.

As said before, science on the how questions has done tremendously well. It’s when it attempts to do the why questions that it steps beyond its remit and enters the highly dogmatic zone of scientism. In a delightful illustration to help clarify the distinction, Lennox gives us the example of his Aunt Matilda’s cake. He asks us to imagine that his Aunt Matilda has baked a delicious cake, which the world’s leading scientists wish to analyse. The nutritionists start by telling us about the number of calories in the cake; the biochemists inform us about the structures of proteins and fats in it; the chemists about the elements and compounds used in its formation; the physicists analyse it in terms of its fundamental particles; and the mathematicians offer up an elegant set of equations to describe its composition and the behaviour of the particles in it. Having offered their thorough analysis of his Aunt’s cake, Lennox then asks, ‘[C]an we say the cake is completely explained?’  He says that we have certainly been given knowledge of how the cake was made, but not why it was made. In fact, he insists that no amount of scientific analysis will shed light on the purpose behind the cake; in other words, the why question. The only way we’ll ever know the answer is if Aunt Matilda herself reveals it to us.16 The point, as Francis Collins made earlier, is that science deals with the material aspects of life; religion, the meaning aspects. Science takes things apart to see how they work; religion puts things together to see what they mean.

Must science and religion arm wrestle each other? Or can they clasp hands as partners in understanding man’s material reality and meaning? There’s no intrinsic reason why the latter shouldn’t be the case.

1. Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists Are Missing the Target (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2011), 9.

2. Bertrand Russel, Religion and Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 243.

3. Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain (London: Phoenix, 2004), 291.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.1041; Muslim, no.911.

5. Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2009), 45. Much of the material for this article has been quarried and adapted from the first four chapters of this book.

6. Close to this is the philosophy of Materialism – the view that all existence is matter, that only matter is real, and that all occurrences are reducible to material processes. The difference between the two philosophies is that materialism makes a claim about the ontology of the universe, while naturalism takes that ontological premise to make an argument about how science should function.

7. Lewontin, ‘Billions and Billions of Demons: A Review of Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science is a Candle in the Dark”‘, New York Review of Books, 9 January 1997 – cited in Lennox, God’s Undertaker, 35-6.

8. A Devil’s Chaplain, 242.

9. Hawking & Mlodinow, The Grand Design (London: Bantam Books, 2011), 13.

10. A similar, though simpler self-refuting statement is the following: ‘This statement is false.’ So if the statement is true, then it is false. But if the statement is false, if it is untrue, then it is actually true.

11. Medawar, Advice to a Young Scientist (London: Harper and Row, 1979), 31.

12. Collins, The Language of God (Great Britain: Pocket Books, 2007), 228.

13. Contribution to the online magazine Edge – as quoted in John Cornwell, Darwin’s Angel (Great Britain: Profile Books, 2007), 63.

14. Stephen Hawking, Gödel and the end of physics, July 20, 2002.

15. The Grand Design, 228.

16. God’s Undertaker, 41.

Pilgrimage of Reason: Proofs for God’s Existence [2/2]

6455578409_9bd1e50d22_zIn the first part of the blog (here), I discussed a ‘proof’ for the existence of God vis-a-via the kalam cosmological argument. We saw how, as a rational argument, it is well reasoned, cogent and logical; hence giving a lie to New Atheism’s allegation that belief in God is irrational. But since the proof is highly abstract and theoretical, I suggested that a more accessible proof for God’s existence comes via the teleological argument and the Quran’s insistance to reflect on the signs of God. In the second and final part of the blog, I shall endeavour to explain and explore the above argument. Finally, as I mentioned in the first part of the blog, I’ll end this discussion by briefly sketching the ontological and moral proofs for the existence of God.

In the Qur’an, in contrast to the kalam cosmological argument, the existence of God is firmly rooted in the creation of visible entities; in everyday experience. A far more potent proof, therefore, comes from the teleological argument (teleos, from the Greek word for “purpose” or “end”). It is also known as the Argument from Design.

This is the argument which stresses that the complex and purposeful design we see in the natural world round us, as well as in the cosmos at large, suggests the universe has an intelligent designer. The 18th-century essayist and poet, Joseph Addison, captures the spirit of the argument in these verses:

The spacious firmament on high
With all the blue ethereal sky
And spangled heavens, a shining frame
Their great original proclaim …
In reason’s ear they all rejoice
And utter forth a glorious voice
Forever singing as they shine:
“The hand that made us is Divine!”

The Qur’an says that the cosmos isn’t its own explanation. Rather it’s a sign pointing to something greater. We shall show them Our signs in the creation around them, as well as in their ownselves, till it becomes manifest to them that this [Revelation] is the Truth, is how the Qur’an puts it [41:53]

‘For Islam,’ wrote Gai Eaton, ‘the natural world in its totality is a vast fabric into which the “signs” of the Creator are woven. It is significant that the word meaning “signs” or “symbols,” ayah, is the same word that’s used for the “verses” of the Qur’an. Earth and sky, mountains and stars, oceans and forests and the creatures they contain are, as it were, “verses” of a sacred book.’1 For a believer, therefore, creation is holistic. For He who revealed the Qur’an is also He who created the observable phenomena of nature. Both are communications from God to man; both are signs pointing to Him. In fact, Ibn al-Qayyim explains: ‘In the Qur’an, God invites His servants to know Him via two ways: The one, by contemplating the creation. The other by meditating on the Qur’an and contemplating its meanings. The first are His signs that are seen and witnessed; the second, His signs that are read and understood.’2

Now these signs not only serve as evidence for the existence of God as such, but they act as evidence for various attributes of His too – attributes that become a pious focus for the contemplative life of a believer. These remarkable signs (often referred to by Muslims scholars and pietists as aja’ib, “marvels”, or bada’i‘, “wonders”) point to God’s knowledge, power, wisdom, majesty and unity; and to His beneficence, kindness and care for humankind. The Qur’an says: In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and day; in the sailing of ships through the ocean for the benefit of humankind; in the water with which He revives the earth after its death; in the animals of all kinds He has scattered therein; in the ordering of the winds and clouds that are driven between heaven and earth, are signs for those who have intelligence. [2:164]

Contemplating the Creator’s handiwork within creation enables us, at least to some extent, to admire His wisdom, splendour and sublime power. This, in turn, inspires gratitude, reverence, love and awe of God. For the natural world is like a mirror, itself beautiful while reflecting an even greater beauty of God. If the starry heavens elicit in us a sense of awe; if a newly sprung red rose evokes in us a sense of beauty; and if the solemn stillness of an autumn woodland kindles in us a sense of sublimity, then how much more awesome, beautiful and sublime must the Creator of such things truly be? Appreciating the splendour of the creation and being enchanted by it is, therefore, a means of knowing and glimpsing the still greater splendour of its Maker.

Consider also these verses from the Qur’an: It is He who spread out the earth and placed upon it firm mountains and rivers, and fruit of every kind in pairs. He draws the night [as a veil] over the day. In these are signs for those who reflect. And on earth are neighbouring tracts, vineyards and ploughed lands, and palms in pairs and palms single; watered by one water; some of them We make better than others to eat. In that are signs for those who understand. [13:3-4]

To reflect and meditate upon the astounding nature of the creation is to experience awe and enchantment of how such beauty, harmony and complexity originated, and how it is sustained. Pondering over these “signs” should lead the reflecting intellect to acknowledge and accept that there is an Absolute underlying all relative phenomena, an Omnipotence underlying all relative power, and a Wisdom underlying the laws of nature. This is pointed out in the verses by utilising the symbolism of water: A single kind of water nourishes neighbouring tracts, vineyards and ploughed lands and gives them life. That same water further produces palm-trees; some single, others paired, and some better tasting than others. Those who understand are those who can grasp the Unity that underpins creational diversity. A Muslim poet of old versified:

O wonder! How can the Deity be disobeyed;
Or by the denier be denied.
While in everything there is a sign
By which His Oneness stands testified.

The tafsir genre relates this unadorned story. A bedouin was once asked how he knew that God exists. He answered: ‘Glory be to God! Camel’s dung proves the existence of a camel and footprints prove that someone has walked by. So a sky with its towering constellations, and an earth with all its mountain passes, and a deep sea covered by waves upon waves – doesn’t all this testify that [God] the Subtle, the Aware exists?’3

In a similar vein, Ibn al-Qayyim wrote about a watermill by a river, faultlessly made, with perfect parts: no flaw can be observed in its construction. It efficiently irrigates a large garden containing various kinds of plants and fruits. The garden is well tended, pruned, weeded, and maintained in every way so that nothing is amiss or overlooked; and nor is any fruit left to rot. Then its produce is harvested and the money gained is distributed to various people according to their needs, each getting what is right for them. All of this happens each time, over and over again, without fail. Would you say that all of this happens by chance, asks Ibn al-Qayyim, without someone behind it who has intentionality (iradah), a will to choose to do or not to do (ikhtiyar), and the ability to plan and manage (tadbir)? Would you believe that the wheel or the garden got there by mere chance, or that all that goes on there does so without an actor who has intentionality, will or management? What would your intellect say to that? What would that indicate to you?4

The bedouin logic, or Ibn al-Qayyim’s watermill, has a modern twin in Paley’s famous watchmaker analogy. Paley argued that, were we to find a watch lying on a heath, we would naturally assume it had a maker due to the fact that it is a complex mechanism which seems designed for a specific purpose. In a similar manner, he goes on to argue, the complexity, order and purpose of the universe implies an intelligent designer.

As appealing as it seems, critics of Paley’s argument point out a logical flaw in it. The fact that two objects share a common characteristic (in this case, complexity), doesn’t always imply they will share all characteristics. Paley’s argument can be stated, thus: (i) A watch is complex. (ii) A watch has an intelligent designer. (iii) Life is complex. (iv) Therefore life must also have an intelligent designer.

Consider a similar line of reason: (i) Electric current in my house consists of a flow of electrons. (ii) Electric current comes from the power company. (iii) Lightning consists of a flow of electrons. (iv) Therefore, lightning comes from the power company. This last statement is plainly not true. So Paleyan logic holds true in some cases, but not in all cases.

Inferring that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole is referred to as a “fallacy of composition”. In certain cases, this mode of inference looks better than in others. Thus, if every gem in a necklace is valuable, the necklace will be valuable too. But if every player on a football team is outstanding, it is likely, but not guaranteed, that the team will be outstanding too. Yet if every track on a CD is less than five minutes long, it doesn’t follow that the whole CD is less than five minutes long.

Attempts to weaken the argument are predicated on thinking that Paley is reasoning by way of analogy. Some, however, think that the argument is better understood as an inference to the best explanation. What Paley is saying is that whenever you see these kinds of deliberate and purposeful contrivances, then what is the best explanation? The best explanation is surely design.

Whatever the case, Paley’s argument is still highly persuasive. Revealed theology (that is, theology based upon religious scripture) informs that the universe has a Creator-God. While natural theology (theology based on reason and ordinary experience) says it is perfectly reasonable to believe that the complex design of our observable universe has an intelligent designer behind it. Paley’s analogy (and, by extension, the argument from design), despite its criticism, is not just rationally appealing; it accords with our everyday experience too.

The ontological argument (ontos, Greek for “reality”) is a highly curious one. It states, in effect, that if one understands what the word “God” means, it is perfectly logical to believe He exists. This philosophical argument was set out by Anslem, the eleventh century Archbishop of Canterbury, and is based upon an understanding that God is “that than which no greater can exist.” This type of argument reasons that if God is that than which no greater can be conceived to exist, then God cannot exist only as a concept. If God exists just as a concept, then there’s something greater – namely, God who exists as a concept in the mind as well as in reality. But since God is that than which no greater can exist, this must logically include existence. Thus God exists. (To this, Muslims would simply exclaim: Allahu akbar – “God is greater!”)

The moral argument starts from the moral order – that some things are right, and some things are wrong – recognized by people throughout the world, to the existence of God as the source of this morality. Even the remotest tribes that have been cut-off from civilization, the argument posits, observe a moral code similar to everyone else’s. No doubt, differences in moral perspectives do exist. Yet virtues like bravery, truth and loyalty; and vices such as greed and cowardice are universal. So where does this “law of right behaviour” originate?

Some sociobiologists have tried to argue, though not very succesfully, that our moral impulses like altruism (the selfless giving to others even if nothing is received in return) are evolutionary bi-products left over from Darwinian natural selection. This line of reasoning, however, has been sufficiently debunked.5

Post-modern philosophy insists moral truths are relative: there are no absolute rights or wrongs. If that’s the case, how can post-modernism itself be absolutely right in its claim? Moreover, as C.S Lewis wrote, if one considers the various human cultures and civilizations from ancient times till now, one will encounter ‘the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery and falsehood; the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, the weak, of almsgiving, impartiality and honesty.’6

Elsewhere he says: ‘If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command getting us to behave in a certain type of way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions.’7

Thus, it is reasonable to suggest it is God who is the author of this Moral Law and it is He who allows its bright light to shine into the recesses of our beings and nature. We will show them Our signs in the creation around them, as well as in their ownselves. [41:53] The Qur’an is, in point of fact, categorical about the Moral Law eminating from God. It says: By the soul and He who fashioned it, then inspired it to discern its vices and piety. Successful is he who purifies it, and ruined is he who corrupts it. [91:7-10]

That the moral law is firmly embedded in human nature melds into another Quranic concept, that of fitrah – man’s “innate nature” or “natural disposition.” One verse of the Qur’an states: So set your purpose for the upright religion, the innate nature in which God created mankind. [30:30] There occurs in one hadith: ‘All children are born upon the natural disposition’ – kullu mawludin yuladu ‘ala’l-fitrah.8 A number of scholars, including al-Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyyah, argue that our knowledge of God’s existence is implanted in our fitrah and it is a knowledge which makes the theologians’ proofs obsolete. Man knows God intstinctively by virtue of his fitrah. Resorting to rational proofs or reflection, they say, is necessary only when the fitrah has been corrupted by unhealthy environments, or if someone is plagued by doubts.9

Having rehearsed at some length the main rational or discursive arguments for the existence of God, let me summarise them:

The kalam-cosmological argument, simply put, says that the cause and effect chain of changing physical existence cannot go back indefinitely in time, and thus must have a beginning found only through divine creation.

The teleological argument, at its simplest, asserts that the nature of the world is such that it must have been created by an intelligent designer.

The ontological argument, stripped to its bare bones, argues from the concept of God to the existence of God.

As for the moral argument, it appeals to the existence of moral laws as proof of God’s existence.

Although these discursive arguments do yield coherent reasons for belief in God (as well as lay to rest the lingering fallacy that belief in God is irrational), they are open to some criticisms. Perhaps no single one clinches the deal. Nevertheless, each argument reinforces the other; that is, they are accumulative in strength. Such proofs, though, tend not to convince hardened skeptics, nor those who are determined not to believe. However, these rational proofs, in concert with the miraculous nature of the Qur’an and the pious and selfless life of the Prophet ﷺ, are powerful reasons to believe and to submit.

1. Islam and the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1997), 101.

2. Ibn al-Qayyim, al-Fawa’id (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2001), 42-3.

3. Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1986), 1:61-62 – citing al-Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb, 2:91.

4. See: Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Miftah Dar al-Sa‘adah (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn ‘Affan, 1996), 2:69-70.

5. See: Collins, The Language of God (Great Britain: Pocket Books, 2007), 24-8.

6. ‘The Poison of Subjectivism’, in C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflection, 77 – cited in Collins, The Language of God, 24.

7. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 24.

8. Al-Bukhari, no.1385; Muslim, no.2657.

9. See: A. Shihadeh, ‘The Existence of God’, in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 198; Ozervali, ‘The Qur’anic Rational Theology of Ibn Taymiyya and his Criticism of the Mutakallimun’, in Ibn Taymiyya and His Times (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 90-91; Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf, Imam Abu Hanifa’s al-Fiqh al-Akbar Explained (California: White Thread Press, 2007), 64-66. In Arabic, cf. Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 16:328; al-Ghazali, Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 2004), 1:854; al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1988), 13:361-63; al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 78-79

Pilgrimage of Reason: Proofs for God’s Existence [1/2]

dsc_0014As anyone familiar with anti-religious polemics knows, the core criticism by today’s New Atheists is that, allegedly, belief in God is both infantile and irrational. It is, they say, a childish delusion that ought to have died out as humanity reached its maturity. In the New Atheism’s canon, belief in God is likened to believing in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus: as you grow up, you’ll grow out of it. But is belief in God really irrational? Is it so at odds with what Antony Flew (who until quite recently was ‘the world’s most notorious atheist’) calls: the ‘pilgrimage of reason’?1

Traditionally, Muslims have agreed that there are indeed good rational arguments to support the belief in the existence of God. Religion, as Islam teaches, does not require abandoning reason, nor does it instil evading the evidence. Classical Islamic theology demonstrated the “proofs” for God’s existence in two ways. One of these ways is very abstract, demanding a fair degree of intellectual theorising. The other, by comparison, is far more straight forward and intuitive, and is rooted in the simplicity of everyday experience. Moreover, it mirrors the Qur’an’s style of reasoning on the matter.

The first has come to be known as the “argument from contingency – dalil al-huduth.” In Christian natural theology, this proof is called the kalam-cosmological argument. The second proof is akin to the teleological argument (also called the argument from design) in Christian natural theology. Natural theology also offers the ontological and moral arguments; the gists of which are given in the second part of this post. But here in the first of two parts, let’s engage the more abstract proof: the kalam-cosmological argument.

I’ve divided the post into four sections. The first two tackle the issue of what is meant by kalam and its place in Muslim theological discourse. The third explains the actual kalam cosmological argument. The fourth is where some contemporary objections to the argument are addressed:

I

1. The kalam-cosmological argument is so called because its origins lie in the Muslim kalam tradition. Kalam (‘speech’ or ‘discourse’ about God using reasoned-based proofs and rational arguments – in other words, discursive theology) found its way into early Muslim thought via the philosophical legacy of Aristotle. The earliest Muslim sect to bring reason to bear upon certain theological issues were the heterodox Mu‘tazilahs. Their deviancy was to give primacy to reason – to subordinate the texts of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, on certain theological conundrums to do with the nature of God; His Attributes; and free will and predestination, to the dictates of reason. Such enemies of the Sunnah were known to dismiss, distort and play fast and loose with Revelation; if it didn’t fit in with their conjectures, delusions or ego-driven rationalisations.

2. The early religious authorities, the salaf, recoiled from kalam with great vehemency. Their opposition to it was unanimous, or almost unanimous. For example, typifying this stiff opposition, Imam al-Shafi‘i averred: ‘We are not people of kalam.2 Also from him: ‘Do not oppose the Imams; indeed the practitioner of kalam will never prosper!’3 Imam Abu Yusuf stated: ‘Whosoever seeks knowledge by way of kalam shall become a heretic (man talaba’l-‘ilm bi’l-kalam tazandaqah).’4 As for Imam Ahmad, his assertions on the matter include: ‘The practitioner of kalam shall never prosper; and nor do you ever see anyone looking into kalam, save that in his heart is corruption.’5 And: ‘Do not sit with the people of kalam, even if they are defending the Sunnah.’6

3. In contrast to the large volley of reports from our early Imams against indulging in kalam, there are a handful of statements from some of them that seem to imply kalam could be allowed, provided it was used to prop-up the conclusions of Revelation and the consensus of the salaf, rather than to subjugate, falsify or twist them. From them are these words of al-Shafi‘i: ‘Every person of kalam upon the Qur’an and the Sunnah possesses diligence; every other upon the foundation of other than the Book and the Sunnah is delirious.’7 After relating this, as well as other comparable words from him, Imam al-Bayhaqi then stated: ‘In these reports is a proof that what is reprehensible of kalam is that which is not rooted in the Book and the Sunnah.’8 He also wrote: ‘In this is an indication that it is undesirable, according to those of our Imams who stipulated it, to argue via kalam – for the reasons we have shown; and because the reprehensible type of kalam is that of the innovators who oppose the Book and the Sunnah. As for the kalam which conforms to the Book and the Sunnah, and is elucidated rationally and wisely, then such kalam is praiseworthy and desirable when called for. Al-Shafi‘i utilised it, as did others from our Imams – may God be pleased with them – whenever it was needed; as we have mentioned.’9

4. The distinction between the blameworthy and praiseworthy type of kalam began to gain traction among scholars. Eventually, pro-kalam theology prevailed within Sunni Orthodoxy: as represented by the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools of theology. However, there remained a voice of dissent from many of the more purist Salafis/Atharis. This purist approach itself ranged from a total rejection of kalam; to a shy flirtation with it; through to a guarded, tempered acceptance of it.10 In asserting the middle ground on the matter, Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani had this to say about employing kalam: ‘So fortunate is he who clings to what the salaf were upon and avoids what the latecomers (khalaf) innovated. If he cannot, then let him take from it only that which is required; and let the original way be his intended goal (wa yaj‘al al-awwal al-maqsud bi’l-asalah).’11

5. Of all scholarly groupings, the outright rejection of kalam is usually associated with the Hanbalis. Now as prevalent as this notion is, by no means is it the entire story. Ibn Hamdan, one of the leading Hanbali authorities of his age, explained: ‘The science of blameworthy kalam (‘ilm al-kalam al-madhmum) is when the articles of faith (usul al-din) are spoken about using only reason, or contravene clear-cut textual proofs. But if it is spoken about using textual proofs alone, or textual proofs accompanied by reason which supports them, then this is the [true] usul al-din and the path of ahl al-sunnah and its adherents.’12 Ibn Muflih, another towering authority of the school, discussed the Hanbali school’s stance on kalam at some length. After quoting an imposing salvo of reports from Imam Ahmad in terms of his dhamm al-kalam, or ‘censure of kalam’, the pro-kalam arguments are then made. Here, Ibn Muflih cites Ibn Abi Ya‘la saying that ‘the correct view in the madhhab is that the science of discursive theology (‘ilm al-kalam) is prescribed and sanctioned’ so as to refute the innovators. Such was the view of a party of the school’s verificationsists (muhaqqiqun), including Qadi Abu Ya‘la and al-Tamimi. He noted how Imam Ahmad himself wrote, al-Radd ‘ala’l-Zanadiqah wa’l-Qadariyyah, ‘in which he relied upon rational arguments’ to demolish the false ideas of the deviants. Ibn Abi Ya‘la then says: ‘What the earlier scholars held to of Ahmad’s words were abrogated. Ahmad said, as reported by Hanbal: “We used to order silence. But when we were called to the affair, it was incumbent for us to defend it and clarify the matter.”‘13 Even then, the Hanbali use of kalam tended to be much more guarded than that of others.

6. Those who employed kalam contended that in order to confront the arguments of various non-Muslims in the vastly expanding Islamic empire, and to engage with the polemics challenging orthodoxy over the nature of divinity and faith, the rationalising methods of heterodox sects like the philosophers and Mu’tazilites needed to be used so as to rebut them on their own turf. Ibn Khaldun says about the kalam which came to be associated with Sunni orthodoxy: ‘This is the science which involves arguing in defence of the articles of faith, by utilising rational proofs, in refuting the innovators who have deviated in their beliefs from those of the salaf and Sunni Orthodoxy (ahl al-sunnah).’14

II

7. Kalam theology has as its cornerstone the concept of “atomism” – that the cosmos is made up of atoms (jawahir, sing. jawhar), bodies (ajsam, sing. jism) and accidents (a‘rad, sing. arad), all of which are contingent (hawadith, sing, hadith) – that is to say, they originate in time. More importantly, the atom – in kalam lingo – is an indivisible particle that occupies space (tatahayyaz); is subject to change (taghayyur); and has no innate power of duration (thubut, baqa’), but endures directly because of God through each moment of its existence. Futhermore, it is not just the atom which is indivisible. Time itself, in kalam atomism, only comes in finite units: it also having no intrinsic ability to endure. Again, it is God’s continuous act of creating these discrete units of time that allows it to actually “flow.”

8. It’s important not to confuse the kalam “atom” with the concept of atom in modern science. What kalam is stressing is that nothing in the cosmos is eternal or infinite. Every thing is contingent and is finite. The smallest, indivisible unit of matter being termed as the “atom” or jawhar. As for modern science, it has shown the tiny atom is divisible; that at its core are even tinier particles called protons and neutrons. These particles, in turn, are made of smaller particles still: quarks. So the kalam atom would, according to the Standard Model of particle physics, be equivalent to quarks (or, if we are to believe the disputed String Theory, to tiny one dimensional entities, “strings”, vibrating in eleven dimensional spacetime). The point is that the kalam atom refers to the smallest, indivisible substance possible; whatever science may call it.

9. Kalam atomism has one chief goal: God’s omnipotence. ‘For it denies, at each point in the duration of anything non-divine, that it has any intrinsic power of existence. God alone has such a power.’15 In other words, nothing endures without God. For the mutakallimun, for that’s what practitioners of kalam were called, the basis of atomism was rooted in both reason and revelation.

10. Reason, and a fair amount of mental theorising, show that the universe has to be finite. The argument runs like this: If you have a sequence of events, each one caused by the event preceding it, stretching way way back in time – can such a sequence be infinite; can it go on forever? An infinity may seem straightforward, but it throws up all sorts of problems. For instance, infinity plus one is still infinity, even though you have added to it. Or, for example, when you take today’s events and combine it with past events, these will increase; without today’s events, they’ll decrease. But increase or decrease in what is infinity is incoherent; irrational, even. So this would seem to suggest that infinities do not exist and that the series of events are finite, temporal, having a beginning. Undoubtedly, mathematical (some call them ‘potential’) infinities do indeed exist. However, physical (or ‘actual’) infinities do not.

11. Revelation, as per the mutakallimun, states this too. And He knows the number of all things, says the Qur’an [72:28] And He created all things and ordained for them a precise measure. [25:2] Thus all things have a finite number and measure. These verses, and others like them, affirm the temporal existence of all things and their finite number. This implies that neither matter nor time are infinitely divisible: they too are of finite sizes.

12. Interestingly, quantum physics posits the quantum of time, or Planck time. This is the smallest measurement of time to have any meaning. It is equal to 10-43 seconds (in other words, that is a number with forty-three zeros after the decimal point). No smaller division of time has any possibility or reality in the physical world, within the framework of physics as understood today. Time less than one Planck time apart can neither be measured and nor can any change be detected.16 The implication here for atomism is certainly worth exploring, although to pursue it here is beyond the paper’s remit and the author’s ability.

13. One final matter. In kalam theology, a thing is either qadim – eternal, timeless; or it is hadith – contingent, coming into existence (wujud) after non-existence (‘adm). All that comes into existence, after not existing, must have a cause for its existence. To put it another way: Every entity that exists, either exists by itself; by its own essence and nature, or it does not exist by itself. If it exists by its own essence, then it exists necessarily and eternally, and explains itself. It cannot not exist. But if an entity exists, but not by its own essence, then it needs a cause outside of itself for its existence. The kalam theologians state that God alone necessarily exists, while all contingent things owe their existence to Him.

III

14. So how does all of this tie in with the cosmological argument for God’s existence? Well, the preamble to the kalam argument may be presented as follows: [i] An actual infinite number does not exist; [ii] therefore the series of causes for the cosmos to be as it is now cannot be infinite in sequence: that is, it must be finite; [iii] therefore the cosmos was brought into existence at some point in the past.

15. The final conclusion in the above argument (that the universe came into existence at some point in the past) not only follows logically from the initial two premises, it also finds support in science. Cosmologists are now certain that the universe actually did have a beginning: the Big Bang. But to be clear, the logical conclusion of the above argument is still valid and true, regardless of the empirical proofs for the Big Bang.

16. From here it’s a short step to teasing out the kalam-cosmological argument (dalil al-huduth), which can be set out thus: [i] Everything that begins to exist must have a cause for its existence; [ii] the universe began to exist; [iii] therefore the universe has a cause for its existence.17 There is an implicit fourth premise, namely: [iv] The cause for the existence of the universe is God.

IV

17. The above argument, as rational as it is, has been critiqued on a few grounds. One objection states that the argument’s premise [i] – everything that begins to exist must have a cause – although intuitively obvious, seems to be false. For quantum physics appears to show that electrons can pass out of existence at one place and re-appear elsewhere. This, as physicist Paul Davies has argued, violates premise [i] and hence the entire argument collapses.18 One reply to this states that although electrons do just that, they can only do so because of what is called a “quantum vacuum.” A vacuum, in quantum physics, isn’t “nothing at all”. It is a state of minimal energy, seething with “virtual particles.”19 It is this vacuum which gives rise to electron fluctuations, says the laws of quantum physics. Which is to say, the vacuum’s existence is the cause for electrons to exist, disappear and re-appear. Premise [i], therefore, still holds.

18. If everything has a cause, runs another objection, then what caused God? To this age old demur, Muslim theologians have repeatedly stressed that God is musabib al-asbab – “the [Uncaused] Causer of all things.” Conventional notions of time and space simply do not apply to God, for: There is nothing like unto Him, says the Qur’an [42:11]. ‘He is preexistent without beginning, eternal without ending,’20 is orthodoxy’s voice. God has no cause, He necessarily exists (wajib al-wujud). Though God is the author of time and space, He is distinct and beyond both. To quote the formulations of Islamic orthodoxy again: ‘The six directions do not contain Him as they do created things.’21 Hence, since the universe is contingent and brought into existence, and contingent things are not capable of generating themselves, theologians inferred that ‘they are dependant upon an agent who belongs to another order of being (min ghayri jinsiha), namely, a deity who is eternal.’22 Moreover, the kalam-cosmological argument states: Everything that begins to exist must have a cause. God, however, is beginningless; and so has no cause. ‘As He was in pre-existence possessed of His attributes, so shall He remain throughout all eternity.’23

19. Yet another criticism runs: why does the Uncaused Cause of all things have to be a single Deity? Why not many deities? Here the kalam theologians respond by drawing directly from the Qur’an, to infer from some of its verses “the argument from mutual interference” – dalil al-tamanu‘. Two such Quranic verses are: If there were gods in the heavens and earth, besides God, there would be chaos and disorder. [21:22] And: God has not chosen a son, nor is there a god with Him. For then each god would go away with his own creation, and some would overcome others. [23:91] What these verses tell us is that the existence of multiple gods is a self-evident logical absurdity. The actual argument from mutual hindrance, or interference, goes like this: If there were two deities and they disagreed over a matter, such as one wanting to bring a thing into existence and the other did not want to, then logically, there are only three possibilities: Either the will of both are carried out; or the two wills cancel each other out; or the will of one trumps the will of the other. The first case is an impossibility, as this would imply the existence of two mutual opposites; the second is also ruled out since that implies the thing neither exists nor doesn’t exist. It would also imply deficiencies in their wills and creative acts, and thus disqualify them as being the true Deity. Lastly, if the will of one is victorious, but not that of the other, then only this deity deserves to be God.24 Now whether such logic constitutes a highly persuasive proof that is open to a few fragilities (dalil iqna‘iyyah), or one that is definite and watertight (dalil qat‘iyyah), is the subject of some debate among classical Muslim theologians.25

20. Other concerns have been voiced about the kalam-cosmological argument, which may seem to some like a desperate attempt to clutch at straws. One contention states that since we’ve no experience of the origins of universes, we therefore have nothing to tell us that universes don’t come into existence without a cause. In response to this piece of conjecture it could more reasonably be argued that in our entire experience of the world, and of the cosmos at large, we’ve yet to find anything that exists without a cause. And there is no solid or empirical ground to conclude that the universe is an exception. I’ll wrap up with a more recent criticism of the first premise, from Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow who insist that: ‘Because there is a law like gravity the universe can and will create itself from nothing.’26 But this is a very lacklustre and unsatisfactory answer. For physical laws, by themselves, cannot create anything: they are just abstract mathematical equations which describe what usually happens under any given set of conditions. Furthermore, leave aside the fact that such laws of physics are inferred from real material events, and therefore such laws would be meaningless if they had nothing real to describe, there’s an even more fundamental question to ask here: Who created the law of gravity? Who indeed!

Just how far the kalam cosmological argument ‘proves’ the existence of God is open to discussion. The argument is certainly coherent, logical and decisive as a theological doctrine (thus giving a lie to New Atheism’s allegation that belief in God is irrational). Although it rarely seems to be effective at convincing those who do not believe in God that He in fact exists. This is especially so when its premises are highly abstract and theoretical, relying upon only logic and syllogism. A more appealing proof, therefore, comes via the teleological argument and the Quran’s instance to reflect on the ‘signs’ of God. These will, God-willing, be taken up in the final part of the blog.

1. Flew, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: Harper One, 2007), 85.

2. Cited in al-Harawi, Dhamm al-Kalam wa Ahlihi (Madinah: Maktabah al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam, 1996), 6:102; no.1161.

3. ibid., 6:109; no.1172.

4. As per Ibn Qutaybah, Ta’wil Mukhtalif al-Hadith (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1999), 113; al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Sharafu Asahab al-Hadith (Cairo: Maktabah Ibn Taymiyyah, 1996), no.2.

5. See: Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), 942; no.1796.

6. Ibn al-Jawzi, Manaqib Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Hajr, 1984), 210.

7. Al-Bayhaqi, Manaqib al-Shafi‘i (Cairo: Dar al-Turath, 1970), 1:470.

8. ibid., 1:470.

9. ibid., 1:468.

10. The pro-kalam argument is offered in Ghazali, Iljam al-‘Awwam ‘an ‘Ilm al-Kalam, translated as: A Return To Purity In Creed (Philadelphia: Lampost Productions, 2008). The anti-kalam view is robustly expressed in Ibn Qudamah, Tahrim al-Nazar fi Kutub Ahl al-Kalam, translated as: Ibn Qudamah’s Censure of Speculative Theology (England: Gibb Memorial Trust, 1985); and despite his kalam leanings, Ibn al-Jawzi critiques it in Kitab Akhbar al-Sifat, translated as: A Medieval Critique of Anthropomorphism (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2002), 104-20.

11. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 16:251.

12. Kitab Sifat al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Sumay‘i, 2015), 225-6. Due to reason having the final say over Revelation, this blameworthy kalam may be rendered into English as: “speculative theology”. As for the kalam where reason is anchored to revealed proof, and so contours and supports it, this may be translated as: “discursive theology”.

13. Ibn Muflih, al-Adab al-Shar‘iyyah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), 1:219-29. As for the pro-kalam arguments, they commence on p.226.

14. Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddamah (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1998), 440.

15. T. Mayer, ‘Theology and Sufism’ in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 273.

16. J. Gribbin, Q is for Quantum: Particle Physics from A to Z (London: Phoenix Giant, 1998), 350.

17. For a fuller treatment of the argument, consult: Ibn al-Jawzi, A Medieval Critique of Anthropomorphism (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2002), 82-85; Juwayni, A Guide to Conclusive Proofs for the Principles of Belief (Reading: Garnet, 2000), 19-28; Ayman Shihadeh, ‘The Existence of God’ in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, 204-214; W. L. Craig, The Kalam Cosmological Argument (London: Macmillan, 1979).

18. P. Davies, Superforce (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 200.

19. See: Gribbins, Q is for Quantum, 511.

20. The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (USA: Zaytuna Institute, 2007), §.5.

21. ibid., §.47.

22. Ibn al-Jawzi, A Medieval Critique of Anthropomorphism, 92.

23. The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi, §.14. I have modified the translation here somewhat.

24. Ibn Juzayy, al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 3:47.

25. As to just how conclusive or not the argument is, see: al-Maydani, Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah (Dar al-Bayruti, 2005), 32-34.

26. Hawking & Mlodinow, The Grand Design (London: Bantam Books, 2011), 227.

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:

I

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!

II

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.

III

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

IV

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.

V

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

Indeed!

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.

How the Qur’an Justifies Itself

a (7)In a previous posting about Islam’s rational monotheism (which can be read here), we saw how the Qur’an utilises a rationalist discourse to substantiate some of its main theological doctrines. As for how the Qur’an vindicates itself and rationalises its claim of truly being the Word of God, it deploys the following line of argument:

Firstly, it states that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was an unlettered Prophet [7:157]; that is, he was unable to read or write, and most certainly uneducated in the modern sense of the word: And you did not used to recite any book before this, and nor did you write it with your right hand. For then the seekers of falsehood would have had misgivings. [29:48] Say: ‘Had God so willed I would not have recited it to you, neither would He have made you aware of it. I have lived among you a lifetime before this [came to me]. Will you not use your reason.’ [10:16]

Secondly, it asserts its miraculous nature – described by Muslim scholars as its i‘jaz or “inimitability.” The Qur’an, as Muslims believe, has no equal: as hard as someone may try, they will not be able to match it in terms of its sheer eloquence, beauty, cadence, wisdom and internal consistency. Speaking about its literary style, Turner said about the Qur’an: ‘Indeed, the Koran is written in a language wholly divergent in syntax and structure from any other, including the ‘secular’ Arabic literature of pre-Islamic times. Many experts in Arabic literature will attest it is distinguished by excellences of sound and eloquence, rhetoric and metaphor, assonance and alliteration, of onomatopoeia and rhyme, of ellipsis and parallelism. So sublime were they that certain Arab poets of the day would fall in prostration at the inimitable eloquence of the Muhammadan message, while the first recipients of the Divine message were moved to deem it miraculous.’1

It is not just in form that it is miraculous, but in content too: Will they not reflect upon the Qur’an. If it had been from other than God they would have surely found therein many contradictions. [4:82] Thus, to those who are prepared to consider it carefully (free of ideological or political agendas which blinker the heart’s receptivity from the outset), the Qur’an reflects a perfect consistency, spiritual beauty and a complete absence of error and inaccuracy which suffice as proof for its Divine origin. In fact, its wisdoms, prophecies, lack of scientific errors, historical narratives, self-assertions and unique literary style – in that it does not fit any of the known rhythmic metres (bihar) of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry (shi‘r), nor the rules of rhymed prose (saj’), nor straightforward speech (mursal) – make it impossible for the Qur’an to be an actual product of human authorship.

Thirdly, the Qur’an challenges its skeptics and deniers to produce something similar to it: Do they say: ‘He has invented it?’ No, they have no faith. Let them produce a speech like it, if what they say be true! [52:33-34] The above verse is one of the so-called tahaddi or “challenge” verses which sets out to prove the divine nature of the Qur’an. Another verse seems to have lightened the challenge: Do they say: ‘He has forged it?’ Say: ‘Then bring ten forged chapters like it, and call [to you aid] whomsoever you can, other than God, if what you say be true.’ [11:13] The final passages on the matter eases the challenge still more: If you are in doubt concerning that which We have sent down upon Our servant [Muhammad], then produce a chapter the like thereof, and call your witnesses other than God, if you are truthful. But if you cannot, and you will not be able to, then guard yourself against a fire whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the disbelievers. [2:23-24] Now the reasoning here is clinical. If it truly was written by a man, another man should be able to author something similar; even if it be just a chapter (the shortest chapter, or surah, of the Qur’an consisting of just three verses). Yet this challenge remains unmet until today – a sure proof of its miraculous origin. Rationally speaking, then, once doubt is dispelled, one ought to take steps to follow the Quranic message and accept its truths and teachings, and thus guard against the Hellfire.

Ibn Kathir makes the following point: ‘Many scholars have said that God sent each prophet with a miracle that was appropriate for the people of their time. Thus, in the time of Moses, peace be upon him, sorcery was prized and sorcerers highly regarded. So God sent him with a miracle to bedazzle the eye and confound every sorcerer. When they became certain the miracle was from [God] the August, the Compeller, they surrendered to Islam and became righteous. As for Jesus, peace be upon him, he was sent in an age of physicians and those who studied the natural sciences. So he came to them with miracles that were beyond the doing of anyone, save one who is aided by He who revealed the Law. For how could a physician be able to give life to clay, or cure the blind and heal the lepper, or raise to life he who was in his grave awaiting Judgement Day? Similarly, God sent Muhammad, peace be upon him, in a time of eloquence of speech and accomplished poets. So he came to them with a Book from God which, if all men and jinn gathered together to produce the like of it, or the like of ten chapters of it, or the like of a single chapter of it, they wouldn’t be able to do so; even if they were to help one another. For it is none other than the Word of God, which no human speech can replicate.’2

The examples in the earlier blog, and this blog piece, 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. 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. Says the Qur’an: And they will say: ‘Had we but listened or used our intelligence, we would not now be among the people of the Blazing Fire.’ [67:10]

1. Colin Turner, Islam: the Basics (Great Britain: Routledge, 2006) , 52.

2. Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 1:373.

Islam’s Rational Monotheism

oxforduniShaykh Abdal Hakim Murad explains: ‘In the Western milieu, converts to Islam claim that they are attracted to what they regard as its clear, rationally-accessible teachings, unobscured by elaborate mysteries. It is not only insiders who wish to take this view. Non-Muslim academic accounts … now frequently draw attention to the central role of reason in Islamic theology.’1

He cites Leaman in his The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia, saying: ‘The Qur’an does indeed display an unusual commitment to argument and logic in its self-explanation.’2

Earlier in the same volume, Leaman says that whereas Judaism is strongly linked with ethnicity, and Christianity with a leap of faith, Islam, he says, has successfully grown by stressing its rationality and evidentiality.3

With that being said, let us now consider a few examples of how the Qur’an employs a universal rationalist discourse – especially in terms of its theology and its invitation to monotheism:

1. One of its rational arguments confronts atheism. Here the Qur’an interrogates the belief of atheists by asking: Were they created out of nothing, or were they the creators? Or did they create the heavens and the earth? No, they have no certainty [52:35-6] Thus, either we created ourselves: which is inconceivable; or we were created from nothing: another impossibility. Logic just leaves us a third possibility: that we were created by a creator. This simple argument doesn’t only posit a creator, but given the remarkable diversity and complexity of life and the universe, this creator must possess power, will, knowledge, wisdom and intent. That is, creation must have a wise, intelligent and purposeful Designer.

One detects the sheer eloquence and potency of the original Arabic (undoubtedly, lost in translation) in the conversion story of Jubayr b. Mut‘im. He says that he once heard the Prophet, upon whom be peace, recite the chapter containing this verse during the sunset prayer. When he reached the actual verse, Jubayr said, kada qalbi an yatir – ‘I felt as if my heart would fly out [of my chest].’ He then went on to embrace Islam.4

2. Another logical argument the Qur’an uses is: Have you not heard of he [Nimrod] who argued with Abraham about his Lord, because God had given him the kingdom? Abraham said: ‘My Lord is He who gives life and death.’ He replied: ‘I give life [by sparing people] and death [by executing them]!’ So Abraham replied: ‘God causes the sun to rise from the east, so cause it to come from the west!’ Thus was the disbeliever confounded. [2:258]

Nimrod initially feels smug in his response to Abraham that he too has power over the life and death of his subjects. Hence, having seen the way Nimrod is prepared to twist the issue, Abraham takes the argument to another level by challenging him to alter the movement of the sun as it courses through the sky. Nimrod is silenced and stupefied; his pretences shattered; and he is made to realise that divinity cannot be claimed merely by having sovereign power over a people in some tiny corner of God’s earth.

3. In addressing the Christian claim of Jesus’ divinity, the Qur’an says: The Messiah son of Mary was no more than a Messenger, before whom other Messengers had passed away. His mother was a saintly woman. They both ate food. See how We make the signs clear for them; then see how they are deluded from the truth. [5:75]

The ordinary human life which Christ lived has troubled those who wish to make him into a deity, in spite of evidences to the contrary in the Gospels. The Qur’an’s logic is clear. Food is eaten to satisfy an unquestionable physical need. Whoever needs to eat earthly food cannot, therefore, be a true deity possessing absolute perfection and thus be worthy of worship. The saintly Mary and her son, Jesus, both ate; thus they cannot be divine.

In fact, based on the likes of this verse, many theologians went on to rationally define a true deity, or ilah, as: ‘One who is independant of all needs beyond Himself, while all else is totally in need of Him (mustaghni ‘an kulli ma siwahu wa muftaqir ilayhi kulli ma ‘adahu). Now this is less a definition of ilah  – which is unanimously defined as al-ma’bud, or “that which is worshipped” – as it is the least common denominator which would rationally qualify something to be worthy of being the true deity.5

As for condemning the attitude which deifies Jesus – see how they are deluded from the truth – can this be a justification for Muslims to not respect the beliefs of others? Well that all depends upon how we define respect. Respect can mean to admire, honour or approve of a thing. It may also be used in the sense of being polite, civil, courteous and considerate. If a belief is blasphemous or idolatrous (which for both Jews and for Muslims Jesus’s alleged divinity is), it is inconceivable that believers could respect it in the sense of honouring, admiring or approving it. If, on the other hand, respect refers to a call to tolerate other peoples’ beliefs – along with civility, courtesy and dignified engagement, whilst remembering that faith must be freely chosen, since: There is no compulsion in religion [2:256], then this must surely be the mandate.

We may not respect a particular belief, but we must be respectful of those who hold it. Call to the way of your Lord, asks the Qur’an, with wisdom and kindly exhortation and reason with them in the most courteous manner. [16:125] And speak kindly to people [2:83] is another Quranic prescription.

4. The Qur’an employs the “logic of Lordship” to clarify to the pagan Arabs (mushriks) the folly of idolatry – of worshipping gods alongside the One true God. It says: If you were to ask them: ‘Who is it that created the heavens and earth, and subjected the sun and the moon?’ they will say: ‘God!’ Why then are they lying. [29:61] Another verse declares: Say: ‘Who is it that provides for you from the sky and the earth? Or who is it that has power over hearing and sight? Or who is it that brings forth the living from the dead and the dead from the living?And who is it that directs all affairs?’ They will say: ‘God!’ Then say: ‘Will you not then fear Him?’ [10:31]

Thus, having affirmed the role of God as sole Lord, Creator and Sustainer, the Qur’an demands that the pagan Arabs take the logic of this Lordship to its logical conclusion: that nothing else must be worshipped besides God. Ibn Kathir wrote: ‘The pagans who worshipped others along with Him affirmed that God is the sole, autonomous creator of the heavens and earth, sun and moon, alternating night and day; and that He alone is the Creator and Provider of His servants, meting out for them their livelihoods and life spans … Despite this being so, why worship others, or depend on others? For just as dominion and sovereignty is exclusively His, then likewise, He alone deserves to be worshipped.’6

5. One final example of Islam’s rational invitation: Hasn’t man seen that We created him from a drop of sperm, then he becomes an open opponent? And he makes comparisons for Us, and forgets his own creation, saying: ‘Who can revive dry bones after they have rotted away?’ Say: ‘He who created them the first time will again give them life!’ [36:77-79] The Qur’an is eager to demonstrate the plausibility of the resurrection to many of the Arab idolators who rejected the actual notion, by simply reminding them of “the first creation” of man. The fact that every individual has been brought into existence once before by the Creative Will of God, should be proof in itself that the same Creative Will is capable of doing so a second time: Do they not consider how God begins creation, then repeates it? That is easy for God! [29:19]

The Qur’an also alludes to how the phenomenon of resurrection is prefigured in this world. “Mini-resurrections” take place all the time in the natural world: flowers and foliage die partial deaths in winter, only to be brought to life again in spring.

The Qur’an also gives the simile of a desert whose scorched dead earth springs to lush green life with each merciful drop of rain: He it is who sends the winds as glad-tidings to herald His mercy, till, when they bear a cloud heavy with rain, We drive them to a dead land and then cause the rain to descend, thereby bringing forth fruits of every kind. Thus shall We raise up the dead. Perhaps you will remember. [7:57]

The above are a few samples of how the Qur’an uses a rational discourse to vindicate its key theological truths, without having to revert to a circular argument (i.e. it is true because the Qur’an says so). So whilst the Qur’an does insist upon it being the revealed truth and the Word of God, and that it should be accepted as such, it permits a defence to be made of itself and its core metaphysical claims based on rational arguments and sound reasoning. As for how the Qur’an vindicates itself, that shall be the concern of a future posting; God-willing.

1. Reason as Balance (CMS Paper 3), 2, at http://www.cambridgemuslimcollege.org – drawing from Anne-Sophie Roald, New Muslims in the European Context (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2004), 116-24.

2. Leaman, The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia (London: Routledge, 2008), 65.

3. ibid., 55.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.4573; Muslim, no.463.

5. Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 208. As for its agreed-upon definition of ma‘bud – “that which is deified,” it can be found in: Qurtubi, al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 2:128; al-Suyuti, Tafsir al-Jalalayn (Riyadh: Dar al-Salam, 2002), 33; al-Raghib, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 82.

6. Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 3:431.

Look! And Ye Shall See

quantum_corral_niseOne may often hear Muslims say how it is understandable for someone to not believe in Islam, but not how one can disbelieve in God. For we have, the Qur’an states, all the evidence for God’s existence we need in our immediate experience, and that it is only a deliberate refusal to look that’s responsible for atheism of any shade or colour: We shall show them Our signs in the creation around them, as well as in their ownselves, till it becomes manifest to them that this [Revelation] is the Truth, proclaims God in the Holy Qur’an [41:53].

Science prides itself at “looking”. For science is the attempt to understand our world through observation and reason. In other words, the scientific method works through the rational examination of evidences (which involves: observing and collecting data; forming a hypothesis or initial explanation from that data; performing experiments to test the hypothesis; working out a theory to account for the experimental results; then making predictions based on that theory; and finally testing out the theory by devising further experiments).

Science (Galileo) looked at Jupiter through a telescope and noticed moons orbiting it, thus revolutionising our understanding of the solar system.

Not long after, science (Newton) looked at how objects fell to the ground, giving us the theory of gravity.

Science (Faraday) looked at a magnetic field around a conductor carrying an electric current, offering electromagnetic induction.

Then science (Einstein) looked at the nature of light, gravity, space and time and gave us the time-bending theory of relativity.

At about the same time, science (Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Planck, Pauli, Dirac) looked at the wave-particle duality of light and shimmering truth of the sub-atomic world, bestowing upon us the mind-boggling, mystifying theory of quantum physics. The more science looked, the more we marvelled at its brilliance and authority.

Contrary to popular notions, modern science, rather than laying to rest belief in God once and for all, has actually invigorated it. The cheerful atheism which characterised much of the twentieth century (at least, as far as Western Europe was concerned), has given way to an aggressive atheism. For it was assumed that with the progress of science and the technological revolution it birthed, faith in cold reason, and in man being the measure of all things, would outgrow faith in God.

For a time, these augries of atheism seemed to be correct. Religion retreated; progress continued. The 19th century English Poet, Mathew Arnold, penned what’s possibly its most memorable imagery when he describes in his Dover Beach the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of the retreating ‘Sea of Faith’. Yet as offensive as it was to atheists, by the end few decades of the last century, it was clear the Sea of Faith had returned: the religious tide was roaring back in (many contend that the tide hadn’t really ever gone out).

Although the factors for the persistence of religion are multi-faceted,1 as far as its link to science is concerned it may be whittled down to two reasons. The first is related to what modern science has revealed to us about the quantum or sub-atomic realm. The other has to do with the things science is silent about concerning the Big Questions.

The first. By the 1930s, science had established a new branch of knowledge: quantum physics. This was unlike anything that had preceded it – not even Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. For the first time, scientists had encountered an area of the universe which our brains just aren’t wired to understand. Or as Brian Greene stated about quantum physics, ‘it undeniably shows that the universe is founded on principles that, from the standpoint of our day-to-day experience, are bizarre.’2

Niels Bohr, a founding father of quantum physics, once remarked that anyone who is not stupified or boggled by quantum physics, hasn’t understood it.

So let’s have a stab at trying to be stupified:

In the quantum world, electrons in atoms jump orbit without travelling the space in between; light particle will pass through two slits simultaneously without actually splitting-up; photons, electrons and other elementary particles “know” when they are being observed or not, and then adjust their behaviour accordingly; pairs of particles fired in opposite directions at near light speed instantly know what the other is doing, even when separated by significant distances; and some elementary particles need to turn, not 360 degrees, but 720 degrees, so as to come “full circle.”

In the quantum world we learn that photons, electrons and other subatomic particles are not actually particles; yet neither are they waves. Instead, they behave as waves, or as particles, depending upon the circumstances. This wave-particle duality allows us to talk about wavelengths of light and light particles: yet they are neither and they are both. (In fact, experiments have been carried out which show that a single photon can behave as a wave and as a particle at the same time.)

In the quantum world, uncertainty (or indeterminacy) rules the roost. Here we may know the path an electron takes through space, or may know where it is at any given instance; but we cannot know both. To be clear, this is not a matter of needing better measuring instruments, it is a built-in feature of the quantum universe. In practice, this means that you can never pin-point where an electron is at any given moment in time. You can only point to the probability of its being there. Put slightly differently, until it is observed, an electron can be regarded as being everywhere and nowhere!3

In what way does this help the religious discourse? Well, Gai Eaton once quipped after listing some of these counter-intuitive, weird quantum oddities: ‘After this, no one has any excuse for obscurities or improbabilities in the higher reaches of theology and metaphysics.’4

In other words, the paradoxes we encounter in Islam’s monotheistic theology – God is transcendent beyond the confines of creation, yet immanent in it; God is omniscient, omnipotent and all good, yet there exists the presence of evil in the world; that human destinies have been pre-decreed, yet we still have free-will and can still choose what to do or not to do; or that being God’s servants demands passive acceptance, while being His vicegerents (khalifahs) requires actively working for social justice and also battling tyranny – should not be that surprising. For if the quantum world defies being pinned down by human language and rationalising, but instead leaves gaps unfilled, mysteries unexplained, and minds perplexed, then moreso the paradoxes related to God and the nature of divinity.

This is not to say Muslim theologians have shyed away from seeking to resolve these paradoxes or to explain them through reasoned arguments. They have been relentless in this task.5 And yet, as fruitful and exacting as the labour has been, our theologians acknowledge that, at bottom line, these are only glimpses into the true nature of God. La tablughuhu’l-awham wa la tudrikuhu’l-afham – ‘Imaginations cannot conceive Him, nor can comprehensions understand Him’ – is what Muslim orthodoxy holds.6 As for the role of reason in religion, I hope to discuss it in a future posting, God-willing.

If science is bugged by quantum quirkiness, it faces other nagging concerns too – in particular, about the bigger picture; the deeper questions. Human consciousness, for example, and what gives rise to it? Why there exists what some term, “the moral law:” an intuitive knowledge about the basic rules of right and wrong shared by all people (our voice of conscience, so to speak)? And then there is the grandest conundrum of them all. Life on Earth aside, how did the universe come into existence, and so finely-tuned in a form hospitable to life?

The fact that these issues cannot, by definition, be tackled by science (for it basis itself on emperical observation, and does not speculate about realities beyond the physical, observable, measurable cosmos), is a significant cause for more and more people, who once erringly put their faith in science to answer the big issues, to recognise its limits. Instead, people are increasingly turning to religion to engage with questions which lie beyond the scope of the scientific method – such as God’s existence, the meaning of life, and why the universe is here; why is there something rather than nothing? For it is in the nature of science to take things apart to see how they work, while it is in the nature of religion to put things together to see what they mean.

1. For an exploration into the reasons behind Religion’s resiliance to secularisation, cf. Jonathan Sacks, The Persistence of Faith (New York: Continuum, 2005); Wooldridge & Micklethwait, God is Back (London: Penguin, 2010); McGrath, Why God Won’t Go Away (Great Britain: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011).

2. The Elegant Universe (Great Britain: Vintage, 2000), 108.

3. A delightful, lively, non-specialist account of the birth, development and weirdness of quantum physics is given in J. Gribbin, In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat (Great Britain: Corgi Books, 1988).

4. King of the Castle (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1999), 147.

5. One can see the Muslim theological project at work, with all its attendant theatre, in Winter (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Classical Muslim Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

6. See: The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (USA: Zaytuna Institute, 2007), §.8.

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