In principle, there’s good cause to counter the allegation that, historically, Islam impeded the development of modern science in the medieval Muslim world. In practice, this must not translate into the belief that scientific progress is an absolute value upon which the credibility of Islam must actually rest.
In principle, a Muslim scholar possessed of sound theological learning has every right to declare a particular act or utterance to be disbelief (kufr), if the textual proofs necessitate this. In practice, this is very different from declaring a specific individual who may have ignorantly, mistakenly or coercively committed such an act, or uttered such a profanity, as being a kafir; a disbeliever. The rule of thumb here is: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-kufr sara kafir – ‘Not everyone who falls into disbelief [necessarily] becomes a disbeliever.’1
In principle, the believer ought to have a calm loathing for liberalism and its attempts to dismantle an engendered world. In practice, one must have pity for the shrunken victims of this insane, ungodly monoculture and help them back to the path of sanity and Adamic humanity: But God has endeared faith to you and beautified it in your hearts, and has made unbelief, immorality and disobedience odious to you. Such are the rightly guided. [Q.49:7]
In principle, anyone who does not declare the shahadah in this world is considered to be a non-Muslim in this world. In practice, some non-Muslims (kuffar) shall have an excuse or an amnesty in the Hereafter for only having heard a distorted message of Islam while in this world. The Qur’an says: Nor do We punish till We have sent a Messenger. [Q.17:15] The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Anyone from this nation, be they a Jew or a Christian, who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have been sent with, will be among the denizens of Hell.’2 An-Nawawi explains: ‘In its explicit meaning is a proof that those to whom the call of Islam does not reach, are excused.’3 Imam al-Ghazali ecumenically wrote about those who only heard a distorted message of Islam; filled with lies, half-truths and propaganda: ‘These people knew the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ, but nothing of his character or qualities. Instead, all they heard since childhood is that a liar and an imposter called ‘Muhammad’ claimed to be a prophet … This party, in my view, is like the first party [which is excused]. For though they’ve heard of him, they heard the opposite of what his true qualities were. And this doesn’t provide enough incentive for them to look into [his true status].’4
In principle, an atheist may feel smug by countering the supposed theistic assertion that: ‘Everything must have a cause for its existence’, with: ‘So what caused God?!’ In practice, no Muslim theologian (nor any Jewish or Christian one) has ever asserted this. Rather the theistic belief is: ‘Everything that comes into existence, from non-existence, must have a cause for its existence.’ God, however, did not ‘come into existence’. He necessarily exists. God’s eternal attribute of life is intrinsic to, and inseparable from, His holy Essence.
In principle, it is not against Islam to believe that Adam, peace be upon him, was created over a period of time, in contrast to instantaneously; or even that other human-like bipeds walked the earth before him. In practice, this must never lead us to believe that Adam had biological parents, or to somehow imagine that he was the offspring of two proto-human bipeds of the homo genus.
In principle, the sirah teaches us the socio-political importance of forming an “Alliance of Virtue” with non-Muslim seekers of social justice, as per the hilf al-fudul saga. In practice, the sirah also tells us that alliances of this sort must not come at the cost of compromising Islam’s core tenets or blurring the unchangeables. Thus, even as Quraysh’s big whigs put Abu Talib, the Prophet’s dear uncle, between a rock and a hard place, to get his nephew to tone down his message before they forcefully made him do so; and even as the Prophet ﷺ may have been torn between seeing his uncle under such pressure, on the one hand; and his duty not to compromise the message, on the other, we hear this from the nephew to his beloved uncle: ‘I am no more able to stop this [message] as you are to snatch a piece of flame from the sun.’5 And in a popular wording: ‘O uncle, if the sun were placed in my right hand and the moon in my left, I would not give up this affair until either God grants me success in it, or I perish in its pursuit.’ The Prophet ﷺ then broke down in tears.6
In principle, Allah’s earth has been made for the whole of humanity’s use and enjoyment, not just for the privileged few: God created for you all that is on the earth. [Q.2:29] And: Eat and drink, but not excessively. For God loves not the excessive. [Q.7:31] In practice, partake of the earth’s fruits for our needs we must; partake of them for our wants we surely may; but partake of them excessively and irresponsibly, or in a way that upsets the balance, we may not: And He has raised the heavens and has set a balance, that you may not upset the balance, but observe the balance and not fall short therein. [Q.55:7-9] Currently we are not doing so well on this score; heading, as we are, to the brink of ecological disaster.
In principle, we are proud to be Muslims; pride born, not of the ego’s arrogance (kibr), but of joyous gratitude for God’s gift of guidance: We would not have been guided had God not guided us. [Q.7:43] For we can rightfully be proud if it’s without the ego; if it is godly and not worldly. In practice, it is rare for such pride to be without ego – even when it relates to pride in Islam’s revealed truths. Al-Ghazali once said: ‘How much blood has been spilt to promote the causes of the masters of the law schools!’7 So whilst truth and the details of ritual correctness are indeed important, it must not be driven by sectarian pride, nor come at the cost of one’s own salvation: ‘Whoever has an atom’s worth of pride in his heart will not enter Paradise’8 Hence if you know someone has opposed the Book, Sunnah, or ijma‘, ensure that your state is one of gratitude to Allah for your guidance.9 Or better still, let us pray as Imam Ahmad would pray: اللَّهُمَّ مَنْ كَانَ مِنْ هَذِهِ الْأُمَّةِ عَلَى غَيْرِ الْحَقِّ وَهُوَ يَظُنُّ أَنَّهُ عَلَى الْحَقِّ فَرُدَّهُ إِلَى الْحَقِّ لِيَكُونَ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْحَقِّ – ‘O Allah, whosoever from this community is upon other than the truth, believing himself to be upon the truth, return him to the truth, that he may be from the People of the Truth.’10
In principle, we may incline to measured political activism, or to a principled apoliticism; there is leeway in the prophetic Sunnah for either. In practice, if we wish to thrive and not just survive, we must each grow in inward and outward godliness and in practical degrees of worldly detachment (zuhd), in humility, in respecting neighbours and serving the poor; whilst also choosing our battles wisely and fussing less about Islamophobes, not being so antagonistic, seeking to win peoples’ hearts while sincerely working for their welfare.
5. Al-Hakim, Mustadrak, no.6526, with a hasan chain. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh; Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.92.
6. Ibn Hisham, Sirah, 1:303. The chain is missing two successive links between the Prophet and the narrator, Ya‘qub b. ‘Utbah. Hence the chain is da‘if mu‘dal. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah wa’l-Mawdu‘ah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), no.909.
7. Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 8:382.
8. Muslim, no.147.
9. See: Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2012), 174.
10. The du‘a is cited in Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa’l-Nihayah (Beirut: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1990), 10:329.
In 1985, I started my degree in Astrophysics up in the north of England, at one of the only two places in the country which offered this course. It was more or less what I had set my heart on studying ever since reading Isaac Asimov’s, The Collapsing Universe: The Story of the Black Holes (1977) and Carl Sagan’s breath-taking book (and TV series), Cosmos (1980). Soul stirred, and heart and mind thoroughly infused with enchantment, I was determined to make engaging the wondrous mysteries of the cosmos my calling.
It was also in 1985 that a rumour went round among some of the students on the course that Stephen Hawking – his body now ravaged by motor neurone disease, his speech now slurred so as to barely be intelligible, but who had already outlived the predictions of his doctors by more than fifteen years – had recently been hospitalised with a life-threatening bout of pneumonia. The doctors had even considered pulling the plug on his life-support machine. It was then that a discussion began about the theoretical brilliance of Hawking. In fact, it wasn’t a discussion as much as it was one student’s passionate recollection of what he had thus far accomplished: his attempts to unify general relativity with quantum mechanics; his idea that the Big-Bang may have begun with a singularity1 – the same sort of singularities that supposedly lie at the centre of black holes; his thesis that black holes may not devour everything that falls into them, but they could leak radiation (later called “Hawking radiation”) by which they would “shine”. She was, I think, a third year student, and some of what she said flew over my head at the time. I remember this because of what she said at the end of all this. Apparently, she said, in a tone that was now quite subdued, Hawking was working on publishing a book that would explain all this incredible physics. What’s more, she said, the book is being aimed, not at scientists, but at a mass market. To be sure, I was beyond euphoric!
A Brief History of Time came out in 1988. Using minimal technical jargon, it was a thrilling book and an instant international bestseller. It swiftly became a modern classic, turning Hawking into an iconic celebrity, a household name as well as the most famous scientist in modern history. In spite of being wheelchair-bound or not being able to speak save by means of a speech synthesiser, Hawking continued to push the boundaries of cosmology and theoretical physics up till his death two weeks ago. His wit, grit, charisma, and good writing in which he unravelled for us the universe’s cutting-edge mysteries, will continue to enthral generations of readers; while his intuitive leaps and research will continue to keep scientists busy for decades to come. If people now talk about the Big-Bang and black holes over dinner, then the late Stephen Hawking has had a large part to play in this. Such is his inspirational and intellectual legacy.
Oftentimes, whenever a non-Muslim personality who has ostensibly brought about much good to the human situation passes away, many Muslims raise the age-old question: what is the ultimate fate of “good” non-Muslims in the afterlife? The news of Hawking’s death seems to have aggravated the matter. So let me recount some staple Islamic theology – in abstract, at least – to address the question:
1. Let’s start with how a Muslim ought to align or centre themselves. The Qur’an says: But God has endeared faith to you and has beautified your hearts with it, and has made hateful to you disbelief, immorality and disobedience. Such are the rightly-guided. [49:7] Disbelief (kufr), then, is to be loathed; and the victims of kufr pittied and be given a charitable hand towards faith and right-guidance.
2. Some Muslims labour under the mistaken notion that given the enormity of disbelief in God’s sight, one cannot speak well of a non-Muslim (kafir) who dies in a state of disbelief. The prophetic teachings, however, do not require or insist upon such an approach. Many non-Muslims died during the lifetime of our Prophet ﷺ. About some, he ﷺ spoke more about their virtue than he did their actual disbelief. Mut‘im b. ‘Adi was one such person. The Prophet ﷺ was ever grateful for the support and protection Mut‘im gave him during the trying years of Islam in Makkah. When his son Jubayr came to the Prophet asking him to release some of those taken prisoners during the Battle of Badr, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Had Mut‘im b. ‘Adi been alive and spoken to me about the captives, I would have released them all to him.’2 As for most non-Muslims who died, the Prophet ﷺ generally remained silent about them: They are a people who have passed away; theirs is what they earned and yours is what you earn. And you will not be asked about what they did. [2:141]
3. The Prophet ﷺ would, occasionally, reveal how certain non-Muslims – known for their virtuous behaviour, but rejection of tawhid or Abrahamic monotheism – were damned in the Afterlife. The Lady ‘A’ishah once asked the Prophet about ‘Abd Allah b. Jud‘an, saying: ‘O Messenger of Allah, in the time of pre-Islamic Ignorance, Ibn Jud‘an would keep ties of kinship and feed the poor. Will any of this benefit him? The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘It will not! For he never ever said: My Lord, forgive me my sins on the Day of Judgement.’3 Of course, these words echo the Qur’an at numerous places when it says, for instance: And certainly it has been revealed to you, and to those before you, that: ‘If you ascribe a partner to Allah, all your works will be in vain and you will be among the losers.’ [39:65] Also: As for those who disbelieve, their deeds are like a mirage in a desert which the thirsty one thinks is water, till when he reaches it he finds it to be nothing. [24:39]
4. What of those to whom the message of Islam has not reached? Here the Qur’an offers a far more ecumenical scope: Never do We punish till We have sent a Messenger. [17:15] And: Whenever a fresh host is cast into it [Hell], its keepers ask them: ‘Did a warner never come to you?’ They will say: ‘Yes, a warner came to us; but we denied.’ [67:8-9] The requirement of bulugh al-da‘wah, “conveyance of the message,” therefore, lies at the heart of the issue. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘By Him in whose Hand is the life of Muhammad! Anyone from this nation, be they a Jew or Christian, who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have come with, will be among the inhabitants of the Fire.’4 Fleshing out the theological implications of the hadith, Imam al-Nawawi stated: ‘It contains [a proof] that all religions are now abrogated by the prophethood of our Prophet ﷺ. Also, in its explicit meaning is a proof that those to whom the call of Islam does not reach, are excused.’5 The details of this excuse or amnesty, and the scholarly differences about how this amnesty plays itself out in the Hereafter, can be read in the relevant works of Muslim theology.
5. As for the question of those who have heard about Islam, but in a garbled or distorted form, Imam al-Ghazali seems to have given us the definitive word on the issue. He wrote that in terms of people coming into contact with the message of Islam, they are of three types: ‘[i] A party who have never so much as heard the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ. They are excused. [ii] A party who knew his name, character and miracles he wrought; who lived in lands adjacent to the lands of Islam and thus came into contact with Muslims. These are blaspheming unbelievers. [iii] A third party who fall between the two. These people knew the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ, but nothing of his character or his qualities. Instead, all they heard since childhood is that a liar and imposter called ‘Muhammad’ claimed to be a prophet; just as our children have heard that an arch-liar and deceiver called al-Muqaffa‘ claimed Allah sent him [as a prophet] and then challenged people to disprove his claim. This party, in my opinion, is like the first party. For even though they’ve heard his name, they heard the opposite of what his true qualities were. And this does not provide enough incentive for them to investigate [his true status].’6
6. As much as peoples’ waywardness from God should both grieve and sadden believers, because of nurturing in their hearts something of the prophetic concern for humanity, the discriminating sword of truth must do what it must. Some to whom the message of Islam is communicated refuse to believe in it out of juhud or wilful “rejection” of it, or takdhib, “belying” it. Others choose not to seriously entertain the message, but instead turn away from it (i‘radan ‘anha) whether out of arrogance, hostility, prejudice, or sheer indifference towards it (in some cases, doing so knowing it is the truth). Such are not considered to be truth-seekers. It’s quite possible that many non-Muslims today fall into this predicament, in that some of them are capable of investigating the truths of Islam and discerning their correctness. But whether out of not desiring to forsake familiar habits; or for fear of losing their standing among people; or out of contempt for Muslims; or not wanting to give up following their own whims and desires for a revealed code of morality, many turn away from even looking into the Qur’an unbiasedly. Unless there are other factors to mitigate this kufr of theirs, such people will have no excuse on Judgement Day.7
7. That some non-Muslims will be excused for their disbelief in the Hereafter doesn’t mean that they are not judged as disbelievers in this world. All who have not declared the Two Testimonies of Faith, the shahadah, are judged as non-Muslims in this worldly life. Some are actively hostile against Islam and Muslims; most are not. While it behoves a believer to wisely and sincerely seek to guide into faith those who disbelieve, it does not befit a believer to blur the distinction between faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr). Al-Ghazali gives us this guiding principle: ‘Disbelief is to reject the Prophet ﷺ in whatever he came with, while faith is to affirm as true all that he came with. Therefore the Jew and the Christian are disbelievers due to their rejection of the Prophet.’8
8. Is it lawful to declare a specific person who dies as a non-Muslim, that he or she will be in Hell? The answer is that while some scholars hold it to be lawful, it seems the majority of Muslim theologians do not allow it. They say that not only will some non-Muslims have an amnesty in the Afterlife; not only do we not always know in what state a non-Muslim may have taken their last breath, but also those specific non-Muslims whom the Prophet ﷺ described as being in the Fire, was not from his personal judgement; but one that was revealed to him by God. Thus the correct position in this is: While one can make general declarations that Muslims go to Paradise and non-Muslims go to Hell, one cannot declare a specific Muslim to be in Paradise or a specific non-Muslim to be in Hell, unless there is textual evidence to say so. That textual evidence being either from the Qur’an, the Sunnah or a scholarly consensus (ijma‘).
9. Since we Muslims are a textual community; since our theology, law and spirituality are derived from revealed texts – as opposed to fluffy sentiments; emotions; personal whims; or what one’s own intellect, decoupled from Revelation, thinks to be good – let’s engage with a few such texts from which the above rule is culled. So as a general rule, the Qur’an says: Surely those who disbelieve among the People of the Book and the idolaters will be in the fire of Hell forever. They are the worst of people. [98:6] In contrast, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘No one will enter Paradise except a Muslim.’9 As for the rule that applies to individuals specifically, Imam al-Tahawi wrote in his famous creedal tract about Muslims: ‘We do not specify anyone among them to be in either Paradise or the Fire … We resign their inner states to God, exalted is He.’10 Meaning, unless there is a textual proof, we cannot declare a specific Muslim to be damned or saved. The same goes for specific non-Muslims.
10. Finally, as I said earlier, our Prophet ﷺ usually kept quiet about the end state of most non-Muslims who died during his lifetime. Surely it would be best if we too did the same. Let us learn to be content, knowing that such end matters are in Allah’s hands in terms of whether those who die as non-Muslims receive divine amnesty, clemency and salvation; or encounter divine rigour, justice and chastisement. In fact, it’s possible that if we spent less time being concerned with such specific end matters, and invested more time trying to deepen our own faith and reach out to non-Muslims with that faith, the world may yet be a better place.
There’s one last point I’d like to discuss. I left my degree course for personal reasons and a religious calling in early 1986. And although I had intended to come back to complete it, perhaps after a year or two, it didn’t quite happen. My passion for the subject, however, has never abated; and I try to keep up with the latest theories and findings in the field via books, papers and science magazines. Yet I recall when I read the opening words of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos -: ‘The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be’11 – I felt something was amiss. My religious convictions aside, even then I questioned whether such a materialistic assertion was actually science or merely what individual scientists brought to the table as their personal beliefs and biases? In fact, Naturalism – the belief that the natural order is all that there is, and that there is no transcendent or divine realm – is a philosophy which 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, or the cosmos, is all that there is? Science can, of course, say that the cosmos is all that it can observe and know. But that is not the same as saying that the cosmos is all that there was, is or ever will be!
In the last book he co-authored, The Grand Design (2010), Hawking tackles the question of our universe’s apparent “grand design”: is it evidence for God, or does science offer up an alternative explanation? As per form, Hawking dismisses God as the ultimate explanation of why there is something rather than nothing, and offers – not just the usual the “it just happened” riposte, or the “multiverse”, or even the “fluctuations in a quantum vacuum” answer. Instead, he says: ‘Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing … Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.’12
His theoretical genius aside, Hawking seems to suffer from the same faulty theology that many other atheists of today are struck with. For Muslims, as with Jews and Christians, we do not believe that God is an alternative to a scientific explanation. We don’t believe that it’s a case of either God created the universe or that x, y, or z scientific paradigm created it. Instead, Revelation permits us to believe that God is the agent who created the universe, and that x, y, or z is the mechanism by which He did so. Thus, just because science may have revealed a mechanism for how the cosmos kicked-off, it doesn’t deny God’s agency in the matter. Allow me to illustrate the point with this example:
Take the iPhone, for instance. Just because one may have deciphered the inner workings of an iPhone, it does not logically follow that we can now deny the existence of Steve Jobs as the originator of this tech. That would be a failure to distinguish between mechanism and agency. ‘Since we know the mechanism behind a phenomenon, there is therefore no agent that designed the mechanism’ is a logical fallacy. In philosophy, it’s a fundamental category mistake.
As for Hawking’s optimism that the laws of gravity created the universe, this is false. Laws of physics themselves don’t create things, any more than Newton’s laws of motion move snooker balls. It is not laws that create or move a thing; it is an agent, a person, that does that. The laws of physics are merely mathematical equations that describe what happens under certain conditions.
Despite these failures and foibles, The Grand Design is still a tour de force of cutting-edge cosmology. There’s still so much to be held in awe at in terms of the way the late Professor Hawking illustrated the latest scientific mysteries about our universe. It’s understandable why his death has felt like such a huge loss to so many. One or two of my co-religionists have said to me, however, that should we really marvel at someone whose writings have been instrumental in trying to diminish the glory of God by driving souls to atheism? And I understand that too. So perhaps the best thing is to stick to the Quranic rejoinder: They are a people who have passed away; theirs is what they earned and yours is what you earn. And you will not be asked about what they did. [2:141]
1. A dot or point of infinite density, far far smaller than this full stop.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.4024.
3. Muslim, no.365.
4. Muslim, no.240.
5. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 2:162.
The late Gai Eaton put his finger on the crux of the matter (as it seems to me), when he expressed three or four decades ago:
‘I think it must have been easy enough in earlier ages in the Christian world, and is still easy in those parts of the Muslim world which remain traditional, to hold to a simple faith without much intellectual content. I do not believe this is any longer possible in the modern world, for the spirit of our times asks questions – questions for the most part hostile to faith – which demands answers, and those answers can only come from informed and thoughtful faith, from study and meditation.’1
He then went on to note:
‘Whatever our religion, we can no longer be sure of holding onto it out of habit or by an act of will. We have to be, if not theologians, then at the very least people who study their religion and who think about it.’2
For a long while now, the monoculture’s levelling reverberations – with its underlying modern assumptions, assault on Religion, uprooting of traditional patterns of living, and its insistence on redefining the normative human persona – have radiated outward across the globe, much like how rings spread out from a pebble tossed into a pond. For much of that time, Muslims – and those parts of the globe still known as ‘the Muslim world’ – even if they did put up resistance to the political ideologies which swept over them, have tended to be far less critical concerning the philosophical and civilisational propositions modernity insists upon. These assumptions – that Man has now ‘come of age’ and is to be the measure of all things; that happiness is bound with the merciless wheel of material Progress; and that life and the cosmos are bereft of meaning, beyond what some may fictitiously confer upon them – have prised the individual away from the great transcendental and social continuities of religion, family, craft and earth that had been the setting for normative human life down throughout the millennia. Simple believers of earlier times, who knew relatively little yet possessed depth of faith, could scarcely survive in today’s world where both the senses and the intellect are relentlessly bombarded by imagery and arguments of unbelief.
If commitment to religious faith and practice it to survive such a deluge, knowledge of the core doctrines and cosmology of Islam, and the monotheistic assumptions they are grounded in, is crucial. This is not to say that a Muslim cannot love Allah unless he or she becomes some sort of philosopher-theologian. Not at all! But while less than half a century ago one could be a good Muslim and remain so without having ever heard of Imam al-Ghazali or Ibn Taymiyyah, today a Muslim who doesn’t have some grounding in the doctrines and assumptions upon which the Islamic faith is founded, stands in immense danger, unless cocooned in an impenetrable simplicity or naivety.
Of course, many Muslim saints and pietists of the past did end up turning their backs on a heedless or a hell-bent society. They took as their queue the hadiths concerning times of great political discord, social upheaval, or religious and spiritual degeneration, in which: from the best of Muslims would be one ‘who secludes himself in a valley and worships his Lord,’3 or who takes his flock of sheep to a mountain top ‘fleeing with his religion from fitnah.’4
If it were feasible for those who see the monoculture for what it is to withdraw from society and go their own way in peace, this would probably be a good course of action (not forgetting the fact that the core of Islam’s call is decisively urban and city-centred). But there is no where one could ‘opt-out’. For day by day, liberal modernity grows more and more invasive and totalising: suffocating any meaningful dissent, assimilating any consequential diversity, and bulldozing any significant divergence. Driven into a tight corner, religion has no option but to turn and fight. Hence the need to raise the dust of polemics against theensnaring myths of modernity.
Thus with intellectual and spiritual inquiry as our starting point, and God as our goal, here are some of the most significant existential challenges (in terms of ideas and isms) to now confront Muslims and their faith; as well as an outline of some basic responses to them. And by far, the most destructive of these issues to faith and to salvation of the soul is atheism:
1. Atheism: Denying the existence of God is called atheism (sometimes it is defined as: lack of belief/conviction that God exists). A growing number of ex-Muslims – not just here in the West, but also in Muslim majority countries – now self-identify as atheists. Of course, atheism doesn’t come in one strain. There is, to lift a phrase from Professor Alister McGrath, ‘apathetic atheism’ or ‘atheism of indifference’, and then there is what he calls ‘committed atheism’.5 The former tends to entail no enmity towards God, nor even actively believe that God does not exist: hence the apathy or indifference. As for the latter, it equips itself with what it sees as certain explicit arguments and concerns against theism or belief in God. ‘Sociological research suggests that there are probably fewer committed atheists than apathetic ones.’6 And contrary to the assertion of such atheists today, belief in God is neither intellectual suicide; and nor has science pushed God out of the equation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
The Qur’an asks: Were they created out of nothing, or were they the creators? [52:35] The crux of the matter here is that while Muslims insist that the divine ‘fingerprints’ of God can be detected throughout the universe – how it originated, how it is ordered, how it operates, and how extraordinary the odds are of complex life or human consciousness emerging in it – atheists desperately field their counter-arguments. For despite modern science revealing the universe had a beginning and came into existence at an event we call the Big-Bang; or despite the fundamental physical constants of the universe being so finely tuned down to the minutest nth of a degree, that the chances of it being mere ‘coincidence’ isn’t just staggeringly improbable, had the value of any of these constants been different by a small, infinitesimal degree, there would have been no universe and no life – despite science telling us this and more, atheists want us to believe that such things happened purely by chance; a colossal cosmic fluke.7 In other words, the entire cosmos just happened to create itself; without any purpose, meaning or intentionality whatsoever. ‘Only within the scaffolding of these truths,’ wrote Bertrand Russell on the core conviction of atheism, ‘only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s salvation be safely built.’8
To be fair, not all atheists are satisfied with the ‘lucky-coincidence’ response. The fine-tuning of the universe seems far too precise to have happened merely by chance. So in order to explain the existence of a universe which fits the given physical constants and mathematical improbabilities without acknowledging the existence of a creator, many are now advocating the idea of a ‘multiverse’. Our universe is highly improbable only if it’s the only one there is. But if our universe is just one among an infinite number of universes, at least one would fit the required parameters, and it happens to be ours. Or as John Polkinghorne put it, ‘a kind of winning ticket in a gigantic multiversial lottery.’9 If this highly speculative notion turns out to be true, this just pushes back the question of who created our universe to who created the multiverse? Or one is confronted with even more incredulity than our improbable universe: that of an infinite number of self-creating universes. Either way, atheists do themselves no favour by replacing what they hold to be a single unprovable God for an infinity of unprovable universes! Moreover, can we really say that such replies have truly dispensed with the claim that our universe (or indeed, the multiverse) is far more consistent with theism than with atheism? Little wonder we find the Qur‘an saying: ‘Is there any doubt about God?’ [14:10]
That being said, the popularity of atheism, at least here in the West, is undoubtedly on the rise. As for how much of it is an intellectual phenomenon and how much a cultural one is debatable. Although it’s been said that ‘the convictions of the multitude are not so much true convictions as mental and emotional habits, conditioned by a climate of opinion’.10 While some arrive at atheism via certain rational considerations, others are led to it emotionally, with little or no rational inquiry or intellectual journey. Some are atheist just because of family or upbringing and, being preoccupied with the tiny patch of grass under their nose, haven’t given religion or the ultimate existential question any time or thought. For them, atheism is little more than an emotional ‘habit’.
Some stumble into atheism due to an uncritical acceptance of cultural influences. They think that since science has explained the big questions (the Big-Bang explains how the universe got here; evolution explains how we got here) that there is, therefore, no need for God. But a little critical thinking would reveal that just because science explains the workings of how the cosmos came into existence, does not necessitate rejecting God as the creator of the mechanism; any more than knowing about the inner workings of an iPhone should not lead to disbelieving that Steve Jobs was the author of such culturally altering tech. Philosophers call this a category mistake; confusing between mechanism and agent: since we know a mechanism that explains a specific phenomenon, it proves there is no agent that designed the mechanism. Many an atheist, regrettably, even high profile ones, fall into this fallacy. But when, for instance, Sir Isaac Newton discovered the universal law of gravity, he didn’t say: ‘I have discovered a mechanism that accounts for planetary motion, therefore there is not agent God who designed it.’ It was quite the opposite: precisely because he understood how it worked, he was moved to increased admiration for the God who had designed it that way.11
Some, repelled by bad experiences with ‘religious’ people, find their way into the arms of an often sympathetic atheism. Here they may find other embittered souls with their own horror stories to tell about religion or its practitioners. Yet people oftentimes have a very curious idea of religion. They think that merely because a person says: ‘I believe in God’ that he or she should at once become morally upright; saintly, even. If this does not happen, and very often it doesn’t, then either the believer must be a hypocrite of sorts, or else it says something dark about the religion itself. Many think that adhering to religion is the end of the path, whereas in fact it is only the beginning of a long and sometimes rough and rocky road. But whether religious, atheist, humanist or agnostic, inconsistencies abound in human souls, even if they ascribe to virtuous ideals. Yet this is not to say righteous religious behaviour should only be honoured in the breach and not in the practice. Islam, despite it not always being evident from the way some of us Muslims behave, calls to the highest moral and ethical ideals. If a believer’s ethics and conduct fail to demonstrate the beauty and attraction of husn khuluq; ‘refined’ or ‘good’ character, let it not be a cause for the crime of tanfir – of repelling people from religion: It was by the mercy of God that you were lenient with them. Had you been harsh and hard-hearted, they would surely have dispersed from around you. [3:159] That said, one suspects that for some people, casting of the constraints of religion is a matter of any pretext or excuse. Which brings me to one final point:
There’s another significant reason why some people choose atheism, and it’s one that is seldom admitted to. Some – and it wouldn’t be surprising if this some turned out to be a great many – are led to atheism, not by the careful hand of reason, but by the desire to follow their baser desires, unencumbered by moral codes. Here’s Aldoux Huxley, the famous English novelist, philosopher and atheist, on the deeper motive that fuels some people’s atheism and their desperate need for there to be no existential meaning to life: ‘For myself, as no doubt for most of my friends, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. The supporters of this system claimed that it embodied the meaning … of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and justifying ourselves in our erotic revolt: we would deny that the world had any meaning whatever.’12 Other atheists who have reflected carefully on their motives have likewise admitted that their atheism is more emotional and self-serving than it is rational and pure following of the evidences. The American philosopher Thomas Nagel is candid when he said: ‘It isn’t just I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.’13
Such atheists understand that if God exists, there are certain ramifications, particularly moral ones. They are aware that it wouldn’t be a matter of sending off a few Dawkins’ titles to the charity shop, or apologise on social media for the unintended misguidance they may have uttered. They realise that such belief necessitates a life of commitment, service and loving submission to God, by growing in knowledge of God and seeking to mould one’s life around the spiritual teachings and moral laws which He revealed – ‘in short, the waving of the white flag and the rebel’s complete surrender’.14 Yet the rebel refuses to mould his ways around the awareness of the Divine Reality that surrounds him and everything else, and is unwilling to give up his ‘autonomy’ or his pride. Instead he claims the world is God-free, meaning-free and morality-free, so he can do more or less what he desires. This is what Dostoevsky could have been alluding to when he put these words into the mouth of one of The Brothers Karamazov: ‘how will man be after that? Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now’.15 If such self-deceit wants to pass itself off for enlightened, rational thought, then so be it. But it will ultimately prove costly.
Some of the classical works on Muslim theology relate the following account: It is said that a group of atheists came to debate the existence of God with Abu Hanifah – one of the greatest and most famous jurist-theologians of Muslim antiquity. He said to them: ‘Tell me, before we start to discuss the matter, what you say of a boat in the Euphrates that makes its own way to shore, docks by itself, loads itself with food and other goods, makes its own way back to port, anchors and then unloads its cargo, all without anyone steering it or directing it?’ They all cried out that this is impossible; never could such a thing happen. Thereupon Abu Hanifah said to them: ‘If this is impossible with regards to a boat, then what about this whole world and all that it contains?’16
This simple, undemanding type of reasoning has satisfied many a pre-modern skeptic, although one suspects this would not be the case today. To see this argument as over simplistic is to miss the point. Atheism, to be sure, isn’t anything new; and neither are the arguments of today’s New Atheists: even if their anger and aggression are. For what the issue boils down to is this: That against incomprehensible odds this vast universe came into existence, containing sentient life that has consciousness and to whom the universe is comprehensible. And that screams out for an explanation!
Atheism serves up blind chance or a multiverse as a more reasonable explanation than an omniscient, omnipotent God who created creation with intent and wise purpose. In fact, what seems like a desperate attempt to avoid theism at all costs, Stephen Hawking insists: ‘Because there is a law like gravity the universe can and will create itself from nothing.’17 But physical laws in and of themselves cannot createanything: they are just abstract mathematical equations which are inferred from real material events. So we are now offered belief in an eternal law (gravity), rather than an eternal law-giver (God). But that, it has to be said, is the absurdity of atheism.
Is 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.”4‘5 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.’7 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 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 tackled the difference between acts of terror and what constitutes 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 effectively made peace the default between nation states – at least, in theory. 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 It is worth stating that Islamic jurisprudence isn’t only shaped by ideals, but also by realities. That is to say, if non-aggression or peace between countries is only honoured in the breach, rather than the observance, there is no reason why Muslim juristic voices will not reflect the altered reality on the ground.
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.
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.
‘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’. And the third one is that science, ultimately, is able to explain everything. 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.