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Look! And Ye Shall See: On Science & Meaning

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.

God: the Ultimate Concern

amour-allahAt the heart of Islam stands the reality of God: Allah, the One, the Absolutely Perfect, Unique, Eternal, Beautiful, Loving, Infinitely Kind and Compassionate, All-Knowing, All-Hearing, All-Seeing, beyond what man can ever conceive, yet nearer to him than his jugular vein. [50:16]

Islam does not demand blind faith in God. The Qur’an tells us a great deal about Him. There it depicts God by certain “names” and “attributes” to help us understand something about His nature. In fact, in Islam, the most precious type of knowledge is that which lends itself to comprehending God’s names and attributes. This is the key to truly knowing God and becoming devoted to Him. The received wisdom here is: sharaf al-‘ilm bi sharaf al-ma‘lum – “The excellence of [any] knowledge depends upon what it is concerned with.”

‘The best knowledge is knowing God’s Names (asma), Attributes (sifat) and Acts (af‘al). This leads a servant to experiential knowledge (ma‘rifah) of Him; love of Him; awe and reverence of Him; devotion, trust and intimacy with Him; and to being occupied with Him to the exclusion of all else.’1

The Qur’an describes God as al-Haqq – “the Truth (the Real)”, and so to deny Him is to be far removed from truth at every level of reality. Living amidst delusions, the denier of truth is estranged from reality till the Day when, with his illusions stripped away, he comes face to face with al-Haqq; his hand empty, his past life meaningless.2

God is also al-Nur – “the Light”. For God is the light of the heavens and the earth. [24:80] Islam insists that the entire universe is a tajalli; a manifestation, of the divine names, attributes and acts by which God reveals Himself and makes Himself known. If He weren’t light, there would be no light anywhere; neither physical nor spiritual. When we look at the creation and take in its awe, beauty, enchantment and magnificence, it is but a reflection of God’s divine light and names.

He is al-Khaliq – “the Creator”, al-Bari – “the Producer”, al-Fatir – “the Maker” and al-Badi‘ – “the Originator” who, without resemblance, or anything external to Himself, creates and gives to every creature the light of existence by His command: “Be!”

He is also al-Musawwir – “the Fashioner” who shapes each creature according to the nature He wills it to have. Each creature has its purpose and is moulded to serve that purpose.

When we have been brought into existence, and fashioned as per that divine purpose, we aren’t forsaken, left to fend for ourselves. For God is al-Razzaq – “the Sustainer” who nourishes and nurtures us: mind, body and soul.

He is al-Rahman – “the Most-Merciful” and al-Rahim – “the Mercy-Giving”. The one describes God as He is in His eternal Essence and nature; while the other describes the outpourings of His mercy upon the entire creation.

Despite such outpourings we still sin and stray, for man was created weak. [4:28] But for God being al-Ghafur – “the Forgiving”, al-Tawwab – the Relenting” and al-‘Afuw – “the Effacer of Sins”, our situation might seem hopeless.

Sinning, however, has no clear meaning if God had not shown us “the Straight Path”. One of God’s Names is al-Hadi – “the Guider”, and we have been assured that He has never left any nation or people without sending to them a Messenger with a message of hope and guidance.

Ultimately He is al-Ahad – “the One”; Absolute Oneness. The One cannot be divided, nor diminished and nor can it be “humanised” via incarnation into any created form. God does not become His own creation. In fact, God does not become anything: He simply is (as He was and always will be). Lord of the heavens and the earth and all that is between. So worship Him and be constant in worship. Do you know of anyone similar to Him? [19:65]

He is God besides whom there is no other god; Knower of the seen and unseen; He is the
All-Merciful, Mercy-Giving. He is God besides whom there is no other god. The
Sovereign, the Holy One, the Source of Security, the Guardian, the August,
the Compeller, the Proud! Transcendent is He above what they
ascribe to Him. He is God, the Creator, the Producer, the
Fashioner. To Him belong the most beautiful names.
All that is in the heavens and the earth
glorifies Him. He is the
August, the Wise.
[59:22-4]

1. Ibn Rajab, ‘Warathat al-Anbiya’, in Majmu‘ Rasa’il al-Hafiz Ibn Rajab (Cairo: al-Faruq al-Khadathiyyah, 2002), 1:41.

2. This entire section is adapted from Gai Eaton, The Concept of God in Islam (Great Britain: The Islamic Foundation, 2004), 9-11.

The Modern Pursuit of Happiness or Chasing Your Own Tail?

man-chasing-money“Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” seems to best express the only kind of happiness modern man has made available to himself; and we know where such gross hedonism leads to. Our current culture of greed, of instant-gratification and of turbo-consumerism may deliver us short term ‘highs’, the momentary ‘buzz’, but these soon wear-off, and all too often leave in their wake anxiety, depression and despair.

Knowing what happiness or the good life truly is has occupied philosophical minds since antiquity. It is, as one might expect, a theme also taken-up by the Qur’an. In one of its verses, it promises: Whoever does good, be they male or female, and has faith, We shall cause them to live a goodly life. [16:97]

In contrast to this hayatan tayyibah or “goodly life”, God proclaims in the Qur’an: ‘But whoever turns away from My remembrance will assuredly have a life of narrowness, and on the Day of Resurrection We shall raise him up blind.’ [20:124]

Echoing this Quranic declaration, the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘God says: O son of Adam! Free yourself for My worship and I shall fill your heart with sufficiency and remove your poverty. But if you do not, I will fill your hands with preoccupations and your poverty will not cease.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.2466] Poverty, here, as our scholars have duly explained, refers to spiritual poverty: i.e. unhappiness, disaffection and the absence of contentment – even when basking in the midst of material abundance.

No doubt, some minimum level of materialism is required for our happiness and well-being. But beyond the basics, or above what is termed ‘subsistance living’, an increase in wealth or material goods in no way ensures happiness, contentment or fulfilment. In Islam, happiness and fulfilment are profoundly bound with obedience, worship and God’s remembrance and recollection: Indeed, in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility. [13:28]

So as believers commit to the worship of God and reconcile themselves to His decree, inner peace begins to diffuse within their souls, till it permeates all their thoughts and actions; bringing happiness, fulfilment and, ultimately, salvation. Those who pursue a life of greed, self-gratification and neglectfulness of God, choosing instead to expose themselves to a plague of inner demons, shall ultimately be cast into perdition with hellish devils!

The Qur’an & Science: Match Made in Heaven?

blue-binary-code-jigsaw-puzzleMuslims are quick to point out that the Qur’an is remarkably free of the scientific inaccuracies found in other religious texts. Many go one step further and point out how astonishingly in tune the Qur’an actually is with modern science. And while it is true that some believers have thrown caution to the wind in their zeal to wed Muslim scripture to the scientific cause, there is cogent reason to believe that signficant passages in the Qur’an are in fact addressing the scientific mind in modern man. Seeking to be as dispassionate as possible, let me illustrate the point with a few such verses:

(1) The Qur’an is silent about the age of the Earth and, for that matter, when life first appeared on it; although it does say: And We made from water every living creature. Will they not believe? [21:30] Is this a reference to the primordial soup in the Earth’s early waters, perhaps? Or to the evidence which suggests that life first emerged onto dry land some four-hundred million years ago, from sea-creatures and other aquatic life forms?

(2) Another intriguing verse declares: We built the heaven with might and it is We who are expanding it. [51:47] This does seem like a highly probable pointer to cosmology’s modern belief that galaxies are flying apart from each other as the universe expands.

(3) The fact that galaxies are flying apart from each other, say cosmologists, there must have been a time when galaxies were closer together; and a time earlier still when all the galaxies and material in the universe was crunched-up together into an incredibly small space. This infinitely-compact universe, for some reason, suddenly expanded, in an event cosmologists call “The Big-Bang”. Interestingly, the Qur’an insists: Do not the disbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were at first joined, then We split them apart. [21:30]

(4) The final example is the vivid Quranic account of how a human embryo forms in its mother’s womb: We created man from a product of clay. Then We placed him as a drop in a safe lodging. Then We fashioned the drop into a clot of blood that clings, then We made the clinging clot into a chewed-like lump, then We turned the lump into bones, then We clothed the bones with flesh, and then produced it as another creation. So blessed be God, the Best of Creators! [23:12-14]

What is significant here, as in the previous three examples, is that at the time of their revelation these Quranic assertions ran completely counter to the science of the day. In fact, science was only able to uncover the truth of these claims within only the last century or so!

One must not be tempted by these verses into thinking that the Qur’an is a text-book on science or a catalogue of scientific facts. These verses are primarily asserting the i‘jaz, the “miraculous” and “inimitable” nature of the Qur’an, thereby demonstrating it truly is the Word of God. Turner, I think, captured the essence of the matter when he wrote:

‘The Koran describes God, the principles of belief and the fate of man in the world to come, but it is no work on theology; it contains accounts of past prophets and faith communities of old, but it is no history book; it contains invocations and words of inspiration; but it is no book of prayer.

Legal issues are discussed in it, but it is no book of law; it tells us how the Creator fashions the cosmos and makes the world turn, but it is no treatise on cosmology; it describes the alternation of day and night, and the development of the foetus in the womb, but it is no compendium of natural science.

It examines the heart and mind of man, and the existential dilemma of being human but longing for the divine, yet it is no work on popular psychology.

It is all of those things and it is none of those things: more than any other book can it truly be said of the enigmatic Koran that it is far more than simply the sum of its com- ponent parts.’1

1. Collin Turner, Islam: the Basics (London & New York: Routledge, 2006), 41.

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